Defensive Measures

The internet is rife with assholes. If you are reading this, you’re online so you’ve likely had some experience with them. Perhaps you’re an asshole yourself. Even if you say you are not one, there is probably someone out there who disagrees with you.

Internet assholes come in a variety of forms. There are trolls, creepers, bigots, whiners, and those mouth breathers who type in all caps. I have nothing against any of these people because none of them are trying to fuck up my blog.

The first miscreants of the fuck-up-the-blog sort arrived on my radar roughly a decade ago, back when Poison Spur ran under Movable Type. I started getting inundated with spam comments. There were too many to approve manually so I ended up turning off comments entirely.

When I switched to WordPress, I installed a pretty decent anti-spam plugin so that little problem got solved. It costs me a few bucks a month, but it’s worth it. With the spam filter in place, all the comments advertising car insurance, Russian brides, and enhanced dingaling girth are redirected unpublished to an asshole folder that I can empty with a single mouse click.

For a while, I thought I was fully protected from digital interlopers. Then I saw all the login attempts in my web-traffic daily summary. There was either a dramatic increase or I was just paying closer attention. In any event, there were now thousands of them in a single day.

Judging from the lack of “PWND BY R@D H@CKR M@F1@!!!” or the like on the site, I’m guessing the brute-force attacks had thus far been unsuccessful (not having “password” as your password can really pay off). I was still worried someone might get in eventually so I looked around and found a nice little plugin that blocks requests from IP addresses after a number of failed login attempts. This thwarts the script kiddies and I suppose me as well if I decide to blog while I’m really drunk.

I have a good friend who also uses WordPress so I told her about the plugin. She thanked me and expressed some puzzlement as to what would possess people to be such malicious swine. She is no fool. She knows there are people like this in the world. She just doesn’t grasp the appeal of their bullshit. Rationally, I’m in full agreement with her because there really is nothing to be gained from it.

Unless there is.

I remember something that happened when I was in college. It was one of my two senior years, probably the last one. I had been talked into pursuing a career in advertising by my father, but my heart wasn’t in it. My heart wasn’t in much at that point. All I wanted to do was graduate and make a shitload of money doing something I cared about as little as I cared about school. Advertising seemed as good a something as anything.

Spoiler alert: Graduation happened. The career in advertising did not.

Anyway, there was a statistics and marketing class I took (and failed because studying conflicted with my drinking). One of the assignments involved SPSS, the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences. I can’t remember exactly what I was supposed to do with SPSS, a bunch of shit probably, but it was one of the first times I ever had to use a computer. I recall I had to input something that interacted with a data file and produce a result that might persuade the professor to not give me an F.

I couldn’t get whatever I was doing to work so I just typed in whatever vulgarities came to mind and hit submit. I’m sure the words “rectal phlegm” figured prominently because that was my catchphrase at the time. SPSS apparently didn’t dig what I had to say and an error message about a “total memory dump” appeared on the screen. I didn’t know what those words meant, but I liked them because they sounded like I had seriously fucked shit up.

Looking around the computer lab, this was evidently not the case. Other students kept working away, unaffected by my efforts. This would not do. I left the lab, flagged down one of my frat brothers who knew more about computers than I did, and asked him the command to erase the data file. After he told me, I returned to the computer lab and did the deed.

This produced the reaction I wanted. They were all aflutter, wondering what the hell just happened. Lab techs moved in to sort out the mess, but they had no idea what was going on either. My bad day that was full of frustration was now felt by everyone in the room. I took a few moments to enjoy my handiwork before I gathered my things and left.

So yeah, I understand the appeal of causing senseless damage. I may have lacked the technical savvy of today’s script kiddies, but my 22 year old self was their kindred spirit.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to let them break into my site.

Right Thumb Typing

My recent blog posts have been done on my phone. Even though I am left-handed, I’m typing almost exclusively with my right thumb. Either I’m not as left-handed as I thought or the tapping out letters requires less manual dexterity than holding onto the phone as I type.

A little of blogging is done on the couch at home, but most of it happens on the bus going to or from work. This is a perfect time. I can’t do it on the job because I’m paid to write code, not blog posts. When I’m home, I like to spend most of my time hanging out with Becca, tell her bad jokes, and generally be silly with her.

My old blogging method was to first scribble into a spiral notebook and type into a computer later. This sounds like a lot of extra work, but it really was necessary at the time. I was doing most of scribbling in a bar, trying to get what I could on paper before the whiskey fogged over my brain completely. The result was often a semicoherent mess that needed a lot of cleanup before putting it online.

After trading my barstool for a bus seat for my after-work downtime, I initially stayed with my old method, minus the booze, of doing longhand first drafts. That didn’t work too well due to motion sickness. If I don’t look out the window from time to time, my eyes and inner ear get in a pissing contest that trickles down into my gut and makes me nauseous.

This made the amount of writing I got done on the bus drop to almost nothing. The one exception was when I was doing NaNoWriMo in November 2015. Then I was supposed to feel sick to my stomach because I had 50,000 words to write and one month to do it. It’s something to be endured and was intended to be sustainable so my writing diligence did a predictable nose dive on December 1.

Writing on my phone, the outside is always visible from the corner of my eye. The queasiness never gets too bad as long as bus is on the freeway.

It’s nice to have a situation I can live with.

In a way, it reminds me of what my father had to deal with when I was maybe six years old. Dad used to race motorcycles.  He didn’t win a lot of races, but it didn’t kill him either and there is some measure of winning that comes from that alone. Anyway, Dad’s racing days came to an abrupt halt when he (in racers’ parlance) stepped off his bike, which resulted in breaking his collarbone and six ribs.

I was sitting next to Dad on the flight and eating my in-flight meal. This was in the late 1960s, back when food was served for free in coach, flight attendants were called stewardesses, and people in the back of the plane were not only allowed but encouraged to smoke.

It was a magical time for many, but not for my father on that day. He was wearing a vest cast and was in enough pain to put a serious damper on his mood. I thought it would be funny to pretend to smash my fist down on a mustard packet that was on my fold-down tray. It turned out I was better at the smashing than the pretend.

To audible gasps from my mother and brother, my eyes followed a trail of mustard spots going from my tray to my father’s. When I looked up, there was a big yellow glob hanging off his cheek.

“I can still kick you,” he said.

Dad was finding a way to make the most of what he could do in his situation with multiple broken bones just as I have with my mild car sickness. OK, maybe these two sets of circumstances don’t really compare,  but that does not change the fact that I can bang out entire blog posts using just my thumb on a hand that I don’t even write with.

Lincoln and Berkowitz

Never rape the truth. If there is only one rule in life you follow, make it that one. The forceful fuck of raking muck is nothing to be proud of. You might think otherwise though, listening to those so-called investigative reporters brag about their continuous probing to gain access to inside sources and consent be damned.

Terrible stuff, that truth rape.

The truth is something that opens itself to you on its own terms. To prove that you are worthy, it must be wooed.

Imagine you are trying to impress the object of your affections with a bouquet of flowers. You could go to the FTD website, pick a floral arrangement, and be done with it. That might even work, but is it really the best way? Is it not better and more personal to present a bouquet from what you have picked and arranged yourself? It is the same when trying to win over the truth. The only difference is that you use flowers and arrange them into the kind of bouquet called an idea.

I had started with a simple, well-known fact: America has an Uncle Sam. He is a symbol rather than a blood relative, but as a symbol he is an uncle to every American. David Berkowitz, in a similar symbolic way, is known as the Son of Sam. By logical extension, Berkowitz is therefore our American cousin.

This phrase, “Our American Cousin,” holds some significance to theater buffs and even more to history scholars. That was the name of the play Abraham Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated in 1865.

Lincoln was shot in Ford’s theater. What has that to do with anything, you may ask? Nothing, except that Berkowitz was finally apprehended based on witness testimony about the car he was driving. And what make of car was it? A Ford.

Full circle and boom.

After reporting my findings to social media, all I had to do was wait for the other pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. The way I saw it, the truth would come to me in one of two ways.

The first would be getting contacted by the 21st century version of Deep Throat from All the President’s Men. This person would fill me in on the details: Berkowitz’s time machine, the conspiracy to set up Booth as a patsy, all of it. Even though I have no car, I started hanging out in parking garages waiting for him or her to step out of the shadows.

Loitering in a parking garage was also a prime spot for the second option to occur. An unmarked van would pull up next to me. The door would slide open then I would be tasered in the nuts and taken blindfolded to an undisclosed facility. There in a windowless room with an iron table and two chairs, a G-Man with a crew cut would ply me with cigarettes to get me to tell him everything I know.

Even though I quit smoking in 2008, I’d take his bribe because I had the feeling I was not going to live long enough to get lung cancer or emphysema. This suspicion would be confirmed as soon as the agent said “No point in keeping it a secret from you any longer.” I would bear the same story as from Deep Throat 2, only this time it would be followed by my being held down and having my brain stem injected with a hypodermic full of air.

In time, it became obvious that neither of these scenarios would come to pass. I stood in the empty parking garage as the night wore on until a security guard told me to leave. I walked home feeling dejected and tried to take what solace I could from having done my best.

Somewhere there is an FBI file on me and thousands like me who tried and failed to win over the truth. We come from all walks of life, but have been assigned the same code name: Chopped Liver.

What Was That All About?

I was going somewhere with that last blog post. Seriously, I was. The whole thing was supposed to be an intro whereupon I’d do a pop-the-clutch segue and launch into what I really wanted to talk about. Then I started worrying that it was going to run too long. For a blog, I’ve been pretty wordy lately and I didn’t want people to not read my stuff because it was too much of a time commitment. I figured it was OK to blather on at length on occasion, but not all the time.

I therefore decided to wrap it up, post it, and get back to the other stuff later. It was a good plan except that the nihilistic platitude “we all die alone” is fine as an introductory point, but pretty cheeseball as a standalone.

So where were we? Ah yes, I have just told you about the inevitability of dying alone and you the reader react with “No shit, Sherlock” or words to that effect. Now I get to the point and tell you that despite my apparent obsession with death and dying, I have no desire to kick the bucket anytime soon. What I envy in the dying is the freedom when the end is fast approaching.

Think about it. You don’t have to concern yourself with anything because nothing is going to matter for very long. Being in the world will be a job you used to have and you have now gone off to…well, there is some disagreement about that. Shakespeare and Star Trek VI called it “the undiscovered country” though that’s a little spiritual for my liking. I prefer to think of death as a trip with no destination. Bon voyage.

Enough about death. Let’s get back to the joy of not having to give a shit. This is something I’ve strived for even though my mortality is little more than an abstraction. Granted, blissful apathy is not something I pursue full time. There is stuff that is important in my life. I love Rebecca. I care about my friends.  I enjoy having food and shelter. Still, I do enjoy telling most of the world to fuck right off.

There you have it. That was what yesterday’s post was supposed to introduce. It hardly seems worth it now. It hardly seems worth it at all.

Exit Single File

There are places on the side of the road where you can hear the traffic, but they can’t hear your screams. There are too many to count. They are in every drainage ditch, every thicket of vegetation, every vacant lot with machinery left there long enough to rust.

I often stare out the window of the bus at those places and imagine someone there is alone, afraid, and dying. It’s a morbid thought. I have a lot of those. I try to put myself in the position of the made-up person having a made-up death. I fail at that, which is surprising in a way. One would think that if I could empathize with anyone, it would be with a figment of my imagination. After all, I’m the one who wrote the owner’s manual.

Yet in my heart of hearts, I know that death is a trip we all take solo. It doesn’t matter if you are real or make-believe.  It doesn’t even matter if you die en masse. There can be some show of solidarity when you are a member of a group for whom the end is nigh, the band playing on the deck of the sinking Titanic and mutual handies aboard the hijacked aircraft on 9/11 to name just two. However, these are making the most of the last few moments of life. The escape pods are still single occupancy.

I could be wrong of course. Not being dead yet, my knowledge of human mortality is somewhat limited. There are people I’ve known over the years who have since died. You live long enough,  there is going to be some attrition. There have been cancer deaths, overdoses, and at least two suicides. No murders unless you count one aunt I never met in person. I think about them from time to time, but always in the past tense. I may not like that they’re gone, but I accept it.

With the exception of my father, they all died somewhere else and I heard about it later. I was in the room with my brother, his wife, my then wife, and Dad’s partner at the time of  his death. We all gathered around him trying to be as comforting as we could. He started breathing heavily then fell silent. We looked around at each other wondering if this was it. It wasn’t. Dad started gasping anew, heavier and faster than before. The next time he stopped, he was dead.

I’d like to think the old man was trying to fuck with us on the way out. That would be the Jennings thing to do. Sadly, this was unlikely. He had been in process of shutting down for almost a week. By the time I arrived the day before he died, he didn’t seem aware of his surroundings. He lay on the bed and his head shook back and forth. Maybe he was saying no to dying or maybe he objected to still being alive. Perhaps it was neither and just a reflex.

All I know was that on the one occasion when his eyes opened and he looked at me, there was no recognition, just displeasure. He quickly closed his eyes and turned away. It was as if the man I knew as my father had decided to leave ahead of schedule and brought in a temp to take his place. The end game of cancer is no fun. I can’t say I blame him.

Both Dad and his beleaguered stand-in exited the world alone. One day I’ll do the same, just like you and everyone else.

Quality Time with Acoustic Kitty

My cat woke me up the other night. I’m not sure what time it was, probably around 3 am. I don’t think she has any concept of time at that level of granularity. She knows day from night and that is about it. Even if she could tell time, she wouldn’t care. She is a cat. Her schedule is set by the needs and wants of the moment. My schedule is unimportant.

I’m usually awake for at least a little while during the wee hours of the morning. I don’t even consider it insomnia unless it takes me more than two hours to fall back asleep. I try to dedicate a little of that time to giving the cat scritches. On this night, I was quite literally sleeping on the job  as far as she was concerned so she kept batting my face with her paw until I came to.

I’m sure she likes me best at this hour. I’m not the mean dickhead who drags her off to the bathroom to give her medicine. I’m just a harmless space heater made from human meat who, through sheer repetition, has mastered the art of scratching her behind the ear or under the chin.

She will be 16 this summer and has been my cat for all of that time except for the first half year or so as a feral kitten in the backyard. When I adopted her (perhaps it was the other way around) at the end of 2001, I dubbed her Acoustic Kitty. I got the name from a recently declassified CIA experiment where they sewed a transmitter into a cat and sent it to spy on the Soviets in their embassy. The cat got run over by a taxi before she completed her first mission. I liked the story because it was gruesome and felt fine giving the cat that name because I knew she didn’t give a shit. Day to day, I just call her “Kitty,”but her full name is on file at Mission Pet Hospital where I’m sure they’ve seen a lot worse.

Kitty won’t be around for too many more years so I appreciate her while she’s still here. Sure she’s moody, self-involved, and criminally insane, but if those qualities bothered me I wouldn’t own a cat.

I idly petted her, listened to her purr, and let my mind wander in a pleasant direction. Too often I’m looking forward with worry and back with regret. It’s nice to let the brain head off sideways toward some topic of zero real importance. On this occasion, it was a celebrity impersonator from Vietnam whom I just made up.

There is an attitude among many Americans that our pop culture is the envy of the world and this person taking shape inside my head played into that notion. It couldn’t have been an American who impersonates a Vietnamese entertainer, mostly because I don’t know of any and was too lazy at this late hour to research them online. So instead of coming up with something refreshingly different, I stick to the trope of the star-struck foreigner whose object of emulation is where else but in the good ol’ US of A. To make this Vietnamese fellow extra quaint and adorable, he chooses an old-school Vegas performer and gives himself the stage name Hue Newton.

I didn’t share this play on words with Kitty. She wouldn’t care. She was happy with her cat thoughts, whatever they are, while resting her head on my outstretched hand and purring away.

My mind turned back to Hue Newton and the hostility he received on social media from both the left and right. It was a terrible misunderstanding that could have been avoided if more people knew that “Hue” is pronounced like “way.” Or perhaps it’s more like how Stewie Griffin pronounces “whey.” I’m not sure on that. The important thing was that it was not pronounced “Huey.”

Hue’s critics knew nothing about him or his act, but decided to go damn the facts and full speed ahead anyway. Conservatives thought he was glorifying Huey Newton and the Black Panthers, which they considered to be a terrorist organization. Progressives held Newton and the Black Panthers in much higher regard and assumed that whatever Hue was doing had to be some mix of crass commercialism and cultural appropriation. Hue repeatedly tried and failed to convince them that he was not Huey. After all, why would he take the name of the type of helicopter that killed his grandfather in 1968?

This was all riveting stuff, I told myself. It laid out American exceptionalism as a given while simultaneously elevating it above the stink of politics. I was proud of myself, proud of how unabashedly full of shit I was.

I wanted to share this moment with the cat as much as was possible, which pretty much meant giving her scritches while I basked in my smugness. Alas, she was gone. She had bailed while I was off in Daveland and was probably in the kitchen having a late-night meal.

I knew she’d be back before long. I was still her meaty space heater and a real pushover whenever she wanted attention. When she returned, it would be a beautiful thing just like when Hue and Wayne would finally meet in Las Vegas. There the impersonator and the real-life Sin City legend would look each other in the eye and say the two perfect words that were in a language foreign to them both:

Danke schoen.

Three on a Match: Third Light

For the Record

“Starting with the affirmation of man, I work my way backwards using cynicism.” -Minutemen

I am the Emperor of the Squawks. We are a proud race. Our talons are sharp, our minds sharper, and our tooth-lined beaks are well suited to feast upon both the plants that sprout from the land and the animals that walk upon it.

I am known to my subjects as the greatest ruler the empire has ever known. This isn’t just their opinion. It is the law. Ours is a civilization that emphasizes progress. Science and culture are expected to improve over time. So are the emperors. I am greater than my father, who was greater than his father before him. I have a lot to live up to. Fortunately, my greatness has already been established by decree so whatever I decide to do is great by definition. An emperor shouldn’t have to second guess himself.

This is not to say I’m perfect. If I were, I would have led the Squawks to victory over the entire world and that is clearly not the case. I am not speaking of military rivals. All of them have been wiped out centuries ago. I am referring to scientific breakthroughs not yet discovered, a workforce that sometimes falls short of peak efficiency, and monuments to imperial glory that remain unbuilt.

And the vermin. We mustn’t forget about them even though life would be far more enjoyable if we could.

They live in the walls, under the floorboards, and in the shadows. They are easy enough to kill individually or even hundreds at a time. This has become a hobby of mine. Swinging an ancient war hammer of my ancestors, I have left countless wet smears around the palace from vermin who were unable to scurry for cover. Alas, they breed too fast for me to put so much as a dent in their numbers.

This is tragic for they are singularly disgusting creatures, not at all like the noble Squawks. They have neither scales nor feathers. Instead they are covered in hairs, like on a caterpillar, but thicker. Their young are born tiny and weak, but rather than stomping them to death as any self-respecting Squawk parent would when faced with such pathetic offspring, the vermin mothers feed them with a vile, white liquid they secrete from their own bodies.

I made myself a promise that I would be the emperor who bought about their extinction. Brute force alone had proven ineffective so I called upon our top biologists to come up with a solution to the vermin menace.  The scientists had found cures for many of the diseases they carry, but have failed to come up with a way to exterminate the vermin themselves.

I am a ruler, not a scientist, but I have done everything in my power to help. I have levied additional taxes to fund more research. I had underperforming biologists executed as a reminder to the others that I expected results.

I even enlisted the help of non-biologists in this quest. When a team of astronomers came to the palace with news of a comet on collision course with our planet, I asked them if it would kill off the vermin. Their answer was that it would kill quite a few. I told them I was not impressed. I had personally killed quite a few vermin myself without the help of any comet and I gently but firmly reminded them that killing quite a few makes no difference in the long run.

I rephrased my queston and asked the astronomers if the comet would kill all of the vermin. They said it certainly would in the area of impact. I told them that was a good start, but what about the rest of the world. They said they weren’t sure. I told them they needed to be sure and not to bother me until they were.

They all left the throne room except for one young Squawk astronomer. He was a proud specimen, his prominent beak defiantly thrust forward, the claws on his feet scratching at the marble floor. He knew how dangerous it was to disobey a direct order from the emperor and yet here he was standing before me. I admired him for that.

“Emperor, perhaps you do not realize how destructive this comet is going to be,” he said.

“Of course I do. If it is going kill off the vermin, I would expect there to be some collateral damage. Wouldn’t you?”

“It’s going to be a lot worse than that. It could wipe out our entire civilization.”

“And you would prefer to go on living in a world infested with vermin?”

“I’d try to make do.”

“Yes, I imagine you would.”

And with that, I summoned the guards and had him put to death.

He was such a disappointment. I was so hoping he was going to propose a bold plan that would ensure both the survival of the Squawk Empire and annihilation of the vermin. I did not believe any such plan could possibly work, but even the most laughable idea would have been preferable to his display of cowardice. Fear leads to treason. I did well to nip it in the bud.

I spent most of my time going over reports submitted by the two teams of scientists. The astronomers said the comet was definitely going to hit us, the location of impact was going to be a peninsula far to the south, and it would be an extinction event (at least for us Squawks). There was some good news, they assured me. Although the comet’s collision was certain, it was by no means imminent. We had decades to devise and execute a plan.

A plan to do what? I asked them. Kick the vermin the comet only stunned, but did not kill outright? And weren’t we supposed to be killed as well? Their answer was that most of the deaths would not be caused by the impact itself, but rather by a state of permanent winter brought on by all the dust cast up into the atmosphere. They said there was still time to construct shelters and stockpile food so at least some of us could survive.

Fine, I said. You can build your shelters if you can guarantee that no vermin will get inside. If they do, those shelters will be your torture and execution chambers.

They did  not build the shelters.

News from the biologists was no more encouraging. Poisons would kill vermin within certain radius but not outside of it. Infecting them with diseases would either kill them too quickly for a plague to spread or turn them into immune vectors that spread the illness to Squawks.

The researchers were convinced that there had to be some hidden weakness in the vermin’s genetic makeup. This was not a new idea. It was nearly as old as the Squawks’ hatred of vermin. There were literally centuries’ worth of tissue samples preserved from experiments that went nowhere. The biologists thought their predecessors may have missed something so they set about reexamining the samples in the hope of finding some crucial detail that had gone undetected.

It was this course of action that brought the worst news of all. A comparison between the vermin used in the earliest experiments and those alive today showed differences in their brains. Current vermin’s brains were larger and the cerebral cortexes more convoluted. The difference was barely perceptible, but it was there. The vermin were slowly getting smarter.

I had suspected this for some time. While others were quick to dismiss the vermin’s natural cunning as mere instinct, I knew there was more to it. This was part of what made them so hard to exterminate. It was also why we needed to kill them all while we still had the upper hand.

I asked the top biologists to make an estimate of how long it would take before the vermin became our intellectual equals. They said that evolution works very slowly and estimated it wouldn’t happen for another 65 million years, give or take.

This would be reassuring except that we did not have 65 million years to wipe put the vermin. We had less than 30 years before the comet hit. There was a good chance that we would be wiped out and they would not. Our world, everything we had worked and fought for, would someday be theirs for the taking. I decided right then that I would not allow this to happen and issued the following proclamation:

THEY SHALL NOT HAVE OUR CITIES. THEY SHALL NOT HAVE OURSELVES.

We Squawks can be pretty cunning too, you see. To force the vermin to build their world from nothing as we had, we had to eliminate any trace of our existence. Not only that, we had to hamper their advancement through a misinformation campaign the likes of which the world has never known. In short, the vermin would inherit a past that never was.

One phase of the operation was the dismantling of every building and every machine we had ever made. Even my palace, the most glorious structure all the Squawk Empire, was reduced to dust that was cast to the four winds.

Many of the Squawks themselves, either by volunteering or through conscription,  had their physical bodies become part of the grand deception. Our medical technology in the field of tissue regeneration had found a new purpose.

Through megadosing, Squawks were transformed into huge, grotesque creatures bearing little resemblance to their former selves. Some had theirs necks extend to be as long as their tails. Others had plates of bony armor form on their heads or sprout from their vertebrae. I think my personal favorites were the ones whose heads expanded while their arms withered into tiny, useless appendages. Seeing one of these poor creatures writhing in agony, I was unable to tell whether it was the pain of metamorphosis or the sound of our laughter that tormented it more.

Mercifully, none of these poor souls lived for long in their current form. Their bodies were buried in locations worldwide at varying depths. This was carried out  under the direction of one of our most brilliant scientists, who had engineered every detail to create a plausible geological narrative.

We completed the project not long before the comet arrived. Those of us remaining, the last evidence that the Squawk Empire had ever existed, traveled to the peninsula that would be the point of impact. There we stared up at the night sky and watched the approaching object, once cold and dark, burn hot and bright as the midday sun.