the talking dog
Phillip Mgundi was delighted to be among the select group of educators chosen from his rural province to attend the two week internet training course in the capital. He was a teacher of English and history. In the education ministry's desire to spread internet use in the developing nation beyond technical specialists, Phillip was chosen precisely because he did not have a technical background.
Phillip recalled his completion of two Cambridge University graduate degrees by correspondence, through "snail mail". Although there was something gained by the "leisurely" pace of his studies, one could not argue with the length, breadth and speed of the internet: a smorgasbord of academic material at one's fingertips.
One of the main motivations of the government for internet dissemination was political: the president had been impressed by some promotional materials he had seen put out by some of the Western World's more impressive corporate behemoths, espousing that on the internet, one's race, sex, age, appearance, physical handicaps or other individual characteristics were neutralized by the format. To paraphrase Dr. King, the content of one's characters were what mattered. The president knew that his country was decades away from achieving modern level industrial development using conventional methods. Somehow, despite his country's eighty per cent illiteracy rate, annual per capita income below the price of a good meal in a French restaurant, and fewer telephone lines in his entire nation than in a typical American office building, the wily president had managed to wangle a grant to disseminate internet technology in his desperately poor nation.
On all of these scores, men like Phillip would be extremely instrumental. Phillip stod at the crossroads of his country's illiteracy problem: an underfunded, rural school where he was lucky to keep students past the age of ten, despite compulsory education to fourteen. A village that had electricity only from an unreliable old diesel generator, water from hand dug wells and no telephone lines would now be getting a satellite uplink to the world wide web. Although only Phillip and a mere handful of others in the village could even read, their choice of reading material would now span the globe.
During the training sessions in the capital, the participants were, of course, trained in the use of the academicaly oriented research programs available, as well as sites of personal professional interest. But the aim of the program was also to encourage the making of personal contacts throughout the world, for the future benefit of the nation. Phillip knew that this had the potential to either bring his nation's populace in a personal, equal dialog with residents of the world's cosmopole. It also had the potential to create a further dissociation between the elite and general populace in his own nation.
Still, this was an ambitious experimental study, and Phillip's own participation could aid in determining the future development of his own nation. In the few days in the capital, Phillip contented himself to learn some of the more basic search techniques, as well as the mechanics of setting up his remote unit back in his village. The more regular "surfings" would take place back in his village, with his students and the villagers.
Phillip's first demonstrations to the village were successes. For example, the villagers were keenly interested in following the world of sport; the internet sites devoted to this, complete with multi-media presentations were a hit among the media starved villagers. To Phillip's disappointment, very few of the villagers engaged in hands on use of the new computer terminal, despite his personal tutelage to many.
He found himself browsing alone. The instant availability of the universe of knowledge impressed him, but the novelty of it all rapidly wore off. After all, Phillip could obtain the same thing, albeit at a slower clip, through the post. It was the instant interaction of the discussion groups that presented promise. Only when foreign visitors or aid workers came to his village did Phillip have the opportunity for intellectual discussion of global issues. Now he could have such discussions instantaneously. He had seen the same promotional materials as the president. Race, gender, age, and handicap were no longer relevant: this was the internet.
Unfortunately, the system which could enable one to dial up the design specifications for the space shuttle was, for the most part, being used to argue about whether Mr. Spock was cooler than Lieutenant Commander Data, or to "talk" to Baywatch lifeguards.
Phillip began using the special a "web site" devoted to the participants in his nation's program. This proved to be enlightening, if not satisfying. Apparently, Phillip was not alone in his feelings. The consensus among the educators participating in the program was that the great potential dispensary for knowledge had, for the most part, become the world's "public square"- for the stupid (or at best, the not very interesting). Indeed, many of Phillip's correspondents, an amazing array of overachievers who (like himself) had managed to achieve Western university degrees despite growing up in their impoverished country, reported that they received tremendous disrespect from others on the "net". Some were victims of outright racism, but for the most part, the problem seemed to be a strange elitism associated with looking down on Phillip's countrymen for their unfashionable e-mail addresses.
It was during these exchanges with his own countrymen that Phillip developed an idea. In the course of his travels along the information superhighway, he discovered that, apparently, the most profitable use (of what was originally developed as a non-profit tool for researchers and academics and had proven a non-profit tool for many businesses) was in businesses that, naturally, catered to the stupid.
The idea of a pornography based internet project presented no appeal at all to Phillip. Gambling, however, appeared not only like a suitable revenge on those First Worlders, but his colleague at the National Law School assured him was legal under the laws of their nation- as long as no nationals played. As the only internet users in the country were part of the very same project, this was not a danger.
Although universally criticized for its low payout rates, Phillip's web site proved to be extremely propular with American users because of its dramatic graphics and sound. Within six months, it had surpassed mining as the country's leading source of hard currency.
The grateful president named Phillip Mgundi Minister of Education.
The Time Traveler
Brian Miller had been looking forward to his scholarship year at Cambridge for as long as he could remember. A proud graduate of New England's finest preparatory school and university, the year would be a welcome opportunity to explore his favorite academic interest (before resuming his prosaic toil in the business or professional world), the history of science and technology, in Old England.
As luck would have it, he got along famously with his tutor, Mr. Springs, who was himself reading for a doctorate in history, with a particular academic interest in the social effects of major technological changes. Amazingly, both Brian and Mr. Springs were also amateur physicists and lifelong aficionados of Kurt Vonnegut.
Indeed, their pedagogical discussions usually consisted in dissecting the significance of the works of Vonnegut, rather than the purported academic interests for which the taxpayers of the United Kingdom had endowed both their places. Slaughterhouse Five was the consensus favorite.
"Of course the firebombing of Dresden was justified. You as a Brit should understand that better than anyone- the damned blitz over London! Hey, who started this? The bastards killed six million Jews, God knows how many millions of other people, and you say it was somehow a moral offense to firebomb the crap out of those people? I don't think so." Brian believed he had scored.
Mr. Springs, however, had thought his position on this long ago. "Obviously, you miss Vonnegut's point- the correct one- entirely. You Americans often think you know a great deal- and you do- but you never think it through. There is no question that the Germans were a bunch of baby-murdering monsters, who would turn around after a day of women and child killing and mutilation and satisfy their damned Teutonic Hun souls with Mozart- as if they were really from the same nationality as he. Hell, why stop with the Germans? Let's talk about their yellow little friends, who gave the world the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan death march, millions of Korean sex slaves and Hell knows what beyond. They probably rival Gerry in numbers of civilian dead. I think its obvious that we're better than they are, and that is the point! We are better than they- or are we?
"If we fought and won the war in the interest of justice and moral superiority, as we like to say, than winning at all cost was never the point. Sure, maybe we could be comfortable with an end justifies the means stance in the middle of the bloody fray- with a brutal enemy that probably justified fighting down to the last man. But we- and you, my Yank friend- were fighting what we termed a just war (notwithstanding our little alliance with Mr. Stalin.) And a just war means just that- a war fought by just means. Fine- we invented incendiary technology, and nuclear weapons. When you used them over Japan, the brunt of casualties were civilian, but from an ethical argument, that war ended within a week. Millions of civilians were probably saved!
"Dresden, however, had no such moral high ground attached to it. It was 1945, sure, but unlike the Pacific theater, the war was ostensibly over- it was just a matter of how long until Gerry gave up. Sir Arthur Bomber Harris and those assholes in the War Ministry somehow thought 'demoralizing' the enemy at home was in itself a noble task. Bloody bastards should have been fighting for the other side! No- we could only demonstrate our moral superiority by demonstrating moral superiority- not by showing we can be as callous and bloodthirsty as the damned Luftwaffe!"
Brian thought he saw an opening. "But didn't Dresden have strategic significance?"
Mr. Springs smiled. "Haven't you been paying attention? Dresden was an ancient city- a pure civilian target. No strategic significance, other than possibly to convince the Germans to fight harder to avenge its destruction! No- the very same bombers over Dresden could have blown up refineries within a two minutes flight over Dresden- that might have ended the damned war. Bloody hell, we knew where rail lines to concentration camps were- we could have bombed those to oblivion. But no! The boys wanted to see some fireworks--so Dresden it was. A moral abomination, I tell you."
There was little Brian could add to such a soundly thought out position. The pair resumed their discussion of Brian's research into the university library's collection of military technology documents, and the literature on the sociological and political fallout that resulted from technology from mustard gas to the jet engine. Brian's mind drifted with thoughts of how fortunate he was to have such an opportunity.
In between trips to pubs, walks along the Cam, and occasionally working out with sculls or sweep oars, Brian actually did spend most of his time on academic research in the university archives.
After weeks of research and reading for the joy of it, Brian encountered a line of research that compelled him to continue. Mr. Springs was almost as fascinated as Brian. Brian had stumbled across a cache of World War II era research papers that had apparently been declassified and wound up at Cambridge because of their lack of strategic value.
Some of the proposed projects- on which millions of pounds from a war strapped economy were actually spent- included an attempt to outdo Archimedes and literally create a giant magnifying glass capable of focusing burning sunlight on enemy ships and aircraft, an attempt to outdo Mr. Vonnegut's "ice nine" with a chemical that could render Germany's water supply unusable (at a molecular level) and attempts at a variety of other weapons that made Monty Python's "killer joke" weapon seem like a good idea.
But of all of the crackpot projects, the one that most appealed to Brian's own eclectic talents concerned a proposed time machine. The machine of which Brian read was actually an intelligence device: a projection could be hurled forward or backward in time, to advise of enemy positions or strategies to better plan the war effort. Mr. Springs believed that this was precisely the sort of rubbish that the War Ministry would dream up. A device that might have been used to tell an operative to assassinate Hitler at the relevant time and save millions of innocent lives would instead be used to tell some stupid bomber wing commander to aim a little to the left and move some Brigadier General up to Major General.
Brian, however, was overtaken by the project, particularly after he began a university wide scavenger hunt when some documents revealed that a prototype had been constructed at Cambridge (although subsequently disassembled after it failed testing). Brian, undeterred by Mr. Springs' suggestions that he work on something less preposterous, booked space in Cambridge's physics laboratories, and actually began reassembling the time machine. When he had completed what appeared to be the working model set out in the specifications he found, sure enough, although it whirred, and otherwise appeared to consume a great deal of power, it did not seem to function, either as a time machine or anything else.
Brian decided he would study the specifications, and ascertain if his knowledge of the last half century of scientific advances could be of help. He even posted some of the specifications on various internet sites for science junkies, to see if he could get useful suggestions.
Mr. Springs, unable to deter Brian from this folly, convinced him that his academic project would be to document the scientific fallacies that were indemic in the design and construction of the "time machine" as shown by modern scientific advancement- a scientific social commentary on the state of World War II era knowledge. Brian readily agreed with this project: it might help him in debugging the time machine.
In the course of attempting to study the history of time travel, Brian lost site of time: his academic adventure was nearing to a close. It would be on to a new class of privileged scholars in just a few weeks. Brian believed he had finally debugged the machine sufficiently to warrant another test. He was scheduled to leave England within a week: if he could not do it now, he would probably never have another opportunity.
He invited Mr. Springs and a few research assistants from the physics laboratory to witness what he hoped to be the historical event: the transmission of a message back through time.
Brian knew that he personally would be in no danger of being thrust into another era: only a projection would be sent through time. Of course, Brian was not exactly certain as to where this image would be sent, or what he would experience.
Brian invited Mr. Springs to throw the switch, after he strapped himself to the apparatus. Mr. Springs wished him luck, with a hearty "Give 'em Hell, Yank" and threw the switch. Once again the machine hummed and whirred, but then after a sudden power surge, a flash of light appeared. For a split second, Mr. Springs and the physics researchers saw Brian disappear (they thought).
Brian felt dizzy- but then began to come too in what appeared to be a room devoted to military planning. Apparently, the time machine had only one setting. As Mr. Springs had predicted, it was designed to be used for basic military tactical planning.
Brian looked around the room, and at the maps around the table, and at the various uniformed personnel. He quickly ascertained that he was in the very room where the bombing of Dresden was being planned and implemented. He seemed to be floating around the room, at will. No one else seemed to take notice of his presence. His hand passed right through the table, so he ascertained that he was, in fact, present only as some kind of projection. A general entered the room with a military entourage, and the other uniformed men present seemed to straighten up, some to salute him.
Brian was suddenly dumbstruck: he was looking at the great strategic planner, Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris himself, mastermind of the firebombing of Dresden! Perhaps this was it- Brian's opportunity to tell Sir Arthur that what he was doing was wrong- that just a few kilometers away was Germany's last great oil reserve- that thousands of civilians and a beautiful historic city were about to perish needlessly.
Brian found himself trying but unable to speak, then scream, as if in a nightmare. No one seemed to be taking any notice. Finally, Brian summoned up all of the energy he could muster, and screamed, "General Harris!" To Brian's surprise, the General looked right at him. The room seemed stunned, that an interloper, let alone one wearing a polo shirt, chinos and Nikes, had penetrated the war room. Brian, now that he had the great man's attention, looked right into the general's eyes. Brian's mind raced with what he would say. He managed to blurt out something just as a wave of light overtook him, and he lost consciousness for a moment. When he came to, he found Mr. Springs and a physicist unhooking him from the time travel apparatus.
"Springs, you won't believe this- but I found myself in the War Ministry in 1945- face to face with Sir Arthur Harris", Brian managed to speak, each word echoing in his head.
Mr. Springs smiled, and said "Just like those bloody bastards- the projection had only one setting- to the war planning room. I knew it. So did you give old Bomber Harris a nice talking to?"
Brian. his head still pounding, said "The only thing I remember is calling out his name, and then repeating it. 'General Arthur Harris', I said. 'You're a big asshole'. And then I was here."
Springs laughed dryly. He patted Brian on the back, and said "Good show, Yank", while thinking, "Asshole!" Behind them, the time machine short circuited. The damage appeared to be beyond repair.
It was a long, painful year. Jerry was starting to feel a bit more confident, as the dreaded polygraph test was nearing to a close.
Jerry had toiled diligently through prep school, then through Dartmouth, then through the grueling combined program in law and public affairs at Harvard. He was nearing his lifelong goal: a place in the intelligence community.
The previous summer had been a disaster. Jerry had ended up working in the London office a large New York based corporate law firm, and he absolutely despised the pedestrian nature of business deals, lawsuits, and especially, lawyers. He craved the excitement of the intelligence community- or so he thought.
As yet another fallback, he was more than qualified to take the foreign service exam. His father, an affluent physician from suburban Philadelphia, was an internationally sought after lecturer, and in the course of frequently accompanying him, Jerry had picked up French and German before prep school. Throw in Chinese and Russian, and a college concentration in linguistics, and the service Jerry could be to his nation was obvious.
Still, it was the intelligence community- the covert operations branches, no less- to which Jerry aspired. Jerry was well aware that his ethnic background- the child of a super liberal Jewish college professor and a prominent Jewish physician who frequently traveled to the former Eastern bloc raised numerous red colored flags among the stodgy, frankly whitebread powers that be. Still, Jerry was a brilliant student with a knowledge of not only several languages, but was about to have a graduate degree in public policy as well.
In the course of the extreme effort with which Jerry studied to achieve his summa cum laude graduations from every institution with which he was affiliated, however, Jerry had played hard as well. Growing up with a physician had given Jerry an apparent post-adolescent obsession with pharmaceuticals. There were numerous weekends in college of which Jerry had no recollection, save that of starting a mélange of alcohol, marijuana, and various mouth ingested substances. Amazingly, such events not only didn't interfere with Jerry's studies, but rather seemed to bring them into focus.
Unfortunately for Jerry, focus was something he did not do the previous year, when he found himself in suburban Fairfax County, deep inside one of the great fortresses of the American security apparatus, for his summer internship interview. Unlike many employers, the interview conducted by the clandestine services usually took two days, and consisted of a variety of personal interviews, psychological questionnaires and evaluations, a physical exam, and the all-important lie detector test. To even get this far, one had, of course, to be selected for a campus interview and impress the interviewer, and then pass a preliminary background test.
Jerry, an all-State lacrosse player in prep school, and a four year letterman in college, was in perfect physical condition (notwithstanding the occasional, or more frequent, illicit substance binge). He impressed virtually all of his interviewers, and his mind was suitably structured to hold up to the psychological examinations. He appeared to be sailing through to the summer internship of his dreams, when, almost nonchalantly, he was strapped to the polygraph machine.
In the course of his research into the agency, he discovered that illicit drug use had become unfashionable after various scandals associated with same in the White House. Jerry's faculty advisers, and his own clandestine sources, told him it would be best to self characterize his drug use as, while not non-existent, closer to the merely recreational rather than the periodically obsessional use that was actually the case. Further, although Jerry could admit to occasional cocaine usage, and marijuana of course, some of his other forays into narcotic nirvana would not be suitably appreciated by the agency. Unfortunately, Jerry's reaction to the drug questions were the factor which militated against the agency's inviting him over for the summer, he was told at his final interview of the day. Jerry, somewhat dazed and confused, sat in the agency staff car as it drove him to Dulles for his long, confusing flight back to Boston.
He was absolutely shocked when the agency's sister bureau called him for an interview for a permanent job the folowing year. All of Jerry's feelers had told him that one washout in the intelligence world would result in a permanent scrubbing for all time. Then again, the poltical winds had blown in different directions. A sitting president had used drugs but "didn't inhale"; a speaker of the house had gone further than that- didn't all graduate students?
Jerry was not going to make any mistakes this time. He had even written a list of the substances he could recall taking, and had memorized them during the flight from Boston. No, he had learned his lesson. Ugly as the truth was, he would not try to psyche out the lie detector this time.
So far, his scores on the aptitude exams and the physical were even better, and the year's brooding had prepared him well for his interviews. Only the dreaded polygraph awaited. Jerry just smiled, and, as the song goes, prepared to cast his fate to the wind.
"What is your full name?" asked the pleasant, wholesome looking blond man with a clipboard.
"Gerald Michael Greene", responded Jerry, curling his toes, hoping to maximize nervousness on the "control" questions (in violation of his pledge not to psyche out the machine).
"Your address? Your high school? Parents names? College? College activities? Trips abroad? Political organizations?"
So far, it was going just like last year. The harder stuff was coming. Jerry knew it. But he had trained himself- he even went through a mock lie detector test to prepare.
"Girl friends? Boy friends? Unusual sexual preferences? Unusual sexual activities? Anything compromising?"
Jerry believed he was still calm; here it comes, he thought.
"Have you ever used illicit drugs? Yes? Please identify the drugs you've used."
"Here we go", thought Jerry. He started with alcohol and amphetamines and angel dust, and moved , practically alphabetically, all the way to Zoloff (without a prescription) naming at least a dozen other substances in between. Jerry left little to the imagination.
A few more questions about Jerry's career goals, his knowledge of the agency's structure, and his own personal politics, the polygraph examination was over. Jerry took a deep sigh of relief, and was told by his examiner to wait a few minutes.
Jerry did not have a good feeling when the man behind the next desk at which he was led was the polygraph examiner.
"Is there a problem, Mr. Young?"
"Well Jerry, there was one line of questions that seemed to cause some concern. I'd like to ask you a little about them".
Here we go again, thought Jerry. The drugs.
"I was wondering what you were thinking when I asked you if you have had any homosexual feelings or experiences?"
Jerry smiled, and was so relieved that drugs were not the issue, that he inadvertently retreated to his total honesty mode and said, "Well frankly, Mr. Young, I thought to myself, 'Well I haven't, but I'll bet you have, you Mormon son of a bitch!'"
Mr. Young, startled, shot a poker-faced glance at Jerry. Jerry had blown the lie detector for the second straight year. And Mr. Young. although in fact from Utah, was actually a Quaker.
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