Ch-ch-ch-changes

The autumnal equinox has passed. When the alarm goes off in the morning, it is still dark outside. Darkness falls again soon after supper, so my evening reading and writing is done with the help of electric lights. The darkness contributes to the melancholy feeling I have about some other changes that happened in my life this month.

For the last ten years, I have been an adjunct instructor for a two-year college. I have taught at a branch campus of a state university; the branch is located on military property. Some of my students have been active military personnel; some retired from the military; some spouses or children of military personnel; and some simply nearby residents taking a college class. I have had students old enough to remember the day President Kennedy was shot; I have had students too young to remember the day that terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. I’ve heard many anecdotes about military life including events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I began by teaching a course in World Religions since my degrees were in the field of religion. Most of my classes have been a survey of world history. Two nights a week for sixteen weeks I have guided students from the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China, right up to current events. Some of my students have said that they never liked history until they took my class. Others have contributed to the class by sharing personal experiences in other cultures, things they’ve been taught in other classes, and things they’ve picked up from the Internet. I hope that among my dozens of students over the last ten years, a good number have gained not merely a few new facts but a way of learning about history that helps them lead more informed and interesting lives.

My summer class and fall classes this year were canceled due to low enrollment. The administration of the state university has been promoting online learning, and it appears that we have reached the point where more students would rather learn online than in the classroom. I’m not opposed to the latest technology, but when it comes to teaching history, I prefer the classroom experience. I like to see the facial expressions and body language of the people I am teaching. I like the conversations before and after class that cover many things not related to the subject matter of the class. I like seeing students interact with one another.

This week I told the school to keep my name off the spring listing of classes. I don’t know yet whether I have taught my last college class, but the burden of preparing a class, then having it canceled at the last moment, is one I want to avoid for a while.

Meanwhile, I am driving a different car. For the last fifteen years I have been driving a 1999 Ford Escort. It had about 50,000 miles on the odometer when I bought it; it now has more than 210,000 miles. The air conditioner hasn’t worked for years, and this fall a faulty sensor started causing a warning light to flicker on and off. In a recent post I described my Escort as “a common Ford to carry me home.” I suspect that the reference to the spiritual song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” went past many of my readers.

My parents bought a Ford Granada when I was in high school. I learned how to drive on that car. When I graduated college, they gave me the car as a gift. A few years later I had the chance to buy a Mercury Sable in good condition from an elderly couple who no longer needed two cars. I sold the Granada to a man who lived on the same street as me, attended the same church, and needed a car. The Sable served well for many years, but I ended up buying the Escort fifteen years ago and selling the Sable to a high school girl who was getting her first car. The very same day I bought my current car, my daughter went to her job and heard a fellow employee say that he needed to acquire a car quickly. She told him about my Escort, he came by the house the next morning, test drove it, handed over five hundred dollars, and drove away.

The first car I test drove from the used car lot was a Ford Focus. It seemed OK when I drove it. However, before deciding on the car I asked to check the trunk. Last month two of my daughters were stranded by the side of the rode in a remote place for two hours because they had a flat tire. Although my daughter had owned the car for two years, she did not realize that there was no spare tire and no jack in the trunk. A call to 911 did not get help to them; eventually they found the number for the county sheriff and got the help they needed. Anyhow, when I opened the trunk of the Focus, I found no spare tire and sitting rainwater in the tire well. That ended my interest in the Focus.

The salesman suggested that I test drive a 2004 Honda Accord. It also handled well, it had a spare tire and no water in the trunk, and he dropped the price $1000 to match what he had been asking for the Focus. I went home that Saturday afternoon, did some research on the Accord, called him Monday to say I would buy the car, and drove it home on Tuesday. I’ve had more than a week to get used to it, and I am comfortable with the car. My Escort had a radio with a cassette tape deck, but my Accord has two radios—one with a CD player, which probably came with the car when it was new, and another with lots of lights and buttons that I don’t understand at all. It is set to a local station I enjoy, so I have not done much experimenting with it.

Though it seems strange after all these years to be in a different car—one that is not a Ford—I’m sure that I made the right decision. After all the book of Acts says several times that the first Christians were in one Accord, and what was good enough for them should be good enough for me. J.

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Pen pictures and qwerty keyboards

I was sitting at the reference desk one day last week when a man—one of our regular patrons—approached the desk and asked if I knew what a “pen picture” is. He had seen the phrase in two unrelated places recently and was confused about the meaning of the term. He had googled the term for a definition, and he got the result: “Archaic (19th century): 1. A drawing done in pen; 2: a written account that creates a mental image.” He was not sure how that applied to the two cases he had seen labeled pen pictures, as one of them was a poem, and the other was a recollection of past events.

I helped him to understand how both the poem and the recollection fit the second definition of “a written account that creates a mental image.” We also agreed that the phrase “pen picture” no longer applies, since written documents in the 21st century are created at keyboards. The conversation brought back memories of the way I used to write as compared to the way I write today.

When I was in high school and college, I would always write a first draft of a paper for school—or of a story—in pen. I would note all my corrections and additions, and then I would type the final draft with an electric typewriter. Even when I got my first desktop computer, I continued to handwrite the first drafts of my work. Only after several years of using a computer did I begin drafting my first drafts at the keyboard, editing them while I wrote them, and then printing a final copy on paper. Of course now I often publish my writing electronically and never have a paper copy of what I have written.

Paper can be destroyed quickly in a fire or a storm. Paper can disintegrate or fade slowly because of light, heat, humidity, mold, insects, rodents, and other hazards. Electronic records are also subject to loss. Computers crash. Storage devices fail. Technology changes, making older storage devices unusable. Even “the Cloud” can lose electronic documents and pictures. The best policy for preserving an electronic file is to save it three different places. Some writers email copies of their work to themselves as back-up copies.

In many cases, when a researcher visits a research library to view a digitally-created document—a string of emails, for example—the library staff prints the document on paper for the researcher. When the researcher is done with the document, the library staff saves the paper copy in case another researcher wants to see the same document later; they will not have to go through the trouble of finding and printing a second copy for the second researcher. The digital age was expected to reduce our reliance on paper, but often paper is still the best way to observe and preserve a digitally-created document or picture.

“Pen picture” may be an archaic term that has fallen out of use, but bloggers and other writers today continue to produce pen pictures of sorts. We still “dial” our cellular phones and still type with “Qwerty” keyboards that were designed to reduce the jamming of typewriter keys. Our digital pen pictures continue to produce mental images in the minds of others. As much as our technology changes, people are still people; we don’t change all that much from generation to generation. J.

Driving me crazy

When Jesus was growing up in Nazareth, his family must have owned a donkey. It was a stubborn creature, old, unreliable, and mean-tempered. They did what they could with it, but it tested their patience. They would have preferred a different beast of burden, but it was all they could afford. In fact, keeping it fed and in good health cost them considerably, but their family needed it to get things done.

The Bible and the Church assure us that Jesus understands us because he is one of us. He is fully God, but he is also fully human. He was tempted in every way we are tempted, but he never sinned. When we pray about our problems, he understands, because he has faced the same problems himself.

My car is a twenty-year-old Escort. It’s not a Lincoln or Cadillac or Buick—just a common Ford to carry me home. It still gets decent gas mileage—about thirty miles per gallon, sometimes better on long journeys. I have the oil changed regularly and other maintenance as needed. But like the donkey back in Nazareth, there are days when my old car tests my patience and tempts me to sin.

Tuesday was one of those days. I left work, walked to my car, got in, and turned the key. It coughed once and died. The reason was obvious: a dead battery. I have enough experience with cars to know when a battery can be jumpstarted and when it is simply dead, dead, dead. This battery was beyond hope and needed to be replaced.

I called home for help. Fortunately a member of the family was available to bring me my tools and give me a ride to Walmart. Less fortunately, Walmart was out of stock of the battery my car needed. We made another stop at an auto parts store and bought the right battery for thirty dollars more than Walmart would have charged. I was driven back to my car, put in the new battery, and was ready to drive again.

Thursday was another of those days. As I drove to work, I saw that one of my warning lights was flickering on and off. The meaning of the warning was low oil pressure. I left work early that afternoon and took the car to our regular mechanic. The warning light did not come on during that afternoon drive. I described the problem to the mechanic and suggested that the oil be changed, since the scheduled change was only a few weeks away. He changed the oil and checked the other systems for the usual fee. He assured me that the oil level was not low and suggested that the light could have been triggered by a faulty sensor.

God does not permit problems in the lives of his people for no reason. We are told that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. Our hope is in Jesus, who lived among us as one of us and faced all the problems we face. He was tempted, but he never sinned. He shares his victory with us. Because he suffered for us, we are victorious even when we suffer. We are more than conquerors, because he has defeated all our enemies and welcomes us to be partners in his celebration.

Jesus never changed a car battery or a tire. He never had a computer crash, losing all his writing and his photographs. He never had to call a plumber or an electrician. He never had to file an insurance claim. Yet his first-century life had its share of frustrations, no doubt. Jesus had to battle traffic in Capernaum and Nain and other cities. He probably had rude and annoying neighbors. And of course there was that donkey.

Jesus understands our problems. Technology has changed the way we live, but it has not changed human nature. Annoyances and frustrations and unpleasant surprises happen to us all. They always have, ever since sin entered the world, and they always will, until Christ appears in glory to make everything new. But God’s grace and mercy and love are also unchanging. Hope does not disappoint us. The Lord is in charge, and we can rely upon him in all things. J.

Addiction and the Internet

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) sometimes posts information in bars, knowing that the people who need their help are likely to be found there. But would you send a possible alcoholic into a bar to pick up information on AA?

Monday I came to work and opened my email. Being the first workday of the month, there was an email from Human Resources about health and wellness. The topic of the month is Internet addiction. The email included a link to read more information about Internet addiction, and that link led, of course, to the Internet.

So what about it, my WordPress friends? How many of us could be described as Internet addicts? Do we think about the Internet all the time, even when we are not using it? Do we resent things like work and meals and sleep because they require time away from the Internet? Has our use of the Internet caused damage to our relationships, our careers, or other important aspects of our personal lives?

I generally frame WordPress posts or responses to posts while I am off the Internet, whether driving or showering or mowing. That is less an indication of Internet addiction than it is a writer’s standard procedure for creating effective writing.

If I am addicted to any sites on the Internet, I am addicted to Sudoku and Nonograms. But that is more an addiction to games than to the Internet per se. If I had a hand-held version of either game, or a paper version, I would play just as intensely as I do on the Internet.

I cannot think of any way that the Internet has damaged my personal relationships. I might check WordPress or Facebook while at work, or sneak in a quick game. But when one logs onto Facebook and sees that one’s supervisor is posting while at work, it hardly seems worth worrying about getting caught.

If anything, I have gained important relationships through the Internet. Not through Facebook—I got a Facebook account mostly to spy on my children, and I have never approved a friend on Facebook whom I do not already know. My WordPress community, on the other hand, has become very important to me. I value my online friends and their ideas and interests as much as I value those of people I know in person. Moreover, I take attacks upon my WordPress friends as personally as I take attacks on people I know in person.

Gains and losses both come from making friends over the Internet. Some people pretend online to be someone they are not. At the same time, communities form sheltered existences where people can reinforce one another’s opinions and viewpoints, no matter how peculiar and uninformed those opinions and viewpoints might be. Trolls roam the Internet, looking for victims to verbally abuse. Internet addiction is real, and it can damage lives and relationships. This Wednesday I walked into a room and saw five members of my family sitting, each using a device, not interacting with one another at all—and this included family members who had traveled from other states to spend special holiday time with their family.

This summer, for several reasons, I have had less time to spend on WordPress and other social media. I am copy-editing a book for a publishing company and putting together another book of my own writing for publication through CreateSpace. At work I am filling in for other people who have taken vacations. I am also playing nonograms a lot more than I should. As a result, I missed some of the news that some of you have shared in the past couple weeks, catching up days later. I sincerely hope I have offended no one by my lack of response to their posts.

But what of it, my Internet friends? Are you concerned about Internet addiction and its effects on your life? Or do you feel safe and secure in your use of the Internet? J.

Movie review: Dr. Strangelove

With Vladimir Putin rattling the Russian sabers last week, it seemed time to watch again the classic Cold War movie Dr. Strangelove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Made in 1964, Dr. Strangelove depicts the possibility of the world’s superpowers going to war because of the belligerence of one United States general.

The movie opens with a comforting statement from the United States Air Force that the events depicted in the movie could not possibly happen in real life. Yet the rules and regulations used by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper seem entirely reasonable and likely in the context of the film. Usually described as a black comedy, the script contains remarkably few laugh-out-loud lines. (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here—this is the War Room,” is one of the few.) The humor consists rather in situational comedy and irony bordering on parody: an Air Force pilot replaces his regulation helmet with a cowboy hat after receiving the order to bomb targets in the Soviet Union; a military officer with the code that can call off the attack attempts to reach the President and his advisors from a pay phone but does not have enough spare change to place the call.

Dr. Strangelove combines the extemporaneous comedy of Peter Sellers with the micromanaging direction of Stanley Kubrick. Sellers is one of the very few actors who has had a major role in more than one Kubrick film. This improbable pairing shows the enormous respect the two professionals held for one another. The cast also includes Sterling Hayden as General Ripper, George C. Scott as General Turgidson (a gung-ho, gum-chomping general who must explain to the President and his advisors what is happening and why—the gravely voice of Scott’s future portrayal of General Patton can be heard from time to time), Slim Pickens as the Air Force pilot, and James Earl Jones as a member of his crew. Sellers is given three roles: the title character, the American President, and a RAF officer assigned to General Ripper’s staff.

The title character, Dr. Strangelove, is meant to portray German scientists like Werner Von Braun, who were brought to the United States after World War II to assist the military and the space program. As portrayed by Sellers, he is uncannily reminiscent of a then-unknown Harvard Professor of Government named Henry Kissinger. Of his three characters, Sellers spends the least time on the screen as Strangelove. His portrayal of President Merkin Muffley—said to be based on unsuccessful presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson—makes the character a single voice of calm and reason surrounded by insanity, yet Sellers’ comedic genius shines in his telephone conversations (during which only his words are heard) with the Soviet Premier. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake is also, for Sellers, an understated character, played against the madness of General Ripper. Yet his efforts to wheedle the call-back code from the general, along with his scene in the telephone booth, are among the highlights of the movie.

Kubrick based the movie on a serious novel and only realized along the way that the movie would play better as a comedy than as a serious war film. The foolishness of a Mutually Assured Destruction policy, followed by both the United States and the Soviet Union during the 1960s, is skillfully portrayed in the film. This movie may have help lead to the turn toward détente that both governments attempted in the 1970s. Peter Sellers was the first actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for a film in which he portrayed more than one character. The movie was nominated for Best Picture (and remains the longest-titled movie to be so honored) along with Zorba the Greek, Becket, and Mary Poppins, but they all lost to My Fair Lady.

Much has changed in the world since 1964, but Putin’s boasts last week about Russian weaponry remind us that much has also stayed the same. It may be only the grace of God that has spared the world thus far from the incredible damage humanity is capable of causing, whether through a deliberate act of hate or through mere carelessness and stupidity. For this divine protection we should be thankful every day. 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.

Update and season’s greetings

I cannot predict my WordPress status for the next several days.

My home computer and WordPress are not interfacing well. When I go to my Reader page and try to scroll, the screen alternates between freezing and rolling uncontrollably, making it hard for me to click on a visit button before it escapes my pointer. Since I will not be able to use my work computer for the next few days, I may have problems visiting all the blogs I love and enjoy.

I have a project in mind, though, that I will try to post over the twelve days of Christmas. It involves picking up where I left off with Martin Luther’s explanations of the Ten Commandments and the Apostles’ Creed. The next topic will be prayer.

If I don’t have the opportunity to visit your site and wish you a Merry Christmas, please accept my best wishes all that same. May the Lord bless your celebration of His holy days. To Jesus be the glory. 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.”

 

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.