Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Total body replacement

On a rainy Saturday in a university library, my reverie went astray.

What if I, somehow. became fully posthuman? What would life be like?
A few parameters for what I'm about to write:

First, there are few books you should eventually read to get the most out of what I'm about to describe. The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil and The Transhumanist Reader edited by Natasha Vita-More and Max More are both essential reading on the subject.

Secondly, this post is not entertaining "Wellwhatabouts" and "What ifs." Naturally there are many and I've never shied away from them. Heck as I'm blogging this, TCM is showing The Curse of Frankenstein. A warning or just seasonal fare? Anyway, I'm not interested in any contrarian sparring at this moment. I'm trying to provide positives before a successive post on the negatives.

As I've said many times before, this is nothing new. Gilgamesh searched an elixir that would allow him to overcome the greatest of human frailties: death. Dante used the term transumanare in The Divine Comedy to mean, "to pass beyond the human." While he didn't mean by the application of technologies, Nietzsche saw humans as something to be overcome, asking "What have you done to overcome him?" That latter point, to my way of thinking, is the purpose of posthumanism. To overcome. More on that in a moment.

In his essay, "Why I Want to be Posthuman When I Grow Up," Max More identifies three categories of the human condition to consider:

1. Healthspan. This means being fully active, healthy and productive mentally and physically.
2. Cognition. The capacity to remember and to analyze.
3. Emotion. The capacity to react and enjoy.

Posthumanism is the ability to go beyond what is humanly possible in any or all of those categories. To me, it means overcoming the inherent limitations and to finally have control. It is my life, my body, and my mind. If the means exist, why should I not have the right modify what I am to my own desires? Sure, you can argue that we do have control through practices such as diet, exercise, medicine, meditation, and all that rot. But they are inefficient and in the end they are illusory. I don't care how many weights you lift and how much kale you stuff down, you will eventually meet your end. It just takes the right disease or injury or the mere ravages of time. You think you have control, but I'm sorry. You don't. On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

I then began to contemplate how my life would be different if I did have complete and total technological replacement in these three domains.

1. Physically. After the library last Saturday, I got my hair cut. They placed a black, vinyl shroud over my midsection and all I saw was gray hair falling upon it. It sickened me. What could I do to stop it? I mean truly eradicate it? Biosculpture. Better yet, mind upload into an artificial body. No more stomach problems. No more inefficient wastes of time as I brush to keep my teeth clean and my breath fresh, or swabbing skin and applying creams to fight off acne and wrinkles. I can at last eradicate my awful flaws. Want to fire me? Fine. I don't need to eat. I don't need shelter. I don't get cold. I don't get hungry. I don't get tired. I don't get sick. Something broke down? I simply replace it with a new component.

2. Mentally. This is the most tantalizing to me. I nearly salivate at the idea of rapidly correlating vast amounts of information and seeing patterns my meat-brain is currently incapable of. No more data corruption of memory with age. I was saying today that I feel I have long since lost my creativity. It's almost a foreign concept to me. With an enhanced mind, I wonder if I could reclaim it and then some. Which leads me to...

3. Emotionally. I realize that creativity is connected in several ways to emotion. "You need suffering for your art." Perhaps. Even so, I covet the ability to switch off emotions. To feel nothing, especially after the past ten month, well...it would be a complete and total sense of relief. Inhuman you say? Posthuman I say. Laugh all you want about the Vulcan mentality but to me it sounds like bliss of its own kind. At this point I just want the option. I want control. If I must have this body and this mind, I at least want my hands on the source code to decide what I want to do with it.

I am not even considering any of the "superhuman" add-ons that might be possible. For the time being I would be satisfied with total control.Why be confined to an outdated and purely philosophical notion of what "humanity" should be?

I say it can be anything we want it to be.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, October 12, 2017

DeLonge, Disclosure, and Doubt

There has been a bit of excitement in the UFO community.

Yesterday saw the market debut of To The Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (TTS/AAS). Leslie Kean, an investigative journalist who deserves every little bit of respect she gets, covered the event for the Huffington Post.

“We believe there are discoveries within our reach that will revolutionize the human experience,” says company President and CEO Tom DeLonge.

Yes. That guy from Blink-182.

Most of the buzz was due to the fact that former members of the U.S. intelligence community were present at the debut. One of them was Luis Elizondo, a man who has worked for the Department of Defense, the National Counterintelligence Executive, and the Director of National Intelligence, and an arm-long list of other intelligence posts. He is also the former Director of Programs to investigate Unidentified Aerial Threats for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. What exactly did that latter post entail? He said he ran “a sensitive aerospace threat identification program focusing on unidentified aerial technologies.”

As reported by George Knapp, a legendary UFO journalist in his own right, Elizondo said: "I ran a sensitive aerospace identification program focusing on unidentified aerial technologies. It was in this position that I learned the phenomena is indeed real."

Chris Mellon, a longtime Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, was also there and related an account of an alleged 2004 UFO encounter involving the USS Nimitz carrier battle group:

" “Two F-18s approach, the four aviators see that the object has no wings or exhaust — it is white, oblong, some 40 ft long and perhaps 12 ft thick”, he said. “One pilot pursues the craft while his wingman stays high. The pilots are astonished to see the object suddenly reorient itself toward the approaching F-18. In a series of discrete tumbling maneuvers that seem to defy the laws of physics, the object takes a position directly behind the approaching F-18.”

"The lengthy event occurred in broad daylight off the California coast, and gun camera footage was taken. At one point the object went from hovering at 80,000 feet to dropping at supersonic speeds, and came to a complete stop at 50 feet above the ocean. “More F-18’s are dispatched but with similar results,” Mellon stated. “The secret machine easily evades the F-18s. Dozens of military personnel aboard the various planes and ships involved are privy to these interactions.” "

Sounds familiar. 

In the wake of the event, Kean posted the following to her Facebook page:

"A MESSAGE FOR MY FRIENDS HERE: Folks, I'm concerned that some of you are missing the point. The head of a secret UFO program at the DOD has just come forward to confirm the existence of that program. Based on the work of this official program, he has stated for the world to hear, that UFOs are unquestionably real. He left that program less than 2 weeks ago. This is as close to official "disclosure" as we have come since the close of Project Blue Book. It's big news."

Indeed, many were jumping up and down and crying "disclosure at last!"

Yeah, I don't know.

Leslie Kean is quite level-headed, so to see her getting so excited does give me pause. I don't doubt the credentials of the men involved and I certainly do not question their knowledge or their service. The problem is that, yet again, what we have amounts to a collection of stories.

Anecdotal evidence, no matter who it's from, is not evidence.

Nothing physical, either biological or metallurgical, was presented for peer-reviewed study. The group promises to release photos and videos of UFOs that have been supposedly been kept under wraps. It's hard to see how this could qualify as evidence either as we live in the era of Photoshop, After Effects, and any number of other digital video FX applications. In the end, the world must see physical evidence or peer-reviewed data, such as astronomers announcing they've detected life on another planet.

Additionally, this whole thing just seems to be a way for DeLonge to kick off his business. The following was posted on his Facebook page:

That's right. The former guitarist/vocalist of Blink-182 is building a vehicle that will utterly defy the laws of physics and you are lucky enough to get in on the ground floor if you "INVEST."

Folks, when someone involved in Ufology starts begging for your cash, be wary. I know I am. It's just more reason why many view Ufology as laughable and moribund.

Speaking of exotic technology, that appears to be the focus of this new business as well as DeLonge's media franchise, Sekret Machines [sic]. I find it puzzling that there is more interest in the engineered devices (if they indeed be physical realities and not something more in line with Vallee's theories) than in who actually constructed them and why.

The testimonials intrigue me and Kean's endorsement, as I said, does give me pause. But this should be all about tangible evidence.

So far, DeLonge has yet to offer any.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, October 9, 2017

Before you dismiss fan fiction, consider this...

"It's like someone writing Star Trek fanfic."

That quip is from the comments section on an article about the new series, Star Trek: Discovery. Now in all fairness, I have not seen the show so I cannot speak to its quality or perhaps lack thereof. What's prompting me to blog tonight is that comment. Its author did not mean it as a compliment (shocker.) In a hurry to gleefully rip the new show, he tangentially smeared an entire genre of writing.

Fan fiction, I believe, actually serves an important cultural and rhetorical function.

Fan fiction, or "fanfic" as it is often abbreviated, is any writing based on an already established work of fiction, most often movies or TV. Stories based on properties such as Star Trek or Star Wars are probably the most prevalent, but you can find fanfic derived from the most obscure fictional universes. I personally have written fanfic based on my favorite b-movie, Green Slime...something maybe three other people in existence might be interested in. This kind of writing has been around for a long while, but the Internet given access and connection to so many writers and readers of the genre that it has almost become commonplace.

Exploring all the various flora, fauna, and subgenres of fan fiction, such as fusion, episode fixes, slash, wish fulfillment, and so on, would take multiple blog posts. I hate linking to Wikipedia, but if you want to know more about these subgenres, check out this rundown. Better yet...go read Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins and The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context by Sheenagh Pugh. They are probably the finest Comp/Rhet scholars on the subject.

Fan fiction is much maligned. It has the reputation of being truly awful writing done by slovenly types who still live in their parents' basement and sit behind their computers, either writing self-indulgent works rooted in their own favorite commercial properties or posting nitpicking comments on someone else's writing, attempting to act as a gatekeeper or "genre constraint enforcer" by schooling the author on what is and isn't "canon." Obviously there's some of that. The Internet is an inherently democratic medium and any time you open the gates that wide, you're going to get a fair share of trash. You are also going to get good work as well. Axiological arguments don't matter to me, though. That's because I believe there are two far more important things happening when people write fanfic.

First of all, people are writing. I mean, they are actually choosing to write. As a professor who has sometimes struggled to get students to string two words together or has lamented the devaluation of the written word, I think this is extraordinary. No one sits down to write unless they feel exigency. There is something inside them and they must get it out through writing. What's more, they are doing it without any realistic hope of attaining those two most American goals: fame and fortune. They're doing it simply because they want to. I don't care what is prompting someone to write this way. I'm just glad that it's happening. When I taught at St. Joe, I heard tell of a small underground of Harry Potter fanfic writers and the thought of it always made me smile.

Secondly, there is something so human going on. People are reclaiming their agency, their authority, their right to contribute to myth. Here's what I mean.

Someone could tell an assembled audience that they are going to read their own version of Jack and the Beanstalk. The storyteller might get a couple arched eyebrows, but likely nothing more than that and would be permitted to read on. If that same said storyteller were to say "I am going to read you my Batman story," the reaction might be different. "How are you qualified to write Batman?" "Do you work for DC Comics or Warner Brothers?" "That's a copyrighted property, you know. It doesn't belong to you."

Myths did not used to belong to only select collectives of the population. Everyone was involved in creating them. Everyone. It was an organic occurrence, involving everyone who either told the stories as oral tradition or wrote them down. The idea that someone had ownership over them would have seemed almost laughable in ancient Greece or Rome. Once business got more and more involved, that all changed of course.

Fan fiction takes away that spurious requirement of being "credentialed" before you are free to write a story. Selling the story and profiting from what began as someone else's creation, well that's something else entirely in our day and age and it really isn't a good idea. The pure act of writing the text however, that's something fundamental to our nature and no external authorities can keep that down for long.

You want to write a Harry Potter story? Do it. And do it in any way that you want to do it. Feel bad because it's not "your own?" Don't. Here's one comment I saw from a fanfic writer that really puts the matter in perspective:

"Sometimes I think I should be doing my own writing. Then I remember...I already am."

By the way, I once wrote a paper on myth and fanfic. Even presented it at a conference. I thought about expanding the paper and trying to publish it, but honestly there's nothing I could say that Jenkins and Pugh haven't already.

Why bother?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

We can forget it for you wholesale

What would you forget?

Neurologists have found that memories stored on the same neuron can be selectively erased. 

In snails, anyway. You may be balking already. Keep in mind that such experiments are conducted on simpler lifeforms as a sort of "proof of concept" and come on...it's not like there haven't be other eyebrow arching neurological studies. Yes of course the human brain is magnitudes of order more complex than a snail's. For perspective, let's go to Michio Kaku:

The human mind as the most sophisticated object in the known universe, more powerful than any of our current computers. Factually inarguable, despite all the stupid things we do.

Point being, would the erasure of selected memories even be possible with something so complex? Unknown, but the procedure in its most basic form does work. One of the more interesting findings of the study is that the erasure of selected memories does not affect the other memories stored on the same neurons.

Imagine it. Erase the bad and leave only the good.

Why not forget your phobias and irrational fears? Erase your fear of heights and rent that deluxe aerie downtown. Pass sites of traumatic experiences with no stress or fuss. Be haunted no more by your mistakes of past shame. Think of what this could do for those suffering from PTSD.

But what of the consequences?

Despite how sexy a new development of this kind may sound, prudence dictates that we examine the potential pitfalls. Science fiction certainly has. Upon reading the above linked article, I immediately thought of Philip K. Dick. His short story "Paycheck" is about an electrical engineer who is contractually obligated to have his memory erased after working on a secret project. "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the short story that became the film Total Recall (a favorite and probably Schwarzenegger's best) is about implanting memories, but not without its share of dire consequences nonetheless. Then again it begs the question: if you can erase, could you not implant?

That would likely be more difficult. As the study points out, the bad memories could be erased through a designer drug. For anything beyond erasure, it would likely require a direct brain-computer interface. Transhumanism once again.

Would you do it? Do you at last want to silence those ghosts and their screaming? Or do you need your pain? Does it guide you, inform your decisions, maybe even provide a sick sort of comfort?

I would argue that there are memories that deserve to be erased. I know exactly which ones I'd select.

Oh blissful amnesia...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, September 28, 2017

In memorium: science fiction stars lost in 2017

This year has seen a precipitous drop in posts at ESE and for obvious reasons.
By "obvious" I mean either major depression or time lost to scouring job ads...or as I call them, "the lonely hearts column."

That means that I have been remiss in writing needed tributes to three actors who were pivotal in bringing a few of my favorite science fiction TV shows to life.

Just four days after the closing of Saint Joseph's College, I got another kick in the teeth. Richard Hatch died. He played Captain Apollo on the original Battlestar Galactica. As a noble hero Viper pilot with a profound sense of duty, he played the Iceman to Starbuck's Maverick, to remain in keeping with the fighter pilot conceit. Though the show ended in 1979, Hatch never lost faith that it could be brought back. In the 1990s he produced a pilot, proof-of-concept film that had Apollo taking over as leader of the fleet after the fall of his father, Adama. That production never came to pass, but Hatch was asked to be a recurring guest star on the Galactica reboot of the 2000s.

Go to the Ship of Lights, Captain.

Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau died last July. He had a few guest roles on Twilight Zone and especially The Outer Limits, but it was Space: 1999 that will always be memorable to me. On that show he played Commander John Koenig, leader of Moonbase Alpha, a research station on the Moon. A massive nuclear detonation breaks the Moon to pieces and the section holding Moonbase Alpha is sent hurtling through space. Koenig then found himself as not simply the commander of an installation but the de facto leader of a displaced people. Through it all, Landau just made Koenig seem so human
Of course Landau had an extensive career well beyond this genre fare. If you really want to see an amazing performance from him, check out his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. In a movie full of great moments and performances, Landau manages to stand out from it all.

Keep wandering the stars, Commander.

Almost one month ago to the day we lost Richard Anderson. He was a seasoned television and film actor (notably Perry Mason), but I will always know him as Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man. I guess you could say Oscar was the equivalent of a "CIA handler" for Steve Austin, the Bionic Man. Something about Anderson's presence and delivery made it seem like he was born to be a government administrator/spook.

As you might say to Steve, "Later, pal."

I could do without blogging any more obituaries. This year has seen enough tragedy.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The tweets are flares

If you're new to ESE, this post might seem out of place.

Fact is though, it's never been a blog to shy away from politics. So what's on my mind now? Probably much the same as everyone else in the nation, but in a different way. I shall explain.

As you undoubtedly know by now, the President, mostly via Twitter, called out NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem. The ensuing brouhaha has consumed news and social media for the past three days. I must say, President Trump has been very clever. Ingenious, really. He is practicing the rhetoric of distraction.

It's something of a fundamental rule: If you don't like what people are saying, change the conversation. In Twitter, Trump has a unexampled tool at his disposal to accomplish this and he knows it. You see unlike his predecessors, Trump was an active tweeter well before he became president. He recognizes, among other things, that this places him in a position unique up until this point in presidential history.

He can make statements directly to the world. They don't go through the White House communications department. They don't get massaged by speech writers, doubtless to the chagrin of at least a few senior staffers. The messages are raw and unmitigated. Trump has seen what they can do...and he likes it.

Try this analogy. If a missile is launched at a military aircraft, that aircraft can often fire a series of flares behind. The intent is that the missile will change course and follow the flares, leaving the aircraft to evade, fire back at its attacker, etc.

The President's tweets are those flares.

He tweets something and the media, and consequently the rest of us, go chasing after it. The more inflammatory the tweets, the more attention they garner. The text of the tweets become the focus of the national discourse (notice how Trump seldom speaks of the tweets in person, almost as if they were written and released by a hidden alter ego.) Now news media is entirely to blame for this. After all, the president has historically been sort of the nation's classroom professor. He (and I use the pronoun "he" because let's face it, it's been all men) sets both the agenda and tone of national discussion and the media covers it.

Given that unstated power, you might well wonder why the various levels of patriotism in NFL players is of national concern. I know I do. Well, consider the following:

-First of all, NFL players are something of an easy target for him. There has long been a growing opinion that the players are egregiously overpaid for playing a game and not doing "real work" (whatever that latter phrase might mean).
-A new football season has just started and there is all the usual excitement that goes with it, bringing the sport back on the national radar.
-The national anthem protests are full of charged energy involving highly emotional subjects like race and patriotism. A savvy rhetorician can further stoke those emotions by choosing equally emotional words and phrases such as "booing," "great anger," and "SOB" (the latter, it should be noted, was said in person and not on Twitter.)

Now consider what isn't at the top of national discussion in the wake of the tweets:

-The GOP push in the Senate to repeal ACA and leave millions without health insurance.
-Republicans are about to unveil their tax reform outline.
-Millions of Americans in Puerto Rico who are without power or aid after Hurricane Maria (granted, Trump has tweeted about this situation, but it seems lopsided by way of comparison to his NFL tweets).
-There's a nuclear standoff with North Korea that hasn't gone anywhere.
-And Robert Mueller keeps quietly plugging away.

Believe it or not, I don't write this to either bash or condone Trump. As I said, it's a clever maneuver and I'm rather fascinated by it. Also, one can use distraction to either good or ill ends. Social media is still rather new and its affect on politics and rhetoric is still to be understood. Trump seems ahead of the curve, knowing full well what a few tweets are capable of. Indeed he may be correct in that his use of Twitter is "modern presidential,"  ushering communication from the Executive Branch into the 21st Century...or rendering it without the dignity, eloquence, or moral arc it previously had depending upon who you talk to. Regardless, I would implore everyone to please keep their attention on the weighty matters that will affect us not only today but in the years to come. Try not to follow the hot, shiny flares.

Yes I would say that no matter who occupied the White House.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets