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Welcome to our Web Exclusive section. Each month we will be bringing to you poetry, flash fiction, columns and more! With that, we welcome you to our April exclusives!

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A Damsel and A Devil
Nick Stroganoff

There was once a Damsel who loved a Devil,
In a tale that began quite fair and level.
His words were sweet, his touch so light,
A charming prince in her sight.

As time went by, the light dimmed low,
His gentle whispers began to show
A darker tint, a harsher tone,
Where once was warmth, now chilled to bone.

“There’s chaos, dear, from your own heart,”
He’d say, as their world fell apart.
Her smile waned under his critical gaze,
Lost in his ever-misty maze.

Mirrors reflected a twisted scene,
Of a girl trapped in between.
“He’s right,” she thought, “it must be me,”
Ignoring how bad things came to be.

Her friends, they saw, they tried to warn,
But she defended him every morn.
“He loves me true, he means no harm,”
She said, enchanted by his arm.

Yet as chapters passed, the truth grew stark,
His love was a flame that left a mark.
His grip tightened, her breaths grew thin,
In a story where shadows always win.

There was once a Damsel who loved a Devil,
Her fairy tale turned quite dishevel.
From light to dark, from love to pain,
Her tale a warning, clear and plain.

Ben Franklin’s Spirit
E.W. Farnsworth

Among the many surprises I sprang on my college students was the assignment of reading Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, which I taught as a seminal influence on American life and thought. It was not Franklin’s ghost, but his spirit that intrigued me—how, willy-nilly, his attitudes underlay much of what we now know as business—and science. This was not fanciful imagining; rather, I had the kind of hard evidence that the pragmatic founding father probably would have condoned.

Not much after I had left academia for the private sector, I learned that Bill, one of my most enterprising former students, had not-coincidentally received a substantial grant from the prestigious Ben Franklin Foundation to continue his ground-breaking automation of the newspaper business. To wit, he was making something called Layout-80, a software program designed to execute in seconds the formerly cumbersome ad-layout process for all affiliated newspapers in the Gannett chain.

Remarkable about the inventor’s own process of software manufacture was Bill’s working with end-users constantly to be sure his deliveries were as much the product of expertise as of new technology. This sensible approach made the man’s deliveries flawless. His customers learned they could rely on the new software because they had been co-designers of its user interface. Some of the oldest members of the layout community boasted, “I used my software to make my layout process efficient.” Such avowed ownership was an unpaid endorsement of both the product and its method of production. The Ben Franklin Foundation naturally was delighted to support Bill’s effort.

At the time, the start-up community was eager to help automate numerous businesses, and software was often thought to be the answer to many inveterate questions. The original Ben Franklin might have become an earlier version of Elon Musk if the automation potential in software and computers had extended across the spectrum of activities during the First Industrial Revolution. In fact, the potential of such automation was visible in the breakthrough work of Charles Babbage and his assistant Ada Lovelace, but the English government defunded the nascent computer and thus delayed its successors’ advent for over a century and a half!

As a teacher, I often had discussed with my students the problems inherent in delivering capabilities for the future—and therefore changing the world as we know it. To Franklin’s credit are many inventions, and his natural curiosity and homespun experimentation reached across disciplines, as in the famous case of electricity and lightning. Franklin’s proliferation of ideas into practical outcomes presumably went as far as his means and time allowed. How he influenced his personal contacts with like-minded geniuses in the Colonies and in Europe is another story, but the influences inevitably went both ways.

In the Lehigh Valley, to be sure, the counter-currents ran deep. Where Bill wrote transformative software, Peter, another student of mine, made a lot of money convincing conservative Penn Dutch producers not to fall prey to the slick advertising pitches of people like Bill. Sometimes I was called to adjudicate arguments about the best path forward. For example, the manufacturer of Levi jeans had special problems that were not to be easily automated. I saw opportunities within their shop for limited automation, but I foresaw it would take thirty years or more and advances in robotics as well as software to make the quantum leap they required to make modernization useful and profitable.

From my limited vantage, the entire Twentieth-Century technological context was possible only through the Eighteenth-Century ideas of Ben Franklin. I was amused to consider how some very religious people in the Lehigh Valley thought I might be the Antichrist for entertaining leading-edge ideas and championing high technology as I did. I was also amused to think I had launched my thoughts on Franklin—and many appertaining ideas—at the most Catholic college in the Valley, run by the order whose sponsor was the leading opponent of John Calvin during the Protestant Revolution.

The grand debate about technology in hindsight seems abstract and even silly given the tides of history since then, but at the time the seriousness of the implicit dialog led to two assassination attempts on my life, one rifle bullet blowing out my windscreen and only missing my head by three-to-six inches. The investigating police officer in Center Valley laughed when I told him who I was, and nothing was done by the authorities about the attempts on my life. For the local police, I was taking unreasonable risks, for which I suffered what they saw as the inevitable consequences.

For a wide variety of reasons, I became an autodidact on the subject of scientific experimentation and the church. I was particularly interested in an organization called the Collegium Romanum at the Vatican. As the Protestant Revolution shook the old church to its foundation, the Collegium was formed in 1551 by St. Ignatius Loyola with permission of the Pope to test new ideas for their viability. For example, the Collegium verified Galileo’s correct assertions about the cosmos though it never published its findings because they might prove dangerous to good order.

So, the political dynamics of keeping automation as a function of science in check seemed logical to me in the same way as St. Alphonsus Liguori’s moral theology protects those who lie from prevarication’s consequences. In simple terms, when science cannot go forward, it is often not because the science is wrong but because it is inexpedient and powerful factions block its advancement at the highest levels. Fortunately for us, the implications of the results of the James Webb Space Telescope are likely to undermine received thinking about the universe without significant opposition.

We should not be surprised to learn within the next two decades that all our former assumptions about the origins and age of the universe are incorrect. Who would have thought that a galaxy formed entirely of water lies out there in space, giving credence to science fiction writer David Brin, whose imagination painted a far-future picture of such an oceanic dwelling for neo-dolphins? Outside of science fiction, where the unthinkable is not only allowed but encouraged, gatekeepers abound to keep impressionable humanity on its meticulously-constructed rails.

H. P. Lovecraft and a few others bridged the worlds of spirituality and speculation, and subsequent science has made his universe more, not less credible and compelling. In a cosmological context where black holes are popping out of the darkness to appear almost anywhere including in our own sun, what far reaches of the imagination are now out of bounds?

I do not know what happened to Peter the naysayer, but Bill segued to the national defense sector to do his magic training the user interfaces of battle management systems until the Cold War ended. Many of my colleagues at the college did likewise while one math professor went to California to start building artificial intelligence at a major university and two others went to New Jersey to create targeting and tracking algorithms.

Once the Pandora’s Box of innovation has been opened, all that remains to be done is the funding to make miracles happen, frequently. I had the pleasure and the privilege to work with some of the the best and brightest minds in the world during this interval. For outsiders, I might have been using Cthulhu and other pseudo-Lovecraftian ancients as my collaborators. With one such, for example, I brainstormed the creation of artificial intelligence software that had human-like emotions. With another such, I discovered an automated way to re-wicker Cold War technology to discover targets precisely in a sand storm. And with a third, I developed ways to deploy unmanned aerial systems so they would work amongst manned aircraft and other autonomous vehicles with an eerie-kind of human-like consciousness.

As long as I have never taken credit for my inventions and ideas, I have been permitted to continue my work unimpeded though unrecognized. I watched others make themselves fortunes by “owning” their inventions, but I have never sought fame or fortune, so I continue to do what I can. Of course, whether Lovecraft’s menagerie is assisting me, I cannot—will not—aver. I can say, with pride, that Lynn Thorndike’s magisterial A History of Magic and Experimental Science has been, and continues to be, an abiding influence.

It pains me to survey the multitudes of first-rate minds that have been caught in the gin of useless or limited inventions—or sold themselves to companies that only wanted to waste their geniuses to keep them from becoming competitors. Franklin did not write about the competitive urges in modern corporations; his vision was limited to what individuals could accomplish by their own hard work, native intelligence and initiative.

Franklin did, however, witness a war of independence, the like of which the world had never experienced before. Ordinary men did extraordinary things during that war, and the future leadership of America encouraged and rewarded genius. This story has not yet been given its due expression. Something like it happened in the waning years of the Cold War.

Those of us who were nurtured in the so-called Sputnik Generation were schooled that nothing was impossible, only highly improbable. We were encouraged to be creative and break out of externally-imposed boundaries. The brilliant men and women who became our mentors wanted us to change the world, and we accomplished their dream. Ideas came from anywhere at all.

Solutions were found by trial and error. We might have passed on our freedoms if the controllers had been willing to take the risk, but they were evidently not willing. They had risked enough, and they were tired. Besides, what was the point? The end had once justified the means, but now?

So my sympathies lie with Cthulhu and with all others who decide to depart a world that no longer appreciates the god-like powers that untrammeled intelligence yields. The Lehigh Valley for a while harbored its fair share of human brilliance. Creative genius of all sorts produced music, art, inventions, literature and the other fruits of the mind though then it seemed to us that the place was oppressive and degrading, an open prison built for us misfits, the place to which we all independently vowed never to return once we had been freed.

I kept a journal of those bleak, dark, hopeless days. I thought of that record as “My Notes on the Asylum.” The Valley was my refuge and my salvation when I had nowhere else to hide. I fancied I could measure the confines of the place and search out its secrets. Like a character in one of Poe’s stories, I despaired, but no salvific actions intervened.

My epiphany about the octopus-god came one rainy night with thunder and lightning signaling, I thought, an apocalypse of identity. As I looked down on a flooded Eleventh Street from my second-story window, I saw a Bugatti stop in front of the row home of my neighbor across the street. Water was swirling around the precious vehicle then winding its way towards the drains. I thought the automobile was going to be swept away as it bobbled up and down.

The driver got out of the sports car, allowing some water to flood inside. He sloshed up to the door and banged while he checked the weapon that he appeared to be holding beneath his raincoat. The man who occupied that home was often away, and I happened to know this time he would not be back until the weekend. I did not open my window to inform the armed visitor of the situation as I did not know his intention.

The visitor, tired of standing in the pouring rain, returned to his vehicle and climbed aboard. He was trying to start his engine without success when from the nearest storm drain emerged a huge octopus which wasted no time enveloping the Bugatti with its tentacles. I could barely make out what was happening, but the driver opened his window and pointed his pistol at the creature. He fired one shot and then another, but the shots seemed to have no effect on the octopus.

The man could not get out of his car on account of the tentacles now closing on all sides. He screamed as the octopus crumpled his car, breaking all its windows and bending its top and sides. I called 911 to report what was happening in plain view though the novelty of my report caused the dispatcher to have me repeat my message three times before, laughing, she told me help was on the way. Meanwhile, the Bugatti appeared to have been compacted like a vehicle in a junk yard. There was no motion evident from within.

The rain had not subsided when the police and fire officials arrived, but the octopus had vanished. They surveyed the situation and used the “jaws of life” to extract the driver from the car. In the half hour this process took, the weather transformed. The rain ceased. The clouds opened on a full moon. My next-door neighbors were now on the front porch with their CB gear listening to the action.

I felt obliged to go downstairs and offer my assistance, but the rescue crew wanted to be left alone. Now that the driver had been sent to the hospital, they seemed specially focused on what the now-open trunk of his vehicle revealed. I backed off and asked my neighbors what was happening.

“Well, Mr. Farnsworth, the gentleman in the wrecked Bugatti seems to have had a big load of uncut heroin in his trunk. The dispatcher keeps asking about the octopus, but everyone is centering on the drugs.”

I shrugged and went back to my bed. As no one in the rescue organization needed anything more from me, I counted myself lucky not to be involved in the drug angle. I figured tomorrow morning I would be told what I needed to know by my neighbors—everything except the fate of the octopus, which I assumed had crawled back into the drain system after it wrecked the Bugatti.

When morning came, the news was full of stories about the mobster who had been mysteriously killed outside his contact’s home on Eleventh Street. The man appeared to have been strangled by whatever had compacted his expensive car. All remnants of the car, the man and the storm had vanished from the street. My neighbors told me all they had gleaned from listening to the CB radio, but their details were scanty.

I did research on observed behavior of octopuses, but I found only one other incident wherein an enormous octopus had totally wrecked a sports car. That occurrence might have gone unremarked except it had been recorded by a stationary camera. I was left with the feeling that the Allentown police would rather be known for seizing twenty-five kilograms of heroin from a mafioso’s trunk than for peddling an unsourced story about an octopus crushing the Bugatti and strangling its owner for no apparent reason.
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