Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What the suburbs say about us

I have a dear friend who detests the suburbs.

Her particular disdain is for the Chicago suburbs, but it would not surprise me if she harbored antipathy towards suburbia in general. Part of it, I would argue, is psychological. Suburban living was not kind to her on many levels. Another part of it is quasi-elitist. Places not open late enough, places that are open are chain eateries, et. al.

But there's a big part of her objections that are valid.

All of this was brought to mind for me by a piece on Urban Archeology on PBS' Nova. Our common conception is to think of "archeology" as involving digs in remote locations, mummies in Egypt, or at the very least bullwhips and fedoras. We don't realize that much of that field of study takes place in the neighborhoods of cities. The Nova piece highlighted work being done in the Boston area that has made discoveries as to 17th and 18th Century living in those parts. I know that here in Chicago, similar work is ongoing in the Ft. Dearborn area. This work should tell us about what happened during that era of history, who the people were that lived there, and what they as a society valued.

So if similar research is undertaken on the suburbs one day, what will it say about our society? What do suburbanites value?

To answer that question, I had to recall quasi-journalistic work I did in a previous lifetime. I once randomly asked residents of a highly-affluent Chicago suburb what they liked most about their burb. The phrase I got most in return?

"We have the Riverwalk and lots of great stores and restaurants."

Right, wrong, or indifferent, that's a statement of societal value.

The respondents did not mention the school systems, the community programs, art and culture, or even the parks. They went straight for where they eat, shop, and look at pretty things.

I am not attempting to bag on suburbia per se. I lived in one for many years and I understand why they came about in theory. There were people who wanted the best of both worlds. They wanted the amenities of an urban area but with a small town feel and safety for their children (check this: Suburb-hating is anti-child!) I can empathize. One finding of our society has been, however, that where you live helps to determine your values and your mindset. If that archeological excavation ever does take place, what mindset will the suburbs reveal?

A predilection for insipid architecture?

Subdivisions of identical housing units?

An almost sexual need for shopping malls?

An extreme preoccupation with sports?

Pathological addiction to fossil fuels despite numerous signs that oil and coal are running out?

Intellectual vapidity that is treasured and then indoctrinated into children?

Expensive, copycat fashion and architecture combined with massive consumption in order to obscure all that subfuscous matter within?

Riverwalks and chain restaurants?

Ask yourself what we leave behind.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, December 15, 2014

7 steps to a brain implant

It would be a stunning achievement in biotechnology.

There's a chance it might even silence the nigh omnipresent protests from those claiming biotech "robs us of our humanity," stealing away our chances to either walk in the woods in sandals or barefoot upon thalassic beaches.


That opinion might change if brain implants could return hearing to the deaf, sight to the visually impaired, or movement to someone bound to a bed or chair. Work has been going on for many years now on how to bring such implants about and BBC Future has provided a 7-step list of considerations in creating just such devices.

-Know the route. We need to know the brain. Fortunately, our understanding of the most essential and complex of human organs is increasing. Just where an implant goes in the brain will be determined by the implant's end goal. Is it to restore motor function? Is it to compensate for stroke damage? Begin with the end in mind.

-Crack the code. In order for implants or any other biotechnology to work, we must comprehend just how signals are sent, received, and understood by the brain. This is tricky to say the least. What are the algorithms? So not only do we need to know the brain but we need to speak its language.

-Train it. The article mentions work with a retinal implant and determining how the brain receives and understands information from the eyes. The biotech device will need to be "trained" on how to contribute to this process through a set of practical experiences. I see this as a sort of calibration routine, not unlike what one might need to enact with cameras or timing devices.

-Infiltrate the brain. The fact that electrodes cause scarring and tissue damage has been a hurdle for biotech. There's also that pesky human immune system that likes to attack foreign objects. The trick with implants will be to construct them so that they do not cause such irritation or incite such attacks. One possibility? Hydrogels.

-Light. Another option is to stimulate neurons with pulses of light. The article describes a process I had not read about before called "optogenetics." It's been done with retinal implants and it involves communicating with neurons behind the eye with short flashes of light that kick the "meatstuff" into action.

-Power. How will these devices run without power? Another concern is that if they are running on electrical power, what if it heats to a point that the temperature is damaging the surrounding tissue (again we're back to that question)? One thought right now is a tiny antenna that can receive wireless charging through the skin. It's a work in progress.

-Hacking the senses. Now here's the really sexy stuff. I have described using implants to help those who are in physical need. There is, of course, also the potential for augmenting senses that already work just fine, making them better. There is already a journalist in London who has hacked his hearing aid so that he can actually hear WiFi signals. It's not all that far of a leap to then imagine super-enhanced hearing. That's not at the top of my list, but it's a start and I'll take it.

That's right. Sign me up for an implant. I'll undergo surgery. No problem. Of course I have my own objectives and the implant must meet or exceed them. After all it is my brain and I feel like I should be in control of it. Any technology that helps me do that is a benefit in my opinion. I want to be smarter, I want process information faster, and I don't want to feel pain.

Because pain sucks.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, December 12, 2014

David Bowie Is

Note: Sadly, due to copyright laws and MCA rules, photography at this exhibit was not allowed. I will instead attempt to convey my visit through words and augment them with occasional products of a Google search.

There is no art this man cannot create.

Painting. Sketching. Writing. Acting. Video. And of course, music,

Hell, he can even do mime.

I entered the exhibition "David Bowie Is" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago certainly as a fan of David Bowie. Thanks to the production at MCA, I have somehow emerged an even bigger fan. I believe that is because I now truly identify with him.

Please, please, please do not confuse that with me saying I am as talented as he is. I'm not. Not by a long shot. I do, however, relate strongly with his artistic philosophy as well as his methods. I just wish I were as fearless as he is. 

And being as talented wouldn't hurt. But I digress...

The exhibit at MCA is truly an immersive multimedia experience. Right from the beginning, staff hand you headphones. At different nodes in the exhibit continuum, the headphones receive narration, interviews with Bowie and his collaborators, and of course a soundtrack of his music. That latter point is especially fun as I caught myself singing along and noticing my fellow art patrons were doing the same.

The whole thing begins, logically, with his formative years. I was heartened by hearing that Bowie has always been a voracious reader and his original intention was to be a writer. The exhibit features his original paperback copies of the Colin MacInnres novel, Absolute Beginners, a title Bowie would later crib along with the title of the play, Look Back in Anger. 

The next station of the exhibit featured his intense interest in science fiction culminating in his signature songs "Space Oddity" and "Starman." Glass cases housed copies of J.G. Ballard novels owned by Bowie and posters for Kubrick films such as 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, both having profound influences on Bowie's music at the time. There was even the actual sea-green jumpsuit designed by Willie Brown that Bowie wore for a performance of "Starman." See below.

I think I could totally rock that outfit. The little flying saucer pins are just so...me.

Bowie also took considerable inspiration from Japanese art. Consider the following caped stage costume designed by Kansai Yamamoto:

Sort of looks like those space alien villains from the Toho films. Part of the translation on the gown, according to the exhibit text, is "spits fiery words."
Seriously. How fucking cool is that?

I was very pleased to see space devoted to Bowie's connection to William Burroughs. The original typewritten pages of Burroughs' Rolling Stone interview with Bowie were on display, but more importantly you see much much the cut-up method of writing as pioneered by Burroughs and Brion Gysin is a part of Bowie's writing process. This is in part how he arrives at amazing turns of phrase such as "gazely stare," "heart's filthy lesson," and even "hot tramp." Artistic verbigeration.

Bowie became fascinated with the concept of dystopia and had planned to do a musical stage production of George Orwell's 1984. Sadly, he could not get the rights to it. That did not stop him. Instead, Bowie worked up his own stage environment called "Hunger City" (suck it, Suzanne Collins. Bowie was first) where a totalitarian regime oppressed the proletariat. A roving gang called The Diamond Dogs is led by a character named Halloween Jack and draws heavily on A Clockwork Orange inspiration.

This might be where I find my deepest connection with Bowie. Someone once asked me, "What do you write about?" My friend Dorkland happened to be standing there at that moment and immediately piped in "Whatever he's obsessing on at the time." That comment irked me, but with a cooler head now I can honestly say it's true.

Same goes for Bowie. He would grow enamoured with a visual, a concept, or even a word. He would then focus on that new idea to the exclusion of all else, laser-focusing his vision on the concept. He would build worlds around it such as Hunger City or the cafe from "Serious Moonlight" and populate them with characters such as Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, and Nathan Adler. In the process, he would transform himself and his entire persona (one striking example is his role as John Merrick in a stage production of The Elephant Man.) When he would see his vision as complete, he would then discard it and become immediately fascinated by something else.

I took heart in this. No doubt Bowie had received the same snide comments as I have, "You keep changing your look" and "So that's what you're into this year."

There was a phrase painted on an exhibit from Bowie's Berlin era: "Plagiarism or Revolution." Like all great artists, I believe that Bowie is both. He consumed all he could of that which inspired him, then mashed it up until it was made into his own before disgorging it in the studio or onto the page. 

There is so much more to the exhibit but space and time demand that I end here. I could go on talking about Bowie's work with Brian Eno and Klaus Nomi as well as his Dadaist art. Most impressive of all was the video room with his costumes from "Ashes to Ashes," "Blue Jean," and "The Heart's Filthy Lesson." Then there's the "David Bowie Is Live" room with his stage costumes (his blue suit from Live Aid!) and concert footage projected upon a scrim a la "Sound+Vision." 

I was especially shocked to find a case with a crumpled tissue in it. The tissue had his lipstick on it from I think the Aladdin Sane era. That means his DNA is on it. I wanted to steal it and clone my own Bowie.

That beats anything from the giftshop.

If you go to the exhibit, I suggest allowing at least two hours to watch every video, read all text, and see all the fantastic outfits.

Above: Bowie's stage wear from Earthling designed by Alexander McQueen.
Below: An original Bowie painting.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Revisiting Battle Chasers

I stumbled across my trade paperback copy of a popular comic book from the late 1990s.

In fact, I'd say it was tremendously popular for a while. But as the saying goes, "the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long."

The comic book is called Battle Chasers. It was the baby of artist Joe Madureira and is a fantasy story set in an arcane land, making it somewhat of a departure in comics even to this day. Here are the principal characters:

Gully- a little girl, the daughter of an epic hero named Aramus, a man who is either missing or dead. The young girl inherited her father's magic gauntlets. When worn, the gloves give her superhuman strength.

Knolan-an old wizard and master of the magic arts. He's got a rather punky attitude and hides a shadowy past.

Garrison-a warrior and the most legendary swordsman of the land. Due to his own traumatic past, he has sworn never to pick up his blade again.

Monika-a thief, pure and simple. She looks rather like Red Sonja and has a blood lust to match.

I know what you might be thinking. Thief, wizard, warrior, and a kid carrying the mystical weapon that once belonged to her father. It's either a Dungeons & Dragons adventurers party or a Joseph Campbell hero cycle. Perhaps both. Just wait. There's an interesting twist...

Calibretto-he is a "war golem;" a giant machine built for battle and powered by I'm not sure what (steam?) While not exactly a living thing, he holds tremendous compassion and is especially protective of Gully.

Like I said, it was a departure for the milieu of the time as there weren't really any fantasy comics being printed by the big publishers. There might have been a Dungeons & Dragons book from DC or somebody, but it didn't really make much of a splash. Battle Chasers had fun, sumptuous art and an entertaining, while not especially original, story. Unfortunately, it was also nefarious for having a late publication history and ultimately the series just...ended. Permanent hiatus. On a cliffhanger, no less.

I mean it's not like you don't get a mostly satisfactory end of the story arc, but the final page alludes to more. Much more. Therefore, many fans felt (and still feel) rather cheated. Due to Joe Madureira's multitude of other ongoing projects, he has pretty much stated that Battle Chasers will remain unfinished.

Prithee, messer Madureira, reconsider?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Does science fiction have to be realistic?

What follows is an excerpt from Stem, a science fiction book that I hope to soon have published.

A bit of setup. The characters are discussing the assembly of a robot. The artificial intelligence system of the robot holds brain patterns gleaned from the DNA of several prominent leaders and artists in history. Behold:

“So what happens when the batteries go dead on this thing?” Matt asked.
“Never happen as long as it eats sugar,” Jenna answered.
“Come again?” Don asked.
“The robot’s battery is powered by microbes,” Jenna furthered.  “They eat sugar and they shit electricity.  As long as the battery is fed just every so often, it will never die.”
“This is truly frightening,” Matt said.
“More like fucking nuts,” Aldo added.  “Don’t you see this makes no fucking sense?  Do you even know how DNA works?  Just because you got the fucking DNA…old and mighty fuckin’ dusty DNA I might add…of all those stiffs, that in no way means you’re going to bring back their personalities and memories.  What the fuck are you thinking?”

“Hey!” Jenna, a full three heads shorter than Aldo, strode over to confront him.  “Drop those questions.  You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about."

And indeed the questions over the robot and the DNA end right there. Why? Well, I suspect that you already know the reason. What I am describing is scientifically impossible. I know that and since this is a work of satirical science fiction, I'm having the characters poke a bit of fun at that fact.

This does lend itself to a larger issue about science fiction, however. Must science fiction be realistic?

I read an article about that very subject by Steven Lyle Jordan just recently at the web site, SciFiIdeas. Jordan begins by describing a book where the plot involves Earth after "global cooling." The writer of the book took his ideas from an organization called Space and Science Research Center that is very much against the concept of human-made climate change. One Facebook poster commented on the matter thusly: “I suspect your book will be much better fiction than anything peddled by the SSRC. Science does not have to be believable, as long as your characters are.”

That may be the crux of things when looking at through the prism of composing literature. Should facts ever get in the way of a good story? If so, how much?

Jordan points out an interesting dichotomy. Consumers appear to delight in heading straight to their computers and lodging their online complaints about how scientifically inaccurate Interstellar was (fair warning: I haven't seen it.) By the same token, many of those said individuals will glow and delight about the new Star Wars trailer. As much as I adore Star Wars, it's obviously not very scientific. Other examples of this contradiction are big breadwinners such as Guardians of the Galaxy (represented by Groot above).

The upshot of Jordan's thesis seems to be that we (writers, readers, fans, etc.) neglect the "science" half of "science fiction" at our peril. To wit:

"I (apparently) represent a dwindling number of science fiction authors who believe that the science in science fiction is important enough to take every effort to make it not only believable, but as far as we can determine, possible.  We put considerable effort into researching our science and technology, crafting our stories around as plausible a series of scientific details as we can work out."

I get that.

For a long time the genre has suffered from near terminal dilution. Sped along by the popularity of Star Wars, a new "brand" was ushered in called "Sci Fi." It's fast, glossy, poppy, and essentially an action movie in space. Any "science" occurs by happenstance. Guardians of the Galaxy sure seems to fit this mold...or maybe I'm just bitter because they're not my Guardians. Harlan Ellison will write and speak at length about his particular disdain for "Sci Fi" and its fans.

It appears this is may be a variation on similar themes: art vs. commerce. Literary vs. genre.

I see both sides of the argument as I'm a fan of texts on both sides. Therefore, I suppose I can really only speak to what my motivations were in writing Stem.

I infused a fair amount of research on how a robot such as the one in my book might be constructed. However, I chose to eschew scientific accuracy when it came to what can realistically be done with DNA. I did that because I wanted to make a larger point. I wanted to make a statement about society. I wanted to write about higher education, specifically the crazy trials, tribulations, and honestly the faculty that currently make up the field.

Vonnegut would do similar things to make his satiric points. I certainly do not claim to be anywhere near his level of talent, instead I'm saying I'm merely employing a similar tactic. While his writing, especially Slaughterhouse Five, fits squarely in the literary canon, it has its obvious science fiction tropes as well. Are they scientifically accurate? Hardly. But I would argue that was never his intention. He had bigger fish to fry.

Like us.

H.G. Wells was somewhat in the same camp. While he was interested and knowledgeable about scientific progress, he was far more interested in where it was taking us and what it was doing to us. Was War of the Worlds scientifically accurate?

In the end, does it matter?

Guess it's your intent that decides that.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mixed thoughts about Orion

Orion has launched into space and I am ambivalent.

Though this first launch was un-crewed, Orion signifies at a least a step towards returning America to manned missions in space. More than that, the intention of the Orion spacecraft is to take humans to the Moon and eventually Mars. Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, paraphrased Vice President Joe Biden by calling the Orion project a "BFD." 

And I suppose it is. After all, this is the first test of a spacecraft solely designed to take humans into deep space. A NASA launch is tentatively scheduled for 2020 where humans will orbit the Moon and return. Then it will be on to Mars. Last week's test flight was considerably more underwhelming than that, but then again it needed to be. It was, after all, a test run.

The Orion was launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. As one of my student's described it, this rocket is "basically a Saturn V [the rocket that took men to the Moon] on steroids." The Orion capsule flew to a height 15 times that of the International Space Station. The capsule separated and then orbited the Earth twice before splashing down in the Pacific where the Navy recovered it. Data is now being analyzed from the test flight, determining how well Orion's heat shield handled the 4K+ degree temperatures. Sensors were also to record just how much radiation astronauts are exposed to when passing through the Van Allen radiation belt.

So why am I left so flat by Orion?

Overall, however, it seems like NASA just recycled the Apollo program. Yes, Orion is larger and it will carry a crew double that of Apollo, but this just betrays, to me anyway, a startling lack of originality and vision. Is this the best that NASA can come up with?

I don't mean to capriciously portray myself as any kind of philosophaster. I'm not sure exactly just what it was I expected from a new space program. I want human space exploration to continue. I want us to return to the Moon and to go on to Mars. I also won't quibble over the definition of "deep space." This is, overall, a good thing.

Maybe it's because of the actions of the private sector and for once I mean that in a good way. It seems that folks like Elon Musk are demonstrating greater innovation and vision when it comes to moving out into space, especially when it comes to Mars. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if a privately funded and crewed mission arrives on Mars a decade or so before NASA can even get out of Lunar orbit.

But Orion is better than nothing.

I guess.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets