A Year in the Life Atomic

I’ve now been posting to this blog for a year. It felt like I only just made my weekly post, but at just over 100 entries the average was closer to twice a week. Not too shabby for a guy who tends to start lots of projects only to abandon them for shinier things.

One reason I’ve stuck with it may be that I’ve experienced some creative benefits. Last year I wrote a short story for the first time in years, and it got published in Mad Scientist Journal. I learned my first song on the ukulele. (Previously, I’d practice parts in isolation for recording.) I have a new comic book coming, and I’m writing another one. There’s even a comic strip that I’ve started to work on as a long-term project.

Maybe it’s simply a coincidence. Perhaps the same energy that allowed me to be productive in general enabled me to maintain a blog. At this point I’m not certain it matters. Whether it’s my luck charm or my canary in a coal mine, I know that as long as I can keep to this schedule I have the ability to create.

To those who’ve been following me over the last year, I extend my thanks. You keep me from talking to my cats, and they should probably appreciate that more than they do. I hope you enjoy the next year of Tales of the Atomic Zombie! I’ll continue to over-share, pontificate, muse, and hopefully to amuse.

Maybe I’ll even scrape up some time to start making illustrations again. 🙂

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And Now You Know

In the title of my previous post, I used the term Know-Nothings. That was a deliberate (if also somewhat facetious) reference to the political organizations of the mid-1800s that were primarily focused on keeping America white and Protestant. Calling themselves ‘nativists’ (though excluding the indigenous populations), they were intent on keeping America for Americans.

If that sounds familiar to you, you’ve been paying attention. Though the specific parties dissolved, their adherents never left. They became the Ku Klux Klan. They opposed President Kennedy solely because he was Catholic. They became White Power. They want a fence to keep Mexicans out. They refuse to accept that President Obama is a citizen. They will not admit that their own ancestors were immigrants. They believe that freedom of religion only applies to their own Protestant sects.

I don’t have a clever wrap-up, here. Just a feeling of sadness at the way some things never change.

I Thought the Know-Nothings Were Extinct

While I was in the jury selection room last year, I conducted a little anthropological research. This was not by choice; my intent had been to quietly work on the second draft of “Heart of the Warrior”, but the chatter of those around me made it difficult to focus.

The chief subject of my study was an older woman who had somehow managed to avoid a summons up until now. She had a number of odd opinions which she shared loudly with those in her vicinity, but what interested me was the way she closed off discussion when her notions were challenged.

In itself, there’s nothing unusual about someone shutting off contrary information. Certain news channels even cater to those who already know all they care to. What caught my attention was how she went about it. By way of example I’ll use the AT&T snitch discussion.

According to her, AT&T spontaneously detected that a) her daughter was cursing on the phone b) to her own daughter, c) who is a minor. The phone company then informed the police and unpleasant federal charges ensued. Therefore you should always be wary of technology.

By now we should all be aware that our communications are (at least) randomly scanned for certain key words and phrases by Homeland Security, but they frankly aren’t likely to give a shit about cussing. You’re more likely to attract their attention by saying that your car bombed out on the way to the airport.

But let’s posit that AT&T is itself scanning all conversations for cuss-words. That’s a ton of data passing through filters and detectors just to monitor naughty words, but let’s say they do it. They would then need to detect that there is a child on the line. Possible, within a small margin of error, for extremely young children perhaps. Older teens would be practically impossible, though. They’d then need to investigate possible instances of children hearing naughty words to actually identify all parties and their ages. This is a massive expense of additional equipment and labor just to protect virgin ears, purportedly being done by a for-profit company.

When one of those hearing this tale pointed out that it would be difficult for the phone company to assume the burden of policing language, she immediately shut down the discussion.

“Well,” she said, “I don’t know about that, but my daughter was convicted.”

She had launched into this story, not to talk about her daughter’s plight, but to back up her assertion that technology is evil. Now, with that portion of the tale challenged, she acted as though it was an irrelevant detail — one that warranted no discussion. Her reinforcement of the outcome served to assert that she’d been right, whatever she’d been talking about.

I didn’t get much writing done, as I was drawn into her bizarre performance. She held court for the entire morning, espousing her baseless views and deflecting any criticism with her trusty shield of Not Knowing. (Global warming doesn’t mean that there won’t be cold weather. “I don’t know about that, but I had to turn on the furnace earlier this year.”)

She even had theories about how we were being called up to be dismissed. Despite the fact that they were clearly just going through a stack of forms in no particular order, she had an elaborate explanation that evolved as names were called. At first this stunned me, as she’d resisted any input for over three hours. Then I realized the difference.

She disregarded only what she didn’t witness. Her experience informed her opinion, and she didn’t trust the experience of others (or at least of strangers). Human nature, really; it’s just that I’ve rarely observed it so blatantly and repeatedly expressed in such a short span of time. My own experience was that things get shouty when conviction butts into knowledge, but that never happened here. Perhaps it was that the others in the conversation were simply killing time and weren’t all that interested in convincing her of anything.

I don’t know about that, but it’s a probably a good thing I was only observing.

The Plane Truth

Last week I had to catch a flight to Virginia for training. It doesn’t particularly what for or where at, except that the airport at the training end was Reagan International. The relevance of that will be clear later.

The first thing I need to explain is that I don’t believe that airplanes can fly. When I reveal this, a lot of folks think that I’m some sort of science-denying, foil-hat-wearing nutcase who doesn’t believe that airplanes travel from place to place above the ground.

(Rather than correct this perception, I usually play along. Consequently there are several people who aren’t quite certain whether I genuinely believe that air travel is an elaborate hoax designed to conceal the existence of teleportation. [I do not. That would be crazy. The aliens kill anybody who comes close to working out teleportation. (Poor Tesla.)])

I understand the science of flight at a high level, my hats are not made of materials useful for baking, and I completely agree that planes travel through the air. I just don’t call that flight. I call it a rocket-propelled death-ride. Airplanes are basically missiles with a modicum of steering, a throttle, and a small packet of pretzels.

This training junket would be my second round-trip death-ride. (My first, also for work, was to Las Vegas. If I was strapping myself into a rocket for the first time, I wanted to have some good shows at the other end dammit!) Between the strain of getting my car fixed, driving through snow, and arriving barely in time for boarding I was already a wreck. I sat trembling in my seat until after we were safely above the clouds.

The trip back was a different story, but here’s where Reagan airport comes in. The ride from Reagan to my hotel in McLean cost around $30. It would be reimbursed, so my worry wasn’t the cost. I’d simply never called a cab before. I hadn’t needed to. In Vegas cabs were lined up everywhere, and they flock to airports like seagulls to the parking lot at McDonald’s. My schedule had me checking out of the hotel on the morning of my last day of training, so I’d have to get a phone number and actually call it.

You may recall that I’m only slightly less phobic of phones as I am of spiders. In fact, a spider with a phone would pretty much incapacitate me.

Then the media started hyping storm Not Actually Officially Named, which was slated to return the East Coast to the Bronze Age or something. Ten hours before my flight, and I’d already started feeling sick. Would I be stuck at the airport, if I even managed to get there?

Luckily, two of the other guys in training were also going to Reagan, and they had a rental car! Even better, they generously offered me a ride before I even started figure out if I should impose by asking. (Thanks again, guys! You’re swell in my book.) That was such a relief that I didn’t mind being about three hours early for my flight.

Okay. Here’s the Reagan part. I promise.

After stalling for a while, I finally decided to get it over with and go through the security check. I threw my bag, boots, and coat into scanner bins and strolled into the cancer chamber. No sooner had I stepped out then I was pulled aside by a large man who was keenly interested in my groin. Turns out that I’d forgotten to empty my pockets, and in D.C. they take that pretty seriously.

My money clip and wallet were confiscated while I was patted down and checked for eau d’explosive. The money clip (and money!) was returned after cursory inspection, but my wallet disappeared. I’ve gone through a few variant types of wallets, and I currently use a small metal business card case. With an alcoholic squirrel on it.

I stood there, ignored, wondering what to do. They’d lost interest in me once I’d passed the sniff test. I stood there awkwardly for a minute, then I put on my boots and recovered my bag and coat. More time passed. A tiny bucket trundled out of the scanner. It contained my wallet. I looked around. Nobody cared. I picked up the wallet. Nobody yelled. I slipped away before they remembered me.

The actual flight was nothing. The plane seemed to be from the 1960s, with original naugahyde. As the plane chugged to the runaway, I could see a wing bouncing harder than a check from Bernie Madoff. No problem. The whole trip was almost over, and my nerves had given up trying to keep me alert. At least if I died I’d have my wallet.

Cold Air Stream

I was cleaning images off my phone and discovered this documented strangeness.

There had been a thin covering of frost on my car, and a freezing mist settled on my car as I drove. When I got home, I noticed that there was an icicle coming up from the hood of my car.

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I can only figure that the moisture from the mist was funneled there by the contours of the car, such that what was essentially a water spray froze in place.

Non-Starter

My car is getting old and, apparently, senile.

On Saturday I drove to the post office. I could have walked, but I had a handful of errands and we just never know what sort of packages will be waiting for us to pick up. I retrieved our mail (a small package this time), climbed back into the car, turned the key… and nothing.

Several more attempts ended in futility. There was not so much as a hint of it trying to turn over. I collected the mail and walked home.

I wasn’t ready to deal with the situation yet, so I walked to the market in order to complete my original task. (For programmers: it was a matter of priority, not simply order in the stack.) When I came back, Wendi left messages for a tow company to come give the car a jump.

Time passed, and we never heard back from the tow company. It was a snowy day, so they probably had a lot of cars to pull out of ditches. Eventually I remembered that I keep an emergency kit in my trunk, and it likely contained jumper cables. Unfortunately, being a practical matter, I haven’t the faintest clue how to jump a car. Luckily, Wendi did (although there are no cables in her station wagon).

Sometimes life comes up chocolate and peanut butter.

Wendi drove us over to the post office and sidled her wagon up to the left side of my car. I figured that we’d need keys in the ignition at some point in the process, so I slid in through the passenger seat and put the key in. On a whim, I gave the key a turn.

The engine promptly started.

I don’t put up with hijinks in car electronics. I needed this infernal contraption to get me to the airport in two days and expected it to still function on my return. So off to the repair shop it went. It’s closed on the weekends, so we left the keys and went on with our weekend.

At 8:00 AM on Monday I called the shop and explained the car’s behavior and my need to drive it to the airport at 3:00 PM. They said they’d get right on it and see what they could do. (I love our local repair shop.)

A few hours later I got a call from Wendi. They’d called her (her number’s the one listed with them, because phones and I are not exactly close). It turns out that the part of the ignition system that recognizes the key was wearing out, and we could expect it to start failing more often.

My car needs to remember the key, and because it’s grown old and forgetful it won’t let the engine start.

They got a new ignition switch configured and installed with an hour to spare. I’m appreciative, but once again a security feature has left me baffled. How is this supposed to help anything? Isn’t the whole function of a key that it “prevents” unauthorized usage? Or is this their way to compensate for the limited permutations of key designs available?

I just hope that my car doesn’t have a security feature that allows it to forget how to brake.

The Saga of the Extra Muffin

On my way to a meeting yesterday, I gave Wendi a muffin. She asked why I had it, and I told her the explanation was a bit involved.

So this is the tale of the extra muffin.

I went to a restaurant near work to get an early lunch before a meeting. The owner was at the register, and he was talking to someone on the phone. He broke away to take my order: a Mexican omelette and a muffin. He poked his head in the kitchen and relayed my eggy desires, then gave me a total cost and went back to his conversation.

The restaurant has a punch card for earning a free meal, so I handed over a card along with my payment. He set the card on the register and made change for me. I watched him talk, then glanced at my card. Something wasn’t quite right. I wondered why he wasn’t putting a punch in it.

Then I noticed that the card didn’t have any punches at all. It had initials. I’d handed him the discount card of another restaurant.

With no small degree of embarrassment, I dug out the right card and offered it along with an apology. He punched it twice and returned both cards.

“Have another punch for figuring it out,” he said.

I waited for lunch. His call ended, and he looked at me. Then he looked at the kitchen. He went back to talk to the cook, and after a few moments he returned. He apologized and told me that the order hadn’t been heard.

“Here,” he said. “Have another muffin.”

We talked awkwardly about the weather until my omelette was done. Then I thanked him for everything and scurried back to the office.

With an extra muffin.