The Wall (T.M. Doran, Copyright 2019)

The Recruitment Center was a dingy little room with one glassless window looking out at the Wall. No chairs in the room because the presentations were brief. Once a week, Of-Agers assembled in the soot-laden room to hear the Parties pitched in anticipation of the decision they would soon be compelled to make.

Lyn had already heard most of what the Party Pitchers would say, but it was an obligation of Of-Agers to attend orientation, as it was an obligation to make a choice of Parties.

The Pitchers came into the room, all looking much the same, all four glancing at the Wall before facing their audience.

The Siege Serf stepped forward first, saying, “Our byword is Attack and Conquer. Why try to go over the Wall, or around it, or under it when you can go through it? We operate three-dozen drills. We’re constantly developing harder drill heads. Just discovered a new diamond mine in the Wilderness. Once we have a hard enough drill and a powerful enough engine we’ll be through the Wall like a hot knife through a slab of butter.”

“How much penetration have you achieved?” an Of-Ager inquired.

“Nine inches plus,” said the Siege Serf, proudly.

“How thick is the Wall?” was the next question.

“We’re not sure. How thick can a wall be?”

The Siege Serf was elbowed aside by the Tower Serf, who said, “Our byword is Construct and Conquer. The Wall may be a hundred feet thick, a million miles long, and who knows how deep the foundations are, so why try to go through it, or around it, or under it when we have the know-how to go over it? Twenty Towers and counting, youngsters.”

“How high is the Wall?” an Of-Ager asked.

“Not so high we can’t get over it,” said the Tower Serf.

“Times up,” said the Track Serf, pushing through the other Party Pitchers. “Tracking is the only sensible way to breach the Wall. Our byword is Explore and Conquer. Diamond mines, deeper and deeper foundations, mining, don’t make any sense when you can lay track in a jiffy and go around the Wall.”

“How long is the Wall?” came the question from a youngster who didn’t know better.

“Not so long that we can’t get around it with enough track, and building track is easy compared to drilling, towering, and digging. We’ve laid thousands of miles of track so far. You can bet we’re close to one end or the other.”

Next, and last, was the Tunnel Serf, who said, “Slogans aren’t getting anyone past the Wall. If you’re going to dig for iron, diamonds, foundations, why not dig for what matters, go under the Wall? Tunnel Serfs can dig deep in the time it takes these drillers, track layers, and skyscrapers to gain a foot on the wall.”

“A question,” hollered a pale young thing in the back of the room. “What makes you think you can find the bottom of the Wall?”

A moment’s hesitation before the Tunnel Serf said, “Ever heard of footings with no bottom? Didn’t think so, youngster. They’re down there all right, and when we find ‘em…zip, we’ll be on the other side and living high.”

A bell went off and the Party Pitchers trotted out of the room. At the door, the Of-Agers dispersed, with Lyn looking up and down the Boulevard that paralleled the Wall at a distance of exactly one thousand feet.  From where Lyn stood, neither the top of the Wall nor either end could be seen, the same as every other vantage point along the Wall.

Not your typical dull-witted Of-Ager, Lyn had decided to talk to working Tower, Siege, Tunnel, and Track Serfs before deciding on a Party.

Down the smoky block went the youngster, passing massive siege-works, observing piles of dirt and slag that surrounded and buttressed tower foundations, tracks extending in both directions, a deep deep pit for tunneling.

The Tower Serfs hostel-tavern was in the shadow of the gargantuan Wall. Lyn waited there for Jean to finish work, drinking one of two grogs allocated each day to those who lived on the Serf side of the Boulevard.

Lyn recognized Jean from the photograph that had been provided and hailed the Tower Serf. “I was told you know a lot about Towers,” said Lyn.

“Twenty years can teach you a lot when you’re paying attention,” Jean said. “And I pay attention.”

“Do you recommend it?”

“Paying attention, or Tower Serfing?” said Jean, guffawing and rapping an empty mug on the tabletop.

Lyn said, “I’m Of-Age, choosing a Party.”

“Then listen to me, youngster. Tower Serfing’s better work than Siege, Track, or Tunnel Serfing, and we’ll get over the Wall sooner than they get through or around or under it. We’re too high up for hoodlums to bother us. Hard work, but what work isn’t, and you can go high…and I mean high.”

“Have you gone high?” Lyn asked the Tower Serf.

“High as the sky, chum.”

“When you’re high, you can see what’s beyond the Boulevard,” said Lyn.

“Sure…mines, slag, ash mountains.”

“Then what? What’s beyond that?”

“Can’t see no further through the smog and soot. Anyway, our business is the Wall. You show me a Tower Serf looking the other way and I’ll show you a goon on half rations. Up high, we see everything that needs seeing.”

“Except over the Wall,” said Lyn.

Squinting at the youngster, Jean said, “You won’t be so smart in six months. Too tired at the end of a Shift to think or talk. Not too tired for grog though. Take up Tower Serfing. That’s my advice. You’ll go high…hey, give me the rest of your grog and I’ll tell you a secret.”

Lyn pushed the half-filled mug in Jean’s direction, hoping this secret would help make a decision. Several gulps later, when the grog was gone, Jean said, “Ever hear of windows, chum?” When Lyn said no, Jean stepped to the bar, brought back another mug of grog, and said, “Everyone that’s worked ten, twenty years on the Wall has heard of windows. Well, I seen one for myself. At least, I thought so.”

Lyn said, “There aren’t any windows in the Wall, just stories about windows, grog dreams, breakdowns, delusions. That’s what they told us.”

“Think you’re pretty smart, don’t you? Well, who’s to say you ain’t right? Still, years ago, I woke out of a dead sleep a couple hours before my Shift, couldn’t get back to sleep neither. Set out to walk along the Wall, and what do you think I found…a window, maybe four foot square, dark on my side, glowing on the other.”

“How much grog that day?”

“No more than usual, thank you.”

Nor less, I bet, the Of-Ager thought. Lyn fought down the urge to laugh. “You must have seen how thick the Wall was.”

“That’s just it. Only a foot or so thick, at least at this window, and on the other side, green hills, a river, music—I heard it…not a speck a’ soot neither. I was opening the window before I caught myself quick and said, “Wait, old thing, you’ll be late to your Shift if you don’t get a move on. This ain’t approved, you can be sure of that. Bang, I slammed the window shut and ran back to my room. Now, this was strange—still had two hours before my Shift, so I went back to bed, and slept too.”

“How do you know you weren’t dreaming?” said Lyn.

“Too real. That’s what I told myself then. Now, I’m not so sure,” said Jean, babying the dregs of grog in the mug.

“Did you try to find the window again?” asked Lyn.

“Too busy Tower Serfing. And told myself taking a shortcut was cheating. Stiffing my Party like that isn’t my style. We’re going over that Wall, like I told you.”

“Why didn’t you go through, then come back and report what you saw?”

“Maybe I mightn’t of come back once I seen the other side.”

The youngster concluded that a bad bargain had been made when the grog was traded for Jean’s loony secret. Walking out of the tavern, Lyn had already dismissed Jean’s window as nonsense or madness. On the other hand, the ability to Go High was exciting to an Of-Ager.

Though rooms in the hostel had been reserved for Of-Agers like Lyn, some rooms were permanent habitations, and the Siege Serf Lyn was seeking was among the permanent residents.

Lyn knocked for several minutes before the Siege Serf said, “Hold your god-damned horses. I’m putting my pants on.”

The door opened, with Lyn quickly explaining the purpose for being there.

“I suppose I can spare a few minutes,” said the Siege Serf.

“You’re Carol?” said Lyn.

“Been ever since I can remember,” Carol said.

If this was a Siege Serf’s room, Lyn was inclined to select another Party. A small table, two chairs, bed, icebox, stove, and privy in the corner.

“Not much, eh?” said Carol, “I doubt you’ll do any better. Only good rooms are on the other side of the Boulevard. What do you want to know?”

“How long have you been a Siege Serf?”

“Well…I won’t say too long, and I won’t say long enough. Let’s say enough time to learn Siege Serfing inside and out, inside the mines and outside the drilling machine.”

“What do you like about it?” said Lyn.

The Siege Serf gave him a queer look. “I like that we don’t pussyfoot by going over or around or under things. We’re attackers, and we’re going through that Wall. You can bet on it. And we don’t have to worry about collapsement, or de-trackification neither.”

Lyn said, “Your Pitcher said you haven’t penetrated a foot into the Wall. Tower Serfs have gone up thousands of feet, Track Serfs have laid thousands of miles of track, Tunnel Serfs have gone hundreds of feet deep…”

“So what?” countered Carol, “If they’re never getting over it or around it or under it.”

Lyn pressed with, “How do you know you’re going to get through the Wall?”

“Have you heard about the super-diamonds we’ve discovered? Have you heard about Leslie’s super-power plant? When we combine them, getting through that Wall will be a piece of cake. Bosses say if we can drill an inch, we can drill a mile…just a matter of time.”

“Think you’ll have to drill a mile?”

“Just a figure of speech, kid-o. Walls ain’t that thick. Now, here’s a secret”—Lyn cringing at hearing this word again—“Those scaffolders, putt-putters, and moles are nervous, I’m telling you. Pretty soon, there’ll be one Party—ours, so don’t make a stupid decision. You may be the last Of-Agers to have a choice.”

This was something Lyn hadn’t considered, though the discoveries and inventions involving diamonds and power plants were widely known. So were reports that train speeds would soon double and super-strong materials would double tower heights and depths of tunneling shafts.

“Why do you want to get through the Wall, Jean…I mean, Carol?” Lyn said.

Carol squinted and said, “They say the good life’s on the other side. Whatever’s there must be better than this hell. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Siege Serfing’s the life for me.”

There was time for one more interview that day. By all rights, Lyn should have left the Tunnel Serf for last, as they were the smallest and newest Party, but as their one-and-only mine was right next to the hostel, why not let the moles make their pitch?

Alex lived in a honeycomb hostel three hundred feet below the Boulevard, ensuring, as Lyn had been told, that Shifts weren’t affected by getting to and from the bowels of the mine. If it was gray and sooty on top, it was far grayer below, even with the hydrogen lamps that were attached to every wall.

Lyn met Alex in the Tunnel Serfs’ rock-hewn cafeteria. “Let me tell you something,” said Alex, after a lengthy coughing fit. “We get three grogs a day down here. If that doesn’t convince you to take up tunneling, nothing will. And we’re too deep for varmints.”

A Tunnel Serf wearing a soot-stained apron brought them more grog. Just as Lyn was taking a sip, one of the lamps went boom, the Of-Ager falling off his chair, though no one else seemed to notice.

“Just one mine?” said the youngster, back in the chair.

“And why not?” said Alex. “We Tunnel Serfs are thinkers. That’s what sets us apart. What’s the point of all those towers and drills and miles of track when the Wall is the same everywhere? Why not put all our resources and ingenuity to work at one location? Maybe we’re young compared to the others. How many thousand years have they been at it?”

“But the darkness, the…” Another lamp blew up.

Alex waved dismissively, coughed, and said, “Gets so you don’t even notice, and the extra mug of grog helps. The important thing is the work—undermining the Wall, knowing the rest have no hope of getting over, through, or around it. How deep can the Wall foundations be anyway?”

More than the six hundred feet the Tunnel Serfs had excavated so far, Lyn reflected.

“Think of it this way, youngster. The others are always up top, so they don’t appreciate how sweet and glimmerin’ it is compared to down here. When we go up, we think were in paradise…so to speak. Specially with three grogs in our bellies.”

It was hard for Lyn to imagine the Boulevard as paradise, but not so hard to imagine this lamp-laden hole as inferno. Lyn said, “At least you don’t have stories about windows down here.”

“Wanna’ bet? Even us thinkers have a few knuckleheads.”

The next day was sootier and darker than most. Lyn had to take a train to meet the Track Serf, the Explore and Conquer Party member. Frequent lurches and bumps as the train rattled down the track made it imperative for Lyn to hold onto the steady-bars that lined the walls.

The passenger opposite Lyn was smoking a red cigar, identifying this person as a Boss.

“You a Track Serf?” said the Boss.

“Not yet,” said Lyn. “I’m Of-Age, making a decision.”

“No decision to make, youngster. Only Track Serfing makes sense in this day and age. Explore and Conquer. We have it all over those stay-putters. Take my word for it.”

During the hundred-mile trip, Lyn’s eyes were often drawn to a Wall that was exactly the same mile after mile. Needless to say, there weren’t any windows, or anything else that would mar its hypnotically smooth surface.

Weaving toward the train exit, hearing the toot toots and seeing bursts of steam through the windows, a hairy passenger in gray and green blocked the aisle and said, “Where you going, kid?”

Lyn said, “Meeting a Track Serf near the depot. What’s it to you?”

“Track Serfs can’t do anything for you. Maybe can,” said the stranger. The Parties are worthless. Sooner you learn that, the better.”

“The Wall…”

“…don’t matter none. Get as far from it as you can.”

Was this a Scoffer, Lyn wondered, those outliers who didn’t care about the Wall, had their allocations suspended, preyed on Party members or subsisted in the Wilderness? Lyn said, “There’s nothing in the other direction except Wilderness. Who wants to live there?”

“Some does.”

“I’ll be late. Let me pass,” said Lyn.

“We don’t trust the Parties, none of them. We depends on ourselves. That’s the life, kid.”

“You have a house, a bed, a heurto?”

“We make do.”

“How do you make do in the Wilderness?” said Lyn.

“Follow me…you’ll see. This Wall’ll eat you alive, and there ain’t no windows neither. Take my word on it, kid.”

Lyn pushed past the green and gray stranger, exiting the train, never looking back, checking every hostel in the vicinity of the station before learning the sought after Track Serf lived in a lean-to against the Wall. Did this mean Track Serfing was an even more penurious occupation than Siege, Tower, or Tunnel Serfing?

The shack door swung open as soon as Lyn began knocking.

“Come in. Make yourself comfortable,” said the Track Serf.

Surely, the Track Serf wasn’t serious, as there were no chairs in the shack, just a mattress and a chamber pot.

“Cris?” said Lyn, skeptically.

“The same.”

“Why do you live here?” asked Lyn, rocking from foot to foot, as if still on the train.

“I prefer being close to the Wall,” Cris said.

Lyn surveyed the tiny space. “You built this…house against the Wall, so why can’t we see the Wall?”

Looking over a shoulder, Cris said, “If you want to know, I’ll tell you.”

The Serf and this hovel were making Lyn nervous. “I guess not, but tell me why I should be a Track Serf.”

“We are explorers. We’re far from sootification. Do you want to be an explorer?” said Chris.

Explore and Conquer.”

“That’s our slogan. Myself, I prefer exploring to conquering.”

“Why go around the Wall?”

“Not many bother to ask. New lands, new opportunities, new discoveries; that’s the answer I’ve often heard, though it’s not based on anything substantial, anything we know. Just blind hope.”

“Then, why shouldn’t I go with the Siege, Tower, or Tunnel Serfs?”

“They won’t get past the Wall,” said the Track Serf.

“And Track Serfs will?”

“We won’t either.”

“Don’t you care about getting past the Wall?” Lyn said.

“More than anything. What have you heard about windows?”

Oh, oh, thought Lyn, another crackpot. What were the odds of running into two of them? “Enough to know they’re children’s stories, grog dreams. I have a decision to make. Is there anything about Track Serfing you care to pitch?”

“It’ll keep you busy, it’ll make you so tired you’ll sleep at night.”

“That’s all?” said Lyn.

“Want to see what’s behind that wood panel? The Wall…and something else. A window.”

Another knucklehead. The sooner Lyn got out of here, the better.

“Wait. Don’t go yet,” said the Track Serf. “I can open the window whenever I desire, put my head through it. The other side is amazing…no words can describe it. You can see, hear, smell…well, it’s unbelievable. I can’t go there yet, but I hope to go some day.”

“That’s swell,” said Lyn, making for the door, and whispering, “Crazy!”

“Do you want to open it? See for yourself? What can it hurt?”

“Some other time. Exploring and Conquering, who wouldn’t go for that?” said Lyn, his back to Cris.

“Yes, exploring,” said Cris.

The inquisitive Of-Ager was already through the door when the Track Serf spoke these words. A burst of soot went up Lyn’s nostrils. The decision that had to be made, and soon, wasn’t easy: Tower, Siege, Tunnel, or Track Serfing, but the choice—Party-wise—if not the air, had gotten clearer with each interview.

With springy steps and burning eyes, Lyn made for the train station.

Photo/art by Chris Van Allsburg

God and Science, Science and God

 

Even a person of deep faith can sometimes be intimidated by the astounding proclamations that come from the scientific community, to the extent that we may be inclined to tune them out, or reject them out of hand.

 

Science has become so specialized it’s difficult for laymen, even those with technical training, to wrap their minds around modern scientific concepts—a universe packed with dark matter and dark energy we can’t “see”, evolutionary adaptation, extra dimensions suggested by string theory, mind boggling time scales when talking about the history of the universe or the number of galaxies and stars.

 

Christians believe all reality and truth originates in God, so how can we fear anything that proceeds from honest science grounded in evidence? Rather than being intimidated by huge numbers—billions of galaxies, a 14 billion year old universe, quarks so small you’d need to line up trillions of them to make a grain of sand—we might marvel that God is the Creator of a universe far more impressive and dynamic than a single world around which a handful of celestial bodies move in perfect rhythm. As one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia characters says of Aslan, “He’s wild, you know. Not a tame lion.”

 

We can respect scientists, like athletes, who play by the rules, limiting themselves to observation, measurement, and evidence. Scientists “playing by the rules” cannot endorse invisible realms because such realms cannot be measured, because they aren’t testable. However, science has a rich history of discovering previously undetectable realms—microorganisms, atoms and even smaller particles, ultraviolet light. Not to imply that every invisible realm is discoverable by science if only we could invent the right tools. Rather, an image of how things can be real and affective without being measurable, as the vertical (“up”) dimension would be undetectable/invisible to flat plane creatures.

 

With much of science obscure to those not steeped in advanced mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, it’s even more important to distinguish between evidence-based conclusions, and speculation. Some scientists, prominent voices among them, are not as careful as they ought to be at distinguishing what evidence supports from speculative conclusions. Today’s scientific consensus: about 14 billion years ago an unimaginably huge amount of “stuff”, in which matter and energy were indistinguishable, at an unimaginably high temperature, compacted into an unimaginably small space—if time and space even existed—“exploded” to initiate the universe (the Big Bang). From whence did this “Micro-speck of Everything” originate, what caused it to “explode” and expand? Science has evidence for what happened immediately after the “explosion” but can only speculate about the nature and source of this “Micro-speck of Everything”. Speculation isn’t a bad thing so long as the difference between evidence and speculation is made clear. We have to be especially careful about an ideological scientism that goes beyond science to construct a God-less belief system about the universe, man, ethics, and morality. Unharnessed from biblical principles, man is free to make his own rules, but history demonstrates that when man makes the rules, “unencumbered” by the Gospel, bad things happen, and with more powerful technologies, even worse things happen (tens, if not hundreds, of millions tortured and murdered in the 20thcentury).

 

Science has evidence for evolutionary adaptation, for living things evolving new qualities and capabilities, testable evidence when it comes to rapidly reproducing organisms like viruses—how they evolve resistance to antibiotics. Many scientists embrace a theory of “chemical evolution” that preceded, and then produced life on Earth, a theory that largely relies on statistics: given enough organic “soup”, enough time (3.5 billion years), energy rich environments, living organisms that could reproduce were produced from the chemical soup, similar to using statistics to “prove” life elsewhere in the universe based on the age of the universe and number of planets.

 

Lest we think a billion years is ample time for anything imaginable to occur, even the earliest of these theoretical transitions: chemical soup to the most primitive cells containing DNA, to photosynthetic cells, to more complex cells that could survive in the oxygen-rich environment produced by photosynthesis, would have required astounding increases in levels of complexity, and these only involving the simplest forms of life.

 

Christians consider life a gift from God, even if God used millions or billions of years to accomplish it. Do now well-understood “mechanical” processes preclude the need for a benevolent God, or worse, mitigate against such a God? We don’t need modern science to inform us that bad, unexplainable things happen to good people, as this was known in Moses’s time and by early Christians—human clocks rapidly ticking down, grief pursuing us, even the longest lived. A better question for believers is how do such events and developments play out in realms that are invisible to science and mankind? Is there a deeper meaning, as Christians embrace a deeper meaning for the apparent absurdity of the Cross? Some are willing to concede the possibility of a Creative Agent, a kind of Divine Watchmaker or Mathematician. As to a benevolent God, the Father icon Jesus reveals, only Divine Revelation or a personal experience of the invisible realm where God resides (Paul on the road to Damascus) can reveal such a Deity. The human paradox is we cannot discern this benevolent God with our senses and intellect alone, or with any macro or microscope.

 

The size and age of the universe, number of galaxies, may make us feel insignificant—cramped and small, but we can view these numbers from a different perspective. 1) You and I are infinitely larger than the “Micro-speck” that contained the universe before the Big Bang; 2) Science has yet to discover life beyond Planet Earth, much less self-aware, self-reflective life; 3) As Christians, we believe God Himself occupied the brief moment of time that’s allotted to human beings; 4) Science itself recognizes that human beings represent the highest level of complexity discovered thus far in the universe, more complex in terms of elements, chemical processes, and energy flows than the largest stars and planets. Viewed this way, numbers tell a different story, and whether our ancestors’ smaller numbers or today’s very large numbers, theologians suggest the Creator is outside of time and space, and unrestricted by these created dimensions.

 

What is the responsibility of believers, especially theologians, philosophers, and pastors? Theological and philosophical principles and perspectives may go beyond measurable evidence, but ought not to contradict reason and evidence, not at war with honest science.

 

Scientists and believers alike are creatures that seek resolution of questions and mysteries. This desire seems hard-wired into us. The more we learn about Planet Earth, our solar system, the universe, the more questions and mysteries we encounter. An honest scientist and an honest believer have much in common, each questing for deeper knowledge and meaning. This world and universe may be much different (less tame) than our ancestors could have imagined, but wonder at its majesty and beauty hasn’t diminished. To the extent that science keeps in its lane—the relentless pursuit of evidence, and conclusions that fit the evidence—it is an occupation believers ought to heartily embrace.

Leonardo’s Work

“HOW MANY ROADRUNNERS WILL YOU DELIVER THIS WEEK?” asked Leonardo.

“Eighty-two,” the voice on the phone replied.

“The contract specifies one hundred forty.”

The distressed voice said, “The drives are titanium gluttons. We’re doing our best. The Russians…”

“I don’t want your best. I want one hundred forty Roadrunners every week, as the contract stipulates.”

“Have a heart, Dr. Mays.”

“We’re about brains at NASA, not hearts. We have a legal contract that I expect you to honor…or else.”

“The Russians are holding us hostage. We have to pay a king’s ransom for their titanium. Do you want to put us out of business?”

“I want one hundred forty Roadrunners a week. Goodbye.”

Leonardo da Vinci Mays’s mother was a second-rate mathematician and his father was a second-rate sculptor. Fortunately for Leonardo, their union produced a first-rate scientist and artist.  As a measure of his self-confidence, Leonardo had no qualms about the weight of this name, taking it up as if he were a worthy successor to that ancient master.

Leonardo had studied, prepared, and lobbied his entire adult life to lead NASA’s Alien Identification Program—AIP. He had been laboring in obscurity for years when Crewe’s invention irrevocably altered the landscape, catapulting Leonardo to rock star status, at least until the public realized that six-armed, three-eyed monsters wouldn’t be discovered overnight.

When Benedict Crewe discovered the Roadrunner Drive, as it’s popularly called, the universe was suddenly accessible, if not for humans—this was learned by trial and error as men returned physically intact but hopelessly, irreparably addled—then with small, inexpensive Roadrunner Rovers that were built and released by the thousands.

Technically, these Roadrunner Rovers weren’t faster than light. Rather, they were programmed to slip into folds and warps in space-time, like a tightly packed ball of spring where you could “hop” to adjacent string segments rather than being constrained to move linearly along the string. Once science learned how to control this string segment hopping, the search for alien life commenced in earnest. Like busy bees, Roadrunner Rovers landed on designated planets, collected samples—solid, liquid, gas, plasma—and slipped back to Earth, all in a matter of days, or even hours.

So dramatic was Crewe’s discovery that it spawned a movement, nicknamed the Lensmen, who insisted that Crewe came from an advanced alien race, like the Eddorians in Doc Smith’s Lensmen novels, a crackpot notion Leonardo dismissed as summarily as belief in angels and devils.

Though Leonardo’s team had analyzed 11,478 soil samples, 16,309 liquid samples, 8,884 gas samples, and 2,160 plasma samples—all preserved at precise temperatures and pressures—without detecting any life forms, he wasn’t discouraged, knowing as he did that these numbers were infinitesimal in relation to the number of planets in his own galaxy, not to mention the billions of other galaxies that were accessible with the Roadrunner Drive. No sooner were samples retrieved from a Rover than it was launched to a new planet, or moon, based on AIP’s probability model. Like fishing lures, Rovers were cast over and over again into the deep waters of the universe. With trillions upon trillions of heavenly bodies to sample, it would take a while, even with the great majority of planets being screened out by the probability model. A few on his team were even pushing to adapt the Roadrunner Drive to search other universes in the mathematically predicted multiverse.

Leonardo had recently written an article for Cosmopolitania entitled, Recognizing Alien Life—well received by the public—in which he’d said, “There are still some who believe that intelligent life, considering the age of our own Milky Way Galaxy, would have found a way to send probes to every sun-like star by now, so why have we not encountered these probes? There are many reasons why this is an absurd argument, but I shall confine myself to two. First, Alien Life need not—and, no doubt, will not—be intelligent, as we define intelligence. Second, even if an intelligent race reached out—so to speak—recognizing such a probe requires a level of sophistication that we on Earth have only recently achieved…

“You may have heard that Earth is a member of the two percent club, meaning ninety-eight out of every one hundred planetary systems do not allow for Earth-like planets with stable orbits. I answer, so what? In a galaxy of billions of stars, two out of a hundred planetary systems means there are hundreds of millions of such systems that might support life…

“I am confident that with our growing army of Roadrunner Rovers, we will find abundant Alien Life, though it will probably resemble protozoa, or worms. We—living creatures—may be rare, but we are hardly unique. This is not just Leonardo Mays’s opinion as it is also supported by Bayes Theorem, which accounts for previously known probabilities andthe new information our Roadrunner Rovers have accumulated in their journeys about the universe. We have no need to invent angels, devils, fairies, goblins, or other supernatural creatures, because we will discover even stranger creatures that are real, creatures we can measurewith the marvelous tools science has bequeathed us. In a word, thinking men and women have learned that only things we can measure are real, that is, worthy of our time and attention.”

Leonardo knew that the most important element of the program was data integrity. Since the most likely alien life would be unicellular, or spore-like, it was essential that samples be protected from contamination. He was well aware of the number of now-discredited researchers who had announced the discovery of alien life in an extraterrestrial sample that was later proven to have been contaminated—Nitrosomonason one of Jupiter’s moons?

Probability models had also been developed for the most likely forms of life. It was universally accepted that when life was discovered it would be classified Level One, unicellular or simple multicellular organisms. Level Two: simple life forms—whipworms, for example—were possible, but extremely unlikely. And Level Three life—organisms as complex as grasshoppers—was entertained by only a few on the fringe of serious science. As far as higher forms of life, only nuts like the Lensmen believed in such things.

Having assured himself that Dr. Foster and her team of technicians were scrupulously adhering to protocol, Leonardo walked through the vacuum-sealed revolving door into a parlor, where he was enveloped with a viscous antibiotic gas, like standing in a rain forest during a monsoon. He stood in place for the obligatory five minutes before the gas was exhausted and he passed through an airlock into the robing-disrobing chamber. There, he put on his street clothes and went through another vacuum-sealed door into the data center, all to prevent Earthly biological “intruders” from entering the lab.

No sooner had Leonardo entered the data center than a colleague from Program Management approached him. Joe Smith was a natty dresser, adept at combining stripes and checks without appearing garish. Tall, slim, and bald, he was a haberdasher’s dream. Smith was known for his languid demeanor, though when excited, he could erupt into frenetic activity.

“Morning, Leon,” Smith said, his long tongue flicking in and out of his mouth. “I’d like to talk to you about something before the rumor mill fires up.”

“Go on,” Leonardo said, briskly, as he had plenty to do that day.

“It’s like this. I’m leaving NASA,” Smith said, in that hissing voice to which he succumbed when he was excited.

“Leaving?” Leonardo said, incredulously. “Don’t tell me you’re joining Kung or Po.” Though Smith wasn’t essential to the Program, he had a cold-blooded talent for organizing, scheduling, and expediting that kept the science humming.

“Actually, I’m going to Tibet. I intend to become a monk.”

“A what?” Leonardo stammered.

“A Buddhist monk, Leon.”

“Why would you do such a thing? Do they have a science program?”

Smith said, “I’m following my heart.”

“What about your mind…you know, the organ that regulates rational thinking.”

“That too, of course.”

“Well, it doesn’t sound like it. Have you had some kind of breakdown?”

“Not at all. Just the opposite…clarity.”

“Listen, the employee assistance program is good for crises like these. Have you talked to them yet?”

“This isn’t a crisis. I know what I’m doing.”

“You could have fooled me. Abandoning the most exciting science project in history, traveling halfway across the world, climbing a mountain, and living like a beggar. It isn’t rational.”

Smith said, “A week ago, I had a dream I was in a chariot…ascending into heaven…”

“Stop right there. The only chariot that should concern you is a Roadrunner Rover, and the only heaven you should be thinking about is this universe…or the multiverse, if we ever find it.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Leon.” Smith extended a hand. “I hope you find your aliens.”

“I shall,” said Leonardo, still shaking his head after Smith had left the room. The mere odor of religion was enough to stir his gastric juices. Leonardo didn’t believe in God, unless God could be described as the fundamental particles-waves that regulated space and time; certainly not a personal God who cared whether he lived or died, or whether worlds survived or perished. Leonardo believed in man—well, some men, chiefly himself, when it came right down to it. This self-conviction was the reason he’d ascended so rapidly in the scientific community, that and the artistic talent through which he conveyed the wonder of science to the masses.

For the remainder of the workday, Leonardo was uncharacteristically preoccupied with Smith’s resignation and irrational behavior, finally admitting to himself that there had always been something odd about Smith, though he’d never been able to put a finger on it.

In his car, on a day in which a preliminarily positive test was vetoed by the quality control technicians, Leonardo received a call.

“Hello Leonardo.” The NASA Director’s mellifluous voice permeated the Mercedes.

Leonardo despised this political flunky. “Good to hear from you, Conrad,” he said, jovially.

“You heard about Smith’s departure?”

“I heard,” Leonardo said, sourly.

“Do you think he’s angling for a raise?”

“I don’t think so. He didn’t say anything about money. He wants to be a monk on a mountain.”

“Then it’s better he leave before he goes completely nuts. He’s someone else’s problem now. Listen, my niece is looking for a job.”

Oh crap, Leonardo said to himself. How quickly could he change the subject, distract this idiot?

“Did you hear me?”

“What are her qualifications?”

“Um…ethnic…gender studies. Listen, Leon. Aliens, when we find them…ah…ethnicity will have to be assigned…brand new genders too. Right?”

“She’ll do nicely,” Leonardo forced himself to say.

“I knew you’d agree. By the way, I’m going to the White House next week…”—Smarmy bastard, Leonardo said to himself—“…and I’ll let the President know you’re doing a bang-up job.”

“Bring back a nice Barolo…ha ha.”

“My niece…you’ll take care of everything, right? Ciao.”

Leonardo had just traded an experienced, efficient administrator for a clueless whelp, and had done so without a whimper. So far, so bad, considering the deficit of Roadrunners, Smith’s resignation, and the Director’s request. He could use a drink. Fortunately, he could always count on Matilda to have a cocktail ready at his arrival.

Leonardo’s next-door neighbor approached him as he got out of the car. Jones was a jazz musician, a saxophonist with a swinging sound like Stan Getz. Jonesy, as he was called, favored laid-back attire: jeans, sweaters, leather vests, berets. Notwithstanding Jonesy’s musical talent, how the man could afford to live in Leonardo’s exclusive gated community was a mystery.

Jonesy’s protuberant eyes took Leonardo’s measure from head to toe. Something was moving under the beret, but Leonardo barely noticed. He was thinking about the cocktail that awaited him inside.

“I have a proposition for you,” Jonesy said.

Leonardo was cautious about propositions, about anything that distracted him from his work. He frowned and waited.

“You’re an artist,” Jonesy said. “The band needs an artist for our album cover.”

Did Jonesy really think an artist of Leonardo’s caliber would stoop to crass commercialism, mere cartoonery? Leonardo’s expression must have revealed his feelings because Jonesy’s hand came from behind his back with a record album. “Here,” he said, one of his eyes swirling like a marble in a raceway. “Brubeck’s Time Further Out…real art…abstract…meaningful…what do you say?”

The art wasn’t bad, but it was an album cover. Leonardo said, “I’m too busy. My work, you know. I’m the quarterback of a team that’s scouring the universe for alien life.” He liked this analogy, had used it on more than one occasion when deflecting requests for assistance.

“But music is the universal language,” protested Jonesy.

“Universal? The universe is trillions of light years in diameter, and music is limited to one life form on one planet, so far as we know.”

“Ah, but how do we know that?” asked Jonesy.

Wagging his head, Leonardo said, “I should have said that we have no evidencethat music extends beyond one life form on one planet.”

“It isthe universal language. You’ll have to take my word for it.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t take your word. What does your word have to do with science, evidence, reason?”

Jonesy was a picture of forlornness. Leonardo’s strong personality often had that effect on people, especially those he was deflecting.  “Think about the album cover, won’t you?” said the musician.

Leonardo said he would—though he wouldn’t—and began sidling toward the front door. Record album extended, Jonesy followed him up the steps.

“Art,” Jonesy said.

Leonardo closed the door and sighed.

“Hello, Dr. Mays,” Leonardo’s housekeeper said.

This welcome, reassuring voice, belonged to a person who never made propositions or demands. Instead, she ensured that Leonardo’s domicile whirred like a finely tuned Swiss clock.

Matilda was short and squat. She preferred loose fitting one-piece dresses that swept the floor. Most of the time, the fabric covered her tentacular legs, but, occasionally one protruded—when Matilda’s hands were full—to collect an out-of-place object. She was friendly, but not intrusive, knowing by long association when Leonardo desired companionship and when he wanted privacy.

“What’s for dinner, Matilda?”

“Your favorite: Rosemary Lamb with zesty creamed corn, and I’ve opened a bottle of the 2009 Barolo. I’ll serve as soon as you’ve changed for dinner. Your martini is on the counter.”

As he walked through the cavernous house, drink in hand, his eyes were invariably drawn to his own pictures. Leonardo’s walls were crowded with his original art, the only activity he let interfere with his relentless pursuit of alien life. His pictures were abstract depictions of the microcosmic and macrocosmic universe: nebulae, black holes, neutron stars, exotic planets, quasars, gluons, strings, quarks, all portrayed in a manner that synthesized his scientific understanding of these things with his artistic sensibility. The few he had deigned to sell had purchased some of the best wine in the world.

As expected, the meal was delicious. He didn’t rush the experience, savoring the food and wine. He felt a warm glow that crowded out those recent memories of Smith, the Director, and that maddening Roadrunner contractor.

“Matilda,” Leonardo said, “I’ve traveled from one end of this planet to the other and have never tasted the spices you use in your cooking. What are they? Where do they come from?”

“They come from a long way away. I doubt if you have ever heard of them.”

“Animal…vegetable…mineral?”

“Not exactly.”

“Family secret?”

“That’s it.”

“Delicious, Matilda. You have a gift.” Not exactly a gift in the sense of his own aptitude for science and art, but the compliment hadn’t cost him anything.

Something was askew, and it was more than the day’s travails. Leonardo asked himself why Matilda was sitting across from him at the dinner table, a liberty she had never before taken?

“May I speak to you about something, sir?” So short was Matilda, that only half a neck and her scarfed head were visible above the tabletop.

Leonardo anxiously opened and closed his hands beneath the table.

“My daughter is…ah…expecting. I have to go to her.”

Leonardo hadn’t been aware that Matilda had a family, not that he had ever inquired. Even with his prodigious mental resources, it took a moment for the outlandish thing she’d said to register, and when it did it provoked this question: Should ephemeral people like her, who saw to the needs of essential people like him, be allowed to have personal entanglements that interfered with doing their duty? The answer was obvious. He forced himself to say, “I suppose I could do without you for a few days…but only if it’s absolutely necessary.”

She was already shaking her head. “I’m sorry, sir. This will be a longtrip.”

Taking a healthy gulp of wine, he said, “How long?”

Verylong.”

How much time could a baby take anyway? “Is your daughter sick? Is the baby sick?”

She stared at him through squinting eyes. “Um…quintuplets…five.”

“Good God!” erupted Leonardo, putting wine glass to lips. The glass being empty, he reached across the table and re-filled it.

“I might be able to return in nine months…maybe a bit sooner…”

“Months? Months? Months!”

“Nine, or so.”

“Did your daughter take fertility drugs?”

“No, it’s common in our…family.”

For an instant, Leonardo entertained the notion of inviting Matilda’s daughter to live here for a while, but an image of a houseful of infants obliterated that crazy idea. His blood ran cold. He couldn’t help himself when he said, “This is damned inconvenient, Matilda.”

“I’m sorry.”

Another big gulp of wine. “You won’t reconsider?”

“I’m sorry, sir.” She rose from her chair, with a barely perceptible increase in height, fetched his now-empty wine glass, and crept out of the room.

By the time he went to bed, Leonardo had convinced himself that another—and perhaps better—housekeeper could be had. He would have to sack Matilda by email, as he had always found this means of communication the best option for delicate matters. The sticking point would be the haute cuisineto which he’d become accustomed. If he sold a few more paintings, perhaps a housekeeper anda chef could be managed.

He checked his APD and was delighted to learn that several dozen samples would be arriving at the lab tomorrow, some from Earth-like planets. Kung and Po wouldn’t steal the watch on him—or his Nobel Prize, not if energy and determination had anything to do with it. As he had come to expect, Dr. Foster’s standard end of day note greeted him: “15 soil, 11 liquid, 8 gas, and 2 plasma samples were analyzed today. No evidence of alien life was discovered.”

Tomorrow was a new day, Leonardo told himself. New samples to be analyzed. Hundreds, thousands of new Roadrunner Rovers being built to supplement the current armada. It was only a matter of time. Someday, they’d make a film of Leonardo’s work, along the lines of A Beautiful Mind or Infinity. He set his alarm an hour early, queued-up Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and fell into blissful sleep.

After Leonardo had drifted off, his purple-eyed pet cat—a stray from faraway—changed the music. Like Jonesy, the cat was a jazz fan.

“That’s better,” he purred.

Copyright T. M. Doran 2015/2019

Project Management: From Red Lights to Green Lights

How many books have been published and classes taught on project management? Yet, we have too many projects that are “Red”, “Pink”, or “Yellow” rather than the “Green Light” projects and products we celebrate.

 

  • A city in Michigan switches from one water supply to another and experiences elevated levels of lead in their drinking water. If crimes were committed, they weren’t the root cause of the mess, and an exclusive focus on legal remedies won’t prevent messes like this from occurring again.
  • On a high profile facility project where the designers/constructors were capable organizations with good reputations, the cost escalates to where the project has to be suspended and a political tsunami occurs.
  • Many projects, like the California rail project, using early-stage estimates to set budgets, with many unknowns and important decisions still to be made, end up costing 50% more than originally estimated, or 2-3 times as much.

 

Reading and listening to the news, these aren’t rare occurrences. Must we accept such outcomes now and then—bad luck, bad karma, once in a lifetime “asteroid strikes”?

 

Some would like to reduce project management to a mechanical exercise, good software, the right reports, but good PM is also an art, especially in relation to communications, and it requires virtue: prudence, humility, and perseverance. Focusing exclusively on reports and software may make you a better PM, but not a great one. My experience managing many projects, conducting hundreds of pre, mid, and post-project face to face customer interviews, conducting hundreds of project audits with project managers, and hearing plenty from project team members who have experienced too many troubled projects, suggests measures that can significantly reduce the number of “Red Light” projects.

 

ISO certification and Ford Q1 taught us that some ISO procedures produce little if any practical benefit, many produce some benefit some of the time, and a few are high impact. These highest impact processes are where we applied most of our energy, where I focused on my own projects, and when training, coaching, and auditing project managers. Yes, these high impact processes take effort, but organizations find the time to clean up “Red Light” projects, so why not invest a fraction of the time to prevent these messes? I’m convinced a one-day What Could Go Wrong session with the right water expert could have prevented the Flint heartbreak and subsequent remediation/legal costs.

 

Excellent project management is a differentiator, just as a great quarterback is a differentiator. I’ve conducted project completion interviews with satisfied customers on projects I knew had experienced problems. Conversely, I’ve interviewed customers who were less than satisfied than I’d expected on projects with very few technical/delivery problems—project management was the difference.

 

What is necessary to get to “Green Light” projects and products (consistently superior outcomes) rather than “Yellow Light” (superior outcomes mixed with mediocre outcomes), “Pink Light” (consistently mediocre outcomes), and “Red Light” (too many bad outcomes)?

 

  • Work Definition that is as clear to all parties as possible, including identifying Work Not Included. This means thinking expansively about the project/product, asking What Could Go Wrong, what aren’t we considering. In our rush to get the work underway, we often shortchange the probing questions that can make a big difference. Without clear definition, the project manager is vulnerable to all kinds of project twists and turns and the customer won’t know, or will misunderstand, what to expect.
  • A documented face to face pre-project Customer Interview to confirm expectations, as well as outcomes the customer cannot accept, to resolve discrepancies between expectations and the contracted work before the project proceeds, with mid-project interviews on longer duration projects to identify essential adjustments, and a project completion interview to measure performance and identify systemic issues. I have done hundreds of these interviews and every one has produced something we hadn’t expected or considered.
  • A concise Project Work Plan (Roadmap) that includes more than just the contracted work definition, addressing risk (What Could Go Wrong—see Michigan lead mess), measures to eliminate or mitigate risks, project communications, team budgets that may be different than anticipated in the proposal, when quality reviews will occur and by whom. 2-4 pages rather than a thesis. For early-stage cost estimates, risk can be mitigated by providing a cost range with a best estimate within this range rather than one number packed with assumptions and contingencies. This approach frames the degree of risk and allows the customer to participate in establishing risk tolerance. An organic Roadmap that changes when the project changes so the project manager and team have a common understanding of responsibilities and accountability. In this era of emails and texting, with big generational differences in job/life priorities, project managers must take time for face-to-face conversations when important commitments are being sought. Clarity with delivery dates and times, product content, level of effort, obstacles to the commitment, with repetition as necessary.
  • Status Reports to the customer that address work performed, including requested or perceived changes in the work that may affect budget, schedule, and risk (the high profile facility project that progressed so far without official change/cost authorization). This requires the project manager to be knowledgeable about the true status of the project, probing risk as the project/product development proceeds, and puts the customer on notice if they have essential responsibilities to fulfill or decisions to make.
  • A means to regularly assess Work Actually Completed in relation to the hours/dollars spent. More than a few project managers have asked how their project could be 90% complete a month earlier, with 50% of the budget being spent since that time. The answer? The PM’s estimate of work actually completed was flawed, or the project team didn’t want to bear bad news, or the PM/team succumbed to the inclination to be overly optimistic about completion, or a combination of the above. Best if the project manager comes at this estimate from more than one angle—task by task completion, deliverables completed, drawing status, QC feedback. Strive for your best estimate of percent complete, then reduce this percentage by 10-30%. If you estimate 70% complete, actual completion is probably closer to 40-60%. What harsh experience has taught me.

 

An article could be written about each of these high impact processes identifying things that can make them more effective (useful) but the most important thing is to do them with prudence, humility, and perseverance. All can be adapted to PM programs and customer requirements already in place. These high impact processes presuppose a competent project team. Good project management can’t make up for incompetent planners, designers, QC, or builders.

 

My “Red Light” hell: poorly defined work, no pre or post project customer interviews, no project work plan, no project status reports, pro forma/superficial quality reviews, a belief that what’s spent equals work actually completed.

 

Meeting project budgets is essential, but the best project managers know project/product success is more than dollars and cents. Satisfied customers, companies that meet their profit goals to stay healthy, project teams that take satisfaction in their work, communities and companies and environments enhanced. More than just mess avoidance; the bigger picture, the things we remember when the dust has settled. Getting from “Red Lights” to “Green Lights” makes life better.

Free Markets, Human Liberty and The Environment

Edmund Burke, an eighteenth century promoter of responsible human liberty, opposed the French version of Liberté and consequently suffered many insults and rebukes. In England, the French version of liberty was also popular and to many Burke was more reactionary than libertarian. Likewise, George Washington sought to prevent French Liberté from invading America, and was chastised by many “democrats”. Burke and Washington opposed the ideology of the French Revolution because they understood it would merely replace one form of tyranny with another, one ruling oligarchy with another.

 

We are well into the twenty-first century and if there is a predominant ideology in the West it is an environmental socialism that is skeptical of free markets, skeptical of local decision-making, skeptical of human liberties and enterprise that conflict with the “rights” of snails, mad as hell about human assaults on the environment, a twenty-first century Liberté where opposing perspectives are ridiculed and put down rather than investigated with reason and evidence.

 

Much good has been accomplished and promoted by people with strong ecological sensibilities, but the greatest good has been achieved when evidence, reason, and civil debate were the guideposts, not ideological dogma: early 20thcentury water filtration and disinfection to prevent drinking water-borne diseases; mid and later 20thcentury programs to advance wastewater treatment and management of the residuals they produce; utility, industry, and home technologies to get soot and smog out of urban areas. Programs that made a big difference in people’s lives, not virtue-signaling “crises” with marginal impacts that cost a fortune and eliminate jobs.

 

Evidence and reason reveal that representative democracies that value human liberty, personal responsibility, and freer markets, societies that still esteem time-tested virtues, are far better environmental stewards than top down oligarchies like Russia and China, and better environmental stewards than oligarchies posing as democracies (in the Industrial Age and today). We know that none of the world’s representative democracies are perfect—not even close, but those with legislative, judicial, and societal brakes on oligarchs, bureaucracies that answer to no one, and criminal opportunists best serve their citizens andthe environment. Look it up.

 

Why are so many well-educated people skeptical of free markets, individual liberty informed by personal responsibility, the classical virtues? Because for all the information at our fingertips the ability to distinguish between evidence and speculation, or ideology, has atrophied; because mainstream and social media reward those who hold “enlightened” views while punishing those who challenge the “virtuous” consensus; because, for many, environmental talking points and funding streams are more important than evidence.  Reasoning itself is suspect as a weapon of imperialistic, racist, or sexist societies, despite paragons of reasoning abiding in every culture. So many problems—global, local, economic, health related—are blamed on climate change because the claims are never challenged, because we are unable to distinguish between carefully reasoned and superficial arguments. Sadly, much more practical good could be accomplished on the climate front if we separated speculation from evidence-based conclusions.

 

In the 1960s, flower children inscribed “Frodo lives” on subway and building walls, and while they were muddled in many things they were on to something, esteeming the democratic society, individual liberties, free trade, personal virtue, and care for the natural world that predominated in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire. Of all the fads of the 60s that have faded, too bad it was the one closest to the truth.