Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Really Stupid Idea

This is an edited excerpt from Screen Saver.


One of the more memorable expeditions Jack and I had gone on almost hadn’t happened.

It had been Christmas Eve just before noon and I had been in the final stages of getting organized to get out of town and meet Jack for a several day trip back in the Wasco, Moro and Grass Valley areas.

I was on my way to the Lloyd Center to pick up some last minute item after which I was going to fill the car with gas and be on my way. I had noticed that one of the several gas stations on my way to the Lloyd Center had been closing for the day. “Christmas Eve,” I had thought.

But then I noticed that they were putting signs on the pumps: “no gas,” they said.

“How odd,” I thought.

I made the mental note that maybe it would be prudent to stop at the next station and get gas.

When I got to the next station it had signs on the pumps: “no gas”.

Every one of the five or six stations I went to next was either closing and posting “no gas” signs, or had already done so.

In a period of about fifteen minutes I had seen the gasoline supply of a major city disappear.

And it was not to return for almost a year.

One of the few really interesting things I had learned when I was at Lowery learning how to destroy things with conventional and nuclear weapons had been how to tell whether the tanks in a petroleum tank farm were full or not.

Those tanks have floating lids that rise up or down on a central column; the level of the lid in the tank is dependent upon how much petroleum product the tank has in it. In a partially or completely empty tank the lid can be seen somewhere near the bottom leaving the tank looking like a huge ferrule jutting up from the earth. If the tank is full the lid is at the top making the tank look like a large metal cylinder.

Portland had some POL tank farms, Phillips Petroleum among others, all of which could be viewed from above from the bridges that they were located close to.

During that entire period of no gas available in Portland all the tanks I saw were full.

The only thing that ultimately changed, after which there was suddenly an abundance of gasoline was the price.

It had appeared to me, as I went from out of gas station to out of gas station that the world as I had known it had begun to unravel before my eyes, with gas stations closing like a line of falling dominos.

The hunting expedition obviously needed to be canceled.

With no gas there wasn’t a way to get to the hunting grounds.

Then I had a revelation. I had an almost full tank. I had enough gas to get there; I just might not be able to return.

“What the hell,” I thought and took off down Interstate 80.

Eighty miles from Portland in The Dalles it was a completely different situation.

The gas stations were all open, the lights were all shining and people were acting as if life was proceeding normally.

When I met Jack he looked at me like I was crazy when I told him that Portland was shut down.

It wasn’t that way in Moscow or any of the places he had traversed in between on his trip to meet me.

And it remained not that way in places outside of Portland for that weekend and for the rest of the intervening period of time that passed until whatever it had been that had shut Portland down had gone away. If I had enough gas to get out of town, I was always able to get enough gas for the return.

But for months the lines queued at Portland’s gas stations became the stuff of legend.

It was as if we had been singled out for some special form of diabolical punishment. I couldn’t help but ponder the fact that we never had found out who the “they” had been who killed Kennedy. Maybe “they” were the same ones in charge of gasoline supplies.

Even in Portland I soon discovered an aberration to the out of gas situation. One weekend not long after the Christmas Eve shutdown I had decided to take the Loon to the river for a Sunday afternoon. The boat had a large tank, which had been filled prior to the advent of the great shortage and it was still fairly full. I figured I could spend a conservative afternoon of not much motoring and a lot of floating and still could be able to get back to the boat ramp. I had half a tank in the car from my most recent pre-dawn multi-hour vigil at the local Richfield station, so the trip to and from the boat ramp was covered with adequate fuel supply.

I had put in at Willamette Park and had motored conservatively upriver with the plan of letting the current do most of the work in bringing me back to the ramp.

As I passed the moorage adjacent to the Sellwood Bridge I thought I had seen activity at the gas dock. It looked as if a boat was getting gas. Curious, I nosed the Loon into the dock and hailed the attendant. “Do you have gas?”


“Can I buy some?” I asked expecting to hear that I needed to be a member of the moorage.

“As soon as I fill this guy.”

I had two empty portable Johnson tanks, which I filled in addition to the empty component of the eighteen gallon integrated tank. That gas dock was open every weekend for the entire duration of the great gas shortage of 1973 and I filled up there every weekend for that duration. Not only did it give me the mentally healthy activity of boating every weekend through that winter, it gave me two full portable six gallon gas tanks, one of which was always in the trunk of my car that winter. I also had, sitting on the trailer in the back yard of the hovel, a full eighteen gallon tank.

I had a rather large territory to cover for IBM, and for my livelihood, and I had concluded that if I ever ran out of gas in that endeavor I had a six gallon reserve in the trunk with which with which to get home. At that point, if it ever came, I had decided that I would call IBM and tell them that I enjoyed working for them and would like to continue, and would if they could figure how to get me a tank of gas.

It never came to that.

But the possibility that it might have come to that had been a weight on my mind and my psyche. It had sensitized my fact gathering apparatus to see or hear anything that might have an ameliorative effect on our energy-starved plight.

Things that I might not have ever had occasion to read I read.

Things I might never have tuned into listening to I listened to.

Things that I had heard previously and had half or totally forgotten, or to which I had assigned no context at all became remembered or got assigned context, or both.

There had been the article I had read about fleas.

The article had discussed the fact that fleas could jump distances many times their own size. If a human or a cow were able to jump in the same proportion he or she would be able to leap tall buildings at a single bound; cows might even be able to jump over the moon. The reason fleas, the article said, were able to accomplish this feat was due to the stuff of which they were primarily composed. That stuff was an amazing organic compound that was supremely compressible. A flea, it turned out, was basically a hollow container filled with this supremely compressible material. The hollow container was jointed in such a manner that a flea was able to fold itself in on its compressible interior, thus effecting massive compression of that material.

Essentially the flea was capable of cocking itself like some kind of spring bearing device. When the flea released itself from this cocked state the compressed stuff of which it was made expanded exponentially and the flea hurtled across a distance many times its own size.

I had always been interested in nature and the natural world, and it would have been highly likely that I would have read this article with interest even in the absence of the great energy crisis.

But surely I wouldn’t have come to the conclusion that the government should create massive funding to figure out exactly what the compound of which fleas were made was composed of and make massive amounts of it.

Those massive amounts, I had thought, could be put into large mechanically engineered versions of the flea’s outer shell. These could then be mounted on wheeled devices. The driver of such a device would cock the “flea” and release it making the vast energy of the compressed flea stuff available to some kind of computer controlled damping device so the energy could be delivered to the wheels in a usefully controlled manner.

That computer controlled damping device was an artifice I invented out of my, by then in life, total faith in the utility of the devices that I sold for IBM.

I had become a true believer in the possibility that computers and sub miniaturization would merge into forms of technology that would be able accomplish feats of magic such as controlling the energy output from a mechanical flea.

I had come to that belief in stages.

The feats of magic belief stemmed from experience trying to sell a much larger, not miniaturized version of the computer that I had imagined.

Not all of IBM’s computers had been business machines.

Not all had been destined for mundane uses such as printing aged trial balances or paychecks, or even reports of bridges destroyed and damaged.

Some had been intended for uses of a much less clearly understandable nature.

The IBM System/7 had been one of these. It had been an early version of a form of computer system for which IBM should have become famous, but didn’t. That lack of fame stemmed from the very aspect that should have made the products famous: they were machines with no apparent mission, but to which, therefore any mission imaginable could be assigned. It was assumed by those in positions of power in IBM that the open ended nature of that condition would cause markets to rise up from nowhere, demanding the assignment of these universally missionable devices to the needs of the markets which the existence of these devices had caused to arise.

Sadly that was never to be.

Even in those heady, pre-historic times one needed an operating system and applications to sell computers.

But during the time that the premise had been alive and well and unproven as yet to have been bogus, the System/7 had caused untold misery to the marketing force that was assumed to have been able to sell it.

As the years had passed the pressure built to find homes for what apparently were becoming legions of unsold universally missionable computer systems.

That pressure had emanated, as pressure had always been wont to emanate in IBM, from the sales plan.

The pressure had emanated also through the management system.

Performance plans had been written such that if a salesman didn’t sell some System/7s or if a Systems Engineer didn’t help sell and subsequently install some System/7s they were to be cast into the outer darkness.

So operating systems had begun to appear from the basements of Systems Engineers.

Applications had begun to be identified by desperate salesmen.

Every account had become a possible hiding place for the application that might sell a System/7.

It was possible to program them to turn on lights.

It was possible to program them to turn off lights. It was possible to program them to turn on and off lights.

It was possible to program them to do the various offs and ons strategically: if it was morning you could get them to turn on the lights at such a time that the heat generated would bring the location up to desired working temperature by the time the workers showed up for work, thus postponing the need to turn on the more expensive heat generating furnace.

Voila. Resource management was born.

It was possible to program them to put only a little more than the weight noted on the content of packages of food rather than the significantly more that manual packing methods historically required. This allowed compliance with fair labeling laws with much less product giveaway.

Voila. Net fill packaging was born.

And it went on and on.

It was possible to program them to keep track of when sewers disgorged disgusting effluent out of their pumping stations and call someone to fix the problem right away rather than waiting for the irate residents in the path of the goo to rise up in ire at the mayor or city manager.

The one thing all the applications had in common was that they had something to do with controlling, monitoring and managing processes in the physical world. Hence my willingness to think of coming up with a sub miniaturized version to usefully manage the vast energy to be released from pulling the trigger on my mechanical flea.

Over the hours, days, months and even, perhaps, years that Jack and I had wandered over the desert hills of eastern Oregon we had talked of many things.

Those things over all the time that elapsed in their saying and listening had become, over time, aggregated into classes and subjects and themes. One such theme had been developed, albeit inadvertently, by Jack. It had been that motion was energy and that it could be trapped in a variety of ways for future application. This had been, as I had understood it, a true, but more theoretic than usefully applicable, fact.

The days of autumn had blazed and had faded to winter snows.

The birds had run or stopped or had flown out ahead of us and had either fallen to our enthusiastic salutes or had continued joyfully on their way.

Blitz, and later Blitz and Brown had gamboled in the sunlight or had run joyfully snuffling in and out of and through and over the thickets of brush or the thickets of brush disguised as snow castles, glittering in the post storm sun.

The never ending discussion of the law, the laws of motion and entropy and motion and non motion and near motion had waxed, had waned, had continued and had ceased.

But those discussions had always remained as brackets for each individual skirmish or adventure.

And out of them all I had synthesized an idea.

That idea, in its desperation, in its very abandonment of any connection with that which might be considered possible or plausible, underscored the complete and utter control of my outlook and my sense of reality that the lack of ability to buy fuel in Portland had fostered.

The idea had taken form over weeks and months.

As I had sat in line for hours waiting for my time at the pump to occur, as I had sat in line for hours hoping for my time to occur before the out of gas sign appeared, as I had driven from Portland to Eastern Oregon to meet Jack for the gathering of the birds and the running of the dogs, as I had returned on Sunday from the hunting grounds to the city that had been shut down by some overwhelming and unseen power I had pondered and had developed my idea.

It had been beyond fantasy.

Finally, one day I spoke.

Jack and the dogs and I had been cresting the little basalt ridge that formed one of the two borders of the mini basalt canyon where we always found birds.

“Jack,” I said, “couldn’t we do this?”

We continued our trudge forward and the dogs paid no attention.

“Couldn’t we build a car that had a big enough battery to allow it to run for a significant time on battery power, but which had a small gasoline engine to take over when the battery got low or when the need for extra power required it to kick in? Couldn’t we capture the energy from slowing and braking and stopping and put that back in the battery? Couldn’t we lash the whole thing together with a miniaturized computer that would umpire all the processes and keep everything working in synch?

Wouldn’t that provide a vehicle with massively extended fuel efficiency?”

Silence reigned for an extended period.

Then Jack said, “Noel, that’s the stupidest idea I have ever heard. The human race has been trying to invent a perpetual motion machine for as long as there has been science, and they haven’t been able to and you can’t either.”

Sufficiently chastened, I said “I guess you don’t want to hear about flea power then?!”

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