Sunday, November 30, 2014

Reality Programming

I turned 57 the other day. Years old, that is. (We in America are notorious for failing to specify units. When is the last time you saw a speed limit sign in the U.S. with units? Who knows what they are: furlongs per fortnight?) This is significant (to me) only because I was born in 1957, so there's sort of a numerological double-jeopardy thing going on there. "I'll take Looming Dementia for 200, please." At this advanced age, you probably think I have no idea what's happening on the Internet (yes, I still capitalize proper names), because I sit in a cave all day playing with my abacus and listening to the Beatles on my transistor radio. I happen to like the Beatles, as a matter of fact, but I also like Maroon Five. Well, sometimes.

I will admit, however, that I looked up the current Billboard top 40 hits just now and realized that I had heard, or at least realized I was hearing at time, exactly zero of them. That's because I only listen to Classic Rock. Sure, snicker away at the old guy. Let's fast forward to the year 2054. I'll be a randomly dispersed collection of organic molecules and a few trace metals and you'll be listening to exactly the same songs you are right now. That's because our musical tastes get more or less frozen around 18-24 years of age. So, you are experiencing a preview of your own senescence every time you crank up the iPod: an introduction to old age, as it were. Get used to it. It really only goes downhill from here.

The genesis of this post was a piece on the Wired site. (I read Wired almost every day. I was even the subject of a Wired feature once. Can you say that, Mr./Ms. Cooler-than-thou? I thought not. Now sit down and shut up.) It was a review of fifteen Netflix movies/TV series available for Thanksgiving viewing. It started out with four movies I had seen and enjoyed, then a movie I had heard of but not seen, followed by ten cinematic offerings I never even knew existed. That's sobering, even for a guy who admits he's old.

Now, part of this is because I made a conscious decision years ago to eschew television altogether. It was taking up too much of the time I wanted to be devoting to making things and writing. While you were watching whatever it is you glued your eyeballs to in the late nineties and early aughts, I was writing my first novel and a monthly column, as well as building (for the most part single-handedly) a Medieval Spanish farmhouse, Polish chapel, Celtic roundhouse, solar shower house, and one quarter scale four-towered Norman keep (from native stones and timber) on my property in the Texas Hill Country. I'm not saying my use of time was better than yours, but it was more than likely different.

The downside to this (from your point of view, anyway) is that I missed a lot of good movies and television. The problem with those, no matter how well-made they are, is that they are someone else's (usually fictitious) life. When you are staring at a screen you are a passive receptacle for another person's adventures. You yourself are doing nothing at all, except perhaps a bit of drooling and growing fatter from eating junk snacks. That's fine for the occasional escape, but four to six hours a day? Ouch, babe.

I know I sound like a recovering alcoholic lecturing about the evils of the devil's drink, but really, if you can just peel yourself away from the flat screen or PS4 for a while you might discover that HD exists in the real world, too. In fact, reality has astonishing clarity, surround sound that far exceeds 5-1 or whatever the standard for multimedia audio is these days, and a frame rate to die for. You don't need a Netflix or Spotify subscription to stream it, either. Bonus!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Use For Obfuscation

I've been fascinated by UFOs since childhood. I've read just about everything printed on the subject, from obvious crackpot babbling ("Chariots of the Gods") to serious, thoughtful, meticulously researched monographs like Swords, Powell, et al's "UFOs and Government." I even participated in MUFON for a while: I have their rather well-done investigator's handbook around somewhere, in fact. I was always rather afraid of being classified as a "UFO nut," however, so I never got that deeply involved, preferring instead the 'armchair theorist' role. I have, after all this time, reached a conclusion: there is something going on.

I can honestly say that I've never personally seen a classified document that mentioned UFOs at all. I'm really not in an area of the government where I would be exposed to such things, though, so that proves nothing. My opinion is that we really don't care about UFOs because we spent a lot of time investigating them in the 50s and 60s and concluded that whatever they are, they're no threat to national security. In other words, there isn't so much a 'coverup' as a profound paucity of data. The U.S. Government simply doesn't consider UFOs worth any effort. Their only practical role is to keep the public occupied and divert attention from embarrassing events on Capitol Hill.

I would be happy to serve as a special agent 'aerial phenomenon' investigator, if there were such a thing. The truth is, there are no 'X-Files' or secret government UFO squads. I doubt that there is a single federal employee or military member whose job description includes "UFO investigations." The reaction to most UFO reports these days is a shrug. That's not to imply that strange lights or 'craft' seen near military installations or critical infrastructure components aren't investigated, but the focus of those inquiries is not 'what was that and where did it come from?' but 'did it pose a threat to us?' If the answer to the latter is negative, the case is closed. Not enough resources exist to do otherwise.

From my observations there are really two broad categories of UFOs, which I will term 'glowies' and 'bogies.' Glowies are the lights and plasma ball things that fly around in all sorts of bizarre patterns, split off from one another, produce offspring, and generally behave in an erratic and unpredictable manner. If these things are of extraterrestrial origin, they're either some alien's idea of a joke, an experiment to test our reaction, or possibly some form of propulsion by-product they save up and dump on us periodically to avoid mucking up their own star system/dimension. Whatever they are, they're at least entertaining. I actually have recurring dreams about enjoying a beautiful night sky with zero light pollution when a veritable battalion of glowies suddenly appears and makes patterns all across the sky. These dreams are both wondrous and disturbing, and I wake from them with a vague feeling of unease. Perhaps that's just indigestion from supper, though.

Bogies are putative craft of some form. They may be saucer-shaped, cylindrical, spherical, or a variety of other physiognomies. The one Dr. Owen Garriott reported seeing while on board Skylab was, from the reports I've read, somewhat bong-like in appearance and really, really huge. That lends rather a Cheech and Chong coloration to the sighting, admittedly, but I can't do much about that. The thing looks like a bong. It's a bongie.

There are also hybrid glowie-bogies like the one that landed in the Rendlesham Forest in the UK. That one reportedly looked like a glowie at first, then exhibited a structure like a bogie, then finally transmogrified into five pure glowies. Pretty versatile, those UFOs. I wonder if the dual-purpose ones cost more? Maybe they're all capable of both modes, but we only see one or the other most of the time. It's hard to say.

As for alien abductions, alien autopsies, and alien creatures in general, I remain firmly in the "I doubt it" column. A craft sophisticated enough to carry living beings halfway across the multiverse is not going suddenly to malfunction and crash on the surface of a planet like one of those early airplanes with six wings and a washing machine engine. That's just too ridiculously anticlimactic. I don't buy the 'taken out of my suburban house on board an alien craft and biopsied,' either. You can fly across interstellar space or travel interdimensionally but you have to cut something up to study it? Unless those aliens are on some biology field trip, I can't see it. I would think cats would be easier study subjects in that case, anyway. (You've seen one mammal, you've pretty much seen them all.) You could take my cat on board an alien spacecraft and probe her all you want and she probably wouldn't wake up so long as you timed it right and didn't stray too near mealtime. Even then a shapeless gobbet of chicken beaks ground up with cereal chaff and she's back to kitty dreamland in short order.

I probably will never see a 'legitimate' UFO, be it glowie or bogie. I might just see a bongie one day.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Bang the Drum Slowly

Kirk Douglas turned 96. He is the last of a glorious cadre of stars who stoked my imagination as a child in the early 60s. It's true that I've always been "retro:" I enjoyed the stars of the 40s and 50s more than my contemporary actors (with a few exceptions, of course). I was teenager in the 70s, when movies stopped having happy endings--and I love happy endings--so I naturally returned to the stars of my childhood and their predictable, formulaic on-screen adventures. Even much later in the VHS days my sizable collection contained a respectable proportion of movies made before I was born.

I was a percussionist from earliest childhood. Many of my mother's photos show a six year-old who looks uncannily like me in the backyard surrounded by coffee cans with a pair of sticks cut from nearby trees in his hands, gleefully banging away. I am as a result (perhaps I have cause and effect reversed here) acutely sensitive to rhythms, no matter their source or manifestation. The rhythm of motion pictures in those days was a more stately cadence, and it was tightly interwoven with the plot itself. As the sensibilities of directors and the movie-going public evolved during and after the social revolutions of the Vietnam era, the rhythms of movies changed in concert.

The 70s brought more staccato to the movies, but they also introduced profound cacophony. Polyphonic percussion is very effective and stirring, so long as it is carefully orchestrated. Much of the cinematic output of this era was not. It was a hodgepodge of unrelated timbres and percussive motifs that served only to disturb and disorient the audience. This may well have been the effect that the directors were after, but to me it left the movie fragmented and without coherence. I came away from those films, in a word, unsatisfied. The disjointed rhythmic dissonance was unfulfilling and cast whatever point the director was trying to make in a harsh, stuttering light.

There will never be another Kirk Douglas. He and his ilk are relics of a past cinematic era, when good guys and bad guys were easy to tell apart, and the plot lines flowed seamlessly, fluidly, from one predictable scene to the next. Their predictability, as I have said, was not a drawback; rather it was an affirmation of the social contract between studios, actors, and the movie-going public. While I love the flash-bang frenetics of today's films, bipolar and schizophrenic though they are, there was something deeply comforting about the movies of Douglas' time: they were quite simply good for the soul.

Happy birthday, Kirk. If there is an afterlife, you'll have a whale of a tale to tell.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Punching In

My only computer science class in college was Keypunch, and I failed it. It's not that I didn't do the work: in fact, I finished the entire semester's homework in the first two weeks of class. I was working part-time at night and on the weekends as a remote terminal operator and JCL programmer for the Texas Education Agency's Region XVIII Education Service Center in Midland. I had an auto-verifying IBM 129 keypunch machine there and a lot of time on my hands while batch jobs were running in the IBM 370 at the other end.

Of course, once I'd done the entire semester's work, other than turning the cards back in, I had no interest in attending class because who the heck wants to sit in a class when all the work is already finished? I mean, it's not as though there were any lectures beyond the first week. How many ways can you say, "the machine punches little rectangular holes in card stock?" I sort of forgot to show up for the final exam, whatever that was supposed to be, so I failed. Meh. I did get certified as an IBM 029/129 Keypunch Operator, though. That ranks as probably the least useful certification of my career, just below the Certified Novell Engineer 4 that I achieved shortly before I ceased to work on Novell networks forever.

That remote terminal operator job had some great aspects to it. Back in those days printers took up half the room and sounded like some kind of industrial assembly line in operation. Paper came in continuous sheets with perforations every eleven inches, fed from boxes. We had single, double, and triple copy paper, the copies being provided by a layer of carbon paper between sheets. Once a month I had to spend most of my shift printing out a 3,000 page report on triple copy paper. It was an epic waste.

Paper with multiple copies had to be bursted and decollated. The burster separated out the carbon paper, then the decollater split up the copies into individual stacks. One morning I happened to be working late on some project and I saw the TEA accountant come in to examine the report. He looked at maybe three numbers separated by 500 pages or so each, then threw all three copies away. Nine thousand pages of paper for three numbers. It's a wonder we have any trees left at all.

Ironically, or perhaps not so much, less than 40 miles from that building is a tiny West Texas town called "Notrees."

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Introduction and Fugue

This is a blog about information technology, with security spread across it like a thick slathering of fresh apple butter. I call it "8baud" because that was the data transmission speed of the remote terminal I used in my first real computer job in 1977. If your math skills are up to snuff you may notice that 2012 - 1977 does not, in fact, equal forty. The five years prior to that (really, seven, but who's counting?) were occupied by my explorations into, um, telephonic architectures and operations. I may explore those years in some depth in a later column. I include them in my forty year span because the skills I learned then formed the foundation for my adventures in 'undocumented computing' that followed.

For those who follow my column /dev/random in ;Login: Magazine (both of you), you will probably notice some overlap in subject matter. That's because I'm a topical sort of guy, at least most of the time, so I will be commenting on whatever gets my goat in every forum available to me. This blog will not be as politically correct or polished to the extent that /dev/random is (stop snorting), for the simple reason that I want someplace to let off steam without worrying about offending editors or some segment of the magazine's readership. That's not to say that I will get vulgar or abusive, however. No, that isn't the way I show my distaste for a subject or person. I use the gentle and ancient art of mockery. If watching doofuses being mocked within an inch of their lives is your bag, you have come to the right blog. There will be mockery in abundance in the coming weeks and months, until someone hides at the end of my driveway and runs over me as I'm taking out the trash. Such are the perils of the mocker, yet I will persevere to the last.

I also have a fascination for UFOs, the paranormal, and other excursions from banal reality. I can't say I "believe" in any of those things, but I have always been intrigued by the psychology of people who do. If they were all nutcases it would be easy to dismiss these sightings as products of derangement, but they aren't. Many of them are highly-respected, well-educated professionals who were quite sober at the time. There must be something going on. I'd like to know what it is, but the chances of attaining that are rather slim.

Oh, and for those who think that the US government is hiding a bunch of things about aliens and so on, forget it. I have one of the highest security clearances that exist and it hasn't helped a bit. Sadly, there's nothing to hide.

So stay tuned, my fine fellows, and watch this space for delicious derision and such wisdom as an old man can conjure. I promise there will be bodies.