Sunday, January 31, 2016

A Surprise Candidate

“A mouse in every dish!”

“Unlimited kibble!”

“String and wand toys in every home – lots of them.”

“Catnip with every meal!”

“Leave my paws alone – no more de-clawing.”

Callie Wilson has the best interest of cats everywhere foremost on her mind. Humans too, especially if they are cat owners. But she is impartial, and will welcome dog owners to the negotiating table.
A vote for Callie is a vote for a brighter future! Callie for President! Attend your caucus on Monday, Feb 1st. Thanks for viewing this political message.

- end

Monday, January 25, 2016

Getting Closer

Another day, another three flyers in the mailbox.
Ads all over the place, caucus fever pitch.
Constant reminders to support someone.
What a circus...

What gets me is all of the promises
and accusations thrown about.
When the winner does get in,
everything will go out the window.

The new president will don his
firefighters hat and try to simply maintain
our huge democracy in an insane world.
Whatever it takes to maintain the status quo,
or at least keep us from self-destruction.

Oh yes, and then to make his or her
mark on history somehow.

Promises? Those are for fools.

Late-breaking news: A billionaire
egomaniac is thinking of jumping in.
Just what we need to roil the waters.

Stay tuned ;-)

Friday, January 22, 2016

Coat of many Hatreds

Two young boys play in dirty, dusty streets. Both of their families have been forced to live in a ghetto against their will. They wear tattered clothes, with few products being available. Their meals are spotty at best. Their brethren walk around looking lost and emaciated. Every so often, a body is carted from the streets. Someone else has gained release, and final freedom from this human-created hell on earth. The boy's education is far from guaranteed, but even at their young age they have been schooled in the cruel capriciousness of human nature. Perhaps they must be conniving and sneaky to steal an extra bit of food from an unsuspecting person in their midst.

One of the boys would live in the Warsaw ghetto around 1939. He would be Jewish, forced to live there with all of the others in Poland. The death camps had not yet been constructed. His family was forced to live hand to mouth – it is a wonder many survived as long as they did. The Nazis cared little. They would have preferred them all to drop dead.

The second boy lives in present-day Gaza. He lives among the highest concentration of people in the world. His family has very few rights. If they own a car, they can only drive on certain roads. If they have land, they are most likely being encircled by Israeli settlements. If the boy gets mad and throws a rock at an Israeli soldier at one of the many checkpoints they are forced to go through, he can be detained by the Israeli military, and spend up to four years in prison. His living conditions are indistinguishable from those of the Warsaw ghetto in the late 1930's. Only his captors, the captors of all of his people, are not the inhuman Nazis, but rather the same people who had suffered so much death and despair underneath Nazi rule. The persecuted have become the persecutors.

This whole situation has complex beginnings. In 1948, the UN mandated the creation of the state of Israel. They sent the Jews to Palestine, so they could have their own land. The only problem was, Palestine was already occupied, by Jews, Muslims, and even some Christians. Sparsely occupied, but occupied, nevertheless. So when the Jewish started to arrive in large numbers, residents were displaced, and were less than happy about this. Understandable. But Israel had defined borders, and many Palestinians re-settled outside these borders, in the West Bank and Gaza. Then, there was a war in 1967. As a result of that war, Israel occupied these two territories, the West Bank and Gaza. They eventually had to pull back out. But Israel enforced heavy new restrictions on the people living there.

Sympathy for Israel and the Jewish people runs strong, especially here in the US. What they suffered at the hands of the Nazis was horrible, and they get a lot of sympathy for that, and for further aggression by Arab states. The Arabs and Persians do not want Israel around – many would like to see it eradicated. So the sympathy is understandable. But at the same time, many Palestinians have been robbed of their ancestral lands. Were they compensated, or offered compensation? If not, why not (by the UN). So their anger is also understood. But few seem to care about their plight.
The average Palestinian must wait hours at a checkpoint, if they work outside Gaza. They endure frequent harassment and harsh conditions. And yet some of them manage to hope for a better day. Their few cities in the settlements are devastated by a war-incursion in the summer of 2013. They seem to live on dust and hopes. Even getting an allotment of water is expensive and intermittent for them. If a Palestinian does build a new house, it must have a water storage tower on the roof. They never know when they will get water. What water they do get, they are charged a higher rate for than Israelis pay.

Since the Jews have been so mistreated, is is perhaps understandable they are filled with a systematic rage against the outside world. But these are not the Nazi perpetrators, they are the poor people who were living there to begin with. Still, there is historical precedent. The settlers who came to the US and displaced the natives. The Spaniards and the Indians in Mexico and South America. Various others throughout history. Stronger forces come in and displace weaker ones. Some things never change.

(Conditions in the Warsaw, Poland Ghetto in 1940)

- end

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Rolling in the Mud Again

More people running than in 2012,
Over a dozen republicans alone.
Every one promises they know
what to do about the problems we face.

It seems like they are a bunch of egomaniacs,
arrogant enough to think they can be president.
Perhaps it takes a touch of hubris to believe
one can land in the White House and take up residence.

The ads are coming thick and fast now,
my mute button is getting worn out.
They accuse each other of lying or worse,
Strutting about and flouting their clout.

Like that congressman I'm gonna kneel and pray,
That time moves fast until the big election day.
Then there will be no more ads to listen to;
regular product ads will be closer to the truth!


If we build a huge border fence, what happens when US residents want to visit Mexico?
Do we still expect a warm welcome?

If we abolish the IRS, how do we pay the national debt?
How do we pay for defense, social programs, and all of the other things we need? Donations? Bake sales? Yeah, right.

Do we just let people die wholesale, including veterans, by not funding any kind of medical care whatsoever?

What kind of society will we become? And what happens when the congressperson's own families are impacted by cutting all of the government programs. Careful where you cut there, buster, you're hurting my kids now. ??

Whoever gets in will have reality to face, Congress to deal with, and a council of advisers to deal with every day. Good luck, Mr. politician. You'll need it.

- end

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Looking Super Today, My Friend

You can't hardly go to a movie theater nowadays without encountering another super hero movie. Once the province of comic books, superheroes have taken over modern media with a vengeance. Makes one wonder if there will ever be human capabilities approaching the fictional superpowers. Humans have already shown the miracles accomplished by our “regular” brains and hands. Should we be filling our young people's minds with superpower wish fantasies? Isn't it better to stress what can be accomplished by the use of what capabilities we have now?
There is a TV series called “Heroes” which tells the story of seemingly ordinary people who find they have extraordinary abilities. Some can fly, or move things with their hands. Others can read minds, implant thoughts, throw lightning or flames out of their hands. One can even stop time itself, freeze events, and walk through the scene to retrieve an object, or deflect a bullet, or rescue a friend from falling. If you have seen this series you know who I refer to. (I'm not stating names to protect myself against the super-lawyers.) The series is fun to watch, great escapism, and full of drama and tension. But one finds oneself thinking how nice it would be to have just one of those powers, or “abilities.”
And if a military could gain those powers, oh my. There were some episodes that touched on attempts to give troops super-powers. In real life, our troops here in the US are trained so thoroughly that they come out very capable human beings indeed. They can go without sleep, they can run fast, fight, fix things, solve problems. One could argue that their human powers have been increased to a level far above the ordinary citizen, and thus they have in effect “super powers.” But not all people come out of the military equally, especially if they have endured repeated deployments in say, Iraq or Afghanistan. Their abilities are offset by the traumas they have suffered. Some end up addicted to drink or drugs, and thus suffer a loss of even normal coping skills for day-to-day living.

But the myths endure. The “Marvel Avengers” movies draw huge crowds, and even bit-player superheros (left over from the comics) attract some interest. Perhaps this speaks to something inside us all. We wish we could do more, be stronger, faster, do better in life. This is understandable. We struggle with financial issues, relationship problems, interruptions and stress at work. The world seems like it is getting more and more complex. The rules keep changing, and we must wobble-walk ourselves through day to day hassles and problems the best we can.
But if one thinks about it, Evolution has made us into superheroes compared to our very early ancestors. Thanks to better nutrition and medical knowledge, we live twice as long, or longer, than they do. The average life expectancy up to the late 1800's was early 40's. (see ). Now many live into their 80s and 90s. We are taller and stronger than our forebears. If you look at clothing from earlier times in museums, it looks like it was made for children. Education lasts longer. Kids now must master computers, and other technical know-how not foreseen a couple hundred years ago. Of course, now they do not need to know how to shoe a horse or attach a buggy, unless they want to as a hobby.
In the sports world, runners have long since surpassed the 4 minute mile, once thought to be impossible. Records have been set in everything from swimming and running to baseball and basketball. Many of these achievements have been reached because of technological assists and innovations. (IE wearing tight goggles to aid in swimming longer distances, or improved running shoes for marathoners. ) (see )

One could even argue that doping and performance enhancing drugs are a form of technological advancement. Not using these substances sets athletes back onto a level playing field, but one that is a long distance behind what had been reached with the enhancers. The enhancers themselves sprang from human ingenuity and a desire to win at any cost. Are they any less valid at pushing our species forward? Probably not welcome in a sporting event, but nevertheless they still pushed us past some performance boundaries effectively.
Even though we may not feel like heroes, thanks to our technological infrastructure we live like gods. We fly thousands of miles instead of plodding twenty a day on horseback, or five on foot. We perform heart surgery and add decades to lifespans. We ride in capsules up to breach “heavens firmament” and visit our ISS outpost there. As far as a culture like ancient Egypt is concerned, we have reached “heaven” and built an earth colony there. Farfetched, but still true when you think about it. We hold in our hands a (smartphone) device to talk to anyone, most anywhere in the civilized world. We can ask a question of our device and get an answer in seconds, or minutes at most. Ancient peoples would possibly either worship us, or try to kill us out of fear.

In the “Heroes” series, and on the movies, Superheroes face moral dilemmas. Whether or not to intervene in 'normal' peoples lives and problems. Whether or not to undermine other superheroes. They judge each other, and find flaws. (Even mythological gods had flaws.) But unless they were the villain, they usually came down on the right side of things. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the main character subsumes his own personal mission, partly out of necessity, to help save the galaxy. There is usually some kind of sacrifice, even on the part of the hero. So contemporary moral values seep through. Even Hellboy, a devilish sort of hero from a different production, has a noble mission, a good side, as well as some conflicted feelings.

This mirrors human dilemmas to a large degree. We face many difficult decisions and moral quandaries. We are perhaps comforted that even Superheroes must pick their way through mental minefields and dilemmas. It reminds us we are not alone, and that our decisions affect the outcome to a large degree. We must go on fighting the good fight, no matter the mistakes that were made yesterday or last week. Wish that we may, we must make do with human powers only.

It is interesting to watch the “Heroes” people work out their problems. Hollywood writers have outlined and elucidated hypothetical problems and solutions faced by people with extraordinary abilities. A man that can read minds, renouncing any use of his ability to keep the playing field level. After faced with a pressing need, he finally relents and uses his powers. He “fell off the wagon.”
The Villain in the series actually struggles with his hunger to take powers from others, and at one point, becomes 'good.' He swears off using his power for a time, then is forced by circumstance to become evil again, to survive. A company chases down and imprisons some, then they escape. Opponents end up helping each other against a common enemy. And on and on the drama goes.

In real life, first responders, like Firemen and Policemen, are increasingly called heroes. Their occupation is certainly dangerous, and yes, they save lives, and get the bad people. But the term of Hero is thrown about quite a bit nowadays. The First Responders are compensated well for their work. To me, a true Hero is one who rises above their common station, who goes out of their way to save a life, or come to someone's aid. Now they are even calling a football bowl the “heroes bowl.” Our military members are called heroes whether they did anything heroic or not. Again, they do have a particularly dangerous job. But the title of “Hero” is one that is earned, not conferred wholesale.

Perhaps the true heroes are the common people. Those are the ones who must live with decisions by government and business leaders, and make them work. So if the government decides to implement a new parking scheme in an area of town, or raise parking meter rates, or implement snow route changes, for some imagined good outcome, it is the public who must endure.

Some thoughts on series with supernatural characters. In any show or movie, when one character has a supernatural ability, and reveals it slowly, and to maximum effect, it makes for a great show. But when you have most everyone there with some kind of ability, the effect is lessened, diminished. Everyone is throwing their weight around, and not much is being accomplished. But judicious use of powers at opportune moments to drive the plot forward can be great. There was a movie made years ago, called The Watchmen. It was about a group of heroes who administered some kind of justice on a large metropolis. They had disbanded years before. One person murdered their leader, and the rest of them reluctantly came back together to combat this new threat. It was wonderful. Mysterious, dark, suspenseful. Superhero suspense done right is a joy to behold.

But there is all kinds of material out there. The dark, twisted, conflicted hero, the anti-hero. That is the fun of watching these shows and movies – you never know what writers will come up with next. The Conventions add to the excitement. You can buy autographs of your favorite actors (in some cases), even though it may cost you two weeks pay. You can dress up, or see others dressed up, or buy toys and trinkets. It is all a marketers dream. The superhero genre may never go away.

Someday, when human beings, through technology and evolution, fly around and throw things using telekinesis, we will have to invent new, even more powerful heroes. It should be interesting to see what we come up with then.

Thanks for reading.


For further study:

“Heroes” is a TV show produced by Tailwind Productions in association with Universal Media Studios. and aired by NBC Corp.

“The Watchmen” is a movie produced by Warner Brothers, from the graphic novel.

“Hellboy” wiki info

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Toughest Job - International Relations

One of the most difficult professions today has to be that of a diplomat, or ambassador. Even though time periods in the past have seemed incredibly difficult, like say, World War II, or the Vietnam Conflict era, times today are at least as difficult, if not more so. We find ourselves fighting a war on terror, but mired down in various regions of the Middle East and the Far East. Our enemies seem elusive, ghostlike. Some of them used to be co-operative, like elements of the former Iraqi army. Our enemies nowadays are religious fanatics of the worst kind, wanting to die to go to heaven, and take lots of innocents with them. To be a diplomat under these circumstances would be difficult on a good day.

There have been times in the past that have seemed dark indeed. During the days of the cold war, any incident might trigger nuclear saber-rattling on the part of the US or Soviet Union. For example, during the Yom Kippur war of 1973, there were supposedly Soviet nuclear weapons being moved towards the area of fighting between Israel and Egypt. The US went on worldwide nuclear alert, and soon, these same weapons were detected moving back where they came from. Or the time in the early 1980's , when a technology malfunction caused the US to temporarily go to high alert, only to find out it was all a mistake, not any Soviet threat. Nerves were jangled quite often in those days, and diplomats probably got many tense phone calls, or made them, to calm things down.

The hostage crisis in Iran, precipitated by the Islamic Revolution there, is another example. Some Americans managed to escape roving bands of Iranians by hiding in the Canadian embassy. The staff there helped them conjure up an escape plan, where they posed as a musical group, and assumed new identities. They made it out, with much assistance from the Canadian Embassy. Only one example of Ambassadors putting their own fingerprints on history, and averting loss of life in the bargain.

When the Soviet Union fell apart around 1991, affiliated states went off on their own. Old rivalries, quashed during the Soviet era, re-surfaced, Thus, Yugoslavia broke apart, and so did Czechoslovakia. The Baltic states fought ethnic cleansing battles. The Serbs, Croatians, and others were at each others throats. NATO finally had to step in and enforce the peace, bombing Serb tanks and positions in the process. International relations, once a black-and-white affair between the West and the Soviets, was now a multi-hued quagmire, worse than a Louisianan swamp. It seemed that the USA had more work than ever on its hands, keeping the lid on a fractured world. The war between NATO and the Serbs in the early '90's resulted in American national guard troops being stationed in Slavic lands for the first time ever.

Around this time (1990), Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded Kuwait. The US had to send troops to expel Hussein's army, and then specialists to put out the oil fires. More work for the diplomatic corps, too. As the 1990's progressed, the US restored relations with various Soviet satellite countries who were newly independent. For example, Mongolia, Bulgaria, and even Albania. Poland became a close ally of the US. But as time went on, and the new Russian Federation strengthened under Vladimir Putin, new warning signs arose. Things were no longer going to be a cakewalk for the US. More issues arose for diplomats to sort out. 

In 1998 terrorists tried to bomb the World Trade Towers in New York. That was a wake-up call. Then-president Clinton launched some cruise missiles at their training camps in Afghanistan, then called it a day. But Al-Queda was not finished. They finally got the “job done” by crashing airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001. After that, the US entered a virtual state of war with all terrorist groups. This was a new situation. Not like a contained conflict on a certain land area, this was a continuous conflict with shadowy groups that moved around, nearly everywhere. So diplomats around the world now had a new task, that of fighting terrorism, added to their schedules. Given some of Pres. Bush's speeches, like the one where he said “either you are with us or you are against us,” the atmosphere was grim. Two years after the attacks, in 2003, we invaded Iraq, supposedly because they were seen to be supporting terrorism. 

We succeeded in unseating Saddam, only to unleash a quagmire. The three different tribal factions in Iraq (Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds) lost their Hussein-inflicted containment, and began fighting each other. After conquering the country, the US attempted to “train” the Iraqi army. Then we pulled most of our troops out, leaving a power vacuum. Immediately, the factions went at each other, the central government did little or could do little to prevent it. So extremist groups took to the field, and now (in 2015) we see ISIS controlling a large swath of Syria and Iraq, attempting to establish a new Caliphate or religious state. You can't establish diplomatic relations with an illegal state, founded on territory stolen away from legitimate states. Especially one that tortures or murders anyone who opposes their brand of religion. All you can do is try to contain them. Or evict them by any means from their stolen territory. Perhaps the US is to blame because of the 2003 invasion, and perhaps it is the Muslim extremists who are to blame. After all, it was them who attacked us on our soil to begin with. But in any case, international relations are being strained quite a bit by this one.

Russia's rise from a fractured state to a world power once again has been slow and steady. Vladimir Putin and his supporters have consolidated their grip on power, and established new ground rules. While Russia has a parliament, and is on the surface a democratic society, it is only skin deep. The reality is more like an autocratic, totalitarian government. But Russia has a long history of heavy-handed governments, rounding up and torturing its own people. Stalin was pretty good at this, even executing his own generals before the second world war. Nowadays, Russia is definitely a force to be reckoned with. I do not envy the diplomats who must deal with this new, assertive superpower-once-again. With thousands of nuclear weapons, millions of troops, and lots of ships and aircraft, Russia simply cannot be ignored or downplayed. But it seems that every time the US and Russia are going to play nice together, some international incident crops up to make that impossible. The latest is Turkey, a NATO member, shooting down a Russian fighter jet. The diplomats must be working overtime on that one.

But a quasi-state like ISIS or ISIL is a common enemy of all the forces involved. They would do away with all trappings of the modern society, and revert to some medieval religious dictatorship. Women would be robed and masked all the time, LGBTers just executed. Their religion would be forced on everyone, under threat of torture or death. Just when it seemed that perhaps all of the major world powers, even China, would gather forces to eliminate this scourge, some incident happens to spoil it, like the aforementioned jet being shot down. Diplomats, man your phones.

A recent event where diplomats actually lost their lives was in Benghazi, Libya a couple of years ago. A small staff was manning a US Consulate there, headed by a popular, affable FSA. Suddenly there was an attack, and everyone inside was killed. At first it was said that a mob had stormed the facility. But later it came out that the attack was planned, coordinated by a branch of Al-Queda. There was a lot of finger pointing, including blame placed on then secretary-of-state Hillary Clinton. Funding requests for more embassy guards in the past were turned down by Congress. Nevertheless, some of those same fossilized congressmen blamed Clinton. In any case, it was a terrible tragedy, illustrating just how risky it can be to be an international diplomat. 

The unrest and fighting in Libya stemmed from the overthrow of Mumahdar Gaddafi, the then-strongman leader. While his overthrow was seen as a positive at first, all of the factions fighting each other soon became a problem. Oil exports shrank, and societal structures broke down. And religious extremists moved in to fill a power vaccuum. The movement to unseat Gaddafi stemmed in part from the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Egypt. People took to the streets to overthrow a long-established corrupt government there. These successes spawned copycat movements in other states, including Libya. Diplomats all over the region must have been spending a lot of sleepless nights reporting on events and occurrences. Not to mention trying to protect American citizens and/or interests in the region. International relations put to the test. Who do we talk to that is in power now, when power is changing hands so fast. A democratically-elected government in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood as the majority was quashed by the military almost immediately after it was elected. The Muslim Brotherhood was disbanded by edict. And a new government was put in place. Some democracies are better than others, I guess. The US was put in the position of dealing with various governments in Egypt, in rapid succession!

Pakistan is another touchy example. There is basically a military dictatorship there (could be wrong). There are human rights violations, there is a state-sponsored terror organization to undertake battles in the Punjab, a region contested over with India. Pakistan also has a nuclear arsenal. We have diplomatic relations with both India and Pakistan, and must get along with both, even though they hate each other, and have fought several wars. After many years of hunting, the US finally found Osama Bin Laden, the head of Al-Queda. He was living in a comfortable villa in Pakistan. The Paks knew we wanted his head badly. They have intelligence apparatuses, they are not dumb. And yet they claimed ignorance. But, we have to get along – easier than fighting yet another war with someone. Diplomats, take your vitamins.

Every time I think we surely live in the most complicated age of international relations ever, something else happens to add to the complexity. Today's terror miasma makes the post WWII world look downright simplistic. It even makes the world wars look simple by comparison. Thank goodness we have a lot of computers to help us figure things out, otherwise we would be completely lost. The International diplomatic corps has to really be nimble on their feet to stay on top of things, and keep relations on a positive course. Here is hoping they succeed, and keep our world from self-destructing. Thanks for reading. 

 - end

Monday, January 18, 2016

Must be a Conspiracy!

Sitting down to eat dinner one night, I brought up Youtube on my SmartTV. First up in a group of selections was what “really happened to Adolph Hitler at the end of WWII” It seems that an author out there believes Hitler actually escaped, rather than commit suicide with Eva Braun. And he lived the rest of his days in Argentina. Of course it was too compelling not to watch. They laid out some evidence, including the assertion by Stalin that Hitler got away. Add this to the growing number of conspiracy theories floating around, gaining a life of their own on the Internet. It was an interesting show, but evidence was not conclusive. All they seemed to prove was that a skull held by the Russians, thought to be Hitler's, was actually that of a younger woman.

No matter how wacky or outrageous, it is hard to ignore conspiracy theories. Oftentimes what really happened during a major war or historical event is not clear, since all of the principal actors were living it out, and perished. And official accounts could easily be perverted by factionalism or partisanship. Thus, what really happened to Anastasia Romanov after the rest of the Czars' family was murdered is a subject of speculation. As is the death or non-death of Rasputin, the mystic counselor to Czar Nickolas This all took place back in the early 1900's, before digital recording and the like. It is still a rich subject for books, documentaries and lots of idle gossip.

When you read some books by Von Daniken or Berlitz about the Bermuda Triangle and the Nazca lines in Peru, a lot of compelling evidence is laid out in front of you. Without any other information to shed light on it, it would seem that we are all descended from Atlanteans or Space Aliens. If only we could find the manuals hidden away by distant ancestors, we could re-fly the saucers and go out to meet our long-lost relatives. Or we could try and mash together some of the crystal skulls found around the world. It makes for great fun, even if skeptics could debunk most of the theories. But in the end, every individual must make up their own minds on what they believe, or not.

In the 1970's there used to be a popular magician, who would bend spoons by rubbing on them. He claimed special psychic powers in so doing. A professional skeptic and debunker challenged this person on a live TV program. The debunk-er studied what the magician was going to attempt, and put in place controls that prevented the tricks from being performed. When the magician or “psychic” tried his tricks, he could not perform them. (It involved moving things around on a table.) He claimed an atmosphere of hostility, and left the show without being able to perform one single trick. Later, the debunker said, “If he would only express his actions as sleigh-of-hand tricks, I would leave him alone. But he is claiming psychic powers, and that is simply unacceptable.” Or words to that effect.
Undoubtedly, some proponents of conspiracy theories feel the same way. That is, they feel they are onto the truth, and what the rest of us believe is a lie, or propaganda, or whatever. Even if they are selectively choosing facts, and choosing to ignore other, more accurate pieces of evidence.

Area 51 is a good example. This is a large area in the Nevada desert, chosen for its remoteness by the US air force for testing experimental aircraft. Since they did not want the Soviet Union to see what they were up to, they cordoned off the area, and declared it Top Secret. Witnesses (that would creep up to the edge of the property at night) claimed to see wedge-shaped craft performing impossible maneuvers, or perform vertical takeoff and landings. They saw lights in a cluster moving fast, expanding and then contracting. All of these things can be easily explained in a logical manner. A jet with a light on each wingtip is seen at night. The lights alone are visible. They appear to converge, then expand. This is simply a jet doing a roll maneuver. The triangular craft are stealth fighters and bombers being tested, at night, in seclusion. Or no, wait. They are really UFOs, spaceships visiting at night to confer with senior US leadership.
Another one is the spaceship that the US found in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. Even some movies reveal that they took it to Area 51, rebuilt it and reverse-engineered all of the alien technology. If that is what one wants to believe, then fine. The official account of what happened at Roswell is that it was a high-altitude weather balloon being tested. It rose to high altitudes, then lost pressure, and fell to the ground, landing on a ranch. Most likely it was being tested for radar reflectivity, since it had silver foil coverings. But the UFO stories started up, and no amount of official denial could stop it. The more the Air Force denied it, the more everyone else seemed to believe it. That poor, lost extraterrestrial had no idea what he started when he hit the telephone pole in a remote Earth desert. Its all its fault!

President John F. Kennedy did not die from the bullets impacting his brain in Dallas in November of 1963. They are keeping him alive in a secret warehouse somewhere. Or no, wait. He did die, but there were multiple shooters, from multiple angles. Lee H Oswald was the fall guy. The team firing from the Grassy Knoll escaped Scot-free. And got bonuses from their Mafia paymasters. If only the Warren Commission would have talked to those in the know. A trail of bread-crumb proof can be laid out, just as neat as you please. All of the principal actors are dead, and everyone else speculates endlessly. Or re-excavates old documents, pictures, and evidence and re-arranges things. Some have even said that LBJ was behind the assassination, since he had such strong ambitions to become president. And he wasted little time in having himself sworn in on Air Force One at the airfield.
There is a scientific truism called Occam's Razor. It simply states that “the simplest, most direct explanation is usually the truth.” But note that “usually” or “often” It does not denote “always”.
There is always room for error, or the inexplicable twist occurring.
All one has to do is watch the evening news on your local channels. Unbelievable, improbable things happen at least twice a week. A car hits a power pole going at 100 miles an hour – the car is unrecognizable, twisted and mangled. A passenger is killed, but the driver somehow survives. What on earth happened? Or a father shoots his wife and daughter, then tries to kill himself, but fails. Taken to the hospital, he is faced with everyone's formed question: “But why? Why why why.” A baby falls from an unattended window, at least three or four times every summer. The mothers are distraught, besides themselves. Or a child wanders off, and gets grabbed. One moment's inattention, and that is all it takes.
Conspiracy theories abound for even these events. Space aliens controlling peoples minds, causing them to shoot their families, or forget about their toddler climbing in the next room. A secret government program is kidnapping people, taking them to the desert, and performing tests on them. Sometimes it is difficult to tell where popular fiction leaves off, and conspiracy theories begin. The Templars were a group of knights in the middle ages. They began as a group of religious folk, sanctioned by the Pope to help those in need. But over time, noblemen left their estates and wealth to the Templars, and they amassed fortunes. By the time of the Crusades, they were a formidable force, wealthy and powerful. They got a bit too powerful, and the then-current Pope finally decreed them outlawed, and had them disbanded. But it has been said that Templar treasure troves have been buried under churches, or even made it out to the American West.
Depending on who you talk to, or whose book you read, the Templars descendants are alive today, still meeting in secret, discussing who knows what. They are conspiring with the Illuminati and the Bilderbergs on how best to run the world's economy. The current world problems with Isis and Al-Queda are all orchestrations by the string-pullers and their Extraterrestrial handlers. Science Fiction can provide a rich trove of possibilities.
But of course, even those who believe that some of this may be true, surely have their doubts. They have had enough education, and hold enough skepticism, that many things just don't ring true. Why would Elvis pretend to die, then go into hiding, and then pop up ever so often, in his concert duds, just to say hello again? Elvis could be a space alien, a shape-shifter. But most people of sound mental capacity can accept the fact that Elvis is dead, JFK is dead, that flying saucers are not using Area 51 for an airport. The world economy may be run by large banks, trading back and forth, as well as governments. But one ruling family is most likely not calling all the shots. Nor are the Templars, or Illuminati.
Now don't get me wrong. The author has had science curricula in school, and knows just how vast distances are between this solar system and others. I do believe that because of the number of stars, and therefore planets,in our galaxy, the probability of other life out there does exist. I just think that if they do have space travel capability over light-year distances (what they would need to visit us), they wouldn't bother. They already have much more than we do, and could harvest whatever they want from material in and out of their local solar systems. If anything, they might cordon us off and simply observe. Therefore it is very unlikely we will ever contact other intelligent species, at least not until we become much more advanced than we are.
I am skeptical of most other conspiracy theories, although some raise good questions. Like what did happen to this or that person who disappeared, or went missing. The mysteries get solved over the years, sometimes as a result of public speculation. Maybe someday they will even figure out what happened to Jack the Ripper.
It is fun to chat about intriguing possibilities. What was that wedge-shape so and so saw last night? What about the lights appearing over major cities? What about newly-discovered evidence on the Templars, or Masons (said to be linked to the Templars) or even Bigfoot? It is fun to ask “what if” questions and it makes for good cocktail conversations.
I can remember visiting my uncle in a small Iowa town, back in the 1970's. Part of the enjoyment was the telling of ghost stories and mysterious happenings by both Uncle and Aunt. The visit included a “witch call” and viewing mysterious orbs in the attic. Part of my 19-year-old brain knew they were fibbing. But the visits were enjoyable nevertheless.

Thanks for reading.

For further study:

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Friday, January 15, 2016

Reality Spread

Apparently the terrorist organization known as ISIL or ISIS uses social media to “recruit” followers. Consider this a rebuttal. IS people are forced to live under a severe form of Sharia law. Any kind of luxury is forbidden, including smoking, alcohol, and casual dress. Women are made to cover themselves from head to toe, no matter the temperature outside. They are not allowed to learn or work, and must obey their men in all things. Women are basically relegated to baby factories, to produce more warriors (or suicide bombers.) Their ideal society is a hell on earth to our eyes.

We are used to such things as television, the Internet, three meals a day including all kinds of food groups. We are used to freedom of religion, freedom of thought, and freedom from fear. No matter how religious our presidential candidates, I highly doubt any of them want to subject their women and children to the kinds of humiliation and abuse that the IS followers believe in. It is unimaginable to me why anyone would want to subject themselves and their loved ones to this kind of misery, just because they believe in a spiritual being.

“Abandon your smartphones, throw away your PC's. Cover your body head-to-toe, and deny yourself any kind of physical release. Deny science, deny human rights, deny modern medicine. Deny yourself and your family any kind of individual freedom. Follow us. And help us kill the infidels.” Kinda makes you want to toss out your beer, throw away your pizza, cover your wife with a curtain, and fly to Syria to join the cause, eh? Eh? All I hear are crickets. No thanks, not in any kind of bizarre dream would I ever want to join the IS cause of hatred. If you agree, share this, and spread the reality around.

- end

Monday, January 11, 2016

January reading list

Links to my books for sale.  Thanks for taking a look.

Experimental Tales                 

The Osmotics                           

Mirror Worlds                           

A Strange Enterprise                

Future Property                        

Shadow Intersection                 

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Poetic Journeys

One of the very earliest art forms undertaken by humanity is poetry. Poetry could be described as playing with words to create an effect. It is erected on a framework called verse, or a series of artificial end-stops on lines. It is a powerful form of self-expression. Many of the earliest poems were histories of peoples, passed down orally by bards and tribal traditions. The Iliad and Odyssey, two famous Greek poems, were passed down this way, and (it was thought) finally recorded by Homer. Tribal mythologies, including early Judaism, were passed down orally and eventually recorded onto scrolls. By early medieval times, poetry was already well established. Kings were entertained and informed by lyric poems, some set to music. Beowulf and other epic poems recounted mythical tales and beliefs. People and poetry were a natural fit. Poetry was and is a natural expression of human spirit and creativity.

As time went on, in the 17th and 18th centuries, poems took on a much more formal and structured appearance, for the most part. The simple Sonnet form evolved into more complex variations. The Sonnet itself arose in the 14th century in Italy. (Sonnet was Italian for 'little song'). The vilanelle and Pantoum, among other forms, arose and spread around Europe. Ballads were recited and sung in courts far and wide, recounting heroic deeds and mis-deeds. Elegies and epitaths were increasingly common. More elegant forms like the Sestina arose, as well as comic forms like the limerick and the epigram. Verse could be played with, and if one had enough of a reputation, new forms could be propagated far and wide. And throughout, but especially in recent times, free verse has also been popular. In the 20th century, free verse seemed to take academic precedent over formal methods. Some have said that rhyming forms were distracting because of the rhyme, and were too sing-songy as well. Be that as it may, formal poetry is still widely popular with many people.

Now what follows will be a description of some poetic forms:

A Sonnet is a 14-line poetic form, in Iambic Pentameter. The rhymes alternate in the first three quatrains (groupings of four lines). Then, the last couplet rhymes. The format can be described in letters as ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. With each letter corresponding to an end rhyme.
For example - “You compare better to a rose,
than any line I could compose.”
That would correspond to the GG or rhyming couplet.

Shakespearean or Elizabethan sonnets have the above rhyming schemes. But Petrarchan Sonnets vary in their rhyme schemes: ABBA CDDC EFFEGG. They all use Iambic Pentameter, meaning the first syllable of each word is unstressed, the second is stressed. This lends a lyrical beat to them.
Many prefer Sonnets as a good jumping-in point to writing formal or structured poems.

The Vilanelle is another popular form. Made famous by Dylan Thomas and his “Do not go gently into the night” poem, they alternate lines in each stanza. There are six stanzas, and the middle lines in the stanzas must all end-rhyme, and many are written in metrical form, IE Iambic or Trochaic. It uses two rhymes throughout. ABA, ABA, ABA, ABA, ABA, ABAA . The first and third lines repeat for a refrain. This has been used effectively on a number of subjects other than “raging against the dying of the light!”

The Pantoum is another fun form to play with. It originated in Malaysia. It is an indefinite number of abab quatrain stanzas. Line 2 and 4 of the previous group, in their entirety, become 1 and 3 of the next stanza. At the end, the lines are reversed. One can find many examples of this on the Internet. It can be an entertaining form to play with and express your thoughts.

The Sestina is another complex form. Do not attempt these without a lot of patience and time. The rhyme scheme is quite complex.

There are some short forms that are enjoyable and simple (though not necessarily easy.) The Haiku is a popular three-line form. Five words, then seven, then five. Some vary the number of words, and some use punctuation, others do not. Most of the time, no title is used. The Limerick is a fun form that was invented sometime in the early 1800's. It has five lines, the first, second and fifth rhyme. And the 2nd and 3rd rhyme with each other. Many college students have whiled away the hours composing silly limericks, at least until the advent of television and later, the Internet.

The Epitaph is another short form. It is for words on a tomb, commemorating the dead. But the form has also been used for humorous or comedic writes. The Epigram is another short form, for humorous jots. Epigrams are four-line gems, like this one from Alexander Pope:

“Sir, I admit your gen'ral rule
that every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.”

The Cinquain is a five-line form. One version simply starts with one word, then two, then three, four, and the last line, one single word again. It is a simple form, good for playing with various concepts. Another form is line 1, a noun, two, 2 adjectives, 3, three -ing words, 4 – a phrase, and 5 – another word for the noun in line 1.

There is also the Clerihew, another four-line gem.
Ekphrastic is a poetry form based on a visual piece of artwork. Poets write whatever comes to mind when they are viewing a picture or piece of sculpture. They can be long or short.
Poems have another quality as well: Tone, or mood. A poem can convey a bright, happy mood, like some by e e cummings. Or they can be sad, like Dylan Thomas's work.

There are forms like the Acrostic poem, or the Abecadarian. Acrostic spells out a predetermined word with the first letter of each line of the poem. Sometimes the word or phrase is included in the title. The Abecedarian uses the letters of the alphabet to start each line of a poem. There are many other forms out there, and new ones pop up every so often.

But free verse also deserves some discussion here. Free verse poems can be quite powerful, given the word choices and arrangements by the poet. Greats like e e cummings started out writing formal poetry and immersing themselves in techniques. Then they branched out, confident they could spin a rhymed, metrical poem. And went on to compose some delightful free verse gems. When the words contain imagery, emotion, tone and feeling, they can be just as effective as any rhyming poem. Walt Whitman conveyed much emotion with his writings of Lincoln, “My Captain, oh my captain....” Modern-day beat poets like Alan Ginsburg and his “Howl” broke new literary ground, conveying much feeling along the way. These free-verse poems can hit you in the gut with their painful irony or insights. Many seem to show as much skill as composing a rhymed, metrical piece.

Of course, somewhere in the mists of time, lyrical words were set to music, and another art form was born. Today some popular hits contain a relatively small number of poetic words, sometimes repeated in refrains. Song lyrics I have personally heard decades ago are still memorable today, by their rhythm and the music behind them, and also by the emotions they helped generate back in the day.
Lyrical words and sounds have a lot of power. Even some speeches by politicians, when written well and spoken eloquently, can carry a lot of weight, and resonate down through the years. (“Fourscore and Seven years ago...”) It all started with human language, and a very early component of that was poetry.

Here are a few examples of modern poetry.

Lyric Tidbit - Anon
No hefty paycheck can replace
a sunlit river flowing at lazy pace;
Big bank accounts do not compare
with gorgeous mountain vistas out there.

Two Voices - Anon

The first intoned a gentle refrain:
Southern express route, Northern Special,
Vent car before unloading - Manifest Present,
Load Limit - serial number - chemicals inside...
On and on went the official inscriptions.

The second screeched louder than a sticking brake:
“KUSH, Vanity Rulz, M8domin8m, Charles was here,
KULZ, SPS6, Always into Something...”
Graffiti noise insinuated itself over every orderly
procession of wheels, walls and welds.

I sat there on a bike, musing on the discordant
harmonizing of civilizations influences.
Suddenly a telltale rumble, the loud thrumming
of diesel locomotives pushing the entire
two-toned visual orchestration past my vision.

Informing voices faded from concern as I
watched the big yellow engines pass.
Time to pedal through the now vacant crossing;
home, dinner and a hungry cat await.

There will be many other chances to watch
those discordant long-distance voices holler
their endless competition with one another.

The switching yard is right around the corner.

Me Up At Does – e e Cummings

out of the floor
quietly Stare

a poisoned mouse

still who alive
is asking What
have I done that

You wouldn't have.

Poetry is often used on special occasions, even by Television announcers. Commercials feature rhyming jingles. And, of course, greeting cards are full of poetry, from the maudlin to the humorous to just plain awful. But we keep buying them, hoping they can express feelings which we feel inadequate to write down ourselves. I guarantee you, when you write someone a note or a poem, in your own words, it carries far more weight than any “canned” poem. Because it comes from your heart and your own hands. I have saved letters written to me over thirty years ago. They mean a lot because they were written (from the heart) by my friends or loved ones.

Happy writing, and thank you for reading this.

Links for further reading:

and last but not least,

- end

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Making a Building Vanish

It is dawn. A crowd gathers in a Midwestern downtown, on the east side of the main river bisecting the area. On the opposite side, crews are making last-minute checks on a gutted 10-story building that used to house the local YMCA. The sky brightens, the crowd swells, anticipation builds. Finally, a signal is given, and announcement is made: “Fire in the Hole!” A large explosion shoots up flame and smoke atop the structure. Then, dozens of charges go off in a staccato popping. For a fraction of a second, everything becomes still. And then the structure crumples in on itself, and mashes down into a pile of rubble and dust. A cheer goes up. The audience got what it came for. Noise, destruction, spectacle. All for nothing. Chalk up one more successful implosion of an aging building.

Building demolition has been going on for as long as there have been older, tall buildings that need to be torn down. Cities grow, or wars happen. And structures need to be demolished. The techniques started with wrecking balls and such. But these were slow, and dangerous. So some tried dynamite to demolish structures. This could also be dangerous, although methods were developed to make it safer. Over the years, people and firms got better at controlled demolition, and finally, implosion. Setting off a number of charges to weaken the load-bearing members in a building, so that gravity and its own weight brings it down on itself.
In the earliest known building demolition, 150 pounds of gunpowder were used to bring down a cathedral in Ireland. The explosion was said to be deafening, and the entire structure quickly reduced to rubble. As time went on, and buildings got taller, other methods had to be found to protect surrounding structures, and the spectators who gathered to watch. Dynamite was invented, and used. Blasting experience during mining was used to craft a safer method of bringing down structures. Controlled charges were timed to go off at the right moment to weaken the structure and bring it down safely. (See )

After World War II, Europeans were faced with extensive work rebuilding their downtowns. Experts gathered together, and came up with ever-more efficient methods to safely and rapidly demolish damaged structures, Safer explosive material (RDX) and non-electrical firing methods were employed to improve the process. In the US, crowds gathered for some of the more notable implosions of landmark structures. Food stands were set up and souvenirs sold. It became a real public event. As the crowds swelled at these events, safety became even more of a concern.

Here in Des Moines, Iowa, we have had a few notable implosions. The old Woolworth's building, which was a partial failure. In the words of one resident who witnessed it: “It was literally a flop – part of the building flopped out onto the street and some material showered buildings across the street.”
But by the time the YMCA building was demolished in the fall of 2015, techniques were refined quite well. The building fell without a hitch. Now the biggest problem is what to do with the space that has been freed up.

There are other alternatives to implosion, of course. The wrecking ball has been used quite effectively for decades. Hydraulic hammers and cutting shears can be used. They are making quick work of a local city parking ramp near 7th and Grand ave. A fire hose is used in conjunction with the work to keep the dust down. In areas where other buildings adjoin the structure, implosions can be just too risky, no matter how well controlled. So the slower way must be used, with hydraulic hammers pounding away, and end-loaders hauling away debris, pile by pile.
In San Francisco, in the 1900's, dynamite was used to stop fires. When a fire spread uncontrollably, one method to stop it was to demolish any buildings in its path. This was used many times as a fire-fighting technique. Thankfully, this is no longer used in cities today.

The Japanese have invented a new method, whereby entire floors are held up by hydraulic jacks while the supports are cut out underneath. The floors are then gently lowered. This seems to be a safer and cleaner method of demolition. So newer methods to taking down old buildings will come along. I imagine someday scientists will invent a molecular disruptor that will melt away buildings with every sweep of a powerful ray. Perhaps these methods will attract crowds too. But there is something exciting about being at an Implosion, and hearing the “fire in the hole”, and the loud bangs.
(By the way the term “implosion” is incorrect, since the building does not implode, as from air pressure, but rather collapses of its own weight after all supports are blasted. Think of what happens is a football player has his legs swept out from underneath him by some blocker. He falls pretty quickly, too.)

See you at the next big boom party. Thanks for reading.

Some terms: Implosion – bringing down a building by controlled explosions.
Demolition – bringing down a building using traditional methods. Wrecking ball and hydraulic hammers or shears.
Deconstruction: An alternate method of taking down buildings. Materials are stripped down and segregated, and recycled as much as possible. Old concrete can be ground down and used as aggregate for new foundations and such.

For further reading:

Friday, January 08, 2016

Cracking Then and Now

       Back in the late 1980s and early 90's, a new phenomenon popped up. The proponents borrowed a term from the programmer community, which had used 'hacking' since the 1960's as a term for intensive coding work. These new hackers specialized in unauthorized entry into systems, especially online systems. They could scan phone numbers calling them one at a time, and find the ones that returned data instead of a voice or answering machine, and then try password combinations to break in. Many mini and mainframe computers maintained a “backdoor” or way for an engineer to log in remotely, for troubleshooting procedures. These backdoors became known in the underground, and much used by the early hackers/crackers/phreakers. Just breaking in was a badge of honor for these folks.
      Early 'heroes' included Phiber Optik and Kevin Mitnick. Mitnick was said to have two terminals in his apartment. On one he did his hacking, and the other was logged into a phone company computer. When the phone co put a trace on his line, he backed out of whatever system he was rifling through and hung up. He did some time for those exploits, but after being released from prison, he resumed his activities. He even taunted a highly-skilled cyber-specialsit (Tsutomo Shimomura ), antagonizing him so much, that Shimomura made it his life's mission to take Mitnick down. Eventually, he and others succeeded in tracking down Mitnick, and arresting him. There is even a book out about it.
      There was a crude glory to these early crackers. Some specialized in phreaking, or getting free long-distance phone calls, in the days of crossbar phone switches. Others passed around lists of outdials and data numbers. There was even an early Usenet Newsgroup, called alt.2600 . The 2600 referring to the sound frequency used to get a free phone call on the older style automatic switching systems. It was all command line, hands on stuff. Best done with a computer running Unix or later, Linux – the lingua franca of the early Internet. As the 1990s progressed, however, back-doors were slammed shut, and system vulnerabilities were eradicated. Hacking became difficult or impossible in most respects.
      But not all. Some simply tried random email addresses and passwords, and found a trove of personal information. Others downloaded complete hacking programs from the numerous BBS systems out there, and gave them a whirl. If you wanted to download free software from a bulletin board system, I hopefully you had a good anti-virus program. They were chock-full of viruses. But these were the things early online users were forced to use. If you wanted the games, pictures, and messaging capability, then you had to endure the virii and other attacks.

      By the late 1990's, the early Internet protocols were fading, or being merged with ever-more-powerful web browsers. Telnet, FTP and Gopher were early Net tools that are now mostly gone. In the early days, one could use these to gain root access to a server or mainframe. From there, it was an easy matter to copy over a Trojan program, or simply copy whatever files you wanted. By the late 90's, people were forced to hack web pages, manipulating code to, for instance, bypass a login screen, or take out an anti-copying script. (Authors note: I take no position on the legality or morality of these activities. I'm merely reporting them, as part of the background scenery within which we must all live). The more HTML one knew, the more one could do. Hacks went on, and cyber-crimes got more spectacular. The government took notice, and formed cybersecurity committees.

      On September 11, 2001, there were the attacks on the WTC, Pentagon and (almost) White House. In the increased paranoia one arena that was focused on was cyber-terrorism and cyber-crime. More and more programs were initiated. Some were found to be able to spy on individual e-mails. Others took advantage of public security cameras. The massive Wikileaks, and the revelations of Edward Snowden revealed the existence of many surveillance programs. It seemed that far from being a Wild West free-for-all, the Internet was actually fairly well monitored. Yet the hacks would not be stopped.
Companies came to work one day, and found their websites defaced. Or their executive's names and private information distributed and posted all over the Internet. Much of the handiwork seemed prankish. Like “look what we can do” and post some obscene picture or other on the front of their website. More sinister attackes came in the form of DDOS, distributed denial of service. People wrote programs that repeatedly pinged host computers with requests, swamping them and slowing response time to a crawl. Or in some cases, created false links to download viruses to crash hard drives, or copy their contents, or fill them with kiddie porn. There was lots of malicious stuff out there. And the targets were quite often corporations that antagonized public opinion, or even government agencies. AT&T was constantly hacked, as was the CIA, etc. The successful exploits were seen on the nightly news, or more to the point, and first: On many Net chatrooms and hangouts.

      In the mid-2000's some new hacking entities sprang up. There was the Anonymous movement. A shadowy group of hackers that could seemingly bring a company computer network to its knees. And Lulz, an offshoot of Anonymous. One prominent hacker named WEEV was behind a lot of things. Somewhere in the midst of this activity, the Occupy Wall Street movement was born. Occupiers showed up all over the country. Physical occupation of bank lobbies and properties went hand-in-hand with some hacking activities. Many companies, and some government agencies, had their websites defaced. Prominent in this was Jeremy Hammond, who was said to have hacked into the Stratfor website, and exposed thousands of emails detailing illicit activities by the same. Another, Barret Brown, was sentenced to 105 years in prison for disseminating the file grabbed by Hammond. A third, SABU, was turned into an informant by the FBI, and thus earned himself freedom from prison, as well as the eternal hostility of the hacking community. A new game, new players, using new techniques.

      While the author has read or seen bits and pieces of hacking techniques through the years, the total picture is murky at best, and he has no desire to find out, and earn a jail cell for himself. . However it is surmised that some of the methods involve coding HTML and C++ languages. The DDOS attacks involve repeatedly contacting a host computer, thus overloading it. Some hackers employ a method called Phishing, where they send a fake email from, say, a bank. If they can get an unwitting person to enter their login and password, and capture it, they have just “caught” a bank account “phish”. There are many variations on this, I suspect. The Internet is a dangerous place, there are a lot of sneaky emails and spam.

      Unlike the old days, around 25 years ago, when hackers were bored teenagers scanning phone numbers to see if a computer answered, the present crop of crackerdom must use ever-more sophisticated tools. The computers are out there, all over the place, but they are well-guarded. To scale these new walls, one needs ever-more wily methods. The well-publicized Stuxnet virus, that caused Centrifuges in a nuclear processing facility in Iran to over-spin and destruct – that one was brought in by a flash drive. In other words, the “sneaker-net” got in where the Internet could not. A telling development. Watch who you let into the data center, and whether or not they are carrying a flash or thumb drive with them.

      In recent years there has been a lot of publicity about Bitcoins and the Darknet. Supposedly, one can find these bitcoins, and use them to buy illegal substances online. The Darknet is where you go to buy things like heroin, weapons, whatever. A lot has been written about these entities. Suffice it to say, stay away if you want to avoid trouble, or a virus. One guy, Ross W. Albricht, was rwecently arrested. He created the Silk road website, where you could buy any kind of illegal drug or weapon your heart desired. For a time, until it was shut down by the FBI. He ran it from a laptop, which he carried around with him. He made lots of money the first couple of years, then imitators sapped his profits. Federal investigators were tipped off at some point. Then they began to watch him closely. And within months, his whole business empire unraveled. Today he is in Federal Prison.

      Cracking in the early years carried an aura of glamor and excitement. A way for teenagers to delve into technology, perhaps perform a few pranks, mostly harmless. But things have gotten a lot darker in recent years. Now, large companies, including telecoms and insurance operations, have permanent, full-time cyber-security positions. It is money that must be spent to protect customer data, and avoid corporate disasters.
      Cracking has even turned into cyber-warfare, and been used by governments against other governments. Vast amounts of taxpayer money have been spent by the US government for cyber-warfare and security programs. Not to mention all of the spying and surveillance that goes on. Meanwhile, we have all been convinced to do our bill-paying and banking online. Thus, here we are, living our entire financial life online. Vulnerable to being wiped out by one ill-timed malicious hack. It is a scary world these days. Hacking just is not what it used to be. Just remember to always practice safe computing, and cross your fingers while you are at it.

A partial list of some famous Crackers and illicit traders:

Ross William Ulbricht – creator of Silk road illegal trading site. Sentenced to life in prison for ordering a murder of a competitor.

Kevin D Mitnick – gained access to many computer networks, including DEC and the Pentagon.

Robert Tappan Morris – the first Internet worm – shut down many networks.

Robert Draper – the Cap'n Crunch whistle – in the early 1970s he came up with a way to get free phone calls. Later, Steve Jobs and Wozniak improved on his method and built the first Blue Box, imitating many of the tones used by the Bell System in those days.

Adrian Lamo – despite being homeless, he hacked into the computers of the New York times and others.

Vladimir Levin – stole millions from international banks by listening in on teleconference calls.
Albert Gonzolez. Stole upwards of 170 million credit card numbers, the most massive identity theft ever.

Gary McKinnon. Gained access to 97 American military networks between 2001 and 2002.

Kevin Poulson. Hacked into LA phone networks so that he would win a prize. Known as Dark Dante. Now works as a contributing editor for Wired magazine.

Max Ray “Iceman” Butler. Stole millions of credit card numbers, and opened a “carders exchange.” He ran up over 80 million dollars in fraudulent charges.

Information on Bitcoins and the Dark Web:

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

A Sport for Any Age

      In this day of multiple new trail systems around Iowa and elsewhere, it seems worth noting that you can ride a bike at almost any age. From toddlers riding tricycles, to seniors riding whatever they want to, many people have embraced this pastime. Some are like me, who gave it up for a while after I learned to drive, only to take it up again in my 30's. It was partly out of necessity, to get around. But once I discovered the then-new but growing trail system, I realized it was also a recreational activity. Not at all like in the 1960's, where riding a bike meant hopping curbs and dodging cars and people.

Bicycles have become big-ticket items, with some selling for thousands of dollars in area stores. There are now recumbent bikes, bike carts, electric-assist bikes, and bikes with many, many speeds – some at least 28-speed. There is even a company called RhoadesCar that makes a four-wheeled pedal “car” cycle. ( In the current climate of enthusiasm for renewable energy of all kinds, bicycles are a perfect fit. Get out of that car and pedal, get in shape, clean up the air, and your arteries too.

So recreational trails have gone in wholesale. There are bike lanes all over downtown streets now. How many riders use them is an open question. But this is Iowa, and we get nasty weather here. A few hardy souls pedal around town in the wintertime. I know of one man that is 62, who pedals almost everywhere he can. Despite his age, he pedals in all kinds of conditions. He has ridden on the trails in winter, and helped clear off debris like fallen limbs. People half his age are either driving in their cars, or at home where it is warm. Even more amazing, he prefers to ride barefoot. While he is an extreme case, there are many older riders out there “pushing the weather envelope.”

Bike choices used to be somewhat limited, and some older folks may visualize that when they contemplate riding a bike. In the past it was either a 10-speed racing bike with curled handlebars and a seat the width of a two-by-four – or a single-speeder with a more comfortable seat. Those days are long gone now. As was mentioned, you can find bikes of every size, function and description. If one can afford it, one can go to a specialty bike store. Around here those include Bike World, Ichi bike, and Kyle's Bikes or Bike Country in Ankeny. There are also places like Wal-mart and K-mart for your common, run-of-the-mill bikes. The author purchased a nice 7-speed called a “messenger bike” for everyday riding. I don't know if that particular model is used in larger cities by bike messengers, but for me it rides real good on the trails, or on the streets. It is durable, the tires are skinny enough to go faster, and it seems a good fit for me overall. For someone contemplating renewing a friendship with a bicycle, there are a lot of choices out there.

Online places carry a plethora of bikes too. Arguably a greater variety can be found on the Internet. But remember, they have to be shipped to you. And the one time I purchased a bike and had it shipped via UPS, it was not a good result. In addition to the high cost, the bike arrived bent and damaged inside the shipping box. Your experience may vary. But a good strategy is to research some bikes online, then see if your local stores carry a brand you are interested in, or could acquire one for you. Sine I was on a budget, I bought a more 'common' product at a big-box retailer. For someone else this may not be their preferred choice. But it is best to buy what you will be comfortable riding in various weather conditions. And don't forget a helmet. In some locales it is illegal to ride without one. Save your brain bucket – buy a helmet.

One a prospective new or more likely, “returning” bike rider starts again, there are a few tips I can offer. One is don't fret too much about your weight starting out. When I resumed my riding, I made sure the tires were well inflated. My weight still pressed down pretty hard on them, and it took me some practice to regain my balance-agility to ride a bike. But after two or three rides, my balance on a bike returned to smooth mastery. One has to make sure and look all around for cars, people, etc, before starting out. And if it is your first ride after many years, give yourself time and patience. It takes the body a bit of time and effort to resume a physical activity you have not done in 20, 30 or 40 years!
If one is really out of shape, and/or very overweight, it may be wise to begin some kind of exercise regimen before you ride. Like say, a half-hour walk once or twice a day for a week. Just something to get the body to realize it is going to be doing some physical exertions again. Perhaps take the bicycle you will ride out and simply walk or wheel it around for a while. Get yourself used to the idea that you will be riding again. Your blood flow will improve, your muscles tighten up a bit. And then you will be ready to begin riding.

Many that are approaching retirement age, or already there, are on a tight budget. And even if you don't have to ride a bike to get around, riding a bicycle for recreation is a great form of cheap entertainment. With the trail system being as developed as it is, there are trails that go high over river valleys, or wind along river greenways. There are trails that circle lakes and go through parks, and connect into other parks further away. It can be enjoyable just to see where the trails take you – you will be surprised at how far you can go after an hours' leisurely pedaling. Just be sure to remember what turns you took to get there. But the signage has improved vastly in the last five years, so it is doubtful you could get truly lost.

Once a person has been riding a bike for awhile, they encounter the need to accessorize and/or repair their two-wheeled steed. Front and rear lights are a requirement if you are going to be riding at night, or even at dusk. Some put on a rear platform or container. Some carry saddle-bags or a water bottle strapped to the frame. Chain oil of some kind helps keep your gears shifting well. After a few years, brake pads begin to wear out, and should be replaced. There is a certain amount of maintenance necessary for a bicycle. And sooner or later, you will get a flat tire. Whether from a nail, metal shaving, glass or whatever, you'll get a flat tire. Let's just hope you aren't too far from home. Then you can either use a screwdriver to pry out the bad tube and replace it, or pay to have it done. I have done it both ways. The guys at the repair shop are preferable, since they tend to do it the right way. But one can always do it themselves.

There are also computerized speedometers and tire lights. Many, many accessories exist for a bicycle. Some are beginning to electrify their rides. Strap a Lithium Ion battery pack over your frame, and hook it up to some kind of transmission-drive. ( Then you can get help going up those steep hills. I investigated these, and they are still quite expensive. So I'll stick to pedaling slow in low gear, or in extreme cases, walking the bike up a hill. But once I get myself into “cycling shape” which means a month of regular cycling, I find that I can make it up even steep hills, just pedaling slow and breathing deep, regular gasps of air. It can be done, and not just by the Olympians or steroid users. Still, it is good to know there are options out there like electric or E-bikes for those that desire them.

I tried bike commuting for a short time, and did not particularly care for it. For me, bicycling is a recreational pastime, and that is it. But for some, once they get into a pattern of riding their bike to work, they want to keep at it. No gas, fresh air, parking is very cheap. Wherever you can find to chain your bike to is fair game. Here in downtown Des Moines, some companies have bike racks. Others have bikes chained to trees, parking meters and anywhere else someone can think of. The drawback is you might need a shower before going to work, unless you live close by and don't need to pedal for miles to get there. But some make bike commuting “work,” and to them I salute.

The future. What does the future hold for those of us who like to pedal ourselves around town?
Most likely continued increase in composite materials for biking. Already there are lightweight carbon-fiber bikes, and high-strength plastics are everywhere from carts to pedals to lights, and more. More styles and kinds of bikes for every need. There are folding bicycles out, that can be carried in a backpack. Innovations like this make a bicycle into just another item to stuff in your carry-on or backpack. With the advent of 3-d printing tech, you may take a vacation, and decide you want a bicycle. Then go to a store, and they will 'print' one off for you. Even today, there are bikes for rent in downtown locations of many cities. With the swipe of a credit card, you can hop on a rental bike and ride around town. But at an hour per ride, make sure you have a watch with you. If you go over, or ride the thing off, your card balance could reflect that! It is hard to say what else is coming down the road in terms of bicycles. Some keep predicting flying cars, so perhaps flying bicycles aren't too far behind. One never knows. (
In any case, I hope the older readers can experience the thrill and enjoyment of cycling, especially if one has not done so for many years. What you find awaiting you on the trail system can be a delightful, enjoyable experience. See you out there, and thanks for reading.

For further reading:

Maintaining your ride:

Central Iowa Recreational Trails

Pick the best bike

List of Bicycle types (Wikipedia)