Thursday, February 4, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I have purposefully waited almost two months.

A new installment of the science fiction epic that got me to love science fiction in the first place has been in theaters for a quite a while now, but there's been nary a peep about it on ESE. I waited because I wanted to let the furor die down, to let the multitudinous appraisals explode then wither, and I suppose I wanted to diminish my chances of publishing spoilers. Even though I'm pretty sure that everyone who wanted to see this film has probably seen it by now, I know that everyone's situation is different and I will therefore allow at least a bit of spoiler space. Please scroll below.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens begins 30 years after the last Death Star was destroyed over Endor. We thought the Empire had fallen at the end of Return of the Jedi, but they seem to have simply re-branded themselves as "The First Order," complete with stormtroopers, TIE fighters, and everything. On the wasteland planet of Jakku, a young scavenger named Rey comes across a lone droid called BB-8. This droid is the custodian of a map that tells the location of Luke Skywalker, who has been missing for the better part of the past 30 years. Rey teams with Finn, a former stormtrooper who left that life, to get the map back into the hands of the Resistance...which is now apparently the re-branded Rebellion. It won't be easy as the Sith lord named Kylo Ren will be leading the entire First Order after our new heroes.

No sir. I didn't like it.

However, this film was not without its positives. In the spirit of fairness, let's first take a look at what Star Wars VII got right.

-The look. I was not opposed to the computer-generated world that George Lucas gave us with the prequels, but it wasn't until seeing The Force Awakens that I realized just how overdone it all was. Physical models and techniques similar to those first used in A New Hope reminded me of what gave the first trilogy their unique appearance. You just can't beat it.

-The new characters. Finn, Poe, and especially Rey are great additions. You quickly get a sense of who the are and develop something of an establishment something of an attachment to them. And no, Rey is not a Mary Sue.

-Getting the band back together. No matter the circumstances, it really was great fun to see familiar characters and vehicles again on the big screen.

Unfortunately, those positives were outweighed by what I didn't like. Such as:

-The look. I know, I know. I just said that I liked the look. I did. In terms of the special effects, that is. The film itself just looks like one big streak of gray. That's it. I know that everyone lambastes director JJ Abrams for his lens flare, but I'm starting to see "gray" as his true trademark.

-No background. A New Hope didn't slow down too terribly much but we still found out what we needed to know. Politically, we knew enough about the Empire and the Rebellion to understand what was happening. You get none of that here. Why are they called "The First Order?" Why is there a "Resistance?" Didn't they finish all this at the Battle of Endor? What exactly is happening? Damn if I know, but I'm guessing JJ wants us to keep coming back to the movies to find out. For me, it's just frustrating.

-Recycling. The whole plot is a refurbishing of Episode IV. I think that so much derision was hurled at the prequels, for just and unjust reasons, that JJ Abrams thought the only way to escape all that was to copy what worked exactly. They did it right down to the massive planet killer that must be flown into and blown up but first its defense shield must be brought down. Placate the desiderata of the masses and you'll never go wrong. Well I'd rather see something new. The Force Awakens merely reuses the old as pre-fab plot.

-The Force. I guess it's supposed to "awaken" in this movie. Awaken from what, though? We don't find out but it's presence is startlingly nil. There is no spiritual connection as in Episodes IV-VI or even that of I-III. The most we get is Golden Girls reject, Maz Kanata. What gives? Along those lines...

-Lame, clumsy lightsaber fights. I know that the opponents in these duels were not supposed to be experts yet, but if you can't show someone doing it right...

-Kylo Ren. Any criticisms of Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker are now nullified. Kylo Ren is the ultimate "whiney emo kid with issues." I was not menaced by him. I felt no "shock and awe" from his presence as I did with his grandfather, Darth Vader. In fact, I wanted Kylo to keep his Sith mask on so I could try to forget that we have a Sith villain who looks like a member of One Direction. If this is the new trilogy's main antagonist, prepare for boredom.

-Luke. I want to change the title of this film from The Force Awakens to Waiting for Luke. Only I think Beckett would have had more patience than me. I wait all through the movie for one minute of Luke? I know JJ wants that to tantalize me into seeing Episode VIII, but forget it.

-Han dies. Whatever enjoyment I was getting from the movie up until that point died with him. I know Harrison Ford likely wanted to exit that way, but I have a problem with that. He originally wanted Han to die at the end of Return of the Jedi. I'm paraphrasing, but I recall an interview where Ford said he told George Lucas, "he [Han] has got no mama, no papa, let's give some weight to this thing." Meaning, have Han sacrifice himself and die a hero's death. Lucas said no. JJ must have said yes but that didn't happen here. Han died an empty and meaningless death that leaves poor Chewie a tortured soul. I guess that must be in keeping with what is thought to be the postmodern, "Edgy McEdgerson" film goer, but I despised it.

-"It was just like the first time! The magic is back!" That was the gist of many of the early reviews. I simply did not get that impression. Episode IV had a mythic and optimistic feel to it. As Lucas said, "It's an optimistic film in a cynical world." I did not get the same feeling from The Force Awakens. Now that might be unfair as I am no longer five and there is therefore no way I could have the same reaction to a Star Wars movie as I did the first time. Still, this one came off as bleak, unrelenting, and somewhat hopeless.

I may not have liked the movie but you won't catch me ranting against it or its successors. This new trilogy of Star Wars is clearly not being made for me and that's okay. Things are meant to be reinvented and new, younger audiences need things to speak to them in their own generational ways. Me? I have my old DVDs and my Star Wars Marvel Comics (Jaxxon! What up!) so I'll be sitting this new crop out.

Unless curiosity about what happened to Luke gets the better of me.

And dammit, it just might.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Millions of moms threatened by an idea

Sound the alarm.

There is a new television series on Fox called Lucifer starring Tom Ellis (above) that portrays the Prince of Darkness as just one of us, albeit one of us who can easily finagle his way out of speeding tickets and is irresistible to women.

Lucifer is based on a comic book published by the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics. The comic itself was spun out of another series, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, which is where I first became acquainted with this incarnation of the Devil. In that latter comic book, the evil one simply realizes how bored and unhappy he is with ruling Hell. So he leaves. He comes to our world in human form and in search of new things to satisfy his yearnings. Does that make for an interesting narrative premise?

The organization One Million Moms sure doesn't think so. This group is opposed to what they call a "spiritually dangerous" program and they have called for a boycott of the show's sponsors as a means of financially driving the series from the air. Businesses on this list include Olive Garden and Kay Jewelers. The OMM collective has the right to do this, just as many of us would boycott businesses whose practices we find disagreeable.

So why am I writing about this? Well, I suppose the actions of OMM bother me on two levels.

First, if their concerns are truly about the "spiritual," and with their site providing links to Christian organizations such as American Family Association it would suggest so, then one would presume that OMM should have greater worries. There are any number of social injustices that should concern a "spiritual" person. Love, as described in several different spiritual texts, could go a long way towards making a difference with social, gender, and economic inequalities. That doesn't seem to be what they're interested in though. Instead, they appear more preoccupied with opposing what GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz calls "New York values." Cruz has even credited that opposition with his recent Iowa caucus win, saying that "Judeo-Christian values" are why his campaign is "resonating."

For the life of me I cannot see what he means by these "values" other than pledging to stop legal and safe abortions and calling for holier-than-thou discrimination against homosexuals.

Perhaps my larger qualm comes from the text of OMM's boycott call. The statement includes a line of dialogue from the show: "'Do you think I'm the devil because I'm inherently evil or just because dear old Dad decided I was?' The question is meant to make people rethink assumptions about good and evil, including about God and Satan." I have zeroed in on their phrase, "The question is meant to make people rethink assumptions about good and evil."

How dare the show's creators do that? Why should assumptions ever be challenged? Why should anyone be made to think? I am not calling Lucifer a "TV show for thinking people," not by any stretch. More to the point, I am unsettled by OMM declaring that there are ideas that should remain free from the scrutiny of the human mind or that there cannot be multiple interpretations of a single idea. If there is anything greater than discussing, challenging, and examining the many possible meanings of good and evil, I don't know what it is.

But wait. Maybe they are arguing that it's not so much about the presence of the content as it is that children might see it. After all, OMM has led previous boycott campaigns against gay characters in comic books and the new "adult" version of The Muppets on ABC with each of these campaigns finding a startling lack of success. You don't want your child to view this material? Fair enough. Fortunately there is a simple solution.

Don't let them see it.

To attempt to nullify works that challenge your beliefs is to threaten an informed democracy. To do so in the name of "somebody think of the children!" is a logical fallacy. When this kind of thinking becomes a mode of political thinking, then I begin to get truly afraid.

And despite it all, I somehow think that Olive Garden and the Fox Network will survive.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

How Black Triangles brought me back to Ufology

By 1990, I tried to stay away from everything UFO.

The cultural zeitgeist at the time said that all things geek-related were decidedly not cool and I realized no girls were going to talk to me if I had a copy of Communion stowed somewhere. So I played a part. Then I saw it.

I was sitting in a friend's dorm room. His copy of The Wall Street Journal sat on his trunk by the couch. A headline caught my eye. It was something to the effect: "Belgians taking triangular UFO seriously." I lifted up the newspaper and read the article. The text was predictably dismissive but it related a few things I had never seen before in a UFO case.

The article spoke of just how many witnesses in Belgium between 1989 and 1990 had seen a black, triangular craft with white lights at each of the points and a red light in the center. Among these witnesses were police officers who pursued the craft by car. These triangles could apparently hover in silence and then soar away at incredible speeds, making breakneck maneuvers that would kill most human pilots. At one point, F-16 fighters scrambled to pursue the UFO. The object was tracked on the planes' radar and recorded, including the triangle's trademark exit at a speed well beyond that of sound.

Here's the kicker: Belgian defense authorities held a press conference to confirm this had all happened. They played video recordings of the cockpit instrumentation. Additionally, they said that they were treating the UFO presence as an incursion into their sovereign airspace and therefore it was a matter of national security. This was serious. A few months later I saw the notorious (perhaps now infamous) photograph of the Belgian Triangle (above). You could almost feel the electrical sizzle in the air from looking at the picture, conjecturing that the fuzziness of the lights might be due to an antigravity engine. It was one of the clearest photographs of a UFO I had ever seen.

Decades wore on and like many of my favorite cases, holes began to form in the narrative of the Belgian UFO Wave. Turns out even sophisticated radar systems such as those on the F-16 can get glitchy (it should also be remembered that the fighter pilots never actually saw the object. They were too far away.) In 2011 there were allegations that the above photo was actually a hoax.  In one tantalizing revelation, the television program UFOs Declassified on the Smithsonian Channel had an avionics expert at the University of Toronto examine the recordings from the Belgian F-16 of 1990. The man didn't seem too keen on a UFO explanation for the readings, but he did suspect electronic countermeasures were at work. In other words, there was something out there that was deliberately sending out signals to spoof the F-16s' instruments. As I said, that in and of itself is tantalizing.

Let me be clear: I am not calling the entire Belgian Black Triangle Wave a hoax or a mis-identification. But there are clearly other points to consider.

Upon further reflection, there are two aspects that keep me personally interested in this case. For one, it's where I see the idea of "black triangles" as entering vogue. It was a sort of aeromancy for the UFO climate forecast. After 1990, triangles seemed to become a common shape for sightings. Yeah, yeah, I'm sure plenty out there will say "It happened long before then!! I've got a triangle sighting from 1949!!" You probably do. I'm merely talking about popular public consciousness. You can almost track a progression. First airships, then saucers, then cigars, and then triangles. When I interviewed witnesses in Dulce last summer, I spoke with as many people who saw triangles as those who reported saucers. Granted, the roughly triangular shape of stealth aircraft might account for many of these latter day sightings, but purported performance of many of the triangles would seem to rule that out in at least a few cases.

The other reason I have an affinity for the triangles is, as I said, they brought me back to Ufology. When I saw that article in the WSJ, a spark reignited in me. I could no longer hold back, regardless of what anyone thought of me. I read more books, watched more documentaries, and took to what was then the fledgling Internet (remember Gopher anyone?) to seek out new sources of UFO information. I'm glad that I did.

Whatever the truth is behind this phenomenon...and I confess I certainly don't know what it is and seem to grow foggier about it as time wears's something I enjoy. Researching a sighting or a reported abduction, whatever the truth might yield, is infinitely more enjoyable to me than worrying about the stack of papers I still need to grade or wondering how I'm going to pay down the credit card bill. It holds the possibility, the possibility that there just might be fantastic things out there beyond the mundane.

Probably the most I've ever gotten out of the Wall Street Journal.  

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Monday, February 1, 2016

Bionic cats and rats

You should know by now that I love animals.

That's why I'm glad that advancements we make in medicine can be shared with them as well. As the dad of two dogs, I've never been more glad of that than I am tonight. You see, one of my dogs ate a copious amount of chocolate. Thank all that is that he has been checked out by the vet is doing fine, several vomits later. This isn't his first rodeo, of course. Over the span of his ten years, he has blown out the ACL of both of his rear knees. Fortunately, surgical vets were there for us, repairing those knees with plates and screws.

If indeed he can feel when the weather is about to change, he has never told us.

But what can be done for more severe and not to mention tragic situations? Well, I've been reading about a few innovative techniques. One involves a cat named Vincent. He's a cat who was born three years ago without rear tibias. Then 3D modeling and printing stepped up to help. Vincent got two new titanium legs inserted directly into his rear leg bones. The bones can then grow around the metal and the metal legs modified as he grows older.

Does that mean Vincent is "postfeline"? Are my dogs "postcanine?"

This bit from George Dvorsky describes how soft neural implants have been able to restore the ability to walk in paralyzed rats. The rubbery implant goes straight onto their little spinal cords and the electrical components stimulate the cord's damaged areas. "A fluidic microchannel allows for the delivery of pharmacological substances, namely neurotransmitters that "reanimate" the nerve cells beneath the injured tissue. Fascinatingly, the system can monitor electrical impulses from the brain, allowing the scientists to see the rats' motor intentions before it's translated into movement."

Of course clinical trials in humans are an endgame for many of these aforementioned techniques. I'm all for that. Still, unless your heart is entirely ice-encrusted, I see no reason for the end to obviate our ability to help our beloved pets in the nonce or later.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016

30 years since Challenger

It forever changed the way we look at space exploration.

It was also what they call a "you remember where you were" moment. When the space shuttle Challenger was lost 30 years ago on this day, I was a young lad in school. Word got around between teachers and students but it wouldn't be until I got home that I'd see the footage on TV. And we all saw it. Over and over again. That image of the central fireball and the aimless solid rocket boosters forking away from it is indelible. It looked like fireworks but I knew it was people dying. Any insouciant attitudes we had towards space were gone or at least seriously eroded.

Sadly, the news only got worse. Most everyone thought that the seven member crew of Challenger were killed instantly in the explosion. Turns out they were likely alive for the whole two minute fall to the ocean. There was also talk that NASA continued to receive open audio transmissions from the crew compartment during that time. I believe that NASA did in fact eventually acknowledge that this was so, but wisely refused to release any record of those final godawful minutes out of respect for the families. I remember reading a supposed transcript of those transmissions a few months later, but it appeared in something tabloid-y and therefore I didn't place much stock in it, even as a kid.

Perhaps even more stomach-churning was later learning that the disaster was utterly preventable. It was, at its core, a human failure. The engineering team had warned against launching on such a cold day. Heedless, the bureaucracy and a sick culture at NASA pushed the launch when it wasn't safe. Seven people died because of it. Here's a video clip of the noble physicist Richard Feynman in a press conference, forcing the agency to come clean about what happened.

I've also been watching this clip from CNN covering the launch and subsequently the disaster live:

That silence is eerie. Haunting. As is the flat, passionless commentary from Mission Control following it. I don't mean that as any criticism for what else was the announcer going to say or how else was he going to say it? It just added to the surreal qualities of the moment.

All these years later it certainly sticks with you. Nothing routine about traveling into space.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Liquid lakes on Mars

So we all know that salt water in liquid form was found on Mars.

Could it pool in liquid lakes? For any extended period of time? That's another matter altogether. Of course billions of years ago, a warmer Mars might have had water all over the place. But then the planet's atmosphere was lost into space and we have the Mars that we have now: a dusty red form that is both cold and dry. Freezing temperatures and a low-pressure atmosphere would make any kind of substantial "pooling" difficult but if the source of the water was a Mars aquifer, then the water might stand for a year or so. That's what they're saying at the Planetary Space Institute.

Jules Godspiel of that said same institute ran a simulation model to determine if such a thing would be possible. Turns out that you could get standing pools of water...but just for a little while. From the article:

"Recent research suggested that if a significant amount of water flowed from a source such as an aquifer, it could stay liquid on the surface for a while, forming the puzzling features known as recurring slope lineae (RSL) that appear on some Red Planet slopes during warm months. RSL could form if a landslide or some other event exposed a source of water at the surface. Eventually, the water would begin to freeze and replug the source, cutting off the flow, researchers have said."

In other words, a lake of water could form on Mars under the present conditions and if it had enough depth, it might last a year before freezing over.

The topic of liquid water on Mars is somewhat loaded. It can bring about all manner of discussion from professional and pugnacious amateur astronomers. Just see the comments section of the linked article (that is if you can stomach the comments section of any online publication. I've all but sworn them off for the most part, but as you can see sometimes I lose out to temptation.) Despite that, the growing consensus seems to be that there are significant bodies of water beneath the surface of Mars. This new possibility, however theoretical, is a promising indicator that there may be more exciting discoveries on the way.

If they do find a lake, it needs to be named after Bowie.

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