Searching for the perfect zap!

As published in the Fresno Bee Sunday, June 14, 1992

When I was a teenager growing up in north Fresno, my friends and I used to combat the warm summer nights with the occasional cold beer. Knowing that our parents didn't actually approve of this, we didn't bother to tell them and had to drive to secluded spots for consumption.

Back then (OK, it was only a dozen years ago, but it seems like "back then" to me), at the start of Fresno's Great Northward Migration, there were a lot of streets just south of Herndon that had lights but no houses. Perfect for a few of us to experiment with new brands, kick out the jams with the Rolling Stones or The Who and philosophize about important things like girls and music and girls.

For some reason, the authorities frowned on these summer soirees, so our greatest fear was getting "caught." To keep the advantage, we needed relative darkness, which the pesky street lights negated. We needed a method to turn off the street lights without actually breaking them, since would also break laws that we didn't want to mess with.

We got our wish when our resident techno-whiz realized that these particular street lights were light-sensitive: rather than being on a timer, they had a sensor that turned them on at dusk and off at dawn. Just a short burst of a high-powered flashlight meant several minutes of darkness while the confused streetlight reoriented itself. Just as we saw the light warming back on, a quick phaser blast from the flashlight neutralized it again.

Eternal green, and other dreams

The only reason I mention all of this (besides to make my mom cringe) is that, a while back, I saw on the news that the Clovis Fire Department is using the same concept to speed up response time to fires. The way I understand it is that as they approach an intersection, they shoot a beam of light at the signal to change it from read to green. Since every second counts in an emergency situation, this should save lives. Good. I think it's only the experimental phase; when implemented fully it will give the Clovis Fire Department access to what the rest of us only dream about: eternal green lights.


Eternal green lights: more than love or money or power or fame it's what I really want in this existence. Eternal green lights: I could go wherever I wished and never have to stop; my life would be like an old Bruce Springsteen song. Eternal green lights: no more sucking up fumes behind some 18-wheeler while I wait forever at Shaw and Blackstone. Eternal green lights: I want this technology . . . don't you?

Therein lies the rub. Human nature being what it is, it's only a matter of time before some high-tech hacker bootlegs the whole kit and caboodle and markets it in the back of magazines like Cars, Yay! and Civil Disobedience.

So what happens then? Two people approach an intersection, zap it at the same time, and the poor overworked signal -- already reeling from the bad karma constantly tossed its way (when was the last time you thanked rather than cursed a traffic light) -- has a nervous breakdown and just stays red.

It would be like the Dr. Seuss story "The Zax," where neither the northbound nor southbound Zax would move for the other. Civilization would grind to a halt.

Of course, if the firefighters somehow kept the technology to themselves they'd still have to deal with the "I-think-I-can-beat-'em" syndrome that really makes their job difficult. You know, the same urge that makes people try to beat trains. I know this urge well. While I always pull over for those scary wailing blinking emergency vehicles, I can testify to the absolute adrenalin burst I get when I'm approaching a railroad crossing and things start moving and flashing and dinging and I've got to make that split-second decision: stop? No, go! as I crunch the accelerator in a massive fear frenzy and barely slip under. What a rush!

It's not like I do this all the time, mom. Its just one of those impulses we all get -- to take a stupid risk once in a while. Like the people whom I constantly see speeding through intersections just ahead of fire trucks and ambulances. Which is why the Clovis Fire Department needs to take its concept one step beyond. It needs the Electro-Magnetic Pulse.

For those of you who might not be into some of the more evil things our military-industrial complex spewed out during the Cold War, the EMP is a weird side effect of an airborne nuclear detonation. It permanently fires electronic equipment and kills cars dead.

The EMP isn't one of the more highly remembered aspects of nuclear war, for a very simple reason -- if you're just about to be nuked because we let Saddam stay in power (which rendered the mostly pointless Gulf War completely pointless, especially because our homeboys the Saudis have recently jacked oil prices skywards) and get the Bomb, you really don't care if your Nirvana tape just stopped playing.

Endless possibilities

But imagine the sea of possibilities if the Clovis Fire Department could harness the EMP. Instead of guessing what that unpatriotic lout in the Honda Accord is going to do, the speeding fire truck fires a couple of EMP bursts and wham! -- its a whole new kind of Jap-bashing.

In fact, EMP technology could be used by ambulances and even the police. Imagine how much faster the Clovis Police could rid the Carl's Jr. parking lot of those teen-age curfew violators if they didn't have to worry about traffic. Of course, the streets would be littered with stopped vehicles, so maybe they'd have to modify it a bit. But the concept is sound and I offer it freely as a public service.

Of course, once again the rest of use will want this, and the more clever will get it. The EMP in everyday use: practical jokes with elevators; that guy who warms his Volkswagen up at 5 a.m.; no more Muzak!! God, I love technology.

--Jim Connelly

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This document last modified on 16 January 1996
I was listening to Robert Johnson -- The Complete Recordings