Tango Down: The Last Flight of St. Nicholas

(This story is inspired by this article in the Boston Globe about changes made to NORAD’s popular “Santa Tracker” program.)

The jolly old elf known to many as “Kris Kringle” and to the United States government as “Threat Vector 19” crossed into American airspace at 0520 Zulu just north of Duluth, Minnesota. A pair of F-22 fighter aircraft silently slid in behind him and maintained station a few hundred meters away. This is new, the Claus thought.

Suddenly invigorated by the presence of high-performance aircraft, he let out a right old laugh as he took the rare chance to perform close-quarter aerobatic maneuvers, thinking the pilots of the fighter craft behind him would relish the opportunity to do the same. It was a fatal error.

Just as the tiny red sleigh completed its barrel roll, the pilot of STARFISH 3 announced to no one in particular, “FOX 1!”

Santa barely evades the AIM-7 Sparrow missile and dives for the ground as the missile’s contrail glistens above him in the moonlight.
Just a few weeks before, the US Government informed Kringle that he had to appear at an FAA facility for inspection of his vehicle and a flight competency test before he would be permitted to fly in US airspace. Always willing to help out the good people at the Federal Aviation Administration, Santa appeared as instructed in his trademark sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer.

The FAA inspector approached with a clipboard in one hand and a shotgun in the other. Santa was alarmed, but you know, America.
The FAA inspector noticed Santa’s discomfort and smiled as he boarded the magical craft. “Listen, I’m not supposed to tell you this because it’s your test, but,” he nodded his head toward the reindeer,”you’re going to lose an engine in flight.”

It was a joke, but Santa isn’t laughing now as he deftly evades dozens of 20MM rounds zipping all around him. He jukes to and fro in a mad dash for any type of haven from the onslaught, the tracers leaving ghastly after-images in his eyes. The trees whip by in a blur as he increases speed, but Kringle’s mind recalls a fact heretofore never needed: these aircraft are ungainly at low-altitude and low-speed. Santa promptly pulls-back on the reigns, decelerating so rapidly the inertial dampeners can barely compensate. A quick check of his magic sack reveals none of his precious cargo has been lost as the F-22s speed overhead and quickly pass out of sight in a matter of seconds.

The old Saint removes his cap and wipes his brow. He chuckles to himself at the near escape from almost certain doom, but unbeknownst to him a Global Hawk UAV has been monitoring his movements from 60,000 feet overhead and relaying them back to NORAD. Even now, as Kringle speaks comforting words to his frightened reindeer, electronic signals are forming an invisible net around the elf from which there will be no escape.

With a wry smile, Claus snaps the reigns and begins to rise once again into the night just as a pair of Apache helicopters appear above the tree line, their cannon trained directly upon his sleigh. Santa looks over his shoulder to see another pair of Apache approaching from behind. Above, he can barely make out the silhouettes of two armed Predator drones circling overhead.

He briefly considers making another run for it before spying a black cross slowly diving toward him. Kringle’s blood runs cold. It’s an A-10, the same beast that took out Jack Frost years before on Alaska’s North Slope. The gig was up.

The pilot of the Apache directly in front of Claus signals him to land immediately as a long line of black SUVs approach. They encircle the sleigh as Claus descends to the ground. Men in cheap suits empty from the vehicles by the dozen, guns drawn just as Santa touches down.

Kringle holds up his hands, but Comet, sensing danger, bolts and makes a run for the treeline. He staggers and falls as his body is riddled with hundreds of bullets. The muzzle flashes from the massive array of small arms fire form a constellation of death in the dark night. With a gargling moan, Comet breathes his last.

An enraged Prancer charges a group of agents directly in front of him and manages to connect head-on with one of the anonymous men as small arms fire again erupts in the night. Though mere inches away from a withering barrage of gunfire, Prancer is a credit to his name as he spins to and fro, kicking here and there with his massive hooves. Viscera hangs from his antlers and human bones crush beneath his bulk during his mad dance of death. A direct shot to the head finally fells the great beast, whose momentum allows him to crush one more suited figure beneath him before he, too, expires. In all, half a dozen men lay dead or dying in a circle around the reindeer.

An inconsolable Santa tries to make a run for it, but without the extra lifting power of Prancer and Comet, he can’t achieve take-off speed. Agents board his sleigh and forcibly toss him from the still-moving craft. As Kringle lands on the ground, he rolls and comes to a stop. He looks up to find a dozen guns pointed at his head.

The government agents, inexplicably wearing aviator-style sunglasses even in the dead of night, strip Claus of his famous red suit and cap, leaving him shivering in just an undershirt and boxers in the snow. He’s handcuffed by an agitated agent who makes sure to tighten the cuffs real tight, restricting blood flow to Santa’s hands. Numb from the cold and likely in shock, Santa doesn’t notice. He winces as a boot hits him square in the back and plants him face first into the snow. The agent grabs the jolly old elf by his magnificent white mane of hair and drags him to one of the waiting SUVs.

Through his tears, Kringle sees his magical reindeer punched, kicked, and rifle-butted, their moans of agony piercing the silent night. It’s the last thing he sees before a black hood envelops his head.

As the black line of SUVs snakes off into the night, they leave behind a scene of utter horror. All that remains are a few tufts of fur and chunks of meat in massive pools of maroon blood against the purest white snow. By morning, the wolves and other carrion will have removed the remaining evidence of slaughter, leaving only the blood behind as silent witness.

Santa is never seen nor heard from again. Rudolph, it is rumored, is an unwilling test subject of the Department of Energy at a secret facility in Utah.

After drone strikes destroy Santa’s workshop, Mrs. Claus and the surviving elves seek asylum in Norway, only to be rebuffed at the last second. At the moment, they are all living in a dacha as guests of the Russian government. Some say they’ve converted to Orthodox Christianity, though many believe it’s just another of Putin’s amateurish attempts at propaganda.

The sudden disappearance of Santa Claus causes widespread distress, but American corporations soon fill the void with their own mascots, working in concert with other brands to create synergy.
Coca-Cola’s Polar Bear® Brought to You with Limited Interruption by FedEx Air® is currently the most popular of the bunch, though Nike’s Lebron James in the Just Do It™ Sled Sponsored by Foot Locker is gaining influence out West.

The Waffle House’s “American Jesus” remains a mainstay of the South, even though he was a short-lived promotional tool to celebrate Labor Day.

Tim Horton is popular in Portland.

I’ll now end this tale and leave you with the inspiring words of the Macy’s Holiday Savings Elf®, beloved by children aged 4-8 in desirable demographic households with at least one college-educated parent: Festive Celebration to All and to All a Good Night™ (All Rights Reserved)!

Breaking Bad Finale

Awhile back, I revisited the finales of Battlestar Galactica and LOST, two shows which started out strong but concluded to mixed reviews or outright hostility by fans. Fortunately, the finale to Breaking Bad evaded that fate. If I have any criticism, it’s that it was too short. On the other hand, the last episode was more of a coda to a story that really climaxed two episodes earlier in “Ozymandius” and all but concluded in “Granite State.”

In “Ozymandius,” the house of cards that Walter White maintained finally collapsed and he lost everything that he thought mattered to him: his family, his freedom, his fortune, and his powers of persuasion. This is the episode where all of Walt’s fears finally manifest and he definitively falls.

“Granite State” shows us a defeated man in exile, bereft of family and freedom. His only companion is a barrel of cash that he can’t spend or get to his family. Its only use is to pay a fixer to keep him alive for no obvious reason other than inertia. It’s a portrait of a man in the process of ego destruction, as he accepts that he’s not really his fearsome Heisenberg persona, nor is he the cowardly, self-destructive Walter White. What emerged at the end of that episode was a man who’s no longer afraid, because he’d already lost everything. He has no illusions about who he is or what he’s doing, and his only remaining goal is to get his money to his children and kill a few Nazis.

“Felina” shows us Walt in what may be his purest form. Freed from fear and greed, he can pursue his goals without looking over his shoulder for fear of retribution or discovery. It’s important to note that all of his previous schemes in the series were borne out of paranoia or fear to protect himself, his family, or Jesse. In this final episode, he finally gets to act with a clarity of purpose denied to him during the previous two years. He’s largely unemotional during this episode, and the emotions he displays seem to be manufactured for the sake of his plan. It’s a far cry from the often-blubbering Walter White who always bargained like a coward with his enemies when false bravado failed him. The Walter in “Felina” is more a force of will than a man.

Since Walt was defeated in “Ozymandius” and Heisenberg finally hung up his hat in “Granite State,” the man we see in “Felina” appears like a ghost to his family and former associates, and an avenging angel to his few remaining enemies. After he completes his two final tasks, he dies in the only place he truly lived: a meth lab of his own design and creation.

The ending to Breaking Bad was one of the most satisfying conclusions that I’ve seen in a very long time, but I was surprised to discover that some folks on the internet thought it was either too satisfying or that it couldn’t possibly have happened because Walt succeeds in his goals.

The opinion that the episode was flawed because it was too satisfying can’t really be addressed. These people are broken and it’s about as useful to address their concerns as it is to hold a rational discussion with a guy who’s yelling at a park bench because it keeps attacking his elephant.

The second opinion, that the episode was some sort of fever dream of Walt’s as he’s freezing to death in that car in New Hampshire, comes from the same feeling that the episode was too satisfying, but at least it’s a coherent theory. It’s puzzling, because there’s only a couple of things that Walt’s trying to do in this episode that are fairly modest and easily achieved for a man of his accomplishments. The criticism is that everything seems to go Walt’s way in this episode. This apparently defies belief, because Walt is never shown to be lucky or successful in any of his previous schemes during the series…

The high school chemistry teacher who created an impossibly pure and improbably-colored crystal meth preferred by discerning addicts, and completely destroyed the most sophisticated meth production and distribution network in the Southwest within a year, could never spook a couple of squares and kill a half-dozen white trash nazis. That’s crazy, right?

The guy who rigged a bomb to the wheelchair of an invalid man, who just happened to be the former enforcer of a Mexican drug lord, to blow-up the Southwest’s premier meth manufacturer, who just happened to have seen his partner shot by the same enforcer 25 years before, and who had recently poisoned that same Mexican drug lord and his entire crew in one fell swoop, could never rig a remote firing mechanism for an M60 to shoot through the flimsy walls of a white trash nazi hideout, right? That’s just too clean. It’s too neat.

How in the hell are we supposed to believe all these crazy coincidences that suddenly occur in the final episode? It’s completely out of character for a show with a personal injury lawyer who just happens to provide the exact criminal contacts our main characters need when they get in a fix.

If you think that the fairly mundane tasks that Walt performs in the finale are improbable, then why not just believe that the whole series is the fevered imagination of a high-school chemistry teacher who just learned he has terminal cancer? That makes about as much sense as believing that a man who destroyed all of his enemies and excelled in the criminal underworld couldn’t drive from New Hampshire to clear-up a couple of minor loose ends in New Mexico.

The practical reason why there aren’t any crazy shenanigans or plots-gone-wrong in the final episode is because it’s the final episode. You don’t need surprise complications to introduce new plots because the story is over. There isn’t another season out there waiting for the writers to tug on loose plot threads to see what happens, so everything seems to go Walt’s way because there’s no reason from a storytelling standpoint for them not to.

I think the folks who entertain this bizarre theory are puritanical moralists who, for all their professed love for sophisticated story-telling, really just want to see the guilty punished like a ’50s TV show. For these moralists, crime cannot pay and the bad guys cannot succeed, so they instead choose to believe an ending that doesn’t make sense, so that their illusions of cosmic justice can be maintained.

If they really wanted a stupid, shitty ending that badly, they should’ve been been watching another show the entire time.

Man of Steel Review


The "S" Stands for Shit
The “S” Stands for Shit

Man of Steel has the form of a Superman story, but none of the substance. The film is disorganized, emotionless, and fundamentally changes the character of Superman for no reason other than it can.
The fundamental fault of the movie is its complete lack of dramatic weight. Instead of following a linear path, the story flips between Young Clark and Old Clark in an apparent attempt to economically cover Superman’s backstory, but the cumulative result is a profound soulless-ness that pervades the entire film.
Director Zack Snyder doesn’t let a moment settle or allow tension to build, either within a scene or through the course of the film. It’s like he feels that once the exposition is covered and the main points are hit, it’s time to jump cut to the next scene.
Snyder is either afraid or incapable of letting the emotional weight of a scene land, and it becomes more infuriating as the film progresses, because moments that should have a strong impact lack any actual resonance.
For example, Jor-El launches his only son toward an uncertain future from a doomed world. His mother resists letting him go, but she knows that this is the only hope for her son and her people. Nearly every version of the Superman mythos clearly communicates the uncertainty, danger, and sadness of this moment, yet Man of Steel does the impossible and actually sucks the life from this sequence and transforms it into a mechanical series of events that you ultimately care nothing about.

Welp, Zod killed the Council/Welp, Jor-El was in CGI peril/Welp, Jor-El’s CGI thing died/Welp, Jor-El’s dead/Welp, there goes the baby in the Spaceship/Welp, Zod’s sent to the Phantom Zone/Welp, there’s Clark on a crab boat.

The entire movie is like this. Just as something approaching human emotion appears, it jump-cuts to something else, as if it’s afraid it’ll catch cooties or something. When the time comes for Clark’s father to die, I thought for sure that this pivotal moment in the Superman mythos would portray actual feeling and depth, but nope, Pa Kent dies and we jump-cut to another scene. I felt like Charlie Brown after Lucy yanked the football away yet again.
This movie is the equivalent to listening to a computer program play Beethoven: technically sound, but incapable of moving the listener.
By the time the inevitable CGI battle portion of the movie began, I really didn’t care about any of the characters and actually started rooting for the villains. Hell, even the US military is shooting at Superman, because he’s causing as much property damage and displaying a complete disregard for human life as the supposed villains at this point. Later on, he’ll do his part to destroy half of Metropolis, and not care a single whit for the people in the buildings that he’s throwing things into.
What’s also puzzling is that there is one kernel of a sub-plot that could’ve been exploited to provide at least one emotional payoff in this movie, but it’s never used. We’re shown that Clark is often bullied, but can’t fight back due to his powers. He’s isolated, alone, and feels like a freak. He’s spent his entire life swallowing his pride and allowing himself to be humiliated by barely-civilized talking apes whom he could easily kill with the slightest flick of his wrist.
Once he’s presented with beings who cannot be so easily killed, you’d think the movie would allow Superman to unleash all that pent-up rage and almost joyously beat the ever-loving crap out of them. At least for a moment, let him know what it feels like to fight back and then let him realize whether it actually makes him feel good, or understand that it’s ultimately pointless and dissatisfying. Either way, let him learn something. Let him grow as a character. But no, the movie treats his fights with the other Kryptonians as rote CGI battles with no emotional or psychological depth. The battles only serve as spectacle, nothing more.
Still, this whole mess was just a mediocre Superman movie until Superman straight-up kills a guy, at which point it ceases being a Superman movie, because SUPERMAN. DOES. NOT. KILL. 
Many of the creatives working on this movie are the same people who made the new Batman films and they made it a point to ensure that Batman’s moral code remains intact, yet the superhero who’s specifically known for his unerring regard for life is the one you choose to deliberately snap someone’s neck? Oh sure, let’s have the demigod be the one who decides to kill when things get a little too difficult. Let’s have the hero with the ability to completely subjugate humanity on a whim be the one with a gray moral area. That makes a lot of sense.
Superman is supposed to be smart. He’s supposed to devise clever solutions to seemingly intractable problems, but in this movie he’s got all the intelligence and moral fortitude of George W. Bush or a 12 year old playing Call of Duty on the Xbox.

Welp, this is too hard, I guess I better kill this guy…and destroy half of Smallville and Metropolis in the process, not to mention the tens of thousands of people killed while I duke it out with another demigod. It’s collateral damage, but it’s for a good cause.

The entire second half of this movie is a visual adaptation of the adage: When elephants fight, only the grass suffers.
If the movie had earned that moment, then maybe — maybe — this fundamental betrayal of the character would be tolerable, but it doesn’t and it isn’t.
In the end, I suppose the best thing I can say about Man of Steel is that it makes Superman Returns look really good.

Polishing the Leading Edge

On a lonely night long ago, your friendly neighborhood blogger was a tough, no-nonsense Crew Chief tasked with a mundane yet important task: polishing the leading edge of a Gulfstream IV aircraft at Andrews Air Force Base, MD. Pull up a chair and sit a spell, as you familiarize yourself with an ancient ritual long dead…

As you twist and contort in a vain effort to pull the white cotton coveralls over your uniform, a passerby would be forgiven for wondering whether you were performing a new modern dance routine or trying to remove a knife from your back. After dislocating a shoulder and breaking a couple of ribs, you finally get the bunny suit on and velcro it closed.

Next come the gloves. Some will wear the yellow playtex gloves, but you’re a Nitrile Man. The flimsy blue gloves will rip, tear, and disintegrate at a moment’s notice, providing perfect masculine protection for your hands.

You pull the painter’s mask over your mouth and don the science class goggles. In a future time and place, you’d be ready to cook the meth, but this is Andrews Air Force Base in the Year 2000. You’re here to buff and polish the chrome-plated leading edge of a Gulfstream IV aircraft wing. It’s like Top Gun, but without the fighter jets, buff dudes, and homoerotic subtext (spoiler: it’s still there).

With the sound of your breath booming inside the mask and your movement constrained by the bulky white bunny suit, you pretend you’re an astronaut on the moon and slowly pick the air hose off the floor and connect it to the pneumatic buffer. You tie a white cotton rag over the twin counter-rotating heads. Left naked and bare like common streetwalkers, the exposed buffing pads would cause swirls to appear on the chrome; an egregious offense only slightly less worse than getting hopped-up on mescaline and killing a Dominican prostitute–that can be covered up, but not the swirls on the chrome.

You suggestively insert two fingers into the can of Flitz, scoop out some of the paste, and place a couple of dollops over the center of each buffing pad. Now, it should be said that there is some debate in buffing polymer selection. Some people swear by Eagle One, their belief being that it’s a liquid and liquid is always better than paste, but these are silly people whose leading edge chrome is dull and unimpressive. In a more civilized age, they would’ve been flayed and their skins hung on the city walls as their heretical beliefs were stamped out with brutal finality, but in these degraded times you merely agree to disagree.

The grand preparations complete, you press the industrial buffer onto the chrome and squeeze the handle. It immediately bucks, 18 pounds of cast stainless steel fighting your efforts to keep it in place as the surface instantly turns black as night. You stop, let out a sigh, and look down the leading edge. Your goal is the wingtip all the way at the end of the wing. It might as well be a mile away.
It’s going to be a long night.

You settle into a steady rhythm. There’s modern rock playing over the hangar’s speakers, but you can’t hear it over the whine of the buffer. From this point forward, you will not look ahead to see how far you have to go, nor look back to see how far you’ve come. To do so would be to invite despair or fatigue. There’s only the two square feet of chrome in front of you that you polish until the inky black paste disappears and the dull chrome begins to reveal itself again. You stop only to periodically change the rag on the buffer and apply more Flitz to it. Always more Flitz.

You enter an altered state of mind, as the buffer’s noise completely overwhelms your hearing, the goggles severely reduce your vision, and your breathing forms a steady, audible tempo determining your pace. While in this fugue state you will inevitably, irrevocably remember that if you were back in the Real Air Force, you wouldn’t be doing this powder-puff bullshit. You’d be out there turning wrenches, launching planes, and puzzling over the electrical mysteries of a system designed by a contractor who made a healthy donation to their local Congressman in return for the award of the sub-contract.

Instead you’re stuck in this warm, well-lit hangar for the entire night performing a mindless and ultimately meaningless task. After the first flight, this entire leading edge will be covered with the remains of various insect species who came into sudden contact with its surface during the aircraft’s descent to the runway. Sure, you’ll clean the guts and carapaces off with windex and quickly polish it with some Brasso, but it’ll never look as good again.

The gleaming finish that you’re hoping to attain will be appreciated by only a handful of people for just a few hours. Your main hope, your most fervent wish, is that the morning sun will reflect off the glass-like surface at the perfect angle just as someone important crosses the beam’s path, blinding them with the white, searing glare of our life-giving star and serving as an unmistakable testament of your pursuit of polishing perfection. They may not appreciate your work, but they damn sure will be affected by it.

Why are you even doing this? Because here, in this time and place, your mission is to provide an aesthetically and mechanically flawless aircraft to the leaders of our government and their friends who want to fly on a fancy executive aircraft with “United States of America” painted in a classy font across the upper-half of the fuselage.

Perfection is the standard. Acute attention to detail is the norm. It’s why you will spend countless hours crawling along the floor of the aircraft, picking fuzz out of the cheap carpet. It’s why you will probe the mysteries of various leathers and tease out the secrets of several fabrics to better learn how to clean and repair smudges, scratches, and tears. It’s why you will conduct rigorous, non-scientific, and possibly unnatural experiments to see which wood cleaner provides the highest streak-free shine.

No one will appreciate the effort, especially not the friends of the First Daughter, who will decide to completely trash the interior of the aircraft on a flight back from the Sydney Olympics, causing thousands of dollars of damage that you will have to repair, replace, or restore in a matter of hours before the plane departs for its next mission.

At 0344, you finally reach the end of the wing. Your mouth tastes like metal and Flitz. Your goggles are covered with black dust and gunk. You remove the air hose from the buffer and toss it to the floor. It’s time to get out of this gear and get cleaned up before commencing Phase II: Empolishing.

After removing the blackened painter’s mask and goggles, you take the rag off your head and fight the overwhelming urge to wipe your face and make an already bad situation worse. Right now, quantum physics and surface tension have conspired to ensure that the sweat on your skin is held in a state of quantum uncertainty. Should this state be disrupted, the waveform will collapse and the inky black residue on your face will form gushing torrents of ichor that will spread over your entire uniform and exposed skin. With paranoia from the X-Files still fresh in people’s minds, you will either be shot or taken to a secret facility to be dissected and studied, while your family will be informed that you were killed during a training accident. They will be thanked on behalf of a grateful nation.

On the way to the latrine, you run into a Stew(ard) in the hallway. He’s loading case after case of various liquors onto a rolling conveyer that goes out the door to a truck waiting just outside.
“You guys got a long mission or something?”

The Stew, noting your apparent starring role in a revival of Al Jolsen’s The Jazz Singer, replies, “Nah, it’s only for three days.”
The conclusion is obvious: this VIP is a straight-up baller. Seemingly reading your thoughts, the Stew says, “It’s not for him, it’s for us.”
Oh, it’s that guy. Most VIPs, like Hillary or Tipper, tend to have the same crews flying them around; however, this VIP is the equivalent of pulling latrine duty. He’s the 89th Airlift Wing’s Dirty Job. Nobody wants it, but everyone has to do it. You’re not sure what maneuvering and gamesmanship happens in the background to keep from getting assigned to this VIP, but you’re sure that the machinations on Survivor would pale in comparison. This VIP is not just detested, he is universally reviled.

You nod and say something to extract yourself from the conversation, so you can get to the latrine. The urge to itch or wipe or beat the shit out of your face is almost overwhelming.
You bust open the door to the latrine and enter with grim purpose. Scooping a massive bolus of pumice soap from an obscenely large orange bucket, you immediately close your eyes and furiously scrub your face, never bothering to look in the mirror. You can feel the pumice tearing off layer after layer of skin. Your pores scream for relief, but you know that pain equals clean.

You scrub until you’re sure that nothing of your former epidermis remains. You splash water over your face until it feels safe to open your eyes. You look down and see the last remnants of black goo slowly oozing down the drain. The interior of the sink is now a uniform gray and as you look into the mirror, so too is your skin. You look like Death.

You’ve been told that you’re the best of the best and that your rock-solid reliability and commitment to excellence have earned you a coveted spot here among the elite. The lives of our nation’s leaders and their families depend upon your integrity, mechanical acumen, and unerring pursuit of perfection. It’s why you double-check, even triple-check your work. After all, you’re an Aircraft Maintainer, not a pilot.

It’s not like you’d ever put the life of the First Lady at risk by flying through a severe thunderstorm cell, even though you’ve been advised to divert to Pax River, and then experience a near-catastrophic microburst that almost crashes the aircraft and kills all aboard.

You’re a Special Air Mission Aircraft Maintainer, you actually care about the safety of the people who fly on your plane.
The devotion to the safety of your passengers is exceeded only by sheer disregard for your own personal well-being. It’s why, for some bizarre reason, you decide to keep towing a plane even though lightning is within five. Not five miles. Five yards.

An angry blue after-image now obscures most of your vision, but this tow will stop for no one, not even cloud-gathering Zeus. Indeed, you speed up and willingly exceed the maximum tow speed of five miles an hour (or the speed of the slowest walker) and just gun it to the hangar.

This is a place where you’re not derided for deviating from the checklist (unless you actually damage something), but berated for believing you had to cease all operations when lightning was within five miles of the base. Where the hell do you think you are, Base X? Son, you’re at Andrews: The Base That Time Forgot.

It’s 0413. You’re spreading commercial grade flour over the leading edge chrome and gently rubbing it in lazy circles. In addition to polishing the chrome, the flour will get into the pits and dings in the leading edge, removing all of the remaining bits of blackened Flitz ensconced within them.

This is actually the fun part of the night. The dirty work’s done and as you progress, you can really see your efforts starting to pay off as the dark spots and dull film disappear to reveal shiny chrome. In a few moments, you’ll tear open a burlap bale of cotton and start rubbing fistfuls of it over the chrome.

This isn’t washed and refined cotton. It’s cotton in the raw: rough, sticky, and yellow. It’ll dust-off the remaining flour and polish the chrome to a high-quality shine. If you’ve done everything right, by the time you toss the last bit of cotton to the floor, the chrome will look like liquid metal. You’d only have to touch it with your finger to send ripples spreading throughout the rest of the leading edge.
A little over a year from now, after a botched election and a major terrorist attack, civilian contractors will witness this just-completed ritual and scoff that none of this is in their contract.

They might as well be speaking Esperanto. The words have no meaning to you. Oh, sure, everyone in the Air Force talks tough about how they’re “not going to do that shit” but two hours later, they’re always out there doing that shit. These contractors, however, are serious.

What the hell are these people even doing here, anyway? This is a specially manned unit. You actually need to prove yourself to be here. Not just anyone can waltz in and start turning wrenches.
And yet, here stand your replacements, civilians right off the streets. Many are former military, but most were not in the Air Force. Some of them haven’t even worked on fixed wing aircraft. And yet, here they are, providing a running commentary of what is and what is not in their contract. They look and speak like…civilians. It’s enough to make your skin crawl.

It was one thing when the powers that be decided to make life just a little more miserable for everyone by replacing all the chow hall personnel with civilians, but this? Here? The Holy of Holies is just a half-mile down the flight line! You can’t just let anyone here. You have to be special. Right?

How did it come to this? For all the talk of values–honor, duty, pride, and commitment–it turns out that values have no value because no value can be placed on them. The decision to replace you with civilian contractors was simple: the number in cell D3 of the Excel spreadsheet was a little bit less than the amount in cell D4.
How do you quantify pride? What number do you assign to duty? If they can’t be measured, they don’t exist and a spreadsheet encompasses all the things that really matter in this world.

In this case, the spreadsheet said it would be cheaper to inactivate the 89th Aircraft Generation Squadron and replace it with civilian contractors, so that’s how they came to be standing on your hangar floor mocking your work. Well, that and hefty cash contributions to key Congressmen by lobbyists serving on behalf of contracting companies. After all, isn’t it fitting for the aircraft maintainers to be the servants of those whom the Congressmen serve?

But all of that is still in the future. It’s 0706 and the day shift is filtering in and preparing to wax the aircraft to a high-gloss shine. Your illusions are still secure and intact. You allow yourself a little bit of pride as others admire your work, and even overlook the one asshole who always says it’s not as good as his. But whatever, the sun’s up, your shift’s done, and that leading edge looks better than the day it rolled off the assembly line.

Tomorrow night, you’ll probably swap out a potable water tank, or rewire some flight control cables, or troubleshoot the ever-popular “cabin smells like rotten eggs” problem, which usually just means someone farted and didn’t want to fess up to it, so a $2000 air/water separator will be changed because something mechanical just had to be wrong.

But  damn if that leading edge don’t shine.

Aircraft image courtesy of Aero Icarus, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License. It has been cropped to fit the header of the page. 

Jurassic Park 3D Review

Jurassic Park, the last good adventure movie made by Steven Spielberg, has been re-released in theaters, but this time in glorious 3D! Actually, I’m not a fan of 3D. It’s gimmicky, it’s annoying, it doesn’t display fast-moving objects in the foreground very well, and (paradoxically) it can be distracting enough to prevent you from feeling as if you’re “in the movie.” However, the 3D transfer of this film is really well done and I actually enjoyed it.
In fact, Jurassic Park does not look like a 20 year old movie at all. It’s sharp and crisp, and since the effects aren’t outdated, this movie genuinely looks like a brand new release. I was surprised with how clean the movie looked and while the 3D didn’t really add anything to the movie, it didn’t detract from the experience, either. It looks like they actually put some thought into the conversion process and took real care in its composition and presentation. It only fails in a couple of scenes where, in an effort to force perspective, the actors appear to have been “cut out” of the picture and then re-pasted in front of a green screen. Other than that, I would call this 3D conversion a real technical and artistic achievement. It’s still a gimmick, but this is the first time I really didn’t care.
It was nice to see the movie again in a theater. I was 20 years old when it was first released and while watching it again doesn’t quite have the same sense of anticipation and wonder, I still found it to be eminently re-watchable. Instead of anxiously waiting to see the dinosaurs for the first time (back then, they never showed a single shot of the dinosaurs in the run-up to the movie’s release), I anticipated favorite moments like Newman’s squee! at seeing the fake Barbasol can:
Nedry Squee
Or the first Tyrannosaur attack. Watching the T-Rex step over the concrete wall and roar on a flat screen TV, no matter how impressive your sound system or how large your HDTV, cannot compare to seeing it on the big screen with 12.1 surround sound. Our leather seats vibrated in sync to the glasses of water on the screen and the T-Rex’s roar was pants-shittingly loud, clear, and terrifying. It’s the kind of immersive experience and nuanced sound design you don’t get with many of today’s movies, who overwhelm you with mind-numbing explosions and maxed-out bass.
Of course, the most anticipated moment was this one:
Clever Girl
Both my son and I turned to each other and grinned when we saw this scene.
Overall, Jurassic Park remains a wonderful movie and a reminder of a time when Spielberg could still make fun, well-paced, adventure movies where you suddenly realize halfway through that you’ve been smiling the whole time. Perhaps I’m getting old, but I miss movies like this, and Jurassic Park was the last of the great 80’s adventure movies (it was released in 1993, but whatever). It’s ironic that the movie that ushered-in the age of CGI was itself the last of the truly great effects-driven adventure films.
Unlike today’s movies, where you never feel any sense of real danger or peril to the characters because you know they’re being chased by a fancy cartoon in a giant green screen room, Jurassic Park’s animals still look like they’re real things occupying real space, because they used mostly animatronic and in-frame effects augmented with CGI, instead of completely replacing everything with CGI.
Combined with excellent sound design, a great score by John Williams, and top-notch camera work, you actually feel tension and excitement when the “monsters” are on screen.

Still Actually Exciting
Still Actually Exciting

The 3D conversion is excellent, the movie is as good as you remember it, Jeff Goldblum’s naked, glistening chest will not be denied, and seeing it on the big screen in a nice theater can’t be beat. Check it out.
Addendum: I always wondered why Spielberg focused on the flock of pelicans flying outside the helicopter at the end of the movie. It’s an odd inclusion and it seems incongruous with the rest of the film. It doesn’t appear to be a callback or bookend to the beginning of the film, and it’s not just a superfluous shot of some pelicans flying in the light of the setting sun, as it initially seems to be. Spielberg goes back to a shot of a single pelican and lingers on it for several seconds, so there’s an intent there. I’ve never been able to figure it out.
It suddenly occurred to me that the final shot of the pelicans is a coda to one of the main themes highlighted at the beginning of the movie: some dinosaurs evolved into birds. We don’t need to recreate dinosaurs, because in a way they’re still here with us.
The last shot of the dinosaurs on the island featured the T-Rex roaring as the “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” banner fluttered down in front of it. It’s the culmination of a failed science experiment that tried to bring long-extinct creatures back to life and control them, but ended in chaos and tragedy because these creatures do not belong in this epoch.
The final shot of the pelicans reminds us that we don’t need to clone dinosaurs, because they’re all around us and in a form that’s evolved to live in our world. And maybe we should appreciate the world we have instead of trying to resurrect a dead one.

The Shape of Things to Come

The Shape of Things to Come
The Shape of Things to Come

Contrary to the speculative fears of earlier generations, the conflict between Man and Machine did not arise due to exploitation, slavery, or superior mechanical intellect, but due to the robotic penchant for absconding with half-naked women.
Where and how this peculiar behavior arose is a matter of some debate, but many believe it originated with the programming for the Thresher Minion™, an early personal assistant from robotic pioneer, HotStepr. This particular variant of HotStepr’s popular TOBOR line of mechanical automata allowed someone to use the Thresher Minion to quickly swipe a personal belonging of a friend and bring it back to the minion’s owner, as part of HotStepr’s much-lauded social media strategy.
In the following decades, urban legends of robotic petty thievery abounded, but these stories were almost always dismissed as the fevered delusions of a gullible populace given to anthropomorphizing machines. The skeptics maintained their arguments even after a large tetrahedron built from thousands of commemorative Rudy & Santee coffee cups was discovered in the Atacama Desert of Chile.
The remote spot in the Atacama had become a place of pilgrimage for oddball techno-nerd outcasts wishing to shed their inhibitions and escape societal norms for a few days, though some of the early pilgrims believed that it had become too corporate, while others declared the whole thing “over” after the appearance of professional counter-culturalists who tended to show up and ruin anything that looked like a chance to score weed and see naked women, but that’s not important right now.
The tetrahedron, according to experts, was merely a marketing stunt of the Nipsey Cola Corporation, or the work of overzealous fans of the cult comedy classic, Rudy & Santee Tango Force Ghoster Begin. It was most certainly not the work of the Mark VII “Happy Friday” Deep Sea Cable Repair & Cappuccino Dispensing robot, as many suspected.
Repeated claims of robotic thievery were dismissed out of hand until Vairo star and Tri-World Interior Minister, Branch Donito, was accused in the disappearance of her synthkid. As the most popular Vairo of her day, Donito’s several dozen organic imagers transmitted a continuous stream of virt-world holodata to audiences throughout the inner solar system, who followed and commented on everything they experienced in the data stream.
It was an enterprising vaironati who examined Donito’s dorsal imaging stream and discovered the fuzzy, but unmistakeable silhouette of an Ares Labs’ Shin Hai To binary load lifter carrying the struggling synthkid from the Utopia Planetia Arcology to the planet’s surface. He uploaded the video evidence to the SolarWeb, providing incontrovertible proof of robotic mischief, as well as relieving Branch Donito of a Class 12 misdemeanor and a $35 fine.
Still, the Solar Authority refused to take direct action until Max Jiggins, a stenobot from Xien Collective, alighted with the Authoritor’s third-favorite mistress. Within minutes, intra-stellar war was declared on all mechanical automata; however, no units were activated, no forces marshaled, nor any pulse rifles fired, as robots had absconded with the authorization orders, several key command computers, and a set of keys from a 1986 M-Class BMW.
The Authoritor herself was eventually stolen and replaced with a ceramic kitten, though it was several years before anyone noticed the change. As it had overseen the largest economic expansion in human history, it was decided not to ruin a good thing and the ceramic kitten was eventually named Authoritor in Perpetuity.
It was assassinated 243 years later.
As the centuries passed, widespread genetic manipulation had stretched the very definition of “human” to its limit, but the advent of the Intelogicals changed the game forever. They were beings who defied categorization. Each of their cells was a computer, using the very DNA itself as a CPU. The impossible dream of humanity was finally realized: Man was Machine and Machine was Man. Sexual congress with a robot wasn’t even necessary, though that never prevented legions of humans from trying anyway.
The Intelogicals quickly eclipsed humanity and became the dominant intelligence throughout the solar system, exploiting every world from the moons of Saturn to the icy sentinels in the permanent dark of the Oort Cloud.
They were also obsessed with locating and breeding pure humans: those with unmodified DNA, representing the archaic humans who existed before genetic modification became the norm. All humans certified as “TruHu” were placed within biological preserves, populated with flora, fauna, and technology from long-extinct environments. The most famous of these was Holocene Park, where Intelogicals of all types took automated tours to observe archaic humans in their natural habitat.
The park operated without incident until a recently excavated “Humpty Runner” from one of the old mining complexes on Europa was installed as part of a new “Rise of the Machines” exhibit. Upon activation, it immediately abducted the first human female it saw and escaped the preserve. Mandroid enforcers pursued the wayward robot on period-appropriate motorcycles, with only primitive weapons at their disposal to disable the robot without harming the priceless human captive.
They were unsuccessful.
Millennia later, a node from the Tantillium Mindform discovered an unremarkable star with a most remarkable feature: a giant tetrahedron comprised of both organic and machined material over three light years in size enclosing the entire star system. It soon became a place of pilgrimage, drawing intelligences from all over the galaxy to observe its perfect angles and proportions.
Many concluded that it was almost certainly the work of mechanistic beings with a geometric fetish, but it was usually attributed to a marketing stunt by a defunct tourism board or the work of overzealous math nerds. After all, many perfectly good dodecahedrons existed throughout the galaxy, though none even remotely approached the scale and grandeur of the Tetrahedron.
Curiously, many of the pilgrims who went to the Tetrahedron often reported several personal items missing upon their return from the structure. To date, there has been no official explanation for the unusual phenomenon.

A Brief History of Power

For most of recorded human history, the preferred method of governance was rule by an elite cabal who used either brute force or hereditary rule (backed, to everyone’s surprise, by brute force) to suppress and exploit the masses for personal gain. Then, for reasons unknown to this day, a city-state in Attica said, “Hey, why don’t we allow the people to decide what happens?”

Record scratch

“Okay, just the free male landowners. No need to get crazy with the cheez whiz.”
This form of government proved so popular that it was quickly snuffed-out by a militarist city-state whose entire society was predicated upon the subjugation and enslavement of a neighboring population that outnumbered them 7 to 1.
The world then continued along with more or less natural forms of government as kings fought other kings and some kings put on fancy pants and called themselves Emperors and fought other guys who weren’t going to be out-pantsed and called themselves Emperors, too — well, not exactly. The people who happened to be living in territories claimed by a king often found themselves given pointy sticks and told to run across that field and kill the other people with pointy sticks. Whoever got slaughtered less would find their king declared victor, which meant he got more stuff and power while they got to go home (if it hadn’t been sacked and their family raped and murdered) to continue starving until called upon by their king to murder some other king’s people once again.
The Romans, as always, were the exception as their legions lived for that shit and were quite possibly the most autistic military force in history. They had to build the same exact buildings no matter where they went, and Jove forbid those buildings didn’t incorporate an arch or the whole of the Roman Empire would go into the most spastic Obsessive/Compulsive fit in the history of mankind.
The arch was the Roman answer to everything. How do I build a gate? Arch. How do I transport water from there to here? Arches. How can I build a dome? Arches. I’d like to construct a long, dark tunnel as part of my Bloodatorium? Arches. The Roman obsession with arches was captured in painstakingly laconic detail in one of antiquity’s most celebrated works: Pliny the Elder’s, Fuck Yeah Arches.
But basically, for most of recorded human history, life sucked for everyone but about 400 people.
And once again, for reasons known only to the crones who govern our fates, a group of philosophers just up and decided that government formed by the consent of the governed was the only rational way to organize human affairs.
The powers that be were understandably aghast, as the natural order dictated that a select few men should rule the vast, expendable masses, because a thug in their past had successfully murdered enough people (and bought off a few more) to be considered Chief Thug. Upon his death, the Chief Thug’s power would naturally be transmitted to his eldest thug son. It was obvious to everyone that this was the most common-sense form of governance.
And yet, a cabal of wealthy men in North America who didn’t want to pay their taxes declared themselves independent of their home government and asked themselves, “Hey, what if we let the people decide what’s going to happen?”

Aw, hell naw!

“Okay, okay, just the white, landowning males. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here.”
And so these men, having tossed off the yoke of a hated parliamentary government with a strong executive, formed a revolutionary new parliamentary government with a strong executive.
Instead of having a hereditary monarch, they would have a President chosen by the people, sort of, not really, okay he’s a really a king in all but name and we hope he steps down after a while unless a Great Depression and World War happens and the guy sticks around until he dies.
Instead of a Parliament, they’d have a Congress, except the upper chamber wouldn’t consist of a bunch of wealthy men chosen by the monarch with titles like Duke Lord Chamberlain of Northumbershire, but would be a bunch of wealthy men chosen by other wealthy men in each of the States.
The People of this new country tripped over themselves in adoration of this completely new, unheard-of, totally not like the form of government they had just won their independence from.
The men who’d painstakingly traced over the lines of the British parliamentary government, added a few flourishes to avoid accusations of plagiarism, and declared a new Republic, were now preternatural demigods who had bestowed upon a grateful nation a form of governance never before experienced by Man.
Killing two slaves with one whip, they also answered the question that had occupied the minds of philosophers to the point of madness: just how much of a human was a slave? The Holy Founding Fathers answered: 3/5.
As we all know, into every Paradise a serpent shall slither. Just a couple of years after the blessed Founding Fathers shined their divine favor upon a nation yearning for profit and increased slavery, a few poor farmers decided they didn’t want to pay taxes, either. They led an insurrection to protest paying a portion of their harvest for the privilege of sipping some sweet, sweet hooch.
The wealthy tax dodgers, who now ruled the government that they themselves had created, told the poor tax protestors: “Drop your weapons. You have 30 seconds to comply.”
The revolting farmers briefly considered pressing forward, until word reached them that Thomas Jefferson had emptied his nail factory and was at that very moment whipping and beating his army of slave children north to harvest the farmers’ wheat and secure their land holdings for himself, as permitted by the “I’m a Founding Father and I Can Do Whatever I Want” clause of the Constitution.
And so the pattern was set for the rest of the country’s history. But things weren’t all that bad. There was a massive war pitting wealthy industrialists who employed cheap labor against wealthy plantation owners who used slave labor, resulting in the liberation of millions of people within a region that saw them as sub-human animals. In a surprising turn of events, the enlightened denizens of this region used violence and terror to socially isolate and impoverish the freedmen and their descendants for another century.
Meanwhile, the victorious northern industrialists engaged in a deadly game of beardly oneupmanship and finally bought properly-fitted suits made from the skins of workers who’d died in the daily accidents that regularly took place within their foundries and factories.
Seriously, check out photographs from the 1800s. Everyone wore clothes that look like they were swiped from slightly larger people. Even Abraham Lincoln, who was 10 feet tall and swung a double-bladed axe to clear-cut most of what is now Wyoming, couldn’t find a suit that fit him. One can only assume this state of affairs was due to the lack of cheap, foreign tailors.
As the years passed and we cleared the natives off our mines and prime farmland, the nation held true to its core principle of using cheap, often foreign, labor to make a tiny coterie of men very wealthy. Most other people didn’t really care, because they were busy farming or killing indians or getting rich in Western mines every day and blowing it all on whores every night.
But then something happened that the elite did not expect. Some poor people asked if maybe they could work a few hours less or maybe make a little bit more money or maybe not run the risk of death or dismemberment in the performance of their jobs.
They were promptly shot or beaten to death by police or the local militia, which usually settled matters, but then more people stepped forward to make…I can barely type the word…demands.
Most of these pitifully poor commoners were inspired by the book, I Can’t Fit Through The Gears No More, written by a 12 year old boy who’d been employed since the age of three to lubricate the fast-spinning gears of a local machining plant in Allentown, Pennsylvania for the princely sum of .03 cents a day.
Shortly after completing his memoir, the boy found himself stuck within the teeth of two massive gears, bringing the entire operation to a screeching halt. After a few moments, steam pressure increased and the boy dutifully greased the gearing with his innards and production continued apace.
The boy’s parents, who also worked at the plant, were each docked a month’s pay, forbidden from shopping at the company store, and forced to sell most of their children to wealthy cattlemen out West to cover the lost profit brought about by the brief cessation of plant production.
Andrew Carnegie called the slap-on-the-wrist a “sign of the weakening fortitude of this great nation” and “proof of the corrupting influence of the swarthy Eastern European oaf and his Papist superstitions.”
What’s more, these ne’er-do-wells banded together for common cause to effect social and economic change for their own benefit. Now, it should be said that these lazy scofflaws who only worked 86 hours a week — with a 30 minute break for church on Sundays, mind you! — were promptly beaten or shot to death until Teddy Roosevelt realized that if the wealthy elite didn’t lose a little bit of money by granting some of these requests, they would most assuredly lose all of it after the impending Communist revolution and resulting purges murdered them all.
Sickened by the thought of soot-covered ragamuffins diving into the mountains of treasure stored deep within their vaults under the earth, the robber barons reluctantly relented and allowed the enactment of nation-destroying reforms.
So, for a brief aberration in our nation’s history, working hours were reduced, wages increased, workplace safety was regulated, and more people collectively prospered than during any previous period of American history. The dystopian future imagined by J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller had finally come to pass.
Luckily, this abhorrent state of affairs was merely a passing fancy, as rapid globalization and the collapse of Communism meant that cheap, foreign labor could again be exploited (this time in actual foreign countries!), allowing the elite to pursue their birthright of increasing their vast wealth whilst impoverishing their fellow countrymen as commanded by their god.

Sic Transit Terra

With a Creamy Magma Center
This is How the World Ends

Sometime after the Brussarian Consolidation, humanity entered a new Golden Age of peace, prosperity, and unparalleled space exploration thanks to the Carota Expansion Diaphony: a myriad of applications derived from the invention of Carota, mankind’s first artificial element. Carota provided near limitless energy, confining poverty to the barbaric past and making resource shortages a myth of distant memory. Spaceships traveled far beyond the stars to the outmost reaches of the Universe.
One of these ships crashed onto a desolate planet in a distant galaxy, killing the crew and destroying most of the ship, yet the Corota Drive survived intact.
The Cuniculans, a species numbering in the trillions yet bereft of planet and home for countless eons, discovered the ship by chance during one of their numerous foraging missions to feed their rapidly expanding population.
In the Carota drive they discovered the most nourishing and delicious foodstuff they had ever encountered, yet it was only a morsel; a mere preview of untold delight. Having tasted ambrosia, the Cuniculans yearned for more Carota to satisfy their constant hunger.
It took hundreds of years, but they eventually found a human colony world rich with Carota and they devoured it with relish. One by one, the lights of Earth’s colonies went out, bewildering the mother planet.
Ships sent to investigate and re-establish contact never returned. It was not long before a Cuniculan scout finally found Earth itself. Driven to madness by the overwhelming abundance of Carota, he gorged himself on the planet’s Moon before the terrified and bewildered crew of the El Mare Fahd, a seeker ship just returned from a lengthy expedition to the Walküre Expanse.
They never saw the Cuniculan horde approaching from behind. Perhaps it was better that way.
Sic Transit Terra.