Insert clever title here

Father knows about laptop computers, cell phones, Ipads, and the like, but he sees no use for any of them. “They bring many problems and sorrows, and very little joy,” he says. He grumbles about the cost of the Internet service and about anti-virus protection. “Your computer is a tool, my boy,” he often says. “I would never keep a shovel or a hoe that costs me money to keep up-to-date, or that sometimes fails to dig when I want to dig because of some virus or some program being updated.”

That comes from “An Incomplete Stranger,” a short story I wrote and published a few years ago. It reflects my long-standing opinion about computers—when they work, they are useful tools, but much of the time they are inconvenient, annoying, and exasperating.

When I arrive at work and log into my computer, it takes ten to fifteen minutes before I can check my email, log into my timesheet, and get started at my job. Several other programs have to “do their thing” before my computer is usable or useful. Java must tell me that an update is available, and the anti-virus software has to report, and Microsoft Teams has to log in, and several other programs have their tasks or reports to accomplish. I’ve taken to leaving tasks that don’t require the computer in place at the end of the day so I can start my computer and then be productive while it tries to wake up and get ready for the day.

Meanwhile, my home computer is logging off the Internet connection at random times, requiring me to restart the computer to reestablish the connection. I have no idea why it logs off when it does; I just have to adjust my behavior accordingly.

Microsoft Word is trying to make me a better writer. It consistently suggests “must” in the place of “have to,” “can” in the place of “is able to,” and “whether” instead of “whether or not.” Sometimes I agree with the suggestions; sometimes I like the rhythm of my longer phrases better than Word’s terse Heminwayesque style. The other day it helped me to spell “dysfunctional” correctly; it seemed to me that the word ought to begin with “dis-,“ and the correct spelling seems… well, it just does not seem to work.

Science fiction has for years conveyed warnings about allowing the machines to take over the world. Captain Kirk and Doctor Who regularly encountered societies where humans had become the slaves and computers were doing all the thinking. Kirk had a particular knack for talking a computer to death. Artificial intelligence may compete successfully with human intelligence in some areas—chess, for example—but it remains far less creative and flexible than the human mind.

People and their machines will always have a partnership in the world. In theory, machines could replace and exterminate humanity. In reality, it will never happen. They continue to be our tools, and we continue to have the last word. J.

That’s what he thinks. J’s computer

Science fiction got it right

Last night I finished rereading a science fiction novel from the late 1960s, one that I first read when I was a boy, about twelve years old. The novel is oddly prophetic of some aspects of our current political situation.

I have always been a voracious reader. My mother used to say that she taught me how to read when I was four so she had time to do housework and other tasks instead of always reading to me. The public library was not far from our house; I could walk there and back without crossing any streets, which was a blessing, since I often read while walking home from the library. I regularly won the summer reading competitions sponsored by the library for children; some of my friends tried to keep up with me by checking out books and returning them unread, but my proximity to the library kept me ahead of their pace. By the time I was twelve, I had exhausted the children’s section of the library and was exploring the larger collection. My attention was drawn to a display of paperback science fiction novels. I met the great science fiction writers there: Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, and others. I also read books that had no hope of becoming classics. Three books in particular were favorites; in the last five years, I have managed to acquire copies of all three—one because it is back in print, one that I found in a used book sale, and one that my daughter the librarian tracked down for me even though I could not remember the name of the author or the title of the book.

Bug Jack Barron, by Norman Spinrad, is the book I finished last night—the one that is back in print. Frankly, I’m surprised that I was allowed to read that book at that age—my parents must have trusted the library staff; either the library staff trusted my parents to oversee my reading, or they did not know what some of their novels contained. Bug Jack Barron has pages that would make Henry Miller blush. (When I, as an adult, read Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, I wondered at first what the fuss was about, since I had read dirtier work in my younger and more impressionable years.) Because of those selections, I cannot recommend the book to most readers. Still, the plot and characters remained vivid in my mind over all these years, so the book contains some literary value.

Bug Jack Barron is copyright 1969, but it clearly was written a year or two earlier. It is set in a near future—no year is specified. Telephone communication largely includes video as well as audio material. Marijuana has been legalized and is commercially available. A third political party, the Social Justice Coalition, has formed out the Civil Rights Movement. Although the SJC has elected some African Americans to state offices and into Congress, it has not resolved the larger racial inequalities in American society.

The title character, Jack Barron, is a television personality. He has a call-in show: viewers call to “bug” him with their problems, and he uses his prominence and celebrity to help solve those problems. At this time, the Democratic Party has a stranglehold on Congress and the White House. At one point, Barron comments on that fact that, over the course of many years, the Republicans had nominated only two men capable of claiming the presidency: Eisenhower and Reagan. But now a coalition of SJC and Republican leaders wants to nominate Jack Barron, knowing that his television personality is popular enough to defeat any likely Democratic candidate.

The bulk of the story revolves around a multi-billionaire whose medical researchers are unlocking the secrets of human immortality; much of his funding comes from people whose bodies are frozen at death and stored until their fatal conditions can be medically cured in the future. All of Spinrad’s characters have a deep fear, even revulsion, toward death; no mention of religious hope or comfort ever appears in the novel.

The most interesting aspect of the novel, though, is Barron’s realization that he can control his opponents through his television show, editing what they say to show them at their worst while enhancing his heroic stance. On his own, Barron has discovered what we now call “fake news,” and with that tool he plans to seize and hold power. I wonder how Mr. Spinard is reacting to our politics of 2020. J.

Privacy (and where yours has gone)

Never in history has personal privacy been more protected by law. Yet never in history have people sacrificed their own privacy so completely. 

If you confess a sin to your pastor or priest, that member of the clergy cannot tell anyone else that you have said—not even a police officer, or a judge and jury during a trial. Your confession remains private among yourself, your confessor, and the Lord. 

Health professionals are also required to keep your information confidential. They cannot even share your information among one another for your own good without your permission. If you are in the hospital and a family member or friend (or your pastor or priest) calls the hospital for information about you, the hospital workers cannot say anything about you—not even whether you are there. 

If you are a student, your teachers cannot discuss your academic progress without your permission. If you are under eighteen, your parents or guardians have access to that information; otherwise, even they cannot know your grades unless you allow them access. A professor, teacher, or instructor cannot even give you information about your grade by email or over the telephone because of the risk that some other person may impersonate you to get this information. 

Your financial information is similarly protected. Your bank, your lending agency, your credit card company, and anyone else involved with your money cannot discuss your finances without your permission. Even your tax returns are confidential and cannot be discussed unless you have given permission for that to happen. 

To protect all this privacy, the entities that use our information frequently inform us what they are doing with the confidential information we share with them. Medical clinics, banks, credit card companies, and the like constantly bombard us with written descriptions of what information they have and what they do with it. When we see the doctor or when we open an account or take out a loan, we sign documents about our personal information. How many of us read all those documents and remember what permission we have given these entities to share that information? How many of us are careful to restrict every bank and school and health-related facility to minimal sharing? How many of us acknowledge with our signatures that we have read the documents about privacy and approved their contents—without actually having read them or even received a copy of them? 

With all this protection, no one can stop you from sharing private information where and when you choose. You can put up a poster downtown telling anyone who reads it who you are, what your health and grades and finances are, and any other personal information you choose to share. You can write a letter to the newspaper or buy an ad and tell the newspaper’s readers anything you want to share about yourself. You can write a letter to a government worker—whether elected or appointed—and anything you say about yourself in that letter becomes part of the public record which any researcher may access. You may post information about your private life on Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, or any other social media platform, and what you have revealed about yourself is available to any person or computer in the world that has internet access. 

Even the research you conduct online is publicly available, unless you take extraordinary precautions to protect your privacy. Social media platforms and search engines and internet sites all keep track of your online activity, and the things you have done on your computer are available to government agencies, corporations, hackers, and anyone else curious about your life. Anything you tell your Facebook friends is public information. Prospective employers can read about your weekend parties. Prospective thieves can preview your vacation plans. Research an illness, and medical companies target you as a prospective consumer. Look on Google once to see if there was ever a purple Volkswagen Beetle (there was), and you will receive pop-up ads from Volkswagen for months. 

Some elements of this lack of privacy bother me less than they bother most people. If my neighbor is using the internet to learn how to make a bomb and then is using the internet to buy bomb-making supplies, I don’t mind the fact that law enforcement officers will be watching my neighbor and perhaps preventing a crime from happening, or at least shortening a string of potential crimes. For that protection from violence, I am willing to allow government agents to read about my political and religious views as I express them on Facebook or WordPress; the First Amendment protects me from any negative government reaction to my opinions. 

I am less content about my permanent record being open to private corporations whose interest in my life focuses on selling me goods and services I might or might not want. My on-line shopping and on-line research have created a public profile of my life that in some ways is frighteningly accurate and in other ways is comically distorted. Because I was curious about cerebral films starring Peter Sellers (having enjoyed Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, and Being There), I now see regular Facebook promotions for the Pink Panther movies. Similar searches for various actresses appears to have convinced some corporation that I am interested in dating Russian or Asian women.  

Ignoring advertisements for things I don’t want is easy. Sensing that news stories and other items are being sent my direction based on assumptions about my opinions bothers me more. Because I am comfortable with my own beliefs, I want and value access to a wide range of opinions and information. I prefer not to have amazon or Facebook or WordPress suggest to me what I might like because of previous online activity. I prefer not to have search engines tailor my results to choices I have made in the past. I prefer not to receive telephone calls or mail selected for me by a computer because of something I have viewed online. I prefer not to have computers monitor my thinking and try to predict my thinking, out of concern that their input today may well flavor my thinking tomorrow.

Since the 1950s (if not before), science fiction writers have warned of a future world in which machines think for people and tell people what to think. We are closer to that dystopia being reality than ever before. The machines that want to serve us—and that, along the way, may begin to control us—come not from a totalitarian government or a worldwide conspiracy, but from corporations that want our money, or at least that want to generate money by selling our information.

Can Congress or other parts of the government protect our privacy? Probably not. We tend to discard privacy for convenience far more often than legislation can prevent. The more we ask government to guard our privacy, the more likely we are to surrender that privacy to government. The more we reveal about ourselves to social media and other non-government agencies, the less privacy we keep to ourselves. Our best choice is not to legislate privacy, but to preserve privacy by our individual choices. J.

Book report

I recently finished reading a science fiction novel; portions of it contained black comedy of a sort. In the plot, the United States has just emerged from a horrible and destructive war. The survivors of the war decide to find a new use for the technology that was developed to fight the war. After brief consideration, they decide to use this new technology to explore outer space.

Of course, if this novel had been written any time after 1960, the plot would be a retelling of current events. Rocket technology was developed by the Germans during World War II to bombard the United Kingdom. At the end of the war, Soviet forces and American forces both sought to capture the German scientists who had developed those rockets. At first the technology was improved only to prepare for another war, as the Cold War was intensifying. By the 1960s, though, both sides were seeing nonmilitary advantages to their respective space programs. In particular, the United States chose the challenge of bringing a man to the moon and returning him to the earth, aiming to achieve that goal before the 1960s ended. In July 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins made that historic journey, lifting off in their rocket from the Florida coast and traveling all the way to the moon. Armstrong and Aldrin both walked on the moon, conducted scientific experiments, and commemorated their achievement. They even spoke with President Nixon, who joked about the longest long-distance phone call in history.

The novel I read, From the Earth to the Moon, was written and published by Jules Verne in 1865. The war in question was the Civil War, and the technology he described was an enormous and powerful cannon. The Baltimore Gun Club resolves to fire a giant cannon ball at the moon. As plans are made for the cannon and cannonball, a French poet volunteers to be a passenger inside the missile. In the end, three men encase themselves in the cannonball, which is gently lowered into a specially built cannon, located on the Florida coast, and the three of them are shot to the moon.

Jules Verse was one of science fiction’s earliest authors. He liked to write travel novels. (His best is Around the World in Eighty Days.) When considering voyages that had never been attempted, such as one to the moon, he carefully considered just how it could be done, down to the smallest details. He had no conception of liquid-fueled rockets like those that would be used by Soviet and American explorers. Verne’s giant cannon and cannonball would not have worked. In many other aspects of his story, though, Verne captured a historic event and described it well… one hundred years before it took place. J.

Updating… please stand by

When people watch the Star Wars movies in the order in which they were made, they see the little robot, R2-D2, gain a new ability or two in each movie. This means, of course, that when the movies are watched in the order that they are supposed to have occurred, R2 has a massive drop in abilities between episode three and episode four.

There is a perfectly natural explanation for that change: Microsoft update.

Of course R2 also spends most of episode seven undergoing another Microsoft update, only becoming usable toward the end of the movie.

Since when do we let our tools tell us when we can use them and when they are unavailable? Imagine the pioneers who built this country being offered a shovel with twenty spectacular aps, but one that might not be usable to dig a hole at the very time those pioneers wanted to dig a hole with their shovel.

Science fiction writers in the 1950s and 1960s described nightmarish worlds in which the machines had seized power and were telling people what to do. Roughly a third of the original Star Trek episodes involved Kirk and his crew battling some supercomputer to free its people (and often themselves as well) from its control. Many classic Doctor Who episodes are built around the same plot. Creative people used to worry intensely about a future world where machines had become the masters and people had become the slaves.

Look around—we live in that world. Our devices correct our spelling and grammar without even asking for permission any more. They decide where and how to update without bothering to ask if we want them updated. What is more frightening, our devices are now communicating with each other to determine how best to meet our wants and needs—without necessarily including us in the conversation about what we want and what we need.

Are people rebelling against the machines? No, we have happily enslaved ourselves to each new device. Rather than being used as tools, they have become the objects of addiction. Our addictions to devices has led in some cases to broken relationships, ruined families, and even injury and death as people operated their devices in traffic, in high and dangerous places, and in the most perilous conditions.

It may be too late to stem the tide. We bring our devices to church services, to movies and concerts and plays, to ball games, and everywhere else we go. We bring them into our bedrooms and even into our beds. A week of vacation from work no longer means a week of vacation from the world-wide web, for we have entangled every aspect of our lives into this technology.

I have no answer to this problem. Perhaps Captain Kirk and the Doctor will need to come and save us from our voluntary slavery to our machines. Without their help, we may be unable to break our addiction to technology, our obsession with new and improved machines, our willingness to change our lives to shape the demands of the tools we have acquired for our convenience.

Rather than fasting from sugar and sweets, we need to learn to fast from our devices. Rather than a weekly day of rest to renew our bodies, minds, and spirits, we need a weekly day of rest to live without the fruits of technology. Or perhaps our machines will drive us to such annoyance with their breakdowns and updates that we will wean ourselves from their power and learn again to think for ourselves.

Let me stream a Star Wars movie or two while I think about this some more. J.

First Friday Fiction: Porta-Pads Incorporated

Bobby’s father pulled the car into a parking space in the garage and stopped the engine. Bobby’s mother sighed. “Do we have to use the Porta-Pads?” she asked in a weary voice.

“For the last time, yes,” Bobby’s father answered firmly. “This is my vacation. I don’t want to waste it sitting in the car or sitting in the airport. Three instant Jumps and we’re there—Disney World! And we’ll have the entire week to enjoy before our three instant jumps back home to Atlanta.”

Bobby and his father and mother got out of the car. Bobby’s father pulled the family’s luggage from the back of the car. Bobby’s mother shook her head. “I just don’t feel like being scrambled. I don’t trust these things.”

“Thousands of jumps and never an ounce of harm done,” Bobby’s father reminded her, quoting the company slogan.

Bobby’s family took the moving sidewalk to the front door of the Porta-Pad station. As they stepped inside, they saw a line at each of the four stations. Five businessmen were standing at the nearest station, signing their waivers. “It’s just a formality,” the attendant said to each of them. “Thousands of jumps, and never an ounce of harm, but Congress still wants you to assume responsibility for your journey.”

Bobby’s mother pulled the laminated cards they would need out of her purse while they waited. These cards listed the inoculations each member of the family had received. To prevent the spread of illnesses, no one could travel by Porta-Pads without proof of immunization. While she was distracted, Bobby jumped away from her reach. Five information kiosks were placed along the waiting area. Running as quickly as he could, Bobby touched each screen so that all five voices would utter their message as a chorus.

“It was July 2019. In Fayetteville, Arkansas, archaeologist Anna Kane was studying photographs of a Mayan carving recently unearthed in southern Mexico,” said the first voice. “During the development phase of the Porta-Pads, the three inventors had to battle lawsuits from the University of Arkansas, which claimed ownership of their discovery,” added the second. “Because of the curvature of the earth, Porta-Pads can move their cargo no more than two hundred miles,” the third voice reminded them. “The Porta-Pad moves its cargo at the speed of light, which in two hundred mile jumps is almost instantaneous,” said a fourth voice. The fifth voice chimed in with, “No government outside the United States has passed legislation permitting the use of Porta-Pads or similar technology.”

“Bobby,” his mother hissed. “Come here at once! Don’t do that again!” She grabbed his arm and yanked him to her side.

The businessmen moved on to the second station. Bobby’s mother handed the attendant the cards, which he studied closely. Handing them back to her, he said, “Both you adults have to sign a waiver, and there’s an additional waiver you both have to sign for your son.” Bobby’s mother and father each pulled out their pads and signed electronically. “Retina or thumbprint verification?” the attendant asked. “Thumbprint,” Bobby’s father said.

“Your attention, please,” a voice came from the overhead speakers. “A weather system containing thunderstorms stretches from Texas to St. Louis. Travelers jumping to the west coast are being rerouted through the Great Lakes and Prairie states. Please adjust your time expectations accordingly.”

Bobby took advantage of the distraction to make another round of the kiosks. “Bobby!” his mother hissed again. One of the business travelers in line at the second station smiled at her. “Don’t be too harsh on the boy,” he told her. “We don’t mind the entertainment—really, we don’t.”

“As she began translating the text, it appeared to Dr. Kane that a device for translocating people was described,” the first voice was explaining. “The Mayan sculpture had mysteriously disappeared, and Kane possessed the only readable photographs of the carving,” the second voice told them. The third voice intoned, “Early experiments showed that the Porta-Pads can move as much as eight hundred pounds without harm to the cargo,” as the fourth voice indicated, “A pizza bought in Chicago would still be sizzling hot after making seven jumps to be delivered in New Orleans.” Finally, “The first Porta-Pads were built to connect nearby cities: Chicago and Milwaukee, Baltimore and Washington DC, Boston and New York, Los Angeles and San Diego,” according to the fifth voice.

As the businessmen handed over the luggage for inspection, one by one, they joked with each other about the pizza traveling from Chicago to New Orleans. “On a good, day, it won’t even have time to grow mold,” one snickered. Another joked back, “The crust will not be too hard to chew, so long as you have good teeth.”

Bobby’s mother looked at Bobby’s father. “It takes ninety minutes to fly from Atlanta to Orlando,” she reminded him.

“But you have to get to the airport two hours early,” he answered, “and when you’re in Orlando, you have to wait forty-five minutes for your luggage.”

Bobby’s father handed the suitcases to the attendant of the second station. “Anything breakable, flammable, explosive, sharp, or otherwise dangerous?” the attendant asked in a bored voice. Bobby’s father shook his head no. “No guns, bombs, knives, swords; no liquids of any kind; nothing poisonous; nothing dangerous. No alcohol, no tobacco, no marijuana, no illegal drugs.” Again, Bobby’s father indicated no. “Pick up your bags and step on the scale, please,” the attendant intoned. After they did so, the attendant mumbled, “Weight check OK.” He opened each suitcase, rummaging randomly through their clothes and toiletries, before returning the luggage to them. “Next,” he said, “Anything breakable, flammable, explosive, sharp, or otherwise dangerous?”

Bobby’s mother held tightly to Bobby’s arm as they approached the third station. The friendly businessman smiled at her again. “Let the boy go free,” he told her. “He’s not hurting anybody.”

Another businessman in the group was still wearing his name tag from a conference they had attended together. It identified him as Brian. “The company is doing this all wrong,” Brian said. “They could build these stations across the highway. You’re driving down the road and them, boom!—you’re two hundred miles closer to your destination. Another quarter mile, and boom! another two hundred miles.”

“I don’t think they’d make much money off of it that way,” one of the other businessmen said.

“They’d find a way,” Brian replied. “Cars could need special equipment, and a bar code stuck to the front window. Only those who had paid in advance would be allowed in the Porta-Pad lane. They could work it out somehow.”

“The big problem would be the inspections,” the friendly businessman said. “Congress is so worried about terrorist weapons and drugs and diseases being spread that they want to control every person who travels by Porta-Pad. They’d never allow people to take their own cars through the system.”

“They’d find a way,” Brian insisted, raising his voice to be heard over the five information kiosks. “Maybe random spot-inspections. Maybe investigation of every traveler before they could get their bar code sticker. They’d find a way.”

Meanwhile, the kiosks continued their spiels. “She brought her translation to Gunter Schultz and Rupa Sagatoriana, members of the physics department. The two scientists agreed that the device described would work,” said the first. “Around the time the lawsuits were settled, the United States Congress began creating legislation to oversee the translocation industry,” offered the second. “To provide a generous safety margin, Congress ruled that no more than five hundred pounds could be translocated on any trip,” the third voice explained. “A traveler could hop across the country from Boston to Los Angeles in less time than it takes to speak the names of both cities,” and, “Today eighty-four Porta-Pads operate across the United States, less than an hour’s drive away from most citizens’ homes,” the other two voices informed their hearers.

The attendant at the third station accepted their payment for the trip. Bobby’s father paid electronically and for the second time that morning he had his thumbprint scanned. Then the family got in line one more time behind the businessmen, waiting to go through the door that led to the actual Porta-Pad.

Brian was speaking again. “Sooner or later, someone is going to figure out how these things work, and then there’ll be competition. Prices will drop and service will improve. It’s the way the market works. The company won’t be able to keep their technology secret forever.”

“Funny that the Mayans knew how to build these things but no one else ever learned about them. You’d think that if one civilization could discover this technology, others would have found it too.”

The friendly businessman remarked, “Some say that it existed all over the world six or seven hundred years ago. Great Zimbabwe has a feature that looks a little bit like a Porta-Pad, and so do some of the other ruins in South Africa. Same thing in parts of India and China. All around the same time, too.”

“I’ve heard that,” Brian agreed. “One theory is that the Mayans launched a series of satellites so they could jump from MesoAmerica to Africa and from Africa to Asia. Curvature of the earth doesn’t matter when you can go up into space and down again.”

“I doubt the Mayans had space travel,” the friendly businessman commented. “I know Porta-Pad Incorporated is looking into satellite Porta-Pads just as soon as other countries allow their business to enter. I think the Mayan story is just a rumor to try to sell the satellite idea.”

Bobby, in his boredom, had set off the kiosks one more time. “The two scientists agreed that the device described would work. After briefly considering publishing their findings, the three of them decided instead to form a corporation and develop the device,” the first voice was saying. “Licensing fees, restrictions, and consent waivers were all imposed upon Porta-Pads, Incorporated, before the first commercial Porta-Pads could be built and made available to the public,” said the second. “The cargo can be living or not; to date nothing and no one has suffered harm when being translocated from one Porta-Pad to another,” the third voice assured them, while the fourth was saying, “Porta-Pads Incorporated offers the greatest improvement in affordable travel since the invention of the airplane.” “Porta-Pads Incorporated: getting you there swiftly and safely,” concluded the fifth voice.

The businessmen went through the door of the fourth station, followed a minute later by Bobby and his parents. A lighted screen greeted them at the door. “Expect a forty-five minute wait from this point,” the sign said. While they looked at it, it flickered and changed to, “Expect a fifty-minute wait from this point.”

“I wonder why that changed,” Bobby’s father muttered to himself.

“Probably a member of Congress,” the friendly businessman answered. “Congress made sure that government officials would be allowed to cut in line. Company officials can do it too. It’s good for them, but it does tend to slow the rest of us just a bit.”

Bobby looked around the room. StarBucks, Burger King, Taco Bell, and Subway all had booths. There was a book stand, a souvenir shop, and a candy shop. “Mom, I’m hungry. Can you buy me a hamburger?” Bobby whined. “No, dear,” his mother said.

A man approached the family. “For two bucks, I’ll hold your place in line,” he offered. Bobby’s mother glanced at him, then looked away. His hair was uncombed and he had a three-day growth of beard. He was wearing a dirty T-shirt, jeans with holes at the knees, and a torn jacket. He also did not smell very clean. “Just two bucks,” the man pleaded. “You can go buy the boy something to eat.” Bobby’s mother held her lips tight and shook her head. “No, thank you,” Bobby’s father said in a strained voice. The man walked away.

The friendly businessman looked at Bobby’s mother and father. “It didn’t used to be like this,” he said. “At first the wait time was a lot shorter; the jumps were almost instant. But as the wait times got longer, they put in the restaurants and the other shops. Now some people practically live here. It’s become a city all to itself.”

Between the Burger King and the StarBucks was a large metal door with the words “Atlanta Porta-Pad” painted on it. An attendant opened the door and two women wearing fancy dresses walked out. The attendant ushered the next waiting group through the door and closed it again. Talking loudly, the two women took their place at the back of the line. “Forty-five minutes,” one of them exclaimed. “That’s better! In Knoxville we had to wait for an hour.”

“They said it was an hour,” the second woman remarked in a ringing voice. “I swear it was longer.”

Bobby’s mother looked at Bobby’s father. “It only takes six hours to drive from Atlanta to Orlando,” she said.

“Mom,” Bobby said, “I have to use a bathroom.”


Time travel, in fiction and in fact

Thirty years ago this month, the original movie Back to the Future first appeared in theaters. Some celebrations marked the occasion this month, although the real celebrations are holding off until November, for reasons that are immediately obvious to any fan of the trilogy.

Rather than reviewing the movies, all three of which I enjoy, this post will comment on a central element in the plot of the movies. This element requires a suspension of disbelief I find hard to maintain, even though it exists in most (but not all) stories involving time travel. The plot problem is that most imagined time-travel devices or techniques do nothing to account for the motion of the Earth through space and time.

Consider this: the planet Earth turns completely on its axis every twenty-four hours, creating the phenomena known as “day” and “night.” This means that, relative to the sun or to the center of the planet, anyone standing at the equator is moving about one thousand miles an hour in a circular motion from west to east. If a person is around 45 degrees north (or south) of the equator, that person is traveling roughly seven hundred miles an hour. This means that if you were near Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Montreal, Toronto, Paris, Munich, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Istanbul, Mongolia, or the Japanese island Hokkaido, and you were to jump instantly exactly one minute into the future (or into the past), you should arrive about twelve miles away from the spot that you left, since the Earth had spun that far during the minute you missed.

That, of course, is only due to the spinning of the Earth. As we know, the Earth is also traveling around the sun at a speed (relative to the sun) of 67,000 miles an hour. Moreover, the sun and its planets are circling the center of the galaxy at a speed roughly 490,000 miles an hour (relative to the center of the galaxy). Ergo, if you were to jump one minute into the future or the past, you would be many miles from the planet Earth.

Are you dizzy yet? Bear in mind that the universe is expanding, and the Milky Way galaxy is moving away from other galaxies at a speed around two million miles an hour.

The argument that all these speeds are relative, and should not be considered when thinking about time travel, falls short of being convincing. How can one accept the idea that the Earth is stationary and that the universe is spinning around it every day and also moving even more rapidly in other ways relative to the Earth? Far better is it to say that the Earth moves, and that the time traveler must find some way to keep up with the Earth. I suspect that time travel has been discovered several times in the last 120 years, but the discoverers are lost in the vastness of space with no hope of finding their way back to Earth again. Check the records for brilliant inventors who have mysteriously disappeared, and you will know who has already invented time travel.

H. G. Wells already knew about this problem. In his novel, The  Time Machine, time travelers remain associated with a spot on the Earth’s surface while they travel through time, guaranteeing that they do land at the same spot they left, no matter how far the Earth has moved during that time.

Doctor Who’s TARDIS travels through space and time, and its engineering is sophisticated enough that it can locate any planet in the universe in both space and time, calculating the trip without displacing the machine due to the motion of all the bodies in the universe. This explains, though, why the Doctor sometimes comments that the short hops are much more difficult than the longer leaps.

In 1970, Jack Finney published the novel Time and Again, which suggests that time is imaginary, so travel through time can be accomplished by training the imagination. This same idea made time travel possible in the 1980 movie Somewhere in Time. Presumably, if time is imaginary, then the dimensions of space are imaginary also, making it possible to travel through time by means of imagination without leaving the surface of the Earth.

The Back to the Future movies are cleverly written and well acted, so they are fun to watch over and over again. Until Doc Brown finds a way to convert a DeLorean automobile into a TARDIS, though, the three movies will be nothing more than entertaining fiction. (Sorry about that, Cubs fans, but the movies also put an American League team in Miami, so the prediction was doomed anyhow.)


Kurt Vonnegut

My first paying job was at the public library. As a page, I was responsible for the fiction section; I had to reshelve the returned books and generally keep the section neat, as well as accomplishing other tasks as assigned. Being the page of the fiction section, I had hands-on knowledge of the most popular authors in our community.

One of the authors I noticed for his popularity was Kurt Vonnegut. Some libraries and bookstores pigeonhole Vonnegut into science fiction and fantasy, but where I worked he was shelved with general fiction. One of his most popular books my first summer at the library was Breakfast of Champions. It had a bright yellow cover as well as an interesting name, so I checked out the book, took it home, and read it. From that day on, I was a Kurt Vonnegut fan. Until his death in 2007, I confidently said that Kurt Vonnegut was my favorite living author. With the death of J. D. Salinger as well, I can no longer identify any writer as my favorite living author.

Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indiana. He attended Columbia University until he joined the army during World War II. After the war, he studied anthropology at the University of Chicago, but his academic work was not accepted by the department. Vonnegut became a technical writer for General Electric, working in Schenectady, New York. There he began experimenting with short stories, eventually completing his first novel, Player Piano.

Vonnegut’s style developed over his early writing. He became known for increasingly absurd plots, presented in clear crisp sentences. His most famous novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is based on his experiences as a prisoner of war held in Dresden, Germany, at the time that the city was firebombed by the Allies. His character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time,” drifting into the past and the future unpredictably, allowing Vonnegut to tell his story without having to move from event to event in chronological order.

In Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut imagines what would happen if a scientist discovered a form of water that crystalizes at a higher temperature. (By comparison, consider the differences among coal, graphite, and diamonds, all of which are composed of carbon.) Clearly if this new form of water with its higher freezing temperature was introduced into the world, catastrophic results would follow. Therefore, the world’s only samples of “Ice-nine” must be kept securely… until they are not. Meanwhile, Vonnegut creates a Caribbean religion somewhat akin to Rastafarianism, which gives his narrator a platform to tell his story of earthly catastrophe.

Vonnegut considered himself a freethinker. He had little use for religion, and he considered churches to be artificial families, performing a role also accomplished by volunteer fire companies and Alcoholics Anonymous chapters. Vonnegut once rewrote the Christian Requiem service to communicate his own view of the meaning of life and death.

In one of his last novels, Timequake, Vonnegut again pictures a world rocked by catastrophe, but in this novel meaning is found by characters who say to one another, “You were sick, but now you are well again, and there is work to do.” Kurt Vonnegut is a character in Timequake and wanders through his own life. His alter ego, Kilgore Trout, is also a character in Timequake.

I wish I could have met Kurt Vonnegut. I wish we could have sat for hours and talked calmly about religion. I wish I could have told him how that message, “You were sick, but now you are well again, and there is work to do,” fits well with my understanding of the message of the Bible. But Kurt Vonnegut has died, and we will never have that conversation.

So it goes.


The grammar Dalek

My name is Salvageable, and I am a grammar Dalek.

I resist the term grammar Nazi, because Nazis really existed in Earth history and really did some terrible things that led to death and suffering and destruction. In history classes, people need to be reminded of the Nazis. In talking about infinitives and prepositions, I prefer to think of Daleks, those monsters invented for the television show Doctor Who. They are pretty terrible as well, but at least the suffering and death and destruction they cause is only in a world of fiction, not in this real world.

As a grammar Dalek, I want to exterminate all sentences which end with prepositions. I realize that today’s English teachers say that prepositions are allowed to end sentences, but I disagree. Given a little time and imagination, any sentence ending with a preposition can be altered into a better sentence. Sorry, Obi-wan, but “These are not the droids you seek” is a better sentence.

As a grammar Dalek, I want to exterminate split infinitives. In most languages the infinitive form of the verb is one word, and no one would dream of sticking another word in the middle of that word. In English, some people feel that adverbs make a sentence stronger when placed in the middle of an infinitive. I know we’ve heard it hundreds of times and it’s hard to imagine the phrase being improved, but “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is just wrong.

As a grammar Dalek, I want people to use the words “less” and “fewer” correctly. If you can count the objects you are describing, a smaller number of objects are fewer. Only if you cannot count them is a smaller number less. You can drink less beer, but you should drink fewer glasses of beer.

As a grammar Dalek, I want people to stop using “literally” for emphasis. If you literally died of embarrassment, you would not be here to talk about it today.

As a grammar Dalek, I want people to learn the difference between “nauseous” and “nauseated.” That which causes nausea is nauseous, but the one feeling the nausea is nauseated. Granted, if you give in to the symptoms of nausea, you may nauseate me, meaning that you are both nauseated and nauseous. If, however, you are talking about your feelings and not my feelings, please stick with nauseated.

As a grammar Dalek, I want English-speaking people everywhere to know their pronouns. If you wouldn’t say, “Me went to the store,” why do you say, “Joe and me went to the store”? If you wouldn’t say, “A tree fell on I,” why do you say, “A tree fell on Joe and I”?

As a grammar Dalek, I strongly support the use of Oxford commas. In the sentence, “A tree fell on Billy, Joe, and me,” the comma between “Joe” and “and” is as important as any other comma in the sentence.

Clear communication begins with good grammar. If you want people to hear what you say, say it the right way. And let’s be careful out there.


Doctor Who

Chances are that either you know who Doctor Who is or you don’t care. Aside from commenting that Doctor Who is a British science fiction television show that has been broadcast, off and on, since 1963, I don’t feel the need to offer a long description and explanation of the show.

The first time I saw Doctor Who on television was New Year’s Eve. I’m not sure of the year, but it was some time around 1980. My parents were out for the evening, I was home alone and bored, so I turned on the television to see what was showing. I joined an episode called “The Pirate Planet” in progress. That episode was a good introduction to Doctor Who, although it took me a while to figure out what was happening, particularly since I was assembling a jigsaw puzzle while watching the show.

A few weeks later my parents and I found the show again and made a habit of watching. Channel 11 showed Doctor Who on Sunday nights. They took the original four-part shows and edited them together into a single movie without interruption. The episodes were broadcast in Chicago several years after they were originally shown on BBC. Like many other Americans, I was familiar with the fourth doctor before I understood that three other actors had played the Doctor before Tom Baker.

The Doctor traveled in a Tardis (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) which could take him to the past, present, or future of any planet. Sometimes he planned his trips; more often he was drawn off course or trusted to random traveling. Most of the time, he saved a planet or the entire universe from certain destruction. The Doctor was a renegade Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, but most Time Lords did not interfere with the course of history on other worlds. In this the Doctor was different.

He had recurring enemies, of course: the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Master (another Time Lord), among others. He had companions for most of his adventures, sometimes from Earth and sometimes from other planets—sometimes even another Time Lord from Gallifrey. The scenes and costumes and special effects were not the point of the show. Writers presented interesting situations, and the actors conveyed the story to the audience. Occasionally the Doctor was injured in a way from which even he could not recover. At such times, he would regenerate, moving the same abilities and memories into a new body with a new face (which allowed different actors to portray the Doctor over the years).

Tom Baker played the Doctor in more episodes than any other actor. Moreover, he is the first actor portraying the Doctor that many of us experienced. Of the first seven actors who played the Doctor, he is perhaps remembered with the greatest fondness. All things must come to an end, though, and by the end of the 1980s, Doctor Who had been canceled by the BBC.

Doctor Who, like the American show Star Trek, had too many fans to die a peaceful death. Episodes continued to be rebroadcast and were sold on VHS and then on DVD. Whovians gathered in conventions. Some wrote novels based on the characters in the show. One movie-length episode was created and broadcast with an eighth actor playing the Doctor. Only in the 21st century, though, did the BBC begin creating new episodes of its most famous science fiction show.

Over seven years three more actors portrayed the Doctor. New companions were introduced, new enemies were invented, and some of the old villains returned. Modern technology allowed for spectacular special effects. Scripts were designed to carry story arcs across an entire season, with resolution of the larger story sometimes not even happening at the end of a season.

For a while I watched the New Who, but it never had for me the charm of the earlier version. Some of the stories, especially those involving the companions of the Doctor, carried too much emotional drama and too little adventure to suit my tastes. The use of special effects often seemed to obscure the actors and scripts instead of helping them. Some of the adventures were memorable—“Blink” is one of my favorites—but many were not memorable. I gave up the habit of watching before David Tennant’s time was through, and I never got to know Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor.

All that changed with the fiftieth anniversary episode. While it managed to keep everything that was good of the New Who episodes, it also restored the magic of the original show. Based on my delight in the anniversary episode, I began back-tracking to learn about Clara, and I waited eagerly for the Peter Capaldi era to begin. When the eighth season began, I quickly found it a mixed bag. Peter Capaldi firmly convinced me that he is the Doctor—more about that in a moment—and Clara remains one of my favorite companions from all fifty years. Yet many of the scripts left much to be desired. Even as I wait for season nine of the New Who to be broadcast, I remain faithful in my preference for the earlier Doctor Who.

Of the actors who have played the Doctor, I have my favorites, as is the case for most Whovians. Tied for fourth, in my opinion, are David Tennant of the New Who and Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor. A solid third place is Peter Capaldi, the most recent Doctor. My second favorite Doctor is John Hurt, who played the War Doctor in the fiftieth anniversary special. Top honors go, of course, to Tom Baker, who will always be the first to come to my mind whenever I think of Doctor Who.