Friday, July 10, 2020

Quest: When technology fails

Milo dropped off the tractor, Guillermo and Blain in the south end of the Buffer-zone. They decided to start with the squads on the east side because they were closest to the enemy and once hostilities started it would be impossible to till the gardens.

The tractor was nominally a 35 horse-power, gasoline model from the late 1960s. Running on the gassifier, it made about fifteen horse-power. Milo considered it a “third string” tractor. He had bigger ones that were running from first light-to-last light, every day in Capiche. This was one he could spare.

Blain was a new apprentice. He had some experience with tractors and gassifiers but was still on the steep part of the learning-curve. Milo thought this project, the tractor and Blain went together like peas and carrots. All told, there were a few more than three-hundred addresses where Guillermo and Blain were expected to disk up a half-acre garden plot.

Pulling a six-foot wide disk at three miles-per-hour, it takes about fifteen minutes to disc up a half-acre. The difference between a disk and a plow is that the disk does not till nearly as deeply and the small tractor can pull a 6' disk it nearly three times faster than it could pull a single bottom plow that turned over a 14" furrow.

The small tractor had a tight turning radius. The plan was to make every garden plot 200 feet long by 100 feet wide. The tractor was to disc along the longer leg and then swing a fifty-foot arc before disking back in the return direction. Every pass the tractor would index six feet to the side.

If all went well, it would take fifteen days at 10 hours a day to disk all of the gardens. Considering the likelihood of heavy rains, it would probably take significantly longer.

The property managers had been instructed to assemble teepees of dried sticks to fuel the gassifier. While Blain was getting the gassifier fired up and steadied down, Guillermo had walked out into the fallow field. Moving far enough away from the trees along the side so they would not compete with the crops for moisture and sunlight, Guillermo drove in a tall stake that could be seen above the weeds. Then he paced off seventy-five paces parallel to the edge of the field and drove a second stake. Then he paced off twenty paces away from the tree line and drove a third stake to mark the return leg a generous fifty feet from the first leg.

Guillermo biased the plot so it was in an area where the dried weed stalks were tall and thick. Guillermo had grown up in Central America and he realized that robust weeds are a good indicator of soil fertility. While it would be much faster and less complicated to disk up the ground where the weeds were sparse and thready, it would defeat the purpose of giving each fighter a productive half-acre garden.

If the garden was a little bit bigger than a half acre, it was of little consequence. Blain and Guillermo would lose as much time driving from one parcel to the next as it took to disk up the plots. It was better to mark it out a little bit large than to lose ten minutes trying to make the plot exactly 21,660 square feet.

When Milo was happy with how Blain had the gassifier drawing, he gave the thumbs up.

Blain drove the rig into the field and lined up on the first two flags. He dropped the disk as he got the first flag and revved up the motor.


Thirteen miles north and twenty seconds later, the bingo-board in front of Sam started lighting up.

There are three basic ways to filter out false-alarms. One is to set a very high threshold above the ambient noise level. A second way is to set a lower threshold but to require that the noise level not drop below that threshold for an extended period. The third method is to combine the two methods.

Sam had chosen the third option. The sensors were very energy efficient except when transmitting, then they were hogs. Consequently, Sam had the sensors monitoring and NOT transmitting except for a daily check-in to assure Sam they were still on-line. The other two times they transmitted were when they tripped one of the threshold-time trigger or when he commanded them to transmit real-time data.

Tapping a few commands on his computer, Sam tried to get the software to plot the probable origin of the sounds. The software Sam had written did simple peak matching and by comparing the relative time lags was able to calculate, based on ratios, where the equipment was striking rocks.

Unfortunately, the locating software was a massive fail. Great in theory. A non-performer when it counted. Sadly, what worked over short distances of boggy soil did not scale for the distances and excitations encountered.

Sam grabbed his two-way and alarmed Quinn.

“Whatchya got?” Quinn asked. It was a beautiful, dry, sunny morning in early April.

“I got what sounds like tracked vehicles in the south end of the buffer zone” Sam said, alarmed.

“What is your confidence level?” Quinn asked.

“95% PLUS that something big is happening in the southern zone. I can’t be exactly sure what and where it is. It just popped up out of nowhere” Sam admitted.

Quinn stopped what he was doing. Changing channels, he asked his lieutenants in his southernmost zones “What do you have going on down there. Sammy thinks you have a battalion of tanks bearing down on you.”

That wasn’t exactly what Sam said, but Quinn figured it was worth exaggerating a little bit so his Lieutenants got their people off their asses. Better to over-react than under.

The lieutenants whistled up their squad leaders. The only one who had anything unusual to report was the one closest to the river. “Yeah, I gotta guy plowing up a garden over here. Gotta tell ya, it puts a smile on my boys faces to see their places coming along.”

The Lewie passed the information up the line.

Quinn was in Sammy’s operations center by the time the information trickled back.

Quinn listened to the rumble being transmitted by the seismic sensors. It really did sound like tracked vehicles.

“I thought these sensors were in Livingston County?” Quinn asked.

“They are!” Sam said. “I installed them myself. We have one string five miles east of the river and another picket line five miles east of that.”

The sensors were placed next to every east/west road so they were pretty much on one-mile intervals. The line started at the Main Branch of the Red Cedar river on the north end of the Buffer-Zone and ran five miles farther south than the Buffer-Zone. Quinn had been very clear. His one nightmare was that the invaders evade the defenses and sweep around the south end of the Buffer-Zone and then cut off the Buffer-Zone, leaving it to die-on-the-vine.

Four sensors were triggering on western picket line, the one closest to the Buffer-Zone. The four sensors were centered on the southernmost Lieutenant’s Area-of-Operation.

That is when Quinn decide it was time to share a joke with Sammy.

Dysen had been contributing to his education. She picked out books that she thought would fill gaps in his education. It did not hurt that they took turns reading alternate pages until they got...well...distracted. Two of those books had been Sherlock Holmes short-stories.

“Hey, Sammy. Did you hear the joke about the time Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went camping?” Quinn asked.

Sammy said “No. I don’t think I have.”

“Sherlock Holmes woke up in the middle of the night and looked up. He woke up Watson and asked him ‘What do you see?’

Watson said ‘I see billions and billions of stars.’

‘What does that mean to you?’ Sherlock asked.

Proud to have a chance to show off his knowledge, Watson talked for several minutes about the unimaginable forces powering the stars and the incredible vastness of space.

Then, Watson asked Holmes ‘What does it mean to you?’

Sherlock Holmes answered shortly, ‘It means somebody stole our tent.’”

While Sammy was digesting that joke, Quinn asked “If this is the first time we heard the sounds of mechanical tillage and our sensors are in Livingston County, what does that mean to you?”

Sammy was pretty quick on the uptake. “It means that nobody in the western half of Livingston County is plowing fields.”

“And if our enemy is not plowing his fields, what can we deduce from that?” Quinn pressed.

Sammy thought a little bit and then said “Well, either they are complete idiots or they are very confident that they can blow through here and take the food from Ingham and Eaton Counties.”

Quinn added “Or it could mean that they don’t plan on staying on the roads. Newly plowed fields are hard to drive across.”

“My guess is that it is a combination of all three.”

“I want you to send a message to Chernovsky and Gimp. Tell them that nobody in Livingston County is plowing their farm fields and what we think that could mean.”

Then, Quinn called up his Lieutenants, one zone at a time. He directed them to send out a team of observer/snipers east of the river. He directed them to observe both roads and high ground where foot soldiers could approach the river. He suggested that the team be two miles east of the river but was very clear that the team should put more weight on the terrain than on an arbitrary distance he had pulled out of his ass.

Quinn informed the Lieutenants that they were henceforth responsible for manning the forward observation post until hostilities started.

There are times when you cannot beat boots-on-the-ground and never more-so than when the shit starts getting real.



  1. Your method of laying out gardens is called "Laying out lands". Old time plowmen turned their teams in the "headlands" at the ends of the field. Just saying.

    1. Thank-you, sir. You are a fountain of valuable information!

  2. Trust the Mk. I Eyeball. Technology is great until it isn't, which is far more often than people think.


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