Monthly Archives: March 2014

Screams in the Sky

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I heard it first as a shrill, piercing sound in the back of my head; like an eagle flying far overhead.  Then, it grew louder, and I looked up from the mass of crabs in the basket.  I glanced briefly at everyone around me.  They all remained unperturbed.  In fact, it seems they didn’t hear anything.  Had they all suddenly gone deaf?

My dog, Amoxtli (“protection” in my native Náhuatl), was the only other one to notice.  He was trembling; his yellow-gold eyes spiraling in fear.

I turned again to the sky again.  Something came roaring from the east; from beyond the mountains and over the buildings of the town.  It streaked overhead – a whitish glow that left a deep orange ribbon against the pre-dawn blueness.

Amoxtli started moaning.  He was genuinely scared – and he didn’t frighten easily.

What was that?  A star?  It couldn’t have been a bird.  The orange ribbon started to deepen in color, and I thought it would fade.  But then, it began turning red.  Blood red.

I swallowed hard, and my heart was pounding.

Amoxtli was reaching towards me with a paw.  ‘Please hold me,’ he seemed to be saying.  He was terrified.  And, so was I.

“Cuetlachtli,” I heard someone say.

I didn’t pay attention. I was concerned about that sound – and the red mark in the sky.

“Cuetlachtli!”  It was my father.  “What’s wrong with you?!”  He rarely shouted at anyone.  His voice was strong and deep enough to command respect.  When he did shout, someone was in serious trouble.

I grasped one of Amoxtli’s paws and caressed his tawny face.  What did he know?

My eyes swept onto my father.  “The crabs are crawling out of the basket,” he said, pointing downward.

I looked at them.  Yes, they were starting to crawl back out.  In fact, they seemed to running for their lives.  But, I didn’t care.  “Did you hear that?” I finally asked.

“Hear what?” my father replied.

“That sound!”  I pointed upwards.  “Look at the sky!”

The bloody streak was fading.

Everyone nearby had ceased gathering crabs and turned to me.  They looked angry.  I had disrupted the work.  But, I didn’t care.  I knew that screaming light meant something.  I looked eastward, once more over the mountains.

The sun hadn’t fully risen.  The sounds of the waves had replaced the clack-clack of the crabs and the light conversation.  All else seemed silent.  Everyone’s eyes burnished into me.

But, when I looked again over the distant mountains, something else startled me.  Peering into the cream-orange horizon, I saw an object.  Something was moving against the sky.  I realized, after a moment, it was a large beast; a strange-looking creature with pointed ears and eyes on either side of its face.  I’d never seen anything quite like it.

Then, I realized there was something else with it, or behind it.  I studied it more closely.  It was sitting on the animal; it was a man.  He was an equally strange-looking man with an odd, dome-shaped contraption on his head.  He held a large narrow object in one hand.

As I stared at him, he lifted up the object and pointed it forward – pointed it at me.

I squinted.  What is that?  Who is he?  Why is he so large – hovering above the mountains?

Then, another thundering sound, another screaming light flew out from that object in his hands – towards me.  The sound of it hurt my ears.  And, the bright flash almost blinded me.

“What’s wrong with you?!” my father yelled.

I wish I could tell him.  I really wish I could tell him.

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Náhuatl

© 2014

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Shut Up and Draw

George W. Bush delivers remarks at the opening of his library in Dallas on April 25, 2013.

George W. Bush delivers remarks at the opening of his library in Dallas on April 25, 2013.

“I no longer feel that great sense of responsibility that I had when I was in the Oval Office.  And frankly, it’s a liberating feeling.” – President George W.Bush, to a high school graduating class in Roswell, New México, May 2009.

Countless numbers of Americans, especially several military families, wish we could liberate ourselves from the dismal legacy of the Bush Administration.  Unfortunately, we’re stuck with it.  But, survivors of military personnel killed in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars bear relentless pain and anguish.  Anyone who enters the military has to accept the fact that they could be called to war and therefore, prepares as best they can for it.  Their parents, spouses, children and other relatives try to prepare themselves, too.  But, it’s still not easy losing a loved one to a foreign conflict.

Recently, Bush launched an initiative to help our military veterans transition back into civilian life as smoothly as possible.  My own conversations with past veterans made me realize how difficult this can be.  Through his Bush Institute, the 43rd president is imploring companies to recruit and retain military veterans, believing their tendency towards self-discipline and teamwork makes them among the best employees.

“We’ve got a problem, too many vets are unemployed,” said Bush.  “There’s what we call a military-civilian divide.”

He just figured this out?  It’s a noble cause, though.  The unemployment rate for military veterans remains around 10% as of 2013, compared to 7% for the general population.  A few times in recent years military veterans working for staffing agencies have contacted me about various technical writing positions.  The moment I hear them say they were in the military, I stop the conversation and tell them how much I appreciate their service.  It usually catches them off-guard.  But, in turn, they appreciate just hearing someone tell them that.

However, Bush has gone further and also issued a challenge to the medical community to drop the word “disorder” from the term “post-traumatic stress disorder.”  PTSD is a relatively recent term in the lexicon of psychological afflictions.  It used to be called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue.”  Many thought it was just a phase; almost an imaginary disorder.  But, it’s real and it’s painful for its sufferers and the people closest to them.

Bush, nonetheless, believes the “disorder” word stigmatizes the affected individual and makes them sound defective, or unable to be rehabilitated; therefore, he states, they may have trouble finding work in an already-fragile job market from employers who are weary of difficult people.

Gosh, how thoughtful.  It’s also hypocritical.  Like his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, Bush used just about every excuse to avoid military service when his country called upon him more than four decades ago.  An average high school student and occasional troublemaker, Bush managed to enter Yale University in 1964 and graduate four years later with a business degree.  Upon his graduation, his draft deferment ended.  The nation was mired in the depths of the Vietnam War, with public sentiment against the conflict (and the men who served there) becoming more vehement.  Still, Bush managed to secure a relatively cushy spot in the Texas Air National Guard.  Large numbers of young men were trying to do the same, and – according to some records – all of the spots in the Guard were taken.  I guess it didn’t hurt that his father was a U.S. congressman at the time.  Bush reenlisted in 1972 and was honorably discharged from the Guard two years later.  Questions remain about his level of attendance and whether or not he even completed his service.  His military records mysteriously vanished, and the Pentagon later claimed they were inadvertently destroyed.

I’ve always found that to be a rather convenient explanation.  A friend who served in the U.S. Air Force for twenty years, including several tours of duty in Vietnam, still has his military records.  All military personnel, he told me and several others more than a decade ago, are legally allowed to keep copies of them.

Dick Cheney, on the other hand, never did even that much.  He garnered five military draft deferments around the same time: four educational and one because he was a new father.  “I had other priorities in the 60s than military service,” Cheney said in 1989.

Words and actions always come back to haunt people.  I understand that no one wants to go into battle.  War is ugly and dirty; it is one of the most vile of human interactions.  But, hearing Bush trying to make nice with the people he sent to war is revolting.

The Iraq War is the crux of my anger.  It’s a conflict based solely on lies and innuendoes.  Abusing the international support brought on by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration created a tenuous link between Al-Qaeda and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.  I believe the sole purpose was to gain access to the vast reserves of oil beneath Iraqi soil.  Proof comes in the fact that Halliburton (the energy conglomerate that Cheney headed before resigning in 2000) received a slew of no-bid government contracts.  For example, almost as soon as the U.S. invaded Iraq in March of 2003, the Army awarded Halliburton a no-bid contract to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure.  Boots had just hit the sand and blood was still dripping while gilded corporate executives were salivating over big payouts.  While not necessarily illegal, no-bid contracts are certainly unethical and, in this case, highly suspicious.

War is fought by the grunts on the ground, but it’s waged by well-dressed power brokers in far-away skyscraper office suites whose idea of pain and agony is a paper cut.  It’s pretty much been that way for the past century.

As part of his retirement from public life, Bush has taken to painting.  He took up the hobby almost as soon as he departed the White House.  While his works may not earn him a spot in “International Artist” magazine, they’re being prominently displayed – (where else?) – in his presidential library.

In the spring of 2005, my-then supervisor at an engineering company, a coworker and I lived and worked in northeastern Oklahoma on a special project for the government agency where our firm had a contract.  We’d fly into Tulsa, rent a car and drive to the hotel in the far northeastern quadrant of the “Sooner State.”  One morning, as we prepared to board a flight in Dallas, I noticed a large group of people in military fatigues gathered nearby.  After a few moments of observing them, I approached the group and personally thanked each of them for their service.  They all seemed genuinely surprised that I – a total stranger – would do something like that.  But, it meant a lot to me that they were making such personal sacrifices.  In retrospect, I wonder how many returned alive, or at least undamaged.  I guess I’ll never know.

I’ll keep thinking about them, though, and I hope Bush just keeps painting.  He and the other clowns in his administration have done enough damage.

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Still Lost

A Northwest DC-4 plane, like Flight 2501.

A Northwest DC-4 plane, like Flight 2501.

As military and airline officials from ten countries search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, many people wonder how such a large aircraft with 239 people aboard could literally vanish.  If the MH777 was over open water, the answer is easily.  Water covers roughly 71% of the Earth’s surface.  Countless planes have disappeared over oceans and seas in aviation’s 100-plus-year history.  We know more about the surface of the moon than we do the depths of our planet’s oceans.

But, the disappearance of the Malaysian airliner recalls another mysterious disappearance nearly 64 years ago.  On June 23, 1950, a Northwest Airlines DC-4 plane vanished over Lake Michigan – and has never been found.  En route from New York City to Seattle, Northwest Flight 2501, carrying 55 passengers and 3 crew members, had a scheduled stop in Minneapolis.  As the plane reached Benton Harbor, Michigan, it encountered a line of thunderstorms.  Captain Robert Lind asked for permission to reduce altitude from 3,500 feet to 2,500 feet.  The Civil Aviation Authority (now the Federal Aviation Administration) couldn’t grant permission because of flight congestion in the area.  That’s the last anyone heard from Flight 2501.

With a total area of 22,394 square miles (58,000 km²) and a total volume of 1,180 cubic miles (4,918 km³), Lake Michigan is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the Western Hemisphere.  Like the other four Great Lakes, it’s actually more of an inland sea.  That can make it treacherous, especially in stormy weather.

A number of people later reported hearing a plane sputtering overhead, near where Northwest Flight 2501 disappeared.  A few actually saw a bright flash just after midnight, just shortly after Captain Lind radioed to CAA.  When officials realized the plane had never made it to Seattle, they launched an intense search across Lake Michigan.  Oil streaks and debris found along the surface initially gave hope, but searchers later determined the material did not belong to Flight 2501.

After an extensive investigation, however, the CAA could only list the cause of the disappearance as “Unknown.”  The debacle was the worst civil aviation disaster of its time.  And, despite its weight of 71,000 pounds and a wing span of 117 feet, no remnant of the craft has ever been found.

In 2006, author and shipwreck hunter Clive Cussler joined the search.  Cussler had located more than 80 shipwrecks across the globe and financed an extensive search of Lake Michigan.  But, after reaching up to 200 feet beneath the surface, even he couldn’t find anything.

Considering the number of vessels that have met a tragic fate in its expansive waters, Lake Michigan is not prone to revealing its secrets too easily.

A “Detroit Free Press” cover story from June 25, 1950 gave false hopes about the missing plane.

A “Detroit Free Press” cover story from June 25, 1950 gave false hopes about the missing plane.

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Mud Sliding

LittleMudVolcano

The mid-term elections are upon us here in the U.S.  That means – as has been the practice for the past quarter century – that candidates shout at the voters in declaring why the other person is so much worse than they are.  This trend gained momentum during the 2000 presidential campaign in which then-Texas Governor George W. Bush narrowly triumphed over Vice-President Al Gore.  It was the closest presidential elections in U.S. history, and Bush couldn’t have won if his campaign staff hadn’t demonized Gore and ultimately convince the Supreme Court to circumvent the electoral process and proclaim Bush the winner.  Under the direction of Karl Rove, Bush’s campaign apparently had to besmirch Gore’s reputation, since Bush had no other redeeming qualities.  He was a failed businessman, a one-time failed congressional candidate and a former part-time owner of the Texas Rangers.  His years as Texas governor were pretty much uneventful and marked by only three notable highlights: an increase of the speed limit on Texas highways; a law legalizing the right to carry firearms; and the execution of a woman for the first time in over 130 years.  That was it; that was the extent of his professional resume.  If he’d tried to run on that legacy alone – and if voters had actually paid attention to it – Bush probably would have lost to Gore.

The Rove sludge machine didn’t stop with the 2000 presidential elections though.  They went on to denounce the reputations of other political candidates, such as Max Cleland, a military veteran who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War.  Cleland, a Democrat, had served as a U.S. senator from Georgia from 1997 – 2003.  But, during the 2002 mid-term elections, his patriotism was questioned – and he subsequently lost amidst a wave of hysteria following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  That a combat war veteran who nearly lost his life should have his patriotism and thereby, his credibility questioned against a president and vice-president who used just about every excuse imaginable to avoid military service during the same period is obscene and hypocritical.  But, that’s how the Rove gang operated; they couldn’t run a decent campaign to highlight their candidate’s accomplishments.

The same questions of patriotism befell U.S. Senator John Kerry when he ran for the presidency in 2004.  Also a military veteran who had served in Vietnam, Kerry came under attack from a group called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.”  The group of former Vietnam War veterans was convened strictly to help Bush defeat Kerry.  Financed by wealthy political donors, SBVT questioned Kerry’s credentials as a combat sailor during the Vietnam conflict and thereby insinuated that he wasn’t worthy of the Navy medals he’d received.  Among their benefactors was Texas billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens who added dirt to the mud pool by offering $1 million to anyone who could disavow the SBVT allegations.  When another group of Vietnam veterans finally proved that Kerry’s military credentials were impeccable, Pickens reneged on his challenge, saying the information wasn’t verifiable; thus proving no one is too old to be a punk.

Kerry, of course, made things bad for himself with his varied verbal fumbles – not nearly as bad as Bush, though.  At least Kerry knows how to pronounce the word “nuclear.”  Kerry initially didn’t authorize release of his military records to the public, even though it may have helped his campaign.  He finally released them in 2005.

There was a time that even I remember when a military veteran’s credibility was not something you questioned.  I also recall that politicians used to debate the issues and not each other’s reputations.  Things rarely got personal in high-profile political elections.  When they did, whoever made the unsavory accusation or dredged up some dirt from the past was pretty much shamed into obscurity.  Now, that seems to be the standard for running a campaign.

I still think the average American’s distaste for all things political began with the Watergate fiasco.  But, it reached its putrid zenith in the mid-1990s, when Republicans took over both houses of the U.S. Congress.  Already filled with vile against Bill Clinton, they did everything they could remove him from office; a scheme that culminated in Clinton’s 1998 impeachment over a tawdry sex affair.

As the political season got underway here in Texas late last year, the state Republican Party quickly found itself in a curious state of division.  In 2002, Republicans gained control over the Texas legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.  If you listened to the state GOP, they sounded like a group of impoverished Jews who’d finally defeated the Nazis in post-World War II Europe after a century of oppression and brutality.  But, the traditional Republican Party is now under attack from the “Tea Party,” a pack of extremists who formed in 2009 – conveniently – when Barack Obama took office.  The “Tea Party” clan has denounced all elected Republican officials as RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).  In other words, the standard GOP isn’t right-wing enough.  It’s like Stalin calling Hitler a pot-smoking, tree hugger.  To me, the only different is that “Tea Party” Republicans haven’t gotten their required rabies shots yet and keep forgetting to wipe their asses.

It was interesting to watch Texas Republicans try so hard to out-conservative one another.  Each one (a White male) running for a statewide office lambasted his opponent as a (gasp!) Washington liberal who doesn’t support traditional (Christian) values.  Ironically, they all had two things in common: they hate Obama and love the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Televised campaign ads showed many of them on hunting trips, waving guns like they were their penises.  As a writer and left-of-center blogger, I have a fetish for the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech and the right to vote.  But hey, I’m just kind of queer like that.

Last year I lamented how voter turnouts were lower in 2012 than in 2004 and 2008.  More importantly, on average, only about a third of eligible Texas voters make a concerted effort to get to the polls.  That explains why Texas appears to be a bastion of right-wing lunacy.  The lone Democrat running for Texas governor, Wendy Davis, has already been labeled a one-issue candidate (because of her filibuster last year of a restrictive abortion bill), but questions arose recently about the veracity of her life story.  Some were upset that she had said she was 21, not 19, when she and her husband divorced.  In fact, Davis and her husband separated when she was 19; their divorce became final two years later.  Do little things really mean a lot?  That she lifted herself out of poverty by forging ahead with a college education apparently says nothing about her personal fortitude.

Ben Sargent 012414

Image courtesy Ben Sargent.

But, instead of talking bad about their opponent, why don’t candidates promote what’s good about themselves?  Tell us voters what good things you’ve done for your community.  Although Texas has recovered more quickly from the recent economic downturn, what ideas does each candidate have to maintain that level of productivity?  The Republican candidates despise the Affordable Care Act, but what solutions do they have for ensuring that all Texans have access to health care beyond a hospital emergency room or Band-Aids from Wal-Mart?

Is it really too much to ask that these people show some level of professionalism and focus on the issues?  I guess so.

“Ugliness creates bitterness,” former First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, a Texas native, once said.  “Ugliness is an eroding force on the people of our land. We are all here to try to change that.”

I truly wish that would happen.

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The First Laptop Computer

Osborne

Here’s another gem from the early days of computer technology.  In 1981, Adam Osborne, a British author and book publisher, introduced the “Osborne 1”: the world’s first portable computer.  As with most technologies, the idea of a portable computer wasn’t new in 1981.  Such nerdy luminaries as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had conceived of it years earlier.  Osborne just had the good fortune of meeting a far-sighted engineer named Lee Felsenstein at the West Coast Computer Faire in March of 1980.  Osborne knew what he wanted: an affordable computer that people could carry around with them and the software to make it function.  Felsenstein had the skills and the same ambition as Osborne to turn that vision into reality.

On April 3, 1981, the Osborne Computer Corporation released the Osborne 1 – a device that cost $1,795 and weighed just under 24 pounds (10.7 kg).  With a tiny 5-inch display screen and its dependency on floppy disks, which limited its data space, the machine was somewhat impractical for most business functions – even back then.  But, after officially hitting the market three months later, OCC sold 11,000 of them within the first eight months.  Their profits soared, as did their staff – from two (Osborne and Felsenstein) to over 3,000.  Sadly, despite earning $73 million within a year after the debut of Osborne 1, OCC declared bankruptcy on September 13, 1983.

Osborne-ad

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No Postage Needed

I’m sure the thought of sending letters and other messages across a telephone line was as alien to people in the 1970s as a Negro winning the presidency was to many Americans in the 1990s.  Be careful what you think won’t happen because it probably will!

Since today marks the 25th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee’s “Information Management: A Proposal,” which gave helped create what we now know as the Internet, I felt it’s appropriate to prove that the concept of electronic mail is not brand new.  In 1977, Honeywell, already a leader in engineering and infrastructure, pushed business towards the brave new world of digitalization.  At a time when phones were still tied to walls, this was unimaginable.  And, as this advertisement shows, it could also be intimidating.  It’s still amazing to realize that, in less than four decades, we’ve gone from just thinking about email to carrying computers in our pockets.

Electronic-Mail-Honeywell

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A Quarter Century of Webs

Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 template for what would become the World Wide Web.  Image courtesy: World Wide Web Consortium.

Tim Berners-Lee’s 1989 template for what would become the World Wide Web. Image courtesy: World Wide Web Consortium.

On this day in 1989, the Internet, as we know it, was born – at least on paper.  Like film, radio and television before it, the Internet technically had a slew of birth parents.  But, for the most part, one man figures critically in its creation: Tim Berners-Lee.

Born in London in 1955, Berners-Lee graduated from Oxford University with a degree in physics.  Immediately after graduating, he went to work for a printing firm, but in 1980, he began working as an independent contractor for CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Switzerland.  There, he had to consult with other scientists and researchers from across the world, which presented unique challenges with varying time zones, languages and communication methods.  To facilitate the process, Berners-Lee began working on a project based on the use of hypertext, a data-specific language developed by Ted Nelson, an American scientist, in the 1960s.

Born in New York in 1937, Nelson apparently was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) as a child.  His frenetic thought patterns (a hallmark of ADD sufferers) probably led him to create the hypertext system.

Berners-Lee called the prototype of his program “Esquire.”  He has been smart and gracious enough, though, to give credit to all of his computing predecessors, such as Nelson.  The concept of electronic mail (email), for example, was developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a simple file-sharing system and first demonstrated in 1961.  That evolved into a system of message transmission MIT dubbed “Mailbox.”

Another early similar program was called “SNDMSG.”  That functioned in conjunction with another system called “Advanced Research Projects Agency Network” (ARPANET), which first appeared in 1971.

Accolades must also go to Douglas Engelbart who invented the computer mouse in 1963 and first demonstrated it five years later.  Like most inventors, Engelbart envisioned his creation in the usual manner: doing something completely unrelated.  In his case, he was driving to work when he imagined “people sitting in front of cathode-ray-tube displays, ‘flying around’ in an information space where they could formulate and portray their concepts in ways that could better harness sensory, perceptual and cognitive capabilities heretofore gone untapped.  Then they would communicate and communally organize their ideas with incredible speed and flexibility.”  But, even he can’t explain why he called his device (first made of wood) a “mouse.”

Berners-Lee took all of these ideas and materials and composed “Information Management: A Proposal” that he presented to CERN on March 12, 1989.  From that, he ultimately created the “World Wide Web.”  With the help of Robert Cailliau, a Belgian computer scientist, he presented the first version in 1990 and put it online the following year.  The first web page address was http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html.

His initial goal was merely to help CERN be more productive.  But, while Berners-Lee visualized a grander purpose for the “Web,” even he couldn’t predict the impact his creation would have on the world.

Douglas Engelbart presents the first computer mouse on December 9, 1968.

Tim Berners-Lee interview with C-Net.

World Wide Web Consortium

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