News from Mars: Another (Planned) Mission!

mars-mission1When it comes to generational milestones, those of born since the late 70’s often feel like we’re lagging behind previous generations. Unlike the “Greatest Generation” or the “Baby Boomers”, we weren’t around to witness Two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the death of JFK, Neil Armstrong, or the FLQ Crisis. For us, the highlights were things like the development of the PC, the birth of the internet, Kurt Cobain, and of course, 9/11.

But looking ahead, those us of belonging to Generation X, Y, and Millennials might just be around to witness the greatest event in human history to date – a manned mission to Mars! And while NASA is busy planning a mission for 2030, a number of private sources are looking to make a mission happen sooner. One such group is a team of UK scientists working from Imperial College London that are working to mount a a three person mission to Mars.

mission-to-marsThe planned mission consists of two spacecraft, the first of which is a Martian lander equipped with a heat shield that will send the crew off into Earth’s orbit. The second craft would be a habitat vehicle, which is the craft that the crew would live in during the voyage. The habitat vehicle would consist of three floors, and measure in at around 30 feet (10m) tall and 13 feet (4m) in diameter.

The astronauts would be situated in the lander during takeoff, and would move to the habitat when the dual-craft reaches Earth orbit. Once the astronauts are safely within the habitat, a rocket would shoot the dual-craft off on its journey to Mars, which would take nine months to arrive, less than the approximately 300 days that most projections say it will take.

Mars_landerOnce In space, the dual-craft would then split apart but remain connected by a 60 meter (200 foot) tether. Thrusters from both vehicles would then spin them around a central point, creating artificial gravity similar to Earth’s in the habitat. Not only would this help the astronauts feel at home for the better part of a lonely year, but it would also reduce the bone and muscle atrophy that are associated with weightlessness.

The craft would be well-stocked with medicine to ensure that the crew remained in fine health for the nine month transit. Superconducting magnets, as well as water flowing through the shell of the craft, would be employed to help reduce both cosmic and solar radiation. And once the dual-craft reaches Mars, it would tether back together, the crew would move back into the lander, and then detach from the habitat descend to the Martian surface.

Mars-mission-2This mission would also involve sending a habitat and return vehicle to Mars before the astronauts arrived, so the crew would have shelter upon landing as well as a way to get home. The crew would spend anywhere from two months to two years on Mars, depending on the goals of the mission and the distance between Mars and Earth. On the way back home, the mission would dock with the ISS, then take a craft back to Earth from there.

What’s especially interesting about this proposed mission is that each stage of it has been proven to work in an individual capacity. What’s more, the concept of using water as a form radiation shielding is far more attractive than Inspiration Mars’, which calls for using the astronauts own fecal matter!

Unfortunately, no real timetable or price tags have been proposed for this mission yet. However, considering that every individual step of the mission has been proven to work on its own, the proposed overall journey could work. In the meantime, all us post-Baby Boomers can do is wait and hope we live to see it! I for one am going sick of hearing Boomers talk about where they were when Apollo 11 happened and having nothing comparable to say!

And be sure to enjoy this video of the University College London team discussing the possibilities of a Mars mission in our lifetime:


Sources:
bbc.co.uk, extremetech.com

Cyberwars: Snowden Reveals NSA’s Been Hacking China

nsa_aerialEdward Snowden, the man who blew the whistle on the NSA and its domestic surveillance program – aka. PRISM – has reemerged to reveal some additional secrets. It seems that in addition to spying on their own citizens, the NSA has been using its resources to spy on tens of thousands of operations around the world. Not surprising, but what Snowden revealed showed that when it comes to nations like China, surveillance was just the tip of the iceberg.

Snowden, who has been hiding in Hong Kong since May 20th, revealed in an interview on Thursday with the South China Morning Post that the NSA has been hacking computers in Hong Kong and mainland China since 2009. Among the targets in Hong Kong were the Chinese University of Hong Kong, public officials, businesses and even students in the city.

?????????????All told, Snowden estimated that there are more than 61,000 NSA hacking operations globally, with at least hundreds of targets in Hong Kong and on the mainland. The tactics, he claimed, involve selecting large targets and infiltrating in many places at once:

We hack network backbones – like huge internet routers, basically – that give us access to the communications of hundreds of thousands of computers without having to hack every single one.

Snowden also explained his motivation for blowing the whistle on the NSA’s foreign operations. It seems that in light recent tensions between the US and China, which has been characterized by ongoing accusations and recrimination, he felt the need to tell the truth behind the lies. As he told the SCMP, his motivation was based on:

the hypocrisy of the U.S. government when it claims that it does not target civilian infrastructure, unlike its adversaries….Not only does it do so, but it is so afraid of this being known that it is willing to use any means, such as diplomatic intimidation, to prevent this information from becoming public.

Edward-Snowden-660x367Though Snowden also discussed possible plans to seek asylum in Iceland or elsewhere during an interview last week, he told the SCMP  that he’s staying put in Hong Kong for now. He emphasized that his stay in China was not an attempt to avoid justice, but to reveal criminal behavior.  He also expressed admiration for countries that have offered asylum (such as Russia), claiming that he was “glad there are governments that refuse to be intimidated by great power.”

The Guardian newspaper, which has published information from documents leaked by Snowden, has said that it has more than a thousand other documents that Snowden managed to smuggle out or download from the NSA using a series of laptops and a thumb drive. These documents are to be disclosed in the coming weeks, according to the paper, so more revelations are expected to come.

secret_documentsThough there are those who question his motivations and methods, no one can deny that thanks to Snowden, some very questionable  behavior has been revealed that involved people at the top echelons of government. One can’t help but be reminded of Richard Clarke, former head of the NSA, who came forward in 2004 to testify before to the 9/11 Commission and reveal the extent to which the Bush Administration failed to prevent the largest terrorist attack in history, or how it sought to pin that attack on the Iraqi government.

And for those who have lived long enough to remember, these events also call to mind the Pentagon Papers of 1969. In this case, it was another whistle blower named Daniel Ellsberg who, through the publication of hundreds of government documents, revealed that the US government had been lying about the Vietnam war, the number of casualties, and the likelihood of its success. And let’s not forget  former FBI Ass. Dir. Mark Felt – aka. “Death Throat” – the man who blew the whistle on the Nixon Administration.

whistleblower-protectionIn the end, whistle blowers have a long history of ending wars, exposing corruption, and force administrations to take responsibility for their secret, unlawful policies. Naturally, there were those who are critical men such as Felt, Clarke, and Ellsberg, both then and now, but they have never been able to refute the fact that the men acted out of conscience and achieved results. And while I’m sure that their will be fallout from Snowden’s actions, I too cannot dispute that what he did needed to be done.

As Edmund Burke famously said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil  is for good men to do nothing.”

Sources: wired.com, scmp.com

Star Trek Into Darkness

StarTrekIntoDarknessIMAXposterPTParamountHello folks! This weekend, I finally managed to get my butt to the movie theater to catch a summer blockbuster. It was the first time in months, perhaps a year, that the wife and I caught a movie on the big screen. And as my geekiness demanded, the movie we caught was the second installment in the J.J. Abrams relaunch of the classic franchise: Star Trek Into Darkness. And while I am obliged to provide a review, I am also bound by the spoiler code, so what I am about to say shall be as vague as I can possibly make it.

As I’m sure you all know, the second act in any series is meant to be the dark one. And while it is hard to top an event like the loss of an entire planet – Vulcan getting obliterated in the first film – this movie really did revolve around a certain downturn in the series. In addition to their being the concept of the enemy within, there is also the prospect of impending war, of vengeance overpowering good reason, and people sacrificing who and what they are in the process.

StarTrekIntoDarknessNot only did all this call to mind some of the larger ethical concerns arising out of the “War on Terror” – such as vengeance vs. justice, preemptive violence, and being rulec by fear – there was an even a dedication at the end of the film to all veterans who have served since September 11th, 2001. Apparently, this was because the makers knew the movie would be released in 2013, when many soldiers overseas would be returning home.

And of course, the movie was also an homage to the second installment in the original series. As I was forewarned going in, though not in any detail, this movie pays tribute to The Wrath of Khan in many places. While this was to be expected – I too suspected as much from several early hints – it did get a little tedious at times. After awhile, it didn’t so much feel like a wink and a nod as much as a repetitious pattern.

Still, the pace of the film, the big reveals, and the way it all played into the original story arc, but again with changes due to the temporal shift that took place in the first movie, all made for a very exciting and awesome experience. A couple of times I looked over to my wife and whispered “I knew it!”, and I quietly screamed my applause at the end. She laughed, I explained things to her, it was all good!

So if you haven’t seen it yet, and consider yourself a Trekkie, geek, fan of action sci-fi, or all of the above, get on out and catch this movie before the summer is out!

NASA: The World Will Not End on Dec. 21st, 2012

Worlds CollidingIt seems NASA spends untold resources trying to debunk conspiracy theories and doomsday predictions. Sad, when you consider all the wonderful uses this time and energy could be dedicated towards, like putting people on Mars! In any case, and in anticipation for this coming Friday (and Saturday, if all goes well!), I thought I’d share this video NASA released to put people’s minds at ease. The world will NOT end on Dec. 21st, 2012, it claims, and presents the scientific findings that say so.

Set on Dec. 22nd, 2012, the video approaches the apocalypse as if it is something that has already come and gone and proceeds to explain how the myth of the 2012 End of the World scenario began in the first place. In examining the actual Mayan Calendar, the reasons for why the calendar ends when it does, and taking a look at all the stellar and terrestrial phenomena which are believed to coincide with the date (but which won’t), NASA shows why we have nothing to worry about.

In fact, if anything, the date in question will be a time of rejoicing. Not only is it the holiday season for people worldwide, it is also the natural turning point in the Mayan Calendar, the date at which the ancient astronomers reckoning of time would “reset” in accordance with their ancient theology. This was a regular pattern as far as the Yucatan-based civilization was concerned, and is a testament to their long and expansive concepts of time and cosmology.

Nothing destructive was ever mentioned or implied in the Mayan belief system, merely a rolling over of the odometer and an entrance into a new age. If anything, it was western apocalyptics and cultists, with their preconceived notions of the End of Days and astrology, that attached this significance to the date. Astrological phenomena, such a meteor striking Earth, an inversion of our gravitational field, a massive solar flare, or another planet colliding with us, were all added as a means of explaining how. But, as the experts as NASA show, none of this stuff is happening or in danger of happening in the next few days.

In short, we can all look forward to another holiday season with plenty of food, family, in-laws and swag. As my grandpa used to say “the sun will still rise in the east and set in the west”, the world will keep on spinning, and people will keep on waiting for the end of the days to come. Fear not the End of Days, fear waking up tomorrow and realizing that you still have to get up, go to your job, and tolerate all the little annoyances we all deal with on a daily basis. And while your at it, be thankful you’re alive and STOP WISHING FOR IT ALL TO END!

And if that is still not enough to convince the doomsayers that life will go on, perhaps a quick look at their track record will be enough to convince the rest of us of how often they are wrong. Consider…

30-36 – 2012 C.E: After the death of Jesus and the spread of early Christianity, believers begin to prepare for the “coming of the Lord”. After several centuries, it is clear that the End of Days isn’t just around the corner, so believers begin to settle in and create Monasteries in the hopes of living how the Savior would have wanted. Two-thousand years later, we’re all still waiting!

410 C.E.: Rome is sacked, leading many Christians to fear that the Barbarian hordes are the harbingers of the Apocalypse. However, St. Augustine of Hippo allays much of these fears with his book City of God, where he states that though the corporeal capital of Christianity may have been sacked, the city of God abides. People promptly calm down…

900 C.E.: The fall of the Western Roman Empire leads to renewed fears that the world is ending. However, despite the decline in education, wealth, central leadership, life expectancy, and an upsurge in violence, life goes on…

1000 C.E.: Europe becomes consumed by apocalyptic predictions with the coming of the Millennium. On Dec. 31st, 999, nothing happens! The sun rises on the following day and people go back about their business…

1206-1294 C.E.: The Mongol Hordes, a vast and terrible army, reach Europe from Asia and begin a campaign of conquest and slaughter. People everywhere believe they are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse foretold in the Book of Revelation. However, Mongol expansion soon ceases, the Empire is subdivided amongst Ghengis Khan’s sons and vassals, and life continues. Just another Horde from the East that failed to deliver on the Apocalypse I guess!

1348-1350 C.E.: The Black Death strikes Europe. People everywhere believe this is God’s judgement and the Rapture is sure to follow. Flagellants punish themselves for the good of humanity, witches are burned, Jews are murdered, cats hung, and any and all traces of “wicked behavior” and people are scapegoated and purged. However, within two years, the plague passes, one-third of Europe has died, but life goes on and a period of rapid recovery soon follows.

1914 C.E.: The outbreak of the Great War leads many to believe that Armaggedon, the last great battle that will signal the end of time, is upon them! After four years of brutal, protracted warfare, all sides agree to a ceasefire and previously held romantic notions of warfare are shattered. Henceforth, Remembrance Day, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, and a series of other national and international holidays mark the occasion and remind us how foolish and horrible war really is. However, the world does not end…

1918 C.E.: “Red October” shakes the world, with many predicting that the victory by the “Godless Communists” is a sign of the Apocalypse. However, despite the terrible crimes that follow in the Marxist-Leninists wake, especially where Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Pol Pot are concerned, the world keeps on spinning, even after the conflict becomes nuclear in scope (see next).

1945  – 1991 C.E.: The advent of nuclear weapons and the beginning of the Cold War lead to a resurgence in Apocalyptic predictions, with many claiming that “The End is Near” on a regular basis. However, numerous close shaves pass without incident, the Cold War ends by 1991, and all predictions as to how “Nuclear Holocaust” will take place fail to be realized. In the end, many people realize that the human race isn’t suicidal or quite as stupid as previously thought. Others continue to ponder how WWIII will happen, but produce no realistic scenarios.

1948 C.E. – : The Arab-Israeli Conflict begins and escalates with such events as the Suez Crisis (1956), the Six Day War (1967), and Yom Kipper (1973). Religious scholars and believers begin to claim that these events were foretold in Scripture, and foretell of the coming battle of Armageddon – which will take place at Tel Meggido in modern day Israel. However, land for peace and a detente have prevented any full-scale wars since 1973, and the Oslo Accords of 1992 seem to suggest that a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinians is just a matter of time.

1980’s C.E.: The growing awareness of the AIDS virus prompts many religious nuts and homophobes to claim that “Gods Judgement is Here” and is taking the form of a virus that strikes down sinners. However, public education and about thirty years with no Rapture lead most to conclude that this is a terrible disease which merits no religious condemnation. Public decrying of victims remains, but few people take them seriously.

1994/5 C.E.: Renewed outbreaks of the Ebola virus leads to new fears of a global pandemic. Movies like The Stand, Outbreak and just about any scenario involving biological warfare do great at the box office, but the apocalyptic nightmare never comes true. And when people realize that casualties are largely reserved to African nations, they generally stop caring!

1990 – 2000 C.E.: Y2K histeria sets in as people get wind of a possible bug that could shut down the world’s computers. People begin hoarding and stocking their shelves in preparation for the pandemonium and chaos that is expected. When the clock strikes midnight of Dec. 31st 1999, nothing happens! The world keeps spinning, the computers keep working, and the nuts go looking for another reason to panic. There are still plenty to choose from…

And let’s not forget 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Bath Salts Zombies and every other major disaster that has befallen the world in recent years. Seems every day weirdos and nutjobs are finding reasons to think we’re all going to die. One would think they wanted it to happen or something…

In the meantime, enjoy the video and all its sane and sensible points!

Source: Nasa.org, gaurdian.co.uk

Astronaut Frank Culbertson On 9/11

The following is a letter composed by Captain Frank Culbertson (retired), the Expedition Three Commander who was aboard the ISS on 9/11 and saw the carnage from a unique vantage point – from space! Having bared witness to one of the most auspicious and terrible events in the history of his country, he composed a latter describing what it was like on the day of and during the days that followed. He was unable to get back home in the wake of the attack, and therefore had to continue to watch from orbit as he and his crew – much like the people of Earth – carried on as best they could.

The full transcript appears below, and thanks to Dr. Sci-Fi for turning me on to it. I especially enjoyed your 9/11 post. It was good to hear from someone else as they described what they were doing on that fateful day.

September 12, 2001; 19:34 hours

I haven’t written very much about specifics of this mission during the month I’ve been here, mainly for two reasons: the first being that there has been very little time to do that kind of writing, and secondly because I’m not sure how comfortable I am sharing thoughts I share with family and friends with the rest of the world.

Well, obviously the world changed today. What I say or do is very minor compared to the significance of what happened to our country today when it was attacked by …. by whom? Terrorists is all we know, I guess. Hard to know at whom to direct our anger and fear…

I had just finished a number of tasks this morning, the most time-consuming being the physical exams of all crew members. In a private conversation following that, the flight surgeon told me they were having a very bad day on the ground. I had no idea…

He described the situation to me as best he knew it at ~0900 CDT. I was flabbergasted, then horrified. My first thought was that this wasn’t a real conversation, that I was still listening to one of my Tom Clancy tapes. It just didn’t seem possible on this scale in our country. I couldn’t even imagine the particulars, even before the news of further destruction began coming in.

Vladimir came over pretty quickly, sensing that something very serious was being discussed. I waved Michael into the module as well. They were also amazed and stunned. After we signed off, I tried to explain to Vladimir and Michael as best I could the potential magnitude of this act of terror in downtown Manhattan and at the Pentagon. They clearly understood and were very sympathetic.

I glanced at the World Map on the computer to see where over the world we were and noticed that we were coming southeast out of Canada and would be passing over New England in a few minutes. I zipped around the station until I found a window that would give me a view of NYC and grabbed the nearest camera. It happened to be a video camera, and I was looking south from the window of Michael’s cabin.

The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city. After reading one of the news articles we just received, I believe we were looking at NY around the time of, or shortly after, the collapse of the second tower. How horrible…

I panned the camera all along the East Coast to the south to see if I could see any other smoke around Washington, or anywhere else, but nothing was visible.

It was pretty difficult to think about work after that, though we had some to do, but on the next orbit we crossed the US further south. All three of us were working one or two cameras to try to get views of New York or Washington. There was haze over Washington, but no specific source could be seen. It all looked incredible from two to three hundred miles away. I can’t imagine the tragic scenes on the ground.

Other than the emotional impact of our country being attacked and thousands of our citizens and maybe some friends being killed, the most overwhelming feeling being where I am is one of isolation.

Next day….

I guess the fatigue and emotional strain got the best of me. I couldn’t stay awake and continue to write. Today was still difficult, but we started getting more information, plus we had the honor of talking directly with the Center Director, Roy Estess, who assured us that the ground teams would continue to work and ensure our safety, as well as the safe operation of the Station. We also heard from our Administrator, Mr. Goldin, who added that the partners in the Program are all totally committed to continuing safe operations and support. These were never questions for me. I know all these people! The ground teams have been incredibly supportive, very understanding of the impact of the news, and have tried to be as helpful as possible. They have all been very professional and focused though I can’t imagine the distraction of this type of news coming in and the thought that government buildings might be at risk. They never skipped a beat, even when relocating control centers. And a group of senior personnel and friends gave us a pretty thorough briefing on what was known and what was being done in the government and at NASA on Tuesday afternoon, which was very helpful and kind of them to do in the midst of all the turmoil. The Russian TsUP has also been supportive and helpful, trying to uplink news articles when our own assets were inoperable, and saying kind words…

My crewmates have been great, too. They know it’s been a tough day for me and the folks on the ground, and they’ve tried to be as even keeled and helpful as possible. Michael even fixed me my favorite Borscht soup for dinner. And they give me plenty of room to think when I needed it. They are very sympathetic and of course outraged at whoever would do this.

I know so many people in Washington, so many people who travel to DC and NYC, so many who are pilots, that I felt sure I would receive at least a few pieces of bad news over the next few days. I got the first one today when I learned that the Captain of the American Airlines jet that hit the Pentagon was Chic Burlingame, a classmate of mine. I met Chic during plebe summer when we were in the D&B together, and we had lots of classes together. I can’t imagine what he must of gone through, and now I hear that he may have risen further than we can even think of by possibly preventing his plane from being the one to attack the White House. What a terrible loss, but I’m sure Chic was fighting bravely to the end. And tears don’t flow the same in space…

It’s difficult to describe how it feels to be the only American completely off the planet at a time such as this. The feeling that I should be there with all of you, dealing with this, helping in some way, is overwhelming. I know that we are on the threshold (or beyond) of a terrible shift in the history of the world. Many things will never be the same again after September 11, 2001. Not just for the thousands and thousands of people directly affected by these horrendous acts of terrorism, but probably for all of us. We will find ourselves feeling differently about dozens of things, including probably space exploration, unfortunately.

It’s horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic vantage point. The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are. And the knowledge that everything will be different than when we launched by the time we land is a little disconcerting. I have confidence in our country and in our leadership that we will do everything possible to better defend her and our families, and to bring justice for what has been done. I have confidence that the good people at NASA will do everything necessary to continue our mission safely and return us safely at the right time. And I miss all of you very much. I can’t be there with you in person, and we have a long way to go to complete our mission, but be certain that my heart is with you, and know you are in my prayers.

Humbly,
Frank

September 14, 2001; 22:49

An update to the last letter… Fortunately, it’s been a busy week up here. And to prove that, like our country, we are continuing on our intended path with business as usual (as much as possible). Tonight the latest addition to the station, the Russian Docking Compartment will be launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. On Saturday night (US time), it will dock with us, at a port never used before on the nadir side of the Service Module. This new module will give us another place to dock a Progress or Soyuz and will provide a large airlock with two useable hatches for conducting EVA’s in Russian Orlan suits, which we will do a few of before we come home.

The problem before in dealing with this week was too little news. The problem now is too much. It came all at once when email was restored, and there’s not enough time to read it all! Plus it’s too hard to deal with all of it at once. But I appreciate getting it, and I really appreciate the great letters of support and friendship I am receiving.

We are doing well on board, getting our work done, and talking about things. Last night we had a long discussion over dinner about the significance of these events, the possible actions to follow, and what should be done. After dinner, Michael made a point of telling me that every email he received from friends in Russia said specifically to tell me how sorry they were that this happened, extending their condolences, and asking how I was doing. Vladimir taught me the Russian word for “condolences” after talking to the previous CDR, Yuri Usachev, on the phone in Star City. (Both the Russian and the English words are much too long to pronounce easily.) Very kind people.

For the last two days, the Russian MCC has been good enough to transmit live broadcasts of radio news about the event and associated stories, to make sure I was well informed. Every specialist who has come on the line to discuss a procedure or a problem has at some point extended greetings to me with kind words. Tonight the Russian capcom told us that because of the special day of remembrance in the US, all day people had been bringing flowers and lining all the walls of the US embassy in Moscow, and this evening they were lighting candles in the street outside the embassy. How the world has changed.

People everywhere seem to recognize the senselessness and horror in this attack. And the tremendous loss. Moscow has dealt with these kind of problems in the last few years with apartment and subway bombings, so they are as anxious to get rid of this threat as we are. But the bottom line is that there are good people everywhere who want to live in peace. I read that a child asked, “America is so good to other countries, we always help everyone, how can they hate us so much?”

I hope the example of cooperation and trust that this spacecraft and all the people in the program demonstrate daily will someday inspire the rest of the world to work the same way. They must!

Unfortunately, we won’t be flying over the US during the time people are lighting candles. Don’t know if we could see that anyway. We did, however, see a very unusual and beautiful sight a few minutes ago: the launch of our Docking Compartment on a Soyuz booster. We were overtaking it and it came into view about three minutes after its launch from Baikonur as the sun hit our station, so it was still in the dark. It looked like a large comet with a straight, wide tail silhouetted against the dark planet beneath. Despite some bad lighting for a while as the sun hit our window at a low angle, I managed some video of it as first we passed the rocket, and then watched it begin to catch up as it gained altitude and speed. I filmed until main engine cutoff and booster separation occurred just as we approached sunrise on the Himalayas. An unforgettable sight in an unforgettable week…

Life goes on, even in space. We’re here to stay…
Frank

September 11th Rememberd

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, 19 international terrorists affiliated with Al Qaeda conducted a string of attacks that took the lives of over 3000 American citizens. Today, exactly eleven years later, people all over the world come together to mourn. In New York City, thousands descended upon the 9/11 Memorial to pay their respects. In Washington DC, President Obama and the First Lady shared a moment of silence with thousands more as wreaths were laid to honor the victims.

For this reason, I decided to avoid doing any sci-fi articles today and thought I’d just simply do a post honoring those who died and paying tribute to those who lost someone close to them. I can’t imagine what that’s like, having never lost a person to such tragic circumstances. But I think I speak for everyone when I saw it was an awful day.

That’s why I’m also not going to share any opinions on the event, the aftermath, or anything that’s happened since. Far too many people have done that already and today is not a day for divisiveness or politics. I will share where I was when it happened though, as I remember that quite clearly. For me, the news came in the relatively early hours of the morning, as I was sleeping in after a long night of pounding the pavement for campus security. I was a student, still living at home (since I lived only fifteen minutes from the university) and was waken up by my mother who told me the news. I rushed to the TV set and thought the US was under attack, like most people I’m guessing…

I was extremely fortunate in that I wasn’t one of those who were there to see it close up, not to mention the countless other people in New York or Manhattan who were effected by the fear and the chaos. Here’s hoping nothing of the sort ever happens again, and that we can all look forward to a time when people can resolve their differences without the need for terrorism, violent political statements, or war. Peace!

Photo: The 9/11 Reflecting Absence Memorial

National September 11 Memorial Museum Site

Data Miners – Chapter 1

Hello! In anticipation for Data Miners release, I will posting chapters of the upcoming novel online for free over the next couple of days. As usual, I will be posting sample chapters over at my free ebook sites as well. So if you feel like downloading a larger text file, feel free to  visit them. Otherwise, stay tuned and enjoy the first five chapters, free of charge and hot from my own personal printing press (by which I mean my laptop!) Look for the rest, coming soon, on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, or at Kindle and Nook for iPads, tablets and other devices.

http://www.feedbooks.com/
http://www.free-ebooks.net/

Epilogue:

“Yes, I am a criminal.  My crime is that of curiosity.  My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for… I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto.  You may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all… after all, we’re all alike.”

-The Mentor, “The Conscience of a Hacker”,
January 8, 1986

One
June 23rd, 2009

2:35 pm.

Yamal Pradchaphet eyes the preference line for what feels like the millionth time in the last few minutes.  It’s not an easy question and he needs to think it over for a minute or two.  His right hand poised over the keys, his left scratching at the tuft of greasy hair hanging in his face.  He looks to his right and spies the big pile of blank reports and worksheets next to his monitor.  He’ll be sure to get to those just as soon as he takes care of this little task.

“What kind of women do you want to meet?”

The undressing lady holds her pose after pushing her lace-covered chest outward.  The gentle soprano that is her voice is still ringing in his ears.  He dares not say Asian, or Filipino.  That would limit his options greatly in the latter case, and he doesn’t much trust the former.  If he wants to meet girls his mother approves of, he might as well date the girls they keep suggesting for him.  The old joke he used to tell his parents runs through his mind.

Mom, I bring home nice girls all the time.  You don’t need to.

Still, the woman is looking for an answer.  Damn she’s hot too.  Why can’t he just say he wants her?  Her black lace underwear and shapely curves are something he could wear all day.  Why doesn’t she come with the service?

Because she’s a fucking model you idiot, and those curves are digitally enhanced!

So many years and so many kilometres separating him and his heritage, and he still can’t seem to screw up the courage to be honest, not without looking over his shoulder.  He checks once more, then clicks on the boxes he really wants.

Blonde, Brunette, Redhead.  And Caucasian just in case that’s not clear enough.  He looks at the other possibilities for a second too and selects Latina and Mediterranean.  It’s interesting how specific they can be, but preferences tend to be that way.  Those were the women he truly fantasized about, the ones he thought of whenever… you know.

“What kind of relationship are you looking for?” the woman asks, and starts to undo the hook on her bra.  Pradchaphet’s breath goes shallow and he lowers the volume to one shade above mute.  She’s on the verge of exposing her tits, the straps dropping and exposing the slip of pale flesh above the nipples.  He’s never found the nerve to go this far at his desk in his place of work.  But boredom and horniness are the fertilizers of impetuous acts.  And right now he is really, really bored… and the rest.

He clicks once on discreet relationship and again on erotic chat/email, just for good measure.  Please let this be the last step, he prays to any God that will listen, and hits Enter on his keyboard.

Her breasts are now bare.  Prad is momentarily excited, then slightly disappointed.  The fine, pink globes and the tiny brown nipples just don’t seem so thrilling now that they are out.  Perhaps it was a buildup.  Still, he’s not going to count his chickens until he sees her totally in the buff.

“What’s your name?” she asks, undoing her short skirt.  The panties match the bra, black, thin and lacy, showing just enough skin around the most sensitive areas.  But alas, a name for his account…  He really didn’t give that one any thought until now.  It’s important not to use his Society name, the one his friends see whenever privileged emails are sent. Lucky he has a family name that translates so well when it comes to internet handles.

PradChap.  No one ever uses that name.  The numbers aren’t even really necessary, just a way to meet the minimum field requirement of seven figures.

He hits Enter again and holds his breath.

The woman disappears.  Her almost naked body vanishes into the thin air of cyberspace while somewhere, a computer processes his application.  Damn you vile temptress, he thinks as he waits for the list of possible hook ups to appear.  Sure enough, they do, a new focus for his sexual frustrations.  The title line says it all.

Women In Your Area Looking for Fun and Casual Hook-ups.

He scans through the long list of grainy pics, nothing like the ones used to lure him in while he was cruising the torrent sites, looking for downloads.  Already he’s losing interest in the whole process.  Playmates just isn’t living up to its name just yet.  He looks at the clock in the lower right hand corner of his screen.  The thought of cruising some free sites suddenly seems much more appealing.  At the very least it would kill some time before he finally has to punch out.

He calls up the Candylist directory and starts right clicking on the sites he wants from the long list that Candy, the site’s hot little avatar that dances in the upper right corner, has graciously provided him with.

Busty, Teens, and what the hell, Asians.

***

3:15 pm.

The coffee has turned stale and is just hot enough to melt the three sugar cubes that are needed to mask the awful taste.  Coffee mate is available, but something about the powdered shit makes him uneasy.  He decides to raid the fridge, see if there is any fresh milk or cream in there.  An opened carton of half-and-half is all he can find.

“Don’t let Miriam catch you with that.”

Prad recognizes the voice.  It’s Rohit, his only real companion in this jungle of steel and concrete, at least the only one he truly thinks of as a friend.  He eyes the container and assumes the obvious.

“It hers?”

“Yep, and she’s not one for sharing.”

“How would she know?” Prad says.  “As if there aren’t enough people crammed into this floor as it is.”

“Yeah, I suppose.  What are you working on?”

“Fucking the dog,” Prad says, giving his coffee a stir and sip.  His appraisal of the taste comes through in a big wide grimace.  Too sweet, and kind of burnt, like honey on blackened toast.  Rohit gives him a nervous look.

“Uh-oh, I know what that means.”

“It’s not like you spend every hour at your desk working,” Prad reminds him.

“No, but Tetris and Minesweeper aren’t considered offensive.  You know they’re short-listing people for the downsizing list.  Quickest way to get on that list is to commit a sex offence.”

“Like flash my junk at the software chick with the big tits?”

Rohit takes a sip from his own mug of stale coffee and looks at the break room door.  He shoots Prad a look that says “watch it!”  Even joking about that sort of thing is a no-no in the workplace nowadays.  Prad rolls his eyes and tries to absorb the moral.  He will be sure to lower his voice when making such comments again.

“Alright, I get the point,” he concedes.  “So you have an idea who’s on that list?”

“Oh, you know, same old.  Temps, part-timers, and a few old people who they figure they can kick out with some severance and not have to worry about promoting.  And I hear there’s a couple who are finally getting the boot because of complaints filed against them.”

Please be O’Malley, Prad thinks.  The old prig is a constant fucking pain, disliked by the ladies and the younger gents alike, especially the ones he refers to as the “ethnic ones”.  He isn’t the only one Prad would be happy to say goodbye to, but based on Rohit’s criteria, he seems the most deserving.

“So how much time do you figure we have here?”

“We?” Rohit says incredulously.  The idea that Prad would speak about them in the same sentence is clearly a shock.  “Not sure how much time I got.  Job security isn’t exactly a solid commodity around here right now.”

Prad scoffs.  “Big execs always use that ‘bad economy’ shit to justify firing people.”

“Doesn’t make any difference to us though does it?  Laid off is laid off.”

Prad nods, conceding the point.  “So how much time do you figure?”

“Me, I’m guessing us baseline programmers got about six months before they start streamlining us.”

“Christmas?  You think they’d lay people off before the holidays?”

“Easier than waiting til after to do it.  Plus you get to spend the severance on presents and booze, helps numb the pain.”

“Still cold, man.”

“Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be getting a pink slip during the first round.”

“What about me?”

Rohit takes another sip and looks to be running Prad’s prospects in his mind.  One thing programmers were good at was statistical analysis, which also made them adept gamblers.  Not that Rohit could ever be tempted into doing any.  He was boring like that…

“Well,” he finally says with a shrug.  “I’m sure you could look forward to a big, fat holiday severance.”

“Woohoo…” Prad raises his hand in a mock victory salute.  “At least I can look forward to sleeping in, and not working for people way stupider than me.”

Rohit looks at the break room doorway again.

“Dude, you need to shut up.”

***

6:30pm.

Prad is home from work in the Empire State Towers, apartment fourteen-eleven, which is a one bedroom suite.  In point of fact, it’s floor thirteen, but due to the superstitious nature of most builders, floor thirteen does not exist.  The view provides a lovely view of the skyline.  At present, a beautiful orange hue is settling over the city, due in part to humidity, engine emissions and the fact that a stiff sea breeze hasn’t rolled in in recent days.  Prad loves the colors, but would enjoy another transfusion of ocean air soon.  The smell of smog reminds him too much of visiting family overseas.

A takeout box of fried Singapore noodles sits next to the keyboard.  A few splotches of sauce decorate his shirt, but none had reached the keyboard thanks to his chopstick handling skills.  The television plays in the background.  It’s six o’clock so there’s nothing on except for the news.  Scarcely anything that deserves attention, just more fear and controversy, people dying in the Middle East, murder and mayhem here at home.  Rummaging through Shoutwire is so much more interesting.  There are two stories that occupy his attention at the moment. One is a recent study conducted in France that is making waves, linking crime rates to ethnicity.  Apparently, the researcher contends that people of Muslim backgrounds, specifically Algerians and Moroccans are more likely to commit crimes.  He can bear reading about this study for only a few minutes before losing his cool and starts leaving harsh comments.

Everybody knows the French want to ban Muslim immigration!  This study is propaganda and nothing more.  Quit pretending like this is an issue!

The other is summed up by its title, “Facebook linked to rise in Syphilis”.  He has to admit, the link is tenuous, but makes for much more interesting reading.

Some news hits the screen that catches his attention, both ears tuning in.  A special interest story concerning a person whose name he recognizes.  He hasn’t heard it in awhile, but he’s certainly no stranger to national news.  His fame was one of the reasons Prad was proud to know Professor Germaine of MIT, a big name in the wireless world.  Prad had read about it already on all the webnews sites for days now; the mainstream media is only now getting around to talking about it.  The once proud and eccentric teacher of Data Systems Analysis at MIT is under the weather and not long for this world, the perky Asian reporter, Hillary Qin, is saying.  The investigative report takes the usual circuitous route to tell him this, going back over his life for those who did not have the benefit of knowing him.

“Albert Germaine was a gifted student who excelled in the maths and sciences.  From an early age, he was fascinated with computers and data systems.  In his teen years, when most boys his age were interested in cars and going to drive-in movies, Professor Germaine was at work loading punch cards into his IBM or reading up on Alan Turing.  In 1978, he was accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he furthered his studies in computer science, with a double minor in linguistics and behavioural psychology.  His doctoral thesis, entitled “The Turing Test from a Behavioural Perspective”, argued that machines, in time, would be capable of imitating basic human thought and behaviour.  His thesis drew on many seminal thinkers of his time, from Wittgenstein and Ryle to B.F. Skinner and John B. Watson.  Arguing that the human brain, in its most basic form, is essentially a series of program instructions which are formed in accordance with conditioning and experience (similar to computer algorithms) he believed that a sufficiently advanced data system would be capable of independent thought and reason.  In addition to behavioural psychologists, he also drew on noted authors, such as Philip K. Dick and Arthur Koestler, to make his point.  The human brain, he argued, had evolved to meet the challenges of life through adaptive hardware and tailored software.  Language, reasoning, routines, even philosophy could be broken down into programming language.  This sort of language, rendered in digital form, could give a machine the same capabilities.

“After a five year stint as a researcher with a private laboratory, Germaine returned to MIT where he divided his time between teaching and advancing his research.  Convinced that Alan Turning’s theories could be proven, he began using CT scans to map the brains of volunteers.  As would later be learned, he performed many scans on himself as well.  Once he had a sufficient idea of what specific human neural patterns looked like, he ventured, he would be able to design a synthetic version.  For years, his work would attract scorn and controversy from theorists and the general public who accused him of practising a sort of technological Fascism. Some went so far as to compare him with Nazi researchers who performed cruel tests on human subjects.  Others claimed that his ideas and research sought to deprive the human mind of its mystery and sacred value…

Prad had to tune out at this point, as he is already intimately familiar with most of the details of the professor’s history.  Any student of data systems analysis at MIT knew about the professor.  Anyone who was anyone in the programming world knew the name by reputation.  They all knew exactly how he viewed all that hubbub as well, so Prad didn’t need to hear it from Qin.  Germaine was as myopic as he was fucking brilliant; he believed those who didn’t understand or agree with him were small-minded or blind to simple realities.  He had little time for what he called “mind-body dualistic nonsense”, just as he had little time for Christians and other religious people.  Many of his students dropped or boycotted his courses because of this.  The campus’ Christian Coalition smeared him with pamphlets and seminars and petitioned the university to fire him.  Eventually, they got their way.  Prad smiled when he heard Qin addressing this next.  It was as if they had a direct line to his brain and he were the one giving the report:

“In 1996, Germaine was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a condition which had been misdiagnosed in his youth.  Like many of his generation, he grew up with various labels, some saying that he was a genius, others that he was intellectually disabled.  Germaine worked through and around these labels, and succeeded in spite of them, only to find out in his later years that his gifts and flaws were due to a common neurological disorder.  As if this wasn’t enough, MIT chose to end Germaine’s tenure due to the controversy his work attracted.  Professor Germaine retreated into isolation for a time, reappearing only on occasion as a guest lecturer at symposiums or seminars.  In time, however, a movement arose to restore the professor to his former glory.  A number of organizations and some of his former students, many of whom had risen to positions of prominence in the scientific world, agreed to mount a class-action discrimination lawsuit against MIT for their release of professor Germaine.  The suit never made it to court, as the Institute chose instead to reinstate the professor and allow him to continue his work.  Germaine returned in the fall of 2000.”

And in 2000-2001 (or was it 2001-2002? He couldn’t remember which year it was), Prad had met him.  Angie was a student of his as well, though she and Prad had not known each other until after they had finished their degrees.  It was kind of a bragging rights thing, knowing a man like Germaine.  Most people in the Society did not, something that gave Angie and him some additional prestige, but everyone knew enough about him that it didn’t really matter.  Just about all of them had read Turing, the book he wrote on his seminal mentor, or some of his later published articles. There was also the study he wrote on the next great leap, entitled “Our Silicate Future”.  Most agreed that the man talked like he wrote anyway, one was as good as the next.

In any case, now the professor was on death’s door, diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour.  He was sure some assholes in the media would say it was because of all those brain scans, but what the hell did they know?  The Christian students unions would be celebrating for sure as well, even going as far to say that it was God’s punishment for his arrogance.  God liked to punish people who tried to tear the veil of mystery away from his creations, apparently.  He was full of love, but if provoked, would get very nasty, like an abusive dad.  Who knew God was such a good imitator of human behaviour?  He looked up some recent articles on CNN.com and from The Boston Globe that mentioned where he was and how he was doing.  He was still working, they said.  Brave soul, with only a few months left at the outside, but he was carrying on.  The pictures showed him smiling bravely and being helped around by some students in their white coats.  Prad felt a tinge of jealousy.  The honour of helping the man complete his work was something only the truly skilled should be doing.  Someone like him, in other words.

Maybe when I get fired, he ventures.

The television moves onto more boring matters, crime and death in the nation.  Off it goes, and his full attention is back on his computer (or Dorothy, as he knows her).  A little first-person shooter feels right about now, or maybe some time with the blogosphere.  But then there’s the matter of his inbox which has a few new messages he hasn’t checked yet.  He decides to check these before doing anything else.  There’s one for discount boner pills, one for vitamins from the General Health Store, and one for an online dating service.  He shakes his head mournfully before deleting them all.  No matter how many spyware and adware zappers he installs on his machine, his surfing habits still end up in a database somewhere, prompting hordes of unwanted spam.  But at least the dating service offer has reminded him that he needs to check on his account with Playmates.  Despite getting bored with it earlier, he wants to see who might have earmarked him in the Playmates system, see if any of them have more attractive profiles.

Then he notices the email from the Society, the subject line saying “Meeting.”  He quickly opens this one and scans the first few lines of text.  Angela’s signature is at the bottom, her DeeMark as they refer to it.  She’s advising him that their chapter has received a challenge, a test of their mettle from the local DeePs.  Angie’s never one to turn down a challenge; as a matter of honour, she can’t abide trash talk from those bloody pirates!  As a result, she is writing to tell them that their next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, won’t be the normal online meet and greet.  This time, it will involve a mission, and a rather lucrative one at that.  The nature of it is too sensitive to talk about here, she says.  It will have to be conveyed in person.

The time and the place are written in code one line above her signature.

SCH, D-1, XVIII H-H.

Well that settles things for the evening.  Tomorrow he can look forward to his date with Angela, and whichever other Society guests are in attendance. Tonight, he has a few programs to watch but needs to eat and kill a few hours before that can happen.  He fetches his jacket and keys and decides to head for the pub.

***

8:30pm (or thereabouts).

The killing field stares back at him.  The baked bones and greasy guts are strewn about in a semicircular pile, forced to share space with a defiling mass of crumpled litter.  Prad wonders just how many animals died in this particular holocaust.  Their limbs torn from their bodies, blood gushing and bringing their steroid pumped, cage ridden, grain-fed existence to a slow, agonizing halt.  Born on a death farm, forced to wander around on broken legs, then cut down in their prime to feed the hungry barons of the inner city.  Just like those poor calves in their plastic cages, senseless and isolated until the day when a patron looking to serve up veal parmesan or scaloppini puts the wheels in motion whereby their horrible existence is mercifully ended.  Prad thinks it all over and considers becoming vegetarian until his order of potato skins arrive and he realizes the bacon bits are the best part.

He orders another Sapporo and resolves to give the subject some more thought before making any decision on the matter.  Never hurts to drown a moral decision in endless debate.  The cute underage waitress smiles at him mechanically and takes the plate of bones away.  He knows he’s too messy and bloated to flirt or be of genuine appeal to her, so he resolves to behave himself and not be that asshole who is low enough to flirt with bar staff, or stupid enough to think they are taking him seriously.

Just another Thursday night, and he’s bored, restless, kind of drunk, and aching to go on vacation.  He doesn’t have to drive home and he could find his way back to his flat blindfolded and half-dead.  The potato skins looks good, but he knows they’d be better with a little added cheer.  He makes a beeline for the men’s room and finds a stall where he can sit alone and pop the little something he slipped into his pocket back at his flat.  The tap water has a chemical taste and is way too cold, but he only needs an ounce or two to wash down the jagged pill.  He takes a deep breath and looks at himself in the mirror.  In a few minutes, his night will become a hell of a lot more interesting.

1984 vs. Brave New World

Whenever I’m confronted by a virtual bookshelf or asked to list my favorite authors, I always make sure that George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are ranked among the top 10. Both of these men were immensely influential for me, inspiring not only my love of literature but also my desire to write. In that, I am hardly alone. Literally millions of people list these men as major influences, claiming that 1984 and/or Brave New World had a huge impact on their personal and/or intellectual development. It is probably for these reasons that I love teaching them so much, they’re just so chock full of all the elements a literary teacher likes to get into! Picture a quarry full of gold nuggets, one that never runs out and pays out for every new person who’s willing to mine it, and you’ve got a good idea of what these books are like.

Geez, was that sycophantic enough for ya? Okay, both books have their share of weakness too, and while I must admit that 1984 was certainly better structured and more serious than Brave New World, arguably it is the latter which proved to be more accurate. This is another aspect of these two books which has helped to establish their timeless nature: both are distopian visions of the future, both are works of satire that – like all works of satire – were set in the future but were really about the times in which they were written. And, most importantly, both were extremely critical of the day and age they were written in, addressing the many ways in which freedom was being suppressed. But since their approaches and their visions contrasted heavily , future generations were left to debate: which came true?

Huxley sought to answer this question himself in his essay “Brave New World Revisited”. Naturally, he thought that it was his vision that proved more accurate, but of course he’d say that! It was his vision! He also had the advantage in that Orwell had died shortly after writing his magnum opus so he wasn’t exactly around to rebut. But alas, Huxley’s contemporaries and subsequent generations of scholars tend to agree with him. Between a future where humanity is controlled by a series of brutal dictatorships who suppress free thought and control their citizens through the destruction of language, the rewriting of history, and the constant manipulation of emotions, and a future where humanity belongs to a global state where people are made compliant through pleasure and conditioning, it is arguably the latter which came true. The jury is still out, and the trial never ends, but right here, right now, Huxley’s vision is still taking the lead.

Of course, a few years ago, proponents of the 1984 school of thought believed the odds might have been tipped in Orwell’s favor thanks to the rise of the Bush administration, Afghanistan and Iraq, domestic spying and the controlled paranoia of orange alerts and patriotic orthodoxy. However, with the worsening situation in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and a series of blatant scandals, each one a “slow-bleed” on Bush’s approval rating, those fears were put to rest. With every passing month after the 2004 election, it seemed that Bush’s “War on Terror”, which many believed to be little more than a justification for waging war on American civil liberties or launching a global neo-con agenda, was doomed to fail. So once again, the pendulum swung back to Huxley. Thank God too! I don’t know about you, but between Feelies and Soma on the one hand and he Thought Police and Room 101, I’ll take being amused to death over being brutalized to death any day!

Naturally, the debate shall continue, most likely well into the “information age”, a time in which new ways and opportunities for encouraging social cohesion or suppressing human freedom will present themselves. But it is such a good debate isn’t it? Not only is it fun, from an intellectual standpoint anyway, but it also forces us to confront the ways in which our personal, intellectual, and creative freedoms are not being addressed, by circumstance or design. It forces us to take stock of our society and think of ways with which we could address the ways in which our governments and even we as a people fall short. It forces us to think for ourselves, which, I don’t know about you, but to me seems to be the point of these novels in the first place. For it is only in individual thought and the freedom to do so that any kind of social control or attempts to make us compliant fail. Well, that and armed rebellion, but this way is much cleaner, I think you’ll agree!

What does Osama’s death mean?

I did not start this blog with the intention of getting into politics. There are few things more subjective and divisive than where one stands on various issues, political parties, or where they fall in the big spectrum. However, once in awhile something comes along and you just have to take to whatever forum you have available and comment on it. And so I come here, to my webpage where I usually do reviews, to comment on this groundbreaking story.

Yes, it finally happened. After ten years of obscurity and unconfirmed whereabouts, after years and years of being told “we think he is in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan”, Bin Laden was not just found, but killed. And the big question that seems to be on everyone’s lips is, what happens now? Obviously, 9/11 was a turning point in history. Whether or not you agreed with the assessment that it “changed everything”, you had to admit that it was what Gibson described as a “nodal point” in our history. It changed many things, for better or for worse, including but not limited to how the world thinks of terrorism, how the US executed its foreign policy, what that policy entailed, and had a huge impact on international relations. It also put a face on global terrorism, again for better or for worse. And with Bin Laden’s escape from the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq and torture controversies, many people have been left wondering about the course of the whole “war on terror” and whether or not it was even worth pursuing anymore.

And now, ten years, and two inconclusive wars later – not to mention some “enhanced interrogation techniques”, hundreds of thousands dead, and a whole lot of unanswered questions – the man responsible for 9/11 and this detour in our history is finally dead. But the question remains, what now? Does Bin Laden’s death mean anything for the “war on terror”, even though the term has been dropped, and will it effect the fortunes of Al-Qaeda or US foreign policy? Second, and perhaps of equal importance, is a question I asked myself today. How will future generations look at this period in our history? Will they see it as an aberration, like we do Vietnam, or will they see it as something that began with tragedy and ended with triumph, albeit with some bumps along the way?

Personally, I think the answer to the first question is a resounding no. While Bin Laden’s death is certainly a symbolic victory, and definitely a victory for Obama (if he exploits it just right), his death really doesn’t change things vis a vis the bigger picture. Why? Because the war on terror ceased being about Osama many years ago, shortly after Afghanistan was invaded in fact. Which I think helps to answer question two, but one thing at a time! As it stands, the US is still engaged on a number of fronts with its former “war on terror”, and its enemies go far beyond Bin Laden and his small band of people. Whether it’s the resurgent Taliban, Islamic militants in Pakistan, or the possibility of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, the US finds itself committed to war on several fronts. And they aren’t going so well!

On the plus side, the US has pulled out of Iraq after seven disastrous years of occupation. The long-term effects that it will have on the region are also unclear. But one thing is for sure… after years of insurgency, civil war and most areas of the country still living in fear and dire poverty, things couldn’t get much worse. Any hopes the neo-cons have that something good will come out of the Iraqi war, hence saving Bush’s legacy, cannot be taken seriously anymore. There are those who predict it will get even worse, that the sectarian violence is nearing phase two, the current government can’t possibly control the country, and that some kind of fundamentalist autocracy with strong ties to Iran is inevitable. Some think there’s nowhere to go but up, but even many of them believe that it was the withdrawal of the US that now makes this possible – i.e. that nothing good could happen so long as the occupation continued, the Iraqis needing to “build democracy” on their own.

So realistically, Osama’s departure from the international scene is really not a decisive factor anymore. At least, not in my humble opinion. And this, like I said earlier, goes a long way towards answering how this whole episode will be viewed by future generations, provided I’m right of course ;). Given the fact that the US can’t use this as a pretext to pull out of Afghanistan, stabilize Iraq, restore the US’s tarnished reputation in the Middle East or amongst it allies, mend fences with Russia, end North Korea and Iran’s defiance, or bring back the hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis or Afghanis, future generations are likely to see this whole campaign as a resounding failure.

So indeed… what now? What can be done to salvage the situation that 9/11, Osama Bin Laden, and the “war on terror” has left us with? What can we do, short of turning back the clock and killing him back in 2002 when the opportunity first presented itself, thus avoiding all the crap that happened between now and then?

Of William Gibson (The Bigend Trilogy)

Not only is he a famous author, he’s also a fellow BCite and the man who literally wrote the book on cyberpunk. Beyond that, his books have been renowned for capturing the zeitgeist of our times, an age characterized by revolutions in information technology and mass media. And I can honestly say that I’ve tried to emulate him in recent years. His Neuromancer was required reading seeing as how I wanted to get into hard sci-fi and he’s a major name. And his latest works also gave me a push in the direction of modern day fiction, dealing with the cutting edge rather than the future.

But… gotta be honest here, these books have been a bit of a disappointment for me. Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History are all mainstream bestsellers that did an awful lot to capture the spirit of our age once more, but they all shared elements which I thought were kind of… well, weak. For example, consider the plot set-ups to all three books. All things in this trilogy by Gibson revolve around the enigmatic (and absurdly named) Hubertus Bigend. He’s an advertising magnate who’s always looking for the angles, the hidden agendas, the thing that’s beyond cutting edge, just five minutes away from becoming real. And to investigate these things, he hires freelance contractors, strange people with strange gifts. And that’s what sets the plots in motion every time.

In Pattern Recognition, he recruits Cayce Pollard (pronounced Cay-See), a freelance “coolhunter” who uses her odd intuition to evaluate logos and brand names for companies. Her father was lost in 9/11 (something that Gibson had to include because it occurred while writing it) and this haunts her. In addition to her weird skills (hypersensitivity to iconography) she follows footage on the internet produced by some cinematic genius. Bigend wants the creator found because… he’s curious, he wants their talent, or something like that. So Cayce sets out to find them relying on Bigend’s network, his dime, and her own personal contacts. Her journey takes her from New York, to London, to Tokyo, and finally to Moscow, all the while she’s pursued by a rival and some shadowy agents who’s agenda is not quite clear. In the end, she finds the geniuses in Moscow, the genius is a brain-damaged girl who’s sister takes care of her and puts out the footage as a way of expressing herself. The dark agents pursuing her turn out to be their protectors who just stalked her because they weren’t sure of her, and Bigend’s slightly richer for having uncovered the truth… I guess. Cool idea, weak climax, weird overall point.

Then there was Spook Country. The name alone was telling, alluding to its focus on the paranoia and intrigue of post-9/11 America. In this one, Bigend is back, employing yet another freelance contractor named Hollis Henry (why they couldn’t just bring Cayce back is beyond me, but whatever). This one has no weird intuition, she’s just a former teen singer who’s gone on to become a writer about the industry. He hires her ostensibly to research locative art for some new magazine, a cutting edge technology that is now referred to as “augmented reality”. In the course of this, she discovers that her real mission is to find out who the artist is working for. You see, he’s been using the GPS technology that powers locative art to track a crate that’s been moving around the world for years, passing that info onto some shadowy figure.

So once again, Bigend is curious… When Hollis looks into it, she finds out that the crate is filled with millions that were embezzled from Iraq’s reconstruction fund and the old man tracking it is a former intelligence operative who has a score to settle. He and his crack team are also being tracked by a current intelligence man who uses an addict named Milgrim to track the old man’s operatives by translating their Russian texts (rendered in a language called Volapuk). By the end, the old man and his crew follow the crate to Vancouver and fill it full of hollow point bullets containing radioactive dust. The money is now useless, Hollis is given an exclusive first hand look at it, and returns to Bigend to report on it. Once again, he’s richer for knowing, but has gained nothing else… And all that spy stuff and paranoia? Didn’t really amount to much. Sure there was spy work going on but it was pretty damn subtle, the marginal stuff that goes on at the fringes of the war on terror, not anything central to it. Not what I would expect at all from a book that was trying to make a point about post-9/11 America, in all its paranoid, angry, confused glory.

In the finale, Zero History, which apparently takes it name from the character Milgrim, a man who has no record of his existence for the last ten years (hence, zero history), things are a bit more clear in terms of Bigend’s motivation. However, the overall story was a bit weak, with a name like Zero History and the fact that its the third installment in the series, I was expecting a big send-off, something that went over and above what the first two did. It didn’t seem too much to expect; after all, the first book was a fitting commentary on cyberspace and the sort of tribalism its engendered. The second book upped the ante with a look at espionage and paranoia in post-9/11 America. So who wouldn’t expect that this one would deal with something incrementally bigger and more important? Alas… not so much. But I digress!

In the final installment of the trilogy, Bigend hires Hollis again, paired up with Milgrim, to investigate the origin of some elusive fashion line known as Gabriel Hounds. The reason he wants to do this is because he wants to break into the military-fashion crossover market. Not as silly as it sounds; according to the book, this has been a huge market trend since the Vietnam War and has received new life thanks to the war in Iraq. The culture of war provides life to the fashion industry, swaths of men who buy outfits to look like soldiers, and fashion designers get accustomed to making army gear and end up contracting to the military itself. In the course of their investigation, they learn that one sample they are looking at is the illusive brand named Hounds. These denim products are sold using direct marketing: the dealers show up at prearranged drop points, sell off their merchandise, and then disappear. However, the other sample they come across is being produced by an arms dealer who has a big racket involving former contacts in the military and consulting worlds, and he now sees Bigend as competition. Since he’s a former military man and is into some shady stuff, things begin to get dangerous!

However, the climax is once again the same, with a build-up and then a letdown. Sure the bad guys get beat, but no one dies and no one even gets hurt beyond a simple tasering. Some arrests are made, people hook up, and the world keeps on spinning! There’s also the point of how Bigend’s company appears to be coming apart towards the climax, but in another abortive twist, nothing happens. Bigend is simply declared as being “too big to fail” by the end, and his machinations about being able to see a few minutes into the future appear to have come true thanks to the work of his people. Cool, as a concept, the idea of limited prescience, but like with the other books, it feels like something taped over the plot itself to give it some credibility. Bigend’s main motivation was his curiosity, a contrivance to get the story moving; everything else just feels like justification. Somehow, Bigend has to benefit from all his maneuvering, and developing some kind of system whereby he can predict trends sounds like a good answer. No explanation is forthcoming as to how this works, its just thrown in at the end. Too bad too, as a premise, it’s pretty cool and even kind of worked with the title. Zero History: there is no future, just a constantly evolving present. He who can see just a few minutes ahead and glimpse it in formation will have unimaginable power!

As a third act twist, Gibson does throw one curve ball. Turns out the elusive Hounds designer, whom Hollis finds, is Cayce Pollard herself! Cool, but again, not much comes of it. Hollis says she won’t reveal her, Pollard says she’s not worried, she knows how to deal with Bigend so she’ll be okay when he finds her, and the thread dies! The story then shifts over to the military man and the threat he poses and no word is given to the Hounds for the rest of the story. Odd seeing as how that was central to the plot, but this kind of truncation is common by this installment in the story so I wasn’t surprised. In the plus column, the story does provide some interesting thoughts on resistance to commodification and how the culture of the armed forces trickles down to the street. But seriously, all the fashion stuff gets really suffocating! After a certain point in my reading of it, I couldn’t help but notice the constant mention of clothing, apparel, jackets, etc. Intrinsic to the themes of the novel yes, but I mean, c’mon! Felt like I was reading Sex and the City fan fiction after awhile! Then there was the rather odd attempts to give Bigend character traits beyond his wealth and eccentricities. Aside from an odd fashion sense he has a lust for the Full English breakfast that is mentioned too often in the story, and serves no real purpose that I can see.

Second, there’s the usual Bigend motivation factor. His interest in the marketability of military apparel is one thing, but why would be pay through the nose to get Milgrim clean in this book? Apparently, Bigend likes him because he “notices things” while at the same time is good at going completely unnoticed. For these reasons, he’s decided to pay for rehab in a Swiss clinic and put him on his payroll. Really? All that money just to hire someone who’s only marketable skill is being inconspicuous and observant? Seems more like he just wanted to bring the character back and came up with a small contrivance to fill the point. And of course, there’s Bigend himself. Unlike the previous books, where he just a shadowy figure in the background, by this book he’s grown to the point where he’s kind of like a Bond villain. Gibson even goes as far to say it by the ending, how his purchase of a Russian low-flying craft, the way he had it decked out, and has all the staff dressed like odd caricatures, is Bondian. Doesn’t make it any less weird. Oh, and the fact that he has acquired half of Iceland through a series of business deals and is flying all his staff there on that Russian craft at the end? Bondian!

Overall, what stands out about these books is their similarity to his earlier works, particularly Neuromancer. In this and other works, the story revolves around contractors who are picked up by mysterious men who work behind the scenes or have hidden agendas. But whereas in Neuromancer and other titles belonging to the “Sprawl” and “Bridge” trilogies where you have corporate magnates or mass media forces with clear (and often morally ambiguous) intentions, this time around the agenda of the shadowy person (i.e. Bigend) seems pretty benign and… well, pointless. I mean, why for example is Bigend so obsessed with uncovering all of these mysteries, what’s his motivation? Where’s the profit incentive, the threat to his bottom line? Surely a filthy-rich advertising magnate would have better things to do than spend all kinds of time and money on pet projects that have no purpose other than satisfying his curiosity. In some cases, marginal attention is given to how these things could be of use to him, but curiosity is always the main driving force. Again and again, Bigend’s actions are justified by saying that this is just the kind of guy he is, an eccentric, controlling man who wants to know whats going on around every corner and just happens to be rich enough to make that happen.

To be fair, I get it. I mean how else are you going to set up plots like this, which delve into the mysteries of the everyday world, not sci-fi worlds where anything’s possible because its total fiction and the limits of your imagination are the only constraints you have to deal with? But I would expect that a story would build to a climax, not truncate itself or end up being a letdown for the heroes, not to mention the audience. But then again, Gibson’s work is in details, the story come through more in the subtext than in the goings on of the text itself. And I still love Gibson’s work and owe a rather large debt to him for the inspiration and example he’s provided over the years. So I won’t be avoiding his books in the future; in fact, I’m anxious to see what he’ll do next. Whatever else can be said about this man, he’s good at what he does and manages to always have a keen eye for the things that are just beyond the fringes of the now, the things that are likely to be the cutting edge stuff of tomorrow. One has to wonder how much influence he himself exercises in this regard… Oh well, something for his next book maybe!