NPF: BURIED AT SEA

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 20th, 2015 by Ed

Mysteries don't have to be grand in scope in order to be compelling. Consider this story, true in every detail, as evidence.

On February 11, 1979 an ex-hippie named Scott Moorman, who had given up life in the mainland U.S. to live as a fisherman in Hawaii, boarded a boat christened the Sarah Jo with four of his friends. Their plan was simply to spend the day fishing as they often did. A few hours after they departed Hana, HI the day's perfect weather took a rapid turn for the worse. A near-hurricane passed through the island chain, causing a great deal of damage on land as well as to ocean vessels. The Sarah Jo did not return that evening or the next day. One of Moorman's companions was one Peter Hanchett, which is important because Hana resident John Hanchett – Peter's father – was the only person who realized that the five men were out on their comparatively tiny boat during the storm. Being free spirited Beach Bum types none of the men had thought to inform anyone of their itinerary or specific destination, if one even existed.

The elder Hanchett and a neighbor went out to sea but quickly threw in the towel on account of the weather. The next day Hanchett resumed the search with the help of a local marine biologist named John Naughton. The day after that the U.S. Coast Guard got involved, eventually searching over 73,000 square miles of open ocean. No trace of the Sarah Jo or its passengers was found. Eventually the men were presumed dead.

"Ed, this story isn't very interesting so far." You're not wrong. But.

In 1988 a marine biologist doing research in the Marshall Islands came upon the wreckage of a boat on a remarkably isolated atoll called Bokak. If Bokak is not the actual middle of nowhere, that point certainly must be visible from it. Bokak (Population: 0) is so remote that it is 450 miles from Majuro, the main atoll of the famously remote Marshalls. It is the remote corner of a remote country. It is also 2,200 miles from Hana, HI.

Analysis of the wreckage proved definitively that it was the Sarah Jo. No trace of Scott Moorman's four companions was found, but under a neatly stacked pile of stones not unlike a burial marker the researcher found an intact human jawbone. Dental records matched it to Scott Moorman. The researcher, by the way, was John Naughton. He had set out looking for Moorman the day after his disappearance and found him nine years later entirely by accident. Oh, and there was something buried with the skeletal remains:

"It was a sheaf of paper, and I’d say a book, except it was not bound. Probably three inches by three inches by maybe 3/4 of an inch thick. But between each one of these pieces of paper, there was a very small square piece of tin foil material. We have not been able to determine who placed that there or, what purpose it serves."

Huh.

It is hardly surprising that Moorman and his friends died after becoming lost at sea. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which the boat broke apart and the other four men disappeared into the waves. But who buried Scott Moorman – on a deserted atoll hundreds of miles from…anything, really – and why? Why would anyone go through the effort to do that, and in the middle of nowhere at that? What explains the seemingly random but intricate papers buried with him? The most likely scenario in my mind is that someone buried him because they feared that by informing the Coast Guard they would somehow become suspects in Moorman's death. This is patently silly, though, as the fact that Moorman and the others died from exposure after drifting out to sea seems obvious.

It's not exactly the gunman on the grassy knoll or the disappearance of Lord Lucan, but it would be interesting to know who performed this rather strange ritual with Moorman's remains, why they did it, and why they chose such an odd location. It would have made approximately as much sense if his body had been discovered, partially buried, on the Moon.

NPF: JUMPING THE GUN

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 16th, 2015 by Ed

I am a man who loves, and regularly makes, a good Edsel reference. That car and New Coke are probably American culture's most prominent examples of commercial failure, although I'm not sure if either are familiar to younger generations anymore. Although historical revisionism has emboldened some defenders of both – It is often claimed, for example, that the Edsel failed but contributed to the development of important technologies, which is very stupid and false and also its grille looked like a vagina – they largely deserve their reputation as disasters. We could probably add Netflix's "Qwikster" to the pantheon if it hadn't disappeared so quickly (see what I did there) that already almost nobody remembers it. Americans love winners but are fascinated by losers, provided they lose spectacularly enough. Nobody notices a 2-14 football team, but go 0-16 and suddenly we can't get enough.

What I find really interesting, though, are things that fail but then become huge successes later. My stock example when attempting to explain this phenomenon (side note: we should come up with a name for it. Lazarus effect?) is Zima. Remember Zima, the first mass-marketed "malt beverage" in the United States? Released in 1993, Zima was the butt of about 10% of all American jokes for the duration of that decade. Letterman and Leno beat it to death. Saturday Night Live lampooned it. The public ridiculed it; one commentator noted in a retrospective that, "There are a million ways to slight a rival's manhood, but to suggest that he enjoys Zima is one of the worst." I remember being in junior high – before anyone was even drinking beer or had any meaningful point of reference – and hearing regular Zima jokes. The product disappeared from shelves despite Coors' valiant (and expensive) marketing efforts, but the ironic part is of course that such "alco-pop" and non-beer bottled malt beverages are now wildly popular – Smirnoff Ice and Zima are virtually indistinguishable. While the masculinity-destroying stigma remains, malt beverages are available in hundreds of varieties now and sell briskly. From "hard lemonade" to Smirnoff to a newly available alcoholic root beer, things that come in a beer bottle but aren't beer have never been more popular.

Another example is nowhere near as well remembered as Zima: the Lincoln Blackwood. It is notable mostly as the answer to the trivia question, "What is the worst-selling car of all time in the United States?" Put to death after only a single year on the market, barely 3,000 were sold and today they are about as common as Yugos on American streets. The Blackwood was the Ford Motor Company's attempt at a high-luxury pickup truck. Those terms didn't seem to fit well together when the vehicle was released in 2002. Luxury buyers didn't want a truck, and truck buyers didn't want the image of softness that comes with a luxury vehicle. So it went down in flames, yet just over a decade later the ultra-expensive, high end luxury truck is one of the most profitable market segment in the U.S. Lincoln now sells tons of Mark LTs, and even utilitarian pickup trucks like Ford F-Series, Rams, and Chevrolet Silverados are regularly sold at sticker prices exceeding $50,000 (it's possible to top out an F-150 at nearly $70,000, with luxury features comparable to any Mercedes or Cadillac). And for some generations the word "Escalade" is synonymous with wealth and luxury now.

Maybe it is in our character to laugh at new ideas as a knee-jerk response and then, when sufficient time passes, to fall in love with them. There are plenty more examples out there, I'm sure. Sound off in the comments if you have a particular favorite.

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.