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.”

 

The war on information

Ray Bradbury wrote a number of science fiction stories in which a totalitarian government attempted to forbid the preservation of literature and history. The government tried to maintain control over the population by restricting information available to that population, often by forbidding and burning books. In one of his stories, though, Bradbury imagined the government controlling citizens by using the opposite extreme. The government flooded the market with information, producing so much material that no one could receive it all and comprehend it all. Important matters were lost in the flood of information, and the citizens were unable to resist control from the government under that condition.

Contemporary society has, perhaps, reached the point that Bradbury envisioned. The ordinary laws of supply and demand—and not a malevolent government—have overwhelmed people of our time with information of every kind. We have at our fingertips news and history, medical information, the results of scientific research, access to all the fine arts, and many more sources of education and of entertainment.

People use this abundance and freedom in strange ways. Instead of viewing the plays of Shakespeare, or listening to the symphonies of Beethoven, or enjoying the artwork of the Italian Renaissance, the largest number of people has turned to scripted shows that are called, ironically, “Reality TV.” News about current events and about historic events is increasingly being presented in entertainment formats rather than researched documentaries. Satirical news has grown in popularity, in part because many people cannot discern the difference between satire and real news.

From the Baroque era into the twentieth century, modern philosophers assumed that information could be received objectively and communicated objectively. Postmodern thinkers assume that all research and all communication is biased. As a result, contemporary people choose among a variety of news media, selecting those that match the biases already formed within their minds. Some trust The New York Times, CNN, and MSNBC. Others prefer the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and Breitbart. Each group accuses the others of trusting biased and distorted sources of information while failing to acknowledge that their own sources are also biased.

Some news stories are covered across the spectrum, although they are addressed and described differently in different places. Others are reported only by one side or only by the other. In controversial matters—for example, climate change—contrary studies are presented by different news sources as authoritative. Contrary reports also reveal mistakes or deliberate distortions in some studies, undermining the authority of the other side’s evidence for its position.

In the midst of all this contrary information, a growing segment of the population doubts everything that it hears as news. One day coffee is good for a person and red wine is dangerous; the next day red wine is beneficial but coffee should be avoided. Conspiracy theories prosper precisely because they seem more believable than the news that is being reported.

As to conspiracy theories, they began to flourish in the days of Watergate and because of revelations about conspiracies and crime within the White House and also in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Watergate actually revealed how government conspiracies really work: they are subject to incompetent agents, selfishness of individuals, and a lack of trust within any organization. Human people are fallible; they will not succeed with conspiracies that require large-scale participation, continuing deception, or a possible reward for the first conspirator who tells the truth about what really happened.

The danger in our current condition, this war on information, is that people who believe nothing inevitably begin believing anything. Satirical news frequently is repeated as if it were reliable information. Pity the poor elected leader a few years ago who, on the floor of the state senate, called for regulation to ban or at least limit the use of a certain chemical because it was directly responsible for thousands of deaths each year. (The chemical was water.) Because truth sometimes is stranger than fiction, many strange fictions are accepted as truth.

Doubt any report that relies upon the assumption that all the people of a large group with one common characteristic are working together for a common goal. All politicians, all leaders of big business, all entertainers, all homosexuals, all Christians, all Muslims—none of these groups are united enough to be working together to try to control the world.

Doubt any report that depicts a large number of people keeping grand secrets. Doubt any report that describes some massive hidden technology that is behind some unexplained event. Doubt any report that claims that a hidden group of people (especially one that hides in public with web sites and scheduled meetings) is secretly running the world. Doubt any report that a widely witnessed event never happened but was faked by some group for nefarious purposes.

Fake news existed in ancient times and will continue to exist beyond our lifetimes. What used to be labeled “rumor” is now spread by technology that gives it an added layer of credibility. We can survive the war on information by using a little common sense, checking sources when possible, and remembering to think for ourselves rather than allowing others to do our thinking for us.

 

 

Gentleness and respect

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (I Peter 3:15-16, NIV).

“If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15, NIV).

Since the founding of the Christian Church, each generation of believers has used available technology to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The writings of the apostles were copied and saved on scrolls, but before long they were collected in codex form. The printing press and less costly paper made written communication easier to distribute—the Bible itself, as well as books, sermons, tracts, and other explanations of the Bible’s message. Now the internet and social media have opened a new world of communication to the Church, making outreach, apologetics, and irenics easier than ever before. Printed material can be smuggled into a country that censures writing, but the internet sneaks across borders far more easily. Peter preached to thousands of people on Pentecost Day, but the potential audience for any internet posting can extend to many millions.

Those of us who belong to Jesus Christ have wonderful opportunities to share his promises with the world. I know that God blesses our efforts where and when he chooses. I know that all the saints on earth remain sinners, subject to the devil’s temptations to fumble our attempts to share the Gospel. My heart is broken, though, over the many samples I have seen of Christians tarnishing the name of Christ by failing to describe our hope with gentleness and respect. I am doubly heartbroken over the many times I have seen Christians debate one another online, not with mutual love and respect, but rather biting and devouring each other.

Written communication has pitfalls, and those pitfalls only increase on the internet. Much of our personal communication is helped with facial expressions, body language, and variations in tone of voice that do not appear in writing. (Emoticons help a little, but only a little.) Close friends sometimes develop a banter that, to strangers, sounds hurtful and even abusive. Language that amuses some people repels others. As Christians post and as we comment on other posts, I believe we need to keep certain ideas in mind so our words bring glory to Christ and his Church rather than embarrassment and shame.

First, I do not think rhetoric and logic alone can change the heart of an unbeliever. Only the Holy Spirit can bring a person to faith. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God—the writings of the prophets and apostles through whom he spoke. They can be quoted directly, or they can be summarized, paraphrased, and explained. In any case, our best weapon against the devil and the sinful world is God’s Word. Our best way to lead other people to Jesus is to use the very words that changed our hearts and made us believers.

Atheists and agnostics who have already encountered God’s Word and have rejected it are unlikely mission opportunities, although God is capable of working miracles even in hardened hearts. If rhetoric and logic are not enough to change their hearts, surely ridicule and demeaning language will not accomplish that goal. Even when they choose to communicate using ridicule and demeaning language, I do not think that we bring glory to God and do his work by reducing our language to their level rather than writing with gentleness and respect.

Gentleness and respect are not only for unbelievers. When communicating with fellow believers, gentleness and respect are even more required. The Church on earth has been divided into many sects and factions, contrary to the will of Christ and of his apostles. True Christian unity cannot be accomplished by compromise, watering down the truth to a pulp that all will accept. Rather, each of us is called to defend the truth, but to do so gently, respectfully, and drawing on the power of God’s Word rather than relying on our own reason and understanding.

When you disagree with another Christian, consider the level of your disagreement. Are you correcting heresy? By all means, counter dangerous lies with the truth, but do so with gentleness and respect. Are you responding to heterodoxy? By all means, communicate with fellow believers about our differences, hoping to work toward greater unity within the Body of Christ—but do so with gentleness and respect. Are you differing over a case of Christian freedom? Perhaps—for the glory of God and for the strengthening of your faith—you are refraining from something not forbidden by Scripture. (This could be eating meat sold in the marketplace, dancing, playing cards, drinking moderately, or any other practice that Christians are free to do and free not to do.) By all means, share the benefits you have seen in your fasting, but do not criticize those who choose not to fast in your way. And, if you choose not to fast in a way that benefits a fellow believer, refrain from judging or criticizing your brother or sister in the Lord.

When two Christians are disagreeing over the meaning of a passage of Scripture, stop and consider the hermeneutical principles each is using. Is one reading the Bible evangelically while the other is reading legalistically? Is one seeking prophecies of future events while the other considers all prophecies already fulfilled in Christ? We read the Bible and discover differing messages—possibly one of us is guilty of replacing exegesis with eisegesis, but the root of the difference is probably in hermeneutics.

Those of us who are one in Christ will remain diverse, not only in language and culture, age and gender, wealth and social status, but in political opinions, artistic preferences, and the like. We can and should discuss these differences, but always with gentleness and respect. In the United States last November, some sincere Christians voted for Trump, others voted for Clinton, and still others voted for third party candidates. Even if you question the judgment of other people’s votes, their political convictions do not make them heretics.

In my case, I consider liturgical and traditional worship more reverent and more meaningful than contemporary worship. I have learned, though, that other Christians are blessed through contemporary worship. Their way of worshiping does not make them heretics, or even heterodox. I am more concerned about teachings in liberal Christianity. Some of those teachings are truly heretical, and they need to be opposed with the truth of the Bible—but always with gentleness and respect.

Finally, the devil and the sinful world delight in hiding Christ’s Gospel under distractions and diversions. Proper places and times can be found for discussing science and religion, archaeology and the Bible, abortion, patriotism, men and women and how they relate to each other, and many other topics. Often these topics are a barrier to the Gospel—a barrier to proclaiming Christ and Him crucified. No one has been changed from a nonbeliever into a Christian by being proved wrong about some peripheral topic. The Gospel itself is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

Pardon my rant. I’ll try to be better now. J.

Rocky’s Bridal Boutique

Earlier this week I commented that I try not to be angry at callers on the telephone. They can call at inconvenient times, such as during meals or when I’m watching TV. Sometimes caller ID works and I know who is calling, so I don’t always answer if I don’t want to talk to them. (“The Red Cross is calling again? Don’t answer the phone—I don’t have time to donate more blood this week.”) Many times, though, caller ID will display just the number. Even though I don’t recognize it, I will take the call, because sometimes it is a family member or friend calling, even though the telephone didn’t recognize the caller.

I was a telemarketer when I was in graduate school—the job helped pay for my classes and textbooks. My job was not high-pressure sales; the company was offering to place magazines in churches for the members to purchase. I talked with a lot of pastors, a lot of church office secretaries, and various other people. Once I made a sale merely because I pronounced the pastor’s name correctly. Very rarely was anyone rude to me, even when my call interrupted more important things.

In 2014 I became more involved in politics. Every time a telemarketer called to conduct a political opinion poll, I was happy to answer all their questions. I took a lot of calls like that in 2014; it seemed like every week someone wanted to know my opinion. It was as if I was on a list of people who were willing to answer questions. Last winter I decided not to talk to polltakers on the telephone. After a few calls, they stopped. No one asked for my opinion in the spring or summer or fall. I’m not surprised the polls failed to predict the outcome of the election—the sampling clearly is skewed by their focus upon people willing to talk to them.

One time, a caller did manage to make me lose my temper, but I recovered. I was working at a church. One day the phone rang at 8:30 in the morning. I answered, but no one spoke to me; after a second or two, the caller hung up the phone. That happened the next day, and the next, and the next. (This was before caller ID was common.) The day it made me angry was when the silent caller made me run from the bathroom to answer the phone. But then I realized that making me angry might be the reason for the calls. (Another possibility is that someone felt compelled to check, to see if I actually was showing up to work.)

I decided that, rather being angry, I would have some fun with the situation. The next morning when the phone rang at 8:30, I answered with “Public Library, Children’s Department,” instead of the name of the church. The next day, I used, “Police Office, Vice Desk.” Every day I tried to use something unique. My favorite line was “Rocky’s Bridal Boutique.” I used that one more than once.

One day when I answered the phone with one of those lines, a voice responded to me. It happened to be a telemarketer calling the church. We both had a good laugh, and then I listened politely to the sales pitch before saying no. Oddly, the silent calls ended at that very time and never returned.

I am generally polite with telemarketers, but sometimes I try to have fun with them. Those men with south Asian accents who want to sell me software to correct imaginary problems with my computer probably think I’m an idiot. As they instruct me to press a certain button on the keyboard, I stall with questions like, “Does it matter which hand I use to push that button? Would it work if I used my nose?” If I’m not in a playful mood, I tell them that I have googled the name of their company, and I know that they are a scam. They haven’t called in a while either.

The telephone can be a useful device, even though most of the time it’s an annoyance. Even when it annoys me, though, I try not to let anger build. Life is too short for that kind of anger, and the people who are calling are just trying to earn a paycheck. Except for the times that the caller is a machine. J.

“Hello, my name is Joe”

From time to time I dream of winning a grand victory over an evil intelligence, as Captain Kirk so often did in Star Trek. Yesterday, on a small scale, I finally had my chance.

The telephone rang while I was working on my desktop computer at home. I did not recognize the number showing on caller ID, but that did not necessarily mean the call was not from someone I know. I haven’t memorized all the phone numbers of people I might want to speak with on the phone.

I picked up the phone and said hello. A cheerful voice introduced himself as “Joe from Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” He asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m fine, Joe; how are you?”

Instead of the usual, “I’m-fine-thanks-for-asking,” Joe moved immediately into a description of what his company offered. He implied that someone in the household had a need for a hearing aid. “I don’t think I’m interested,” I told him, but Joe then said that someone in the household had contacted his company.

Given the name of the company, I didn’t think that was likely. Instead of saying so, I offered, “Let me write down your name and number and ask my family if any of them have contacted you.”

“I’m not trying to sell you anything,” Joe assured me. “This is a free service.” I thanked him and asked again for a way to contact him if someone in the family indeed had an interest in what he was offering.

Instead of giving me a phone number, Joe said, “I’d just like to ask you a few questions, OK?”

By this time, Joe’s failure to respond to what I was saying made me suspect that Joe was not a human being, but rather a computer-generated voice. His pauses before responding were just a smidgen too long; along with his unfitting responses, our conversation made me picture a 1960s, made for TV, room-sized computer with whirling tapes and flashing lights. I knew that if I said “OK,” Joe would start asking his questions, so I said, “I don’t think I want to answer any questions.”

“OK?” Joe asked again.

“I know what word you want me to say, and I’m not going to say it,” I told him.

“I just want to ask you a few questions, OK?” Joe repeated.

Although I was tempted to tell him that logic is a chirping bird, I instead chose a more fitting line. “Joe, what we have here is failure to communicate,” I said.

“I’m sorry to hear you’re having that problem,” Joe said.

“I don’t think the problem is on my end,” I told him.

“My name is Joe,” he said, more slowly than he had said it the first time. I pictured the face of an android, eyes blank and staring, smoke starting to rise out of both his ears. He continued, slowly and distinctly, “I am from the Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” After that came a silence long enough that I figured it would not be rude to hang up on Joe.

In three different episodes, Captain Kirk was able to save an entire planet and its resident civilization (not to mention his life and the lives of his crew) by talking a computer to death. I’d like to believe that, in a small way, I have now shared in the good captain’s victories. J.

Capturing all fifty

Yesterday morning I rode the elevator with a young woman—with bright blue hair and tattoos, not that any of that matters—who, after saying hello, was staring intently at the device in her hand. Evidently she was about to capture a Pokemon right there in the parking garage.

I remembered the days when telephones had to be plugged into the wall, when they had a headset connected to the main part of the phone with a long coiled cord. You couldn’t do much more with a telephone than talk to another person; about the most exciting app phones had was a number where you could hear the correct time and the temperature. Dick Tracy had a wristwatch that could do amazing things, and Maxwell Smart had a cell phone hidden in his shoe, but Star Trek communicators were going to have to wait until the twenty-third century… or so we thought.

Even in those primitive days we had a game that was as exciting as Pokemon Go. We generally played the game only on vacation road trips, but in theory it could be played around town. The goal was to “capture” license plates from other states by seeing them clearly in traffic or in parking lots. Complete victory was won only if at least one plate from each of the fifty states was spotted during the trip.

I suppose everyone has his or her own special rules for this game. As far as I am concerned, license plates only count if they are on private vehicles. Eighteen-wheel trucks, delivery vans, rental vehicles, and the like don’t count—basically, the plate is disqualified if the vehicle has any writing on the side.

Nearby states and states with large populations are easy to spot. The small states in New England and the sparsely-populated states in the west are harder to find. Delaware and Hawaii are among the hardest. The game was easier to play when each state had one unique design. Now most states have a number of special plates, and sometimes the modern plates take on similar designs and colors. Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri all have the same shades of blue in different combinations. Massachusetts and Arkansas are almost identical.

I’ve played the game starting on January 1 to see how long it takes to spot all fifty states. I’ve played the game starting over each morning to keep track of how many I see each day. Once I played the game trying to capture the fifty states in alphabetic order. That took close to three years, with Rhode Island requiring more than half a year to “capture.” When we were on a road trip, I mentioned the game to the children in the car and told them I was going to win when the next car passed us. One of them deduced, “Wyoming must be one of those states that has plates on the front of the car as well as the back,” which is correct.

On a good day, I can capture ten or more license plates. This morning I captured only seven. I didn’t spot any in the elevator of the parking garage. J.