Wednesday, July 4, 2018

China’s Strategy for the Future Is Scary Smart

by Glen Hendrix

Long March 2. Long March 9 will be 4x bigger and deliver 18x the payload. Courtesy Wikimedial

When most Americans think of the Chinese, they think of an industrious, intelligent population. Smart enough and with enough inexpensive labor to make things good enough to sell cheap enough to claim market share and make money. The really hard stuff; the sophisticated electronics, avionics, bioprocesses, and software they obviously stole from us. And, ignoring the obvious moral questions, what does that say about their spy/hacking/computer/skills?

Americans forget the ancient Chinese invented gunpowder, paper, printing, kites, and umbrellas. Americans don't do history. Witness Afghanistan. We’ve certainly forgotten that the Chinese invented thorough testing of the people in charge of government before they are allowed to serve. Maybe we should steal that from them. 

What I’m trying to say is we don’t give the Chinese the credit they deserve when it comes to "the big picture" intellectual processes and strategic thinking. Also, Americans don't take into consideration the advantage the Chinese possess in having a central authority figure. Xi Jinping, aside from Vladimir Putin, is the closest thing to a king that exists in this modern era. As such, the country can react with astonishing speed and amazing focus to deal with such disparate problems as pollution and unwanted domestic public opinions. 

The democratic process in America, on the other hand, has sidetracked our progress in dealing with climate change, slowed down social equality, and created a lot of noise that hinders our march towards a smart, healthy population with very few poor and uneducated. That is because it is a process and has its ups and downs. We will get back on track. It just takes time.

In the meantime, China has announced its intentions to march into the future by putting an outpost on the Moon. That is why it is developing the Long March 9, a rocket that will put 140 metric tons into low earth orbit and 50 metric tons into trans-lunar orbit. This is the same capability as the Saturn V, the rocket that took U.S. astronauts to the Moon. How old hat, you say. Been there, done that. 

What you may not know is that China is also heavily invested in nuclear fusion technology with its Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak, EAST, at a large research facility at Dongpu Science Island in Anhui Province.

Also, helium-3 will make nuclear fusion much more efficient and eliminate nuclear waste and radiation. 

Also, the Moon is littered with helium-3. There is an estimated 1,100,000 metric tons trapped in lunar soil worth about 3 billion dollars per ton. 

Are you beginning to get the picture? I’ll spell it out for you anyway. The future of the planet depends on cheap, non-polluting energy of which fusion will be the world champ. It doesn’t matter who develops practical fusion, it will be done in the next few decades and licensed to anyone willing to pay the price. Having an established outpost on the Moon, China will be in the catbird’s seat to provide the budding fusion industry with what it needs most; helium-3. Three point three quadrillion dollars worth of it. If they are also the lucky ones to crack the fusion puzzle, they will be the undisputed uber energy czars of the twenty first century. 

Pretty smart strategic thinking about the future, huh? With that kind of economic leverage China would never have to sweat the possibility of a trade war again.  However, it is not too late for two (and probably more) to play this game. By the time fusion technology is powering toasters, everyone will be wise to what the Moon represents for a nascent fusion industry. Perhaps we'll see a stampede of corporate startups to rival the dot com era. In fact, the Chinese are already in talks with the European Space Agency to make it a bilateral effort to build an outpost. We'll see how that works out.

In the meantime, while our current materials technology precludes the building of a space elevator on Earth, it will work on the Moon. This would be an efficient way to haul helium-3, water, and regolith into orbit around the Moon. Helium-3 goes to Earth's fusion reactors, water goes to needy vessels exploring the Solar System, and regolith is building material for space habitats. Recently discovered lava tubes on the Moon could provide inexpensive radiation shielding to the people carrying out lunar exploration and exploitation. Whether they want it or not, things are looking towards the Chinese enjoying a lot of company on the Moon.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Time Remembered

by Glen Hendrix

I remember cruising the highways as a youth, usually counter-balancing weed, beer, and cigarettes to obtain a complete car/driver gestalt. It was the 70s. As an old person I am required by law to warn you not to do that now as it may result in fines, jail, injuries, and death to you and others. 

Hundreds of scissortails would dot the power lines, their long tails bobbing back and forth for balance in the wind. Roadrunners scampered across the road, amazingly close, but they hardly ever got hit. Occasionally I would have to get out and move a turtle across the road before some asshole smashed it. 

Unfortunately, the machine/animal connection happened too often. Armadillos, skunks, possums, raccoons, coyotes, and snakes were broken and dead nearly every trip. It was a sad thing.

The grain fields, though, with blackbirds and red-wing blackbirds whirling in and out of the edges would affirm that life went on despite the incidental deaths of fellow creatures from speeding hulks of rubber and metal.

The other day I realized I’ve made that trip many, many times now over a period of many years, and it is now different. They are all gone. The scissortails, the blackbirds, the roadrunners, the armadillos, the skunks, the possums, the coyotes, the snakes. They aren’t on telephone lines or in grain fields. They aren’t even dead in or on the side of the road. They are gone. 

As happy as I am to not see them dead in the road, I am not deluded enough to not know what that means. There may still be some back in what few woods I see, but I believe they are mostly gone. I cannot describe to you how I feel about that. To tell you I have to type this through tears does not come close. 

To some who may read this and not understand the ineffable sadness of this loss, I’m sorry. I’m sorry you never experienced that feeling of the abundance of life. That knowledge of woods and skies full of God’s creatures going about their business. I can only hope that someday we can all experience that again.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Something Is Eating Away At Our "Blue Marble". . . and It Is Us

by Glen Hendrix

courtesy NASA

Humans can safely use 50 billion tons of material per year. Currently we use 80 billion tons per year and that is rising to approximately 180 billion by the year 2050. This is according to a Fast Company article written by Jason Hickel “Better Technology Isn’t the Solution To Ecological Collapse”. The population will be 9.7 billion in 2050. That means individually we consume, on average, about 10.7 tons of material per year and, by the year 2050, 18.6 tons per person.

Business and governments believe they have to have continuous growth. Economists swear we have to have growth of the GPD every year or dire things will happen, and the more growth the better. Yet, even the inventor of the gross domestic product, Simon Kuznets, wrote in 1934, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.

Remember people telling you about or reading articles about the power of compound interest? That is exactly what we are talking about here. The same principle that allows someone to become a millionaire by starting to save a thousand dollars a month when they are twenty is the same principle by which the nations of the world will use up the world’s resources. Next year’s 3% growth has to be on top of the combination of last year’s economy plus the 3% it grew. Ad infinitum. Except it doesn’t go on forever. It has to stop somewhere.

Technology has kept us ahead of Malthusian limits so far, but how long can it continue to do so? The pressure of population growth demands that we use more and more material, no matter how efficient we are at doing it.

If you’re thinking “alarmist”, I hope to God you’re right. If you’re thinking “Cassandra”, you probably are right.

It is like we are all living in a giant ponzi scheme nightmare. We are the ones harvesting the profits of this scheme, some of us anyway. Our immediate descendants; children, grandchildren will be left holding the empty bag.

This insistence on ever-increasing growth is destined for abject, unmitigated, utter failure. And it won’t be pretty. There could be starvation on a scale that will redefine disaster. It may knock back civilization a thousand years.

All because we cannot visualize what happens with incremental change. Tomorrow isn’t that different from today with 3% growth in GPD, but what about 1000 years from now? We are already on our third industrial revolution and the first began only about 250 years ago. Homo sapiens have been around for about 200,000 years. In about 1/1000 the time we’ve been on this planet, we are on track to ruin it.

Humans have a definite species disorder. We are very short-sighted and tend to be selfish. If we had life spans like Methuselah people might care about what the world would be like in a few hundred years. As it is, we can’t see this existential crisis staring us in the face. Or, perhaps we do. I can not imagine that I am the only one that sees this crisis coming. I am not that damned smart.

Here’s the problem. Practically every person in a developed country is richer than the richest rulers of antiquity. Richer than King Midas or King Solomon. We have chariots with 400 horses at our constant beck and call to ride at dizzying speeds. We have magic carpets that fly us thousands of feet in the air to anywhere in the world we want. We have indoor plumbing and air conditioning. We have the knowledge of the world at our fingertips. We don’t want to hear a whisper about how that all could change. We are whistling past the graveyard.

Imagine those people with a million times, a billion times, the average person’s wealth and the commensurate power. They will be actively suppressing this idea that there are limits, that we need to tread more cautiously and slow or still growth. It is conceivable they could use the media to brainwash the population into thinking everything is okay so that they may continue their inflated existence.

Aside from hoping for a singularity event and a benevolent and understanding AI master, there are few solutions. Population control is taboo in western society. We are willing to control deer populations to keep them healthy; but when it comes to humans, sorry, no hunter associations to collect money for our welfare. Personally, I’m pretty okay about that.

Perhaps we need to get away from an income marker and go to something else, like a “wellness and happiness” index. This does exist. The OECD, or Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The U.S. is #14, ahead of Ireland, behind Austria. Number one is Norway. They don’t make the news like the GPD. Maybe they should. Maybe they should be the focus of the news. Perhaps if there was more leeway in the choice of country to reside we would have countries competing to get to the top of the OECD, taking pressure off the GPD as the most significant marker of advancement.

One of the greatest breakthroughs for the human race will be significant life extension technology. We need to be living hundreds of years, not decades. This will force us to plan far into the future to mitigate these problems.

Another solution is to get into space on a large scale. If we can’t fix our unfettered greed and shortsightedness, we have to go where there is unlimited energy and matter. And we have to do it very soon.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Asteroid Strike

courtesy Wikimedia

by Glen Hendrix

Jakarta, 2045 A.D.; excerpt from “Tales of the Hit” 

The day the world is forever changed, Daniel Fulbright sits on the fifteenth floor balcony of the Aston Hotel. He gazes westward over the top of his laptop at a tropical urban landscape and sips iced tea. Occasional high-rises punctuate stretches of hazy green horizon blanched by humidity. He flings condensate from the glass off his fingers and dabs a cloth napkin after each sip before using the keyboard. The smell of clove cigarette drifts around the privacy wall.

Plans to shop for the wife and kids, close the sale on a solar retrofit of the BNI Tower, and get to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in time for the flight home were successful. All he has to do is throw bags in the rent car and drive to the airport. 

He clicks the CNN button in the taskbar after going over the purchase order. Scientists assure everyone the asteroid Isadora will miss Earth by 80,000 kilometers; scary, but a miss. Apophis came close in 2036. Media hype caused people to give away possessions and join cults in droves. An end-of-the-world-weary public pays no attention this time.

The Aston’s three red-orange towers, the tallest forty floors, impale a blue mid-afternoon sky. No chocolates on the pillow, but Plaza Semanggi across the street offers good shopping. He finds trinkets for the kids, nieces and nephews, and something more alluring for the wife. It’s her birthday soon. He runs fingers through her hair in his mind. Pool-blue eyes lock on his and her upper lip puckers to one side as she smiles. Daniel misses that smile. Home’s a good place to be. He’d call if it weren’t 4:30 in the morning in Atlanta.

Sparse traffic murmurs through lush cloverleaf landscaping beyond Plaza Semanggi. The interchange soon finds its voice and announces the afternoon rush hour with a hydrogen-powered roar. Streets dampen with water vapor exhaust. A great white oval, the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium roof floats on an emerald carpet beyond the freeway. Sunda Strait, home of the volcano Krakatau, lay 150 kilometers due west, and beyond that the Indian Ocean. 

His peripheral vision detects movement in the sky. He raises his hand to block the sun, and a bloated streak of fire and smoke pours out the end of his thumb and heads straight for his crotch. Daniel watches with anxious awe as the glowing smudge widens and disappears below the horizon. 

Maybe it will burn up before it—

God’s camera flash goes off, defining the arc of the Earth in stark black and white for an instant. A vacuum forms in the pit of Daniel’s stomach, as if he’d stepped off a ledge in pitch darkness. Eyes adapting, the flash morphs into a glow lighting the atmosphere. The source hides beyond the horizon, but its intensity grows until the sun seems dim by comparison. A shadow line develops on tall buildings. Below the line buildings seem dark, but he still makes out details—people on balconies making gestures of fear. It seemed dark, but only in comparison to everything above the line, where buildings possess a preternatural brightness. As Daniel watches, the bright portions of the buildings smolder. 

He is on his feet, snapping shut the laptop, the tea a spreading abstract on the table. Perceptions now come through a lens of adrenaline, sharp and focused. A flaming sarong drops past his patio. The screams rise in tone and then drop like a train at a grade crossing. He sticks his head past the balustrade, looking up in staccato peeks. Small bits of spalled stone and stucco pelt his face. The Hotel Aston above the twentieth floor is on fire.

He grabs his laptop, runs into the room, scoops up bags, and opens the door in one continuous fluid motion. Scanning walls for a fire alarm, he runs down the hall to the elevator lobby, bag straps biting into his shoulder each time a foot hits the carpet. A small crowd gives evidence the elevators are off. Around the corner from the elevators Daniel spots a staff member in another hallway waving his hands. 

“Bule, this way! Follow me!” 

He’d never hear the common term for “white person” used by hotel personnel under normal conditions. Now it barely registers, and he doesn’t care. People in the elevator lobby can’t see help around the corner and down the hall. They are still busy punching buttons and scratching heads.

“People, follow me. There’s a gentleman who can lead us out,” Daniel says. “Come on.

They hesitate. 

“Now!” he shouts and beckons with his laptop hand.

They follow as he turns and runs after the hotel employee. Daniel rounds the corner. The man stands in the open door of a stairwell. Daniel pauses until someone spots him.

Now they know the way. 

He bounds down the stairs behind his savior. The man stops at the next floor and tells people standing in the hall to get everybody out. Daniel realizes the plan of action and takes the next floor. They leapfrog each other down to the eighth floor when the fire alarm finally activates. Daniel is breathing hard by the time they reach ground floor. A dinged and rusted metal exit door protests with creaks and groans and reveals a scene of devastation. To the horizon in all directions, tops of all but two skyscrapers blaze like tiki torches of the gods.

“Thank you. Come with me now,” says Daniel.

The man stands in disbelief, blinking as though to clear the cataclysm from deceitful vision. The mind’s cruel assurance of verity brings the tiniest fire-tinged pearl to the corner of his eye.

“I cannot. I must stay here.” 

Daniel does not know what else to say and turns at a dead run, mind now focused only on getting home. A prayer he learned in Vacation Bible School when he was eight comes to him.

Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear …

Door unlocked and open, he slings everything onto the passenger seat, folds into the driver’s seat, and punches the start button. The driver’s door slams shut as he accelerates out of his spot and through the parking turnstile, breaking the flimsy drop-arm in two.

no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod, and thy staff they comfort me.

An incredible four minutes and thirty seconds after grabbing his bags in the room, he turns onto Jalan Garnisun Dalam 8, next to Atma Jaya University heading for the freeway when the earthquake hit. The Land Rover sways and bounces. A pronking springbok, the vehicle returns to the air as soon as it comes in contact with the ground. Daniel is a cowboy on a bucking bronco, hanging on to his pommel steering wheel while pens and a travel mug instead of rope and horsehair float in the air at odd angles and impact the floor at the same time his butt hits the seat; then the whole thing starts again. It reminds him of vids from the space station, except for the butt-impacting part. 

Always fasten your seat belt, thinks Daniel.

The vehicle rotates as it bounces, and the Aston jounces into view through the windshield. The tallest tower collapses, shedding large, flaming chunks onto the smaller towers causing them to fail from structural damage and seismic loads. Daniel watches numb and disbelieving, aware most people did not make it. There wasn’t time. Briefly glimpsed faces flicker through his memory.

The Land Rover’s final bounce is into hedges on college property. Daniel sits in stunned contemplation. No point in going to the airport. He must go east, away from the conflagration. A tsunami is coming. The triangular Sunda Strait would become a funnel, increasing the height of the wave until it spilled over the southern end of Sumatra and northern end of Java. Daniel doesn’t know if it will reach Jakarta, but there is nothing to be gained by assuming it won’t and everything to lose. 

A tower that withstood the earthquake and was not burning had to be found. He knows where to look—BNI Tower. Daniel studied the plans for days to make the sale he completed today. 

Forget that commission.

BNI was built with large safety margins for seismic loads and the fire control systems were the best in the city. Plus, it had a somewhat aerodynamic wing shape with the leading edge pointing west, toward the asteroid strike. It might make a difference when the water came. It is three klicks due east. He makes it out from where he sits. It is one of the two buildings just smoldering, not burning. 

He hits the accelerator hard. All four of the Land Rover’s wheel-mounted electric motors max out. Rooster tails of dirt fly into the air as it spins out of the hedges onto the blacktop. The vehicle uproots bushes and fishtails for a couple of seconds before the computer finds traction and stability. People vacate their vehicles at whatever angle the earthquake left them. Autos turned upside down or bounced over freeway guardrails—quite unfortunate at the overpasses. He swerves around copulating taxis and heads for the feeder road, going east to get on the Jalan Jenderal Sudirman. He brakes to avoid a wide-eyed, twisted face in a Toyota Hydro going scary fast in the other direction. Daniel goes but another fifty meters when he hears the complaint of tires asked to stop too fast and aluminum-can-crunching noises. The poor frantic soul did not make the curve. His mirror reveals people abandoning their own plights and running to the wreckage. 

Weaving through islands of catastrophe, the going is slow. Small groups gather around stricken vehicles talking loud with animation. Many strike out in quick strides with clear destinations in mind. Clamorous beseeching reaches Daniel from all directions. He decides to save as many as he can. Shoving the now dented laptop between seat and console to prevent further damage, he slows and starts yelling “BNI”. A woman and her daughter climb into the front seat. The little girl perches on the woman’s lap. Both offer profuse thanks. 

“I am Sujatmi, and this is Liani,” the woman says. “Thank you so much.”

A father tells his three sons to get into the cargo area. The father gets in the back seat, and a young man and wife get in beside him. Two adolescents approach.

“I am Guntur, and this is Chahaya. We will ride on top.” As they clamber up, Guntur hands Daniel a 1,000 rupiah note, about ten cents American. “Make it snappy, bule.” 

Daniel cannot help but laugh at their bravado and the rest join in, easing tensions. The SUV is full. He pulls away as others approach. He can’t carry them all. The heavy load creates mushy steering as he dodges wrecks on the freeway. Bounced up and down by an earthquake going down the road at eighty kilometers per hour is not what the typical passenger vehicle design specs call for. Slewed, on one side, and bottoms-up vehicles hulk everywhere. Air bags hang out of windows and sunroofs like deflated viscera.

A methane-to-hydrogen conversion bus lumbers along the clear shoulder; wide-eyed driver hunching over the wheel, staring straight ahead while passengers animatedly discuss their situation. Daniel zigzaggs through several lanes for a position behind it and takes advantage of a clear section of the freeway to pass it on the right. 

The Land Rover nears the front of the bus when the bus windows explode in a maelstrom of bloody glass. Tires on the bus and Land Rover blow simultaneously. Particles of glass sting the back of Daniel’s neck as he instinctively looks away and closes his eyes. Being at the same elevation as the bus windows, Guntur and Chahaya are swept from the top of the Land Rover, and it surges forward from the lightened load. Headlights, grill, and most of the front bumper disappear in an instantaneous cloud of bits and slivers as the Land Rover edges past the bus. 

His passengers scream in terror, yelling at each other and Daniel. His hormone-drenched perception of time slows to a crawl as he touches the brakes to stay even with the now tireless, driverless bus as it lurches to a stop against the guardrail. Wheels emit rubber flapping and metallic scraping noises as the SUV grinds to a halt next to the bus’s engine compartment. Sequential concussions string together in a continuous roar from the far side of the bus. 

His passengers now gape in wide-eyed shock. A distant phalanx of thousands of machine guns targets the bus, and not only the bus. As their immediate death now seems less imminent, they take in the surrounding situation. Everyone is dead or dying. People that were in other cars, standing in clusters, or walking are all dead and now being reduced to something unrecognizable as human. Just one minute before they were all alive and aware with hope and purpose. Now they are gone. The smell is a burning tire in a slaughterhouse extinguished with a can of talcum powder. Daniel closes his eyes and tries to shrink into a smaller, untargetable self. 

He had not even thought of it, and it nearly killed him. Molten bits of rock up to twenty-five millimeters in diameter traveling more than 8,000 kilometers per hour—ejecta—arrive just over eight minutes after the asteroid strike. Still soft, larger pieces expand like red-hot hollow point bullets when striking flesh. Smaller stuff solidifies into streamlined slugs of destruction. The heavy gauge steel of the bus engine compartment and the engine block shielded Daniel and his passengers from certain death. As the sound of ejecta strikes dies down, a curious dull roar grows in volume. 

Oh, God, now what? Daniel wonders as he feels a warming on his face, opens his eyes a slit and sees. 

Glistening clouds of atomized glass now shroud the burning towers. Ejecta explosively shattered all glass in the upper floors and kept breaking it into smaller and smaller pieces. These same stone bullets then shredded combustible material in the tops of the already burning buildings, increasing its surface area hundreds of times for super-efficient burning. Ignition and consumption of this material is what he hears. The fires increase to such intensity that miniature suns sit atop shining pillars of sparkling mist. 

Daniel’s glance in the rear view mirror shows Guntur and Chahaya lying on beds of glass, rivulets of blood finding their way outwards through shards. Guntur wore orange and Chahaya white, but now he cannot tell one from the other. Daniel’s lips become thin lines as he looks away from the mirror. Making a conscious effort to control his emotions, he looks at the dimpled metal of the bus centimeters from his face because it doesn’t horrify him. Liani’s tug on the sleeve of his shirt brings him back to the moment. She reminds Daniel of his youngest girl, Samantha.

“Daniel OK?”

He looks at her and manages a smile, “Yeah, Daniel okay. Let’s all go to a safe place now.” 

A glance at Sujatmi shows an impassive mask, drained of emotion and glistening with sweat. The whites of her eyes extend completely around the irises. Arched eyebrows convey desperate hope. 

The sound of ejecta becomes an almost-done bag of microwave popcorn. When the hits die completely, he eases the truck forward until the flip-flop noise of shredded rubber gives way to the abrasive, metallic din of bare rims on concrete louder than the distant roar of burning towers; a scorching twelve kilometers per hour. BNI is still two and a half kilometers by road. They can see its pointy buttress, the highest thing around. Glass gone and smoking, it does not burn like the others. The fire management system must have worked. Daniel focuses only on the path he needs to get to the tower, ignoring details of catastrophic tragedy in every direction.

“Sujatmi, a big wave is coming and … oh, crap, the wind. I forgot about the wind.” Daniel presses down on the accelerator, going as fast as he can while dodging bodies and wreckage and temblor cracks in the freeway. Sparks fly from the rims as the decibel level rises. Even with the windows up and the air conditioning on re-circulate, the smell is horrendous.

“The tower,” he continues, “is the safest place to ride it out, but it may be days before we’re rescued. When we get there we have to hit every vending machine we can find for food and water. Here is some money,” he reaches in his pocket and pulls out his money clip. The wadded-up thousand rupiah note Guntur had given him falls onto the console. Everyone looks at it with a tight, forlorn intensity. Daniel retrieves it and sticks it in his shirt pocket.

“I’ll just hang on to this,” he says. A consensus of unspeakable grief acknowledged and appeased, if only for an instant, by this sentiment for two people they did not even know.  

“Daniel, my husband, Indro, is a chef at The Cilantro, a restaurant on the 46th floor,” Sujatmi says. “There will be food.”

“Poppy good cook,” Liani says. Sujatmi manages a smile.

“I can’t wait to try his cooking, Liani,” Daniel tells her and looks at Sujatmi, “nevertheless, the power will be gone. The restaurant owner may have different ideas about food distribution.”

Sujatmi divvies the money up and explains the plan to everyone. Their mood brightens at the chance to take part in their own salvation. The BNI Tower looms on the left half a kilometer west of the freeway. Daniel goes past it almost to the river just to the north, turns left onto Jalan Karet Pasar Baru Barat and another left to get to the building parking lot. 

Bodies and riddled vehicles, many burning, fill the lot. Blood, oil, and engine coolant drain into storm sewer openings. Daniel parks at the edge of this killing field, and they emerge from the vehicle in slow motion as though untrusting of the environment beyond its protective shell. A giant sword sticking out of the ground with the thickness of the blade greatly exaggerated, the BNI Tower thrusts skyward. Stone and blue glass once clad the building. Now the blue glass of Bank Negara Indonesia is gone. The north main entrance mars the blade where it enters the ground. They make their way to the entrance along a bare strip of concrete next to the building. 

“Don’t look at the parking lot,” says Daniel. He knows there will be nightmares enough for this group without staring at that particularly vivid carnage.

Sujatmi’s bosom shields Liani’s view as she carries in the child. Everyone holds their nose. The light and heat from burning buildings give a hellish cast to the landscape—Dante’s Inferno become real. Daniel walks ahead of his group into the ground floor lobby. A few survivors mill about the lobby in shock.  

A haggard bank guard approaches. He speaks English in a tone of strained civility. “Sir if you don’t have business with the bank I must ask you and your friends to leave. Please return after the authorities arrive.” 

All communications are down. First to arrive at the building since the catastrophe began, they do not know what to expect. The bank guard does not know the extent of what happened. The man thinks the ejecta a terrorist blast that coincided with the earthquake. As Daniel tells their story, the guard crumples to the floor and weeps openly knowing his family is probably dead. Sujatmi comforts him while the others spread out to collect provisions. She questions him concerning the survivors.

The guard haltingly relates the events. “A fire started in the upper floors. Some people got trapped and died before the sprinkler system controlled it. Evacuation of the building began. It was somewhat orderly until the earthquake hit. Then everyone panicked. Many people trampled. It was a terrible thing. Everyone headed for the parking lot, and that is where they were standing when the explosion came. It blew out the windows and killed everyone outside in the parking lot.”

The Shangri-La Hotel sat just west and north of BNI, leaving a gap between the two buildings that gave no protection from the ejecta fussilade out of the west. Everyone in line with that gap was killed by ejecta. That included everyone in the BNI parking lot. Sujatmi gets up yelling “Indro!” and runs toward the parking lot. Daniel sprints after, intercepting her before she makes the door.

“Sujatmi, it’s too late!” He has visions of her combing through hundreds of shredded bodies as wind and water approach like death on wings. “The wind is coming! If he’s out there, what can you can do? Think of Liani.” 

Liani has now caught up and wraps her arms around Sujatmi’s legs. He puts his arms around Sujatmi while she cries into his shirt. Coaxing her away from the door, they head back to where the bank guard sits cross-legged on the marble floor, still in shock. 

“His name is Yandi. Yandi Durmali,” says Sujatma. “He is worried about his wife and children.”

“Yandi,” says Daniel.

The guard looks up.

“I know this is difficult, but it is not over. We must act now to save these people from the wind and water that are coming. It is all we have time for.” His appeal to the guard’s sense of duty seems to bring him around. He gives Yandi a mission to keep him occupied and focused. “Yandi, gather up these people, tell them what is going to happen, and lead them up the stairs to the 39th floor.”

The 39th floor is the last floor clad in stone and, Daniel hopes, protected from the elements. The stone-clad portion of the tower has small windows recessed a third of a meter. Daniel hopes the recesses spared at least some glass from ejecta and would repeat that performance in the upcoming wind. The guard is on his feet gathering shell shocked loiterers together as Daniel’s party straggles back with their loot of chips, candy, bottled water, and sodas. Taking inventory, Daniel decides he should scavenge for vitamins later. As they make their way to the stairwell, two boys surrender their shirts to use as booty bags. 

The stairwell is part of the core of the building, a reinforced concrete honeycomb of an inner tower. It contains elevator and utility shafts stretching from the basement to the top. Floor trusses span between this stone tower and the tubular, load-bearing outer frame of structural steel. Daniel now realizes the concrete core saved the glass on the east wall. The west wall of this central tower, pockmarked and cratered from ejecta, maintains integrity. Hypersonic stone missiles destroyed the thin strip of glass on the sharp western edge of the blade-shaped building, going through office walls of gypsum like tissue, shredding everything until it hit the concrete core. 

They trudge upwards, taking a break on fifteen and another between twenty-nine and thirty. The wind hits while they are catching their breath. The initial vibration knocks them to the concrete. 

God, not another earthquake, thinks Daniel before the noise identifies it as wind.

The vibrations continue at smaller, faster amplitudes, and the sound fills up their reality. They see each others mouths open wide screaming but cannot hear it. Clutching their ears, they lie down on the concrete stair landing and use their feet against the walls and arms on the hand railing to brace themselves against the swaying vibration of the building. The one-minute duration seems like thirty. The noise and motion soon die down as they lay on the landing assessing their condition. Liani is the first up. “Let’s go. Let’s go see Poppy!”

Daniel turns a cautious glance at Sujatmi. Sujatmi has not talked with Liani about this, and before he can say anything she speaks up. 

“Yes, Liani, let’s go do that now,” she tells Liani. 

He figures it can’t hurt to go the 46th floor if it still exists. It is high enough to escape the water sure to come. Answered shouts to the bank guard and his group verify they still trudge upward. Daniel and his gang continue up the stairs from the intermediate landing to the 30th floor.

“Let’s take a look,” says Daniel. 

He turns the handle with caution. As the latch clears the jam, the door blows open, shoving Daniel back and slams against the concrete wall of the core with a boom. A stiff wind blows, but sixty kilometers per hour, not six hundred. It startles everyone. It is not the noise of the door that is surprising. Everyone’s hearing remains temporarily muted by the din of semi-sonic wind.  The open door reveals something astonishing. 

A band of Jakarta skyline looking south instead of the interior of an office building inhabits the doorframe. The facade of the building has disappeared, exposing the steel framework to which it attached. Scoured of ceiling tiles and hangers and everything else, the ceiling reveals major utility pipes and cableways. Water squirts from smaller, broken pipes. Wires dangle from broken conduit, devoid of power and vibrating in the wind. Furniture is gone. Interior walls are gone. An occasional bare metal stud stretches from floor to ceiling. Patches of scorched carpet still adhere to the floor here and there. The sky swirls an angry, pinkish gray.

Offices and glass on the east side have vanished, unprotected by the building core as they were against the ejecta. One thing remains intact outside the core walls; a storage vault welded directly to the truss steel top and bottom. Daniel walks as close to the edge as he dares. He feels the wind trying to herd him over the edge so he stops four meters shy of the chasm. The rest of the group stands on each side and behind him. They look upon devastation they had never imagined. 

Some buildings have no intact floors and ceilings, unlike the tower they stand in. Some have collapsed like the World Trade towers. Others are but frames of bare metal. The tops of steel columns curve to the east, ending in points where wind froze metal in mid-melt after ripping burning upper floors from the buildings. Streets are scoured clean of rubble and bodies left by the fusillade of ejecta. All of it has blown somewhere east of them, perhaps into the ocean.

At least the fires are gone, candles blown out at a birthday party of the gods by winds of more than 500 kilometers per hour. They check each floor as they go up the stairs. Each level looks the same, up to and including the 39th, their intended destination to ride it out. The whole party would have died. 

The climb to floor forty-six registers high on the miserability index for everyone but Liani. She is not in complete denial of everything she sees, but is still eager to see her father. Daniel opens the door and looks around the floorscape. It mirrors the rest of the floors except for a vault like the one on thirty. On closer inspection, this vault appears different in several aspects. Broken utility connections at one corner suggest a storage freezer, perhaps for the restaurant. The door stands solid and closed. 

Daniel allows himself a lottery ticket chance of hope but says nothing to Sujatmi. He tries the handle. It turns, but the door does not open. The frame has racked during the earthquake, and the door is jammed. After a particularly hard tug with no results, Daniel smacks his hand on the door in futility. There follows an immediate banging from inside the vault. Sujatmi is at the door in an instant yelling “Indro! Indro! Indro!” 

“Sujatmi? Is that you? What are you doing here? Can you turn on the power? What was that noise and shaking?”

Sujatmi laughs and cries at the same time. Liani jumps up and down yelling “Poppy! Poppy! Poppy!”

Daniel finds a steel wall stud and twists back and forth until its tentative grip on the floor gives way. Newly liberated pry bar in hand, he forces open the freezer in creaky partial arcs. Sujatmi, Indro, and Liani hug and yell and cry. Indro looks around and joy turns to incredulity as his gaze falls on sky everywhere he turns. They explain the situation as Daniel explores the freezer. He mentally combines the contents with the foraging in the lobby to estimate how long they can hold out. Twenty people survive, including the lobby people still hiking up the stairwell. He estimates they have food and water for a week. Daniel sends one of the kids back down to thirty to bang on that vault.

Scraps of drywall litter the base of the west wall of the concrete core. He carts debris upstairs two floors to the roof and spells out a giant S.O.S. on the graveled tar. Two of the boys follow out of curiosity and start helping when they realize the plan. Taking a break, he walks over to the western edge, scanning the horizon. A boy pops out of the stairwell with an armload of scraps; Daniel motions for him to approach. He points at the horizon and looks at the boy for confirmation. Young eyes widen, and the boy drops the drywall he has gathered. White gypsum powder puffs and disappears in the wind. Daniel’s fears are confirmed. Something on the horizon is getting bigger. The boy gets his brother from the roof, and Daniel runs down the stairs to warn the others. Liani meets him halfway. 

“Daniel, it’s coming!”

“I know, Liani. Let’s go downstairs.”

He opens the stairwell door on 46 and chuckles. It looks like the rear view of a police lineup to identify the batik killer. Daniel walks up behind them, lifting Liani to peer between heads. Small movements in the line of gray on the horizon are visible where the water hits a hill or a building. It looks alive.

“We should go to the stairwell,” says Daniel.

“Let us watch a little longer. I think we have time,” says Sujatmi.

She is right. Daniel says nothing.

“Before this gets here, thank you, Daniel. You saved…” Sujatmi’s voice trails off in quiet sobbing. A brief hand squeeze in acknowledgement and they stand in silence watching the approaching water. He estimates a distance of five kilometers and a speed of forty kilometers per hour. It looks to be fifty meters in height. Daniel has no trouble now herding them into the inner core of the building to huddle in the stairwell. The sound and concussion occur together. Anticlimactic compared to what they had been through; they don’t mind. A tubular steel outer frame of the structure offers little surface area for the water to exert its power, and the concrete inner core proves too substantial. Silence becomes an irresistible lure as they venture out and creep to the edge. The water is down to ten meters and receding fast.


Indro is on the roof directing preparation of the last of the meat from the freezer on a smoky fire of paper ripped from drywall scraps. The boys are learning how to cook at the most basic level. It is the fourth day Post-Hit. An unmistakable swelling beat of helicopter blades causes everyone to look at each other in hopeful anticipation. The boys remove their ever-useful shirts and wave at the now visible trio of choppers flying over the bent metal tiara of the BNI building. Helicopters hover, dropping supplies onto the roof along with a message that they will soon return. There is jubilation on the roof of the BNI Tower. 

They are saved.

(First published as the prologue to "Transmat World")

Monday, March 19, 2018

How Good Is Your Bacon? Is It To Die For?

by Glen Hendrix

I love bacon. That is why, if you love it too, I know for a fact you are not going to like what I have to tell you. But it has to be said for there to be changes.

According to the World Health Organization you are 18% more likely to die from colon cancer if you eat processed meat. That includes bacon, most lunch meats, hams, canned meats like corned beef and Spam, hard cured sausage, hot dogs, and beef jerky. If you want to know for sure, read the label. It will say “Contains sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite”; sometimes just the nitrates.

Processing meat involves one or more of salting, curing, fermentation, and smoking. Most of industry processed meat involves the chemicals sodium nitrate and/or sodium nitrite. While sodium nitrate exists in many foods and sea salt, sodium nitrite is a manufactured chemical. Because the nitrates morph into nitrites, they both form cancer-causing nitrosamines during the curing of meat. This is a chemical reaction with the naturally occurring amines in red meat.

Sodium nitrite is a dangerous chemical. Less than 1/2 teaspoon is a lethal dose for the average sized human. Signs of sodium nitrite poisoning are cyanosis (blue skin), tachycardia, unconsciousness, and seizures. There have been occasions when there was too much sodium nitrite in cured meat and it caused these symptoms. Because the symptoms are so similar to those of a heart attack or stroke, no one knows how many poison fatalities have been mistaken for natural causes but there are recorded cases. Since it is already a nitrite, it begins changing into cancer-causing nitrosamines right away.

Why does the meat industry use nitrates and nitrites? Injecting the meat with a curing solution using multiple needles simultaneously, the cure time can be cut down to only about 2 hours. The quicker one can process a product, the faster one makes money. Using just salt, the curing time can take months unless smoking is used, which shortens the time period. Smoking introduces other cancer-causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.  Also, curing with nitrates and nitrites keep the meat that nice pink color on the shelf for however long it takes you to buy it. The meat industry does not dwell on this aspect.

According to the meat industry, they have to use nitrates and nitrites to prevent botulism. There are an average of about 145 cases of botulism per year, and most of them don’t involve meat. Only 15% (22) involve food, and less than half of those involve meat. Lets be generous and say 10 botulism cases per year involving meat. Due to modern medicine, only 8% are fatalities. That’s one fatality a year for botulism tainted meat. You might suggest that the meat industry is doing a good job of protecting us since the occurrence is so low. The fact is, occurrence of botulism fatalities has always been pretty rare. The most fatalities per year were 20 in 1974 and 1935, and those were extreme outliers. Currently, it’s about one chance in 326 million per year in the U.S. of dying from botulism.

There are 50,000 deaths from colon cancer in the U.S. every year. Eighteen percent of those deaths is 9000 people, 9000 times the number of deaths from food-borne botulism. This does not include the deaths from accidental ingestion of mis-applied amounts of sodium nitrite. So, the chances of dying from colon cancer are about one in 6,500 per year, but the meat industry is not spending millions of dollars per year to prevent it like they do botulism. Huh!

If the meat industry is out to safeguard the American public, their argument for the use of nitrates and nitrites in the curing of meat is illogical, even farcical. 

So how can you have your bacon and safely eat it too? It’s hard to do off the shelf. The big chains have started claiming to sell “uncured” meat. If you read the ingredients, it has nitrates in it from celery and sea salt; sometimes more than what was originally put in there in a pure chemical form. It still changes to cancer-causing nitrosamines. The problem is celery salts can be concentrated to contain almost any amount of nitrates the user wants.

Even at Whole Foods you have to read the labels. What you can find there is bacon cured with sea salt. The 365 Brand at Whole lists: pork, sea salt, raw sugar, and spices. The only nitrates are what naturally occur in sea salt. It claims “No nitrites or nitrates*.” The asterisk refers to “*except naturally occurring nitrates in sea salt.” If nitrates were somehow distilled from sea salt and added back in to mix with the meat, they would be lying about the ingredient “sea salt”. Sea salt has a naturally occurring amount of nitrates at about 1 part per million. Not much. Whole Foods is pretty good at vetting their products and being honest with their customers. Their recent sale to Amazon may eventually erode that trust but Amazon would be foolish to tarnish such a sterling corporate character.

The only other alternative is to make your own bacon. Until a number of people decide to make their own, the meat industry will keep doing what it is doing; putting cancer-causing chemicals in our meat. Pork belly is cheap. Turning it into bacon is safe, and some of these recipes and procedures are very easy, on the order of “coat with salt and leave in fridge 4 days, turning it once in a while”. Three links are here, here, and here (easiest). You can find many more on the Web. Happy, worry-free bacon eating to you.