Elon Musk’s plan

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Just so that you all don’t think I’ve become entirely mired in our Earthly concerns, I am monitoring cool space stuff as well. I almost posted about some mumbo-jumbo NASA was talking about how their systems were superior to SpaceX’s, but I eventually decided it wasn’t worth commenting on.

Here is a pretty awesome paper by Elon Musk in which he details his plans for the upcoming Mars adventures.

Check it out, well worth the read.

Problematic immortality

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I was glancing through the news this morning, and I clicked on a story about some guy who had a boatload of guns in a hotel room somewhere. Nothing particularly unusual about that over here.

What caught my eye was the large, clunky revolver in the center of the picture- it appears to be a Webley Mk VI, the standard sidearm of British Empire soldiers in the First World War. That pistol is probably a hundred years old, and I would imagine it is perfectly functional. What weird twist of fate caused that weapon, born in England and bloodied in the trenches of Flanders, to end up with a crazy who said he was on a secret government mission?

I gave it some thought.

A firearm, competently maintained, can last for centuries. In those centuries, that same weapon will pass from hand to hand, and it will undoubtably be used for reasons that were not in the original manufacturer’s intent. A good example is an M3a1 Grease Gun we took from the bad guys overseas. I examined it back then, and ran the serial number. The weapon had been made in Detroit in May of 1945. And here it was, on a distant battlefield being used by the other side over sixty years later.

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We procured some .45 ammo, and it worked as good as the day it was made. We ended up using it as a turret gun, and on one memorable day we armed our interpreter with it. The Grease Gun is an excellent example of a weapon that got passed around like a joint- originally used in WW2, sold to someone, bounced around, and eventually ended up back in the hands of US soldiers. Very, very strange.

Another example of a weapon that came back around to bite its producer is the Kalashnikov, the AK-47. A number that gets thrown around a lot is one hundred million. That is the estimated total of AK-47’s that were built. Personally, I think this number is crap. It’s a lot higher. And no weapon on Earth has killed as many people as the AK, hands down.

The US Army taught me about the AK-47, and its care and feeding. During this training, we learned about the various types of AK’s. Our trainer told us about the very earliest AK model, the Type One. He said we would never encounter it in the field, and that the Type One was the least robust of all the variants.

LOL. Here is a picture of a Type One AK my platoon sergeant carried in Afghanistan. I took a picture of it in my lap so that people would believe me when I told them I had seen such a rare beast in action.

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It was one of the very first AKs ever made, hard used, and still perfectly functional nearly seventy years later. Unbelievable.

That’s the problem. Millions upon millions of these military grade weapons are floating around, and no laws will ever stop their movement, use, or sale. They haven’t yet, and the UN keeps trying, to zero avail.

And that’s one type of weapon out of thousands.

Many times I sit and wish for a world with no guns, no war.

My dad used to tell me to shit in one hand, and wish in another, and see which one fills up first. He was right.

Guns are neutral, they can be used for good or evil. I’ve seen it first hand. I’ve used guns in defense of my life. My Grandma was shot during an armed robbery (she lived). The sword cuts both ways.

As S.M. Stirling describes in his books, a world without guns can be scarier than one that has them. Murderers and creeps use them, but so do the innocent. The innocent have a lot easier time defending themselves with a gun.

But I do so wish that lunatics couldn’t get the things. There I go- wishing again. The cold, hard fact is that in the United States alone there are an estimated 300 million firearms in private hands. If all guns were banned in the US tomorrow, and magically all lawful users turned them in (haha), there would still be more than enough available for criminal use into the far distant future. And the average Joe would be defenseless against criminals who would still be heavily armed. A bad situation.

But there is hope. I have racked my brain over this problem and there are concrete, realistic steps that we as a society could take to mitigate the issue.

First, don’t allow crazies to buy guns. This is more difficult than it sounds. Medical privacy laws here in the US are pretty ironclad- it takes a lot for medical providers to share anything with law enforcement, and then it usually happens after a crime has been committed. Unsatisfactory. People who are a clear threat to others should not be able to buy a weapon, at least temporarily. Nicolas Cruz is a good example of someone who could have been prevented from owning a gun, but was not.

Second, make theft of firearms a very serious offense, to the extent that thieves will avoid taking guns because of the penalties involved.

Third, to purchase a firearm, a citizen must have a certified weapons training course/military/police training on record (along with a clean criminal history). A notation on the Driver’s License would be sufficient, and purchasers would have to show such an ID when buying a gun either at a store, or from a private seller. This stipulation will make some people unhappy with me, but tough. It’s crazy that you can buy and operate weapons with zero formal safety training. As my daughter says, you have to jump through hoops to own and drive a car, why not a gun? She’s right. Some will say this creates barriers to firearms ownership- exactly. That’s the intent. If you don’t care enough to be trained, or if you can’t legally own a firearm anyway, then you shouldn’t be able to buy one.

Of course, the above steps will only slow a determined criminal. But I do believe the steps wouldn’t just be some stupid symbolic gesture. They would actually help curb the current problem while allowing responsible, sane citizens to own firearms.

The weapons aren’t going anywhere. They are, for all practical purposes, immortal. They are laying around worldwide. People will have them, one way or another. The only thing that really takes them out of the picture is destruction, or advanced obsolescence. As I have demonstrated, weapons don’t have an expiration date.

The question is, how do we manage a weapon’s problematic immortality?

 

 

 

Echoes

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So I’m working on an exciting project right now, those of you who are on my list know all about it. In preparation for the writing I’m doing, I have sought interviews and impressions from combat veterans. Specifically, I’ve been looking for armor and artillery guys with limited success.

Boy have I opened a can of worms with this. I’ve gotten tales from all sorts of people, in all walks of life.

I have talked with soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen. Most only had one enlistment, and sometimes the drifting sands of time have caused many to forget the nitty-gritty of their old trades.

But some have memories that are as clear as a bell, as ominous as an approaching tornado. Memories and echoes that remain vivid after many decades- as if it all happened yesterday.

I spoke with ordinary guys, career guys, and certified heroes. I have sat with the wounded. Much of what I’ve heard I will not repeat in any form. The pain, the hurt, it is as real and visceral as a punch in the gut.

When writing about war, I owe it to these people to get the facts straight. I owe it to my comrades- and the fallen.

It’s a careful balance, writing to entertain without verging into voyeurism. I try to keep my readers moving through and enjoying the story in my books, while informing them of what exactly we as a society ask of our combat soldiers, men and women.

Sometimes what is asked is too much.

Yeah, not exactly keeping it on the light side today, for that I apologize. I figured I’d give you all a window into the entire writer’s journey. For me, sometimes it leads into the past.

Into a bright and sunny place, unwashed and unshaven, with a cheap cigarette jammed between my lips.

Experiencing and describing these moments is an occupational hazard, one that I have willingly accepted in my latest career.

I need to make sense of echoes.

 

Horrified

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There’s been way too much of this mass shooting bullshit happening lately. Way too much.

I’m not sure why. Nor do I care. I just want it to stop, it’s too much.

The latest case was an asshole who shot up a veteran’s home in California. What’s more disgraceful was that the shooter was once a soldier- he foreswore his oath and disgraced his uniform.

If I had the opportunity to put a noose around his neck, I would have. This piece of garbage shot three defenseless women who had dedicated their lives to helping veterans in need- his ostensible comrades, brothers and sisters.

I hope he burns slowly in hell.

All the mass shooters are worthless bags of human pus. I guess what I hate most about this loser was that he and I shared the same uniform, we breathed the same dust. We even had overlap time in Afghanistan.

His case makes me want to vomit.

I have special reasons for thinking this.

Number One: He just fed into the perception that people suffering from combat trauma are hair-trigger crazies, time bombs waiting to go off. Asshole, thanks. There are hundreds of thousands of us who do not fit that description at all. We served honorably and took home scenes and situations we’ll never forget. And now we get to get tarred with the same bullshit brush this jackass dipped in a bucket of shit. Fuck you, ex-Specialist Wong.

Number Two: When I go up to the VA for trauma counseling, it’s a special place. A refuge where I can unload about issues I’ve had. I can speak to a professional who really gives a crap about me, and she understands my story and the hangups and issues I’ve encountered. Now this asshole has created a condition where the professionals who treat combat veterans always have to be on edge, wary of those they are trying to help. Thanks, dickhead.

Number Three: I don’t know about piece of garbage ex-Specialist Wong, but my time in hell taught me that life is fleeting, precious. I don’t know much about his case, but I do wonder if he had PTSD issues, or anger issues. If he had an anger problem, this would explain why he was ejected from a PTSD treatment program- they are not the same thing. I never associated anger with combat trauma- what I feel is a deep sorrow. Wong felt zero sorrow when he greased a pregnant woman, and then as a bonus shot two more women. Prick, this is the shit your former enemy, the Taliban, does for fun. You just sank to their level.

Number four through one million: Asshole, we serve to protect civilians. Dickhead, we go through hell so they don’t have to. Fucknut, we swore to defend the United States. Ex-Specialist, you violated every one of these sacred duties. You fell off the sanity tree and hit every lunatic branch on the way down. Your dead ass deserves no sympathy, no memorial, nothing but disgrace.

As I said before, I am really sick of this type of thing.

There is no joy in killing, just emptiness.

Who wants a society where life has no value?

I don’t.

Nihilists like Wong do.

They need to be stopped.

 

The Roxor

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One of my interests is messing around with old vehicles. In high school I drove a car that was 22 years older than me; that inherently unsafe old jalopy was my pride and joy. My dad bought it for 2 or 3 hundred bucks, and he said “if you can drive this car, you can drive anything.” He was pretty much right. That old Chevy had no amenities whatsoever. Standard 3 speed transmission, straight-six motor, crank windows and no seatbelts or turn signals. It gave me a real taste for stripped down, wind in your face driving.

Years later, I bought a hopeless 55 Willys Jeep. Brought it back from the dead and then I blew the motor up on its maiden voyage. It wasn’t the motor’s fault, engines aren’t designed to run in four-foot deep puddles of water. Well, we nursed the Jeep home and it died in my driveway. RIP, Willys.

It’s sat in my garage for the past three years, I haven’t had the money or ambition to put a new engine in it. But I really want to wake it back up. That CJ-5 can go to some crazy places, and it’s amazingly fun to drive. Sheer awesomeness.

So imagine my enthusiasm when I saw a bit about the new Mahindra Roxor. This thing is a clone of the old Willys Jeep- but better. Awesome turbodiesel, standard transmission with two speed transfer case- wow. There’s a lot to love about this buggy. True, right now its off-road only, but that will probably change. The Roxor sticks to what made the original Jeeps so damn handy- bare bones, go anywhere transportation in a compact, easy to maintain package.

This is very much unlike the current offerings of Chrysler-Jeep. I wouldn’t own one.

I would own a Roxor. Read the article and check it out, this is an off-road beast. And it is way cooler than those side-by-side carts that people pay nearly as much money for.

Simply love it.

Annihilation, a review

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This movie caught my eye, and the reviews seemed promising. So I watched it with my daughter. I didn’t come into the movie with any preconceptions, other than an idea that it would be really different.

It was. From start to finish, the film kept my interest. Many parts were straight up sci-fi, other parts were an almost Lovecraftian horror.

What struck me most about the movie was its vivid imagery. This startling film was a feast for the eyes, even though at some parts I wanted to look away, but couldn’t.

The characters were solid, real. The acting was excellent and lent itself to the surreal feel of the narrative. I have to say that I didn’t really “like” any of the characters, including the protagonist played by an M4 wielding Natalie Portman, but this in no way detracted from the overall experience. Very odd.

To me, this movie illustrated both human frailty and courage under circumstances that would make anyone break. We see each character’s flaws as the plot unfolds, we learn surprising and disturbing things about each member of the cast.

And then there is the finale. I watched this movie last night, and today I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. The end was no ending, it was a beginning.

If you want to see how people act under extreme circumstances, watch this film. It’s a study in the high and low notes of humanity set against the backdrop of a threatening, and yet beckoning, otherworldliness.

Recommend.

 

Who thought this was a good idea?

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OK, so the United States needed to help the Iraqis rebuild their army. I get it. We left their old army in flaming chunks all along the Kuwait City-Baghdad highway. It needed to be rebuilt if the Iraqis were going to stand a chance against their unpleasant neighbors in Iran- who, by the way, did everything they could to aid and abet the bastards who were killing Allied soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Don’t believe me? I’ve got tons of personal pictures of captured Iranian munitions, new in the box. Those little bad boys had my name written all over them, so no love for the mullahs from me.

So yeah, the Iraqi Army needed rebuilt as a bulwark against Iran and later ISIS. However, anybody who knows anything about armies over there knows that those guys have a bad thing about letting equipment and arms walk away, they do not have anything close to professional standards of accountability or physical security. And the culture of an army does not change overnight, no matter how much policy makers wish it were so. Also, the allied status of the Iraqi Army is dubious, to say the least.

Knowing those small facts about those guys, and the people in charge of procurement must have, why the hell did we sell them M-1 tanks? Of course some of them walked away. Of course. Now, I’ve known about this for a while, and I’ve heard about M-1 tanks being captured and operated by ISIS (and they were destroyed in turn by US aircraft). But once again- why did we sell M-1’s to the Iraqis?

Dumb. The M-1 tank is the closest thing that we have to a BOLO these days, they are plain hard to kill and deadly as hell. Why didn’t we sell them the older, and still quite capable M-60A3? These would be slightly less hard to kill, and they are still quite capable of dealing with the primary adversary MBT in the region, the T-55 or 72. The Turks are using the M-60 in combat right now in Northern Syria (where they are dangerously close, and possibly hostile to, US forces), so why, again, didn’t we sell the Iraqis M-60’s?

Probably because the Iraqis looked at their neighbors in Saudi Arabia and got jealous. But then again, I’m sure the Iraqis could have bought two M-60’s for the price of one M-1.

Someone listened to them and sold them the tanks. The cat is out of the bag, and it has been for a while. Predictably, they are now being operated by groups who do not have the best interests of the US or our allies in mind.

Wonderful.

The article says the US is politely asking for the tanks to be returned.

Even better.

Cooking with gas

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There’s an old saying around here that means you’ve really accomplished something- people say “now you’re cooking with gas.” Well, after the successful launch of Falcon Heavy, Elon Musk’s Space X is cooking with gas for sure.

I can’t even describe how exciting this is for me, and a lot of other people. For the first time since 1973 (!) we have an interplanetary capable launch system that frickin’ works. And the heck of it is that Falcon Heavy is merely a test bed, Space X is now concentrating on the BFR interplanetary travel system, the subject of an earlier post of mine on this website.

Wow. Mr. Musk is not just a guy who talks, he does things. Really cool things. He stakes his reputation and fortune on the results. This is the guy who promised to bring solar power to a portion of Australia, and it’s happening as we speak. He is cranking up electric car production here in the ‘States. He sells flamethrowers and makes tunneling machines. Lord, what doesn’t he try his hand at.

There are caveats, of course. It’s been a rocky road for Mr. Musk, especially with car production. But darn it, he is doing things as opposed to buying yachts that look like battleships, as some billionaires do. The measure of a person is not in what they say, but what comes out of their hands. And Elon Musk’s “hands” have produced quite a lot, as opposed to verbal flatulence.

This guy is amazing. If he stopped all of his activities tomorrow he would still go down in the history books as one of the key visionaries of this generation. But he isn’t done, not by a long shot.

A couple of years ago I had resigned myself to never seeing interplanetary travel within my lifetime. Especially with the ever shifting delays (interstellar probe by 2069. Give me a break.) and mush-mouthed predictions of our politicians and NASA. But Mr. Musk and Space X have changed all of that. He has yanked real space exploitation and exploration from the limp hands of the government, and he’s taken the reins himself. Scads of people are watching as he makes money and DOES stuff. The image of Spaceman sitting in the Tesla roadster was a publicity stunt, but a damnably inspiring one.

Will there be delays, disasters, and disappointments? Yes, of course. But Space X obviously has their eye on the long game.

And the long game is to get people headed into the stars.

Hostiles, a review

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So what’s with the old family photo in a movie review?

And why are we talking about a Western on a sci-fi site?

I can answer those questions.

I am the direct product of the Indian Wars. The photo above is my great-grandfather and his bride, a Dakota woman. At the end of the war out West, he was a soldier, and his final duty station was guarding a reservation in Minnesota. He met my great-grandma, got out of the Army, and they started a family. As the story goes, she didn’t want her kids on the Indian Census, so they moved back to Ohio. Back then it wasn’t cool to be a “redskin.” My grandfather, their son, told people he was anything but half-Native American. Greek, French, Italian, the story always changed. I don’t think anyone believed him. Eventually he ran away to join a Wild-West show. He led a colorful life, lost a son in Korea, and eventually died in a truck accident in 1966. I never knew him.

So when I saw a movie which was based in the dying days of the Indian Wars, my interest was peaked. In 1892, the year the movie is based in, my great-grandfather was close to donning the blue uniform, and who knows what conditions my great-grandma was living in on the reservation. Probably nothing too good- back then the reservations were like prison camps.

I’m writing about “Hostiles” on this site because hey, it’s my site, and I can. It was a very good movie.

One thing I am interested in is the effect of combat on both the combatants and society. The lead actor did a very good job of showing what someone looks like after twenty years of vicious, no-holds barred conflict. The protagonist, a cavalry captain on the brink of retirement, is edgy, weary. The female lead has her family slaughtered by Comanches, she does a very good job of showing what someone who is unhinged looks like. Every character has their flaws, and “hostiles” aren’t always who you would think they would be.

No one comes out of this movie clean, and neither does their society.

I’m not going to launch into spoilers here because some of you may want to see this movie. There is one scene that didn’t square with me, and it was clear at the end. I’ll be vague- it involved civilians who threatened a US Army captain who was completing official business. This would be most unwise- and it turned out poorly for them. But I question whether the incident in that form would have occurred in the first place. If you see the movie, and you should, ask yourself that question.

The action was realistic and non-stop. The scenery, acting and filming was beautiful, and reminded me strongly of another non-typical Western, “The Revenant,” another movie worth watching if you haven’t seen it already.

By all means, buy a ticket, grab some popcorn, and go see it.

The best movies make you think. This one puts you in the shoes of a hard man in a hard time.

The Bronze Star

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Some things that you learn in life, you don’t soon forget. Some are things you carry with you for decades, memories that are like an accumulating set of weights, stuff you’d rather forget but can’t. Some stuff is a blessing, some stuff is a curse. Some of it is both.

To name an obvious example, combat is one of those things. I have my own combat recollections, and I’ll never forget them.

But combat, and war, spread beyond the combatants themselves and leave lasting impressions upon friends, relatives, society at large, and curious boys in the woods.

Yes, curious boys at play, forty years after the last shots were fired.

It was a pretty summer day, and one of my best friends came over to hang out in the late eighties. We talked about girls, listened to music, and generally enjoyed our summer break. We really didn’t have anything better to do, so we decided to go back in the forest behind my house and walk around some. A great deal of the forest had once been a massive open-pit coal mine, so there were a number of places to swim and rusty junk to explore. Dangerous? Probably. But you couldn’t keep us away from the woods.

My parents were pretty old-school in the regard that kids should be allowed to play- as long as we did our chores and were home by dinner time. “Helicopter parents” hadn’t been invented yet, and roughhousing, fights, and the occasional dangerous pastime, such as swimming in the old strip-pits were seen as part of growing up.

So into the woods we went, my friend and I. We walked for a while, smoked illicit cigarettes, and eventually came upon an abandoned house whose occupant had died a while back. We knew of the house, of course. It had been the run-down home of a hermit, he had died and no-one had claimed the house, the property, or its contents. We could see from a distance that few windows remained intact, and thieves and vandals had obviously been to work.

For the hell of it, we decided to take a look around. Yeah, it was technically trespassing, but we were on the coal company’s land anyway, so what would it hurt? Egging each other on, we approached the spooky old house. There was trash strewn about, and lots of broken glass as we got closer to the house. The doors had been kicked in long before we got there, we took care not to fall through the rotten boards on the porch as we went through the side, into the kitchen.

It’s hard to describe what a mess the place was. It was bad, stuff was scattered all about in a rotting layer a few feet thick. Doubtless the first thieves had been looking for the hermit’s “stash,” and who knows, maybe they had found it. As we walked through the place we noticed the inordinate amount of old liquor bottles, the hermit had been fond of his cups.

I had seen the guy around a few times before he died, all I knew of him was his nickname and reputation. And now I knew he had drank enough to kill a normal man. And who knew, maybe it had killed him, too. The place was dark, stinky, and spooky. Neither my friend or I talked. We were about to leave when we spotted an old Army trunk in the corner.

That drew my attention. I knew what an Army trunk looked like, of course. There were more veterans in my family then you could shake a stick at, and I was an avid collector of military stuff at the time. I made a beeline towards the trunk, with visions of Lugers and potato-mashers in my head.

(As an aside, such things could still be found at garage sales when I was a boy- they hadn’t really became valuable collectibles yet. Of course, you couldn’t get the grenades legally, but they were out there. When my Grandpa died, he had a whole case. My uncle gave them to the Sheriff for disposal.)

So I was pretty disappointed when I got to the trunk and I saw that it had been ransacked, too. Of course. An estate thief would want those Lugers.

There was paperwork, the remains of an Ike jacket, and some other junk. And then I saw a flash of color amongst all the junk. I reached down in the filth and picked it up.

It was a genuine Bronze Star.

A curious feeling came over me as I looked at the medal, then at my friend. I felt ashamed, and I felt bad for a no-bullshit hero who had died alone amongst the squalor and liquor bottles. No one cared enough about him to have claimed his stuff, or even to show up to sell the property. I left the medal on the trunk and we turned and got out of there.

It felt great to be back in the sunlight, and I never went back to that place again.

I didn’t forget his name, though. Later on, when the internet became a thing, I Google’d him and his story popped right up. Turns out that almost all awards for valor can be found on the internet, there are tons of people who track those things.

With interest, I read his story.

He had led a combat patrol on D-Day, and he bagged a German machine-gun nest. Talking with people who knew him later, I learned that he had fought on until the end of the war, and he was deep in Germany when the war ended. His unit liberated a small concentration camp. He had drank the bitter cup to its dregs. Returning home, he worked in the mine until the bottle got the better of him, and eventually he died, unmourned.

I may be the only person who thinks of him from time to time.

I can’t say for a hundred percent that his combat experiences led to his decline, but I can say from experience that they probably didn’t help.

Decades later, I had medals of my own. And yeah, I had some problems. Drinking seemed to be a pretty good option. It started to get out of control. After awhile, I thought of him and that sunny day in that dreadful house.

And I put away the bottle.