31 January 2006

Teapots and Tangos

Maybe I'm in hibernation or something; I find myself sleeping all the time this winter. I can't seem to stay awake. But I'm up now this afternoon or evening of the last day of January, and maybe writing something here will get me going a bit. I'm not actually counting on it, however.

A winter storm rages outside, but things are calm here, and with any luck, maybe they'll continue to be. If the electricity holds. And the supplies don't run out.

I've written "winter" now twice, but by my current eight-season model of the year, we are well into the season I call Sheol, or simply, The Pit. Winter, or Christmastide, is past, and we have nothing to look forward to till Spring. Hibernation may well be a good idea.

In the news we hear of the death of Coretta Scott King, the projected elevation of Judge Samuel Alito, and the coming (or is it now over) State of the Union speech. And we hear that Muslims are once again in an uproar over some silly thing or other--in this case, the running of a handful of cartoons by a Danish newspaper depicting the prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). This upsets them. I used to think that southern Baptists were the most idiotic people on earth for flying into a rage over nothing at all, but I've got to admit, these rioting Muslims take the cake. "...what they've done is beyond forgiveness," says one Abdul Qader Ibrahim, described as a Sudanese housekeeper in Jeddah. "...we demand that the Danish government make a clear and public apology for the wrongful crime," proclaims Nafez Azzam, a leader of Islamic Jihad. "It's a matter that touches the heart of Islam," says Hatim Misfer, a Saudi receptionist. A Saudi college student, Ahmad Alsaeed, said that a boycott of Danish goods was necessary because without it "the Western world would not have understood how serious this issue is to Muslims."

Okay ... I can't speak for the entire Western World here, but speaking for myself, what I get out of this is that some Muslim people, at least, have been living in a cocoon for too damn long. Wake up! There's a huge world filled with people who don't subscribe to your beliefs, who don't care about your notions, and who aren't even going to notice your boycott. What most people get out of this kind of behavior is that Muslims (in general!) are weird flaky people who are likely to fly off the handle for no good reason.

I remember a fellow named Wildmoan who was like that. Could've been Wildman. Seems to me he was a Southern Baptist--he acted like one, anyway. Flew off the handle over the strangest things--you just wouldn't believe it. One time he got it into his head somehow that CBS was going to broadcast a drama depicting Jesus as a child conceived through the rape of the virgin Mary by a Roman soldier. He did. Course CBS denied it, said they had a program in the works about Jesus, but nothing like what Wildeman was saying. But he wouldn't rest with that, no sir, he got people all stirred up--reeling and writhing and fainting in coils to beat the band. They were boycotting here and protesting there till you wouldn't believe it. They did. And then when Jesus of Nazareth came out, there wern't nothing like it in the show at all. Not a thing. So was Wildermann at all embarrassed? You'd think so, wouldn't you? After a mistake like that, it'd be all a body could do to show his face in public again. But no--this guy was made of sterner stuff. Not only did he appear in public, but he had the brass to declare victory! Seems in Widlemon's world he had forced CBS to back down and remove the Roman rapist from the story.

The issue here is control. Who gets to determine how a historical character is presented--his self-proclaimed followers, or all of us? The instrument is censorship--the attempt to prevent somebody with a message from reaching those who wish to hear (or in this case see) it.

And as for apologies--well, for one thing, the Muslim organizers of this boycott owe one hell of an apology to the people they've hurt with it--people who, by the way, had nothing to do with the cartoons or those who put them out. They owe an apology to all those they've offended in the West for their disrespect to the most basic law of civilized discourse--freedom of speech.

Whether anybody owes these Muslims an apology is harder to say. They certainly have every right to be offended, if that pleases them. They have every right not to subscribe to the Danish paper in question, if that pleases them. But they have no right whatsoever to keep me from looking at these images, if it pleases me and the cartoonists who made them. And the crime they are committing in trying to prevent that is indeed unforgivable.

(For a look at these cartoons, click here.)

08 January 2006

I missed Epiphany, I see, and the Christmas season is safely behind us for another ten months or so, and work can go on once again without interruption. If work be on, can springs be far behind? Sometimes this mindscum thing works; sometimes it doesn't. Anyway, I've been busy the last couple of days on a self-appointed task of rectifying an injustice at Maxpages.com, which hosts my website on the Modoc War. A clique dominates the voting there, thus featuring the same sites month after month. (Don't worry if this doesn't make sense to you; it's not important.) In response I set up an index to feature sites that really are worth visiting, not just those of a small group. The trouble is, I have to actually look at all the sites on Maxpages, not just the ones I like.

In the process I stumbled on one I liked just for its subject matter alone--the site-owner Ashley has a paragraph there about her pet iguana, Iggy. Iggy was four years old in 2000, so I suppose he'd be about ten years old today, if he's still around. My iguana Ialdobaoth (Liz for short) lived just over twenty years, and Flora lived ten and a half years, so it's quite reasonable to suppose Iggy's still sunbathing and eating carrots and romaine lettuce. Liz was big on romaine lettuce as well, but Flora was partial to kale.

05 January 2006


[This was written yesterday, but I didn't get it posted till now.]

I overslept this morning again—sleepiness is one of the annoying side effects of this otherwise amazing medication I’m on—and didn’t get up till my brother Greg, the aerobatic pilot, came through on his way to work. Had I heard about the miners in West Virginia, he asked, measuring oatmeal into a bowl for his breakfast. Well, I’d heard, all right, but from what I heard the prospects were not too bright. Trapped underground, carbon monoxide building up, and still missing—no, it didn’t look good for them this eleventh day of Christmas in the year 2006 of the Common Era.

“They’re still missing, the last I heard,” I said. “Why? Has something happened?”

“Well, kind of,” said Greg. “Last night, when I went to bed, they’d been found alive, all but one.” He put his bowl into the microwave, closed the door, started the oven. “And then this morning, as I’m driving in, I heard on NPR that only one of them was alive—the others had all been found dead.”

“Well—uh—how’d that happen?”

“Somebody told the families the miners had been found alive. And then the mining company sent some guy out about two hours later to tell them no, it had all been a mistake—there was only one of them found alive, and he was in critical condition.”

“That’s unfortunate,” I said, except that I used only one word, and that one unprintable. “What on earth did they think they were doing?” (or words to that effect). “Kind of makes you appreciate some of those airlines taking forever to release the facts till they got them right.”

In the TV room the set showed images of grief-stricken and angry friends and relatives. Somebody official, important, in charge, said a few words, urging us to remember the miracle of the one miner who survived. We switched over to the weather channel to help plan our days, and our conversation went on to other subjects.

After glancing at the news on the set I thought I had the hang of the story. Around midnight, it might begin, the bells started ringing at a small Baptist church in Tallmansville, West Virginia. They people were celebrating the joyous news that their prayers had been answered, that their loved ones had been found safe and sound, and even that they would soon be arriving at the church before being taken to the hospital. It would be like a second Christmas. Celebrations continued for another two to three hours, while hospitals prepared to receive patients and newspapers went to press. And then the unthinkable happened. The company sent a spokesman out to the church with the curt announcement that all but one of the miners was dead. It seemed there had been a slight miscommunication. Instead of all of them alive but one, it should have been all of them dead. But one.

That’s the sticking-point. What the hell were they thinking at that company—International Coal Group—in sending out news like that so hastily, without having confirmed it first? I suppose I couldn’t blame them in a way—the desire to be the bearer of good news is often overwhelming. But the company, damn it, should know better than—

Wait. Who exactly was it that told the relatives waiting at the church the false news? I worked my way through a clutch of nearly-identical internet stories without being able to pin it down. Somebody had made the announcement at the church, nobody seemed to know who. A man had come racing in with the news, saying the ambulances would stop by the church first so that the miners could have a few words with their families (surely that couldn’t be right). A “foreman” from the company had brought the news. A “foreman” had called somebody on his cell phone with the news.

More and more this was beginning to sound like one of those spontaneous rumors that pop up in crowds under stress; I could dimly recall reading about them a century or so ago in sociology class. They flare up like flash paper and move a crowd to do things that otherwise it might never dream of.

Ah, but what about the Governor? Didn’t he confirm it? Wasn’t that a second source to show the truth of the information?

Yeah, well, sort of. It seems that Mr. Manchin, the governor, got his story in the same way the rest of the crowd did, by word of mouth. The officials who were with him knew nothing of the situation. They decided to go straight to the horse’s mouth, and found that at the command center a celebration was going on. Confirmation enough, you might think. But how had the information come to command center? Again there was a blank. Apparently a message that the searchers had found the bodies and were checking their vital signs had somehow been misunderstood. It didn’t make sense, exactly, but still…

Miscommunication. Garbled in transmission. Noise is what they call it in information theory, that which interferes with communication. Editors have to deal with it all the time, the screw-ups that occur when information is transmitted, whether through time or through space. I wrote a chapter on it in one of my never-to-be-finished books, how whole documents have been assembled out of nothing more than noise. Donnelly’s solution to the (nonexistent) cipher in Shakespeare’s First Folio. Someone’s “translation” of the Troano Manuscript (one of the three documents that are all that is left of Mayan literature) that gave rise to the story of the lost continent of Mu. Miscommunication.

But still—what an odd mistake to make. A miscommunication that gave rise to celebrations at a church, at command center, and preparations at a local hospital.

Now, you have to understand, I didn’t spend my whole day on this. I mused idly while on breaks from other matters. I read casually. I watched fitfully. It was during a break for a sandwich I saw that ICG’s chief executive, Ben Hatfield, was about to make a statement to the press. I stayed around for it—and the story changed again. Some parts cleared up—others remained murky.

Okay, ignoring the sequence in which Mr. Hatfield gave it, the narrative begins with the rescuers down in the tunnels, making their way slowly like explorers on another planet, unable to breathe the poisonous atmosphere below. In this hellish environment somebody heard a sound—the sound of someone moaning. Investigation brought them to the twelve missing miners—one of them alive, the other eleven dead. And at this point comes the appalling miscommunication that led to the scene at the church—the noise in the signal, the grit in the gears.

It seems that they had a sort of code-word arrangement in effect between the rescue workers and the command center. The word “item,” for example, would be used instead of “body.” Apparently either the rescue worker who sent the news used the wrong code-word, or the person at the other end of the line of communications got confused as to which word meant what—at any rate, when the message that the rescue workers had found the twelve missing miners reached the command center, the word was that they had found twelve living miners. Miscommunication—with a vengeance.

I didn’t get from the report how many people there were at the center, but no less than three organizations were involved, and there must have been a dozen or more. ICG, quite correctly, had a ban on premature release of the news, precisely to prevent situations like this from happening, but it looks like one or more people—no doubt with the best of intentions—violated it. The false news jumped the barrier, the cell phones buzzed, and the church bells rang. Noise assumed the shape of news, and the spectre of vain hope stalked the land.

Meanwhile, back at command center, time passed, and people began to become uneasy. Where were the expected details of the condition of the miners? What was happening? After forty-five minutes had gone by, a new communication was received, and this one was not so good. Instead of twelve living miners rescued, there was one miner in critical condition. And eleven, I would assume, “items.”

Now of course at this point it was clear at command center that there was a miscommunication of some kind, but which was the error? Was it that only one had survived, or that all had survived? More time was lost while the situation was investigated, and outside the miners’ friends and families celebrated.

Of course we all know now how it came out, and in hindsight it’s easy to say what should have been done—but all they had to go on at command center were contradictory reports. And even when it was clear that it was the second report, that only one man had survived, they still didn’t know who he was. What do you say under the circumstances, and when do you say it? It seems to me that it would have been better to send some word as soon as the second contradictory message appeared, but then, I’m always in favor of keeping people in the loop, as the expression goes.

Quite late it seems that some effort was made to prepare the friends and families of the victims, though Ben Hatfield was rather vague on the point. Unnamed law-enforcement people were expected to take a more sobering report to the clergy at the church, who in turn would inform the people. Apparently this didn’t happen—more miscommunication? In any case, when Hatfield went down to the church to address the families of the victims, he seems to have thought that his only job was to give them the name of the survivor. Instead he found false hope still alive, and the celebrations still going on. It must have been an appalling moment.

Well, we all know what happened then—chaos, anger, panic attacks, fainting. One man had to be prevented from physically attacking the messenger. A pastor called for calm, and somebody shouted “What the hell did God ever do for us?” A woman who had been thanking God for her son’s survival switched to not blaming him for his death. Another threatened to sue ICG. And life went on.

There isn’t any moral to this story. There’s a certain irony, perhaps, in the miscommunication, if indeed the use of code-words intended to prevent unfounded rumors instead caused one. No doubt the company should have responded more quickly; false hope is a terrible phantom to conjure up. And of course we all should celebrate the survival of the “miracle miner,” as MSNBC insisted on calling him ad nauseam. But still, in the end, there doesn’t seem to be any point. It’s just, as Homer Simpson once said, a bunch of stuff that happened.

03 January 2006

Hold This Space

As is probably obvious, I made a New Year's resolution to actually write in this space daily, rather than thinking of things I should say some time and never getting them down. And of course already the daily thing is not working out.

Today got eaten up with many odd activities, and writing as such wasn't one of them. My niece, my grand-nephew and I went across the street to a local restaurant for breakfast, and ended up having lunch instead. I visited some with my nephew, whose work starts again today, and I talked on the phone with my brother, who is enjoying a vacation at the beach with his wife. All of this is important, you understand, but it all kind of got in the way of writing anything.

I had figured on sliding in something from the past to fill in the gaps, if and when this situation arose, but I don't have anything ready, so even that is out.

So for today, I guess, I'm going to post this piece of non-writing, so that at least technically I haven't fallen on my sword quite this early in the game. But I fully intend to be back tomorrow.

02 January 2006

The Christmas season begins to wind down now as Epiphany looms this Ninth Day of Christmas 2006. Today is still a holiday--largely by virtue of being a monday, a day favored by corporations for holidays here in the twenty-first century. The old Christmas spirit is gone, it seems, or at least expiring fast, and I still haven't read "A Christmas Carol" as do every Christmas season at some point.

Isaac Asimov would be 86 today, or at any rate this would be the day he celebrated as his 86th birthday. I wouldn't know this except that I got a copy of his two-volume autobiography for Christmas, and have been reading it off and on since it arrived. Which may explain why I haven't got back to Dickens yet. Or not. Apparently the actual date of his birth cannot be established, but at any rate it was no later than 2 January, and may have been as much as three months earlier. Close enough for jazz I guess.

Asimov was one of three people who influenced me deeply while I was growing up. There were many more of course, but these three had something in common that links them in my mind--each had a monthly column I looked forward to and read eagerly. Each of them I discovered first as a writer of a book; in each case I learned that the book was made up of articles that had appeared elsewhere; and in each case I ran down the column and from then on read assiduously.

The first of the three was Willy Ley, I think--at least I'm sure his was the first of the books I stumbled across. I believe the book was called The Lungfish and the Unicorn and it came from the county library. (Later on we acquired an updated copy called Exotic Zoology which I still have, but the lungfish title was more memorable.) The book told the stories of a variety of bizarre creatures--real, like the lungfish, quasi-mythical like the unicorn, and those that were invented outright, like the Upas Tree. It was amazing. The history of the unicorn, for example, was like nothing I had ever read before, and the story of the lungfish even more so. Other creatures I recall (many no doubt from later articles) include the tuatura (a living fossil from the time before the dinosaurs), the pangolin (a mammal that resembles a living pine cone), the man-eating tree of Madagascar (a hoax), and the mysterious creature depicted on the gates of Babylon.

Even when the subject was familiar, Ley took the narrative places that I hadn't been before, and often the subject was not familiar--far from it.

His column was called by the rather condescending title "For Your Information" and I didn't expect much when I saw it. I had read too many science columns even then, and I knew they could be counted on to mix misinformation, triteness, and artificial excitement in about equal parts. But Ley's columns were different--they were (and I don't know why this surprised me, but it did) like his books. He would digress to tell us the story of Georg Rumpf or Hildegard of Bingen; he would explore some forgotten back alley of forgotten information; and even when he had a piece called something like "News from Atlantis" by heaven it would actually contain something new. His column appeared in Galaxy, and for years reading it was a high point of the month for me.

My second discovery of these three was Martin Gardner. I don't remember the book, but I remember vividly digging through old boxes of Scientific Americans to read his back columns. I think the title was "Mathematical Games" and every month he came up with some kind of brain teaser, paradox, bizarre game, or--well, even a mere trick of numbers, something to challenge the mind and exercise the logical faculty. It didn't hurt that he was the author of The Annotated Alice and (like myself, Rex Stout, and for that matter John Lennon) a great Lewis Carroll fan. I remember many happy hours as a kid building prime sieves, self-sorting cards, hexaflexagons, and klein bottles (okay, maybe not the last) by following the directions in his articles.

Third and last was Isaac Asimov. I think the book I discovered him in as a science writer (I'd read him before as a writer of fiction) might have been View from a Height, though I don't know for sure. He had a regular column (I don't remember its name) in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and one of the reasons I didn't stumble onto that right away is that it was not one of the magazines my father brought home regularly. Dear old Dad (we called him Bryce) didn't believe in subscriptions, you see--he used to claim that he had subscribed to only three periodicals in his life, and all of them had folded before his first subscription ran out, so he was reluctant to try the experiment again. But Scientific American he bought from the newsstand regularly, and Galaxy almost as regularly, but I had to talk him into bringing home issues of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Asimov's articles were always entertaining, and he had a way of bringing home familiar truths with unfamiliar metaphors or parallels that fascinated me. He never gave me the sense that Ley and Gardner did of heading out into strange and unexplored territories, but he frequently filled in gaps in my knowledge in a solid way, and made it easier for me to understand the hard stuff I ran into elsewhere.

I've known since I wandered off into this path today I would have to end by recommending a book by each, and so I guess I will. For Willy Ley I'll go with Dawn of Zoology, a kind of history of the discipline. For Martin Gardner, The Ambidextrous Universe, a study of symmetry. And for Isaac Asimov, well it's a tough one, but why don't I go with his autobiography. It's what started me on this piece, after all.

01 January 2006

Anthrax IV

I was up last night late--late for me anyway, on my current schedule--to try to see the new year in. The new year, 2006. I didn't make it, of course, but the explosions and shouting outside woke me up, as did my dog. I don't think she liked the sounds; they worried her somehow. We staggered off homeward, she hiding under parked cars and making random bolts for obscure alcoves, and I pitching a little as the sidewalk tilted abruptly under my feet. It wasn't actually raining at the moment, so we made it back relatively unscathed, and I collapsed safe and sound in my own bed.

The trouble is, when I awoke this morning and sprang to my computer to throw a few words at the word mangler here, the rest of the world had vanished. There was no blogger.com, no yahoo, no google. There was only one explanation, of course--during the night, while I was sleeping, a mysterious display of red meteors had turned most of the population into dust and reduced the rest to brain-eating zombies. I didn't really feel prepared for that, so going back to bed began to seem more and more attractive.

I suddenly recalled the message I had received in my sleep a night or two ago. It had seemed vitally important, and I had made a point of trying to remember it until I could wake up. I had been standing in an ocean of water that came up to my ankles, a shallow ocean with no shores at all as far as I could tell. The water teemed with arthropods of all sorts, none more than ten inches long or so, and most much smaller. Brine shrimp size--sea monkeys, for those of you who may have wondered just what sea monkeys are. At that moment I heard a doom-laden voice make an announcement of such surpassing importance that I knew I needed to remember it until I woke up. I felt quite certain that when I woke up I could do something about it, but not till then. I fixed the words in my memory and dreamed on.

Well, of course that ocean and its clawed inhabitants dissolved into the dream-stuff of which it had been made, and new images surfaced. A sort of informal conference assembled in an outdoor campus-like setting to discuss the matter, and I told my story. There was a subdued discussion, and a man with an oversized top-hat assured me that the message indeed sounded important, and that my plan of remembering it until I woke up was a sound one. A girl suggested that I should make a point of repeating it to the people I encountered in subsequent dream-sequences so that I would not forget it. I was somewhat concerned about it becoming garbled in transmission, because the dream environment was not a good one for ensuring accuracy of the text. Keep repeating it, was the advice I received, and hope for the best.

And so I did. Later on I repeated it to members of my family as we stood in a dark-paneled room with an absurdly high ceiling. A brother--not a real brother, a dream-person who was labeled as my brother for the purpose of the sequence--a brother laughed, and said that it didn't sound all that important to him. I agreed that it seemed sort of humorous now, but suggested that might be an effect of the dream-environment that we were in. My dream-brother said it wouldn't do any harm to remember it, but it didn't matter if I forgot it either.

And I repeated it again at some sort of party to a group of guests who were strangers to me, and they merely looked puzzled, and wished me good luck in my quest.

And I repeated it to myself while riding on a public-transportation device that resembled a raft on rails. I wasn't sure now if it made any sense or not, but I figured that I had got the message this far, so I could get it all the way to awakening-time. I didn't think it would be much longer now.

And it wasn't. Not long after that (as far as I can tell) I woke up, my small dog barking at some imagined menace. I found my glasses and started to get out of bed, when abruptly the message came back to me. No, it was rather that I remembered there was a message. It took me a moment longer to remember the actual text.

The doom-laden voice was that of President Bush. The president had said, "Our forces have defeated the crustaceans of Anthrax IV. Our surviving army has surrendered."

High time, I said to myself, to go out and face those brain-eating zombies. Or maybe fix a triffid salad.
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