Flash Fiction: The People’s Plague

It’s All Hallow’s Eve Eve, so this week’s  Flash Fiction Challenge of course involves horror. Inspired by the fact that Ebola hysteria is running rampant through the mainstream media and the halls of government, our assignment is to write a horror story involving some sort of disease.

This might not have turned out as well as I wanted — too serious to be slapstick, trying too hard for a punchline to be horror. But the dozen political calls a day and hundreds of TV ads every day may be having an effect on my brain.


“We have another one, ma’am. This report just came in from Phoenix.”

Doctor Helen Fletcher, the CDC’s lead investigator, looked at the window that popped up on her console, attached to a pin dropped on the map in Arizona. Ten cases already there, along with all of the other boxes and pins displayed all over the country. Thousands of cases nationwide and spreading like wildfire.

“We’re running out of time to get this under control,” she said to the row of faces shown in the small boxes lining the bottom of her computer screen.

“Doctor Fletcher,” the Midwest section head said, “it’s too early to even tell if it’s airborne or not. We’re going to need at least a couple of days to determine the distribution vector.”

“You do all realize this is an attack, not a disease, don’t you?” A new window had opened up, with the medical liaison to the FBI shown. “Look at the pattern that’s showing up. The first cases were seen in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Chicago, but now it’s popping up everywhere overnight. Boston, Atlanta, Denver, Indianapolis, now Phoenix. But also Trenton, Hartford, Nashville, Richmond. Can’t any of you see what that means?”

There was a pause while all of the medical experts tried looking at their data for a pattern they had missed so far. Most of them had been awake for the better part of seventy-two hours and were function solely on caffeine and adrenaline.

“What are we missing? I don’t see it,” Doctor Fletcher said. “It looks like it’s spread all over the country at random. They’re all metropolitan areas, but there’s no obvious vector based on wind, weather, animal population, food distribution, or transportation routes.”

“Another report coming in,” said the sergeant. “Juneau, eight cases suspected.”

“How in hell did it jump so fast to Alaska?” asked the CDC director for the Pacific Northwest. “That can’t be natural, it’s got to be based on travel, some agent introduced into the air transportation fleet somehow, or…”

“Stop it!” shouted the FBI agent. “Did any of you study anything other than biology in high school?”

“State capitals,” said the CDC Southwest director. “With the exception of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, they’re all state capitals.”

“Exactly,” said the FBI agent. “This is an attack on the government of the United States. I’m going to be briefing the President on this in ten minutes. What else can I tell him?”

“If it’s an attack on the government with a biological agent,” asked Southwest, “wouldn’t it be aimed at the people who run the government, the politicians themselves and their staffs? Do any of the infected fit that profile?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” said Doctor Fletcher, “we certainly would have heard if any of the infected were governors, Senators, or Members of Congress.” She gestured to one of her aides hovering behind her. “Start checking on who the infected people are, what they do, where they work.”

A new window opened up on the conference call screen, showing columns of data including names, location, age, sex, religion, and occupation. Data fields started to populate the chart, seemingly at random.

“Lawyers, advertising, film editors, clerical workers, computer programmers, graphic designers, sound engineers, CPAs – it seems random.”

“Wait, it’s not what we see, it’s what we don’t see,” said the FBI agent. “There aren’t any housewives, any unemployed, any students, or any children. I want to see something. Can you show just the people in the cities that are not state capitals, and also show the company they work for?”

The data once again shifted and shuffled and finally pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. The data for the infected patients began to clump into groups with multiple data records showing people working together at the same companies.

“Does anyone recognize any of these companies?” asked the FBI agent. “Can we see a couple of their web pages real quickly?” The new windows popped open. “See, they’re all related to advertising in some way. Most are ad agencies or production companies for television or radio. A few are printers. Now, let’s look at a couple of the state capitals.”

The data set expanded, to include the infected patient data for five of the smaller cities.

“There’s your link. It’s an election year. I’ll bet when we dig deeper, every one of these people is involved in some way with a political campaign.”

“Doctor Fletcher,” said Mid-Atlantic, “we’re just getting word from Annapolis and Richmond that new cases include a couple of state politicians and candidates.”

“Same here,” said Northwest. “We’re taking a closer look at the data for patients in Salem and Boise, and some of them are state legislators.”

“Okay, I’m going to go brief the President,” said the FBI agent. “Am I correct that so far there have been no fatalities or permanent disabilities?”

“You are correct, no fatalities,” said Doctor Fletcher. “It’s too early to tell about long term disabilities, and given this new information, we might have to reassess how we use that term.”

“Please clarify that for me and do it quickly, the President’s waiting.”

“The symptoms we’ve been concentrating on were the fever, dehydration, convulsions, and unexplained breathing difficulties. But there have been other symptoms reported which we’ve discounted, assuming they were side effects of the fever, perhaps delusions or hallucinations. We need to reevaluate that.”


“We’ve had reports the convulsions and breathing difficulties were experienced specifically when people tried to lie. The more egregious the lie, the more severe the symptoms appear to be.”

“You don’t mean…”

“Yes, I do. This might be an engineered virus which forces the victims to tell the truth or suffer horribly. And it’s targeting politicians.”

There was stunned silence across the conference call.

“Alright, I’ve got to go,” said the FBI agent. “I’ll get people at my end started on tracking down the terrorist monsters that might have done this.”

“’Monsters’? Don’t you mean ‘geniuses’?” Doctor Fletcher muttered under her breath.

“Say again, Doctor?”

“Nothing. We’re on it.”

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Filed under Disasters, Health, Politics, Science Fiction, Writing

Invisible Walls

Flipping through old pictures this evening, sort of a “meh!” evening, and I ran across these:

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035 smallThey’re undoubtedly bright, colorful, and beautiful. But what about the quality of life for the fish?

On the one hand, they’re obviously well fed and safe from predators. That can be a really big, important thing.

On the other hand, they’re restricted, confined, and  not allowed to live in a “natural” environment. (A “natural” environment is one where they can starve and/or get eaten…)

On the gripping hand, they’re fish! I have sneakers with higher IQs. It’s not like any of these guys in particular are capable of having any thoughts above “pain,” “hunger,” “flee!” and “sex!” Even that last one might be problematic, a function that’s about as cerebral or voluntary as breathing.

But of course, my musings were not talking about the fish, were they? Do the fish understand the nature of the invisible, see-through boundaries that restrict them and keep them in their place? Do they ever comprehend that there is something beyond their ken that constantly prevents them from going over there or any further than that, no matter how much they might want to?

What about us? What invisible boundaries do we have that keep us confined? What restrictions are there that keep us from going over there or any further than that, even if we can’t see, or comprehend, or understand those restrictions? What restrictions would an outside observer see, someone more wise perhaps, definitely with better information?

Most importantly, which of those boundaries and restrictions are self-made and self-imposed? Are they invisible because we can not see them, or because we will not see them? If we truly want to go over there or do that, how do we find, identify, and eliminate those barriers?

Or are we just fish, happy to stay safe and well fed inside the invisible walls?


Wow — that escalated quickly. One minute I’m looking at a fish tank and the next I’m a Tony Robbins wannabe.

As we said in the 70’s (at least in southern Vermont), “Farm house, man! Outta state!”

Enjoy the pretty fish. (I’ll be sitting here listening to some Pink Floyd, I think.)

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A Bad Day At Wallops Island

Unless you’ve been under a rock (or asleep, I guess, but if this is the first thing you’re reading when you wake up, please let me know) you’ve heard there was a catastrophic failure this evening of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket carrying the Cygnus spacecraft on the ORB-3 resupply mission to the International Space Station.

In the black humor parlance of the rocket and space industry, this is referred to as “a bad day.” (Seriously.)

It’s way, way too early to have any definitive answers. The launch occurred just after sunset, so the area is dark, and with toxic fuel and other safety issues in the crash site they’ll be waiting until dawn to start moving in, picking up the pieces, and starting to figure out what happened. So there are lots of terms such as “appears” and “probably” and “might be” below. Nobody knows anything much at this point. But with that said…


The vehicle appeared to lift off normally, rose for six to eight seconds to maybe a couple hundred feet, when there was a huge gout of flame from the engines (much bigger than the already huge tail of fire that’s left behind a normal launch), followed almost immediately by what appeared to be a shower of burning pieces falling off of the engine. The rocket’s lift ceased, it started to tip over and fall backward toward the pad, there was another explosion (probably caused by the Range Safety Officer hitting the Big Red Button to blow it up before things got worse), at which point the whole thing fell back to the ground near the pad and then ALL of the fuel went up in a monstrous fireball.

Yes, I was watching live and, yes, it was like a punch in the gut to watch. Not as bad as Challenger, Columbia, or Apollo 1, but still, it’s a shock.

The good news is that the Cygnus was uncrewed, carrying only supplies to ISS. The manifest included water, compressed nitrogen, food, clothing, spare parts for various ISS equipment, and equipment and materials for scientific experiments being conducted on ISS.

The bad news is that a lot of scientific hardware was destroyed, representing years of work by thousands of students and scientists. The launch facility at Wallops Island in Virginia probably suffered some damage, but it will be days or weeks before we know how much and how long it will take to repair. And a big link in the supply chain to keep ISS going will be down for a while.

Let’s just hope it’s not the 2+ years that NASA was grounded after the Shuttle accidents. Maybe more like the six to eight months that the Russians are grounded after their Proton launch failures earlier this year. But the most important point is to be thorough, find the cause of this accident, and fix it.

A few points and observations (see my Twitter comments, which should be displayed over on the right side of the screen):

  • After the accident I had one TV showing the NASA-TV feed, while channel flipping on another to see how the mainstream media handled it.
  • None of the major news networks had anything for almost a half hour, then it was only a quick flash on Fox Business News before CNN started more extensive coverage.
  • In Fox Business’ brief first report, the anchor twice called the explosion “spectacular.” Okay, I guess, he was probably seeing it for the first time, but given the tragic nature of the footage, couldn’t he have chosen a better word? Isn’t that what he does for a living, deal with words? Perhaps “catastrophic” or “horrific” would work better, and we can save “spectacular” for a glorious sunset or a picture of a rainbow in the Grand Canyon.
  • When did CNN stop reporting news and instead put on uninformed talking balloon heads who try to make every story into something filled with hysteria and panic?
  • The CNN coverage was so-so when they broke into their normal show at about eight to ten minutes before the top of the hour. The anchor there was a bit clueless, but at least he wasn’t horribly wrong on all of his facts.
  • After the top of the hour when they went into the “Erin Burnett OutFront” show, things went into the toilet quickly as far as the quality of reporting went. In part I’m sure it was coming from the producers, but they heard something on the NASA or Orbital Sciences audio feed about the crash area being closed off because of “classified crypto equipment.” The reporting went straight into paranoid hysteria, with that phrase being on the screen almost constantly for the next twenty minutes or so, and Ms. Burnett repeating it at least a dozen times. It was as if someone thought they had figured out that this was some sort of super secret spy mission launch and they were going to break the story! Ta-dah!!
  • Except that, even if they heard that phrase correctly (others on Twitter noted it as well), it almost certainly didn’t mean what they kept trying to make it mean. CNN correspondent Miles O’Brien, CNN reporter Tom Foreman, and retired NASA astronaut Mark Kelly all got asked about it and all said that it was almost certainly nothing. All three emphasized repeatedly that this was an ISS resupply mission, its cargo was made up of supplies, equipment, and science experiments, and there is ZERO military or spying use for ISS. None of that mattered. Kudos to Mr. O’Brien, Mr. Foreman, and Captain Kelly for being calm and factual when dealing with this lack of professionalism on CNN’s part.
  • I never saw anything from any of the major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox) except for segments in their evening news half hour shows.
  • At the top of the next hour, every single news network had something about it — but only as the third, or fourth, or fifth piece, even though the news was less than two hours old. Instead we heard first about the police chief in Ferguson resigning, Ebola, the upcoming election…
  • When did we all get so blase about spaceflight that even a graphic disaster is less newsworthy than same-old-same-old political mudslinging?
  • Was that dismissive attitude because the mission was uncrewed? (No blood for the “If it bleeds, it leads!” editorial standard.)
  • Getting into space is HARD! The press forgets it quickly, as does the general public, but the people working in the space industry never forget. The fact that we do it so successfully so often is a tribute to the amazing job that all of these people do. If they didn’t, we would have accidents like this 98% of the time instead of 2% of the time. (Those are ballpark figures for illustration purposes only – but they’re close.)
  • The crew of ISS is in no danger of running out of food, air, water, or other supplies because of this accident. (This was the next thing that CNN and others wanted to panic over, even when they stopped obsessing over “classified crypto equipment.)
  • The mission managers at NASA plan ahead with a four to six month reserve, so even if no other spacecraft got to ISS, they would still be fine until at least March or so. But the fact is, there are other cargo spacecraft in use. SpaceX is scheduled for another cargo mission in mid-December, and the Russians are launching a Progress cargo mission in about an hour.
  • In addition, Sierra Nevada is independently continuing to develop their Dream Chaser spacecraft. Also, the Japanese space agency JAXA has their H-II Transfer Vehicle, with the next one scheduled for mid-2015.
  • THAT‘s why we need to have multiple, independent methods of getting into space! If one method has a problem and needs to shut down for a few months or a year, the others can pick up the slack.
  • Remember that the next time that the idiots in Congress suggest that we should pick either SpaceX or Orbital Sciences and get rid of the other.
  • There’s an interesting video on YouTube (here) taken from the press viewing site. (Do NOT read the comments, they’re full of troll bait and BS.) There’s more than a bit of panic since they’re closer than the general public and need to evacuate fast. There is some (small) danger there from debris, but a much bigger one from the shock wave (that was one freaking big “BOOM!”) and from possibly having the fumes from the burning fuel drift over them. That crap can be toxic.
  • There’s another interesting video (here) taken from a small plane flying inland from the launch site maybe twenty to thirty miles or so. I would have been more worried about that shock wave than this guy was, but perhaps ignorance is bliss.
  • Kudos to the Orbital Sciences and NASA leaders who stood up and faced the press in a news conference just two hours after the accident. That’s got to be tough, really tough.
  • Kudos to Orbital and NASA for keeping the televised feed and audio going on and on after the accident, rather than cutting it off and trying to cover things up. That kind of openness and transparency is badly needed and greatly appreciated at times like this.

The biggest takeaway isn’t that getting into space is hard. It’s that despite how hard it is, even when we have a problem like this (and we will have more in the future) we don’t stop. We pick up the pieces, figure out what went wrong, correct it, and move forward to launch again.

THAT‘s rocket science.

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Patterns Number Two

I was thinking about patterns again today in a couple of different respects. One thing was the human propensity to see faces in random patterns, a psychological phenomenon called “pareidolia.” More about that some other time.

Another thing was the idea of cataloging, categorizing, organizing, and generally trying to bring order out of chaos. I’ve seen a lot of that for decades in data management, from accounting to databases of pictures, songs, files, newspaper articles, scientific data… Turns out when you go to research it, there’s an old, old discipline that has already figured out a lot of this and is working hard to bring the tools and concepts into the 21st Century — library science. Some days I wonder if I shouldn’t have studied it instead of physics, if I knew then what I know now. It might make it easier to keep track of which photos and article ideas I’ve used and which are still open to abuse writing and publishing.


Chaos —> Order.

Then try to keep it that way.

Easier said than done.

Entropy’s a bitch.


2009-08-31 West Hills From 2400' small






2009-11-28 Den Shutters Light Show small


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Burlington Vermont Fall Foliage From The Air

Seeing pictures and hearing stories from friends in New England has me a bit melancholy, wishing that Southern California had a bit more in the way of actual seasons. Especially when the leaves turn.

These pictures were taken just after takeoff from Burlington International, on the shores of Lake Champlain, about forty miles south of the Canadian border.

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Shortly after takeoff on Runway 15, off the left side you’ll see the University of Vermont. When I was in high school we referred to it as “Groovy UV,” but I’m not sure anyone does any more. I’m not sure anyone refers to anything as “groovy” any more, at least not unless they’re mocking something or someone.

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Lake Champlain should be the sixth Great Lake – but it’s not. That’s upstate New York over on the far side. No sign of Champ, the legendary cousin of the Loch Ness Monster that some people believe lives in the area.

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Many islands and a lot of waterfront. It’s lovely in the spring and summer, unbelievably gorgeous in the fall, and very cold and icy in the winter. Three out of four ain’t bad, I guess. And if you like winter sports and the cold, you’re golden!

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Wouldn’t It Be Cool If…

…we all had tails like a cat?

Tonight’s bizarre thought is brought to you thanks to Joey Chan, on my lap, asleep, idly flicking her tail back and forth and getting all twitchy when it gets touched. (Okay, I’m poking it and taunting her, but the effect is the same.)

What if people could grow a tail like that? Maybe some sort of advanced genetic manipulation — after they figure out how to regrow missing limbs, cure cancer, and restore a full head of hair to terminally insecure middle-aged men, of course. But if the science dudes and dudettes are then bored and need something new to justify their employment, this could be just the ticket!

Think of all of the possibilities! At first it would be a novelty for the rich and famous, a status thing, a statement of chic. But before long it would become practical, with high-rise iron workers getting them for balance, circus performers getting them to make more complex acrobatics possible, and teenagers getting them just to piss off their parents.

Then to distinguish themselves from the commoners, the Kardashians and Beibers of the day will get them in different colors or patterns. Someone will get a prehensile tail like a spider monkey’s just so they can get an advantage in some sporting event. Gang members will get tails with big bony spikes at the end like Ankylosaurus.

There will need to be accomodations in society. Pants will be a problem. I see the kilt becoming commonplace. (No doubt with an accompanying surge in the popularity of shiny, patent leather shoes for women. Payback’s a bitch, guys.) One can only imagine the ways at the various organized religions will view the phenomenon.

Porn will be an early adopter of the movement. Tail porn will be a thing.

Tail lengths will fluctuate up and down in popularity as men first assume that size matters, then see how easily and painfully their new appendages get caught in doors, then again belive that size matters, then see more pain, then size, then pain, then… I figure the cycle frequency will be about a month.

The Furries will be insufferable.

Someone will be the first to get a second tail, just because. A month later someone will have four. By Christmas someone will look like they’ve got the Flying Spaghetti Monster coming out of their ass.

The purists will remind everyone who will listen that we evolved from apes, not monkeys, and apes don’t have tails. Everyone with tails will “accidentally” smack them in the face when they bring it up.

We’ll have a whole new outlook on hair. Now we’re getting obsessed with making ourselves smooth and bald in most places where we’re supposed to be furry, but that will change once people see what a three-foot long hairless tail looks like. Do you want to look like an opossum? We’ll be taking baths in Rogaine™.

The future is definitely looking long and furry! Zephod Beeblebrox will have nothing on us!

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Flash Fiction: {Script|Horror|Spam}

Again this week our Flash Fiction Challenge goes off in a new an interesting direction. Inspired by the fact that we’re always being inundated with spam in our email inboxes and the comments sections of our blogs, and given the fact that Halloween is coming up, we’ve been challenged to write a horror story in the form of some sort of spam message. The programming background far in my past took over.


{You have|You’ve} been {surfing|browsing|waste time} online more than {three|3|666|69} {hours|eons|weeks|millenias} today, yet I never found any interesting article like this. {It’s|It is} pretty worth enough for me. I {couldn’t|could not} {resist|refrain from} commenting. In my {situation|Problem|damnation} my view, if all {webmasters|demons|monsters|succubus} and bloggers made good content as you, the {Pit|Hell|nether regions} will be {much|a lot} more {blissful|wonderful|special} painful than ever before.

{It is|It’s} {appropriate|perfect|the best} time to make some plans for {the future|torture|eternal damnation} and {it is|it’s} time to be happy. {I have|I’ve} read this post and if we could I {demand|command you|desire} to suggest you {few|some|infinitely recursive} interesting things or {advice|suggestions|tips|terrorist demands}. {Perhaps|Maybe} you {could|can} write next {articles|curses|magic spells} referring to this article. I {lust|wish|desire} to read {more|even more} things about your imminent {death|disembowelment|dismemberment|demise}!

I am sure your {article|post|screed|rant|paragraph} has touched all the internet {users|trolls|simpletons|visitors}, its really really {nice|arousing|sensual|fastidious} {sermon|appeal|recruiting} on building up new {servants|worshipers|sacrificial|supplicants} for our {Lord|Master} {Satan|Lucifer|Beelzebub|Antichrist}.

Wow, this {article|post|propaganda|trolling} is {appealing|deceptive|tempting}, my {innocent|younger|virgin|slutty} sister is analyzing {such|these|many} things, {searching|looking|yearning} for {carnal|sexual|perverse} {pleasure|excitement|arousal} {so|thus|therefore} I am going to {tell|inform|let know|convey} her. She {will|wants to|must} be a {perfect|wonderful|tender|innocent} {offering|sacrifice} for your next {Black Mass|orgy|saturnalia}.

With your {interest|fascination|obsession} of the {study|worship|perfection} relating to the {Dark Arts|Satan|damnation} we are sure your {blog|site|RRS feed} can soon {allow|permit|let} me {realize|recognize|understand|recognize|know} {so|in order|what} that many others {may just|may|could} be {subscribe|sacrificed|damned|devoured}.

Please {keep|continue to|advance} writing as you are, {much|most|all} of the {scum|slime|sheep} that is now {humanity|internet users|the world} will soon be at your {feet|command|beck & call} so that {Armageddon|the End Times|Ragnarök} will {commence|be at hand|come to pass} and you will {reap|enjoy|receive} the {pain|suffering|damnation} which you have been {seeking|earning|deserving}!

Thanks. {Saved as a favorite|bookmarked!!}! {LOL|TTFN|BRB}!!



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