NPF: RUSSIAN WOODPECKER

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 2nd, 2015 by Ed

Early in June I checked an important item of my list of ridiculous and obscure things I want to see before I die. Today I want to share with you another one that I will probably never see in person, although as recently as the 1980s you could hear it at any point on the globe.

The Soviet Union, and Russians before and after it, equate size with power and success. When they build something, they build it big. Real big. Because if it's the biggest, it must be the best. And the best things are necessarily made by the best people. The logic is impetuous.

I talked a little about the idea of ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems in the previous post. The American approach to getting early warning of a sneak attack was to build a series of small radar stations across the remote Canadian Arctic. The Russian approach, not altogether surprisingly, was to build a really, really big radar. A radar so goddamn big that it could essentially see halfway around the globe. The result of this brute force approach was known to the Soviets as Duga-3, and to the prying eyes of NATO as "Steel Yard." To every amateur radio user on the planet, though, it was called the Russian Woodpecker.

duga

To make the concept work requires a very big radar and a huge amount of power. The huge amount of power produced a radio signal that created an equally huge amount of interference with radio signals and other forms of communication. If the nickname "Russian Woodpecker" was not self-explanatory, here's a clip of what the interference sounded like on normal radio channels. It took almost no time to locate the source of the signal as this massive pile of metal Tinker Toys near Chernobyl, Ukraine. Good thing nothing bad would happen there around 1986!

The USSR shut the contraption down pretty quickly when its functions were taken over by other, less cumbersome technology like satellite monitoring. The "Steel Yard" itself remains standing, though, and despite having been abandoned to nature over 30 years ago it remains in remarkably good condition. It's a rather popular destination for thrill-seekers, armchair Cold War anthropologists, and base jumpers. Eventually the elements (or a tactical airstrike) will take it down, but until then it will keep calling my name. Metaphorically. Unless they decide to turn it back on again.

NPF: NYET!

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 12th, 2015 by Ed

I have very limited and intermittent internet access up here in the Yukon (which is lovely, except for the 9 months annually in which I'm sure it is Hell on Earth, or rather the Hoth System) and I'm also remarkably depressed for someone who's on vacation so this will have to be quick. Part of the problem is that it's not really a vacation, but 30 days of aimless driving for the sole purpose of not having to live my actual life. I'm bad at pretending, including pretending that I don't have to go back to Central Illinois and its ugliness (in every sense of the term) shortly. But anyway.

1. Pictures! I have lots of pretty pictures! Look at them. If you didn't know me better you would swear I'm having fun.

2. I was going to write about this but instead you must make do with a link about the international incident that nearly occurred when Nikita Khrushchev was forbidden to visit Disneyland (for logical security reasons, as the LAPD could not guarantee that a heckler would not throw a tomato at him or worse, as happened several times on his visit). What is the point of writing about anything, really. Someone else has already written about it.

3. Nearly all of my friends are far more successful than me (personally and professionally) and they all, in conversation, reference the role of luck in their success – being in the right place at the right time, knowing somebody somewhere who gave them a leg up, etc. I'm thinking a lot about whether I'm unlucky (in this specific sense – being born White, Male, and American is pretty goddamn lucky) or whether I have opportunities that I'm too stupid to recognize or too untalented to take advantage of.

4. I'll be in Alaska in about 8 more hours. 4100 miles driven so far. The only life goals I have ever actually accomplished are ones that can be accomplished by driving long distances. So congratulations Ed, you can sit patiently and operate cruise control.

NPF: I DROVE. THE CAR. INTO A F*^#ING LAKE

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 4th, 2015 by Ed

It has been a few years since I took a lengthy road trip, enough that this is my first one undertaken with GPS to tell me where to go. In the past I made do, somehow, with a road atlas and enough patience to get lost on occasion without worrying too much.

GPS is one of those things that makes life so much easier that we don't even notice (or mind) that it's making us dumber. Don't get me wrong, I would never recommend against using it. I am curious, though, to see what would happen if you handed a teenager who has never lived without "navigation" a map. Or hell, try the same with an adult who has been taking orders from the disembodied voice of gentle authority for more than a decade now. Cue the mental image of Michael Scott driving a car into a lake because the GPS voice told him to keep going. Is that the route (SWIDT?) we're headed?

In Nicholas Carr's The Glass Cage (recommended, if a bit dry) he talks about GPS as an example of how automation makes our lives better but imposes a strange sense of detachment on our actions in many cases. This week I am putting his claims to the test, and he's not wrong. Without having to worry about where I'm going the amount of involvement in the process of driving falls sharply. It's great – I reach my destinations and I can devote my attention to things (audiobooks) other than finding the correct route. But at the end of the day, it's remarkable how little I can recall: what highways I drove on, what towns I passed through, and so on. Without even trying I've tapped into the Autopilot mode, paying only enough attention to hear the voice tell me to turn right in 1/4 mile.

It's tempting to engage the Who Cares argument here; paper maps are archaic. Why bother learning a skill that cheap, widely available technology can do faster and better. I'm not about to start a Hipster Luddite No Navigation Movement that encourages people to revert to street maps (and, on longer trips, a sextant) to find their way. It is just one of the more interesting examples of the mixed blessing of labor-saving technology. Finding our way is one less thing for us to think about now, for better and worse.

NPF: GRAND TOUR

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 29th, 2015 by Ed

A quick programming note.

For the next month I'm going to be living out of a rental car on a long road trip across the country hopefully ending as near to the Arctic Ocean as someone who doesn't work in the oil industry can get. Technically I guess it will end when I return to Central Illinois, but for the moment let's pretend that I will be eaten by a bear, shanghaied by pirates, or crushed by a falling piece of Skylab since all of those will most likely seem more appealing once I reach my destination.

I'm violating the internet rule against announcing vacations (and thereby alerting ne'er-do-wells to the dates on which your home will be unoccupied) because I have secured a house-sitter. Besides, there is little worth stealing in the soon to be foreclosed home I rent and the modal burglar in this city lacks internet access.

Though I stand firmly against the proliferation of overwhelmingly redundant social media sites, to supply family and friends with Visual Evidence of Experiences I have created an Instagram account. You may follow it if you want to see pictures of Nature and most likely the Sounds of Real America.


Instagram

As I will be sleeping outdoors and doing a vast quantity of driving, it is likely that my internet access and time for writing will be reduced over the next few weeks. That is just a guess; honestly I have no idea how frequently I will be able to or will want to write something here. Logistically it is more difficult to post On the Road, but I also happen to do some of my best thinking during 12-hour drives. So ideally the posting will continue at close to the current pace.

I have conflicting feelings about this. Obviously I'm looking forward to doing it but I have a tremendous amount of pressure on me at the moment to churn out more publications, so it is really hard for me to 1) not work, and 2) not think about work when not working. Ultimately I decided that staying here would reduce my productivity and negate the benefits of spending more time in the office; in the next month I'm hopeful that if the amount of time I spend glued to the screen is reduced, the quality of it will rise.

In any case, I'll update my progress as I go. I don't have a schedule or agenda except in the loosest sense, but hopefully a grand time will be had by all and I will be allowed into Canada without incident.

NPF: A NOVEL EXPERIENCE

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 15th, 2015 by Ed

I stewed over how best to share this with you and ultimately decided to keep it simple. To give you a window into my life and where I live, the restaurant critic of the Peoria Journal-Star recently did a review of the Cracker Barrel. You know. Cracker Barrel. The chain restaurant of which there are about a thousand located on highways throughout the country. Lacking the energy to give this a proper treatment, I've reproduced it in full with some of my personal favorite parts highlighted.

MORTON — It’s possible that you don’t think about visiting Cracker Barrel unless you’re traveling somewhere. After all, the Lebanon, Tenn.-based chain has carved out a niche for itself by providing the imagery of the old country store along the highway much like Stuckey’s did decades before.

Before you get to your table at the Cracker Barrel, you have to walk the gauntlet through the bric a brac, old rocking chairs, racks of greeting cards and gift items.

The atmosphere at Cracker Barrel is sort of like eating at an antique mall. All kinds of things are on the walls: snow shoes, old lamps, coffee signs and an old clock or two.

At the table, I found that the word, “country,” pops up a lot on the extensive menu provided — as in country sandwich, country salad, country fried breakfast and so on.

Also noticed that you can get a bowl of pinto beans ($4.89) or turnip greens ($4.99) to accompany your meal. Now that’s a country touch you don’t find everywhere.

Like many places, there’s a choice of light dishes provided, complete with calorie counts. That’s how I know that country green beans are only 60 calories while a baked sweet potato is 190 calories.

We were there for lunch on a Friday so after screening the daily specials, I came up with the Friday Fish Fry ($9.99). My dining companion opted for breakfast (served all day at Cracker Barrel): Momma’s Pancake Breakfast ($8.59).

The fish was four pieces of crispy fried cod (you have a choice of cod or catfish) served with steak fries and creamy cole slaw plus a Cracker Barrel corn muffin. A little extra tartar sauce made the meal first-rate.

A word here about the service: exceptional. My server was attentive, helpful and obliging in every way. It goes with the atmosphere, I suppose, but you start feeling like you’re in that old country restaurant despite the proximity of the interstate outside.

My guest ordered blueberry pancakes with two fried eggs. The report was that there were a lot of blueberries and the cakes were fluffy. The eggs were a little peppery but she said she liked them that way.

As for beverages, I went with a Coke ($2.19) while my dining partner had coffee ($2.19). Refills were readily provided for both.

The Barrel also offers a number of weekday lunch specials for $5.99 with comfort food options such as baked chicken, chicken pot pie and meatloaf.
When it’s time to pay, you line up in the general store part of the operation where you find yourself tempted by giant gummy snakes and pecan logs.

I was able to resist, however, and headed outside past an array of rocking chairs lined up on the restaurant’s front porch. It must be the country influence of the Barrel but, next time, I plan to sit for a spell.

Kill me.

NPF: UNIFORM APPLICATION

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 8th, 2015 by Ed

Those of us who are a bit older may recall that Sean Penn used to be married to Madonna. It ended sometime after Penn tied her to a chair – for nine hours – and beat her beyond recognition with, among other things, a baseball bat. It was so brutal that even in the days before the internet allowed everyone to see the gruesome pictures and even though Penn was a bonafide Hollywood megastar, the police and district attorney charged him with a felony. Even if you're the excuse-making type for domestic violence, that can't be waved away with something like "Things got heated and he slapped her and he's very sorry." Tying someone up and beating them with a baseball bat is, in a word, fucked up.

Now. How many times have you heard someone refuse to see a movie because Penn was in it? Did anyone give you grief when you rented Mystic River or Dead Man Walking? Do you feel guilty when you watch Spicoli's scenes for the thousandth time? Do people post all over Facebook imploring you not to see whatever movie or cable series he's in these days? Perhaps you experience that, but I certainly do not.

I was reminded dozens of times, however, as a boxing fan that I was the scum of the Earth if I watched wife-beater Floyd Mayweather fight homophobe Manny Pacquiao on Saturday night (I didn't). I decided against it because I realized it was bound to be boring (It was). But I am forever baffled by why people are so insistent that people are not allowed to watch sporting events, or are bad people for doing so, if any of the people involved are Bad People. They demonstrably are Bad People in the case of this boxing match, but that is beside the point that we are bizarrely selective about when their Badness matters.

Like Queens of the Stone Age? Nick Oliviera beat his girlfriend and held her hostage with a rifle while he stood off the police for several hours. Chuck Berry was arrested in 1990 for secretly filming women in public bathrooms. Kiefer Sutherland has five DUIs. John Wayne was a horrible racist, as is Eric Clapton. Jon Voight is a right-wing teabagging lunatic who makes Pacquiao look like Bernie Sanders. Jimmy Page kidnapped a 14 year old girl he was fucking and held her virtual hostage for years. Woody Allen…where to start.

And those are the ones we know about. How many more of our favorite artists and athletes and performers are guilty of horrible, horrible things? Probably quite a few. Certainly not all, but with all that money and power and cocaine I'd have to imagine that a higher than average number have dark secrets. So I'm at a loss to explain why people were supposed to skip Floyd Mayweather's fight when I would be willing to bet any sum that no one in the history of the world has skipped Coachella or demanded that the radio be turned off on account of the equally brutal crimes of a QOTSA member.

It's hard to construct an argument that it's a bad thing to draw attention to the fact that Floyd Mayweather is a terrible human being; when Mike Tyson is like "That dude is fucked up," you know the dude in question is indeed flawed. I can't rationalize the discrepancy in the treatment of athletes and other celebrities on that account, though. Is it because they're big and (often) dark and scary? Is it because their misdeeds get more media attention? Or is it just a double standard that has no logic behind it?

My attitude is that we have no idea what kind of awful people our favorite actors, musicians, athletes, authors, etc. are when we give them our money and our attention, but if you have decided that the ones whose evil deeds are public knowledge should be boycotted you had better prepare yourself to boycott an awful lot of stuff.

NPF: FANTASTIC VOYAGE

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 1st, 2015 by Ed

So this is what I'm doing to some poor rental car in June. Suggestions and dire warnings welcome.

Capture

NPF: I'VE HEARD BETTER IDEAS

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 23rd, 2015 by Ed

The Cold War inspired a brand of apocalyptic thinking that one just doesn't find anymore. Sure, terrorism has caused more than a few people and societies to lose their minds with fear, but you lose some of the legit crazy when you remove strategic contingency planning from the battlefield and traditional State vs. State conflicts. I mean, it's not like the Pentagon is dreaming up scenarios for what we will do if we have to abandon the United States after it is taken over by ISIS.

We wouldn't do something, for example, like plan to salt the Earth with radioactivity while retreating from the onrushing Soviet armored columns.

In the 1950s the U.S. and its NATO allies (which at that time essentially meant Britain, and they were still having a rough go of things post-War) were planning for World War III under the assumption of absolute Warsaw Pact numerical superiority. They had more men, more guns, and more tanks than the Free World could ever hope to muster. This explains why Western planning so readily embraced nuclear weapons; it was assumed that it would be the only option left when faced with being overrun by the Red Hordes.

There are holes in all of this logic in hindsight, of course. It was what they believed at the time, though, based either on the information available or their ideological motivation.

The Brits, still preoccupied with rebuilding their nation and not interested in raising enough ground forces to keep Ivan from charging into West Germany, came up with a particularly efficient way of contributing to the defense of the Western World. Project Blue Peacock (also known variously as Blue Bunny, which is now a lethal ice cream, and Brown Bunny, in which we can watch Vincent Gallo get a beej) was a plan to bury nuclear mines throughout Germany so that upon retreat we could wait until the Soviets occupied the area and then give them a big, one million degree surprise. It's not the worst plan anyone ever devised, if it is a bit nihilistic even by Cold War standards. Here's where it went from sublime to ridiculous.

Burying what at the time was a relatively rudimentary device meant that the electronic and mechanical parts would get unacceptably cold and most likely fail to work when the crucial moment arrived. Some visionary in the Pentagon or Ministry of Defense came up with the bizarre if somewhat unorthodox solution of putting a couple of chickens in the bomb housing. A small amount of feed and water would keep the chickens alive for the 8-10 days for which the detonation timer would be set. Their body heat, although not great, would be sufficient to keep the electrical parts up to temperature. When the moment of truth arrived, these Service Chickens would then be the first victims (by microseconds) of the explosion.

In the pantheon of harebrained Cold War schemes, it's actually not the worst idea. Ridiculous, sure. Unorthodox, obviously. But it probably would have worked. It sounds positively dull when you compare it to things like Project Acoustic Kitty.

NPF: TORA! TORA! RAY?

Posted in No Politics Friday on April 2nd, 2015 by Ed

When remembering and retelling the story of World War II and the destruction of Pearl Harbor, Americans tend to forget that Hawaii wasn't even a state at the time. It was, to paraphrase a great account of the attack, essentially a colonial pineapple plantation / naval base. The weather was probably as much of a draw as it is today, but in 1941 Hawaii must have felt considerably more…backwater-ish. Located in the literal middle of nowhere before the days of rapid, safe, affordable air travel, when the natural splendor and nice weather wore off the American transplants in Hawaii must have found themselves with little entertainment beyond what they created.

A mainland American lawyer named Ray Buduick filled his spare time by restoring and flying a private plane – the flimsy, open, Red Baron type that was still popular at the time. One Sunday morning near Christmas in 1941, Ray and his teenage son took off a little after 7 AM to kill some time with an aimless flight around Oahu with the airspace all to himself. I can see the appeal of that, certainly. After straying farther out over the Pacific he was surprised to see in the great distance what appeared to be other airplanes. A lot of them. He was curious and flew toward them until it was unmistakable that not only were they airplanes but hundreds of them. No sooner had he and his son realized this that they heard strange sounds like something was whipping past their tiny plane at high speed. That mystery solved itself in short order when several bullets struck their right wing.

Turned out that random lawyer Ray Buduick and his teenage son Martin had, quite without meaning to, entered the United States into World War II.

They had stumbled upon a gaggle of Japanese fighters loitering over the ocean as they waited for the larger, slower bombers in the attack squadron to catch up. As they turned toward Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, Buduick took a perpendicular route away from the attacking planes and hoped that none of the Japanese would bother to break away and follow him. Then, with the attack in progress, they circled back and somehow landed their damaged POS safely.

It might not be technically correct to say that Ray Buduick started the Pacific War, but since I assume that any heirs who could sue me for libel have passed on or do not read things called Gin & Tacos let's be real clear: Ray Buduick totally started the war. Alright, perhaps it is more fair to say that while he may not have started it in the geopolitical sense, he was the first American to come under attack from Imperial Japan, all because he decided to take up flying rather than, say, woodworking. It wouldn't have been exciting but at least he wouldn't have been shot at by Japanese fighter planes for building a credenza in his garage.

NPF: OH. OK.

Posted in No Politics Friday on March 27th, 2015 by Ed

It's not hard to think of a list of historical events that would be interesting to see if we could time travel. I suppose most of us would gravitate toward a relatively short and predictable list of events we would choose to see. My first choice would be a dark horse, though. I'd go to Plymouth Colony in 1621 to see the looks on the faces of the colonists as they encountered a Native American who spoke at them in flawless English.

First they're walking through the woods talking about Olde Tyme things when someone says, I don't know, maybe "Hark! The Red Man approacheth!" Then they did that thing that English speaking white people still do today – assuming that the lack of a mutually intelligible language can be overcome with volume. "GREETINGS, NOBLE SAVAGE! ME, JOHN. WE BRING GIFT, TRADE FOR FOOD." And the Indian fellows look at each other, then one turns and says "We have some corn, John, but why are you yelling?"

Since the English had the damndest time trying to pronounce the local Indian words, the young man's name, Tisquantum, became "Squanto." Close enough I guess. I mean, the guy saved your lives. Don't bother to learn his name or anything. His life story is so ridiculous that if they made a movie about it, nobody would believe it is true.

In 1605, a little remembered explorer named George Weymouth, who was exploring the New England coastline for potential locations for a future colony, picked up Squanto and some other local Indians. Sources disagree on whether they were taken as slaves or enticed with money. Either way, they returned to England and Squanto, a teenager at the time, learned English to serve as an interpreter. After almost a decade in England he joined the voyage of John Smith to Plymouth as a hired hand. He returned to his homeland in 1614…and then was kidnapped immediately by one of Smith's men, taken to Spain, and sold into slavery (for certain this time). Spanish friars rescued the enslaved Native Americans (on the condition that they convert to Catholicism, of course) and Squanto eventually persuaded them to let him return to London. He did in 1617 and worked for two years as a shipbuilder and interpreter, returning to North America with John Smith in 1620.

He promptly made his way back to Plymouth, finding almost his entire tribe dead from European diseases.

Offering to help the struggling English colonists, Squanto visited a neighboring tribe as an emissary. As he attempted to negotiate on the behalf of Plymouth, the tribe took him hostage and threatened to kill him. The armed raid led by a small group of colonists to rescue him may have been the first formal conflict of arms between white Europeans and Native Americans in New England. In any case he was freed and rejoined the colony, only to die of a fever shortly after in 1622. While his birth date is obviously not known, it is speculated that he was around 30.

I find it unacceptable that for all the nonsense we teach kids about American history, we omit the parts that are actually interesting.