It’s Scarier When It’s Real
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It’s Scarier When It’s Real

Now I’m locked and engaged—see the mighty jungle-Writer on his primal desktop plains. He thinks, “Hey, it’s 8:50pm! I should be getting ready for my TV shows.” but some nights, he just can’t handle being ‘broadcast at’—CBS is the only one that doesn’t offer Video On Demand (VOD) for its series (serieses?) But I enjoy some of their shows enough to endure the live broadcast—and nights like these I chalk up to being a future episode that I haven’t seen yet—you know, when they’re showing re-runs.

I hardly ever bother to watch the episode at broadcast time—there’s nothing better than having a start button and a pause button. For now, at least (until advertisers realize their customers prefer it this way) there is the added charm of seriously scaled-down commercial interruptions. Some of these hour-long series’ episodes show a running time, on VOD menus, of forty minutes! That’s my kind of programming, brothers and sisters.

And I realize that by writing this I have revealed to the hoi-polloi that I’m one of the great unwashed who doesn’t use a DVR—but seriously, I’m supposed to pay ninety-nine a month for the additional box? Not when I can use VOD on the cable box, thanks.

Now appears the greatest invention since sliced bread: Movie Cart (hooray!) Optimum (my provider) aka Cablevision, or vice versa, has added the Movie Cart to their on-demand menu—it goes like this: You look through the listings, la-de-da, just like always. But then you are not faced with the decision of whether to press ‘Order’ or move on—you have ‘Add To Cart’ which you can press and continue browsing the listings. So, instead of trying to keep things in your head, you just pull up your Cart and watch your next show—by which I mean you pick a title from your ‘browse-harvest’, depending on what you’re in the mood for, and how much time you have to spare.

Isn’t that great? I think so—it’s really much better!

Then again, I wait a week for new movies ($4.95 a pop) to be listed in VOD—but it only takes two hours to watch—then there’s another week’s waiting. But it is far better now. In the 1980’s one had to drive to the local video store, rent the VHS, watch it at home, rewind it, and drive back to the video store to return it (and late fees came into it if you didn’t bring it back in 24 hours). Then the video stores started to carry VHS and the new DVDs. Then it turned DVD-only—with a sad little stack of bargain-priced VHS movies that no one wanted… I still haven’t sprung for a Blu-Ray player and I’m not about to spend money on a 3-D TV—it sounds tempting, but some things I think are better left until the dust settles a bit, especially when budgeting a life on disability.

I use to want a Betamax—I even wanted to own the Laser Disk player (thing was the size of an old LP!) but fortunately those transitions came and went without me having the wherewithal to waste money on those doomed technologies. I have some VHS Tapes still (I’m not a full-blown hoarder, but I have trouble letting go of tech) and a few early 4” diskettes (PC memory storage—state of the art, at one point).

When I was younger, and the family biz traded its old Wang Systems mini-computer for the new PCs, I took the old monster back to my house and kept it operational for another five years more. We kept it in the cellar. Don’t be misled by the term ‘mini-computer’—it was a roomful of equipment and the DPU was a separate component from the CPU. The memory storage was a big, beige box with a top-lid—like a washing machine and pretty close to the same size as one. These big disks with locking handles, like some NASA system, allowed the user to remove one disk and replace it with another.

But eventually I had to let go—it was beyond obsolescence and finally lost integrity for the last time—and off to the dump it went.

Even before I was married with a house of our own, I owned a hand-cranked 78rpm record-player. It had that big-assed tone-arm head that held an actual needle—something pretty hard (but as it turned out, not impossible) to find in the 1970s—but it didn’t care if you used a sewing needle, as long as it was thick enough to touch the sides of the groove. Instead of the iconic horn-shaped megaphone speaker (no electricity—the early ones worked purely by acoustics) the speaker was directed downward and the base of the player was actually the speaker. The front of it had the ‘volume control’—three wooden slats like venetian blinds made up the front ‘panel’ of the base of the player. Even fifty years ago, a player that could have been manufacture in Edison’s own life-time was a rare item. But this was before the PBS series “Antiques Roadshow”, back when old junk was still seen as old junk. If I owned it today, I’d probably be checking the schedule to attend a taping of that show—even the 78rpm records I collected are rare as hen’s teeth nowadays—the player, in working condition, would probably get a good price on E-Bay or something.

But that’s why antiques cost so much—so very few of us have the commitment to keep something ‘pretty old’ until it becomes ‘very old’. So I guess you could say that I’m not a collector but rather someone who clings to items that are being swept into the past, items which were clever inventions once, items with character, or the patina of heavy use. I still have a senseless desire to have and use one of those HP Calculators—the ones from the golden age of hand-held calculators, before PC software removed the need for a separate device.

I remember when math classes taught us how to do math with a pencil and paper—perhaps even a slide rule, before they became classes on how to do math with your calculator. As far as I know, my son was also taught calculator math—maybe calculators still have a market for people doing higher-level mathematics on, say, a job site—who knows? I haven’t even taken adult education courses since the 1980s, so I’d be the wrong person to ask. But for many years I always bought Casio wristwatches—the ones with the mini-calculator face—and during that time there were several occasions to use it. I didn’t mind people laughing—I thought it was wicked cool, still do—but I don’t need a wristwatch now, much less a calculator.

My mom came by yesterday—she’s in her eighties. When I think of all the change I’ve seen in my life—and I’m only 56! There’s an idea for a TV series—every Friday night, the protagonist jumps a decade of time. Start it in the 18th century and warn the writers they either have to wrap things up by 2013, or be prepared to start writing sci-fi for the next season’s episodes! What a nightmare for a set-dresser—every episode would have to be decorated for the 1770s, or the 1860s, or the 1950s, etc. Kinda like “Sliders” meets “Time Tunnel” meets “Life On Mars”.

And so I can only conclude that not only am I, as I grow older, finding time slipping by faster with each year, finding years go by like months—but, also, Time itself, or rather call it Change (or the changing of the times) have accelerated as well. Generations harkened back to the horse-drawn era while driving cars, cars that didn’t change very much from year to year.

But just within my own memory there have been added: power steering, power brakes, electric windows, climate control, stereo sound systems, tinted windows, anti-lock brakes, heads-up displays, hybrid energy—well, a lot of stuff. So much stuff that, if you plucked Gomer Pyle from Mayberry’s Gas Station and asked him to fix a Prius, he’d have some trouble—yessiree, he surely would.

We are ill-prepared for this rate of change. Science Fiction fans are somewhat better prepared to take in these changes as they fly at us—but they will be in just as much danger as everyone else—because nothing is as dangerous as people in a state of confusion, in large numbers. And the more sophisticated our technology becomes, the more dangerous it is in the hands of confused and frightened people.

There is a nuclear facility in Russia (I saw this on TV) that was designed to produce enriched uranium, or whatever. It is the largest nuclear facility in the world. The way it is set up makes it impossible to shut down. This plant is actually more a hollowed-out mountain-it is enormous. The city that prospered around it in the Cold War years is pretty much a ghost town today, but the facility maintains an operational crew, just to keep the whole thing from melting a hole in the earth clear down to China. (Or, I guess, in the case of Russia, it is more properly called the Australia Syndrome—or whatever is on the opposite side of the globe from them—us, maybe?)

A microbe was developed for oil spills—it eats petroleum and makes it into something less toxic to the ocean and all its living creatures. But what if it mutated into something that ate brains? Scientists are working on Nano-machines that are too small to see without a microscope. What if a cloud of Nanobots escape from a laboratory and start turning all the forests into plastic sporks?—sounds funny, I know, but the reality would be less so. AI is being worked on by crowds of programmers and engineers all over the world. What if, having put ourselves in its hands, we learn the hard way that sentience is not dangerous only in human hands?

All these what-ifs have been used in science fiction stories. No, I’m serious, I’ve read sci-fi since the 1960s, and all these ideas and stuff were used in a short story, or a novel, or a novelette, by a pantheon of hard-thinking scientists who used science fiction to extend their what-ifs in a way that layman could understand and enjoy. But I’m not enjoying science fiction as much these days. It’s not so wonderful when it starts to take over real life—it’s really pretty scary!


Street Talk

Lemuel  

Some science fictions before have come true today - really scarier when it's real. And nuclear facilities are one of the top secrets of a government it's unclear if they properly dispose things (if there is such term as proper disposal when it comes to toxic waste). Good article, Chris.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

Thanks for reading, Lemuel. You reminded me of something: [Author Cleve Cartmill's story, "Deadline", in "Astounding" magazine caused an uproar in the Manhattan Project--it described an earth-like planet, on which a commando was assigned to destroy a giant bomb. The story was packed with technical data describing "atomic isotope separation methods" and the dangers of being able to control the explosion of a U-235 bomb. While it didn’t exactly resemble the bombs being made in Los Alamos, the story’s description of the challenges in separating uranium into fissionable and non-fissionable isotopes did speak of one of the major problems currently under investigation at the Manhattan Project. The Feds believed these references could have only come from classified research. OSS agents were immediately sent to Cartmill’s house in LA, but Cartmill blamed his editor, John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding magazine, who gave him the technical details. When they asked Campbell how he knew of classified info he explained he was an MIT physics graduate and that he had based all his suppositions on information freely available to the public. He showed them where he had found Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman's 1938 discovery of nuclear fission and how he had worked through the normal extrapolation process so common in his magazine's stories. The investigators were not appeased. Cartmill was placed under observation, his mail was opened and he and Campbell were subjected to days of interrogation. The Manhattan Project’s security chief wanted the Office of Censorship to shut down the magazine entirely because “such highly particularised stories on secret weapons are detrimental to national security”. But, to their credit the Office of Censorship refused, stating that “editor Campbell’s…observations on the subject matter are those that can be produced by any person with a smattering of science plus a fertile imagination, who may be in the scientific fiction publishing business”.] source - popularscience(dot)co(dot)uk/features/feat20(dot)htm

Reply
  about 8 years ago

Another thinker tonight, good article Chris

Reply
  about 8 years ago

Thank you, Shawn.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

It's scarier when it's real for sure! Truly, so many of the science fiction stories I enjoyed in earlier years have turned to real life issues that are similar or worse. Nice article. Wonder how the future scientists will fix that mountain so they can close it down? Or use it safely:-) Life is indeed stranger than fiction.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

Thank you, Cynthia Ann. Well, that's people for you--they figured they'd worry about turning it off later on. And I can't explain the physics behind an 'incubator reactor' that was meant to keep on producing for the foreseeable future. Not only can they not turn it off, but it increases the amount of radioactivity with each passing day--the best they can hope for is that they can contain it within the town limits, without poisoning the surrounding air and water supply. In this case, life is stupider than fiction--no author would try to get away with such insanity--only in real life, with serious people, do we ever screw ourselves this badly. It turns out FDR was right--fear, itself, is the real enemy here. Our fears of nuclear annihilation and, later our fears of terrorism, have lead us to just about the stupidest, most insane world imaginable. The freest people on earth have enslaved themselves (and their government) to big businesses and wealthy bankers. The country with the most untapped natural resources (i.e. Russia) has become a black market nation, where organized crime gangs have more pull than the KGB of old. What's in the Mid-East? Madness, utter madness. What's in South America? Who knows? Most people are afraid to go there and find out.

Reply
  about 8 years ago

Still, seems unimaginable that the world scientists have not stepped in with a solution. And governments with the funding! There's got to be a better way for that mountain... and the planet.

  
  about 7 years ago

I agree with Barbara9........

Reply
  about 8 years ago
Barbara9  

interesting article

Reply
  about 8 years ago
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