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The Questions…

1. What is a baby puffin called?

2. What is the Ocean Ridge?

3. Only one variety of turtle cannot retract into its shell. What is it?

4. Spam is a brand of canned cooked pork created by Hormel in 1937. What two words were combined to create the word Spam?

5. What are the only mammals capable of flight?

The Answers…

1. A puffling.

2. The Ocean Ridge is a 40,000-mile-long mountain range that encircles the globe, 90 percent of which is under water. Formed by the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates, it has been compared to the stitches on a baseball. It is one of the defining features of the planet, but ironically is little known.

3. The sea turtle.

4. Spiced and ham. Despite its reputation, Spam was vital during the Great Depression because it was a cheap and nourishing meat product.

5. Bats.

Custodian

I can’t seem to stop posting sci-fi short stories by Fredric Brown. Here’s another one, and it’s a beauty.

———

Hall of Mirrors

By Fredric Brown
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1953

For an instant you think it is temporary blindness, this sudden dark that comes in the middle of a bright afternoon.

It must be blindness, you think; could the sun that was tanning you have gone out instantaneously, leaving you in utter blackness?

Then the nerves of your body tell you that you are standing, whereas only a second ago you were sitting comfortably, almost reclining, in a canvas chair. In the patio of a friend’s house in Beverly Hills. Talking to Barbara, your fiancée. Looking at Barbara — Barbara in a swim suit — her skin golden tan in the brilliant sunshine, beautiful.

You wore swimming trunks. Now you do not feel them on you; the slight pressure of the elastic waistband is no longer there against your waist. You touch your hands to your hips. You are naked. And standing.

Whatever has happened to you is more than a change to sudden darkness or to sudden blindness.

You raise your hands gropingly before you. They touch a plain smooth surface, a wall. You spread them apart and each hand reaches a corner. You pivot slowly. A second wall, then a third, then a door. You are in a closet about four feet square.

Your hand finds the knob of the door. It turns and you push the door open.

There is light now. The door has opened to a lighted room… a room that you have never seen before.

It is not large, but it is pleasantly furnished — although the furniture is of a style that is strange to you. Modesty makes you open the door cautiously the rest of the way. But the room is empty of people.

You step into the room, turning to look behind you into the closet, which is now illuminated by light from the room. The closet is and is not a closet; it is the size and shape of one, but it contains nothing, not a single hook, no rod for hanging clothes, no shelf. It is an empty, blank-walled, four-by-four-foot space.

You close the door to it and stand looking around the room. It is about twelve by sixteen feet. There is one door, but it is closed. There are no windows. Five pieces of furniture. Four of them you recognize — more or less.

One looks like a very functional desk. One is obviously a chair… a comfortable-looking one. There is a table, although its top is on several levels instead of only one. Another is a bed, or couch. Something shimmering is lying across it and you walk over and pick the shimmering something up and examine it. It is a garment.

You are naked, so you put it on. Slippers are part way under the bed (or couch) and you slide your feet into them. They fit, and they feel warm and comfortable as nothing you have ever worn on your feet has felt. Like lamb’s wool, but softer.

You are dressed now. You look at the door — the only door of the room except that of the closet (closet?) from which you entered it. You walk to the door and before you try the knob, you see the small typewritten sign pasted just above it that reads:

This door has a time lock set to open in one hour. For reasons you will soon understand, it is better that you do not leave this room before then. There is a letter for you on the desk. Please read it.

It is not signed. You look at the desk and see that there is an envelope lying on it.

You do not yet go to take that envelope from the desk and read the letter that must be in it.

Why not? Because you are frightened.

You see other things about the room. The lighting has no source that you can discover. It comes from nowhere. It is not indirect lighting; the ceiling and the walls are not reflecting it at all.

They didn’t have lighting like that, back where you came from. What did you mean by back where you came from?

You close your eyes. You tell yourself: I am Norman Hastings. I am an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Southern California. I am twenty-five years old, and this is the year nineteen hundred and fifty-four.

You open your eyes and look again.

They didn’t use that style of furniture in Los Angeles — or anywhere else that you know of — in 1954. That thing over in the corner — you can’t even guess what it is. So might your grandfather, at your age, have looked at a television set.

You look down at yourself, at the shimmering garment that you found waiting for you. With thumb and forefinger you feel its texture.

It’s like nothing you’ve ever touched before.

I am Norman Hastings. This is nineteen hundred and fifty-four.

Suddenly you must know, and at once.

You go to the desk and pick up the envelope that lies upon it. Your name is typed on the outside: Norman Hastings.

Your hands shake a little as you open it. Do you blame them?

There are several pages, typewritten. Dear Norman, it starts. You turn quickly to the end to look for the signature. It is unsigned.

You turn back and start reading.

Do not be afraid. There is nothing to fear, but much to explain. Much that you must understand before the time lock opens that door. Much that you must accept and — obey.

You have already guessed that you are in the future — in what, to you, seems to be the future. The clothes and the room must have told you that. I planned it that way so the shock would not be too sudden, so you would realize it over the course of several minutes rather than read it here — and quite probably disbelieve what you read.

The ‘closet’ from which you have just stepped is, as you have by now realized, a time machine. From it you stepped into the world of 2004. The date is April 7th, just fifty years from the time you last remember.

You cannot return.

I did this to you and you may hate me for it; I do not know. That is up to you to decide, but it does not matter. What does matter, and not to you alone, is another decision which you must make. I am incapable of making it.

Who is writing this to you? I would rather not tell you just yet. By the time you have finished reading this, even though it is not signed (for I knew you would look first for a signature), I will not need to tell you who I am. You will know.

I am seventy-five years of age. I have, in this year 2004, been studying ‘time’ for thirty of those years. I have completed the first time machine ever built — and thus far, its construction, even the fact that it has been constructed, is my own secret.

You have just participated in the first major experiment. It will be your responsibility to decide whether there shall ever be any more experiments with it, whether it should be given to the world, or whether it should be destroyed and never used again.

End of the first page. You look up for a moment, hesitating to turn the next page. Already you suspect what is coming.

You turn the page.

I constructed the first time machine a week ago. My calculations had told me that it would work, but not how it would work. I had expected it to send an object back in time — it works backward in time only, not forward — physically unchanged and intact.

My first experiment showed me my error. I placed a cube of metal in the machine — it was a miniature of the one you just walked out of — and set the machine to go backward ten years. I flicked the switch and opened the door, expecting to find the cube vanished. Instead I found it had crumbled to powder.

I put in another cube and sent it two years back. The second cube came back unchanged, except that it was newer, shinier.

That gave me the answer. I had been expecting the cubes to go back in time, and they had done so, but not in the sense I had expected them to. Those metal cubes had been fabricated about three years previously. I had sent the first one back years before it had existed in its fabricated form. Ten years ago it had been ore. The machine returned it to that state.

Do you see how our previous theories of time travel have been wrong? We expected to be able to step into a time machine in, say, 2004, set it for fifty years back, and then step out in the year 1954… but it does not work that way. The machine does not move in time. Only whatever is within the machine is affected, and then just with relation to itself and not to the rest of the Universe.

I confirmed this with guinea pigs by sending one six weeks old five weeks back and it came out a baby.

I need not outline all my experiments here. You will find a record of them in the desk and you can study it later.

Do you understand now what has happened to you, Norman?

You begin to understand. And you begin to sweat.

The I who wrote that letter you are now reading is you, yourself at the age of seventy-five, in this year of 2004. You are that seventy-five-year-old man, with your body returned to what it had been fifty years ago, with all the memories of fifty years of living wiped out.

You invented the time machine.

And before you used it on yourself, you made these arrangements to help you orient yourself. You wrote yourself the letter which you are now reading.

But if those fifty years are — to you — gone, what of all your friends, those you loved? What of your parents? What of the girl you are going — were going — to marry?

You read on:

Yes, you will want to know what has happened. Mom died in 1963, Dad in 1968. You married Barbara in 1956. I am sorry to tell you that she died only three years later, in a plane crash. You have one son. He is still living; his name is Walter; he is now forty-six years old and is an accountant in Kansas City.

Tears come into your eyes and for a moment you can no longer read. Barbara dead — dead for forty-five years. And only minutes ago, in subjective time, you were sitting next to her, sitting in the bright sun in a Beverly Hills patio…

You force yourself to read again.

But back to the discovery. You begin to see some of its implications. You will need time to think to see all of them.

It does not permit time travel as we have thought of time travel, but it gives us immortality of a sort. Immortality of the kind I have temporarily given us.

Is it good? Is it worth while to lose the memory of fifty years of one’s life in order to return one’s body to relative youth? The only way I can find out is to try, as soon as I have finished writing this and made my other preparations.

You will know the answer.

But before you decide, remember that there is another problem, more important than the psychological one. I mean overpopulation.

If our discovery is given to the world, if all who are old or dying can make themselves young again, the population will almost double every generation. Nor would the world — not even our own relatively enlightened country — be willing to accept compulsory birth control as a solution.

Give this to the world, as the world is today in 2004, and within a generation there will be famine, suffering, war. Perhaps a complete collapse of civilization.

Yes, we have reached other planets, but they are not suitable for colonizing. The stars may be our answer, but we are a long way from reaching them. When we do, someday, the billions of habitable planets that must be out there will be our answer… our living room. But until then, what is the answer?

Destroy the machine? But think of the countless lives it can save, the suffering it can prevent. Think of what it would mean to a man dying of cancer. Think…

Think. You finish the letter and put it down.

You think of Barbara dead for forty-five years. And of the fact that you were married to her for three years and that those years are lost to you.

Fifty years lost. You damn the old man of seventy-five whom you became and who has done this to you… who has given you this decision to make.

Bitterly, you know what the decision must be. You think that he knew, too, and realize that he could safely leave it in your hands. Damn him, he should have known.

Too valuable to destroy, too dangerous to give.

The other answer is painfully obvious.

You must be custodian of this discovery and keep it secret until it is safe to give, until mankind has expanded to the stars and has new worlds to populate, or until, even without that, he has reached a state of civilization where he can avoid overpopulation by rationing births to the number of accidental — or voluntary — deaths.

If neither of those things has happened in another fifty years (and are they likely so soon?), then you, at seventy-five, will be writing another letter like this one. You will be undergoing another experience similar to the one you’re going through now. And making the same decision, of course.

Why not? You’ll be the same person again.

Time and again, to preserve this secret until Man is ready for it.

How often will you again sit at a desk like this one, thinking the thoughts you are thinking now, feeling the grief you now feel?

There is a click at the door and you know that the time lock has opened, that you are now free to leave this room, free to start a new life for yourself in place of the one you have already lived and lost.

But you are in no hurry now to walk directly through that door.

You sit there, staring straight ahead of you blindly, seeing in your mind’s eye the vista of a set of facing mirrors, like those in an old-fashioned barber shop, reflecting the same thing over and over again, diminishing into far distance.

Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by René Vidmer.

Caliente

The day I graduated from college in June 1964, having gone through the ROTC program, I also was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force. Eventually, I would be called to active duty for a four-year commitment.

In my case, eventually was 30 days later at Cannon AFB in Clovis, New Mexico.

At the time, I was driving a 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. It was my first car, a gift from my parents a year earlier.

The Bel Air looked great, but, unfortunately, wasn’t so good mechanically. Driving from Georgia to Clovis took its toll. So did taking weekend trips around New Mexico. The first time I drove home to Georgia on leave, the Bel Air seriously struggled.

It was time for new wheels — the first car purchased with my own money.

Being a debonaire young lieutenant-about-town, I needed a vehicle suitable for my station. So, in March 1965, after much deliberation, I signed a deal with the Ford/Lincoln/Mercury dealer in Clovis to buy a 1965 Mercury Comet Caliente convertible — brand new, custom-ordered from the factory.

In Spanish, in case you didn’t know, caliente means hot. Mostly, the word is used in the sense of spirited.

My Caliente was carnival red with a white top, white leatherette interior, bucket seats, dual mufflers, automatic transmission, and a 289 cubic inch V8 engine.

Between the small frame and the big engine, that puppy could leave rubber anywhere, anytime, even without a clutch to pop.

This is a 1965 Comet Caliente, carnival red with white top and interior:

She indeed was caliente.

What, you ask, did I pay for that fine car in 1965? Well, the sticker price was $3,335.60.

To prove it, here’s the sticker.

As for the purchase price, I must have been on my game that day. The dealer and I settled on $2,550.00 cash.

To prove it, here’s the check.

In case you were wondering, $2,550 in 1965 was the equivalent of about $23,000 in today’s dollars.

The Caliente proved to be a terrific vehicle. She and I had some good times together, and I remember her fondly. She was beautiful, fun, and reliable. Not to mention built like a tank.

I mean that in the kindest sense. That car was constructed of premium-grade steel that a sledgehammer probably couldn’t dent. Not that I ever put a scratch on her.

The auto industry stopped using heavy steel to build cars decades ago. Pity.

Today, I drive a Subaru Crosstrek, and I love it. It’s super reliable and has amazing electronic safety and convenience features. The Caliente, like all cars from olden times, pales in comparison to modern vehicles like the Crosstrek.

Except in terms of sheer caliente.

Useless Facts

More “Useless Facts for Inquiring Minds.”

● According to the US government, the average dollar bill remains in circulation for 6.6 years.

● Despite its name, the Spanish Flu of 1918 had no connection to Spain. During World War I, Spain remained neutral and did not observe a media blackout. Thus, it reported freely on the pandemic, which led most of the world to associate Spain with the flu.

● The heart of an adult blue whale weighs 400 pounds.

● The only species of penguin found north of the equator is the Galápagos penguin of, you guessed it, the Galápagos Islands. In this case, however, “north” is a stretch; the islands literally straddle the equator.

● Cornell University in Ithica, New York, offers a degree in Enology and Viticulture, which is the study of wine and wine-making and the science of grape-growing.

● The flags of 29 countries feature the colors red, white, and blue.

● A desert is an ecosystem that receives less than 10 inches of precipitation annually. About 20 percent of the earth’s surface is classified as desert.

● Apple trees are native to Asia, and they were not found in North America until early European colonists brought them here. Soon, apple pie became a symbol of American culture, as opposed to native cultures and later immigrants, who cooked apples in other ways. Hence the expression “as American as apple pie.”

Fully Nazified

You may be familiar with the handful of countries — Denmark, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands, Switzerland — rated highest in terms of health, safety, quality of life, and satisfied citizens.

The US is somewhere down around 20th place. That’s because we excel in other categories: mass shootings, bankruptcies due to medical bills, rate of incarceration, and black people killed by police during traffic stops.

When I was young, I remember thinking I was lucky to have been born an American. I was grateful and proud.

But that was then. Today, the US is a flailing, bumbling embarrassment. Thanks to the right-wing loonies and the wild-eyed, fully-Nazified Republican Party, we’re in the worst shape since the Civil War.

The MAGA crowd learned from Donald Trump, the orange gasbag, that lying and cheating are acceptable options and essentially consequence-free. (According to the records of the Washington Post, Trump lied or made misleading statements 30,573 times while President.)

In this new reality, the efforts of Democrats to play by the rules becomes a waste of time. And we are screwed unless enough normal, decent, rational people start voting en masse for Democrats, and we overwhelm the nutjobs.

In the past, Republicans were, by nature, merely the most cautious and conservative of us. They always were guarded and awkwardly weird, but largely were in touch with their faculties.

Not any more. Conservatives today are fire-breathing extremists whose creepy religious overtones are getting more unsettling. The Republican Party has morphed into a terrorist organization.

These are the people who put Trump, one of the most wretched, crooked, despicable humans alive, in the White House.

Trump is owned by, and financially beholden to, Vladimir Putin. Trump caused the death of one million people by bungling the COVID pandemic. He sent white supremacist goons to storm the Capitol and attempted a literal coup to try to remain President. We all saw it on live television, remember?

Why he isn’t already in prison is a disgrace.

The other bad news lately is about the radicalized Supreme Court and the efforts of right-wing state legislatures to ban abortions. Even when medically necessary. Even when caused by rape or incest.

AND they want to ban women from crossing state lines to get the procedure. AND they want to outlaw contraception. AND they want to end gay marriage.

The bible-thumping, neo-Nazi minority of the country will make our lives miserable, but they won’t win. The rational majority won’t stand for it.

Abortions will continue. Contraception and gay people aren’t going anywhere. Those genies are out of the bottle, folks.

So, what are normal people to do?

Vote. Vote only for Democrats in every election from now on. Do NOT vote for a single Republican in any race, at any level, period, full stop.

If you vote Republican, you reject democracy and embrace fascism.

If you vote Republican, you are no friend of this country. You want to end it.

If you think I’m being alarmist, then let’s talk about the uniquely American epidemic of gun deaths and the right-wing’s depraved obsession with weapons.

When you enter the voting booth, remind yourself that Republicans believe a 10-year-old rape victim should be forced by the government to have the baby, and Democrats think the very idea is appalling, obscene, and monstrous.

It’s that simple.

This Just In

ALBANY, NEW YORK — An employee of the New York Senate was arrested and fired from her job for her role in a protest after hundreds of live cockroaches were released in Albany City Court.

Police said the woman created a distraction so her associates could release the cockroaches, which were smuggled into the courtroom in plastic containers. They said the episode was in protest of arrests last month after a demonstration at the State Capitol about “rent issues.”

According to the officials, the woman began filming arraignment proceedings and refused to stop. While bailiffs pursued her and court officials were distracted, the cockroaches were released. Court was adjourned for the day, and exterminators were called in.

The woman was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, criminal contempt, and tampering with physical evidence. Police said more arrests may be made.

RIDGECREST, CALIFORNIA — A man in full ninja garb and wielding a sword attacked a group of Army trainees at a California airport, injuring two soldiers.

The attack occurred in the middle of the night when the perpetrator approached a lone sergeant and asked, “Do you know where my family is?” When the sergeant said he did not, the man drew his sword and inflicted a cut on the sergeant’s leg. The man then threw a rock through a hangar window, striking a second soldier in the head.

The sergeant ran into the hangar where the other soldiers were gathered and locked the door. As the assailant tried to break down the door, the soldiers called 911.

When police arrived, they tasered the ninja and took him into custody. He was arrested on numerous charges, including attempted homicide, assault, brandishing a weapon, and vandalism.

RUMBECK, SOUTH SUDAN — A local court sentenced a ram to three years in jail after the animal butted a 45-year-old woman in the chest and she died of her injuries.

A police spokesman said, “The ram is the one who perpetrated the crime, so it deserves to be arrested.”

In accordance with local law, the ram will be given to the family of the deceased woman after it serves its sentence. In addition, the owner of the ram was ordered to give five cows to the victim’s family.

Justice will be served in South Sudan.

Pix o’ the Day

More favorite photos I’ve taken over the years.

Thoughts du Jour

Mystery Pig

File this story under “stranger than fiction.”

One recent Saturday, Jake and I went walking at Jefferson Middle School, where he could go off-leash and perform zoomies. Before long, we came upon an unoccupied pickup truck parked on the grass. Next to it was a wire pet cage, empty, door open.

And under the truck, cowering next to a wheel, was a piglet. It was a tiny thing, about six inches high and a foot long. A rope around its neck secured it to the truck.

Jake danced around and snuffled the piglet with great excitement, but didn’t hurt it, because, well, Jake loves all living things. The piglet seemed confused about being licked by a large animal.

Did the truck and the pig belong to someone working inside the school? Was the pig left outside because it wasn’t housebroken? A baffling scenario.

I tried to get Jake to continue our walk, but he wasn’t going anywhere. I allowed him a minute more of snuffling, then hooked up his leash and led him away. Poor Jake. So disappointed.

Why a piglet was tied to a truck next to an open pet cage on the lawn of the middle school that Saturday, I’ll never know.

Tuaregs

The Tuareg people of North Africa, nomads of the Sahara Desert since the 4th Century, are unique among Islamic ethnic groups.

Unlike in most Muslim societies, Tuareg women have high status. They control most of the property, and the lineage of families and clans is traced through the women.

Further, Tuareg men, not women, wear veils. When Tuareg men reach adulthood, they wear the tagelmust, a veil that reveals only the eyes, for the rest of their lives.

The Tuaregs believe the veils protect them from being possessed by evil spirits that enter through the nose and mouth. Why women don’t need the protection, I can’t say.

The concept of evil spirits and veils is, of course, preposterous nonsense. I rank it right up there with belief in a God who is omnipotent and benevolent, yet is okay with widespread starvation, disease, war, and suffering. That should strain anyone’s credulity.

Greek to Me

A while back, on a lark, I bought a copy of Georgia Outdoor News (GON), a monthly magazine about guns, hunting, fishing, and guns. I wanted some reading matter that was different, and GON certainly is that.

Frankly, I detest guns, and I strongly object to hunting and fishing. Guns are an abomination, and stalking and killing animals is making a special effort to be cruel. The articles and ads in GON confirm how callous and sadistic people can be toward other living things.

One particular tip that made me wince was a suggestion to fishermen: slice open your live bait so the blood in the water will attract fish.

But I digress. It was fascinating to get a peek at the world of hunters and fishermen as they talked to each other. For example, a “Fishing Reports” article gave tips on when and where to fish on various Georgia lakes. This is what one guide reported about West Point Lake near Columbus:

The herring population seems to have exploded this year. Try fishing riprap around bridges with spinnerbaits, small crankbaits and Zoom Super Flukes. Try an unweighted merthiolate Zoom Trick Worm or an unweighted Zlinky.

One other pattern is to look for fresh blowdowns with the leaves still on them. Try a Jerkbait or Zoom Super Fluke worked around the outer limbs. Lots of spotted bass are caught by casting Spot Remover heads loaded with Ultravibe Speed Craws.”

I know what riprap and blowdowns are, but otherwise, that’s just word salad. An experienced fisherman probably would get the message loud and clear.

I hope so. Better to use a Jerkbait or Zoom Super Fluke than to slice open your live bait.

If you can convince the lowest white man that he is better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you are picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll even empty his pockets for you.

Lyndon Johnson

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The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.

Oscar Wilde

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Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Extraterrestrial societies could be far more advanced than we are, perhaps by billions of years… and they may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.

Stephen Hawking

Johnson

Hawking