One Parade Too Late

He remembers watching the faces on T.V. as the tears began a salty cascade down their cheeks.  He cried as they cried, their impending separation ripping through more than twenty years of psychic dust and debris to lay open the feelings of a 19-year-old kid.  The feelings that came as he turned away from the girl he loved and marched across the tarmac toward the plane that would deliver him into the military and the uncertainty that surrounded the Viet Nam war.

He also remembers the faces on T.V. as they returned to an overwhelming display of yellow ribbons, smartly flapping flags, and old-fashioned victory parades.  Some of them reveled in the triumph of the moment, and some flushed with embarrassment, but all were thankful to be home.  The Gulf war was over and they were all treated as heroes.  And he cried again.

The year is 1971.  The 19-year-old kid is now 22 and he is sitting in the squadron commander’s office.  Quietly, but with a slight waver in his voice, he explains why his roommate has wandered off toward the ridge that overlooks the base.  A few months later the young man heads home before reporting for his next assignment.  Disappointment sets in when his young wife does not meet his plane.  It grows as he unlocks the door to her empty apartment.  It turns to crushing despair when he wakes the next morning and finds that he is still alone in bed.

This is one fragment of the era covered by what PBS describes as the “10,000-day War”.  It was a war that recorded tens of thousands of American names in black granite and altered the lives of so many others.  Those who answered the call of their country in the face of political divisions.  Those who, at worst, were reviled for their efforts and who, at best, were ignored.  Years later they shared, vicariously, in the celebration bestowed on the Gulf War veterans.  Ultimately, however, they realized that, for them, it was one parade too late.

Etekcity Wireless Socket Hacks


There are a zillion RF remote controlled outlets available but one of the most popular appears to be those from Etekcity.  I was able to pick up, at regular price, a set of five and two remote controls for less than $30 on Amazon.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them but I figured it was a prime opportunity to do some hacking.

One thing to keep in mind is that these are only controllable with the included remote, and not via the internet.  But we will fix that.  Also, they are normally off when plugged in and go back to that state if power is lost.  I don’t know about you, but I have some applications where I want the outlet to be normally on instead.  We will fix that as well.  Just keep in mind that these hacks require some knowledge of electronics and basic soldering skills.

Making Normally On Outlets

Changing one of these outlets from normally off to normally on would seem to be a simple task because they use a pretty standard relay which should have pins for both states.  As it turns out the relay may or may not have the normally on pin, but it is not accessible on the circuit board.  That complicates our task but it’s probably a smart safety move by the manufacturer.  What that means, then, is that we need to find a way to reverse the on/off logic.



LED Replaced

There are two pieces to reversing the logic.  The first is to change the polarity of the LED.  The solder pads for the LED are shown in the first picture.  Once the LED is removed, we need to make two cuts to the circuit traces as shown in the second picture.  The right hand cut separates the LED solder pad from ground.  We do that so that after the LED is reversed, we can solder that pad to +5 volts.  The left hand cut separates the base of the relay driver transistor from the 4700 ohm resistor.  That will allow the second logic polarity reversal to be installed.  Double check with an ohmmeter to make sure that the cuts are successful.  In the third picture we have reinstalled the LED with the anode now connected to the cut pad and to +5 volts.  The leads were just long enough on my unit so that I could bend it over to the +5 volt output of the 78L05 voltage regulator.

Transistor Added

The fourth picture shows the method used to reverse the logic for driving the relay.  I used a common 2N3904 NPN transistor (an equivalent would be ok) as an inverter.  The emitter is soldered to ground, the base is soldered to the on-board 4700 ohm resistor, and the collector is soldered to the base of the relay driver transistor.  In order to ensure that the relay driver transistor is normally switched on, I had to add a 4700 ohm resistor from its base to +5 volts.  Now, when the logic output is high, it will turn on the new transistor which will turn off the relay driver transistor.

Remote x-wired

If you want to take an extra step you can cross-wire the appropriate buttons in the remote so that the left button will turn on the modified outlet and the right button turn in off.  Basically you need to cut the circuit traces that go to the switch contacts that are closest to the middle of the board and then add jumper wires as shown in the picture

Internet Control

There are two methods possible for controlling the RF outlets from the Internet.  Both require the use of a cheap module like the ESP8266.  One method would be to wire into one of the remote controls and use a microcontroller to simulate the button presses.  The other less messy method is to use a microcontroller to take the place of the remote control.  That is what is described here.  The microcontroller will receive commands via the ESP8266, translate them into the proper RF bit pattern, and then send that bit pattern to an RF transmitter.  It sounds complicated but the only hard part is figuring out what the proper control codes are for your set of RF outlets.

There are many posts online that use an RF receiver and the audio input to a PC to figure out the codes.  I have the luxury of having a decent oscilloscope so it is easy for me to capture them.  I also have an RF sniffer circuit (detailed in one of my other electronics projects on my website) that allows me to capture RF transmissions using a terminal program on my PC.


The frequency for communicating with the RF outlets is 433.92-MHz and the commands are comprised of a long sync bit, 24 data bits, and 1 stop bit.  The data encoding method used is On-Off-Keying (OOK) which means that data bits are differentiated by the on/off times.  There are no requirements in OOK for number of bits or period length.  That’s why there are so many variations out there for different devices.  I have seen that first hand by decoding security sensors and weather sensors.  The waveform looks similar to what is shown in the picture here.


PIC WiFi Interface2

The schematic shown here is almost identical to the one I used in the one of the earlier Wi-Fi projects listed on my website.  The main difference is that the final version doesn’t have the USB interface but does have an interface to an RF transmitter module.  The transmitter module I used is labeled FS1000A and transmits at 433.92-MHz.  I have not tried other models of RF transmitters but most should work as long as they have similar characteristics.  The RF module is run from the +5 volt input and readily accepts the 3.3-volt logic level for the serial data bit stream from the PIC.

Some ESP8266 modules have their own 3.3 volt regulator onboard so the input to it would be 5 volts.  I have included a 3.3 volt regulator in my schematic for the PIC and it can also be used for the ESP module if it doesn’t have its own voltage regulator.  This allows the PIC and the ESP to communicate at the same logic levels without the need for converters.

You could simplify the ESP hardware by using the ESP-01 module and the adapter (shown here).  The adapter takes +5 volts and has an onboard 3.3 volt regulator.  If you go this route I also recommend that you buy the USB interface that is specifically made for the ESP-01.  It will make the setup of the ESP-01 much easier.


The software listing is available below.  It is an extension of the software I wrote for a previous Wi-Fi project.  I chose that because I wanted to have the status response from the PIC displayed as simple graphics instead of text.  I also added code to output the single-pin serial bit stream to the RF transmitter.  Like the earlier version, I used HTML commands to draw circles that represent the status of each of the five remote switches.  Red=off, green=on, and white=unknown.  The important thing to remember is that there is no feedback from the remote switches themselves so the software can only maintain the status of the last command sent for each switch.  That means that every time there is a power up of the controller hardware the switch statuses are all unknown.  That’s it for this post.  Check out my other electronics projects at:

ESP8266 RF Socket Controller

No Country for an Old Man

Strife in politics is nothing new but the division in this day and age has grown so hardened that there appears to be no common ground for compromise.  Terms that used to convey philosophical leanings have now taken on the status of derision and expletives.  I’m talking about words like “Conservative”, and “Liberal”.  We have become so polarized that it has literally become a “my team versus your team” mentality with no handshakes after each contest.  Worse yet is the fact that each side continues to push for more and more ideological purity, thus terms like “RINO”.

Some of us may think we have an open mind to other political stripes so let me provide a little test.  I will list the attributes of two individuals and you can decide how to categorize them.  The first is a white male in his late 60’s.  He is a military veteran, having served during the time of the Viet Nam war but not in the war.  He is most comfortable in jeans, tee shirts, and cheap sneakers, all purchased at Wal-Mart.  He owns several guns, mostly of the handgun variety.  He thinks there should be some limits on abortion.  He has always worked to live within his means and believes that the government should too.  He attends church on a regular basis.

The second individual is also a white male in his late 60’s.  He went to high school and college in Southern California during the 1960’s and 1970’s.  He holds three degrees in all – Psychology, Sociology, and Computer Science.  He was opposed to the Viet Nam war.  He believes that a woman should have the right to an abortion.  He believes that those who have much should help those who don’t.  He believes that there should be better screenings for gun ownership.  He thinks that those who believe that the Universe came about exactly as it is stated in the Bible are intentionally ignorant of scientific facts.

So, what do you think?  Number 1 sure sounds like a “Conservative” and number 2 sure sounds like a “Liberal”, don’t they?  At this point, however, many of you may suspect that this is a trick and you would be right.  Both descriptions fit the same individual.  Before you write this individual off as some sort of Schizophrenic oddity let me assure you that he is a happily married (47 years), middle-class individual who is well within the norms of sanity.  I should know because he is me.

So what is the point of this exercise?  Simply to show that there are many individuals who don’t fit the constricting molds that have become the new world views of “Conservative” and “Liberal”.  Moderates of both parties are an endangered species and any hint at compromise is seen as a betrayal of one’s political tribe.  I wrote a letter to the editor one time in which I decried the language of a local party boss who berated those of his own party who were not “pure enough”.  He also filled his commentary with plenty of invective for those of the other party and peppered it with lots of usage of the terms “Conservative” and “Liberal”.  A big part of my argument was that the use of labels in general was a lazy way to avoid making the effort to see other points of view.  In some ways it harkens back to what Sociologists like Erving Goffman called “Labeling Theory”.  The danger here is not only do we too easily reject those who do not fit the label but we also too easily help in the very creation of our own enemies.

So what is an old moderate to do?  Well, first and foremost is to not stoop to the levels of mudslinging that are so common today.  Second is to call BS when alternative facts are espoused by anybody of any political stripe.  But to do so requires that you have the actual facts at hand as proof.  It may not (and probably won’t) change the mind of the person or persons touting the alternative facts but it’s still somewhat comforting to know what the truth is.  Third is to stand up for people who need a voice or a hand.  There are those who get disenfranchised from not only the political process but from society as well.  I have worked hard for what I have but I know many people who have worked hard and have very little.  As someone who tries to follow the example of Christ I know that I should do what I can with what I have to help people who need it.  But I can’t help everyone and sometimes that breaks my heart.  I’m not saying you have to be a Christian or even believe in God to be part of the solution.  Your motivations may be different than mine and your resources may be different than mine but the results will be the same – someone who needs it will be helped.  Last is to vote.  For about ten years my wife and I lived in a state where our votes almost always went opposite of the majority.  But we voted anyway because we view voting as not just a right but a responsibility.  Besides, I always say that if you don’t vote then you have thrown away your right to complain about the results.

The United States is the greatest nation in the history of the world in terms of wealth, opportunity, and personal freedoms.  To have been born here is a stroke of fate for which I am eternally grateful.  The fact that I feel like an outcast from both political parties does not change that perspective.  But I hope, and pray, that I will live long enough to see reason and civility return to our political process.  Maybe then there will once again be a country for this old man.

I2C 4-Digit LED Interface

In an earlier project I detailed an I2C (two-wire) interface to the common 1602 LCD.  Recently I found a cheap 4-digit LED module that uses a pseudo I2C interface.  I don’t have a particular need for it but I went ahead and added one to a parts order I made.  If you know a little about I2C you know that it is a serial interface where the controlling circuit provides the clock and controls the direction of the single data line.  Usually you can hang several I2C modules on the same pair of line (e.g.: clock module and display module) because each module has a unique address.  I said this LED module has a “pseudo I2C” interface because it does not have an address.  That means that it needs to be the only device using the data line.

LED I2C Module

TM1637 Module

The module I have is similar to the one shown here.  It is typically listed as part number TM1637.  You can find a variety of information on the web but I had a hard time finding all of the details I needed.  I also looked at some existing code (Python and C) which can often be a dangerous thing to do.  The one critical thing I determined from the code was that the data bits sent to the LED module need to be LSB first.  That differed from the approach for the other I2C projects I have done.  Another idiosyncrasy that I noted is that the addresses for the digits go from left to right (starting with address C0).  That means that data must be written from most significant digit to least significant digit if using the auto increment addressing mode.  In fixed addressing mode you would just pick the appropriate digit and write directly to it.

I2C Communications

I2C communications are accomplished by using just two wires: one for data (SDA) and one for a clock (SCL).  The data line is defined as being bidirectional so there needs to be a “master” device on the bus to control things.  The clock rate is limited by the slowest device on the bus and controlled by the master device.  Basically it sets a data bit and then toggles the clock line.  At the end of each byte transfer the master reverses the direction of the data line and then clocks in the acknowledgement bit from the slave device.

There are three basic commands for the LED module.  One controls the on/off and brightness of the display, one controls the address of the digit to write, and one controls the addressing mode (fixed or auto increment).  Usually an application will just load all four digits each time so the auto increment mode is normally used and the address set to the first (left-most) digit.


LED I2C Interface

The connections to the PIC are pretty simple with only two I/O pins being used.  That leaves four other pins on our little 12F683 for getting sensor data.  This same connection can be used with the 16F688 if we want more I/O pins.  The module already has the required pull up resistors on the SDA and SCL lines.


The software link is listed below.  While it is targeted for the 12F683, it is easily ported to bigger versions of the PIC like the pin compatible 16F688 that I use for a lot of my projects.  Some of the newer PICs also have a hardware I2C interface so most of the related software routines would be greatly reduced or eliminated.

The I2C routines are the same as those I wrote for the LCD project but a lot of the other LCD-specific code was not needed for the LED module.  I added a lookup table that converts single packed ASCII characters to the required LED segments.  I also added a second test routine that shows how you can make non-ASCII displays by turning on the right segments.  The data bit associations for the segments are shown in the header of the software source code.  The eighth bit in the segment bytes is reserved for turning on the colon that resides between digits 2 and 3 on the module.  In my tests it appeared that all four characters had to include a 1 in the eighth bit in order for the colon to light.

I added a line of code to the end of the “i2cwaitack”routine to try and recover if the slave does not acknowledge the data transfer.  If the slave fails to acknowledge a transfer then the software will be reset by enabling the Watch Dog Timer (WDT).  Newer PIC chips have a software reset command that can be used instead.  An alternative for some I2C applications would be to simply make a call to “i2cstop” and then continue where the code left off.  That’s it for this post.  Check out my other electronics projects at


Intruder Alert

In an earlier post on my website I detailed a PIC microcontroller project that allowed me to capture information about a variety of RF security system sensors I have.  In this post I have taken the information I collected for a cheap 433-MHz motion detector I bought on ebay and turned it into a usable circuit.  In addition to the PIC, I use an RF receiver module and a solid state voice recorder/player.  All of the parts, including the motion detector, cost less than $15 total so you can have some cheap fun with this project.



The motion detector module I used looks like the picture above.  It uses a 12 volt battery and has an extendable whip antenna.  The RF signal it puts out is strong enough that I didn’t even have to add an antenna to my RF receiver board for use in my house.  I used a sensor logger circuit (detailed in another project on my website) to determine the sync and bit times for the sensor as well as the actual data bytes.  The sensor outputs 24 bits (3 bytes) of data and each sensor has a different pattern.  There is also one stop bit.  The sync time turned out to be 10ms and the bit times were about 320us and 970us.  I verified this with a second sensor and also by capturing the RF receiver output on my oscilloscope.  There are many examples online that detail how to capture this information using a PC audio card.

RXB6 Front

The RF receiver module I prefer is a super heterodyne receiver called the RXB6.  It has much better range than the cheaper receivers that commonly get paired with an RF transmitter module.  In fact, when I was trying to buy a few extra RF transmitters I ended up buying them with the cheap receivers for less than 60 cents a set from a USA seller.  I’ve kept the bad receivers for now but will likely never use them.

ISD1820 Module

The sound recorder/player module is commonly listed as ISD1820.  That’s actually the chip part number but it’s also the module designation.  The particular version I bought is shown in the picture but pretty much all of them work the same.  It’s convenient to have the push buttons on the module so you can do the recording and verify the playback before embedding it into your circuit.  These modules are typically set up for a maximum of 10 seconds of recording but the manual shows how to modify them for shorter or longer times.  The maximum time is 20 seconds but the tradeoff is lower quality.  It’s probably not a problem for simple voice messages.  I was pleasantly surprised at the clarity of the recording.

Motion Detector

The schematic is shown above.  The sound modules are often advertised as being able to run on 5 volts but the recommended range for the chip is 2.7-4.5 volts.  Just to be safe I’ve added a cheap 3.3 volt regulator (LM1117) to drive the sound module.  That also means that the play trigger from the PIC needs to be reduced in voltage so a simple resistor voltage divider is used.  The resistor values are not critical.  Just try to get the ratio of values to about 2:3.


There are some defines in the first part of the software that may need adjustment for your application.  There are defines for the sync time (in milliseconds) and the 0/1 bit times.  The bit times are actually for the OFF part of each bit because that is how the software does the measurement.  The bit times are not in milliseconds but are the expected count for the upper half of Timer1.  Each count in TMR1H represents 128 microseconds based on the 8-MHz clock frequency of the PIC.  This simplification works because the shorter bit time will always exceed 256 microseconds but never exceed 384 microseconds.  Likewise, the longer bit time will always exceed 896 microseconds but never exceed 1024 microseconds.  Again, this is based on measurements I made for my sensors.  Yours may be different.  Another set of defines is included to represent the byte values transmitted by the sensor.  These will be different for your sensor.

The software uses the 16-bit Timer1 to measure the sensor bit durations by counting only during the low level part of each bit.  That meant that I needed to use the T1G (Timer1 Gate) input of the PIC.  I also wanted to check on the pulse counts when they completed so I used the INT (external interrupt) input and set it to trigger on a rising edge.  Each bit (including the stop bit) always starts with a rising edge.  The bit value (0/1) is determined by the duration of the high part of each bit but we actually measure the low part because we also want to measure the low level time between data messages for the sync.

The interrupt handler is triggered by the rising edge of each bit.  At that point the upper half of Timer1 is read.  If the Synced flag is not yet set, then the software determines if we have measured a sync pulse.  The math is easy because all we do is round up (add 4) and then right shift three times (divide by 8).  That gives us the integer number of milliseconds.  If the value matches our required sync time then the Synced flag gets set.  That allows us to skip directly to the bit measurement part of the code for subsequent interrupts.  If a bit time matches, then it is packed into RF_Byte and the Bit_Found flag gets set.  If a bit time doesn’t match then everything previously collected is discarded and we wait for a new sync pulse.

After the return from an interrupt, the main part of the software checks the Bit_Found flag to determine if it needs to take action.  If a complete byte has been received then the software checks the value against the expected value for the sensor.  That is done by calling a simple lookup table with the indices for the table being the variable Byte_Count.  If a byte doesn’t match, then everything is discarded and we wait for a new sync pulse.  If all three bytes have been received and match, then the software sends a high-level pulse to trigger the sound module.  An Alarm LED is also turned on and remains on until power is cycled.  The reason I added that is to facilitate testing and as an event memory.  That way I can position the sensor and receiver at different locations and verify successful operation without having to use a second person to listen for the sound.  I can also test sensor locations to make sure that heater/cooler air flow or one of our cats doesn’t cause a false trigger.  That’s it for this project.  be sure to check out my other projects on my website:

Motion Detector

Murder Most Fluffy

A call came in on my cell phone and I almost let the answering service pick it up.  I was, after all, in the middle of a stake-out.  To be honest, it was actually a spy job for the wife of a middle-aged sleaze bag who was busy popping his secretary at the old Do-Drop-Inn Motel.  I figured I already had enough photos, but the wife had money, and another night’s work meant a badly needed C-note.  I stared at the phone until the fifth chirp, and then picked it up.

The call was from Jack Mahoney, my one and only friend at the Creston police department.  He was at the scene of what looked like a murder and said that the victim had my business card tacked to the wall by his phone.  He added that I might as well show up and volunteer information, otherwise Lieutenant Bratton would have me hauled in later.  I knew he was right, so I packed up my camera gear and headed toward the address he had given me.

I hadn’t told Jack at the time, but I already knew who the stiff was.  I had a pretty good guess when he first called, but the address he had given me confirmed my suspicions.  After all, there weren’t too many guys in town who would have had my business card unless they had fished them out of the ‘free meal drawing’ bowl at the local Burger King.  There were even fewer who were candidates for murder.  Frankly, until now, I hadn’t really considered Irving French  one of those candidates.  I guess I should have taken him a little more seriously.

The first, and last time, that I had seen Irving French alive was after the initial phone conversation I had with him.  It was a typical day at the office for me – I was leaning back in my chair with my feet on the desk, and waiting for some beautiful dame in distress to glide through my door.  The phone jangled like a windup alarm clock and I placed a bet with myself as to who it was.  The odds were pretty heavy that it was either a bill collector or a salesman, but I tried my luck anyway.

The guy on the line sounded almost apologetic, and definitely nervous.  As he talked, I tried to picture the face that went with the voice.  I had him pegged as a fairly small, middle-aged man, with non-descript features.  Of course that description would fit about 80% of my clients, with most of the rest of them being alimony-seeking women.  As usual, I didn’t pay a lot of attention until after I had a chance to give him the spiel about what it would cost.  I figured no sense in exerting myself until I was sure I was on the payroll.  I gave him the usual price per day, plus expenses bit and got ready to wait while he mulled it over.  I didn’t even have time to catch my breath before he agreed, and then asked me to meet him in front of the lion’s cage at the city zoo.  He said it was one of the few places he felt safe.  I figured he was a little wacko, but what the hell.  Never judge money-paying clients too harshly I always say.

It was still fairly early in the morning when I got to the zoo and, being a weekday, there weren’t a lot of people in the place.  It wouldn’t have mattered much, though, because I could have spotted Irving in a crowd.  He’s standing with his back to the Lion’s cage, hands on the railing, glancing nervously from side to side.  He looks pretty much as I pictured him, though I hadn’t figured on the electric blue, hand-tied bowtie.  I show him my laminated I.D. and offer a hand.  He apparently misunderstands the gesture, because the next thing I know he pulls out a wad of cash and sticks it into my outstretched paw.  Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I slip it into my coat pocket and nod toward a nearby park bench.

Though he acts awfully jittery, it doesn’t take long for him to spit out his story.  The first part sounds pretty familiar, what with the parts about being followed, and fearing for his life.  The next part gets a little bizarre though when I ask if he has any idea about who might be threatening him.  He pauses, leans slightly toward me, and says point blank that it is a rabbit.  I try not to smile or bust out laughing, what with him being so serious and all.  Besides, I like the feel of his dough in my pocket.  It takes a bit for me to recover, but then I go into my usual line of questioning.  The more we talk, though, the more I feel like this guy has memorized every minute of “Harvey”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, and the killer rabbit scene from the old Monty Python movie.  I ask if anyone else has seen the ‘perpetrator’, and get the expected answer.  Seems that it waits until he is alone to show up.  I suggest that maybe a big dog might be a solution, but he says that he tried it and that the dog ran off after the first encounter.  I’m thinking of telling him to speak softly and carry a big carrot, but stifle it.  Instead, I tell him, as straight as I can, that I will start looking into it immediately.

I’m still thinking about the conversation as I pull into the apartment building parking lot.  In spite of myself, I feel a little twinge of guilt for this one.  Its not like I brushed off his story completely.  I figured maybe someone human was trying to spook him with the rabbit gag, so I did some checking into his background.  After a couple of days I had to admit that this might be the one person in this country that no one could say they truly liked or disliked.  He had no immediate family, no girlfriend, no boyfriend, no enemies.  He went to work, in a little office, in a big company, and didn’t socialize with his co-workers.  A picture like that made me wonder if he might be in the witness protection program, but even that didn’t pan out.  I finally had to conclude that the most threatening thing in his life was an overactive imagination.

Spotting an open parking spot, I swing the old sedan in and shut off the engine.  Jack meets me at the police line and escorts me to Irving’s apartment.  Along the way I tell him that, yes, the victim was a client, and yes he felt like he was in danger.  I also tell him that the client didn’t go to the police because he wasn’t sure they would believe his story.  As we enter the apartment I see that there must have been a hell of a fight.  Jack sees the look on my face and explains that it was the noise that caused the neighbors to call the police in the first place.  We walk to where the body is neatly chalklined, and I bend down to get a better look at the damage.  In spite of the blood and lacerations, I can clearly identify the face as Irving’s.  Jack says that it looks as if someone has taken the claw end of a hammer to him, but I can’t shake the picture of large, rectangular, buck teeth.  Jack mentions that the physical evidence guys found what looks like animal fur under his fingernails.  I stand up, mumble something about Irving’s dog, then head for the door.

* * * * *

A few nights later I get a call from Jack and he tells me that I can pick up a copy of the police report at the station.  Now I don’t like going to the station voluntarily, but I’m curious as to what the official police slant is.  When I arrive, the desk sergeant scowls in my direction, then hands me a sealed document envelope with my name on it.  I figure I’d be pressing my luck if I read the report where he could see me, so I head back down the stairwell.  Stopping just inside the exit door, I tear open the envelope and pull out the report.  My fingers fly through the pages like refugees from an Evelyn Wood seminar as I search for some rational explanation.  Frustrated, I toss the report into a trash basket and step out into the thick night air.  As I had expected, the coroner bailed out and listed the cause of death as ‘massive physical trauma of unknown origin’.  For my money, though, it was clear that poor old Irving died of the bite of the hare that dogged him.

The Search for Intelligent Life

I have always had a pretty firm belief that not only does life exist elsewhere in the universe, but that somewhere there are sentient life forms.  I have to admit, though, that I’m getting a little impatient waiting for unimpeachable evidence.  My belief was somewhat buoyed when NASA scientists reported that they had found evidence that indicated that primitive life may have existed on Mars billions of years ago.  The evidence they presented was based on analysis of microscopic fossilized remains within a rock.  Unfortunately, the biggest leap of scientific faith in this revelation was that the rock, found on Earth, originated on Mars.  It sort of reminds me of the “Far Side” cartoon that illustrates the theory that dinosaur remains are really just the “chicken” bones cast off by groups of giant aliens who stopped by Earth for a picnic.

Many scientists have claimed for years that the universe has no shortage of life form friendly planets (a.k.a. ‘M’ class planets to Star Trekkers).  This, plus the improbable odds that Earth is the only one of these places where life has flourished, form the basis for many people’s belief in extra-terrestrial life.  In a long-time quest to find support for this belief, scientists with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project have been scanning the heavens with huge radio telescopes for traces of signals that appear to be purposely generated by some intelligent life form.  It is rumored that a first contact claim was recently filed by a SETI scientist, but that it was dismissed by the rest of the scientific community because the received signal sounded vaguely like country music.

Perhaps venting his own frustration, Enrico Fermi once asked a simple question that has since come to be known as Fermi’s Paradox : “If life is common in the universe, why haven’t they shown up on Earth yet?”  In response, many scientists have postulated theories to address the paradox and  three of them are summarized here.  The first I call the “We’re number one!  We’re number one!” theory.  The second I call the “E.T. phone home” theory.  The third I call the “Noah’s Ark” theory.  Now it’s time for you to make the call.

1.  We are the first or one of the first intelligent life forms to evolve anywhere in the galaxy. In support of this theory, it is estimated that as many as 50 billion species have come and gone since life started on the Earth, yet only the humans have acquired technology.  If dolphins are so smart, how come they didn’t invent the Thigh Master?

2.  Space travel is difficult, expensive, and time consuming so we are more likely to receive radio contact than a direct visit. This theory was offered by, big surprise, a SETI scientist.  A corollary to this theory might be that the aliens got lost and the most male-like alien is too macho to stop and ask for directions.

3.  Earth is considered by other intelligent life forms to be a nature preserve and they have chosen not to interfere with our development. Perhaps wars, plagues, and natural disasters are their ways of “thinning the herd”.  Then again, maybe we are more like a farm than a nature preserve.

All of this theorizing aside, perhaps the most intriguing question is the one that typically remains unasked: “Why are we searching so hard for other intelligent life forms?”.  Not only are we searching hard for extra-terrestrial life, we even seem to personify the behavior of terrestrial animals such as apes and dolphins.  The answer to this question most certainly varies from person to person.

For many people it may be a conscious or unconscious search for God.  In that light, manned expeditions may be the modern equivalent of the building of the tower of Babel.  Consider that in the vast majority of stories about aliens, they are generally portrayed as having far superior physical, mental, and/or technological capabilities.  Fortunately, we Earthlings almost always figure out how to defeat the “bad” aliens.  Even on “Star Trek”, where we occasionally get to see beings less advanced than us, the crew still encounters beings like “Q” who are so advanced as to appear god-like.

Another possible explanation, and one that could even include the search for God, is that there is some sort of genetic loneliness that drives us in our quest.  Cavemen probably had better things to worry about at the time, but maybe the yearning has been there all along.  Perhaps, then, our more recent scientific enlightenment and self-realization simply brought it to the surface of our collective consciousness.  Maybe we, as a species, feel like we are trapped on a desert island (nature preserve?).  Are space probes then the equivalent of a note in a bottle that we cast out to drift on a vast sea of stars, hoping against all odds that “someone” will find it and rescue us?

As a final thought, consider the interesting contrast put forth in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series.  Asimov portrays Earth as the mother planet, humans as the only sentient life forms, and “aliens” as descendants of ancient human colonies.  Maybe Asimov is right.  Maybe in all of our searching we will only find ourselves.  Is that “New Age” thinking or what?