Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cloud Atlas—A Classic Before its Time

Cloud Atlas Poster     Fifty years from now, high-school students (if there are any) will be writing homework assignments on this masterful film. Today, in the year 2012, viewers under 18 aren't permitted to see this R-rated film without their parents. I agree with the rating. It does portray adult themes and it is violent, but still, little is shown that young-people today don't see on the web or while playing Halo 4.

     As a creative fiction writer, I think that I learned several important lessons from the film and the insightful story it tells. First, there are no limits to the way vitally important messages about humanity can be told. I expect that some might have trouble following the story-line, as it was told as if someone was weaving individual strands of people’s lives into an magnificent tapestry that transports the viewer from one era to another between heartbeats. Before long, we recognize the commonality of the threads as we lean back and see the story as a whole. It’s not just the faces of the hauntingly familiar characters that ebb and flow in the plot, like the years and ages that flash by before our eyes, it’s their common humanity or lack there-of. In each era there are those who strive and sacrifice themselves to make the world more habitable for themselves, but more importantly, for others. And there are those who would pray on the helpless, and the hapless and those who are just sitting astride the planet as if they were riding a carnival ride eating popcorn. For them, there are a number of exciting 3D chase scenes.

     I also learned that this story raises the bar on writing, directing and acting. I now have a rather lofty goal to create something at least half this impactful. I hope to fold in more of these life lessons of sacrifice, generosity and courage into my future work.

     Go see it. After you see it, consider taking your older sons and daughters and explain it to them or listen while others try to explain it to each other. I’ll be listening too. We all are in this together. I hope we survive.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What Were The Iranians Looking For?

In December 1978, I was working for Ross Perot at Electronic Data Systems. I mean, for Ross Perot himself . Before then, I had been working as a senior developer on Part B healthcare systems. One afternoon afterimage lunch, I found a yellow sticky note stuck to my monitor. My first thoughts: I’m screwed. I took too long for lunch. We knew Ross monitored our card-key comings and goings and I had taken an extra ten minutes. I’m totally screwed. “What’s with this?” I asked Darrell, my manager. He just shrugged and told me to hustle my ass upstairs. I scurried up to Ross’ office on the 7th floor. His secretary/gatekeeper recognized me at once. “Hi Bill, go on in. He’s waiting for you.” Her cute Atlanta accent was wilting. How did she know me? I smiled, and began walking my final mile toward Ross’ office. The door was open.

“Hi Bill, have a seat. How’s the wife? I understand you have a new daughter.” His signature east-Texas twang made me feel a lot less like a condemned man and more like he lived next door. For the next few minutes I filled in the details on my family and how well I liked my job. But he already seemed to know everything. He knew how I had hacked into the EDS mainframes all over the country using a Radio Shack antenna switch to get my programs compiled on idle systems. And he had heard how I had soldered together my own personal computer, written my own BIOS and was programming at home as much as I was at the office. He didn’t know that I thought his operation was inefficient and I had bypassed many of their rules to get more done in less time. I’m screwed.

And then he told me why he had asked to talk to me. Ross had read a story in Popular Electronics that said the 8080 CPU would revolutionize the world. For the next hour we discussed the future of computing. He was a good listener. To make a long story short, that’s when I started to work for Ross himself as his technical advisor. I was moved into an office on the 7th floor and asked to sit in on meetings and consult on any number of technical issues. I eventually began work on an accounting program that would be sold with IBM 5110 “personal” computers to small businesses.

Fallout from the Iran Mission

In December of 1978 several bedraggled men were placed in the vacant desks all around us. Despite the fact they were wearing the EDS uniform (3-piece business suits), they looked like they had just returned from a harrowing battle in Vietnam. At first they didn’t really say much. But over the next few days we learned more and more about how EDS’s grand plans for Iran had fallen through.

They told us how EDS wanted to expand their foreign offices. When they discovered that the Shah of Iran wanted to modernize their systems to ostensibly keep track of their citizens, Ross jumped at the chance. He flew a team to Iran and EDS was awarded the bid. For some reason, the other vendors wanted a lot more time to get the system up but Ross’ people were confident they could get it up in a year. What they didn’t know is that it usually took several years to get anything through customs. The onsite team worked around this by “storing” the shipment in a sealed warehouse within the customs security fence. Less than a year later the system was up. After some time, they were bringing in a million dollars a month. It was widely rumored was the database was being used by SAVAK to track dissidents.

All was going well until the Shah was deposed and the government stopped paying their monthly bill. Eight months later, the situation had deteriorated dramatically. While the State Department was not providing much sensible intelligence, the EDS employees and their families were already very concerned. When someone drove by the EDS building and sprayed the second floor offices with an AK47, they knew they had to get out while they could. After getting the go-ahead from Dallas, the staff backed up the system to tape and formatted the hard drives. The tapes were taken to the American Embassy and put in an embassy pouch to be delivered back to the Dallas headquarters. Unfortunately, an informant working for the company notified Khomeini’s people. Most of the staff escaped Tehran as quickly as possible.

The story of what happened to the EDS employees (Paul Chiapparone and Bill Gaylord) that didn’t get out was fodder for a Ken Follett book “On Wings of Eagles.” After they were thrown in prison, the question they were asked a thousand times was “Where is the data?” Ross was able to engineer an escape for his employees and they returned to the Dallas headquarters. When I heard about it, I volunteered to fly the chopper out of Turkey. Ross thanked me but turned me down. He had recruited my flight-school instructor pilot.

When the mobs attacked the embassy in April of 1980, they turned the building inside out looking for something. Was it the data tapes containing SAVAK files?

Again, an American company was was paid millions (perhaps through naiveté) to make a tyrannical regime more efficient at monitoring its citizens (and victims). While EDS was told this system was to replicate the functionality of the Social Security system in the US, did the EDS people onsite know it was being used by the SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police? Were they ignorant, or did they turn a blind eye? Did Ross know? Only those men who survived this really know. Perhaps we should ask them—just to get the story straight.

Of course, all of this unfolded over three decades ago. My memory is not what it once was but this is the story as I remember it. Perhaps it will help those individuals working for companies here and abroad to be more cognizant of whom they are helping with their skills.


Monday, October 22, 2012

Yes Virginia, We Blame Bush and the Republicans.

I saw a post from a frustrated woman who was “tired” of people blaming Bush for the country’s problems. It’s as if her car was broken and the shop had taken four years to fix it. The American (or world) economy and our complex political situation is not as simple as a Honda Civic on a five-year warranty. While women’s issues, marriage equality and vote tampering are an important reasons not to vote for a party whose men think they have a God-given right to control their property (their women), there are many other, just as serious issues to consider.

Yes, Virginia, we blame the Republicans. You should blame Bush and the Republican Party. They squandered trillions on war while cutting taxes for the wealthy. They borrowed money from the Chinese to run the government instead of keeping the Clinton-era rates that taxed the wealthy at higher rates. As a result, the Republicans drove our economy into the deepest recession since the Great Depression and took the rest of the world’s economies with it. They dropped regulations that had kept Wall Street in check for decades. That's a fact, not an opinion.

But in all fairness, I think George Bush (Jr.) is not to blame for our problems. IMHO, he was simply a puppet of the Dick Cheney's of this world. The Republican machine, funded by men like the Koch Brothers and a host of healthcare, big oil and other mega-corporations like Halliburton wanted a President that would smile and do their bidding. They wanted someone to rubber-stamp their plans to lower taxes for their friends and go to war—regardless of the threat. 9/11 was a godsend—a Tonkin Gulf that gave them an excuse to attack everyone in sight and spread Christianity. It was The Crusades all over again.

So, Obama takes over after four disastrous years. The banks are on the verge of collapse, Wall Street is heading for 1929 levels and  and what do the House Republicans do? They make defeating Obama their first and foremost goal. That's a fact. They block jobs legislation and vote over a dozen times to undo Obamacare. Why? Their billionaire friends like the fact they don’t like to pay their share of taxes. These are the same companies and individuals that bought legislation (paying millions in lobbying fees) to let them carve out massive payouts in reduced taxes and benefits. These same billionaire friends using their own media outlets (Newscorp which owns Fox and several influential newspapers) slam the President at every opportunity, making up the facts as they go. As a result, millions of Americans are grossly misinformed. Fox and their “pundits” ignore the fact that the Republican nominee has distorted the truth and outright lied about his position and his intentions. Actually, he’s never told anyone the specifics of his plan to get the economy back (unless you count the arithmetically impossible policies he’s selling like snake oil.) He hasn’t given the American public any idea what he’s really been paying in taxes or about why he’s so bent on shipping jobs to China.

And then the desperate Republicans have hired “consultants” to block Democrats from voting. There have been arrests, lawsuits and other attempts to stop this, but many voters won’t be able to cast their ballots through intimidation, unconstitutional laws and operatives destroying voter registration forms.  

Despite the Republican’s best efforts, Obama’s policies are working; albeit not as well as they could if the Republican House would cooperate. The housing industry has turned around, foreclosures are down, the number of employed is around 93% (that’s 7% unemployment), we’re out of Iraq, we’re getting out of Afghanistan, we haven’t started a war with Iran or Syria or North Korea or Somalia (despite demands by the Republicans that we do). We have a new healthcare law that covers millions that were on their own, for the first time in decades, healthcare costs are not over the level of inflation. Ironically, Obamacare is a law designed by the healthcare providers and the Republicans that the Obama administration didn’t want, but accepted in a spirit of compromise. And now the Republicans hate it—because it makes Obama look good.

So we’re finally coming out of the steep dive that the Republicans put us in and you want to give them the controls again? If you want them to rule your life and pillage the economy, vote for them. Heaven help us if they win.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

In Search of Names

I’m in the process of writing Truth Awakens, the third book in my Owl Wrangler trilogy and I would like to tap your imagination. I have created a new teenage character that appears in Chapter 1 and she and her parents need names. Of course, I have already chosen place-holder names but I think it would be fun if my readers got to choose the names for these new characters.

Based on a few requests for more details, I have included a short description of the character's predicament to set the scene. In Truth Awakens, we open the story at the simple camp of a clan of itinerant Seldith elves. Traditionally, the Seldith despise and shun any faeries that they encounter; treating them like insects and often attacking them on sight. Feesa, her older sister and her parents, are faeries, but they have hidden their wings and not long ago were able to blend in with a Seldith clan. So far, they’ve live quietly, pretending to be elves. After all, they look like elves (except for their dragonfly-like wings), so they’ve been able to pull this off—until now. A few days ago, Feesa’s 16-year-old sister was attacked and brutally killed. Feesa, only about 14, witnessed the attack. She hasn’t been able to tell anyone what happened—wanting to spare her parents and afraid of revealing their identity. Her sister was as close to Feesa as anyone could be. They shared their happy times, their worries and their aspirations. But Feesa’s sister was restless. She enjoyed being a faerie—especially flying, and looked forward to accepting the crown of Queen of the Faeries one day. Feesa knew that she felt trapped among the Seldith—and so did Feesa. Both Feesa and her sister hated having to put up with the jokes and bigotry about faeries, and having to laugh along with the rest. While Feesa wasn’t sure how it happened, somehow her sister’s real identity had been discovered and she paid for it with her life. She has spent every day and night since then unable to forget and blaming herself for what happened. But Feesa’s and her parent’s troubles had just begun.

I need names for Feesa’s parents and her sister. Can you suggest some? 

When I develop names, I often go to Google Translate and translate English words and phrases into Dutch, Flemish, German, Spanish or other languages that (more or less) share our alphabet. These give me ideas about how to come up with unique but meaningful character names.

I will be posting the suggestions to my website and to Facebook where I will permit anyone to vote on them. If your students would care to participate, just let me know. It would be best if they provided names with a short description of what the name means to them.