Saturday, November 19, 2005

Ink Magic continued


Ink Magic (part 3)

I slept fitfully and woke up in the late morning; woke up groggy, but could not get back to sleep. Then I remembered the creature and that woke me right up. I scrambled out of bed and searched for liquid monsters in the house. None presented themselves.

My mother was gone. No doubt she was in church for the morning, so this would be a good time to explore behind the mysterious door. I had woken up with memories of the door from my childhood. It didn't lead into a closet under the stairs, but into a cellar --the cellar where my father had kept his study.

My father. I hadn't though of my father in years. Not since he had abandoned my mother and myself fifteen years ago. Apparently I had been so traumatized when my father left us that my mind had shied away from thinking about him and his study. But that explanation wouldn't work, would it? Not unless my mother had come down with exactly the same psychological malady.

So the first thing I did was call my neighbor for a sanity check. When Randy answered the phone, I asked him if he remembered the door under our stairs. He didn't, so I asked him to come over. When I showed him the door he acted just like Mom had: Randy's mind refused to notice the door even when I juggled the handle. A moment later he had even forgotten that I had asked him. Randy never knew my father, so the psychological-trauma explanation wasn't very persuasive at this point.

After I sent Randy home I stood before the door thinking. Maybe it was me who was seeing things. Maybe the liquid monster and this door were hallucinations spawned by something that old man had given me. Maybe I would try to go through the door and my poor mother would come home to find that I had brained myself on the wall behind the staircase.

I pulled up my pants and pulled down my sock. The welts from the liquid monster were fading but still there. No, I wasn't seeing things. I wasn't hallucinating and I wasn't dreaming. Something was going on. I wanted to know what that something was and I had a feeling the answers lay behind this mysterious door.

Well, no, actually I didn't think the answers lay behind the door; I just wrote that for dramatic effect. I thought that what lay behind the door was just a dusty home office. I could picture in my mind the bookshelves, the workbench, the desk sporting an old IBM PC with an incredible 10-Meg hard drive. There would be a dot-matrix printer on a stand next to the desk...

No, there would be no answers downstairs, just memories. If there were any answers to be got then the way to get them was to ask the old man that started all this, but he probably didn't work on Sunday.

Of course even if there were no answers, there could still be a liquid monster down there. I decided to get better prepared.

A few minutes later I stood before the door again with a two by four in one hand and a nail gun in the other. I hadn't been planning on carrying the nail gun; it was supposed to stay upstairs with the other boards, ready to nail up the door in a hurry if I had to. But then I thought how long the extension cord for the nail gun was, and I remembered the little catch that I had installed shortly after I bought the gun.

That little catch could be engaged to turn the nail gun into an actual gun that shot nails. I had installed it on a whim shortly after I bought the nail gun. Well OK, the truth is I just bought the nail gun to make that modification in the first place. I'd become pretty good at tacking cardboard from ten feet away.

With the nail gun under my arm, I carefully turned the knob, standing well back in case some monster poured out as soon as the door opened. Behind the door was a dark staircase --rude wooden stairs stretching down into the shadows.

I hadn't thought to get a flashlight, and I didn't have enough hands for one anyway. There was a light switch just inside the door but I didn't expect it to work after fifteen years of disuse. Luckily, I don't know anything about light bulbs, and when I flipped the switch the entire room below lit up nicely. It was bright enough that now I could see the spider webs. Lots and lots of spider webs, clogging the stairway.

I'm not especially afraid of spiders but I didn't fancy the idea of having one crawling down my neck, especially since the size of those webs made me think that the spiders were black widows. I'm not an expert on spiders, but the webs were really big and they seemed thicker than normal spider webs.

I ducked down to look into the basement and see the old desk with the old PC still on top. Apparently my father hadn't taken it with him. Actually, my father had just taken off one day and never came back for anything. That was kind of odd now that I thought of it.

The stairs were the open kind, the kind that a kid can stand behind to reach out and grab your ankle as you go down. A kid or a liquid monster. With this thought, I got down on my hands and knees to try to see under the stairs. I couldn't see much.

Something tickled my ear and I jerked back and stood up. Then, muttering under my breath, I used the two by four to clear out all the webbing I could reach by stepping down a couple of steps. By the time I was done, the board was coated with dusty white fiber.

I crouched down again to look under the steps from the second one down but I really couldn't see anything. It's hopeless, you know, trying to see what's under the steps that you are going down. The only way to see what's hiding under a step before you step on it is to go down head-first on your hands and knees. But if you do that, the mean little kid will just crouch down. Then, when you get low enough to see him crouched down, he just stands up and suddenly has access to your entire prone, upside-down, helpless body to poke, pinch, and give purple nurples to. At least that's what I did when I was a kid.

The idea of getting caught upside-down on the stairs by one of those hoodoo things didn't appeal to me so I decided to take my chances on my feet. I went down sideways, ready to bolt back up, watching my feet carefully when I wasn't watching the rest of the room or clearing out the spider webs.

I got to the bottom of the stairs and looked under the staircase. It was a bit shadowy, but there was nothing underneath except for some boxes, a couple of large filing cabinets, some old sports equipment, and the other kind of junk that usually accumulates under staircases. No spider webs, though. I thought that was odd.

The rest of the room was just as I remember it except for the thick layer of dust. I was starting to feel a bit silly for my precautions. There was the bookcase taking up most of an entire wall and filled with serious-looking hardcover books with titles like "Heat Dissipation In High-Voltage Environments" and "The Insulation and Dielectric Properties of Ceramics" and "A Theory of Quantum Gravity". A couple of them had been written by my father.

There was a work bench covered with circuit boards and soldering equipment and fragments of wire and electronic parts. Over it hung his parts cabinet, dozens of little drawers containing resisters, diodes, transistors, chips and other electronic circuit-building stuff.

The old desk still had the PC on it, the reference books at the corner, a big can full of pens and pencils, an ancient rotary telephone. I pulled the extension cord down so that I could walk over to the desk with the nail gun. I put the gun down just long enough to flip on the PC and then picked it back up. Silly or not, I was holding on to the nail gun.

The PC came to life with a dusty wheeze and the dot matrix printer rattled in sympathy as the ancient hard drive struggled to come up to speed. As I waited for the computer to boot, I set the nail gun down again to pick up the phone and blow off the dust.

I put it to my ear to listen for a dial tone. Nothing. I should have realized that the phone wouldn't work anymore since we had rewired for DSL. In fact, the phone company had only installed three drops: two bedrooms and the living room. This old phone wouldn't even be connected. I set down the phone and picked up the nail gun again.

Next to the desk was Dad's big Project, his gravity lens, the one that had kept him from getting tenure at Berkeley. Everyone thought Dad's theories were too wacky. Yes, that's right, too wacky even for Berkeley.

The gravity lens didn't look much like a lens; more like a refrigerator that had grown fur and scales in the form of wires and circuit boards. Dad had never gotten it to work, because, well, it was a wacky idea.

I was shocked to see that Dad had abandoned this project; he had been so obsessive about it. And it hurt a bit to realize that I was more surprised about Dad abandoning his gravity lens than abandoning my mother and myself. But that was Dad.

I tried to recall the circumstances of his leaving. Had Mom gotten a restraining order so Dad couldn't get his things? No, that made no sense. The judge would have let him get his property. Besides, I couldn't remember any fights or bitter words or anything else that would lead to a restraining order.

As I thought back, I found that I couldn't recall anything at all about when Dad left. It just seemed that one day he had been here and the next day he had been gone, and Mom and I had started telling people that he left us.

Was I suffering the same kind of mental block that kept people from seeing the door? It didn't seem like it. It was more like there had been a mental block to prevent me from seeing how strange Dad's disappearance was and now that block was gone. Now I began to wonder if Dad had left us or if he had been taken against his will. Until this moment, it had never occurred to me that we should have called the police to report a missing person when Dad vanished.

The phone rang.

I nearly jumped out of my skin. The old rotary phone was set on loud and I could see it jangling with the vibration of its old mechanical bell. The ancient phone that wasn't even connected any more was ringing. The one with no dial tone.

On about the third ring, I set down the nail gun to reach for the handset but then pulled my hand back. I sat down in the old desk chair, ignoring the cloud of dust that burped from the cushion and stared at the phone. RING ... RING ... How could that old phone be working? Who would be calling? RING ... RING ...

Finally, driven by curiosity, I picked it up and answered in the traditional way, "Hello?"

"Steven!" the stern voice on the other end of the line sent a shiver down my back. "What have you done?"

"I don't know, Dad," I answered as reasonably as circumstances allowed, "what have I done?"

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sunday, November 13, 2005

McCain and ethical utopianism

There is a post on Zacht Ei, about John McCain's so-called anti-torture amendment (link from the Belmont Club). It concludes with the resounding declaration:
I for one refuse to let my moral standards be defined by those whom Mr. Bush aptly described as 'thugs and murderers'.
What a load of ethical utopianism. The bad guys always chose the level of violence. Punching someone is generally wrong, but when faced with a bully, sometimes you have to punch. Killing is generally wrong, but when faced with a homicidal threat, sometimes you have to kill.

The same principle holds true at all levels of violence. It's generally wrong to kill large numbers of people who are only protecting their homeland, but that's what most of the German and Japanese soldiers in WWII were. We had to kill them because they left us no choice. Would it have been better for President Roosevelt to portentously announce that he would not let his moral standards be defined by those nasty Nazis and Japanese Imperialists?

What about all the civilians who were killed in WWII by the allies? Weren't we letting our moral standards be set by Hitler? Didn't our generals judge the relative morality of bombing enemy civilians against the morality of greater risk to our own people and come down on the side of bombing enemy civilians? And wasn't that a good moral choice? Would it have been better to let those civilians live, to go on supporting the infrastructure that was making the planes and bombs that were killing people in London? Would it have been better to sacrifice the lives of more young American soldiers to protect the families of the men that were trying to kill them?

The bad guys always set the level of violence. The good guys have only two choices, escalate along with the bad guys or accept more death and destruction in the name of being morally superior. And make no mistake: our refusal to use harsh interrogation methods will lead to more death and destruction.

How many mothers are you willing to see weeping over dead children because American forces could not use sleep deprivation to find out where the terrorists are making their bombs? Let's see: sleep deprivation/dead children ... sleep deprivation/dead children. Hmm. That's a tough moral choice, all right.

And that, of course, is all that we are talking about here: practices like sleep deprivation, close constraint, dunking people upside down in water. We aren't talking about sticking hot pokers into eyes or crushing testicles, or disemboweling a woman while forcing her husband to watch. That's torture, folks. And that's already illegal.

What the McCain amendment does (practically, given the political situation) is not stop torture. What it does is prevent interrogators from doing anything at all to make the prisoner uncomfortable, even in an effort to save lives (or, as Wretchard argues, it may actually lead to more torture).

This kind of law is just wrong. It is wrong morally because it creates an inverted sense of importance. It says that our own fastidious self image is more important to us than the lives of innocent people. And it is wrong strategically because it lets the enemy operate more openly and therefore more effectively. They can let more people know what is going on with less fear that the Americans will be able to find out.

This amendment is wrong because it trades the lives of innocent people for the comfort of guilty people.