Sunday, August 26, 2018

Book Review: Going Home

I’ve always been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction, both in print and on film. I especially love the bloopers, the way even people who are happily predicting the end of the world as we know it still take for granted the technology with which we live. You know, someone scavenging through the pantry in a house that’s been abandoned for 10 or 20 years and finding canned goods that are still safe to eat – a scenario that’s particularly amusing when the setting is in a region that experiences extreme cold in the winter (home canned or commercial; freezing is going to destroy the seal) – or hopping into a car that was left by the side of the road a couple years previously but fires right up when the hero turns the key.

Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be that far into the future. Sometimes all it takes is a widespread power outage that’s lasting for weeks but mysteriously doesn’t stop the pumps or cash registers at a truck stop from working. Or turning on a faucet in a house that depends on a municipal water system and being able to fill a coffee pot or take a cold shower. Civilization has come to a crashing halt except at the local city park where the bubblers are still working. Right.

Granted, the water system is one thing that will keep working longer even if there is no power to run the pumps and filters at the plant – gravity will ensure that water pressure in the system won’t drop to zero as soon as the lights go out – but once the humongous tanks on hilltops and towers run dry they’re going to stay dry until the power comes back.

My latest dip into post-apocalyptic fiction was particularly amusing because it was Part One in a series written by a genuine prepper. You know, one of those paranoid loons who’s busy filling 5-gallon pails with ammunition and worrying about where he can bury his secret stashes of emergency supplies. Going Home was penned by A. American, a nom de plume that I find moderately annoying (“A” is the wrong article to use with American; it should be “an,” but maybe the publisher wouldn’t go for letting the dude be A. N. American. . . or maybe the author is just an ass) but it didn’t stop me from checking the book out from the library. The author’s bio at the back of the book describes him as a survivalist, someone who’s prepping for real and not just in print. Here’s hoping he’s doing a better job of it in real life than he did in print.

The protagonist in Going Home is a military veteran of some sort (as far as I can recall he never specifies his branch of service or his MOS [Army speak for Military Occupational Specialty; the other services have different terms]). Whatever he did, it was a while back. Now he’s a happily married man with three kids (all girls) living in southern Florida. He works with high tech, electronic stuff, and is fortunate enough to be able to do a lot of it from home. When the book opens, however, he’s not home. He’s up north, not far from the state line on I-75, returning from a day or two he had to spend at his employer’s headquarters. He’s about 200 miles from home when he hears the emergency alert tone on the car radio. Then the radio goes silent, the car dies. So does his cell phone.

My first thought was, okay, the author is about to do something similar to S. M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire which mixes in fantasy to explain why the fundamental laws of physics change in odd ways. But no, American is doing more straight-forward science fiction/end of life as we know (at least for a while). Electronics are fried; everything else (like guns) still work just fine. The combination of the recent model vehicle and his phone dying suggests to Our Hero that the planet (or at least his part of it) just got zapped by either an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or a doozy of a solar flare, either of which would fry solid state electronics. (Side note: concern about weaponized EMPs were/are one reason the Soviet military kept using vacuum tubes in aircraft long after the United States had gone totally transistorized. The Soviets/Russians were/are big believers in redundancy – backup systems that are immune to various threats, which is why they’ve do a lot of their secret internal communications the old-fashioned way: on paper using typewriters. You can’t hack a typewriter.)

Our Hero knows his SUV is not going to run again without a total replacement of its onboard computers. Similarly, his phone is now effectively a paperweight. If he wants to get home, he’s going to have to do it on foot.

Being a prepper, he has a bug out bag with him. A bug out bag contains emergency supplies sufficient to last a person for several days (e.g., MREs, energy bars, basic camping gear like a survival blanket and a fire starter) as well as a weapon or two for protection. The one thing the paranoid preppers get right is that if there was a major system collapse, some people would quickly lose whatever civilized veneer they once had. Looting would happen, so would settling old scores and sexual assaults. The majority of people are decent human beings, but we all know at least one asshole where you’re pretty sure the only thing that’s preventing him or her from going on a psychotic rampage is fear of prison showers.

The fact Our Hero is a prepper isn’t apparent immediately. The book cover does note it’s Book One in The Survivalist series but it takes a couple paragraphs to make clear that the protagonist does indeed have a sort-of bunker set up back home – or at least a workshop behind his house full of canned goods and ammunition.

Our Hero figures out what he really needs to take with him, loads a backpack, and starts walking. He’s not too worried about the wife and kids because he’s got their place set up to go off grid (solar power, among other things), they’ve been stockpiling canned goods, and he actually trusts most of his neighbors. Nonetheless, he knows he should get moving ASAP. It might take awhile for other stranded motorists to figure out rescue isn’t going to come rolling down the road any time soon, but eventually they will. He wants to get as far as possible and off the Interstate before being forced to share the resources he has.

Suffice to say Our Hero has various predictable adventures along the way south. He defends himself from a group of lowlifes who mistakenly assume a 40-ish white guy traveling alone would be an easy target, he rescues a woman being assaulted by a local sleaze who had had the hots for her for awhile and decided she’d now be an easy target, he joins up with a couple other people who are walking home, and he encounters a group whose worst fears have been realized: the entire episode, the EMP attack, was a false flag operation spearheaded by the liberals in government who wanted an excuse to declare martial law and confiscate everyone’s guns. Naturally, he’s in agreement with them. After all, look at who’s in the White House? (Note: The book was published in 2016. I’m guessing A. American is another middle-aged white dude who’s terrified people of the wrong color may actually be gaining some political power.)

Our Hero declines the offer of some weed when he meets a group of hippies camping in the National Forest, but I got the distinct impression the author was not so shy. Just how ripped on drugs do you have to be to think that leftists/progressives/those damn socialists could ever cooperate long enough to plan a false flag operation, let alone actually pull one off? There are plot lines that make sense, and then there are plot lines that are laughable. Going Home wanders into the latter category. You can’t get a group of liberals to agree on who’s bringing which jello salad to a potluck; if it was possible to produce a leftist nanny-state administration bent on confiscating guns, it would have happened already. When you poll the public on various social welfare questions (paid family leave, Medicare for all, a higher minimum wage, a woman’s right to choose, cheaper college costs) most people agree with the “liberal” position as long as it’s not labeled as being something espoused by any particular political party or candidate. Label any idea either Democrat or Republican and it’s a different story, of course.

In addition to ascribing to the leftist liberal commie pinko types way more powers than they’d ever have a prayer of acquiring the author also falls into taking technology so much for granted that he black boxes too much of it. At one point, the power grid is still down, chaos reigns, but a character who found a truck old enough not to have electronic components pulls into a gas station and barters a fifth of vodka to get the tank filled. Okay. The coolers in the store are inoperable, but the electric-powered gas pumps are still working? Our Hero is real proud that his family is going to be able to cook without electricity, but what’s his solution? A stove that uses kerosene as a fuel. Good luck with that one unless you’ve got quite a few gallons stockpiled.

I am also amused by the survivalists who stockpile buckets and buckets of ammunition while giving no thought whatsoever to what’s going to happen when it runs out. I know some people are avid reloaders, but how many of them also know how to make decent gun powder? More of them should take a lesson or two from the characters in The Walking Dead. A crossbow may be slower than a rifle or hand gun, but you can recycle the bolts just by cleaning them. It’s also quiet.

I did, however, find it totally believable that many people working for Homeland Security would turn into total thugs as soon as they were given the green light to do so by their supervisors. We’ve got the stellar example of ICE having no qualms whatsoever now about putting babies in cages and terrorizing pregnant women and handicapped children.

So what’s the bottom line on this book? It’s readable. Stupid in places, but readable. It actually would have been a better book if the author had ditched the us-true-patriots vs. the-evil-liberal-government and kept it as more of a pure aftermath of a disaster. He could have still included the thuggish DHS types – we all know the most dreaded phrase in the English language is “We’re from the government and we’re here to help you” – without indulging in extreme right wing fantasies. Will I read the next book in the series if I stumble across it? Maybe. The author did include a cliff hanger at the end of this book so I might be curious enough to see where he goes with that.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Cold weather projects

Summer is winding down so I'm getting back into a sewing mood. Started a jeans quilt recently, one that's going to be a really simple pattern, and have found a mending project that should eat up a fair number of hours in front of the television this winter.

The jeans quilt will be approximately full-size. At this point I'm thinking I'll do a thin border using a bright corduroy around the brickwork and then will do an outer border using denim squares. I figured out it's going to take 28 rows of the rectangles; I've got 7 completed so far. Once it's done, it'll get ticked with embroidery floss. It will, of course, include at least one pocket. I'm probably going to give it to someone with kids, and little kids love having pockets they can hide stuff in.

The mending project is a fairly small square quilt I finished in the early 1980's. Not sure where I found the pinwheel pattern, but do recall it took forever to cut the pieces. Then I hauled them around in an ice cream pail for a couple years (from Michigan to unincorporated Snohomish County in Washington to Panorama City (California) to Tucson (Arizona) and finally to Reno before I finally started piecing it. I think we were still living in Reno when I finished it.

It's held up remarkably well overall, but exposure to light combined with normal wear and tear (when I make quilts, they're meant to be used and not hung on a wall as a decorative item) caused one specific fabric to dry rot. Depending on the dyes used, some fabrics break down remarkably fast. (I learned the hard way that black cotton blends are never a good choice for use in a quilt. They either fade to a truly ugly green or dry rot almost instantly.) Mending it will entail cutting pieces to fit the spaces where the original piece is now in shreds and then hand sewing the new pieces in place. Not sure just how long the process will take, but I know it's going to be fairly time consuming.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Latency and its discontents

It’s been an odd summer. I know I haven’t done much with this blog for quite a few months now. My theoretical goal is to write something often enough to retain the ability to string more than two sentences together in a coherent thought, but it hasn’t been happening. No book reviews, no descriptions of national parks or forests visited, no nattering on about politics or current affairs, not even much about the fun and frustrations of volunteering at the county historical society’s museum. Nada. Zilch. Blank pages for weeks on end.

Why is a mystery. Sort of. I have had a mild case of ennui, but not enough to prevent me from doing other stuff. So I’m going to blame technology. We’ve been experiencing major Internet connection woes since returning from Arizona in April. It hadn’t been the world’s greatest service for awhile, but it got a lot worse this Spring. Pages refused to load – we kept getting the “aw, snap” message on Chrome saying a site was taking too long to respond – and connections would vanish before our eyes. I’d be on Facebook scrolling down to read my news feed, the device would do the electronic equivalent of blinking, and whichever browser I was in (Edge or Chrome) would shut down. The Intertubes weren’t just being slow. They were gone. I’d go from being in the middle of reading an article to staring at the icons on the desktop. When I reopened the browser I’d be treated to the “Chrome did not shut down properly. Would you like to restore?” message. Well, no shit it didn’t shut down properly. It totally closed without any human hands asking it to close, just a lousy Internet connection.

At first when weird stuff happened, I thought the problem was my notebook. It was cheap and I thought maybe it was simply dying. Then the S.O. got a new laptop (his old one gave up the ghost during the winter) and he had problems, too. So did  the  museum's smart phone when I happened to have it at home. Ergo, it wasn't my notebook. It was the ISP. Just to be sure, I took my notebook to a couple different locations where there was good public wifi. No issues whatsoever, no odd glitchy things happening.  The problems were worse with the notebook than with the S.O.'s laptop, but I figure it's because the notebook is the Microsoft version of a Chrome book. It's designed to sync with the cloud more or less continuously, and if access to the cloud vanishes the notebook gets more than a tad  erratic. 

By the time I  confirmed that it was not just the notebook's problem, we had already spent several frustrating months trying to get our service provider (Baraga Telephone, aka, which I’m figuring out is just another way of spelling Comcast because they’ve surely got the same model of customer service) to recognize that there was (and still is) a problem. The S.O. would call and complain. Whoever was on the other end always either sounded skeptical (“What do you mean you have a problem? Our readings don’t show a problem”) or lied (“I’ll put in a work order. Someone will call you back/come up to check things out/contact you soon."). No one called back, no one came up until I went ambling in to Baraga Tel’s office and complained in person. I brought my notebook along so I could show them screen shots of the weirdness that had been happening. And, yes, then they treated the complaints seriously but it shouldn’t have taken me standing in the lobby being an obnoxious old lady to get them to listen.

At about the same time, the S.O. discovered and installed an app that measures the data flow in both directions. What most people don’t realize because the Internet tends to get talked about using pipe analogies, like the flow of water through a hose, is that the data flow is a two-way thing. It doesn’t matter how fast data is reaching us if then it can’t bounce back quickly. The communication back to the server is called latency and is measured in milliseconds. The longer it takes to get back to the server, the worse your Internet service is going to be. Normal latency for DSL (which is what we have) is something like 40 to 50 milliseconds. The graph for latency should look like a fairly smooth line, definite ups and downs but nothing dramatic, you now, minor variations from maybe somewhere around 40 to up around 50 and then down again, but no huge spikes.

Well, we get spikes. We get dramatic spikes. The S.O. has been tracking those spikes. We’ve had some hit over 2,000. We also get bright red lines that last for anywhere from a blip to several minutes. The bright red line means no Internet service whatsoever. 

We did succeed in getting Baraga Telephone to come up and check things out. The first time they were up, they discovered the neighbor’s line had a section that lightning had fried. So they fixed it – I told the S.O. that the next time he sees Tom to tell him he can thank us for his improved service – but they didn’t find anything on our line. They did, however, concede there is a problem. So they came up again. This time the lineman found a short section on our line that had gotten fried. He came back to the house and was so proud of himself for replacing that piece. He was sure he’d cured the problem. Nope.

So where do things stand now? The lineman said the wires coming our way are old and of a type that is now considered obsolete. They should be replaced. Will they be replaced? If they are, that would no doubt fix our problem. Does Baraga Telephone management care enough about keeping three customers happy (the number of households on our road that use to replace a mile of not-cheap wire? I doubt it.

The S.O. and I have been contemplating being snowbirds again this coming winter. We’re still debating whether to apply to be volunteers at a national park or elsewhere for at least part of the winter, but it’s looking more and more like the Guppy will be in warmer climes when snow falls up here. If we do spend the winter away, we’ll devote a good part of it exploring alternatives to the Internet service we have now. Either that, or we’ll spend enough time in locations where there is neither cell nor Internet service for us to figure out that it’s possible to live without it.

Minor digression, but yet another mystery: why did the font change for the last two paragraphs (this one and the one above) when I never went into HTML to change the code?  It really is magic.