Monday, August 22, 2011

Litterbug - Part 2 of 3

© 2009 by Henry Melton

"I think I have heard of this," his father said as he looked over the shiny wrapper.  He looked at Jerry, "Do you still have that assortment of magnets you ordered?  Go get it."
One by one they tested different magnets.  Each pushed the wrapper.  When they found the little samarium magnet, Mr. Foley spread the wrapper flat on the bench and the little rare-earth magnet floated in the air above it -- suspended by the magnetic field.
"No doubt about it, Meisner effect," he pronounced.  "You have a superconductor here."  He frowned.  "A room temperature superconductor."
Jerry shook his head.  "I don't believe it.  I've read up on superconductors.  You need super cold conditions to make superconductors."
His father shrugged, and tapped the little magnet.  It wobbled, oscillating with nothing to dampen out the motion but miniscule air friction.  "Do you believe what you read, or what you see?"
Jerry took a deep breath.  "I don't understand what I see."
"Good.  Neither do I.  I could maybe see someone inventing a superconductor and then keeping it secret.  But a candy wrapper?"
Mr. Foley tapped the magnet aside and picked up the wrapper again.  He read the text, and then examined the inside, and even the edges for some clue.
"Jerry, there is something different about this.  Here, take a look."
At first glance, the Brokies wrapper was just like all the other wrappers he had seen.  There was a bold text banner across the top proclaiming the name, with an enticing image of the treat itself–some kind of caramel glazed chewy treat.  It was when he looked the back side that it struck him just how strange the wrapper was.  There was no fine print.  Both sides of the package were the same.
He grinned up at his father, "There is no recycle logo."
"Ha!  Trust you to notice that one."
"Also, no ingredients list.  I thought all food things had to have a list of ingredients."
"And no trademark symbol next to the product name, nor a use-by date, nor a copyright on the text.  If it didn't say 'Made in San Antonio' there plain as day, I would have suspected it was from some other country, one where the product laws were different."
They were both silent for a moment.
Jerry asked, "Okay, maybe it's an experimental lot.  Somebody in San Antonio is getting ready to release a new candy and has given out samples for people to test."
"Hmm.  Maybe.  What is that dot?"
On the upper left of the package was a large gray dot, nearly a half-inch in diameter.  Jerry looked closely.
"Wait a minute."  He dashed over to his workbench and rummaged in a drawer.  He pulled out a large magnifying glass and examined the dot.
"Come look."  He repositioned the lamp to shine a brighter light on the wrapper.
His father adjusted the glass.  "I can't see as well as you do.  I think I see a pattern."
Jerry nodded.  "There is a pattern.  That dot is a dense maze of digital information.  And it seems to be laid out in some kind of spiral pattern."
The elder Foley nodded.  "Now it makes sense."
"What makes sense?"
He set down the magnifier.  "Somebody has invented a way to put all the junk information into this dot, like a super IPC product bar code.  I'd bet that all the trademarks, ingredients, and product history is all encoded into that dot."
"No way.  That doesn't make sense at all.  You still have the laws, and nobody is set up to read the dot.  Even if the big stores and warehouses have dot readers, it's the end-user, the consumer that needs to be able to read recycle markers, ingredient lists, and the date the food goes bad.  The dot is useless."
"Unless everyone has a dot reader."
Jerry shook his head.  "Everyone doesn't."
His father waved his hand.  "Hear me out.  Digital watches are so cheap right now that they give them away.  How much more so when the electronics get generations more powerful and smaller.  I could see a day, fifty years from now, a hundred, when stores have a giveaway pile of things smaller than a dime that could read the dots.  Marketing would love to get rid of anything on the package that isn't advertising.  Not too far in the future, everybody will be able to read the dots, with a dirt cheap free reader."
"Maybe in the future, but not now."
His father just stared at the wrapper, frowning.
Jerry asked, "You aren't serious?"
"If there were cheap ways to make room temperature superconductors, just think how nice it would be to use it as a candy wrapper.  Your whole production line could just move the things around on magnetic fields."  He pointed at the rubber and metal conveyer belt that was part of Jerry's gadget.  "Wouldn't it be cheaper to use and maintain than that?"
"Well yes, but the future?  You can't mean time travel."
"Because it's impossible?  Well there is more than one kind of impossible.  What's scientifically impossible changes every day, but what's economically impossible has a little more staying power.  That's based on human nature.  Your idea of an experimental product is possible, but no one could be stupid enough to hide a breakthrough like room temperature superconductors so they could make candy wrappers.
"Son.  I don't think you should go to that whistlestop thing tomorrow."
"Because I can't think of any reason for a time traveler to come visit Hutto unless something bad is going to happen."
They argued most of the evening over it.  Jerry was adamant that he had paid his dues and had done the cleanup chore and he deserved to be there to see the President.
It was going to be a once in a lifetime event, and the only argument against it was that maybe time travel was possible, and that maybe there was something bad that would bring visitor to Hutto.
Jerry fought with tenacity.  He could never tell for sure when these arguments were bogus.  His father would argue over anything, and often didn't really believe his own position.  Still when they headed for town in the morning, his father wasn't done.
"Safety should come first.  After all, the whole event will likely be on the television."
"Dad, give it up.  You are repeating yourself.  I am going."
"Disrespectful youngsters.  I promised myself I would avoid this exercise in political self-gratification at all costs.  And now look at what you are doing to me.  I have to stay there all day to watch out for you."
"You could have gotten a good seat if you had helped with the cleanup."
"I'm not that hypocritical.  The farther I can get from the event the better."
Jerry wondered again whom his father voted for.  For as long as he could remember, the polling place was an early morning visit on election day.  But he would never find out which way Dad voted.  He would debate against any politician under the sun, but there was never a kind word for any of them.
"If I am right," Mr. Foley said as they pulled up next to the Co-op's silos where cars were being parked, "it will at least prove one good thing."
"What is that?"
"That in spite of all the ecological brainwashing, there will still be litterbugs in the future."
Even though the train wouldn't arrive for another couple of hours, the makeshift parking area was nearly full, and the bleachers were mostly populated.  Jerry brought his binoculars and camera, and had to wait in line as the Sheriff glanced over his items before he would be let in through the barricade.  It would have been annoying if it weren't for the news crews.  Second class citizens, they had to wait by their remote broadcast vans until all the locals were seated.
Jerry went for the top row.  He settled in next to the football coach and the school board president.  
"Good morning, Jerry.  Did I see your father here?"
"Yes coach.  He decided to come to keep me out of trouble."
They laughed, and the men went back to their discussion.  Jerry pulled out the binoculars and scanned the area. 
It was a long wait.  In spite of the fact that he had heard the band practicing 'Hail to the Chief' all day long at school this week, it was a relief to be able to watch them from his perch.
The long wait also gave him time to worry about his father's time traveler theory.  Suppose someone was here from the future.  Why here?  Why now?
Why would I want to travel back in time?
He would like to watch a lost treasure being buried, so that he could find it in the present day.  He would like to go back and see Jesus do a miracle.  He would like to watch the JFK assassination and see if there was really someone on the grassy knoll.
That last worried him the most.  This President was really hated by the farmers.  Suppose one of them tried to do something about it.
He looked over the area again with his binoculars.
It was amazing how many people in uniform there were.  All of the local police and DPS officers were in attendance, as well as a large number of men in black suits with little earplugs snaking up out of their collars. 
He was startled when one of them turned and stared directly at him.  He waved, but there was no response.  How many of these events did a Secret Service agent attend before he grew tired of all the same people?
Besides, Jerry thought, he should be looking for the time traveler.  What would a time traveler look like?
Not somebody he knew.  Probably not any of the police or Secret Service, because they would recognize a stranger in their own ranks.  His best bet would be to find someone ordinary who had something strange about him–because if the time traveler had a perfect disguise, then he would never spot him anyway.
Of course, there were a huge number of ordinary strangers in Hutto today.
He settled down to scan the crowd systematically.  He was bored stiff, and anything was better than watching the grass grow.
He knew the train was coming five minutes before he could actually see it.  The black suits started moving at a quicker pace, and the police started using their hand held radios.  He stood up to stretch and ease the soreness on his backside before the main event.  The SS agent watched him again.  Jerry was pleased.  He had never thought of himself as a suspicious character before.  He waved at the man again.
The rest of the crowd started standing as the little silver train approached.  The band struck up its piece as the three-car Amtrak special pulled into town.
From his perch, he watched as a railroad worker, accompanied by a black suit, worked the switch and directed the Presidential special over onto the north siding.  The rumble of the engine almost drowned out the music, but the Hutto Hippo band played gamely on.
There wasn't a long wait.  The door swung open and the President of the United States of America came to Hutto Texas.
Jerry, and everyone else, took a picture.  It was amusing how many flashes went off in broad daylight.
Barely had the speeches started, when he had a worrisome thought.  Why did the time traveler litter yesterday?

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