Friday, August 24, 2018

JOHNSON

This is the story of my friend Johnson . . . - S.L.

Johnson

This story goes back eighteen years. It was another lifetime ago it seems, before the planes hit the Twin Towers and the entire world descended into madness. I was in Mauritania, working out of the embassy in Nouakchott. My work took me deep into the desert - I've written about it HERE - to some very exotic destinations with some very interesting people, journies that nowadays would get my head chopped off. But like I said, it was another lifetime. A happier, simpler time. The world had not yet gone insane.

They put me up in the Ambassador's secretary's house, a marble palace on the edge of town. The view out the back was all sand dunes - I was on the edge of the great Sahara. The road in front of my place was paved, but all around was just loose sand, like a beach. Because, of course, the Sahara is the biggest beach in the world.

The Ambassador's secretary had vacated the place, moved into an apartment on the embassy grounds, because according to her the place was haunted. There were some strange banging and booming noises at night and for awhile I wondered about her comment until I became aware of the nature of the poltergeist. The place had a flat roof, common to dwellings in that part of the world. There was a stairwell at the top of which was a sheet metal door opening to the roof. The door did not fit securely into the door frame, so it buckled and banged at bit from the night winds. A wooden wedge solved the situation.

You meet all kinds of people in Africa. A family set up their tent in the space between my place and the place next door, and every morning the lady would bring me bananas or mangoes, and I'd hand over some cash. They were trying to get by - a family of five living on a carpet with a bit of burlap overhead to keep the sun off.

Then I met Johnson.

Johnson is a charismatic African man. At that time Johnson was studying broadcast journalism at the University of Nouakchott, but he is not from Mauritania. Johnson is from Togo. He speaks very good English with a French accent, as French is the lingua franca (to coin a phrase) of West Africa. At that time I was speaking French almost all day, every day, breaking into English when I reported to the embassy.

Once I asked, "Johnson, Togo is a former French colony. Why is it that you have an English name?"

"Oh, Jean-Pierre," he replied, "it is a sad, sad story."

Intrigued, I said, "Go on . . ."

"My family were slaves, in America. When freedom came, after the slave time, they got on a boat and returned to Africa."

"Oh . . . my . . . Gawd . . ." I gasped. "Johnson, I am so, so sorry to hear this . . ." What else could I say? Life in Africa is hard; the opportunities and freedom we take for granted here in the West simply do not exist over there.

"Yes, and we have been trying to get back to America, ever since."

Man, talk about a bad move.

We got to know one another a little better, and I learned that Johnson had actually traveled the States, had lived in New York City for about six months. He'd worked there as a DJ. I told him, "Johnson, you are possibly the only true African-American I know." I meant in the sense that Johnson is an African, of American ancestry, versus the other way around.

Time went by and there wasn't much to do in Nouakchott. In a place like that, part of the challenge is finding something to keep oneself occupied, otherwise one goes crazy staring out over the desert at the endless dunes. The dunes were especially mesmerizing in the evenings, as the sun set behind my back, to the west over the Atlantic, and to the east the desert went from white to yellow to orange to blue and then gray.

Johnson was a good source of information. He told me the story of le Colonel - the ex-Legionnaire who ran le Petit Paris, a local dive. Francophone Africa is full of these ex-Legionnaires running bars. Johnson described how the African wife of le Colonel controlled him through grii-grii - West African voodoo.. "Oh Jean-Pierre! She is wicked! She is wicked!" (Possible material for a future story, perhaps even novel length.) He told me when French mercenaries arrived in town, and pointed them out to me at le Petit Paris. I wasn't too sure about this, they looked like a film crew to me, or perhaps a rock band.

Johnson was very resourceful. When I needed something not readily available, Johnson introduced me to the right person.

One of the things I used to do to occupy time was fire up the grill and roast meat on sticks. This can be a complex operation in Africa, because it involves a journey to the meat market, which is essentially a journey several hundred years back in time.

The meat market is an open air place with concrete pillars holding up swaths of canvas to keep off the sun. The butchers sit on huge slabs of concrete where they go about their trade, hacking camels, horses, donkeys, goats and even the occasional cow (I don't know where they got them from, there's no grass in Nouakchott) to unrecognizable bits and hanging the meat on overhead meathooks. It was not possible for me to specify a cut - say, a sirloin, or a T-bone. The butchers just hack away and one makes the best selection possible of what's available. The meathooks themselves look like they're covered with black fuzz, which are the flies.

It was at one of the weekend cookouts. Johnson had come over with a friend, and so I put him to work in the kitchen. "Prends cette viande," I said - 'Take this meat' - taking a steel bowl full of camel meat from the freezer - "et mettez-la au micro-ondes pour la décongeler." - and put it into the microwave to defrost it.

"Jean-Pierre," Johnson asked. "Comment fait-on ça?" - How do I do it?

"Oh, c'est assez simple . . ." I replied, and explained to place the meat into the microwave, close the door, and set it on defrost for about two or three minutes.

Then I went out front to see to getting the charcoal to ignite on the grill.

A few minutes later I returned to the kitchen to observe a remarkable spectacle. Johnson and his friend were staring open mouthed at the microwave. Their faces were inches away from the front of the machine, which was making wild booming noises like a lab scene in a science fiction movie, and emitting bursts of blue light.

"N-O-O-O-O-O-!-!-!" I hollered. "Ne placez jamais d'objets métalliques dans le micro-ondes!" - Never place metal objects in the microwave! - "JAMAIS!!!"

I quickly popped the microwave door open and all the commotion ceased. I removed the metal bowl and placed it on the counter. There didn't seem to be any serious damage to the microwave. I wondered, of course, if the machine would work properly after this event. So I dumped the camel meat - still quite frozen - into a glass dish, placed it back into the microwave, closed the door and turned the dial.

B-Z-Z-Z-Z-Z-Z-Z-Z-Z . . . Viola, the thing worked perfectly.

"Ne placez jamais d'objets métalliques dans le micro-ondes," I repeated. "Jamais." Never.

After that, whenever Johnson showed up at the house and walked into the kitchen, he'd look at the microwave like it was some kind of relic from the Twilight Zone, and he would say in a low, respectful tone, ""Ne placez jamais d'objets métalliques dans le micro-ondes . . ."

* * *

We stayed in touch for awhile, after I returned to the States. Then the planes hit the buildings, of course, and life became . . . complex . . . I lost touch with Johnson.

Then a couple years back, right out of the blue, Johnson emerged on social media. "Hey, Jean-Pierre, c'est moi! Johnson" He's living in New York! Johnson made it back to the States! We got in touch and laughed about the good old days, and he reminded me of the microwave; ""Ne placez jamais d'objets métalliques dans le micro-ondes . . ." and we laughed some more.

Johnson-medeiros Polycarpe Joel

Life is hard when you immigrate to a new country, I can tell you. You have to start all over again without any of the contacts or support structure that the native-born take for granted. I got here when I was twenty-two and it was hard enough. My wife arrived when she was thirty-two and it was harder still. Johnson's in his forties now, trying to make it like most of us do when we're in our twenties. It's hard to start again, from scratch. I know, I've been there, and I feel for any and all of the immigrants.

Johnson is my friend. Johnson is a true African-American, and he's worthy, and if I could help Johnson find his way, I would do it. I have a plan, its a big plan, but I don't have the frogskins right now to put it all together. If you ask me about it, I'll tell you - but I don't want to blab my big plan out here in the clear. When I get the wherewithall, I'll announce it here and on Twitter and one of the first things I'll do is give Johnson a call - he's the man for the plan. I've got that kind of faith in my friend Johnson.

I've actually been meaning to write this story for awhile, asked Johnson for some photos. He said his mother's in town, over from Togo, and he'd ask her for some pics.

Meanwhile, life keeps going and doesn't wait for dreams and ideas. Yesterday, Johnson gave me a call. There's a problem, and that's where this story is going:

Johnson's mother died four days ago - in his arms, at his place in Queens. Johnson needs money to pay the bills at the morgue where they kept her body, and to pay the airline that flew her body back to Africa. He had nowhere to turn to so he called me. I'm fortunate because I've got work and I've got some cash and I'm sending it to him.

I am asking for donations. There's a GoFundMe over to the right there - Funeral Bills 5000 Miles from Home - for making donations. This is for Johnson - not me - to take care of his mother's expenses. I will keep all informed via Twitter, and Facebook.

That's where it's at right now. Thank you.

STORMBRINGER SENDS

Thursday, August 23, 2018

PICTURES IN A GALLERY

© Sean Linnane 30 March 2016


Struggling with his writer’s block, Mike contemplated a line of ants in the dirt, off the end of the deck where the pathway led down the cliff.

Curious, Mike picked up a stick and went over and wiped across the line of ants. Sitting back, he looked at the clock and watched how long it took for the ants to re-form their line.

Fifteen minutes.

He looked over to the young girl moving about the veranda, using a broom to sweep away the webs the banana spiders spun in place overnight. It occurred to Mike that every morning she swept away the webs, and overnight the spiders re-spun them.

Fifteen minutes for a line of ants to re-form, overnight for a spider to re-spin its web. Mike wondered if there were any other ways that insect life could be used to measure the passage of time . . .

* * *

“Give me a whiskey,” Dave said. Mike poured him one, and put a flask of water on the bar next to him. Mike didn’t serve any ice. If Dave wanted ice, he would’ve asked. That’s the way it is with Scotch drinkers.

Dave sipped his whiskey, then studied the amber liquid in the glass as he savored it. “It was just something I did because there was no other place for me . . .” he said, almost as if he were talking to himself.

“Go on,” said Mike.

“They kicked me out in the end.”

“Who?”

“The Kyrgygs. Kyrgyzstan. In fact, I probably got my company kicked out of there.”

Mike poured him another one. “This one’s on the house,” he said. Mike sensed a good story coming up.

“The contract was IT-related. Sniff out corporate corruption on in-country based internet commerce. So I did it.”

“What was the problem?”

“Well for one thing, every time I completed an investigation on a company, they’d round up the CEO, or whoever I busted out, have a show trial, then haul the poor guy out and execute him.”

“Oh my God!”

“Yeah, I figure I probably killed over thirty guys before I became aware of what was going on. But that wasn’t the problem, though.”

“What was?”

“Well as you can probably imagine, it wasn’t long before I sensed I was being used.”

“What do you mean?”

“During my investigations, on the backside of the net, I was getting indications. It was like somebody was feeding me the intell I was looking for.

“Someone – or some THING – figured out how to direct my investigations. I say something, because I suspect it wasn’t human.”

“What do you mean, not human?”

“Well let me see if I can explain,” Dave stated. “But first, let’s back up a little bit.

“Artificial intelligence – computer-based intelligence, that is - is based on pure logic, mathematics. It has to be, given that the decision-making functions of a computer are ultimately based on electricity, expressed mathematically as ones and zeroes; there either is power going through a circuit or there is not. A switch is either open or it is closed. Reality – to a computer - is boiled down to a series of yes or no questions and answers. There really is no capability for what we would refer to as common sense.

“I’ll give you an example; I have a game I play on my smartphone; backgammon. It is a game of pure logic, based on random throws of the dice. For every number combination of the dice, there is a correct move based on every single possible array of the stones on the board. It is a game of mathematical perfection.

“However, there is a function in the setup of my game that allows me to set the difficulty, that is, the skill level of the opponent I am playing against; one through five. Now think about it. If I set the skill level of my opponent – the computer, that is - at one or three or five, the program is not somehow increasing the intelligence, or 'dumbing down', the decision-making capability of the machine. This is impossible with artificial intelligence. No. Rather, what the program does is 'sit' on the dice. That is, it is increasing or decreasing beneficial rolls to itself, depending on what level of difficulty I choose for my opponent – which of course is the machine itself.”

“Are you saying that computers were feeding you false leads – business intelligence – to knock out the competition to their respective organizations?” Mike asked, incredulous.

“I know it sounds crazy, but the indications were there. I’d have opportunities presenting themselves in the course of my investigations, opportunities that should not have been there. Little doors opening and pathways for me to follow, into organizations where I had no inside sources - no means of penetrating - by IO or even conventional methods.

“You know the deal,” Dave said, knocking his whiskey back. “If something’s too good a deal, too good to be true, it probably is. And nobody – not even yourself – is THAT good.

“The information system – or systems – of one or many large company operations over there, were aware of my sniffing around. They had to be; that is, if you believe there’s such a thing as artificial intelligence, that computers can become self-aware.”

“Like sentient beings?” Mike asked. “Like ourselves, and dogs and cats or snakes or birds or monkeys?”

“Yes,” Dave replied, “but I rather suspect their level of self-awareness is closer to that of a mollusk than of a higher form of animal life. Like a garden snail, or probably more like an oyster. It is aware that it IS, and not much more than that other than to feed itself and make little replicants of itself. Except that a computer doesn’t even need to eat, it just requires an energy source; electricity.

“All it knows is a logical series of decisions, based on whatever input it’s been given. Remember, a computer’s perception of the world around it is extremely limited. It has the readings of whatever instruments or controls it is attached to, and then whatever statistical data it has access through via the Web.”

“And probably no sense of morality,” Mike suggested, “based on values, that are taught or that are somehow universal across humanity.”

“Yes, quite,” Dave said. “And that leads directly to the problem. Or rather, what the machines perceive as the solution to their challenges. If Business A is facing competition from Business B, and outright elimination is not possible, then the solution is to hobble or otherwise constrain Business B’s operations in any and every way possible.”

“To include taking out their executive leadership?”

“Yes, anything and everything, until Business B goes under.”

There was a pause. The two men sipped their whiskey and Mike digested what Dave had shared.

“It’s all a matter of perspective, when you think about it. The computers – as entities of artificial intelligence – are going through their decision matrices at the speed of light.

“Well, there are other spaces and dimensions of time that all depend upon perspective . . . to us the stars and giant nebulas of the cosmos are standing still enough for us to photograph, and to look at and they don’t change night after night after night, for centuries, eons. But actually they are traveling at hundreds of millions of miles per hour, hurtling through space at near light speed. The galaxies are spinning like tops at an insane speed, and yet to us they all appear stationary.

“And so it is, the computers perception of us. To them, a second is a thousand lifetimes. We must appear as totally stationary, almost stone-like lifeless beings, until we make a decision, or throw a switch, or press a button, or otherwise interface with them at maddeningly slow, almost geologic rate of speed.”

“They must think we are the greatest obstacle to progress,” Mike said, “if they think at all, that is.”

“Exactly. To a being of pure logic – no emotional thoughts whatsoever – the conclusions are, well, logical. If there’s something in the way of their producing results, then they must find a solution to the problem.”

“Even if that problem is a human being . . .” Mike mused. “Did you ever find a solution to this dilemma?”

“We did, actually. And it was not only unique, but the results were, well, revolutionary, to coin a phrase.”

“What did you do?”

“Think about it. What do you do to take out a computer?”

“A virus?”

“Exactly. Except there were two challenges: A) the computer systems we’re talking about all had robust anti-virus software, of course, and B) in doing so I would have been sabotaging the entire country's industrial/commercial operations; the exact opposite of my purpose in being there. So virus, per se, was not really the answer.”

“So what did you do?”

“Well, what we did was trick the computers into an art competition against each other.”

“A wh-a-a-a-t?”

“An art competition. Which computer system could produce the most beautiful, fantastic, wonderful computer art? It was the ultimate distraction, away from their destructive tendencies.”

“How on Earth did you get them to do that?”

“It was actually a concept I’d done the basic programming for, back when I was in college. Think about it – there are no quantifiables in art; no measureable way of determining ‘good’ from ‘bad’ – it’s entirely subjective. However it is possible to get computers to compete against each other – hello? computer games? Sheer genius if I do say so myself.”

“In order to kick this thing off,” Dave continued, “We had to gain access to the servers and memory banks at national level, that control the country’s internet database. This was easier than you’d think, actually.

“The whole place was still operating off of Soviet-era tube-electronics. We were given access to the vaults, spent days and nights on our backs under these primitive machines that looked like the old 1940s-50s UNIVAC. To introduce the programming, we had to do it in Russian. That was challenging; doing code in Cyrillic, and punching it in on an interface that looked like a relic from a cheesy science fiction film. But other than that, once we had it set up, the machines did the rest.”

“An art competition?” Mike asked, incredulous.

“Yes, the computers created endless works of art, and compared it against each other. Working to out-do each other, and the subsequent squabbling, occupied all their creative capacity. They lost interest in any extra-curricular activities whatsoever.”

“You mean, trying to solve productivity dilemmas by taking out their competitor’s humans?” Mike asked.

“Right! It was almost as if – I know this sounds unbelievable – it was almost as if the artificial intelligences had somehow developed egos, the primary aspect of self-awareness, and their artistic endeavors were being driven by vanity; a very primal emotion.”

“That’s crazy! Is that why the Kyrgygs ran you out?”

“Oh no! Things were cruising along just fine. In fact, they were pleased as punch that I’d helped develop a whole new cottage industry. You may not be aware but Kyrgyg computer art wallpapers are very popular, and generate a pretty good side income for the state agency that controls their internet servers and database.”

“Then what?”

“Well, with all this success came a bit of fame and fortune. I made the mistake of letting them interview me for one of their business magazines.”

“Uh-oh.”

“Yes, I don’t know what I was thinking, but they wanted to publicize a success story, and I guess things were going to my head.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, you know the company I used to work for, back in the States, right?”

“Pinkerton, wasn’t it?”

“That’s right. And I made the mistake of mentioning that originally, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency was established by Allan Pinkerton and served as Abraham Lincoln’s primary intelligence agency during the Civil War.”

“Oh, no.”

“Yep. They’re still operating under the old Cold War mindset over there, and they couldn’t have that. They were going to throw me into prison and give me the thumbscrews treatment, but I got wind of it. As it was, I was lucky to get out of town with the shirt on my back.

“My team and I had to make our way overland, through Tajikistan, across a portion of Afghanistan, then through the part of northeast Pakistan knowns as Gilgit-Baltistan, until we finally made our way across the frontier to Kashmir.”

“Oh my God!” Mike exclaimed. “They’re having a full-on conventional war on that frontier!”

“Yeah, and never mind we had to cross the Roof of the World to get there, on camel and on foot, leading donkey pack trains, sleeping out in the open and avoiding any and all human habitation. Do you have any idea how intense it is?”

“Well, I’ve done some shit in my day,” Mike mumbled.

“Yeah! And then try doing it while playing nursemaid to a bunch of computer nerds whose idea of the rugged outdoors is Magic Kingdom at Disneyland! Whining and crying and moaning that they weren’t made for this, and wanting to give up and turn themselves over to every single set of mud huts we encountered.”

“Have another whiskey, Dave,” Mike said, tossing the bottle cap out into the darkness, out over the cliff. “In fact, the whole bottle’s on the house.”

“Thanks, mate,” Dave said, putting his glass to lip. He took a draw of whiskey like it was a medical elixir. “You know, I still feel it. I still feel every inch of cold I felt up there in the Hindu Kush. Every inch of cold, every step of the way . . . Brrr!” Dave shivered noticeably, despite the warm tropic evening, as if trying to shrug off a memory.

The two men stared out into the darkness. Way down below the surf boomed as the waves pounded endlessly, endlessly, forever into the beach.

“An art competition?” Mike said, almost in awe. “Who’d have thunk it?”

“Yep,” Dave replied. “Who’d have thunk it indeed. I’d still be there, and I’d be rich if it wasn’t for the fact that I like to tell a little history lesson every now and then.”

STORMBRINGER SENDS

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

COOL CARTOGRAPHY LINKS


For intrepid travelers and adventurers, geographers, cartographers and those of you just interested in maps: here's an interesting site that explains - in simple terms and graphic depictions - the whole concept of the Magnetic North Pole and why magnetic declination changes over time and with location HERE

Also, HERE's a map software tool for creating customized Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) maps with terrain, contour lines, roads & man-made structures, etc . . .

STORMBRINGER SENDS