Cereal Was Almost the Death of Me

This year, 2017, marks the 120th year that Grape Nuts cereal has been in existence. Generations have been raised on it, and as the 1921 ad would suggest, it seems to help little bodies grow big and strong. As the Post company says, “There’s a Reason” for the cereal’s success.

However, through some weird quirk, some random juxtaposition of breath and nerves, a single, tiny particle of this delicious blend of barley and wheat almost killed me.

Or so it seemed at the time.

I consider Grape Nuts part of a paleo diet, of sorts. As cereals go, it’s primitive. It is merely ground bits of grain that never needed to be squeezed into flakes, or coated with sugar or artificial flavorings. For me, it’s like getting back to the basics of breakfast, or in this particular case, an evening snack.

On the night of my close call, while my wife was watching TV, I settled into my home office to edit my newest book while I snacked on a demi-bowl of Grape Nuts, wet with skim milk.

No doubt your parents lectured you repeatedly about the dangers of talking with food in your mouth. Well, in adherence to my parent’s scolding, I was not talking when it happened. I was quietly reading, and breathing.

And then, in an instant, I could not breathe, at all. I could not speak or yell out. I could not swear, or call for help. No air could enter or leave my lungs.

As I looked to the doorway, terrified, half hoping for my guardian angel to appear and magically save me, I realized that if I didn’t do something, quick, I would die. I was most unexpectedly suffocating.

I stood up, planning to head to the bathroom out of some strange thought that it might be my salvation, or at least an easier place to clean up the vomitus mess or whatever else follows death by asphyxiation. And as I reached the door frame a scant twelve feet away from where I’d been sitting, I could feel myself becoming faint.

This could not be happening. What an inglorious way to die.

With all the fortitude I could muster, I was determined to make it into the bathroom before I passed out. A second later, I was bent over a sink, supporting my upper body with my hands, trying with all my might to pull air into my lungs.

Finally, I found that with almost superhuman effort I could squeeze a little air through whatever was blocking its flow. The result was a high pitched nonhuman sounding squeal, a falsetto screech higher than even a little girl can produce. Physicians call it stridor, which sounds like this.

But at least it was something. Again and again I managed to suck in just enough air to keep me alive, one loud screech after another.

In the meanwhile, my greatly concerned wife was asking, “Are you OK, are you OK?”

No, I was not at all OK, but I could not communicate that fact, other than to make that hellish shriek. But with each shriek a few more oxygen molecules entered my oxygen-starved lungs.

And as the fog of impending collapse slowly began to clear, I was finally able to cough.

After that cough, there lay in the sink a tiny granule of cereal, presumably the little spec that landed in a sensitive spot in my larynx or “voice box”, triggering the spasm which tightly closed my vocal cords. With the cords, or more properly “vocal folds”, closed, air cannot enter the lungs. 

Under normal conditions, a person can hold their breath for two to three minutes without losing consciousness. But as I later analyzed what had happened, I realized that the particle of cereal was most likely sucked into my airway when I was just beginning to inhale, at the bottom of my “tidal volume.” So my lungs were not full of air.

Logically, when involuntarily holding your breath with lungs only partially inflated, the 2-3 minute rule may not apply. So, there was a chance that I was about to lose consciousness from hypoxia.

As I later discovered, laryngeal spasm is short-lived, and resolves within a few minutes, leaving the terrified victim shocked but relieved to be able to breathe again.

The aftermath of this incident was that I now realize how little we appreciate the simple act of breathing. For our entire lives we never think about it. It just happens.

Until it doesn’t.

 

I still enjoy my Grape Nuts, and highly recommend it to anyone looking for the simple pleasures of life. But at the same time, I’m now a little more careful when I’m eating, especially if my attention is directed towards something else. Multitasking while eating can be scary.

 

Living Off Universal Energy. Really?

By stuart Burns from Erith, England (_MG_7185 Uploaded by snowmanradio), via Wikimedia Commons

I thought I was misreading the title of the news article. I adjusted my glasses, then looked again.

Sure enough, the news headlines this past week actually reported on a young couple, reportedly a Breatharian couple, who claimed they had no need for food. They lived off of Universal energy, whatever that is. Most amazingly, the news-hungry press actually reported the story, obviously without a bit of fact checking.

As a physiologist, I know that is a patently ridiculous claim. It is impossible for humans to survive without eating. And as a science fiction author, I know it is not even good science fiction. The best science fiction maintains at least a little scientific accuracy.

Could it be fantasy? Maybe, but the story was reported as being true, with no hint of tongue-in-cheek.

However, it did remind me of a revelation of sorts from a few months ago, coming to me in a split second after a quick glance to the side of the road. What attracted my attention as I passed by at 55 miles per hour was a gorgeous white egret, like the one pictured, foraging for frogs and tadpoles in a ditch recently filled to overflowing with water from several days of downpours.

And then it struck me: wouldn’t it be nice if things did not have to die so that other things can live?

Now that’s a fantasy for you. Of course life is predicated upon death. Big animals eat smaller and weaker animals. Physicality cannot exist without death; you cannot live in the body unless something else dies. That’s life, pure and simple. It sucks to be the little guy.

But what about after life? Well, at the risk of turning in my scientific credentials, I will admit I do believe in an after-life, Heaven if you will, for reasons which I will not go into here. But it struck me in that brief moment of observing a beautiful bird, that only in a spiritual realm could energy exist without the simultaneous extinguishment of life.

To my way of thinking, that may be the single greatest distinction between the spiritual realm and the physical realm.

So thank-you Breatharian couple, practitioners of Inedia, for helping me remember my roadside revelation. Perhaps there is a place in some alien realm where beautiful birds, and beautiful frogs, and even humans can coexist without one eating the other. Maybe there is some parallel universe where our laws of physics don’t apply.

Perhaps we will someday discover that parallel universe, and call it Heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DNA: A Matter of Trust

In combat, we trust our buddies with our lives. We have their back and they have ours. When submitting to surgery, we trust the medical team with our lives, and usually that trust is not betrayed. But should we be willing to trust strangers with our very essence, our DNA?

Recently I was trying to solve a plot problem in the science fiction thriller, Triangle. The storyline relied on a particular individual being singled out by the government for monitoring, not for what he had done, but for who he was.

After finishing the novel, I went back to tie up loose ends in the plot. One such loose end involved a question: How could the government know that this one person out of millions had an unrecognized super power? He was a main character in the book and so I could not ignore that question. Certainly it helps the reader suspend disbelief if the plot elements are plausible, at least superficially.

I did not have to puzzle over that question very long before an advertisement for Ancestry DNA popped up on my computer screen.

That was it!

And so the following text flowed quickly.

The characters in this conversation are Sally Simpkin  (AKA Pippi Longstocking) and Joshua Nilsson, identified below by their initials. She was trying to explain to Nilsson why she and her employers had been monitoring him.

SS: “[The government] detected that you had a high probability of having certain prescient capabilities.”
JN: “Forgive me for being a bit skeptical. Why can’t you tell me [how]?”
SS: “I’m not even cleared to know the process. I just took the assignment. It had something to do with a DNA sample you submitted.”
JN: “DNA? The only DNA I’ve submitted was for genealogy research.”

Triangle was published on May 21, 2017. On May 25, the following BBC headline appeared in my browser.

Ancestry.com denies exploiting users’ DNA. “A leading genealogy service, Ancestry.com, has denied exploiting users’ DNA following criticism of its terms and conditions.”

So, is this author also prescient like Nilsson? Or is this blogger merely a bit jaded.

Genealogy services have a difficult time competing in the world market. After all, there are only so many retired folks trying to trace their family history and solidify their genetic place in the world before their demise. Speaking for myself, I started my genealogy research years ago, picking it up from my grandmothers who told tales of Civil War Colonels and Carpet Bagger treachery, and murder. In fact, I’ve posted on this blog before about some of my discoveries.

With the advent of computers and the availability of free records from the Mormon Church, the ease of doing genealogical research exploded. Some of the software and services were either free or inexpensive. Of course, “free” doesn’t do much for a service provider’s cash flow. So, into each CEO’s mind comes, sooner or later, thoughts of monetization. How could Facebook’s Zuckerberg and others turn a free service into something that can make them gazillions? In the case of genealogy services, they started by charging a monthly access fee, and in one case, by enticing viewers to keep paying fees by waving images of fig leaves to attract their attention. That was a strange but brilliant ploy that worked very well on this researcher.

The next step in monetization is now universal: sell ads to companies who want access to the growing body of amateur genealogists. The final ploy, and by far the most ethically troubling, is selling information about users of computer services. First there were those pesky cookies, but now there is blood, or saliva more exactly.

For some companies, it is not enough to know what users search for. There is now a market for information about who you are, your very genetic essence, which is hidden even to you. But some companies like 23andme, Ancestry, MyHeritage, GPS Origins, Living DNA, and Family Tree DNA, let you take a peek into your genes, for a price.

The ironic thing is, this most personal information is not only freely given, but people actually pay the DNA harvesters to harvest their most sacred self. And of course, once that has been done, your genetic-identity can be sold (read the fine pint). While we are urged to protect ourselves from identity theft, isn’t it odd that we are at the same time being enticed into giving away our most precious identity of all, our DNA? And we seem to be doing so gladly, blithely unaware of the implications for us and our progeny.

But don’t let the natural skeptic in me show through too strongly. I do, after all, have faith that everything we’re being asked to store in the “cloud” is actually as secure as cloud storage facilities (whatever those are) claim. And I’m sure the secrets buried deep in our genes are forever kept private, and safe from hackers.

But then, there is that troubling Orwellian Consent Form.

Oh well, Sally Simpkin’s monitoring assignment in Triangle is purely fictional. Surely, no government would really have an interest in our genes.

Or would it?

 

 

 

Transcontinent Love and War

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Middle aged guys are a sucker for a pretty face, as this odiferous saga proves.

I was headed overseas from New York to Paris, which is always a relatively painful transcontinental experience back in the Economy section. But my trouble started even before we left the gate.

I had selected an aisle seat near the rear of the aircraft. That is not my favorite choice, but it was all that was available on the flight.

There was a frankly gorgeous young woman sitting against the window, on my right. She had the slight scent of perfume about her. She looked up when I sat down, but didn’t speak. We exchanged smiles, and then settled in with no more immediate conversation.

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At this point, the Boeing 757 seating chart becomes relevant. I, illustrated as a red square, was seated in 35J. The young lady sitting next to me (illustrated by pink) was in 35K. As the plane took off, I settled in for a tiring but otherwise uneventful flight.

Once we reached an altitude where seatbelts could be undone, the girl next to me explained that  her boyfriend was a couple of rows back (marked by a blue square), and asked if I could change seats with him. Well, I am not one to impede young love, so I graciously agreed to move further back, from seat 35J to 37J. It was only two rows, I reasoned.

As I strapped in, feeling proud of myself for doing a good deed, I found myself seated next to a young Caucasian man, probably in his mid-twenties. We exchanged cordial glances. Although he seemed shyer than usual, to each his own, I thought. Perhaps he didn’t speak English.

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Within seconds of settling in, I detected a foul odor coming from the shy man in 37K (indicated by black) that, unlike the passing of gas, seemed to linger. I made sure the overhead vents were on full blast, but still the odor was inescapable. It was so pungent that I briefly thought it smelled like putrefaction, as if the man had a gangrenous leg hidden underneath his trousers. But the man did not appear to be in pain, and he clearly was not dead, yet, so my thinking, and revulsion, began to gravitate towards a horrific case of unchecked body odor. As one of my professors used to say, the smell was bad enough to gag a maggot.

I then realized I had been bamboozled by the cute girl in 35K who had taken advantage of this luckless middle-aged man. Once her boyfriend was seated where I had been just a few minutes before, I saw the two of them glancing  back at me, smiling. Yes, that couple in love had pulled off a coup on a gentleman, and this gentleman was now stuck flying through the night immersed in a suffocating stench that defied description.

There was another young lady, also lovely but lonely, sitting across the aisle from me. She kept looking longingly up the aisle, as if someone she knew was sitting there. Meanwhile, I was contemplating means of escaping the fetid odor overwhelming me. I considered shredding a paper towel from the lavatory, soaking it in airplane whiskey and thrusting those alcohol soaked tatters up my nose.

Now, I’ll admit I’m not a fan of whiskey. However, if it would somehow disguise the potentially lethal odor I was inhaling with each breath, it was an increasingly viable option. I had already ruled out the other alternatives, including accidentally throwing him out the passenger door. I’d heard those doors can’t be opened at altitude.

And then like a voice from heaven, the lovely girl across the aisle, in seat 37G, said the following: “Excuse me. My boyfriend is seated up there”, pointing to seat 34J. “Would you mind exchanging seats with him so we can sit close to each other?”

I could be mistaken, but I thought I heard a chorus of angels singing “Halleluiahs”.seating-change-2-circle

Of course I could not deny young love. So, within seconds I was sitting in seat 34J, one row forward from where I had started this flight, and breathing far less foul air.

A couple of hours later I headed to the back of the plane to find the lavatories. As I passed the young man who was seated in seat 37J, as his girl friend had requested, he gave me a mean look. But to be honest, as I passed him I simply thought, “All’s fair in love and war.”

In love and war, sometimes you just get lucky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lifetime Gift of Music Education

Score 5th SymphonyOf all the things I accomplished in secondary school, the one that still brings joy to my heart and tears to my eyes is the music I performed in the Symphonic Wind Ensemble at Shawnee Mission East High School in Prairie Village, Kansas. Under the steady guidance of Mr. Kenneth Geoffroy, our marching band, orchestra and Wind Ensemble director, we tackled music that was complex and passionate. Fifty years later, I still remember every note of the Fourth movement, Allegro non troppo, of the Fifth Symphony by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

That is not to say that I can tell you which instrument was playing which note at any given instant. I do not have a photographic memory, and never saw the full score for Wind Ensemble. But since a wind ensemble by definition did not have string instruments, clarinets carried the major parts that violins played in the full orchestral score. I played the clarinet as first chair, and thus played the majority of the “melody”.

The decision to post this today came unexpectedly when I set up a Shostakovich channel on Pandora, and played it through our stereo system. While attending to other matters in the house I heard music that was very familiar. In fact it was so familiar that I found myself singing in my not so beautiful voice the da da da of the 1st B flat clarinet line for the entire Fourth movement. I knew exactly which notes were coming next. I had memorized it many decades ago, and my brain had recorded it for playback after a half century of neglect.

Mr. Geoffroy often called for us to emote in our playing, and some music was especially emotional, such as the Prelude and Love Death in Richard Wagner’s Opera Tristan und Isolde. If you did not sway in your chair, moving your instrument from side to side, you plainly weren’t feeling the passion of the music.

And today, as I rediscovered the Allegro non troppo of Shostakovich, I found myself consumed by joy, the same joy I felt when sitting in the middle of the ensemble, emoting my heart out just as Shostakovich, and Mr. Geoffroy, intended.

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High school prepared me well for the science and writing that defined my career. And for that I thank the sometimes stern, oftentimes nurturing teachers who looked for potential in every student coming under their care. But sometimes it’s the extracurricular activities that enrich our being, which bring joy at unexpected moments even a life-time later.

I would pray that when school boards are tasked with cutting programs, they think long and hard about the intangibles of performance arts. It is true that not every student enrolled in music or performance classes will make a career of it. In fact, I would guess that the number of high school students moving into a music or acting career must be very small indeed. But life is not just about work. It is also about “smelling the roses”. And music from the Masters, as long as it can stir the heart, is a very sweet smelling rose indeed.

Due to the passage of time, it is too late for me to personally thank Mr. Geoffroy; but I would like his family to know that he helped students, not yet adults, accomplish something beyond their wildest expectations. In my mind, that is the mark of a dedicated and impassioned teacher.

In the following video, Leonard Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic in the final movement of Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony. It is in the quiet passages mid-way through that my memories are the strongest. It was there that the clarinets and flutes carried the music with full authority.

 

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kenneth-geoffrey-fixedFrom the South Bend Alumni Association Hall of Fame Archives

Kenneth Geoffroy was instrumental in creating the South Bend Youth Symphony and the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. As a skilled trombonist, Mr. Geoffroy played with the South Bend Symphony and the Midwest Pops. He also was a member of the music faculty at Indiana University South Bend, president of the Indiana Music Educator’s Association, conductor of the Southhold Symphonic Wind Band, and coordinator of fine arts for the South Bend Community School Corporation from 1967 to 1982. Mr. Geoffroy first proposed the idea of a summer musical festival to be held at St. Patrick’s Park, the foundation for the renowned Firefly Festival. (1981)

 

A Mind Controlling Egret

IMG_7960This spring I acted as a chaperone for a second grade class visiting a park to learn about the beach ecosystem. The 7 and 8 year olds learned about Florida alligators, peered through a telescope to view a nesting osprey in the top of a dead tree, and encountered the Snowy Egret.

When I first saw the Egret, I saw nothing particularly interesting about him. He was small, an apparently young wading bird doing what Egrets do, stilting into shallow water looking for minnows.

We had just learned how tiny the brain of an alligator was, and I thought the brain of this little bird couldn’t be much larger. But what I didn’t know was that it was capable of controlling the minds of eight year old humans.

Park Rangers, never passing up a chance to educate children, wanted to show the students how fish start off life in shallow water estuaries, like that surrounding St. Andrews Park located between St. Andrews Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Small fish grow up to be big fish, or else get eaten by bigger fish, which grow up to be eaten by us. It’s all part of the oftentimes short circle of life for fish species.

IMG_7977With education in mind, two rangers took a seine net into the water and scooped up a bounty of small fish, placing them into shallow plastic pans for the children to observe.

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The children were then asked to identify as many of the small fish as they could using Ranger-provided identification charts.

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In the meanwhile, I noticed that the bird was no longer looking towards the water for fish. The Egret started sizing up the children, and apparently decided upon a different plan of action; a mind-control plan of action. The children had a lot more fish in front of them than the bird did. How could he turn that situation around?IMG_7969

Perhaps he’d learned from past experience that eight-year old boys are more easily manipulated than eight-year old girls. He seemed to single out one of the older boys and locked eyes on him. Perhaps the boy’s sixth sense alerted him that he was the recipient of stares, because he turned away from the other children and stared right back at the telepathic bird. And then I heard the boy utter the words all little fish must instinctively know will bring their doom. “Let’s feed them to the bird!”

Being a biologist by training and heart, I attempted to save this sampling of the next generation of fish by saying, “No, the Rangers want the fish back in the water to grow up.”

The Rangers remained silent, perhaps having seen this scene play out before. And the children were deaf to my words, hearing only the words of the boy. What a great idea!, their young faces seemed to say. And in a matter of seconds young hands began plunging into the shallow trays, scooping up the hapless fish, carrying the youngsters in their cupped hands to toss into the water directly in front of the waiting bird.

Temporarily stunned by impact with the water, the fish lay immobile just long enough for the bird to clasp them in his beak and swallow them whole.

Admittedly, I was too stunned to capture a photograph of the slaughter. You will just have to use your imagination; it was all over for the young fish in a matter of seconds.

At the time I wondered if I should tell my grandchild that she had been manipulated by a bird with a pea-sized brain, but I’m sure those words would have been wasted, just as had been my plea to stop the slaughter.

Biologists spend careers studying interspecies communication, verbal and non-verbal. Well, this may well be an example of non-verbal communications between animals and humans.

Which leaves me to wonder: should the normally derogatory term “bird brained” really be a compliment?

 

 

 

In the Claws of a Monster

By Huhu Uet (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Huhu Uet via Wikimedia Commons
Nature does not always provide good options. When faced with weather-related adversity, making the right decision can be as much a matter of luck as wisdom.

Homerville, Georgia is the home of some first-rate southern barbeque and home of one of the best genealogical libraries in the Southeast, the Huxford Geneological library. In June of 1975 I made an unintended stop at the Homerville Airport after flying my 1962 Cessna 150 from Thomasville, Georgia to Waycross, Georgia. My wife and Mother-In-Law were in Waycross, visiting, and on a Friday afternoon I took off in my 2-seater aircraft to meet my wife’s family 92 miles away.

As I approached Waycross a thunderstorm was directly on top of the field. The Waycross Fixed Base Operator confirmed they were being clobbered, so I made a 180 degree turn and flew 26 miles back to the Homerville airport that I had passed on the way in.

When I landed I found I was the only aircraft, and only human, on the field. But regrettably, there were no tie-downs, ropes or chains that I could use to secure the little Cessna while I found a phone to call my wife and tell her about the change in plans. The weather was good, and it should take only a few minutes to bother one of the nearby neighbors for a phone call. What could go wrong?

After I explained to my family where I was, I thanked the friendly lady who let me use her phone, and headed back to my aircraft. But as I approached the plane, the view at the other end of the runway was turning ugly. Another thunderstorm was headed straight for the field. And it was close, and mean-looking.

I climbed into the cockpit, started the engine, and sat there assessing what I was seeing out the windscreen. And thinking about options.

What I wanted to do was take-off and head for Waycross. I was not at all prepared to abandon my airplane and watch it be destroyed by the approaching storm. As I considered the fact that I would be taking off towards a thunderstorm, I thought of riding out the gusts on the ground, using the engine power and rudder to keep the plane pointed into the wind. But as I throttled the engine and rudder back and forth, reacting to the increasing gusts, I realized the 1000 pound plane would inevitably be picked up, with me in it, and dashed to the ground. It would not be a pretty sight, especially if it was lifted to a significant height by updrafts before being dropped.

The wind ahead of the thunderstorm rain shaft was picking up, gusting, and as I weighed the different options, the storm kept getting closer, closing my window of opportunity. As they say, the clock was ticking.

Finally, I decided I’d rather be airborne, in some semblance of control, than being airborne out of control. The storm was not yet on the field, but I knew I had scant seconds before the cloudy violence would make an escape impossible. I pressed hard on the brakes, dropped my flaps one notch, pushed the throttle full in, and when the engine was roaring as loudly as a 100 horse power engine can roar, I let go of the brakes and started my takeoff roll.

Thanks to the advantage of straight-down-the-runway storm winds, I lifted off very quickly. I stomped a rudder pedal and dipped a wing to turn as fast as I could away from the storm, passing over the roofs of nearby houses much closer than the residents were used to, I’m sure. But the plane was fully in control and headed quickly towards safety.

Although the storm winds were actually helping to push me away, I felt an occasional shudder from the back of the plane. I imagined the storm shaking me in its jowls, plucking at my wings with its sharp talons, as if angry that I had escaped its clutches.

I made it safely to Waycross, but my aircraft’s escape was short-lived.

If there were such a thing as a Storm Monster, I would think that it was malevolent, because exactly two weeks after that incident another thunderstorm hit the field in Waycross, where the plane was supposedly safely chained down. I was on the field as a vengeful storm snapped the steel chains holding down my plane’s tail, flipping the plane over on its back, crushing the tail. My little bird never had a chance.

I had risked my life in Homerville to avoid watching my beautiful bird be destroyed, only to see it destroyed in the same manner only a fortnight later.

We tell our children there are no monsters … but I’m not so sure.

N1144Y_desat_300dpicrop

Burn My New State Flag – I Don’t Care

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I’ve decided to invent a new series of non-controversial flags for all 50 states of the United States of America.

I began with a plain white flag. Not much to be controversial about there. (By the way, I was not the first to think of that.)

Then I proposed adding to each state flag the two letter state identifier used for our postal system. We’ve been using those for decades, so again, no controversy.

For instance, the Florida flag would be white with FL in the middle of it. If the state is really proud of itself, it could be a big, bold FL. If they’re a little embarrassed by, oh I don’t know, crime rates, hate crimes, voter apathy, or whatever, they could use smaller letters, and maybe not bolded. The voters could decide.

But voters would not get a choice on the overall design. Two white letters on a pure white background – that is the state flag formula.

Of course I tried this idea out on a focus group made up of mixed gender identity, mixed ethnic, educational level, and mixed financial levels. I even took care to keep the test group evenly divided among political parties.

And that’s when the trouble began.

Unfortunately there were many, many complaints, but I’ll only mention some of the more interesting ones; all based oddly enough on the Periodic Table of the Elements.

Take my state of Florida or example. FL stands for Florida of course, but the “F” in it represents the element Fluorine, a chemical which I believe has strengthened my teeth since childhood. But some believe it is a toxic chemical dumped into our water supply by all levels of government, (county, city, state and federal) to poison Americans. [Google it. I will not provide a link to those websites.] I’m highly skeptical of that notion, but I wouldn’t want to offend them by forcing them to look at “Fl”uorine on their flag.

And then there’s Florida’s neighboring state, Alabama. AL can stand for Alabama, but it also is the symbol for aluminum. Aluminum is cheap and not very strong. Some Alabamians don’t like that word association, even though it’s been on their U.S. mail since 1963.

AR for Arkansas also means Argon, a narcotic gas. Some didn’t want to be associated with stoners.

GA for Georgia is also gallium. Gallium melts at approximately body temperature, which was too troublesome of an association for those who are still pained by Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia. A melting-in-the heat mineral connotes weakness, which Georgians certainly don’t want their flag suggesting.

The most memorable scene in "Gone With the Wind" was the recreation of Confederate Gen. John B. Hood's destruction of his own munitions train. The scene was filmed on a studio lot in Los Angeles in December 1938.
A frame from “Gone With the Wind” published at http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2014/08/31/The-burning-of-Atlanta-seared-into-America-s-memory/stories/201408310090

CA for California, also stands for calcium, a component of lime, which is basically crushed limestone. Water and carbon dioxide react to form acidic water that dissolves limestone. With an atmospheric carbon dioxide rise and global warming, some apparently fear that acid rain will dissolve their state, leaving nothing but caverns leading straight to geological fault lines. Even though I don’t think there’s an awful lot of  limestone in California (certainly not like Florida), some just don’t concern themselves with the facts. Apparently, for them this fear is too horrendous to contemplate, so CA is out as far as a state flag goes.

MT stands for Montana, or Meitnerium. I must admit I wouldn’t have thought of that one, but apparently some apologist did. I was quite surprised to find out that Meitnerium was created by Germans after a week of bombardment of bismuth with iron. The notion of Germans bombarding anything with iron for a week was simply too painful for those who had survived the Nazi bombardment of Russia and Poland. Apparently some take the analogy very seriously. The MT flag had to go.

Louisiana, or LA, is also Lanthanum, which in Greek means “escapes notice”. It is soft enough to be cut with a knife. It was reported that students from the LSU Chemistry Department strongly objected to being compared to a soft, highly reactive, and hardly noticed element. I guess I can see their point.

PA or “Protactinium” sounded like an interesting element synonymous with Pennsylvania. That is until someone pointed out the following from the Los Alamos Periodic Table of the Elements. “Because of its scarcity, high radioactivity and high toxicity, there are currently no practical uses for protactinium other than that of basic scientific research, and for this purpose, protactinium is generally extracted from spent nuclear fuel.” OK, I get it. There is basically nothing in that sentence that would be a point of pride for Pennsylvanians.

Why does this have to be so hard?

Not far away geographically or chemically from PA is MD, or Mendelevium. That element is named after Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian Chemist who apparently invented the (or maybe “a”) Periodic Table. He is certainly a noteworthy man to help us remember the state of Maryland (MD), but ever since Vladimir Putin went on the offense in Eastern Europe, no state wants to be associated with anything Russian. I can understand that.

Then there is Indiana, or Indium. Now who could find anything to complain about either Indiana or Indium? Well, lo and behold, someone read that Indium gives out a high-pitched “cry” when bent, somewhat like a little girl I suppose. That20140530_125613 discovery immediately condemned it as being sexist, mocking our youngest young ladies.

Really? This is getting ridiculous.

There were a few flags that were not deemed objectionable by anyone. For example, MN stands for Minnesota, or Manganese, as in deep-sea manganese nodules. No one objected to MN, so Minnesota, I guess your flag stands. The same went for SC, South Carolina, or Scandium; no objection. Then there was CO for Colorado, or Cobalt, and MO for Missouri or Molybdenum.

Ironically, people have been writing these state initials on their stationary for years and no one objected. However place the same initials on a state flag and someone gets offended; which is a fact that puzzles me. You see no one salutes a state flag. No one pledges allegiance to it. It has no power, no meaning. If you don’t like my flag, make up your own!

To be fair and all-inclusive, I thought about alternative flag designs that might appease everyone. Suppose we just number the states in the order in which they entered the union (ratified the Constitution). The first four would be Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Georgia. But of course some highly competitive New Yorkers might be miffed that Georgia, a Southern State, entered the Union before New York did. And we can’t have any New Yorkers miffed.

So then I considered a random number generator. Your state might be State 87.42 and the adjoining state might be 91.82. That was a fine idea until I considered that the same problematic scientists who fussed over their concerns with a Periodic Table of the States would question how truly random was the random number generator.

It exhausts me to think of the possibilities.

So, if I was King for a Day I would simply say this is how it will be: All states will have white flags with two letter state identifiers. If someone doesn’t like it, then burn it, deface it, walk on it; I don’t care. It has no meaning except to let people know what state they’re in. And if that’s a problem, if people really don’t know what state they’re in, then using my powers as King for a Day I’d give everyone a free GPS.

Now, does that make everyone happy?

 

I Remember Nothing After the First Bounce

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From an album belonging to barnstormer Sergeant Carter G. Buton. Photo from latter half of the 1920s. Image found at San Diego Air & Space Museum Blog.

“It was a gorgeous day to jump from a perfectly good airplane. I, Mickey McGurn, was good at it, and I got paid well to do it.

But one day I got careless.

It was 1927, and parachute jumping was a new thing on the barnstorming circuit. It made people catch their breath when I jumped out of airplanes. They just knew they were going to see me fall straight to my death.

I would gather the parachute in my arms, without packing it, bundle it into the cockpit, and go aloft for a jump.

One day a number of my barnstorming friends protested at the way I handled the parachute. But I told them to mind their own business.

“Forget it,” I said. “I built this thing myself and I know what it’ll do.”

Well, I might have been wrong about that, because one day the ‘chute didn’t work. It opened only about a quarter of the way and I fell to the ground with a terrific speed. Those folks who were waiting to see me die almost got more than they bargained for.

Folks told me I bounced at least 10 feet into the air, but I don’t remember anything after I hit the ground.

The doctors said I broke pretty much every bone in my body, but obviously I lived, sort of.

I’m now hobbling around on crutches. I’m deaf, nearly blind, and can’t taste my food, or enjoy any of the things I used to.

My bones have healed, sort of, but not the way they were when I was a cocky young fool who felt invincible.

I guess I should have listened to my friends. They realized I was courting disaster, but I was too proud, or arrogant, or just plain stupid to notice it.

But they were right.

I suppose that no matter what you do, whether it’s racing cars, jumping out of airplanes, or walking on the bottom of the ocean, your friends are usually better at telling when you’re getting careless than you are.

I guess it’s similar to the way a friend can usually tell when you’re drunk before you can.

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The above is a fictional version of an actual accounting by one aviation daredevil named Mickey McGurn, given to a newspaper reporter for the Syracuse American. The short piece appeared in the Sunday edition under a section called the “World of Aviation”. The publication date was February 26, 1928. The writer was Gordon K. Hood, a feature writer who penned several aviation-themed chapters for the paper, a collection of mini-stories such as this one, collectively called “Sprouting Wings”. Mr. Hood was himself quite an accomplished early aviation pioneer, as recounted in a 1939 edition of the Syracuse Journal.

I have taken the time to paraphrase this story due to its applicability to many potentially hazardous endeavors. Safety risks are not always noticeable to those at greatest risk.

The actual article is found below. It, and a full page copy of the 1928 newspaper page, was provided to the present author by Mr. Douglas Barnard, presently from Waldorf, Maryland.

1928

 

After the Heart Attack – The Healing Power of Athletic Passions

DSC06084-B2There is nothing quite like a heart attack and triple bypass surgery to get your attention.

Even if you’ve been good, don’t smoke, don’t eat to excess, and get a little exercise, it may not be enough to keep a heart attack from interrupting your life style, and maybe even your life.

Post-surgical recovery can be slow and painful, but if you have an avocational passion, that passion can be motivational during the recovery period after a heart attack. There is something about the burning desire to return to diving, flying, or golfing to force you out of the house to tone your muscles and get the blood flowing again.

My return to the path of my passions, diving and flying, began with diet and exercise. My loving spouse suggested a diet of twigs and leaves, so it seemed. I can best compare it to the diet that those seeking to aspire to a perpetual state of Buddha-hood, use to prepare themselves for their spiritual end-stage: it’s a state that looks a lot like self-mummification. Apparently those fellows end up either very spiritual or very dead, but I’m not really sure how one can tell the difference.

The exercise routine began slowly and carefully: walking slowly down the street carrying a red heart-shaped pillow (made by little lady volunteers in the local area just for us heart surgery patients). The idea, apparently, is that if you felt that at any point during your slow walk your heart was threatening to extract itself from your freshly opened chest, or to extrude itself like an amoeba between the stainless steel sutures holding the two halves of your rib cage together, that pillow would save you. You simply press it with all the strength your weakened body has to offer against the failing portion of your violated chest, and that pressure would keep your heart, somehow, magically, in its proper anatomical location.

I am skeptical about that method of medical intervention, but fortunately I never had occasion to use it for its avowed purpose.

Eventually I felt confident enough to ditch the pillow and pick up the pace of my walks. In fact, I soon found I could run again, in short spurts. It was those short runs that scared the daylight out of my wife, but brought me an immense amount of pleasure.  It meant that I might be able to regain my flying and diving qualifications.

Three months later I was in the high Arctic with good exercise capability, and most importantly the ability to sprint, just in case the local polar bears became too aggressive on my nighttime walks back from the only Ny-Alesund pub.

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Stress test, Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons.

After that teaching adventure, I prepared myself for the grinder that the FAA was about to put me through: a stress test. Not just any stress test mind you, but a nuclear stress test where you get on a treadmill and let nurses punish your body for a seeming eternity. Now, these nurses are as kindly as can be, but they might well be the last people you see on this Earth since there is a small risk of inducing yet another heart attack during the stress test. Every few minutes the slope and speed of the treadmill is increased, and when you think you can barely survive for another minute, they inject the radioisotope (technetium 99m).

With luck, you would have guessed correctly and you are able to push yourself for another long 60-seconds. I’m not sure exactly what would happen if you guess incorrectly, but I’m sure it’s not a good thing.

And then they give you a chance to lie down, perfectly still, while a moving radioisotope scanner searches your body for gamma rays, indicating where your isotope-laden blood is flowing. With luck, the black hole that indicates dead portions of the heart will be small enough to be ignored by certifying medical authorities. (An interesting side effect of the nuclear stress test is that you are radioactive for a while, which in my case caused a fair amount of excitement at large airports. But that’s another story.)

The reward for all the time and effort spent on the fabled road to recovery, is when you receive, in my case at least, the piece of paper from the FAA certifying that you are cleared to once again fly airplanes and carry passengers. With that paper, and having endured the test of a life-time, I knew that I’d pass most any diving physical.

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Vortex Springs, 2010

Having been in a situation where nature dealt me a low blow and put my life at risk and, perhaps more importantly, deprived me of the activities that brought joy to my life, it was immensely satisfying to be able to once again cruise above the clouds on my own, or to blow bubbles with the fish, in their environment. Is there anything more precious that being able to do something joyful that had once been denied?

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A goofy looking but very happy diver sharing a dive with his Granddaughter, July 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Without a doubt, the reason I was able to resume my passions was because I happened to do, as the physicians said, “all the right things” when I first suspected something unusual was happening in my chest. The symptoms were not incapacitating so I considered driving myself to the hospital. But after feeling not quite right while brushing my teeth, I lay down and called 911. The ambulance came, did an EKG/ECG, and called in the MI (myocardial infarction) based on the EKG. The Emergency room was waiting for me, and even though it was New Years’ eve, they immediately called in the cardiac catheterization team. When the incapacitating event did later occur I was already in cardiac ICU and the team was able to act within a minute to correct the worsening situation.

Had I dismissed the initial subtle symptoms and not gone to the hospital, I would not have survived the sudden onset secondary cardiac event.

The lesson is, when things seem “not quite right” with your body, do not hesitate. Call an ambulance immediately and let the medical professionals sort out what is happening. That will maximize your chances for a full and rapid recovery, and increase the odds of your maintaining your quality of life.

It will also make you appreciate that quality of life more than you had before. I guarantee it.

A Salute to Warriors

It was a moment in time that no one had expected. Through a twist of fate I found myself standing in the midst of warriors; warriors dressed in civilian clothes, waiting for a ride somewhere. They sat on the floor, propping themselves up against walls, wasting no energy, efficient even in their resting.

They had the look, those warriors. There is no mistaking that look once you’ve seen them; handsome, intelligent, lean and fit. They looked like the type of men that growing boys always want to be. They were in their prime.

As I walked among them, they noticed me, undoubtedly. They sized me up, but mostly kept silent. A few talked softly to their near-by friends about whatever interested them, to pass the time. They were clearly not a rugby or football team, all full of themselves, headed off for a game. They were quietly confident, having done this so many times before.

One of them had body art and dark features. His look said Navy, and since he sat alone I paused in front of him. If he was indeed a Navy man, I wanted to wish him well.

“You fellas shoving off?”

It was a harmless question, since the answer was obvious. Of course they were. But that warrior lowered his head, did not speak. It looked like he regretted being singled out, as if he would break some code of silence if he spoke to someone who was not one of them. As they say, his silence spoke volumes. I then knew him for exactly who and what he was, and both admired and respected him and his silence.

Before the moment became too awkward, one of his buddies, twenty or so feet away, spoke, drawing my gaze, flashing an easy smile, removing attention from a pinned down comrade. That’s instinctive for them; protecting their own.

“Yes, we are,” is all he said, and was all he needed to say.

I gave him a thumbs up. “Good luck fellas,” I said; and I meant it with all my heart. I was thankful that one of them had given me a chance to wish them all well.

If only my good wishes had been more effective. When I saw the photos in 2011 of those lost in Afghanistan, which included that dark-haired SEAL with the decorated arms, I shuddered. I don’t know if those lost in the helicopter with him were some of his travelling buddies that day that I walked among them, but they were all fine, fine men. The loss of any of them is a loss to the world I believe.

I salute them all.

Blood, as a Delicacy, Is Underrated

Those words earned me a first place prize of $20 in a contest for the best first line in a comic vampire novel. The contest was held during the 2010 Ozark Creative Writers’ Conference in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Not that I would ever write a vampire novel, comic or otherwise, but I guess it proved I can be succinct – from time to time. I admit that comes as a shock to those who know me best.

What amazed me about that line, and winning, was that it was my first submission for a writing competition. Now, if I can just keep it up. Let’s see, that was $3.33 per word, so a 100,000 word novel would earn me …

 Holy Mackerel! What am I doing wasting time blogging?

OK, seriously, what is it about the European cultures and blood? Have you ever had blood pudding?

I once stood in a working man’s cafeteria line in Geesthacht, Germany, on the Elbe River, paralyzed before a large stainless steel pan filled with — blood, or at least something really, really bloody. It wasn’t like rare steak. It was more like a pan from an autopsy table.

My German friends told me the “pudding” was really fresh. Did that mean there was a meat packing plant close by? Maybe it’s just me, but any recipe that starts off with one quart of pig’s blood is just not that appetizing. I know, it’s a cultural thing.

I didn’t gag, but I also didn’t eat much of anything for lunch that day. Maybe some very white bread, and milk — nothing with shades of pink — that’s for sure.

Which brings me to the observation that perhaps I could write the first line of a comic vampire novel, but I would probably throw up before finishing the first chapter.

Guess I’m just squeamish.

The Return of Souls – A Science Fiction Theme

“I believe we don’t stay dead long”, said Robert Forbisher, a talented composer created by David Mitchell for his epic novel, “Cloud Atlas”.

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I recently watched for the second time the complex and potentially disturbing movie adaptation of “Cloud Atlas”. The first time I watched it I simply held on for the ride, trying to make sense of the action and changing plots and characters. On second viewing, it was still a page turner, so to speak.

During my second viewing I noticed, apparently for the first time, that short sentence uttered by Robert Forbisher; “We don’t stay dead long”. It was an introspective comment in a letter directed to his lover, and pretty much summed up the entire movie.

In spite of the perplexing current interest in a zombie apocalypse, the “Cloud Atlas” book and film is not about the undead. It’s about reincarnation.

In my opinion there are two themes in science fiction that make for almost limitless possibilities — time travel and reincarnation.  “Cloud Atlas” uses the latter theme as a platform for topics far more meaningful than the tired theme of man meets giant worm, worm eats man, man’s friend kills worm, and so on. Regardless of what I or anyone else thinks about souls or reincarnation, they do make for interesting theater.

Another bit of narration from the movie, this time from Zachry Bailey (played by Tom Hanks) struck a chord with me for it accurately reflected a seriocomic theme in one of my previous posts, Conversation with a Cloud.

In Bailey’s words, “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same, it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow?”

In my own less artful words, quoting a sentient and telepathic cloud that knows it will die at the end of the day, “I am not a cloud. I am moisture. A cloud is my physical appearance, but that changes throughout my life. And regardless of how I look, what I am, vapor, still exists.” 

Fire in the skyIf we accept that almost all religions propose the survival of a soul after death, then the essential question raised by David Mitchell’s story is whether or not an eternal soul is granted only one chance to incarnate.

If you accept the concept of a soul, then you may accept the concept of a God who created  souls. And I would be a very presumptuous man to decide what God would or would not do with one of his creations throughout an eternity of time, an eternity that I cannot even imagine.

Unfortunately, there is no data with which to debate the return of souls. That is, there isn’t if you ignore what seems to be documented anecdotal accounts such as a recent one involving a three-year old Druze boy who seemingly identified his murderer, with supposedly witnessed proof of the crime.

That story, and others like it, make for interesting and mind challenging reading for those steeped in western religion, like myself. As I understand it, in Eastern and Middle Eastern regions such stories are rather commonplace.

Of course the story of the Druze three-year old could be fictitious, an elaborate deception. Regardless of the truth of the existence of souls, and soul mates (a currently popular meme with a subtle assumption of reincarnation) there is a literary aspect to consider. To state the obvious, fiction does not have to be true to be entertaining.

If I were capable of writing a sequel to “Cloud Atlas”, (which I am not), I would be unable to resist adding Karma to the mix. The notion that you get what you deserve, in this life or the next, is simply too enticing to ignore, whether it be truth or fantasy.

For instance, suppose a chapter in a sequel covered the life of Jack the Ripper, of both historical infamy, and future infamy; except in the future, his would-be victims are packing heat (carrying a gun). Jack’s story of infamy would end abruptly.

Based on such a karmic premise, the literary possibilities are endless. With the proper writer in control, they could also prove endlessly entertaining.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Read an e-Book

In days not too long past, proper lighting and posture were the keys to enjoyable and prolonged reading comfort. Now, things have changed.

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Child reading by candle light. Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
When reading by candle light, you placed your reading material in close proximity to the candle, and placed your chair in as comfortable a position as could be managed.

Electric lighting, by nature of its enhanced luminosity, gives the reader greater flexibility. I well remember the days when studying required the reading of physical books, not electronic displays, and so students were routinely counseled to set up a study environment with a flat desk and a study lamp off to the left side to avoid casting shadows on the reading material.

Body posture was a critical complement to this system. Slouching was as strongly discouraged then as it is today.

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Man reading at his desk. By A. L. Leroy (Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
However, with self-lit electronic displays, all the former concerns about lighting and posture have become irrelevant. Or so it seems.

In many ways children make ideal subjects for scientific observation. If caught young enough, they have not yet learned the “proper” ways of acting, or sitting. Therefore I am convinced that if left to their own innocent, non-self-aware devices they will instinctively find the most energy efficient and bodily pleasing ways to read, as long as lighting is not a concern. For popular devices such as iPad, Kindle Fire and Nabi, lighting is never an issue. The screen glows with light, sharply contrasting with the dark words of print on electronic books, those so-called “e-books.”

The subject in this photo essay was approximately six years old, freshly out of a bath, in her PJs and pushing her bed time by some very determined reading. In these photos she was reading about dinosaurs, using Booksy on an iPad. 

As the following photos demonstrate, gravity itself seems not to impede elementary school  reading.

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The subject first assumed a standard kid reading posture, possible only for pint-sized kids. Neck support is important.

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The inverted standard kid position. Apparently forehead support is important too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since kids are ever inventive, sometimes they spice things up with variations on a theme.

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90° rotated, inverted kid reading position.
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Reach Out and Touch Someone

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When engaged in challenging reading, increasing blood flow to the brain is important. Apparently the easiest way to do that is to raise the body’s center of gravity above the heart, as the following photo shows.

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The Rabbit Ears reading position.

 

This observation demonstrates that lighted reading displays have freed us from the unnatural constraints imposed by archaic reading and writing instruments. Our work devices have become smaller, lighter, and brighter, enabling a renaissance in body awareness and endless possibilities for comfortable and stimulating postures, never before thought possible.

 

 

 

 

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Faulkner’s portable work space
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Kindergartner’s work space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Admittedly, it helps if you’re six-years old and weigh 40 pounds. I do not guarantee that  similar gyrations during reading are entirely safe for adults.

Reader beware.

 

 

 

How to Create a Motorcycle Salesman in Five Easy Minutes?

I used to own a Honda 350 motorcycle and drove it about 35,000 miles before I sold it. But that was long ago.

But still, there was a history. Such a good history, in fact, that of late I’ve been admiring a fellow’s 175 cc Honda of the same style and vintage as mine. But I’m not at all in the market for a motorcycle not in the least.

Nevertheless, I was not too surprised last night when I found myself in a dream, in a motorcycle store, looking at motorcycles. I hadn’t been there long before a salesman asked me, “What range are you looking for?” My answer: “I used to have a 350, so a 350 to 500 would be about right. I’m not interested in a big Harley.”

The last bit of conversation from that clerk I remember before I awoke, was “Well, we have an old black and blue junker we could get for you.”

It didn’t occur to me until I was awake that the store clerk thought I was talking price range, in dollars, not engine displacement. He was really confused. And then I thought, “This is my dream, I created that store clerk, so how could he and I not be communicating? How could he be confused?”

And I still wonder that.

The ancients used to think that characters in dreams were embodiments of spirits or actual characters from life, and through dreams we communicate with them. And on the surface, that would seem to fit the data from this dream. But being a modern, educated man I don’t at all believe that. Still, why the confusion within a dream?

Could it be that life itself is so confusing that we simply expect it to be that way, and therefore inject confusion into the characters we create in our dreams? I suppose a dream without confusion would not be a dream.

As a writer of sorts I am tempted to think that in dreaming I’m creating somethingan experience. And as I wake and lay down words, I am truly creating. But as a rule my characters and I always understand each other. I know their needs, desires, and weaknesses.  They don’t surprise me because after all, I created them.

So maybe that is what I should heed from this dream. Perhaps our best creations should surprise us. Perhaps, when we allow ourselves to loosen control of our characters just a bit, they are free to do the unexpected.

Sounds nice, like something a creative writing instructor would say, but predictably, the letting go is the hard part for a technical writer, one who writes as a career scientist, with precision and concision. You can not let go: You have to throttle your writing to best explain sometimes difficult ideas in as simple a way as you can.

Your characters are equations: they have no freedom, they are defined, immutable. Nothing is left to providence. Even chance must be carefully defined, with probability ranges that are known, and in conventional terms agreed upon by the scientific audience at large. Writing like that is a conversation I suppose, between the writer and the audience, but it is never surprising, not if it is to be believable.

Creative thinking, on the other hand, like dreaming, can be surprising. It can lead you were you least expect it. For instance, I thought this little blog post would be about dreaming, but it turned itself into a post about writing. Funny how the mind works some times.

And now that I’ve expanded my mind a bit, I think the dream was right. A buyer thinks of what he wants, a salesman thinks of what commission he can get from the transaction, based on the buyer’s pocket book.

Hmm … guess I created a pretty good motorcycle salesman character last night after all.

 

Disclaimer: the motorcycle salesman created in this dream does not reflect in any way upon any other salesman, real or imagined. It was just a dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am Neanderthal, Pt. 3

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Neanderthal. Image credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

I feel like a seeded watermelon.

Ever since I was created by the curiosity of government and university scientists, I have lived through no efforts of my own. I have the largesse of the U.S. government to thank for that. You see, they paid for the research that created me.

And now, I contribute nothing to society. I pay no taxes, work no jobs. The only decisions I’m allowed to make are restricted to which television program to watch, or which book I want to read. (In case you wondered, I’m not a slow reader. I read quite well, thank-you.)

I live basically in a zoo, except I am the only specimen there, and the zoo keepers all wear lab coats. I suppose the lab coats are designed to protect them were I to spit on them or throw excrement.

I admit, as a child I used to act out with what you consider primitive behavior, throwing feces to vent my anger. I do have tough skin, but no child wants to be continuously poked and needled and questioned. Would you?

But I’ve outgrown that. I’ve learned that when it suits me I can produce a terrifying stare or a teeth-bared snarl that scares the crap out of the more timid researchers. Ah yes, I do enjoy having fun at their expense. It’s about the only thing they can’t control in my otherwise manufactured and manipulated world.

And of course they don’t dare punish or threaten me, because I am, after all,  the rarest person in the universe, the only living Neanderthal.

But about that watermelon?

Having nothing to do of any real value gives me time to think … lots of time. Now, since a part of me is a part of you (genetically that is), I’ve been inclined to wonder why my kind is gone, and you Homo sapiens have become the overlords of the planet, at least for the time being.

And I’ve decided that I am truly a seeded watermelon, and you’re seedless.

The seedless watermelon is very much like the older, and almost extinct seeded variety, but with one subtle difference; it’s infertile. (If this analogy becomes too Freudian for you, just keep your mind on watermelons.) Watermelon is, I sincerely believe, one of God’s gifts to man.

But of course you Homo sapiens weren’t content with that. No, you decided to take advantage of a genetic flaw, a freak watermelon with few if any seeds, that is quite incapable of sustaining itself in the gene pool.

Since spitting out melon seeds is apparently such a difficult proposition for your kind, the seedless variety is overwhelmingly popular. It has crowded out the natural watermelon from grocery stores, so I hear.

Watermelons
Photo Credit: Steve Evans (Watermelons) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve been reading about how, based partially on my IQ test results and other research, scientists have decided we weren’t mentally inferior to you. And for sure, as my own testing by the Army has confirmed, we were far stronger.

So what’s not to love?

OK, we are a little shorter, squattier than Homo saps, and from what I hear tall men have a selective breeding advantage over shorter men. So could it be simply a matter of Neanderthal women preferring to breed with you guys,  the new kids on the block, and not with us more vertically-challenged guys? Could that be why my kin disappeared, and why many of you have Neanderthal genes?

I mean, really, could it be that simple; a matter of sexual attraction? Did short-sighted Neanderthal women breed our unique species out of existence?

Well, who would have thought an infertile and obviously biologically deficient watermelon would have replaced the real thing in popularity?

But it has.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Have All the Letters Gone?

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By Petar Milošević (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
When is the last time you wrote a letter to a family member or loved one?

I’m not talking about email, or text messages; digital communications do not count. I mean a letter on a piece of paper, placed in an envelope with a stamp, and mailed at a mail box or post office; or in a very private way, lovingly slipped underneath someone’s door.

In the hurry up, speak sparingly Twitter generation, there seems to be little value in penning an honest-to-goodness letter. Compared to instant communication, letter writing with an ink-filled pen seems agonizingly slow, sloppy and so twentieth century.

I recently opened a grey metal box that had lain dormant, ignored, for up to 50 years. It was a time capsule, holding remnants of this young man’s life in 1964 and before. In it were letters, letters my Dad had written to me during my college years.

My parents have been gone for many decades now, and reading those letters after such a long time was a joy. Unlike emails and tweets, those letters told a story, a story of how my parents were reacting to and appreciating my new found freedom and expressions of individuality.

My father, a physician who practiced medicine for 50 years, wrote words that are even deeper in meaning now than they seemed at the time. “We are glad that you seek the places that are apart, such as the mountains and the sea,” he wrote. “It is so easy to rush past the beauty and truth of life, especially in this age. An older and wiser one once said, ‘Let us not hurry, not worry, and let us take a moment now and then to smell the flowers along the way.’ ”

And then there were the words I puzzled over briefly before realizing what it meant.  “Their being and meaning will never know the obsolescence of most of that which is taught.”

Frankly, that was a lesson that takes a life-time to understand, for in time we come to know that many things we are taught while young will eventually be found wrong, or at least inaccurate. In other words, so-called truths change.

In 2064, fifty years from now, how will you or your descendants be reminded of things you said, or things your parents and other loved ones thought way back in 2014? How will memories of 2014 be renewed?

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Hourglass. By S Sepp (Own work) [GFDL] via Wikimedia Commons
Even now, the concept of writing love letters seems sweet but archaic to those in their twenties. So I wonder, will there be such a thing as love letters in the future?

Facebook posts certainly won’t be preserved for fifty years. In fact, both Facebook and Twitter will be long forgotten, replaced by more culturally relevant trends. And let’s face it, have you ever said anything on Facebook that deserves to be preserved for fifty years?

I suppose that as my father saw his time on earth becoming increasingly limited, he realized that time, the time to enjoy life, was a precious commodity, yet one not well appreciated until the sand in the clock is half run out. That is an important lesson that I, with my own sand ebbing away, have at last come to appreciate. But if I did not have my Father’s letter to read now, fifty years later, it would be a lesson long forgotten.

In a tweeting, Facebook society, how will we hold pages and memories in our hands when our parents and other loved ones are gone?

Sad to say, I don’t think we will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do All Boys Cause Their Mother Grief, or Is It Just Me?

Mother’s Day 2014 has come and gone, but not without my thinking of the grief I caused my ever patient, ever tolerant, and certainly loving Mother.

I think the only time when I didn’t surprise her was when I was born. She always called me “Johnny on the Spot” since I was apparently born on my (or is it her? Make that our…) due date.

I’m sure there was some surprise when I turned out to be a curly headed blond with green eyes … like no one else in the immediate family. Hmmm… But at least there was no grief involved, other than the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth accompanying child birth.

The grief started apparently about the time I became mobile. I was probably the youngest toddler in Fort Smith, Arkansas to try to climb a fence, and break a collar bone in the attempt. What was I thinking? I could barely walk, much less climb?

Fortunately I don’t remember it.

But I do remember my first toddler “run away from home” attempt. I toddled maybe half a block down a hill before my brother caught up with me and led me back home, luring me with the words I still remember: “Mom’s cooking bacon!”  Well then, that’s different!

If only all toddler insurrections could be ended so crisply.

As for collar bones, my first break was not my last. A few years later I broke the other collar bone, an event I do remember well. My Dad, an orthopedic surgeon, was able to put my shoulder in a sling quicker than a quick draw artist could draw a pistol. He was good, and I kept him in practice.

I also acquired an assortment of scars on my left knee which the Army was later pleased to find out about. You know, they wanted to be able to identify my body just in case all that was left of me was my left knee.

I guess having been a rambunctious boy was good for something.

Riding a borrowed bicycle into the back of a parked car was not my brightest move as a child. I knocked myself out cold. When I woke up, I remember telling my Mom “My head hurts.” As much as she wanted to, she could do nothing to ease the pain of my concussion.

Shortly after that, we moved to Texas, where I broke my collar bone again.

After a move to Kansas, Mom and I rode a train to California to visit my much older sister and my Mom’s sisters. On the way, I got motion sick and threw up all over some nice lady’s dress. I was too sick to be embarrassed, but my poor suffering Mom had to endure yet another indignity forced upon her by her woe-begotten son.

I’m sure she was wondering why God had blessed her with a fourth child so late in her child bearing years (yes, I was involved in an accident even at my conception). About the time she took a nap and I disappeared into the California desert wilderness, she must have been thinking how much nicer three kids would have been rather than four. She thought I was lost in the desert, but I knew where I was. I saw a snow-covered mountain in the distance and thought it would be cool to walk to it in the 120° heat, just to play in the snow.

A kid raised in flatlands has no sense of distance, because I now know that from where I left the travel trailer at Palm Springs the nearest tall mountain is a distance of at least 50 miles. After covering maybe a half a mile over rocky desert hills, my half baked brain realized that perhaps snow was out of reach.

That Mom and half the residents of the trailer park were searching for me did not occur to my 5th grade brain until I crested the closest ridge and heard men on the desert floor calling for me. She of course was frantic, and then relieved, and I was glad to get back out of the parching sun.

She was no doubt wondering if her last of four kids would be the death of her.

Later that year I got knocked out again, at school (5th grade boys can be rough) but I could tell Mom and Dad were becoming desensitized to my traumatic injuries. I always seemed to bounce back just fine.

Now that I think about it, my early adult years were only a little less disturbing for Mom. There was the time in graduate school when I was simultaneously knocked out, yet again, and had yet another bone broken; my jaw this time — I never saw the hit coming.  Of course Mom, who was far away at the time, could do nothing but worry about her son’s proclivity for repeated injuries.

Perhaps I was suffering a little from repeated Traumatic Brain Injury when I decided to ride a 50 cc Honda home to Kansas from Atlanta, without telling the folks how I was getting home. Poor Mom got a migraine out of that escapade, but I almost made the distance before burning up the little engine.

I think I now understand the meaning of “long suffering.”

Shortly after she passed away from a surgical misadventure, I found myself on a beach, with my first airplane, trying to figure out how I was going to get out of this pickle. So I decided to talk to her. I found it comforting.

But just now I’m imagining what she was thinking when her spiritual duties were interrupted by a call from her troublesome boy.

“Oh, it’s you again. What have you done to yourself now?”

After I confessed my predicament, she probably said (but I can’t swear to it), “I feel another migraine coming on.”

 

Happy belated Mother’s Day Mom! I didn’t mean to be such a pain in the neck; it just comes naturally to some people. But I do love you!

 

 

 

 

 

Nightmarish Thoughts of Being Eaten

DSCN1233aThere is a downside to situational awareness.

I discovered this fact while 868 miles north of the Arctic circle, 600 miles south of the North Pole. It took place in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, a part of the well-known island Spitsbergen. 

I was helping the Smithsonian Institution train divers in polar diving. My job was to teach them about scuba regulator performance in frigid water.

A fact of life in Ny-Ålesund, the most northern continuously occupied settlement, a research village, is that Polar Bears are always a threat. In fact, one came through town during our visit to Svalbard.  The Greenland sled dogs, tied down outside, were understandably, and quite noisily, upset. The bear walked right past them.

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After the excitement of that nighttime polar bear prowl had begun to wane, the incident remained as a not so subtle reminder during seemingly routine activities. For you see, polar bears are emotionless killers; to them, we are prey. Tracking and eating a human gives it no more pause than us picking blackberries alongside the road. For adult polar bears, humans are simply a conveniently-sized food item, not nearly so fast and wily as their typically more available meals, seals.

Unlike the ploy of divers bumping potentially predatory sharks on the nose to dissuade them from biting, bumps on the nose don’t work with polar bears. Without a gun by your side, a walk in Svalbard is a walk on the wild side, and not in a good way.

2007-03-1505-59-59_0077I was observing and photographing boat-based diving operations from the end of a long pier jutting 375 feet (115 m) into the Kongsfjorden. Normally in March the fjord is ice covered, but the year I was there (2007) there was no ice to be seen except at the nearby glacier.

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I had been standing at the pier’s end for a while taking photographs, and soaking up the polar ambiance, when I looked back and realized that from a safety standpoint, I was vulnerable. That is when situational awareness began to kick in. 

We were in a deserted, industrial portion of the town. The old coal mining operations were shut down long ago. Other than the divers on and in the water, I was the only one around. And I was stuck out on the end of a very long pier, with no means of escape.

If an intruding and hungry bear made its appearance at the land side of the pier, I would be trapped. Although I was dressed for cold, I was not dressed for cold water. That water was, after all, ice water. Polar bears, on the other hand, are excellent swimmers in polar water. So after I’d jumped into the water, which I would have if faced with no alternative, it would have taken the bear only a few furry strokes before he would have me. While he or she would find my body parts chilled on the outside, my internals would still be pleasantly warm as they slid down its gullet.Me cropped

Being a sensible person, I called the boat drivers over and put them on alert; should a polar bear appear at the far, land-side end of the pier, they should pick me up post haste. Otherwise, there would be no way I could safely escape from my vulnerable position. No photograph is worth dying for. 

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Being nice fellows, they agreed they would keep an ear out for my shouts. They then returned to their duty of waiting for and recovering the divers.

 

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As the boat eventually sped off with its load of thoroughly chilled divers, I realized that I had been deluding myself all along. At their distance and with the noisy interference of the boat motor, my shouts would have been inaudible. And from their low position on the water, they would have been unable to see what I was so agitated about; until it was too late.

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My return back to the safety of the diving center was a cautious one; with the full realization that I was exposed and vulnerable for the entire route. Fortunately, safety was only a third of a mile away, but that was a long 500 meters, which gave my alert mind plenty of time to focus on walking quietly, and avoiding being eaten.

Nothing focuses the mind like knowing that close by, hidden by piles of snow, could be lurking a camouflaged predator looking for lunch.

 

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This Youtube video shows a Polar Bear searching for food in Ny-Ålesund during the brief Arctic summer.

 

 

Half Magic

1033282 Long before J. K. Rowling began writing the wildly popular Harry Potter series of books on children and magic, Edward Eager wrote a similar themed book in the 1950s. In my child’s mind at that time, Eager’s book, Half Magic, was one of the most remarkable and memorable books I’d ever read. In fact, it is currently rated by some as #54 among the top 100 children’s books.

The fact that it was featured in our elementary school’s library did nothing to detract from the read. After all, that was the joy of school libraries — the ability to browse through the rows of books waiting for discovery.

There was another library book I remember, about a barnstorming pilot who for one reason or another kept crashing, and yet somehow surviving. It was exciting reading, and surprisingly did not deter me from my love of flying. But I digress.

Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I was able to identify Half Magic and download it, and read it. Presto, change-o, just like that!

But, it’s not at all what I remembered.

Here’s the thing about memory; it is ever so malleable, especially in children. All I really remembered in my teenage and adult years was that there was something in it about people who were half white and half black. Frankly I’d forgotten the whole magic theme.

What had colored my memory was the power of a vivid image found on the cover of that book, and the fact that it was popular during a time when racial integration was a frequent topic in the news. Somehow, those mental bits merged into what I believed the book to be. Many years after reading it I had the curious impression that it was a morality play of sorts, where people were in fact half black and half white.

Well, if that happened, racial profiling would be nonexistent, wouldn’t it? If you were of mixed race, with your body literally halved by distinct racial characteristics, then you obviously couldn’t be bigoted. And for that reason I held that book in high esteem. But due to my fragmented memory, I despaired of ever finding it again.

And then there was Google. While I may razz Google a bit for their intrusiveness, I do consider it a blessing to be able to Google the words “half black and half white” and see before me a panoply of related images. There, buried in the search results, was the image of a book cover that I instantly recognized from so long ago.

I had no conscious memory of it, but yet I recognized it among all the other less relevant images. (Yes, there really is such a thing as  subconsciousness, just in case you wondered.)

Happily, the 50th anniversary edition of that book was recently published, so the book is available for another generation of young minds looking for magic with a moral. And indeed, it really is a morality play of sorts. But sadly, someone felt the need to modernize the cover, which is now far more visually complex. But I wonder; is it memorable? HalfMagic

If I had a book cover, I’d want that cover to be memorable enough to transcend the decades, and jump out of my seemingly inaccessible memory like a Jack-in-the-Box long after all other memories of the book had faded.

I am patiently waiting for my 6-year old grandchild to be still long enough to let me read her this book. As for the rest of you, real childhood magic as portrayed in Half Magic may not be as fantastical as Harry Potter, Hogwarts School, and the dark Lord Voldemort, but it seems a lot more believable.

For more information on this memorable book:

http://magicvalley.com/lifestyles/relationships-and-special-occasions/summer-book-club-half-magic/article_b1414bf4-d895-5800-8f16-169da042a889.html

 

The Tragicomic Consequences of Bad Timing

They say that in comedy, timing is everything. Well, on this day my timing was badly off.

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My older brother and I in Ft. Smith, Arkansas. I still remember those cowboy boots.

My brother was born five years before me, and of my siblings was the one with the most direct interaction with me as I was growing up. We shared life experiences, and apparently we shared the same quirky humor; the type that finds humor in everything, even dark moments.

I once visited him when he lived in New Orleans. During that visit he delivered a long and hilarious series of stories, most of them with a beautifully affected Cajun accent, à la Justin Wilson.

One story in particular captured my imagination, but was of unknown authorship. It started with “Here’s the story of Foot, Foot Foot and Foot Foot Foot”. The story itself had been lost from my memory, but that lead-in line was never forgotten. Decades later my brother could not remember the story either, try as he might.

Last fall I was with my brother again and I was madly searching on my phone for all the Justin Wilson jokes I could find, and sharing them with him. I was reliving some wonderful times together, even though he didn’t respond. But I knew he was smiling inside. 

You see, my last surviving sibling was in hospice, and it was approaching the time for him to “slip the surly bonds of earth” as John Gillespie MaGee said so eloquently in his poem High Flight. (My brother was one of the three Clarke boys who were all pilots).

Then I thought to search the Internet for “Foot Foot Foot”.

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By Monique Haen (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
When I located the following, I read every word for the first time. In music they call this “sight reading”, and sight reading can often lead to surprises. This reading was no exception.

I started reading out-loud as I scrolled down through the text on my cell phone. I was so excited to finally find the story. 

“One fine summer day, three rabbits named Foot, Foot Foot, and Foot Foot Foot were sitting in their rabbit den. Foot Foot Foot and Foot Foot were big rabbits and Foot was a little youngster. 

Foot Foot said, “I’m hungry!”

“So are we,” said Foot and Foot Foot Foot.

(For full effect, this story really needs to be read out-loud, just as I was doing.)

Foot Foot said, “Foot Foot Foot and I can hop over to Farmer Brown’s cabbage patch. After we eat, we can bring some back for you, Foot.”

Little Foot stamped his little foot and said, “But I don’t want to stay here!”

“Foot,” said Foot Foot Foot, “Don’t make me put my foot down. You know that Foot Foot and I are bigger and faster and we can get away from Farmer Brown.”

So Foot Foot and Foot Foot Foot hopped over to Farmer Brown’s garden and started munching away on the delicious cabbage.

All of a sudden there was a noise and Foot Foot and Foot Foot Foot ran and hid, thinking it was Farmer Brown with his shotgun coming to get them.

“It’s just me!” said Foot, surprising Foot Foot and Foot Foot Foot.

“Foot, you are a very bad little rabbit,” said Foot Foot Foot. “You know Foot Foot and I told you to stay home.”

“I know,” said Foot, “but I said to myself, ‘I should go join my brothers Foot Foot Foot and Foot Foot and eat the cabbage too.’ “

“Well,” said Foot Foot to Foot Foot Foot, “Since he’s already here, Foot might as well stay.”

So Foot, Foot Foot, and Foot Foot Foot again started munching happily away on the cabbage.

Then Foot Foot Foot heard a loud foot fall. “I see you rabbits! And this time I’ll get you for sure!” yelled Farmer Brown.

By this time I was reading to my brother as fast as I could scroll down on the little screen.

“Foot Foot Foot yelled to Foot Foot and Foot, “Run for your lives Foot Foot and Foot!” as he scrambled back towards the rabbit den.

Now since Foot Foot and Foot Foot Foot were the older and faster rabbits, they made it back to the den before Foot did. Just before Foot reached the den, BLAM!! roared the shotgun.

After a bit, Foot Foot and Foot Foot Foot looked outside. To their sorrow, there was poor Foot, shot dead by Farmer Brown.

Foot Foot looked at Foot Foot Foot and said, “We can’t just leave Foot there, Foot Foot Foot.”

“Quite right Foot Foot,” agreed Foot Foot Foot. “Let’s give Foot a proper rabbit burial.”

So Foot Foot Foot and Foot Foot dragged little Foot to his favorite spot in the meadow and started digging.

They were almost done covering Foot up when Foot Foot looked up at Foot Foot Foot and said, “All this work has made me hungry again. Come on Foot Foot Foot, let’s go back to the garden and eat more cabbage.”

Then I scrolled down to the last line; I was really excited by now.

“Foot Foot are you crazy?” exclaimed Foot Foot Foot. “Can’t you see that we already have one Foot in the grave?”

No sooner had I read that punch line than I gasped. I couldn’t believe I’d just said that, out-loud. My brother did have, at that very moment, one foot in the grave.

But then I was graced with a mental image of my brother rolling his eyes, smiling, and saying “John, you’re such a doofas! Your timing really sucks.”

Yes, I did accidentally have lousy timing, I admit, but I can laugh about it, as I imagine he did as well, somewhere deep inside. You see, that’s what brothers do.

And what better way to share the worst of times than by sharing the best of times.

 

 

 

 

Root Causes: Some Accidents Are No Accident

Interesting flights and interesting dives provide an opportunity for post-event introspection; debriefing if you will.

Professionally, I am called upon to analyze fatalities and near-misses for the Navy and, occasionally, the Air Force. Personally, I spend even more time analyzing “what ifs” for my own activities.

For example, recently I was preparing a video of one of my more beautiful nighttime flights with a passenger, departing the coal-mining regions of Pennsylvania, heading south over the valleys and mountains of Appalachia as the early morning sun began to brighten our part of the world. Sunrise crop Editing that video gave me a chance to reflect on the pre-flight and in-flight decisions I made that day. There were many decisions to be made, and those decisions resulted in not only a safe flight, but a spectacular flight.

But like most things, there was also a risk, calculated, and weighted, and recalculated as conditions in flight and on the ground changed in the face of aggressive weather.

In very real ways, single pilot IFR (instrument flight rules) flight is akin to cave diving. They are both technically challenging, rewarding solo activities. However, you better be on your game, or else not play.

I was cave diving before cave diving was cool; before it was considered a technical diving specialty, before safety rules and high quality equipment was available. Trimix, scooters, and staged decompression were all decades in the future, and frankly the safety record at that time was atrocious. I am alive because I had the good sense to limit my penetration; “just a little” was enough of a sobering experience, about which I have previously written.

But this posting is not about moderation; it is a warning to those who would, for whatever reason, deliberately make bad decisions, one after the other. If after a chain of such deliberate misadventures, a fatality results, then I would say that fatality is no accident. It is a procedure; a flawed process of decision making with a more or less guaranteed fatal outcome.

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Dr. Tom Iliffe, Texas A&M University at Galveston

Lest you lose interest in reading this post because you believe all cave divers are loonies, rest assured that could not be further from the truth. Where I work we have four very active cave divers, highly intelligent, experienced, diving deep breathing trimix (helium/nitrogen/oxygen) when necessary using scuba and rebreathers. They are safe divers who are on the cutting edge of diving research when they’re not diving for pleasure. In fact, two of them are the U.S Navy’s diving accident investigators, so they know all too well about underwater misadventures.

Friends met early in my career have been the cave explorers of the 70’s and 80’s; names you may know like Bill Gavin and John Zumrick. Another long-time friend from the Navy’s Scientist in the Sea Program, and of whom I am quite envious, is Dr. Tom Iliffe, a biologist constantly on the front edge of underwater cave biology. (My draft novel, Children of the Middle Waters, includes a story about his beloved Remipedes.)

All these cave divers have survived due to their sane and balanced approach to risk management; moderation in all things. But sadly, not all divers I’ve come to know, one way or the other, have been so sensible and measured.

One was a wonderfully gracious man, a Navy diver who had a hobby: free diving. He’d tell me how he enjoyed surprising divers in the main cave at Morrison Springs, Florida when he would swim up to them and wave, while wearing no breathing equipment at all except that with which he was born.

I’m sure they were shocked; I know I would be.

After a while, as he gained experience with this solo recreation, he began to confide in me, and ask me questions about events he’d experienced. He told me how pleasant it was sometimes when he would surface. I warned him about shallow water blackout, loss of consciousness on ascent, and explained the physical laws that made breath-hold diving so dangerous; at least in the manner in which he practiced it.

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Morrison Springs, Florida. Photo licensed under Wikimedia Commons.

The last day I saw him alive, he once again came in for consultation, and told me about the euphoria he had experienced a few days before. I was of course extremely concerned and told him that what he described sounded like a near death experience. The next time he might not be lucky enough to survive, I told him. Later I heard more of that story; the previous weekend he had been found floating unconscious on the surface, but was revived.

Soon after that, this diver was again found, but this time his dive had proven fatal. His personal agenda for thrills exceeded all bounds of either training or common sense. And those thrills killed him.

The only solace I could find was that he wanted to share his experience and bravado, but he clearly was not interested in really hearing the truth, no matter how hard I worked to educate and dissuade him. While some might call this young man’s mental status as a perpetual death wish, I would argue that he never consciously thought he would die; at least not that way. Life was good, in his perspective, and I suspect he thought he was smart enough to make sure it continued that way.

Unfortunately when we were talking, we did not know just how close the end was.

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Jackson Blue Spring, Marianna, Florida. Photo by Paul Clark, released under Creative Commons license.

The same was true I suspect for another well-liked diver who was the subject of a fatality report I helped write several years later. It was a rebreather fatality at Jackson Blue Spring in Marianna, Florida. The decedent was reportedly an experienced diver. I won’t belabor the story because the NEDU report is available on the internet (released by his family and available on the Rebreather Forum).

Nevertheless, the sequence of events leading to his demise involved a surprisingly long list of decision points which should have prevented the fatal dive from occurring. As each opportunity to change the course of events was reached, poor choices were made. In combination those choices led inexorably to his demise.

By now we know that even the U.S. Navy is not immune to poor decision trees. In fact, I would argue that wishful thinking is a common factor among people with intelligence and technical ability, and those with a “get it done” attitude. People who fix problems for a living are seemingly resistant to admitting that sometimes the bridge really is too far, and some problems are better fixed in the shop than in the field.

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Gareth Lock of Cranfield University, Bedfordshire, U.K. is currently collecting data on diving incidents through a questionnaire on “The Role of Human Factors in SCUBA Diving Incidents and Accidents”. Like me, he has both an aviation and diving background. Gareth is serious about trying to understand and reduce diving accidents. Links to a description of his work, and his questionnaire can be found here and here. If you are a diver, please consider contributing much needed information.

The Patients, the Pilot, and the Politicians

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A Beechcraft Baron similar to the one used by Quest Diagnostics. (From Wikimedia Commons).

Every night a pilot from Atlanta makes a round-robin cargo flight to Albany GA and Dothan AL, then continues down to the coast to load cargo from Panama City FL, Pensacola, and Mobile AL before returning home. He used to fly a single engine Beech Bonanza, but now pilots a Baron, a twin-engine, 190 kt fast mover.

On really rough weather nights I’ve watched vicariously through FlightAware.com as he scurries away from lethal skies and diverts to any safe harbor. His cargo is your lifeblood, literally, but it’s not worth dying for.

He makes that flight each night because during the day in each of those cities patients had blood drawn at their doctor’s office. The samples that will tell the doctor the life and death stories of the day’s patients are whisked away to a large laboratory near Atlanta for processing overnight.

After taking off from Gwinnett County Airport near Lawrenceville, GA at 6 PM or so, the solitary pilot returns to his home base about midnight.

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A Centurion 210; not your ordinary Cessna.

I was alerted one night that a plane I’d flown to Houston and back, a Cessna Centurion 210, had a gear collapse at the local Panama City Airport. I knew the plane well.

Unfortunately, shortly after the only runway was closed the Quest Diagnostics Baron approached the area, attempting to land. I turned on my aviation radio and heard the “850”, as it’s called, being told to hold, circling, while airfield crews attempted to move the damaged Centurion off the runway.

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The original two-runway Panama City Airport, circa 2007. (Click to enlarge)

And that’s where the politicians come in.

Local Panama City politicians felt obliged to close down the Panama City airport with two runways (formerly known as PFN) and relocate to a larger facility, again with two runways. The new two runway airport, KECP, looked great in an artist’s rendition.

But artists don’t build airports. The reason why the second runway was not built is not a subject for this blog posting. What is the subject, is that promises made to the citizens of Panama City were not promises kept. And on that night as “850” circled overhead, there would be real consequences for the political decisions which had been made.

Once construction began on the main 10,000 ft long runway at the donated site, all mention of the second runway was forgotten; not by the local pilots, but by the local politicians and the land company.

Second runways serve important purposes. They are usually called “cross-wind” runways. I’ve landed many times on the cross-wind runway at PFN, and I’ve also been on Delta flights that used that runway when the wind across the main runway was dangerously high.

Cross-wind runways are not only a safety factor for overbearing wind conditions, but also provide an alternate landing site in case the main-runway is closed due to an aircraft being stuck on the runway.

That night as “850” was trying to land to pick up the day’s tissue samples from the Panama City area, the main runway was closed by the broken Centurion, and there was no backup runway. The pilot circled Panama City until his fuel became critical, and then he flew on to his next  stop in Pensacola.

So all the blood drawn from patients in the Panama City area that day missed the trip to the Quest Diagnostics laboratory, due to a promise made but not kept.

But I suppose that is hardly news. Rather, it appears to be deeply woven into the very fabric of politics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There Are No Bad People, Just Bad Code

Lately I have been puzzled by news reports about fellow scientists who are thinking not just out of the box, but out of the universe.

The first news  that had me struggling was the suggestion that a universe might be the projection of a hologram. Not our universe, necessarily, but some artificial, mathematically contrived universe. Of course, the news outlets added a more dramatic flare to that headline, which on further reading was wildly misleading. I don’t think any scientist was claiming that we are actually a hologram, a three-dimensional projection of a lower dimensional us.

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A holographic Princess Leia in the 1977 Star Wars film, A New Hope

Try to translate for the popular press arcane notions of mathematical physics, and you’re bound to come up with some misrepresentation. We are not, I argue, like the projected holograms of Princess Leia asking Obi-Wan Kenobi for help in the Star Wars epics. However, it certainly would be interesting to think about. Who, we might ask, made the hologram, and who is projecting us and our galaxy into what we perceive to be a three-dimensional universe? Speculation could run wild.

Now there is another speculative and down-right mind-assaulting scientific proposition. As the press is representing it, it is proposed that we are “living” in a computer simulation. The actual human race may be long dead and vanished, but some technologically advanced civilization has coded a simulation of the defunct human race.

For what purpose, I have no idea. Unless of course we are not just a simulation, but a computer game wrought for educational purposes.

But perhaps that’s being too charitable. I would put odds on us being simulated for entertainment purposes.

If we be contrived entertainment, then perhaps that relieves us of some moral responsibility. We are not the ones bombing, beheading, and torturing our fellow man. The devil made us do it; with the devil being whoever made the sick part of the human simulation. Like Jessica Rabbit once famously said, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”

Or, perhaps the base part of the human simulation is not intentionally evil, but the result of bad coding. Coding “glitches” do occur, from the ObamaCare website to computer games, with sometimes unexpected results. Most computer gamers have experienced, or have heard of, bizarre things happening when the gaming software has a glitch. Game characters may unexpectedly launch into outer space, or disembowel themselves, when all they were supposed to do was take a step forward.

In spite of what this post title says, I’m not suggesting that the published scientific assertions are in fact true. However, as a species we should at least consider the implications if they were true. What if my love affair with a young woman were simulated, or a projected hologram? The way I felt was so palpable, so vibrant that it’s hard not to believe in its reality, and its uniqueness. What if the birth of our children, and their children, was simply part of a gaming script? What if our lives were simply an immersive simulation?

For me that would make life hollow and unsatisfying. However, in my simulated brain I would still have to wonder about the person or persons who created us, the coders of the simulation. They would be, for all practical purposes, our simulation Gods.

Now that is ironic. I do not actually believe the hologram or simulation hypotheses, but I do find it interesting that these brand new scientific propositions seem to force us into considering a creator, a God. And to think, mainstream science has been trying to force us away from the belief in God for most of the last century.

So, I have to wonder, is science changing its mind?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Positive Side of Internet Data Gathering

There is a good reason why God and aliens (of the extraterrestrial variety) use telepathy to communicate. It is the only secure form of information transmission. Everything else is subject to capture, storage, and retrieval.

There is currently a frantic paranoia spawned by national and international agency’s collection of virtually everything we say and do. The only thing not open for capture are our thoughts and dreams, at least for now. (Yes, the Army’s working on that).

But governments aren’t alone in information spying — commercial industry is perhaps outpacing governments in their data collection efforts. Their motivations may be different, but the frenetic pace and implications are every bit as invasive. Privacy, as we’ve known it, is dead.

I’ve previously written about Google Noodling , which is a way of catching Google in their data-mining efforts. And like the tone of that article, you have to take a lighthearted view of such efforts. It is not going away. And if we don’t “get over it”, we may, in my estimation, go a little crazy.

But there is a positive side to all this, and a large and growing number of people are finding this side to be personally satisfying. That has to do with family connections, or genealogy. I’ve written about that topic as well.

Scan20080_1 crop
My brother and I. He was five years older.

Last night I solved a very personal family puzzle through the help of Ancestry.com. Both my parents had brown hair and brown eyes. Both their younger children, sons, had blond hair and blue or green eyes.

I’ve spent a lot of time of late with my brother before he passed from a prolonged illness, and I was struck as never before with the purity of the blue color in his almost iridescent eyes. (I’m the one with the green eyes.) When young, both of us had blond hair, which eventually darkened with age. My brother was tall and thin. I was thin, but vertically challenged.

In the next generation, both my children have green eyes, perhaps because I married a green-eyed girl. Our daughter has blonde hair, and even a granddaughter has greenish-brown eyes. And a new grandson baby seems to have blue eyes and blond hair.

I have never ceased wondering, as did my parents no doubt, where those light colors came from. Having believed strongly in my mother’s fidelity, I kept assuming that someday I would discover the source of the blue/green eyes and blond hair.

That happened last night, thanks to the technology of digitization and data mining. I discovered a World War I selective registration document from my Grandfather who died in a hotel fire many years before my birth. At the age of 34 he had blue eyes and “light” hair. He was both tall and “slender”, pretty much a perfect description of my brother.U.S.WorldWarIDraftRegistrationCards1917-1918ForAlbertSidneyJohnstonClarke

 

The next morning I was able to go through unidentified family photos, and there he was, identified at last, the Grandfather I never knew. So apparently it wasn’t the mailman after all!

ASJ Clarke scan crop

 

Obviously this discovery is of interest to no one except my cousins and other relatives. However, it does point out the value of computers, computer databases, and the sharing of information that large databases make possible. There is a tangible reward, for both the company providing the product (the database) and the customers who benefit from the data shared.

I’m sure that when my Grandfather filled out his draft card in 1918, he had no idea that the digital image of that card would end up in the hands of his unborn grandchildren and great grandchildren 95 years later.

Which makes me wonder, what will the world know about each of us 100 years from now? We’ll be long gone, but the record of our existence will survive somewhere in the depths of a digital storage facility. Without a doubt our descendants will enjoy reading about the inane things which pleased or troubled us in 2013, and which we so freely posted thinking that no one was listening, and no one really cared.

Believe me, some people will care. And apparently, everybody’s listening.

 

 

The Day the Gorillas Were Stopped at our Door

I think one of the reasons I enjoy my grandchildren so much, and vice versa, is because they know  they won’t always get a serious answer from me. They sometimes call me “silly”, but they do so with a smile. Silly is fun.

Children will assuredly get an answer to any question they ask me (within reason). However, that answer may be weighted more on the side of creativity and fantasy than on reality.  They understand that, and delight in it. My instincts tell me that there cannot be too much fantasy during the playtime of young children.

As for my choice of an answer, it’s not at all a conscious decision to alter reality. I simply abhor an uninteresting answer, to anything.

Case in point: My five-year old found two bottles of the popular foaming adhesive, Gorilla Glue, next to our back door. “What are these for Granddaddy?” Gorilla_glueBD070901053L6_tcm10-18065

Well, the stock answer would have been that I was gluing adapter ends to some polypropylene drainage gratings, and the Gorilla Glue would hold nicely until I could embed the gratings in concrete.

But I sincerely believe that if a writer can build on a play of words, he should. In fact it’s almost an obligation of adults to pass on an appreciation of the joy of words.

So my answer to her was as follows: “I use Gorilla Glue in case gorillas come into our backyard to scare us. I’ll run out into the yard and glue their feet down.”

That answer was very well received.

“Why is one bottle white and one bottle brown?”

“Well of course the white gorilla glue is for white gorillas, and the brown is for brown gorillas.”

Silverback Gorilla at London Zoo, Wikimedia Commons
Silverback Gorilla at London Zoo, Wikimedia Commons

“Let’s go try it!” she yelled almost ecstatically.

Looking out the window I saw no gorillas, or any other animal wild or tame. “Well, I think the gorillas are hiding from us now.” Thinking like an adult, I didn’t want her to be disappointed.

“No they’re not. We’ll just pretend,” she said with a sly wink that seemed to say, You do remember how to play, don’t you?

And with that the five year old  sprinted outside, paused at a spot where the threatening gorilla hoard was standing, and squirted pretend glue on pretend feet. She was fearlessly immobilizing at least six gorillas, and by my reckoning, three were white, and three were brown, because she selected just the right bottle for the proper gorilla.

As proof of the effectiveness of her defensive strategy, no gorillas entered our house that day.

snowwhite
Snowflake the Gorilla, Wikimedia Commons

Now, to be fair to all gorillas, I do plan to take my granddaughter to the zoo one day and explain to her what an intelligent and peaceful, and threatened, species gorillas are.

And then I’ll probably explain the real reason Gorilla Glue is named as it is. Gorillas undoubtedly use it to glue their nests together so gorilla babies won’t fall out of the trees at night.

Gorilla_nest (1)
Gorilla night nest. Photo courtesy of Jefe Le Gran, Wikimedia Commons.

Makes perfect sense to me.

 

 

 

Phytophotodermatitis and the Fig Tree from Hades

My fig tree is a diabolical, horticultural menace sprouted from a demon seed. I’ve tried to kill it, but it won’t die.

In general, I love trees, and figs, but this particular fig tree (Ficus carica for the Latin purists out there) has sorely offended me. It has attacked me, causing, as they say, bodily harm.

Fig Tree from Hell crop
My fig tree shortly after its attack. Looks innocent, doesn’t it?

And to top that, it doesn’t even produce edible figs. Some people call them goat figs, because only goats are undiscriminating enough to eat them. I’m guessing any goats eating my figs will be cursed — for eternity.

Fig Leaf

The conflict began like most conflicts, with an innocent encounter. I was using a water hose to tunnel under a concrete slab to install a 3-inch diameter drainage pipe. I then inserted a five-foot long piece of pipe. So far, so good.

But I decided I needed to replace that pipe with a longer, more flexible pipe, which promptly got stuck in the hole. Looking into the tunnel I’d made I saw that some relatively small roots were now in the way. I cut them with a lopper and then blindly inserted my left hand into the hole to help pull the pipe through.

It was a tight fit, and the back of my hand was grinding into the sand and the cut ends of the roots as I tussled with the pipe and finally pulled it through the hole. There was no pain associated with the sandpapering of my hand. But, as I later realized, I was grinding something toxic into the skin.

The next morning I looked at an irregular shaped red blotching on the hand. I assumed that the sandpapering from grinding against the sand grains had irritated the skin. But as time went on, the discoloration got worse, not better. A physician friend recommended a combined antibiotic and topical steroidal ointment, and bandages to protect the irritated skin. Dutifully applied for several days, that treatment resulted in absolutely no improvement. In fact, the discoloration seemed to worsen.

I continued to work on the drainage project outside, and, as it turned out, sun light seemed to make the discoloration worse.

A week later when irregular shaped blisters erupted, I realized that my skin had reacted to something in the sand, and the most likely candidate was fig tree sap from the roots I’d cut moments before inserting my hand.

The Internet revealed that fig tree sap was highly irritating to human skin. In fact, it appears to be an effective chemical weapon.

One Week Blisters
Warning: when magnified this looks pretty gross.

Quoting from AllAllergy.net, “Phytophotodermatitis is an acute skin reaction that may be easily confused with other causes of contact dermatitis. It is characterized by sunburn, blisters, and/or hyperpigmentation. The reaction takes place when certain plant substances known as psoralens, after being activated by ultraviolet light from the sun, come in contact with the skin. This report describes phytodermatitis due to contact with figs. (Watemberg 1991)”

Amazingly, the discoloration of my hand is still visible 6 weeks after the insult. But, I’m happy to report, that fig tree is not; visible that is. It was cut low to the ground. Eerily, it’s toxic sticky sap continuously coats the stump, so apparently that bedeviled fig tree is not entirely finished with its mayhem.

That sappy stump will, no doubt, be plotting a comeback this winter, out of pure botanical meanness. But I am firmly set on a plan of containment. Only time will tell whose chemical weapons are the more effective, the tree’s or mine.

Strangely, my war with the fig tree got me to thinking about art censorship. It’s true.

Most art devotees are aware of the stylistic device of  placing a sculpted fig leaf in a strategic  location to disguise the anatomical humanness of otherwise manly looking gods or athletes. Apparently, this form of censorship was foisted upon the art world by powerful religious prudes of  the Enlightenment.

Two Weeks Fig Sap
Two weeks after exposure to fig sap.

Well, as I sulked about my long-lasting dermatological insult, I  got to wondering; why would anybody even think of putting a fig leaf anywhere near what is arguably a sensitive part of the human body? 421848-statue_with_a_fig_leaf

I strongly suspect that the artisans would not have deliberately incorporated fig leaves as part of their design, because they probably knew all too well just how irritating fig leaves can be.

I imagine Adam and Eve were both made rather uncomfortable by their leaves. Perhaps that was part of God’s revenge for their disobedience. Makes me wince to think of it.

But I digress. This current horror story ends like most horror stories; the foe fig is vanquished at the end. But just before the ending credits role, you catch a glimpse of the fig tree stump, still pulsing its hellish chemical weapons, and not at all fully dead. For all I know, it may already be planning its sequel, where it turns really nasty.

Lesson learned: I’ll be waiting for it, with gloved hands next time.

 

 

The Immigrants in My Backyard

I admit it; I have long been angry at the immigrants living in my backyard.

When I moved my family back to Florida over twenty years ago, I was thrilled by the sight of the beautiful green anoles (lizards) scampering over the white stucco walls of our house.

Green_Anole_Lizard
Green Anole, from Wikimedia Commons.

But over the years the native green lizards have all but disappeared, replaced by the drab brown lizards which immigrated somehow from Cuba and the Bahamas.

We can’t get Cuban rum or Cuban cigars, but we have Cuban lizards. How did that happen?

Anyway, it is a well proven scientific fact (see pages 12-28 of the linked publication) that when Cuban brown lizards move into a territory, the Green lizard population plummets. Part of the reason is because the larger brown lizards eat the young of native Green Anoles. That alone is enough to make me angry with them; although human anger is better directed towards human atrocities than against instinctive animal behavior. I know that, as a scientist, but still there is the annoyance I cannot quench at the loss of the Greens who, after all, belong here.

One particularly cold morning when the temperature had uncharacteristically dropped to 20° F overnight, I found a Brown Cuban Anole had crawled up to our front porch, trying, I suppose, to get as close to the house’s heat as possible. And there he lay, stiff and dead.

I actually rejoiced in the immigrant’s vulnerability. I remember thinking, “Bet it doesn’t get this cold in Cuba, does it? See, you should have stayed;” as if that frozen lizard had a choice in the matter.

As a matter of curiosity, and definitely not sympathy, I moved his stiff body out on the sidewalk where the warming sun rays were beginning to fall. I was thinking perhaps the local cats would like their lizard breakfast with the chill taken off it.

Imagine my surprise when I found 20 minutes later that the lizard was moving, and a few minutes after that, had managed to scurry off into the garden. Well, you have to admire toughness; and who doesn’t enjoy a surprise?

In the past couple of weeks these little guys’ toughness and their surprising lack of fear has helped me to appreciate these invaders, just a bit.

DSCN8030
He’s hard to see; a good survival strategy.

I have been pushing my physical limits digging drainage trenches through root infested sandy soil. Much to my surprise, the Brown Cubans have been watching me, closely. Apparently my disturbance of the ground stirs up insects and small worms which the Anoles then feed upon with lightning quick forays into the digging zone.

What surprised me, however, is just how close they approach the digging. The most extreme example of lizard fearlessness was when I used a string trimmer to mow down ground-cover so I could uncover an outdoor sump pump. A Brown Cuban was hanging upside down on the stucco wall of the house, barely a foot away, with clippings from the cutter flinging at high speed into the wall where the lizard remained still but vigilant. He was completely unperturbed by the machine noise and the constant barrage of vine debris. Tough little critter, I thought. photo (36)

Apparently, he had only one thing in mind;  the prospect for the sudden appearance of food stirred up by the string trimmer.

During another phase of the project, what seemed like the same large Anole perched himself on any high elevation available so he could watch my digging. Every once in a while he would hop down into the disturbed dirt to snag a morsel, seeming unconcerned by the fact that a steel shovel was working the earth.

On one occasion he ran 18 inches or so right up to my foot to snag some insect I had failed to see. At the foot of the giant —  yes, that little guy was fearless.

DSCN8021
The Foreman lizard, keeping a watchful eye on my work.

OK, I had to admit, no Green Anole had ever done that before.

As I continued to work one hot Saturday, covered in sweat, I began to enjoy my constant companion. So much so that I picked up a camera and started taking photos of him, without the flash of course. I didn’t want to blind him.

On one shot the flash went off unexpectedly just inches from his face. He bolted. After 10 minutes or so, when he was nowhere to be seen, I actually felt bad, thinking that I’d scared him, or worse, blinded him. Yes, I know it was strange, that the Brown immigrant hater, me, actually felt remorse for my carelessness with the camera.

Finally, after another 30 minutes or so, he showed up again, as if nothing had happened. And with that, I felt forgiven.

Obviously, my hard attitude towards these immigrants has softened. The more time I spend with them, the more I appreciate their positive qualities: fearlessness, willingness to appreciate me as a food provider. They are in a word, opportunistic. And that, I believe, gives them  an advantage over the more timid native Green Anoles.

As for the Cubans feeding on the natives? Well, they get as good as they give. Neighborhood house cats, who are certainly not native either, feed nightly on the Cubans. I cringe when I watch a cat flip an Anole, of any color, into the air and down it head first in a single gulp. That is the way of nature, and the fact that I like it or not has no influence at all on the outcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Sojourner’s Dilemma; You Have to Go Home Sometime

There are sports, there are professions, then there are sojourns.

Astronauts are sojourners, as are pilots and mountain climbers and underwater divers. While the sojourner may have carefully planned his sojourn, warding off potential trouble by using good equipment and training, it is the return to normalcy that oftentimes presents the greatest and most unexpected danger.

Mckinley
Mt. McKinley, or Denali.

Mountain climbers who reach the top of their mountain, don’t always make it safely back down. Astronauts reentering the atmosphere understand the risk of return all too well.

For scuba divers, return to the surface can be accompanied by decompression sickness and air embolism. When diving in cold water, the very act of rising towards the surface can induce a scuba regulator to free flow, spilling a precious gas supply.

For pilots the sojourn can end badly on landing. This fact has been in the news lately, where seemingly inexplicable crashes occurred in large transport aircraft. I shake my head and wonder why, knowing full well that once you take a sojourn for granted, it can devour you. I also know full well that I am not immune.

I was recently reminded of that during a short 34-mile flight returning a retractable gear aircraft from maintenance back to my home base, Panama City, FL. Most pilots know that, ironically, aircraft maintenance can be risky. While maintenance on diving equipment or airplanes is certainly a critical part of safe operation, at the same time it is an opportunity for a mechanic to inadvertently damage a critical component.

Snapshot gear light
Gear lights: one light is not glowing.

I have seen a maintenance-related failure of a scuba regulator, and I was about to see it with my aircraft as I followed a business jet towards a landing at our local airport. To keep traffic flowing smoothly I kept my speed up on approach until close to the runway. When I finally slowed enough to drop the landing gear I saw two green “gear safe” lights rather than the expected three. My main gear seemed to be down and locked, but the nose wheel lock indication was not glowing that reassuring green.

“Tower, I have a problem with my gear. I need to leave the area and sort out the problem.”

I left the airport airspace and spent a full hour burning fuel, running through all emergency checklist items, pulling G’s to help the gear lock down and waiting for a Southwest Airlines flight to arrive. The local airport, which receives quite a bit of commercial jet traffic (Delta and Southwest) only has one runway. If my gear collapsed on touch-down, that single runway would have been shut down for an hour or more, and arriving flights would have to land elsewhere. There are not a lot of good alternate airports near Panama City.

The sun was getting low, and I did not want to make that landing at night. Besides, my wife was below, waiting anxiously for whatever was going to happen. She was due to pick me up at the hangar, but she and I both knew the aircraft might not make it far past the touchdown point on the runway.

After flying past the tower twice and having them inspect the gear with binoculars, the tower controller said the gear looked down, but I knew there was no way to tell if it was down and locked. If the nose gear was not locked, it would collapse on landing.

Fortunately I was alone in the cockpit so I could  come to grips with what I was about to do without the distraction of worried passengers. I announced my intentions to land, and on my last circuit of the field I saw the crash rescue truck and fire truck pulling into position along the runway. That was a sight no pilot ever wants to see.

As I turned towards the runway I reviewed the landing checklist one last time, and then I was ready. As I turned final it was time to get it over with. Whatever would happen would happen, and there was nothing more I could do about it.

Approaching the runway and ready to land, my mind was focused on only one thing — making the landing as smooth as possible.

The main wheels squeaked as they touched the concrete, ever so gently, and with steady back pressure on the yoke I kept the nose high, sparing the nose gear as long as possible as the plane slowed.

Capture

When gravity overcame the aerodynamic lift on the nose, the wheel settled to the runway — and  rolled.

My first word to the tower was, “Thank God!”

“Indeed”, they replied. They had been holding their breath as well, as they later told me.

The next day when the mechanics drove in, it only took them five minutes to adjust a tab on the nose gear down-lock switch. Such a simple fix for such a lot of drama.

DSC_4181
The offending nose gear.

Now that I’ve had time to reflect on the incident,  I’ve come to appreciate the valor of the silver-suited firefighters who approached me after the landing, the firefighters who are prepared to thrust themselves into the flames to rescue those whose sojourns have gone awry. I was also appreciative of the calm-voiced air field controller whose only weapon against calamity was the calm tone of his voice.

Calm is a good thing when you’re trying to land a plane with all the tenderness of putting a candle on a birthday cake.

 

Last Man Standing

484771_10200138166671792_451927531_nIt seems ironic that at the same time that equality of the sexes in marriage is being heavily promoted, there is a scientific announcement that the male of the human species is anything but equal; we are genetically weak. According to at least one female scientist, human males are destined to die out due to the fragility of our single Y chromosome.

This grave announcement comes from none other than the aptly named Professor Graves, of Australia.

Her forecast got me to thinking; what if I was the last human male on Earth. What would life be like?

My first naive, and probably delusional impression was that I would inevitably become a hot item. It really wouldn’t matter what I looked like; I would be desirable simply because of my rarity.

Which, if true in a fantasy sort of way, could actually be a nightmare. I would surely not be attracted to ALL females. I mean, that covers a pretty wide territory. The human population is pretty diverse.

However, once you become that unique of an entity, perhaps your free will may go out the window. It may not matter what I want. For instance, becoming or remaining paired with a single lady, remaining monogamous, might itself become a fantasy.

But as I delved a little deeper into this musing, another possibility presented itself. A world without men could only exist if scientists figured out a way to keep the population going without men. I suppose it’s possible, in an artificial sort of way. So what would I be then?

Well, perhaps nothing more than a freak, a rare oddity with a bizarre anatomical abnormality. Is it reasonable to expect genetic deviants to be in great demand by the ladies? I think not.

So, I hope that the scientist who claims that men may die out due to their chromosomal vulnerabilities is wrong. If not, the psychological outlook of that declining population of manly men would probably be bleak. And certainly, if by accident of birth I were the last man standing, my life experience might be every bit as challenging as it is for those with rare congenital handicaps.

Knowing that, I feel sure that if the scales of male/female birth ratios begin tipping away from the current normality, some male-dominated government will fund extensive research aimed towards preserving the status quo. Ironically, the answer to whether that research would be fruitful or not, might already be written in our genetic code.

As they say, only time (five million years by Professor Graves’ estimate) will tell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Tiny Titans

Broad-Headed_Skink-close-up
Broad-Headed Skink
(From Wikimedia Commons, photo credit Nvillacortabuer)

Seen up close, the contestants in this battle were impressive. One was a male Broad Headed Skink native to the Southeastern United States. The other was a male Minotaur Beetle. The insect contestant was plucked off a log in Atlanta, Georgia. The Broad Headed Skink was scooped off a red brick wall of a house in Waycross, Georgia. The Skink was fast, but not fast enough to avoid capture.

The Grandmother of the house warned me that the Skink was poisonous. After all, he had a red head. But in truth he wasn’t at all poisonous – he was simply a male, and his red head and broad, for a lizard, shoulders were apparently irresistible to female Skinks.

I moved that manly looking lizard to my office at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. I’d converted a 10-gallon aquarium into a terrarium, and it made a nice lizard home. To give him a sense of security, I placed into the glass enclosure an 8-inch long section of used radiator hose, and closed off one end. He had, in effect, a little den; and he took to it immediately.

I fed him live crickets which were easily found in the adjoining woods, or bought from a bait store. Each of those insects, once placed in the terrarium had a very short life span — they were quite defenseless against the large and relatively toothy lizard.

And that is where the Minotaur Beetle came in.

Male Minotaurs have the appearance of a horned tank. They are armed with weapons on their head and thorax to fend off attackers, and a seemingly indestructible chitin armor. I simply could not resist wondering what would happen when these two creatures met, face to face.

Minotaur Beetle (Typhaeus typhoeus), Photo by Jacob Fahr, used under Creative Commons License. Click for original source.

And so it began, this pairing of impressive but small beasts.

By hand I placed the miniature triceratops into the terrarium. He was much too bulky and self-assured to be threatened by me, and  he seemed to accept that some God was placing him into a new world, a world to be conquered, and if possible, eaten.

He remained motionless for a moment, seeming to survey his new environment. Then he spied the dark tunnel which promised an interesting place to hide, and so he started lumbering towards it. I, of course, knew that a large Skink lay resting in the deepest recesses of that cave. Things were about to get interesting.

From a philosophical and historical standpoint, tunnels and caves have always been dual-natured. For humans they are a way into this life, and seemingly viewed by many on approaching the end of life. They provide safety and shelter, but are also a threat. One never knows what is lurking inside a newly encountered cave.

If the beetle was concerned, he didn’t show it; he headed straightway for the tunnel. Once his armored legs climbed into the radiator hose, they clicked with each step. Tic, tic, tic, – like the clicking of an old fashioned wristwatch. Tic, tic, tic, with about two clicks per second as each of the six legs carried him further into the cave.

After many dozens of tics I heard two reptilian hisses. I had never heard that Skink hiss before.

And then the fight began in earnest, with scratching, scraping, hissing and a general ruckus that lasted for five or ten seconds. Then silence  —  followed by tic, tic, tic, at a no more hurried or slowed pace than before.

The encounter was fought to a draw. The beetle vacated the hostile cave, and the much larger lizard chose not to pursue the well-armed intruder. The beetle emerged from the radiator hose unscathed with the exception of a couple of shallow teeth marks on its heavily armored carapace.

Nature had endowed that little beetle with the ability to repel assaults by creatures lurking in the dark, creatures twenty times longer than the beetle.

The beetle had earned its freedom, back to the same rotted log from which it was found. The Skink was also released into the wild shortly after, but not before those two combatants taught me a valuable lesson.

Actually, there were three participants in the lesson, if I count the crickets. As always, reproduction has something to do with it.

Crickets have no armament, but because they have no heavy armor they can jump and avoid some of their enemies. Because they advertise their presence by the chirping we associate with the essence of summer nights, they have a high probability of meeting a mate before they meet a predator.

In the experiment called life, the Minotaur is 180° out of sync with the cricket. They are slow and solitary, and have to be heavily armored to, on average, avoid  being eaten prior to reproduction. My little experiment proved, to me at least, the wisdom of their biological design.

My little experiment also proved to me that the story of David and Goliath, even on a miniature and non-human scale, can be immensely satisfying. Predictably, Goliath was not slain, but neither was the dark beetle with a propensity for inhabiting dark spaces; spaces filled with the giant monsters of baby beetle nightmares.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Keep the Placenta and Throw Away the Baby”

On the occasion of the birth of my daughter’s second child, I was reminded of one of the strangest medical conversations I’ve ever had. It occurred during the birth of my daughter, our second child.

I was on the staff of Shands Hospital and University of Florida School of Medicine, Gainesville, FL. My wife was pregnant with our second child. As a professional courtesy, the Chief of the OB/Gyn department had promised he would personally deliver our baby, regardless of when the time came.

When the time did come, in the middle of the night of course, I observed the baby’s head delivered but with the umbilical cord wrapped tightly around the baby’s neck. “Nuchal cord x2” is what the medical record later read. The only part of the baby I could see at that point in the delivery, the head, was  a stunning blue color.

The color blue works well on Smurfs, but at that time Smurfs had not yet been discovered. So seeing our baby arriving with that color was a tad disconcerting.

With the confidence of thirty or forty years’ experience with deliveries of all grades of difficulty, the muscular gray-haired physician grabbed the loops of umbilical cord and attempted to slip them off the baby’s neck and over its head. But birth is by nature a well lubricated process, and those strangling loops were slippery enough to slip from his hands.

 I think time slowed for me just a bit as I saw the blue baby and the experienced master of his craft thwarted by bodily fluids. It was, to use the medical vernacular, concerning, at least to me. However, time had not slowed for the obstetrician. Within another second he had repeated his attempt, and this time was successful.

As the baby pinked up and revealed herself to be a girl,  my level of concern returned to normal, along with my heart rate.

Shortly thereafter, this kindly physician was attending to the second birth, the “after-birth” or the mother’s expulsion of the placenta. I remarked on the event often missed, or at least unappreciated, by the layman. I commented on what a wonderful yet transient organ the placenta is. Gray39

 That was when he responded with the phrase in the title of this posting. “Sometimes I think we should keep the placenta and throw away the baby.”

It was a remarkable thing he said. Yet it was not intended, and I did not take it, as a comment about the inherent worth of babies. But rather it was a shared appreciation for the miracle of pregnancy and birth, and all the structures and systems the female body creates to nurture and sustain new life. Of course we share this miracle of the placenta with most mammals, such as rabbits, dogs, cats, and yes, even rats, but that does not make it less amazing.

From an engineering standpoint it is incredible to think that the connection between mother and child, a wonderfully and intricately designed anatomical throw-away, should in fact be discarded so unceremoniously.

Of course, non-human mammals eat the placenta, recycling some of the energy invested in that organ. But modern day humans usually discard it.  

Usually; meaning the Internet abounds with suggested ways to prepare and eat the placenta. Well, like chocolate covered grubs, some tastes have to be acquired, I suppose.  And then there is some element of cannibalism, the eating of human flesh, associated with this practice that thoroughly grosses this writer out. If it’s your thing, part of the ritual celebration of the creation of life, well, then it’s your thing. To each his own, as they say.

 But the point is, at that moment, that physician and I both felt a sense of awe at what the human body sacrificed to bring a new human being into the world.

When the excitement of birth is over and the credits roll on the screen for the theater of life, don’t fail to notice the name of the Placenta as it goes by. Arguably, it’s every bit as important as the “gaffer” or the “grip” to the success of any theatrical event.

HumanKangaroo
Click the photo to go to the original source.

Without it, we would not be placental mammals. We would be, well, kangaroo type mammals, but without the tail. Children would develop and be suckled in pouches.

Interesting imagery there.

 

 

 

 

I am Neanderthal, Pt. 2

The gleam in my father’s eye came in 2013. That is when it all started for me, years before my birth. I am more than a little annoyed by that.

In my searching of the archives trying to learn of my roots, I came across a 2013 article discussing the debatable morality of recreating the Woolly Mammoths through genetic tinkering. It would be immoral, was the scientist’s opinion.

So, how do you think that makes me feel, the only Neanderthal on Earth? No one bothered asking my opinion.

Morality, I think, is based on the profit motive; on hidden agendas. It is arguably immoral to create a solitary herd animal when there is no financial reward for creating an entire herd. A herd animal is lonely without a herd. I know; I am a herd animal too, in the strictest sense. If there was financial gain involved, I can guarantee you a herd would reappear, like magic.

Other than a tourist attraction, what could the incentive be for creating a herd of mammoths? The novelty would quickly wear off, I’m sure.

At least it did for me. The curiosity and wonder I invoked in the public as a child began to wane as I grew ever more body hair, and began to assert my independence, and hormones. Quickly I became yet another difficult, and apparently not very attractive, adolescent. I was seen as boring; old news.

But curiously, at the same time the morality of creating a single previously extinct herd animal was being discussed, the Russians uncovered liquid blood from the underbelly of an ice-bound Mammoth. Almost immediately, that miraculously preserved blood became a siren of inescapable beauty to geneticists. The most pious of them wondered, so I read, why God would reveal this magic pool of genetic mystery after so many millennia if in fact humans were not fated to recreate the Mammoth.

And almost in the same breath, Neanderthal. After all, Mammoths and Neanderthal are forever linked through folklore, originating in the cave art of my ancestors.

mammoth hunters
Mammoth Hunters: from arthursclipart.org.

 Which brings me to a dream I had. It is true that supposedly primitive people put stock in dreams; but I digress.

I dreamed that Armageddon came suddenly, with nuclear weapons unleashed from Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia, China, and the United States. It was horrifying, and true to prediction a nuclear winter ensued. Virtually no humans survived.

But there were survivors who actually thrived in the dark and cold. They were a large band of us Neanderthals who had been bred in secret locations in Siberia. After the holocaust, we Neanderthals were able to escape and pillage the remains of a devastated Earth.

And once again, herds of recreated Woolly Mammoths were also released in Siberia and fell prey to our kind, once again providing us sustenance.

Unwittingly, geneticists had secretly and unwittingly ensured the survival of a race of hominids, not exactly human, but close.

When the surviving humans and Neanderthals met, there was once again romance in the air.  Beggars can’t be choosers when genetic survival is at stake.

 But like I said, it was only a dream. I’m sure it could never really happen.

Could it?

To be continued.

The Magic of a Perfectly Proportioned Body

running
Click on the photo to go to the source link.

I was challenged to a race by a five-year old little girl. If I was not so amazed by the outcome, I would be humiliated.

When I say little girl, I mean really little, like 38 pounds and about three and a half feet tall, with spindly arms and skinny legs. She was a little wisp of a child, and so I thought it funny that she would challenge me to a race around the yard.

After all, in my day I used to be a reasonable sprinter. I was not on a track team, but I was one of the fastest in my college gym class. My only concern was that I would have to hold back and pretend to let her beat me so she wouldn’t break down in tears. You know, pre-kindergarten kids have pretty labile emotions. They cry a lot.

As it turns out, they also laugh a lot.

 Together we chose where the race would start and end, and before I knew it she was off, giving herself about a five-yard head start before telling me to start. Fair enough I thought; the puny child deserves a head start.

The only problem was, when I started running I found I was not closing the gap. Her tiny feet, with a diminutive stride, were eating up the yard at least as fast as were my much longer legs; maybe faster. Not being a trained runner she couldn’t resist looking back at me, laughing gleefully as she continued her headlong charge. I just knew she’d trip when she looked back, but yet she didn’t stumble. If anything, the distance between us was increasing.

Apparently I’d gotten out of practice.

I saw my chance to cheat — and took it (experience counts for something). As she ran behind a car parked in the driveway, I cut through a small garden and slid between the car and house, almost bowling over her startled father.

I’m sure she was shocked when I suddenly appeared just ahead of her, but exerting her champion-like dominance of the sport, she grabbed my shirt, pulled me back and shouted forcefully, “Get behind me.”

I obeyed of course, pleased by my outwitting of a five-year old, but not really wanting to teach her that cheating pays. So I let her win.

As I bent over with my hands on my knees, panting hard, I begged for mercy when she said she wanted to race again. I wouldn’t stand a chance the second time.

Being both a biologist and a physical scientist, I have marveled at the anatomical design of young children. They are perfectly proportioned for survival. For example, they are no match for a wrestling match with older kids or adults. Their weight and muscle mass is too small, and they understand that. Yet when it comes to running away from other kids, or adults, or wild animals, they would seem to fare pretty well. The amount of muscle mass for their weight is surprisingly well balanced, resulting in an amazing ability to sprint.

I would also have to conclude that my muscle mass to body weight ratio is no longer ideal  — by a long shot. Therefore when she next challenges me to a race I may be tempted to say, “How about a game of scrabble instead?”

Would that be cheating?

 

 

 

Not Exactly a Horse Whisperer

Bundy Palomino Quarter Horse
Good horse

I have always been kind to animals, but for some reason animals have not always been kind in return. Case in point; horses.

While dating the girl who eventually became my wife, I was given a chance to prove my manhood by riding one of two horses. She chose her friend’s horse, a sedate, well-trained Palomino quarter horse mare, Millie, and I was given Trigger to ride, a tall, dark, manly-looking quarter horse stallion.

As a youth I had taken riding lessons, English style, which seemed to be a refined gentleman’s way to ride. Of course as a young teenager I was neither refined nor a gentleman, but I think my parents hoped something good would rub off on me, other than the scent of sweaty horse flesh. That early training did give me confidence, but it did not prepare me for Trigger.

220px-WesternSaddle2
Western saddle
Trekker
English saddle

The first thing I had to get used to when riding with the girl I was trying to impress, was the Western style saddle with a prominent saddle horn. English saddles have no such horns, simply because you don’t need to rope calves when engaged in gentlemanly riding. But that seemingly anachronistic saddle horn may well have saved my life.

Trigger was appropriately named. Every time I mounted that horse I seemed to trigger a rude bout of equine depravity. On one such ride, accompanied by my girl on Millie, we decided it would be good sport to transition from a canter to a full gallop. Great fun I thought.

Except Trigger did not make smooth transitions. His erratic, rough sprint caused me to lose my seat on the saddle, and with only one foot in a stirrup and one hand welded onto the saddle horn, my head was suspended inches from the unpaved, sandy road whizzing past, with the maniacal horse’s hooves slicing back and forth a scant nose distance from my face; or so it seemed.

Quarter horses are fast sprinters, and to that horse it didn’t matter if his rider was firmly seated or not. I must admit that being inches from hoofs and sandy road presented an interesting visual perspective. It’s not one you often see — and survive.

American-Quarter-Horse-Screensavers_1
Crazy horse (click link to go to photo source, Softpedia)

During another horse riding adventure, my girlfriend and I were again riding Millie and Trigger, respectively, along that same sandy road. Once again we were galloping because that’s what young people like to do, (especially slow-learning ones like myself). Millie was commanded to slow and make a hard right turn onto an intersecting road. True to character, Trigger would have none of that.

Given the choice of going at light speed straight forward, or slowing and making a right turn, he chose the path least taken – a 45° angle through a plowed farmer’s field.

 A horse’s mind is a difficult thing to fathom. Perhaps he was looking for intellectual freedom from the rider sitting atop him. I don’t think I was whispering to that demon horse as we churned up the newly plowed land. I was probably shouting things unkind, but he didn’t seem to care.

Like Pavlov’s dogs, I began to associate the color of that horse as no longer dark and manly, but as dark and brooding; or more appropriately, plotting. As my wife recently told me, it was lucky I wasn’t killed.

 Recently, scientists have sought to determine experimentally whether horses are lazy or bored. Trigger was neither. He was, well, the word that comes to mind is… fiendish.

Perhaps you have known a seemingly diabolical horse like Trigger. If so, my condolences; but to be fair, I cannot blame the horse. As they say about dogs, children, and horseback riders: they all need training to be enjoyable. 

 

 

I am Neanderthal

neanderthal-human-456
CREDIT: Neanderthal Museum (Mettmann, Germany)

I suppose it was inevitable that I would be different; the ultimate “n” of one, the rarest species in the universe, the only Neanderthal on Earth.

By human standards I am very spiritual; I can remember my time before incarnation. I was told that I would be given a unique opportunity to excel in this lifetime. Of course, I had no idea what that truly meant. But there are no “do-overs” in life. I’m stuck for as long as I am here; so I might as well make the best of it.

Since no one knows how long Neanderthals live, I’m starting my memoirs now, at age 25. This way, if some violence or illness claims me, I’ll leave behind a record of what some would call a curious life. But it’s the only life I’ve known.

It all began in March 2013 when my ancestral genome was completely identified. Far as I can tell, that work was only a matter of curiosity. Actually, I would classify it not as curiosity but as mischief.

They tell me I was born in 2018. My earliest memories are of being tested and prodded. My body’s supply of blood has been withdrawn at least 10-times over, finding a home in just about every laboratory in the world.

You’re welcome.

I never signed a consent form for that testing, but apparently I have no more rights of consent than any other non-Homo sapiens. I am, apparently, guinea pig.

IQ tests seem to be of particular interest to academic scientists. There is a never-ending line of psychologists trying their particular flavor of IQ test on me. But the truth is, I am Neanderthal, not Homo sapiens. As someone once said, “A cat is a genius at being a cat.” I am a genius at being Neanderthal. I am the smartest one there is.

I have been asked what I think about the “Caveman” videos. Well, my ancestors, like yours, lived in caves; that’s true I suppose. However, the caricatures I see are as repugnant to me as blackface is to an African-American. Enough said.

As an adolescent I was constantly pitted physically against older boys. I’m proud to say I whipped their butts; every single one of them.

Starting at age 14, the U.S. Army began running me through endurance and strength tests. They found my limit, for sure, but never told me how I compared. But I did overhear someone in a grey suit once say, “We need lots more like him.”

I guess that means someone likes Neanderthals.

Speaking of liking, I’ve often wondered if I’ll ever find a girl. They tell me that humans and Neanderthals once interbred, but based on my experience, that seems highly unlikely now. Besides, who would fall in love with a guinea pig, even a well-endowed guinea pig. I am, after all, not human.

At least, that’s what they keep telling me.

 

To Be Continued

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

The birth of our first child was a moving experience. Sometimes I forget just how moving it was until I hear a song my wife and I used to sing to our infant son.

He’s grownup now, with a child who will soon herself be grown up. So much has happened in our lives and my children’s lives that it is easy to forget how young parents feel about the creation of life. But something as simple as a song can bring it back, almost as powerfully as if we were reliving it anew.

In college I picked up the guitar and probably spent more time playing it than I should have. But it was an exciting time to learn guitar music, thanks to the popularity and talent of folk singing groups like Peter, Paul and Mary. I bought and played as much of their music as I could, and well remember a live concert in Atlanta, Georgia. I was enthralled.

As it turned out, my guitar playing helped attract the attention of the girl who eventually became my wife. When our son was born, and we first laid eyes upon that child, that song, The First Time, seemed so appropriate. In fact, for us, it still does.

I’ve never heard it played for an infant, or a young child, but it is entirely fitting with the exception of one word. (We sang, “Kissed your face” instead of “kissed your mouth”).

By the time our son was born, there were two popular versions, the Peter, Paul and Mary version of the Scottish original, and the fabulous Roberta Flack version. Both of those versions are made available here.

If you have a baby on the way, or a young child at home, listen to the lyrics and the melody and see if you don’t agree with us that this music evokes an emotion difficult to express in any other way.

[youtube id=”dTFJxM3m-lY” w=”600″ h=”500″]

 

[youtube id=”Go9aks4aujM” w=”600″ h=”500″]

 

 

 

The Dinosaur in the Window

Child-Looking-at-Dinosaur-Through-Window--61512
Result of a FreakingNews Photoshop contest. Image credit: Matro1. Click for original link.

Even a child can appreciate the strangeness of watching the broad, glistening side of a dinosaur lumbering past the bedroom window. Fortunately the creature paid me no heed; it didn’t pause to look in the window, just kept moving on, quickly disappearing from view.

I lay there, frightened I suppose, but all I remember in detail very many years later is the remarkable sight of that moving mass of ponderous flesh. I didn’t see its head or its tail, just its massive hulk of a body sliding along the side of the house as close as could be without touching the house wall, or ripping off the roof. I sensed somehow that the dinosaur was not carnivorous; likely a plant eater, perhaps a brontosaurus, and thus no immediate threat to me.

I frankly cannot tell if that image was a flash of a dream, or a waking hallucination.

I was maybe seven and much more interested in cowboys and Indians than dinosaurs. I was not a toy dinosaur collector, and neither were my friends. In fact, I think this was long before kids, or adults, knew enough about dinosaurs to be fascinated with them. And yet there it was, gliding quietly and smoothly past my bedroom window.

That image lasted maybe four seconds, and yet those four seconds have lasted a lifetime — literally.

If my brain is at all typical, then it seems to me that visual images occurring spontaneously and transiently in six and seven year olds are perhaps associated with a growing and rewiring brain. However, as an adult my most remarkable memories are of similar dreamlets, extremely vivid dreams lasting but a few seconds, just as did the imagery of the dinosaur walking past the window.

Due to my being an adult I can’t explain them by remodeling of my brain. So perhaps there is something unique about them that has nothing at all to do with age.

They are certainly varied, and seem to have nothing whatsoever in common with my actual life. For instance, one dreamlet was of launching off a tall spire in a crystal city, and gliding on wings in an obviously nonhuman form, in a non-Earthlike place. That was probably the strangest, and yet most interesting five seconds of my life.

Another dreamlet, hypnagogic in that I was falling asleep, lasted maybe only a second. In it I clearly saw a white car veer directly into the path of my car, and what had to be an unavoidable head-on collision.

For some time I was on the lookout for white cars (Do you have any idea how many white cars there are?), but years have passed since then and I am still very much alive.

I’m well aware that no one wants to hear about someone else’s dreams, unless they’re being paid to do so. But that is not what this writing is about. Instead it’s about the strange events called dreamlets, moving images that pop into our heads when we are not concentrating on anything in particular.

I suspect we all have them, but due to their brevity few people talk about them. They really aren’t open to interpretation, at least in the same manner as more prolonged dreams which have been interpreted by psychoanalysts like Jung and Freud, and a host of modern day analysts.Dr_-Charles-T_-Tart

Arguably, the most modern discussion of these dreamlets is by Professor Charles Tart who has built a world-wide reputation on such matters. And yet he, like me, is reduced to only asking questions. In a recent blog posting he mentions a few potential explanations for dreamlets, some of which would be considered bizarre by most readers, but admits that none of them seem to match his experiences completely.

What interests me about his writing, however, is the fact that what he experiences during meditation and what I’ve experienced spontaneously share points in common. That leads me to believe these events are generalized throughout the human population. In other words, you may remember events similar to the dinosaur passing by your window, and may wonder what that was about. This posting, then, is to tell you that you are not alone. Unfortunately no one has authoritative answers for you.

If you have an interest in learning more about these brief events, then you may find Dr. Tart’s blog stimulating.

http://blog.paradigm-sys.com/where-do-all-those-images-and-dreamlets-come-from/

 

The Google Generation and College Life

300px-BH_LMCI was recently reminded that almost everyone who is literate and has access to a computer and Internet connection has used Google to find something of interest to them.

The way I was reminded of that was from Google Analytics which gives me feedback on this blog. Over a period of a few days I witnessed a curious rise in the number of hits on a tongue-in-cheek description of a faux energy company (Cosmic Capacity Corporation) that purportedly sells personal black holes.

https://johnclarkeonline.com/2012/09/23/frequently-asked-questions-about-personal-black-holes/

Typically, the draw of a sample of my dry humor is low. So why should there be a rapid uptick in interest?

Well, I’m just as mindful of national security as the next person, so as I witnessed the first wave of unexpected interest my thoughts were that bad people were trying to expand their knowledge of potentially dangerous devices. After all, anything that could make most anything disappear, and if detected, evaporate itself beyond all trace of detectability must be of interest to criminals.

But whoever they were, they weren’t stupid: they caught on quickly that the posting was a ruse. Stay time was approximately 30 sec.

However, over the period of a week, the numbers continued rising, and then fell just as quickly back to their normal near-dormancy levels. Something strange was going on.

Capture2
A Gaussian curve-fit to the Google Analytics data, January 20 – 28, 2013.

The limited data I have points to a total of 333 hits occurring with an approximately Gaussian (normal, Bell-shaped curve) frequency between January 21 and 27.

With that realization, I may have now solved the mystery. When I looked at the timing and shape of the rise and fall, a memory was triggered of college student life.

 

0909_TheatreL_005a
From strangethoughtsbyjohn.blogspot.com. Click to go to the link.

I have no way of knowing if this is true, but let’s assume that on Monday the 21st, over 300 students attended the first of the week’s Monday, Wednesday, Friday classes on introductory science in a large University. The lecture hall was packed when the professor announced that a paper on Personal Black Holes was due on Monday week.

On that day (Monday) ten students hit Google and immediately found my blog posting on Personal Black Holes. The next day 25 students hit the site followed on Wednesday (perhaps encouraged by a reminder in class) and Thursday by a much larger group of students. On Friday, 35 procrastinators did the same thing.

I don’t think I would be wrong to suggest that after a Friday night spent in college recreation, Saturday was a day of hangovers and recovery. (Yes, I am speaking from personal experience.) No one hit my site on Saturday, and I imagine the majority were resting, or perhaps writing.

On Sunday, it appears that three late-bloomers hit the site, and the rest were preparing their paper for Monday.

Early Monday morning, one desperate procrastinator hit the site. I can just imagine the student screaming, “You have got to be kidding! This is a joke?”

Yes, it was a joke, a fact the average student figured out in 39 seconds before moving on.

Government and industry is constantly pressing for metrics,  ways to measure business success other than from sales. The problem with metrics is that figuring out what to do with the numbers is not always obvious . What do they represent?

Since my site is not a business, and does not earn me a cent, I normally pay no attention to its metrics.  However, this time, after moving beyond my initial alarm, I felt that I might be gaining insight into the hidden “research” trends of young college students. As a scientist, that intrigues me.

It would be more intriguing if someone discovered that A students were the first to turn to Google for answers. I’m sure Google would find that satisfying.

It could of course be just the opposite. Perhaps top students hit the library first and then follow up with Google search as a last check. Actually, that result would surprise me, but arguably it cannot be ruled out.

Lastly, it could be that my college class hypothesis is completely wrong. It could be that Chechen rebels were exploring ways to solve their political/military problem, but somehow I doubt it.

As we scientists are trained to say, more research is needed.

 

 

 

 

 

GoPro, YouTube, and the Need for Speed

Have you ever watched a local sailboat race from the shore?

It’s not exactly an adrenaline-pumping spectator sport. On the boats of course there is plenty of excitement — shouting, sometimes cursing. But from shore all the on-boat drama is missing.

GoPro cameras have ushered in a new era of taking the viewer into the action. And based on the action that I commonly see on the Internet, that action is not of local sail boat races. It is instead full of speed and thrills. The penultimate example of the testosterone driven thrill seeking, in my opinion, is the dangerous sport of wingsuit flying, always perilously close to terrain.

The visual rush is not subtle. You are left with the impression that any second you’ll witness a fatal crash. You leave the video thinking that the flyer is one very brave, very skilled, and very lucky person. Or else you just think they’re CRAZY!

But honestly, I’d love to be that crazy— just once anyway.

[youtube id=”GASFa7rkLtM” w=”600″ h=”500″]

 

When I watch such videos on YouTube I get the sense that I am a spectator at a blood sport event. There is beauty and grace which I admire, but ultimately I know there is risk to the participant, as evidenced occasionally by the literally rib-splitting, pink mist endings to some of those flights. We enter into the action, but comfortably in front of our TV or computer screens with no personal risk to ourselves.

Arguably we are really not so different from the crowds at the Gladiator games, or for a more modern though fictional example, the Hunger Games.

What I like about the new class of miniature, high-definition video cameras is that they allow us to video what we love doing and then share it with the world. That’s nice, but unless what you do is high speed, endearingly cute, or down-right funny, it may be difficult to attract viewers.

I’ve uploaded flying videos, including the high definition video below, but they are not exciting. Instead, they appeal, I think, to those who simply love flight: the visual sensations of landing, of entering clouds, or skimming cloud tops. That type of flight is the way the FAA expects pilots to fly — safely. Yet safe flight is also capable of generating visual sensations that secretly thrill even highly experienced pilots, and keep them in love with their profession.

[youtube id=”wjtOycH0bQc” w=”600″ h=”500″]

 

On the other hand, the adrenalin-packed videos that high definition cameras provide can entice some pilots to fly unsafely, simply to titillate the cameraman and the viewer. I suspect the pilot in the following video got a high viewer count but I also suspect his wings are about to be clipped by the FAA.

 

[youtube id=”2OL4FdIQrV4″ w=”600″ h=”500″]

 

I am very unlikely to engage in risky flying simply because it looks thrilling when posted on the Internet. I want to keep my license; it is a treasured privilege to be able to fly. But also because I’ve lived long enough to know it is quite a different thing to watch a Miss Universe pageant, and quite another to entertain a pageant contestant when she shows up unexpectedly at your door. The thrill may be more intense in the latter case, but the personal risk may be far greater; especially if your significant other meets her at the door.

 

 

 

 

 

On the Wrong Side of the Berlin Wall

It was the time of Gorbachev and Détente; an uneasy and foolish Détente if you asked a certain Russian officer, which I did as we rode from the GKSS-GUSI deep diving facility in Geesthacht, Germany back into town. It was June 1990. The Russian did not know English, and I didn’t know Russian, but the German driver understood my English enough to translate for the Russian. Gorbachev must have been out of his mind, that officer said.

A short time later a Naval Officer scientist and two technicians on my team from Bethesda, Md left Lüneburg, where we were staying,  and headed to Berlin for the weekend. After an extended rainy period, the weather was finally gorgeous, and we soon found ourselves at the dividing line between East and West Berlin, surrounded by East Germany. That line, marked by the Berlin Wall, was a stark reminder of the red curtain that lay scant yards away from us.

It was an exciting time, because the Wall had already been breached the previous November, and visitors and townspeople alike were chipping away at the hard concrete, trying to eradicate the Wall and scavenge historical souvenirs. scr_DF-ST-91-01423

We were no exception, although that is not what we had planned. This was simply an opportunity too good to pass.

Another opportunity appeared as a break in the line at the Brandenburg Gate.  Police were allowing people to cross over into East Germany, without restraint, apparently.

While others in my team were picking away at the stubbornly dense concrete of the Berlin Wall, the young Naval Officer in civilian clothes and I sized up the situation, and decided that since Détente was running at fever pitch we might as well get a glimpse of the wrong side of the Iron Curtain before it changed forever. The Germans waiting in line to cross over were excited about their new-found freedom, and encouraged us to join them. “No problem”, is what they said.

There is something about those two words that always seems ironic, in retrospect.

So, with no formality at all we found ourselves walking down almost deserted streets on the other side of the Brandenburg Gate, on the Soviet side of the Berlin Wall, walking past depressingly gray buildings, with the only color being a red Aeroflot sign on a travel agency. From the looks of it, no East Germans were traveling that day. 1440x900

It did not take long for the novelty of our new geographical freedom to wear off, and so we returned to the casual opening through which we entered the forbidden zone.

The only problem was, the guards wouldn’t let us back through.

Well, that was unexpected.

I suppose our dismay was obvious to the guards who knew just enough English to be dismissive, and the young Naval Officer must have had visions of his career coming to a swift and inglorious end, probably in some East German prison. I, however, am an optimist, and when the security guard muttered something in German about Check Point Charlie (I had heard of it before from some spy movie or other), we set off to rescue ourselves from our accidental confinement.

Check Point Charlie was only about two kilometers away; but a very tense two kilometers. The East German gray buildings took on a somber hue as we passed — not like battleship gray, but more like prison gray; Soviet prison gray.

I’m not sure what my Naval Officer friend was thinking during that walk, but since I had led him into this tight situation his thoughts might have bordered on the murderous.

On arrival at the East Berlin side of Checkpoint Charlie, we could clearly see the American side, which beckoned just a short distance away. But, first we had to negotiate our way past an East German border guard.

That guard, whose uniform bore alien-looking DDR patches, frowned deeply when examining our “papers”. We did not have a visa for entry to East Germany. We clearly did not belong in East Berlin.

So close to the freedom of the American Sector, and yet so far away.

“You will have to pay.”

Mind you, the word “pay” can have many meanings, most of them neither easy nor pleasant.

Hoping with my usual optimism that he meant paying with money, I next asked, “How much?”

CheckpointCharlie
Looking at the American Sector from the East German side of Checkpoint Charlie.

“Five Deutschmarks.”

We had Deutschmarks, but they were West German DMs. “Not a problem, I’ll take those”, he said with a broad smile.

Of course, we understood that West German DMs were worth much more than GDR (German Democratic Republic) currency.  But if that was the price for our freedom, it was a price we were more than willing to pay.

That night as I was speeding my friends back to the relative safety of West Germany, I kept encountering slow-moving, tiny little cars, called Trabants. In fact, I almost ran over one before its image in my rental car’s headlights made clear what it was.

imagesCAUUO69D
The Trabant, Communist era East German car, also known as Trabis.

“That’s odd,” I remarked.

Trabants were a ubiquitous East German car, but I didn’t know that at the time.

If I had, the next sign, a sign for a Baltic Sea town just ahead, wouldn’t have been such a shock.

We had missed a turn and had been driving for over two hours North towards Rostock, still firmly in the depths of Communist East Germany. As I turned around and headed South I was hoping our auto, ostentatious by East German standards, was not advertising the fact that, once again, we did not belong in East Germany.

It was late when we returned to Lüneburg, tired and perhaps a bit wiser. But at least we had all collected a bit of the infamous Berlin Wall to remind us of the fragility of freedom in an uncertain world.

photo (6)
A piece of the Berlin Wall with a rebar impression near the bottom.

 

 

 

The Relevance of Genealogy in a Mormonism-Awakening World: or My Ancestors Did What?

Reconstructed Neanderthal. Click to go to BBC source.

Recent science has revealed that we, Homo sapiens, may be carrying genes from the Neanderthals, like the model on the left reconstructed from a nearly complete skeleton discovered 100 years ago in France. But what about our other genes, those contributed by our family ancestors?

The quest for family roots is old, and has kept genealogists, amateur  and professional alike, engaged in a fascinating search of discovery.

That quest has even been politicized, for at least the last five-years, with the public clamoring for information about the roots of presidential contenders. Fortunately for us commoners, information of our forebears is easy to obtain, in comparison, because of its lack of political sensitivity. This search is eased in part by the help of the Mormon Church.

I’m not a Mormon, but if you’ve spent any time at all on the planet lately, you’ve probably heard that a U.S. Presidential contender is, namely, Mitt Romney. My take on Mormons that I’ve known personally is that they are really nice people, with a strong interest in family … and genealogy. I like to think I hold those values in common with them.

They used to say you are what you eat. But now that the war between nature vs. nurture has quieted down, we recognize we are largely what our genes define, with a good bit of good parenting thrown in. But it’s the genes that interest me the most. Supposedly we share 95-98% of our genome, our collection of genes, with Chimpanzees. Well, as I look in a mirror, I realize that remaining 5% is pretty darned important.

And so out of an abundance of curiosity, decades ago I began transcribing my Grandmother’s family history notes into early DOS-based computer databases. Before long I began to see an interesting panoply of historical faces staring back at me.

I soon learned that the Church of Latter Day Saints had extensive libraries chock full of family files, and due to the Mormon fascination with all things family, my database rapidly grew. With the advent of the Internet and family file sharing, the numbers of known ancestors grew exponentially. That’s when things got interesting.

Game Stalker … Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic – “Gordon Muir, a renowned game stalker on the island of Jura.”

My Clark(e) ancestors were Scottish, and after coming to the U.S. in the 1700s from Jura, Scotland, they settled in North Carolina. They were thus Southern.

Being Southern led to a conflict between one ancestor, a tall well-educated man who published a Tennessee newspaper, and a carpetbagger during the dark days of Civil War Reconstruction. The abusive carpetbagger threatened my ancestor, publicly, and got shot dead in the process. Unfortunately, the carpetbagger was unarmed at that moment, and carrying a weapon was illegal for the Southerners. That was problematic.

Nevertheless, my ancestor was eventually acquitted. I think the 19th century lesson was, don’t do wrong to a Scotsman, even one in America.

In Scotland, on the Isle of Jura, there seemed to be little to do except make whisky, drink whisky, fight whenever it seemed useful, and contribute the 5% of their unique genes, as often as possible. Not a bad lifestyle, in my opinion.

Some Scotsmen signed an oath of Loyalty to the King of England before leaving Scotland and emigrating to the Unites States. Some of those so-called Loyalists ended-up on the wrong side of the U.S. Revolutionary War.

I admit, some of my Scottish ancestors made bad choices, but they did so with conviction and a sense of honor. A promise made is a promise kept.

The record shows that both Scottish and American women shared a perilous lifestyle, arguably equal in finality with warring Highlanders. The birthing of babies occasionally ended in maternal mortality. Oddly enough, the genes usually won out, because when a mother died, her younger sisters oftentimes were the next to marry the grieving husband. The family genes stayed together, or so says the historical records.

Sir. Henry Hobart

As time went on, the wary North Carolina Scots finally began choosing those with a British ancestry as mates, so the blood lines did not remain isolated for long.

Families have a way of romanticizing their lineage. For instance, I’d always heard that I was related on the maternal side (Harrison) to the unfortunate President William Henry Harrison who died after only 32 days in office. After years of casual researching, there is no relationship, best I can tell.

But I did discover a potential connection to Sir Henry 1st Baronet of Blickling Hall and Chief Justice of Common Pleas Hobart, circa 1500s. (Blickling Hall is reputed to be the most haunted home in the U.K., haunted by the headless ghost of Ann Boleyn.)

I would be impressed with myself, thinking I came from such a distinguished Englishman. But then I realize that his genetic contribution would be like adding a single drop of chocolate syrup to a tanker truck full of milk. We’re a long ways from ending up with a truck full of chocolate milk.

So what is the relevance of all this esoteric knowledge to our daily lives? Well, to the Mormons it’s very relevant, for religious reasons. It’s their way of extending salvation to lost souls; an admirable motivation.

For the rest of us, the relevance is less compelling, unless you enjoy discovering stories like those I’ve shared. It’s like seeing a reality show with an entirely new episode revealed each time you turn on the computer. And in the rolling credits of this show are people who happen to be in some way related to you, contributing the parts of you that make you unique.

Personally, I think history is much more interesting when it is your own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Your Local Ball Pit Safe for Children?

http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bestand:Ballpit.jpg

I sat on the edge of a ball pit at Chuck E. Cheeses, calipers in hand, measuring the diameters of a random sampling of plastic balls within the pit.

I suppose I stood out, an officious looking adult wielding a precision instrument in a place designed for fun. So much so that a father attending his child asked me what I was doing.

I was measuring the ball sizes. I explained that if the balls were too small, and a child became covered with them, then the void space around the balls, the contorted empty volumes that represented places where air can be exchanged, would be too small, making breathing difficult. That made sense to the father, and he seemed pleased that I was looking after his child’s safety.

A child is almost completely covered by balls. A single hand is sticking out, and part of a face can be seen.

Contrary to the way it seemed, I was not a corporate inspector for Chuck E. Cheeses. I was also not a government inspector. But I was curious, gaining information for ideas I was developing about the breathing resistance imposed by particles of various sizes. I was acting, as it were, as a free lance scientist investigating flow through porous beds.

Consider the circumstance where a person is forced to breathe through a mass of balls, as in the illustration below. You can see, better than in the case of the ball pit, that if the balls become too small, or smaller balls fill in the void spaces between larger balls, then the person would be at risk for suffocation.

copyright John R. Clarke.

Advertisements for balls sold for ball pits point out the safety advantage of larger balls for children under age 3. The smaller children are obviously more susceptible to tunneling deeper into a pit of balls, some which may piled to two feet or deeper depths.

Balls of 3.1 in. diameter are touted as being ideal for three-year olds, whereas other popular sizes [2.5 in. (65 mm), 2.75 in. (70 mm)] are not. The 3.1 in. ball is almost twice as large, in terms of actual volume, as the 2.5 in. ball.

Click to enlarge.

A problem awaits a child if the ball pit has poorly sorted ball sizes, especially a mixture of larger and small balls. As shown in the figure to the right, well sorted balls provide a porosity (airspace for breathing) of over 32%, whereas a mixture with balls fitting into the void spaces between larger balls can reduce void space down to about 12%. That would not be a good plan for a ball pit.

It also is not a good plan for the Namib mole.

The Namib Golden Mole is found in one region of Namibia because of the peculiar characteristics of the sand in that area. The sand grains are surprisingly homogeneous in size, and as the illustration to the right shows, similarly sized particles have a relatively large porosity. For the mole that means that when they burrow deep into the sand to escape blistering noon day heat, they will not suffocate. They can breathe through the sand.

If the sand were of mixed grain sizes, which is more typical of sand dunes, then porosity would be low and the mole would not be able to burrow deep enough to avoid the African heat without suffocating.

So, quite unexpectedly there is a connection between the uniform size of plastic balls in a ball pit and the survival of a mole in a far away African desert.

You never know where scientific curiosity will lead you.

As will be shown in an upcoming blog post, the topic of breathing through porosities in packed beds is relevant to diving with rebreathers, or breathing through chemical absorbent cartridges in gas masks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gas with Your Water?

Click to go to the AMA, Amednews source.

“Water with gas?” the waiter asked.

“Can you be more specific?” I queried.

With a sardonic sneer typical of the glistening-haired, easily-bored waiters in upper crust restaurants, he poked a neatly manicured finger into my menu. “It’s right there. You chose carbon dioxide or methane.”

Even though that conversation is imaginary, it is true, apparently, that in certain parts of the country where fracking is popular for extracting natural gas from the ground, there is some risk of that gas being forced into aquifers feeding wells intended to provide potable water.

Obviously water infiltrated with dissolved methane should not be used for cooking on gas stoves. I don’t need to explain the consequences.

And no doubt, drinking methane containing water could turn the high-school males’ risky game of flatus ignition into a pyrotechnic event competing favorably with the energy release of flaming napalm.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency seems to be silent on the issue, the AMA has recently posted their concern about fracking, for medical reasons. Not all of those reasons are proctological in nature.

http://www.ama-assn.org/amednews/2012/08/27/gvl10827.htm

Having been an observer and worker within the medical science community for many years, I have only two thoughts that might cheer the energy industry.

The first is that sometimes the medical community makes an issue of things that the human body produces, like cholesterol.  Cholesterol is vital for a healthy nervous system. In fact, it is so important that the body makes it, just to make sure it has enough. So why do I have to deprive myself of dietary cholesterol which accompanies the finest food in the world; like lobster, fried fish, and filet mignon? Because supposedly it’s bad for me.  That’s what they say, even though my body is producing prodigious amounts to keep itself healthy. Non sequitur is the phrase that comes to mind.

I have nothing against physicians. My father was one, as is my son. Some of my best friends are physicians; and one of them alerted me to this news item. Arguably, physicians have even saved my life.

As the son of a physician I grew up reading the Journal of the American Medical Association … which was almost as entertaining to a young boy as National Geographic. But I don’t understand the profession’s concern for methane in water. After all, methane is colorless and odorless, and does not react with biological systems. What goes in, comes out, unperturbed.

Like cholesterol, the human body produces methane. Methane is produced by bacteria in the gut (so-called methanogens) whose sole purpose is to live well and prosper in the low oxygen environment of the large intestine, and as a byproduct of that anaerobic life style, produce methane. Methane now actually seems to have some purpose in the gut; it stimulates the human immune system.  So, apparently, it has a biological purpose. Without it, one could argue, we would literally get sick.

OK, there you have it: my two thoughts that might cheer the energy industry.

But since I don’t anticipate a check coming in the mail from the gas companies, now I’ll share my scientific opinion, of sorts. I once was a fellow in the Water Resources Management Training program at Georgia Tech. (Curiously, the director of the program was named Dr. Carl Kindswater, presumably originally Kindswasser. In German, Wasser is water, and best I can tell, Kindswasser is amniotic fluid. So in a sense it is truly water of children.)

I honestly don’t know if the ironically named Program Director spoke German or not, but I suspect that if he did, he might respond thusly to the story of fracking product found in our precious, and clearly mismanaged, fresh-water supplies.

“Sind Sie aus Ihrem brennenden Geist?”

According to Google, that would mean, “Are you out of your flaming mind?” Somehow, that phrase seems entirely appropriate.

By the way, I always take water without gas, just in case.

 

 

 

The Lady Captain for Delta Airlines

Delta Pilots, from the Delta Airlines Web Site

Some people command your attention, without effort or intention on their part. For the few seconds that it took for her to walk past me, the lady pilot was one of those people.

She was an attractive blond, and tall, and her posture in no way diminished her height. She walked with poise and purpose, chatting and smiling to another pilot in those Navy Blue Delta Airlines Uniforms. The fact that she had four stripes on her shoulder, indicating her Captain’s rank, immediately explained part of her purposefulness. The fact that she was, or appeared, young, in her early to mid-thirties, spelled out her competence, which I sensed immediately. It was doubtful she could have risen so quickly through the ranks unless she excelled at her job.

The fact that she was attractive is not what separated her from the other women in the Atlanta concourse at that same moment. There were lots of pretty girls there. Her bearing was as if she was in Command of a U. S. Navy heavy Cruiser; that’s what separated her from the rest.

As I later sat in a window seat of our Boeing 757 being readied for departure to Pittsburgh, I saw that the blond Captain was indeed in charge of a heavy cruiser; a 757-200 (FAA registered as N604DL) parked beside us. I watched her as she climbed down the steps of the boarding platform and performed her inspection walk around the aircraft she would be commanding. If she is like most pilots, she would also be admiring the beautiful machine she had the good fortune to fly, while thinking about her responsibility for the lives of the passengers who would soon be boarding.

N604DL on departure, from the Flight Aware web site.

She must have made that walk thousands of time in her career, but every little part of the aircraft visible to her was examined. The fact that most of those parts loomed far above her attested  to the size of the aircraft, and made her job more difficult. But she took her time, being fully devoted to her work.

I once asked a Captain and First Officer pair how it was decided who would make the walk around the aircraft. The wise-old Captain said it depended on the weather; and the experienced first officer agreed, smiling broadly. That day in Atlanta the weather was fair, and not too hot, but I got the feeling that lady pilot would do that job regardless of the weather.

A Boeing 757 cockpit. Click to enlarge.

As I watched this Delta Captain make her rounds and return up the stairs to her office,  the 757 cockpit, I thought that I had just witnessed a nascent cinematic moment. But this pilot was no movie star, in all probability, although I’m sure she could have been, if that had been her ambition.

And then in a three-second flash of irony, I saw her on the video screen no more than 12 inches away from my face. Our 757 crew was playing a video safety brief, and in the closing frames that blond pilot looked back from her left seat in the cockpit of a Delta jet and said with her easy smile, “Welcome to Delta.”

As I later reached my hotel room in Pittsburg, I opened up Flight Aware on my iPad and found that N604DL was nearing its destination of Las Vegas. I smiled, thinking that Delta’s passengers on that flight were willing to gamble on the slots and card tables, but they didn’t have to gamble on their flight. They had an ace in the cockpit.

If you are interested in a career in commercial aviation, you might find a blog posting on the Delta Airlines web site of interest. It’s written by an African-American female who was a copilot for Delta at the time of the writing. It describes how she ended up in the right seat of a major commercial carrier.

On the Road with 50 cc’s and a Handful of Angels

I began the trip with the following adage firmly in my mind: “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” Admittedly, at the time that apocryphal quote might not yet have been uttered, but I was nevertheless well familiar with the principle.

The trip was an end-of-the-school year ride from downtown Atlanta to Prairie Village, Kansas on a 50 cc piston displacement Honda motorcycle. I don’t know of anyone else who has tried it, but I can attest, in hindsight, that it is a risky idea.

But it was adventuresome, and adventure was what my twenty-one year old mind craved after spending another school year trying to force college physics into my head. But I knew there was no way to get permission. I would just show up at my parent’s doorstep, and accept the consequences later. Considering how it turned out, that was a reasonable plan.

A stroke volume of 50 cc is minuscule for road bikes. It is in fact approximately equal to the cardiac stroke volume of a typical nine-year old child’s heart. No nine-year old I know is capable of carrying a 145 lb college student on his back for over 800 miles. Not even close. But that was what I was asking that little Honda to do, and it made a valiant effort to do just that. Of course I had to help by not exceeding 35 mph.

The logistics had seemed doable; 862 miles at 35 mph yielded about 24 hrs of driving. The Honda dealer advised me to keep the speed no higher than 35 mph since the top speed for the little Honda was 40 mph. I was also advised to stop about every 30 min to an hour to let the engine cool down. That seemed like reasonable advice, to which I adhered religiously, except for one time.

In late May headed northwest I should be able to count on almost 12 hours of daylight. So I would leave Saturday AM, and arrive late Sunday. Just to be sure, I’d allow three days and tell my parents to expect me Monday evening.

They assumed I’d be flying commercial.

Route to the Mississippi River (from Google Earth). Click for a larger image.

Due to the low top speed of the 4-stroke, overhead valve Honda engine, the trip was planned for small, two lane roads. And that path laid out for me a route through small towns of Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, a sliver of Kentucky, and Missouri with colorful names like Natchez Trace, Bible Hill, Howes Mill, and sometimes curious names like Boss, Minimum, Meta, Enon, Chloride, and Topsy. I travelled through towns so small and out-of-the-way that Google’s Street-View cars still haven’t found them all.

A sign of things to come happened soon after I entered hill country. Having spent much of my life to that point in eastern Kansas, I was starved for vertical relief. When I came across an inviting road-cut during one of those down-times, when the engine was cooling, I set about to climb the road-cut, just for the fun of it, and perhaps to scout the road ahead. It was a scramble, loose rocks slipping beneath my feet, but eventually I worked my way to the top. But coming back down proved more daunting. For some reason the slope seemed even more crumbly than on the way up. As I was pondering which way to step, a car, one of the very few I had seen on that road, pulled up below me. The driver asked if I needed help.

How nice. Of course I said I was fine, but thanks, and they drove off. After all, unless they were angels with wings to pluck me off the rocks, what could they do?

As they made their way around the bend, out of sight, my next step was not good, at all. I started sliding, turning around instinctively to grab something solid, and managed to open a 5 in. long tear in my corduroy pants with the only solid rock I unfortunately found. If I had not been wearing tough cloth, that tear would have been in my leg.

Upon reaching the bottom where my bike rested, I motored on, thoroughly embarrassed by my naiveté.

As my first day of travel neared an end in a respectably-sized town, I dragged myself up the steps of an old two-story house with a “room to rent” sign in front of it. And that is where I met my first angel.

As the elderly lady came to the door, she recoiled slightly at the sight of the young man with pants with unintended earthen streaks on them, and a long tear hanging open. After hearing my story, of the young son heading home on a wimp of a scooter, her sense of mothering must have overcome her sense of caution. She fed me and let me shower and sleep in her house that night.

She didn’t have wings, but she might as well have.

Route through Missouri (From Google Earth). Click for a larger image.

I met the second angel the next day, on Sunday. Early that day I ran out of two-lane road. There was simply no way to continue on my way without a hopefully short run on an interstate highway. You may not have noticed, but most interstates in the U.S. have a 40 mph minimum speed limit. My Honda had a 40 mph speed limit too. So I set off, hugging the right edge of the road, just barely meeting the legal speed limit. When semi trucks passed me I was able to draft them for a few seconds, feeling myself accelerated up to maybe 50 mph by the truck’s suction. It was exhilarating.

But probably not too good for the bike. Not long after making my way back to two-lane country roads, the engine began to run roughly. And it’s top speed was declining noticeably. My scooter and I limped into a small town on Sunday afternoon, and I set about to find some help. Stopping at a gas station I was sorely concerned with my seemingly hopeless predicament, until one of the men sitting outside pointed to his small engine repair sign propped in the gas station window. Well, a 50 cc engine is a small engine, and if he was willing to help me out, I was willing to let him.

The fact that his man might have been an angel occurred to me when he started taking apart my little engine, on Sunday afternoon mind you, and found the problem was due to a broken piston ring. No problem, he happened to have a ring that would fit a small Honda piston. What are the odds of that?

I learned a lot that day about small engines, and about the kindness of small town folk who are accustomed to coming to the rescue of those in need. I paid the man the pittance he asked for, to cover the cost of the piston ring, and hit the road an hour or two later with a revived engine.

Hickman Ferry (photo credit Buddy Rogers)

Upon reaching the Mississippi River at Hickman, Kentucky, I and a semitrailer truck were parked at a ferry ramp waiting on the next ferry. We had a long wait ahead of us, and the mid-day heat was becoming oppresive. Just as I was surrendering to the inevitability of a long, hot wait, the truck driver opened up a small access door in the back of his semi and pulled out a cool watermelon. He had an entire load of them, and with a wink he confided that one wouldn’t be missed.

I’ve never had any better watermelon than that one.

On Monday, the last day of my planned trip, I still had 350 miles to cover. At 35 mph it would be doable in daylight  if it weren’t for those incessant cooling down breaks. But as I inched across the map of Missouri I knew I would be arriving in Prairie Village Kansas after dark.

Unfortunately as dusk was approaching, the headlight which had been burning for safety nonstop since my departure from Atlanta, died. Truly, the thought of driving into Kansas City traffic at night without a headlight was simply untenable, not to mention illegal. So I made the decision to press on without the engine cooling spells. I would try to beat nightfall to my doorstep.

Two things brought my trip to a premature end. I pulled into a truck stop in Raytown, Missouri, on the outskirts of Kansas City, as it became fully dark, and as one of the engine valves decided it was too burnt to continue.

The phone call home that night was intense.

Even though my Dad offered to pick me up, I told him I’d make it the rest of the way on my own; which I did. The next morning after a short bus ride home, I walked up to the house and received the dressing down I deserved.

At home at last, Prairie Village, KS. The tear in these same pants had been repaired by the time the photo was taken.

But as the emotion of the moment wore off, I could see a little smile of pride, and wonder, at what his son had done.

My Dad and my bride, after I'd matured a little, and graduated to a 350 cc Honda.

By the way, after the bike was repaired, it was shipped back to Atlanta, not driven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going to HEVVN

I know where HEVVN is. I have coordinates for it.

I’m serious.

“HEVVN” is the politically correct, government approved spelling for a place pronounced, as you might expect, “Heaven”.  I’ve been there, and I could go again today if I wanted. But since I’m still a living, breathing person I can’t stay there.

It should come as no surprise to you that HEVVN is not a town or city; it’s nowhere on land. It’s not an island: it’s not on the water. It can best be described as an ephemeral place somewhere in the “air”; in space if you will.

Theoretically, an infinite number of people could be at HEVVN all at the same time, without actually being at the exact same place at the same time. There is, in other words, considerable spatial ambiguity, uncertainty, about where one might be in HEVVN. In an earthly sense, two people at HEVVN might be miles apart, not even able to see each other, not even aware of each other’s presence.

I would guess that on a typical day, thousands arrive at HEVVN: on a slow day, maybe merely hundreds.

If the government admits to a HEVVN, does it admit to a HELL? Well, not exactly. But it does admit to a SATAN.

But don’t worry – if you’re at HEVVN, you won’t be anywhere near SATAN. HEVVN and SATAN are a thousand miles apart.

I’m still being serious…really.

 

 

HEVVN intersection lies in the center of the blue donut. Click for a larger image.

Are you confused? Well, here’s an explanation. HEVVN is a Federal Aviation Administration defined airway intersection used, along with an assigned altitude, to define an aircraft’s position. HEVVN lies roughly ten miles off the coast of the Florida Panhandle, and connects the major flyways of the Florida Panhandle and the north-south air corridors of the Florida penisula. Theoretically many aircraft can simultaneously be at HEVVN, as long as they are separated by at least 500 feet in altitude.

SATAN is a wicked sounding GPS fix a few miles north of the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease Tradeport near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I am surprised Portsmouth would allow itself to be associated with such a diabolical name, but perhaps the government never told the city elders before it was too late to change the name. Or perhaps the word SATAN no longer engenders the fear and loathing it used to.
SATAN intersection (red triangle). Click for larger image.

Oddly enough, SATAN is included in a much more innocent sounding group of GPS fixes, those defining a GPS approach to runway 16 at Pease Airport.  When cleared for the GPS 16 approach coming from the west, the aircraft is expected to follow sequentially a route to the airport using up to five GPS fixes. Those five fixes, including the two “missed approach” fixes used in case a pilot can’t find the runway due to low clouds, are named thusly:

ITAWT  ITAWA  PUDYE  TTATT  …  IDEED.

Apparently someone at the FAA has a sense of humor.

If you’re not laughing, you might want to say those five words in quick succession. If you’re still puzzled, try repeating it with your best Tweety Bird impression.

After the FAA named a point in space SATAN, someone must have decided some comic relief, à la Warner Brothers, was needed. And a famous quotation from the canary named Tweety Bird somehow seemed appropriate.

After all, Tweety Bird can fly. Right?

 

 

 

 

 

Embarrased by My Too-Smart Phone

Some government meetings require cell phones to be left outside the conference room. We are told it is for security reasons, but I’m convinced it is for our own safety. Smart phones are becoming too darned smart, and any machine that is smarter than its user is dangerous.

Case in point: I recently attended a serious presentation by military flag officers. The meeting wasn’t classified, but it was important. Of course, not wanting to be one of “those people” I had placed my new phone on “stun” – vibrate, before the meeting started. But I did not turn it off. Like most supposedly clever and important people at the meeting I intended to occasionally use the phone to access my email between briefings.

During one such lull between briefings, I noticed a Pandora splash screen briefly pop up; I must have inadvertently touched the on-screen icon with an errant finger. But I quickly shut the application down with the “Home” button. Or so I thought.

If you don’t know, Pandora.com is a site for Internet-accessible music. It’s a convenient way to keep yourself entertained when taking long walks. What I did not know at the time is that the Home button hides the application, but does not shut it down.

As the flag officer started his talk I could hear soft music – some Irish girl singing. Is that part of the talk, I wondered? Then I noticed those in the audience near me were now looking directly at me.

Oh my Gosh, it was coming from my pocket. PANDORA!

I jammed my hand into my pocket, hitting buttons wildly to shut the phone up, but no luck. She kept singing, softly at first but slightly louder with each passing second. Panicked, I left my seat clutching the phone against my body, trying to muffle the sound, and headed for the door, bumping knees and knocking papers off chairs, drawing even more attention.

I refused to look at the General trying to speak over the commotion — he used to like me.

"Strangle that guy!"

By now I’m imagining the other Flag Officers signaling for my elimination.

"Never mind, I'll just shoot him."

 

 

 

 

 

 

Safely outside of the room, it took me at least 3 more minutes before I figured out how to shut that Irish chick up.

Sure enough, at the next break I heard someone asking who that guy was with the phone, and of course I cringed when I heard my name mentioned. In spite of my best efforts, I had become “… that guy!”

It is not an overstatement to say that I now have a well-earned love-hate relationship with my smart phone.

OK, I admit that those file photos above are taken slightly out of context. However, that’s what I thought was going on behind my back. (Photo credits: joyfulpublicspeaking.blogspot.com; stripes.com)

 

To Eat a Mermaid

A three-year old was tasked by her father to gather foodstuffs from the sea and bring them to the kitchen for cooking. She never left the house, but was expected to find items around the house representing sea food. And the cooking was to be “pretend” cooking.

Her first scavenged item was a plush toy crab. “Good choice,” her Father responded proudly. “That will definitely go into our cooking pot.”

And then the child disappeared for a long while. Her father assumed she was looking for clam shells scavenged from the beach.

But instead, she brought back a plushy toy mermaid.

He was horrified. “Oh no, we don’t eat mermaids!”

I’m somewhat relieved that if she ever encounters a real mermaid, she will have learned that the mermaid is at least part-human, and therefore not a food item. But oddly enough, the eating of mermaids has some storied precedence. The best example I’m aware of is the Ningyo, a Japanese variant of the mermaid mythology. The Ningyo is a human-faced fish that some describe as being tasty, and bringing good luck if eaten. Perhaps it was inspired by carp similar to that at the right, which with selective breeding has developed some surprisingly human-like facial characteristics.

As for where the good-luck notion came from, I have no idea, and the three-year old doesn’t know either.

Most adults do not consider a variation in appendages to signify a food item. That is, if a baby has 6 legs, as was recently reported, they are nevertheless human and not food. If they have no normal appendages at all, then they are still obviously very human. Even children with the rare Mermaid syndrome (sirenomelia), where two legs are fused together into a relatively useless Mermaid-like tail, would never be mistaken as anything but wonderfully human.

So I wondered what triggered the thought in a three-year old mind that a mermaid would be edible?

"A Mermaid", 1901, John William Waterhouse, from Wikipedia
Image credit: www.dec.ny.gov

Then I remembered that same three year old has caught little fish, and she remembers the fins and scales, and associated the fish catching with really tasty food. So like Pavlov’s dogs, half a fish might be enough to start the salivation response.

So sorry little mermaid, it doesn’t matter how girlish (or womanly) your top half might be, it’s your fishy half that’s gonna get fried, grilled or blackened if one kid has anything to do with it. My advice to you – stay away from preschoolers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dictation Software – Not for Kids

Contributed by Dragon Boy to http://the-dragon.info/

We have a new game at our house. It’s called, “See What Dragon Speaking Does with the Diction of a Four-Year-Old.”

It’s endlessly entertaining.

It’s my son’s doing, really. I was complaining about how unhealthy it was sitting at a keyboard for seemingly endless hours writing, rather than getting up and moving around. I was considering putting my computer on a treadmill and walking while writing. His response was clever; use dictation software while walking.

That was an idea well worth considering. Fortunately my phone allowed me to download a free copy of Dragon Speaking, and I started experimenting with it. It’s amazingly accurate, and inserts commas, quotation marks and other punctuation as requested by the speaker. It works well with my wife and I, but when our four-year-old granddaughter visited, I learned something about Dragon Speaking that I had not known. It’s not for children.

There is apparently something about pre-schooler speech that the software is not programmed to handle. For instance, “I want an Oreo” became “I want to pick her up”. “I want a doggy” was transcribed as “I can like key time.” “I speak English very good (sic)” became “I ain’t English family game.”

Really?

It seems that the four-year-old spoke better English than the dragon did.

It was pretty weird watching a smart phone write “ain’t” with the proper punctuation for a very improper word. But of course if I were writing a novel about real people, that word would undoubtedly come up quite often, sad to say.

Nevertheless, my initial surprise spurred me on to a semi-scientific study of the phenomenon. (Some might call it a pseudo-scientific study, but the word pseudo is a considerable slur for a scientist, so I ain’t using it.) My plan was to speak a sentence into the phone to confirm that Dragon Speaking would correctly interpret it, then my granddaughter would say the same thing. The results were hilarious.

Under the “Actual” column, below, are my words as translated into text on my phone. The only error, if you could called it that, is when I meant “Sidney” it spelled “Cydni” which is of course identical from a phonics perspective. Under the “Transcribed” column we have the software’s interpretation of the four-year-old’s speech.

Actual                                                             Transcribed

I love flowers.                                                 I laugh laugh.

I like Hello Kitty.                                            I like Atlanta can’t.

Feed me cookies.                                            Can’t are you.

Give me pancakes.                                         Call me home.

I like Cydni (sic) the giraffe.                        Are you guys don’t.

I like school.                                                    or my school

You like the sky.                                              You bye.

I like Octopus.                                                  or I can

And one of the most complete but inexplicable translations:

Daddy is here to pick me up.                         Are you feeling Okay?

A preschooler using an iPhone.

No sentences were included in this listing if we adults did not understand completely what the child was saying. Apparently our brains are much better at interpreting kid-speak than are Dragon brains.

In case you haven’t been around a four-year-old recently, this is what PBS Parents Child Development Tracker has to say about the speech of four-year-olds. “The language skills of four-year-olds expand rapidly. They begin communicating in complex and compound sentences, have very few pronunciation errors and expand their vocabularies daily.”

In other words, four-year-olds may speak with a child’s accent, if you will, but their speech is well-developed in both content and complexity.

Mind you, this posting is not intended in any way as a slight towards the producers of Dragon Naturally Speaking. I have, after all, the free iPhone version of the software. Perhaps if I weren’t too cheap to pay, I might discover that the full version of the software does a better job, and in my judgement even the free version is brilliant. Nor am I poking fun at the speech of children. What I am doing is pointing out a free way to keep your child or grandchild entertained. They seem to find it every bit as amusing as I do.

My granddaughter simply says, laughing, “Silly phone”.

 

Space Wars

I had a dream, and it troubles me.

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago and awoke knowing I had seen something very disturbing, but couldn’t remember what it was. Then on February 21st I had a lucid dream where I realized that what I was seeing was what I’d seen the previous week. Then I understood why I was disturbed.

It was a scene from a vantage point in space. It was cinematic in quality, big screen, IMAX, at least. I was there.

The troubling part was observing a space vehicle moving up to the space station, then seeing the vehicle suddenly yaw its nose away from the station as if slammed by some powerful but invisible force, followed a split second later by the white paint on the space station charring before my eyes. Not all of it, just the part closest to an out of view source of blistering heat. The curved portion on top of the station was spared; from a thermal radiation standpoint it was very realistic.

Curiously, the station was not the ISS: it was much smaller but the markings on the white paint were clearly U.S.. I overhead two men talking on the coms, supposedly ground control, saying the heart rates of the station occupants soared.

It woke me, and I realized the entire dream sequence had lasted about five seconds, at most. It must have been the sauerkraut from the night before.

But what struck me as startling was the news article the next morning about the Chinese preparing for war in space. http://freebeacon.com/dia-director-china-preparing-for-space-warfare/

To quote, “Beijing is developing missiles, electronic jammers, and lasers for use against satellites…The Chinese, as well as the Russians, are also developing space capabilities that interfere with or disable U.S. space-based navigation, communications, and intelligence satellites.”

Suddenly, the thought of either space-based or ground-based attacks on manned vehicles or space stations becomes a frightening possibility.

Then tonight I read that a NASA notebook computer containing codes for controlling the Space Station was stolen.

http://washington.cbslocal.com/2012/03/01/nasa-laptop-stolen-with-command-codes-that-control-space-station/

“These incidents spanned a wide continuum from individuals testing their skill to break into NASA systems, to well-organized criminal enterprises hacking for profit, to intrusions that may have been sponsored by foreign intelligence services seeking to further their countries’ objectives,” Martin said. “Another attack involved Chinese-based IP addresses that gained full access to systems and sensitive user accounts at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.”

We tend to think of space as a neutral environment where brave souls put their lives at risk to be part of man’s push away from our planet. It is an environment for scientific pursuit. Of course we have raised a generation or two on images of space battles where humans are fighting to preserve humanity. There is lots of death and destruction, but it is heroic in scope and detail. If death can be glorious, then dying to protect Mother Earth from Klingons is a glorious way to die.

But what I saw in those five seconds of searing imagery left me with a profound sadness. I had witnessed, so to speak, the end of our honeymoon in space. Man’s evil nature was reaching way beyond our stratosphere.

I put no stock in dreams, at least not  my own. But that particular dream did serve to increase my awareness of the not-so-subtle signs that man is determined to extend his malevolent reach into what was once considered hallowed ground; the firmament, the very heavens we have for so long dreamed of reaching.

And now we would spoil it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I See Dead People – Sort Of

The exit to the Morrison Springs cave. (photo credit: ZoCrowes255)

The young man in a swimming suit was lying lifeless at the bottom of a fissure on the floor of Morrison Springs, a popular underwater cave in Walton County, Florida. If his eyes had been open, he would have been staring straight up at me. But mercifully, his eyes were shut, as in sleep.

My diving buddies from the Georgia Tech Aquajackets dive club and I were breathing air from scuba tanks at about 110 feet sea water. We were in a portion of the cave that received no indirect light from the cave opening. Without the cave lights in many of the diver’s hands there would have been total darkness.

Who knew that on my second so-called “open water” dive I would find myself deeper than 100 feet in a cave, using the dispersed light from my buddies’ dive lights to examine a very fresh looking corpse? He looked to be about our age, late teens, high school or college age. A rock outcropping hid his body from about mid-hip level down. But the top portion of a bathing suit, his lean stomach, chest, and boyish-looking face and head was plainly visible.

There must have been some current at the bottom of the crevice because his brown hair was waving gently, being the only sign of motion from the deathly pale white boy with closed eyes, waiting patiently to be recovered to the surface.

I and the other divers stretched our arms and shoulders as far into the crevice as we dared, reaching towards the young man, hoping we could grab onto some part of his body. But it was futile – he was at least a foot out of our reach. Finally, checking our dive watches, we saw it was time to swim toward the cave entrance and start our ascent.

Since there was no scuba gear on him he must have been a free-diver, a breath-hold diver who entered the cave then passed out and sank to the deepest, most inaccessible portion of the cave. As I and the other divers rose along the limestone borders of the cave I watched the darkness surround the young man’s cold body once again. I felt lonely, almost as if I could feel his spirit’s loneliness.

As I reached the surface I turned to the closest diver, removed my regulator from my mouth, and panted, “How are we going to recover that body?”

His response stunned me.

“What body? That was no body – that was a Navy 6-cell flashlight!

How could it be? I would have signed a sworn affidavit to the police describing everything I had seen, in detail, just as I’ve reported it to you many years later. The visual details, the textures, the emotions will not leave me.

But they were not real.

As for why that happened, the only thing I can assume is that for a nineteen-year old novice diver, descending in the dark to 110 feet, in a cave, might be just a bit more than the diver’s mind is prepared for. The nitrogen in air is narcotic if found in high enough concentration, so I was undoubtedly suffering from nitrogen narcosis. Plus, at the time the entrance to the Spring was macabre, with a large photo of a diver with his back filleted open by a boat propeller, and signs prominently displaying warnings of the large number of fatalities in the cave from poorly trained and equipped divers exceeding their limits.

My mind was prepared to witness tragedy, and the normally mild nitrogen narcosis of 110 feet may have  been just the trigger needed for a vivid hallucination.

I have had no hallucinations since then, from diving or anything else, except for one medical procedure reported on in this blog. But what remains remarkable to me was my absolute conviction that what I had seen in that cave was real. Consequently, I now know very well  that what people testify as being real, whether they are diving or not, may in fact be only imagined.

Google Noodling and other Technological Pleasures

I am easily bored.

Fortunately, I’m also easily entertained. In fact I have no trouble at all entertaining myself, especially if it’s at the expense of new technology. Especially if the technology has big names attached to it like Facebook and Google.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I love and use both Facebook and Google, a lot. But sometimes they just crack me up.

For example, there is a new Facebook app allowing you to leave a message behind after you die.

What a clever idea! No need for séances, or readings by psychic mediums. All you have to do is plan ahead for what you want to say, write it down, then tell your family and trusted friends to inform FB that you are indeed deceased. Voila, you get to have the final words, the last laugh, to have your say without being interrupted.

Of course, if your final thoughts as your life ebbs away are about changing your mind, or regretting what is about to be said, well, there’s simply nothing to be done. The cat will be out of the bag.

And you better not wake up in the morgue chiller if you’ve finally told the world what you think about your in-laws, or the wife, or your boss. You may not be technically dead anymore, but for all practical purposes, you are. Or you’ll wish you were.

But I can’t help thinking how much fun it would be to plan an after-life revenge on someone I consider despicable, but don’t wish physical harm on them. Let’s say their collected body of lies, fabrications and falsehoods have earned them a stint in Hell, but you’re not sure Hell really exists. Or perhaps you’re impatient.

Imagine then a Facebook farce where you reveal that you buried a  small fortune in gold, which is now worth a large fortune, at a vacant lot at some particular GPS coordinates. Of course, you’d not mention that the vacant  lot now had a McMansion built on it, by the very person from whom you seek after-life revenge.

Photo credit: hercules-online.com

Imagine the look on your archenemy’s face when people start gathering in front of his  home with GPS units, and backhoes. Do you think that would make him nervous?

I realize there are some logical inconsistencies with such a fabricated story, but I think you can count on the  ability of most people to dismiss logic if there is believed to be a fortune to  gain.

So thank-you Facebook; no more need for haunting and ectoplasm. Isn’t technology great?

The next technology that really is fun is Google’s screening of  any and all words in your Gmail. There is a way to play games with it —  I call it Google Noodling.

Photo credit http://www.catfishingtipstoday.com/catfish-noodling/

If you’re from the south you should know what noodling is. But if  you’re not, I’ll explain. Noodling is the reaching of bare hands into a catfish hole and hauling out a feisty catfish. It’s rough and tough fishing without a  pole, line, or hook. Your hand is the hook, and you hook the fish by feel through their mouth or gills. It’s a blood sport that Roman gladiators would  have enjoyed.

So, where does Google come in?

Both my wife and I have Gmail accounts, and I noticed when my wife  sent an email to me that there were certain subject relevant advertisements that accompanied that email. We all know by now, or should, that Google  computers read every word of our messages, and uses its proprietary algorithms to select ads that might be of interest to both sender and recipient. When one of those ads are clicked on, money goes into Google’s pocket. So much for privacy.

Enter into the mix my somewhat contrarian mind. I concocted an email from my wife to me, where the scenario is that I’m on travel and she is  complaining about certain female maladies that are irritating her. Well, faster than you can say itch, an ad popped up on the email after it was sent that offered over-the-counter antifungal remedies.

Well, since the ersatz wife had started a supposedly discrete discussion with her husband, I responded in a like manner, but of course with gender-appropriate words thrown in.

Bingo! Ads for things we commonly see on TV appeared in a flash.

Are we sure there is no panel of underpaid girls in Hong Kong intercepting our emails, laughing their butts off while pushing the Cialis ad button? I don’t know; I’m not convinced.

So I decided to run a test. Posing as my wife again, I concocted a fantastic email that combined a set of mixed-gender complaints, as if the person sending the email were a fully developed and functioning hermaphrodite. Then I hit the send button and waited for the first ads to show up. I checked my account — message received, but no ads. I checked her sent mail — message  sent, but no ads showing on the sent mail.

I had my hands in Google’s gills. Their snooping computers were mystified! How delicious, I thought; Google was stumped.

And then it happened. A few minutes later when I rechecked the sent mail it had an ad for a treatment for, of all things, constipation.

Google had the last laugh. Sure, their algorithms were getting ambiguous messages about gender, so the previously targeted ads could not be sent. But I hadn’t thought about the lowest common denominator among the sexes. And after spinning a few million compute cycles thinking, the Google computers decided on a sure course of action.

Those clever devils!

I suppose the message is, new technology is being spawned at a dizzying rate, designed to provide us “features” we never thought we needed, and to keep its inventors in the black, financially. But at the same time these innovations are fodder for the imaginative mind who sees the value in a good laugh. Count me in as one of those minds.

 

 

The Green Flash and Inspiration

Some say it is serendipity. In reality, maybe it is just the human ability to increase awareness once your attention has been attracted. For example, you’re thinking about buying a black Subaru when you suddenly notice how many black Subarus are on the road.