Friday, August 19, 2016

The promise of glow in the dark plants

Apologies for what will be but a short post on biotechnology.

I'm blogging on my phone because a monsoon has rolled through, taking out power on campus. No lights, no computers, nothing. If this is life after the power grid collapses then...I must admit...give me death.

I also must admit that I get drawn into listiicles. It's against my better judgement but darn it I just can't refuse a list. Anyway, I came across a list of "Seven Incredibly Ingenius" that someone thinks "Prove the Future is Now." Here's the link (apologies, but the Blogger app won't let me add hyperlinks. If anybody knows a way, hit me up.)

It's mostly what you'd expect, things such as portable mini printers and finger readers but then there's this bit of biotech: glow in the dark plants. Using sets of genes from bioluminescent bacteria, biotechnologists have rendered a tobacco plant that produces light. Good on a few levels.

Firstly, imagine streets lit by trees and not streetlights requiring power. These glowing trees would all natural and solar powered. Yes I can already hear objections such as "What if you have to take a tree down? You can't just quickly put another one up in its place." There will be problems with anything new. The question is if the benefits offset the difficulties.

Second of all, the knowledge of how to take genes from one species and place them into another opens up all kinds of doors. For example, the healing and regenerative properties of one organism could be applied to humans or other animals in order to help defeat illnesses such as cancer.

That and glowing trees would be cool. I probably shouldn't be driving down a street lit by them, however. I'd just be too mesmerized.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The UFOs of Lake Baikal

These days, it seems you can't toss your tinfoil hat in the air without hitting 20 or 30 UFO stories.

That's why I find myself drawn more to the truly strange accounts...even if they are less likely to pan out. I suppose that's somewhat antithetical to a pursuit of the truth, but I can occasionally hypocritize myself, can't I? Then again, my attraction might be to the sheer entertainment value. But I digress...

Anyway, I heard an episode of Coast-to-Coast AM last May, just before my "long dark teatime of the soul," that covered Russian USOs.  As I've blogged before, USO stands for Unidentified Submersible Object. Same thing as a UFO, but undersea. On this edition of C2C, UFO researcher Paul Stonehill was joined by Richard Dolan to discuss once-secret files from the former Soviet Union that allegedly contain details of interactions between the Russian Navy and USOs. These include accounts of naval forces tracking objects moving underwater at tremendous speeds as well as an account from Soviet Naval Intelligence of a large, cylindrical object sighted above the Pacific that broke apart into smaller pieces and then submerged beneath the waves before returning to the cylinder.

Most interesting of all was a mention of Lake Baikal and the "9-foot tall humanoids" that are said the inhabit its depths. Lake Baikal is located in Siberia and it is the deepest freshwater lake in the world, so that piqued my interest. I went googling and found this link. It quotes Vladimir Azhazha, a former Soviet Naval Intelligence Officer turned UFO researcher, as saying that the navy divers were training in the lake in 1982 when they detected several "bizarrely shaped craft" (oh how I wish either the site or Azhazha would have elaborated on that) moving at high speeds, faster than anything in either the Soviet or U.S. inventory. It gets better. These said divers then encountered a "squad" of silver-suited humanoids in depths. This resulted in the deaths of three divers and the severe injury of the other four. The site also seems to get quite excited over NASA photographs that show cracks and melting of winter ice on the lake that appear in saucer shapes.

I'm going with natural phenomenon on that one but why buzzkill a cool story, bro?

Additionally, an airliner crashed in Lake Baikal in 1958. It was said to have been pursued by a UFO just before crashing. There had also been numerous UFO sightings in the area before the incident.

Another quote in the article from Azhazha:

In a way, I agree with his point. The deepest depths of our oceans and lakes are largely unexplored. Just refer to that old chestnut, "We know more about outer space than we do about the bottoms of our own oceans." Or something like that. If aliens wished to hide and operate undetected or if there were another humanoid civilization on Earth divergent from humans, underwater is the place for both to be. Who knows what is down there? I highly doubt it's either of the two evidence-challenged prospects I just mentioned, but there are genuine unknowns in our seas and stories like the above are symbolic of that fact.

One other point from the Cryptopia article that tickled my imagination: Lake Baikal has also been host to several sightings of a supposed lake monster. The author of the article muses that this "monster" might be connected to the presence of aliens. It may serve as a "guard dog" for their underwater base.

Oh boy, is this great.

I'm going to do more research on Lake Baikal when time allows. Head to ESE on Facebook, give it a "like," and watch for the updates.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Message from Space

During the long lull that was yet another depression-induced "summer break," I watched a true science fiction gem.

Of course "gem" is not exactly a universally held adjective when it comes to this picture, but it softened my heart and lifted my spirits with its naive charms.

The name of the movie is Message from Space. It's a Japanese production released in 1978, intended to capitalize on Star Wars fever as was the case with so many other films of the time. I remember seeing ads for it as a kid and as I was ravenous for anything even remotely Star Wars in nature, I badly wanted to see it. Of course being that I lived in rural Indiana, Message from Space wasn't exactly playing in a theater near me. So I went without knowing its brilliance.

Until now, baby!

What is Message from Space about? Well, I would think that the title is self-explanatory but I'll go into more depth if you want. The planet Jillucia has fallen under the tyrannical boot heels of the Gavanas Empire. A few survivors remaining in the wastes, including a princess of the Jillucian royal family, pray for deliverance to the powers of the universe. They are granted eight walnuts.

No, I'm not kidding.

But these are magic walnuts. Or something. They will head out into the galaxy and find eight champions who will be called to Jillucia to drive out the evil conquerors. What kinds of characters do they find? Well, there's an old, once honorific military leader from Earth (Vic Morrow) who has fallen on hard times. There are two young and reckless starfighter pilots who spend their days flying stunts. A spoiled rich princess and a robot (natch) are tossed in for good measure. Most enticing of all is Sonny Chiba (from Kill Bill and innumerable other martial arts movies) playing a former warrior of the Gavanas Empire now turned ronin. It's a tough sell for the would-be heroes, but they come around when they realize the Gavanas will one day come for Earth and it's better to slog it out and defeat them on an already ruined planet rather than here at home.

Where have we heard that before?

Clearly this is not only Star Wars-inspired but also an homage to Seven Samurai. Indeed there is swordplay, but it's also packed to the rim with laser battles and ship-to-ship combat in space. Extra geeky aside: the ship designs are overall pretty cool, but there's also a spaceship built in the manner of a tall ship from the 18th Century, complete with sails. In space. In another interesting point, the final starfighter assault on the Empire bears an uncanny resemblance to the attack on the Death Star at the end of Return of the Jedi. Coincidence? Probably, but the romantic in me wants to believe that George Lucas ripped off this little-known Japanese movie that was in turn trying to rip him off. Seems fair all around.

This is just plain fun. Are the characters two-dimensional? Heck yeah. Is the plot hackneyed? You betcha. If, however, you wish to put your brain in neutral for 90 minutes and watch splodey action space opera, this will work for you.

Sometimes that's exactly what I need. Lord knows I needed it this summer.

Over at the ESE Facebook page, I'll be posting stills from the film.

Watch for 'em!

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, August 15, 2016

"The hateful liberal"

It is a common political maneuver.

You look for moments when your opposition slips and does not adhere to their own credo 100%. Keep watching and you'll find it. Life often makes such a standard of perfection difficult. I was accused of such "hypocrisy" recently.

A new student on campus, an African American, went shopping for dorm room snacks in the Wal-Mart of our small college town. While there he was followed through the store by other people who said they "just didn't trust him." My feelings on this happening were compounded when a colleague told me of his own interaction with someone from the small town. The colleague was sitting and reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A passerby told him "You people would read that [racial expletive] shit." I'm not sure just who the "you people" was in reference to, but I'm going to surmise it was tossed in the general direction of "the liberal elitists." Whoever they are. Finally, a friend on Facebook reported that he was walking through downtown Indianapolis while wearing a shirt that read "Palestine Soccer." A driver of a passing car took the time to slow down, roll down his window, and shout "Terrorist" at the wearer of the shirt.

I will confess that I reacted with disdain towards these incidents, even using the word "hate."

"Well there's that liberal 'tolerance'," someone said to me. "So hateful you can't see anyone's views but your own."

I had to think about that for a while. "Don't be a hater" is one of the slogans of our day and that, overall, is a good thing. Was I in the wrong as my accuser suggested? I came to the conclusion that I was not as hate, in certain respects, gets a bad rap. That is because there are concepts and practices worthy of hatred.

Racism is one of them. Each one of the incidents I described above are in their own way examples of racism. They are indicative of the perpetuation of a system that keeps one group of people in power over another both politically and economically.  This mode of thinking becomes endemic within our institutions, even if the institutions seem to be continually found innocent of such actions. At the same time however, it even seems that racist acts are acts not of those in the examples clearly were...but rather inscrutable, inexorable forces that we can only shrug at with a "whatareyagonnado?"

Homophobia is also worthy of hatred. Actually, I hate that very word as it is misleading. The practice of discrimination or other hostility towards someone of the LGBT community is not a fear or phobia, it is out and out bigotry. I feel sensitive to this particular bigotry by way of my own experiences. I am not homosexual but I have been presumed as such in the past. I guess that's what happens to a man in rural, small town America if he is thin, non-athletic, and dares to read things like The New Yorker or Interview magazine. What it taught me was that it is indeed possible to receive verbal and physical abuse simply because of what you are. Sadly, as we've seen this summer, you can even be killed for it.

I'm certainly not opposed to hating sexism either. In grad school (Oh noes!! More "liberal elitism!") I read several personal essays by female writers. Almost to the one they recounted instances of either condescending dismissal or outright bizarre harassment by men. In the case of the latter, I'm talking truly strange stuff. As a man, I've never once entertained the possibility that as I put Honey Nut Cheerios in my cart at the grocery store, another man might ask me if I could spank him. That is of course a rather extreme example, but the sad fact is that sexism and inequality are everywhere in the professional world.

I think I could probably get behind hating economic inequality and environmental carelessness as well, but I think I would like to save those for other posts.

Maybe it's the word "hate" that trips us up. There's a violence to it, suggesting that the perpetrators of these forms of bigotry and inequality deserve harm or even unhappy ends of the most extreme variety. I would never advocate for such things. Violence only begets more violence and no good could ever come from it. At the same time, no quarter should be given to these ideologies. There should be no place for them in our schools, in our workplaces, or in society as a whole, while those who express such ideologies should be told it is unacceptable and find it increasingly difficult to navigate society while holding such thoughts.

Of course this is made all the more difficult when the current Republican nominee for president has made repeated sexist and racist comments. After all, if a top contender for the highest office in American government can make such statements, what is to stop someone in a Wal-Mart, a moving car, or anywhere else in public?

And after a while you just start to hate it.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, August 12, 2016

Art of the apocalypse

Dangerous Minds recently featured a series of unsettling paintings.

My kind of art.

They are the work of artist Fred Enauldi. The article accompanying the gallery indicates that Enauldi bucked the system in more than a few ways. First, a career aptitude test (you know those sorts of scantron things) told him he would best be suited as a bus driver. Fortunately, he stuck with something he loved: art. Yet at the same time, he loved drawing monsters, something generally eschewed and frowned upon in "fine art," much the same as genre fiction is deflected in university writing programs. Nevertheless, you can still see the "monster" influence within his work.

For as he says, Enauldi paints "pictures out there that don't exist and which you have a need to see." These pictures are rendered in a unique style that seems to combine an almost Rembrandt-ish Baroque quality with a pop comic book appeal. There is even a bit of Norman Rockwell thrown in for good measure. I find this to be especially evident in the piece pictured above titled, "Patriot." Yeah, you gotta love the cutting criticism.

Why do I say criticism? Well, if you look at the gallery in all of its somber tones and often NSFW depictions, Enauldi has a prescient sense of where this world is probably heading. It's reminiscent of the work of Alexis Rockman, whom I've also featured on ESE. I'm thinking of "Paradise Now" specifically.

I guess I'm just glad not to be the only cynic out there, alone on an island and nursing a blandishment allergy. Depressing? Yes. It is. It should be. It should make you think. It should make you consider where the world is going.

Do you like it? If not, how will you change it?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Transhumanism in the news

While I consume many news and other media stories about transhumanism, two recent ones stood out for different reasons.

Shocker. A Pew research poll has found that most Americans fear implantable technologies such as brain chips and cybernetics. Whether it's brain implants for enhanced intellectual performance or synthetic blood that might give someone a physical edge in terms of speed, strength, and endurance, people just don't seem to be down with it. Color me surprised. When people get scared, they get reactionary. My only hope is that we can have a full and open debate about these scientific/social issues such as CRISPR and sensor implants as well as numerous other transhuman approaches. I won't deny that there are implications that go beyond "I want control of my own body," but if we can approach the issues without either recoiling in fear or smirking in derision ("Oh that technology will never happen")...well, that would be great.

On NPR's Fresh Air yesterday, I first heard about Curated AI. It is a literary journal where all of the short stories and poems are written by artificial intelligence programs. The one at the link is meant to emulate the style of Leo Tolstoy, thus the reason for the writer's name being "Tolstoyish." Is it perfect? Of course not. The technology does not exist to somehow resurrect Tolstoy's brain and then cybernetically interface it with a computer so that an upload may take place. What can happen is that an AI can scan the writings, learn from them, and then render its own version. Even more interesting I'm sure to neuroscientists is that Tolstoyish might able to take feedback (an AI in a writer's workshop?), learn from it, and titivate its writing style. On Fresh Air, the editor of CuratedAI said that her ultimate goal is to have one of these stories published in The New Yorker without the submissions editors knowing the author was a machine. Thus that might qualify as a passing of a sort of "literary Turing Test."

Remember in the previous story where I ridiculed people for being scared? Here's the part where I hypocritize myself (as a professor in grad school once said.) The text churned out by Tolstoyish isn't too bad. It's not exactly smooth and there are obvious problems, but I would not instantly recognize it as being written by a machine. I might instead guess that it's a first semester freshman English student trying to sound like Tolstoy. Given that such an accomplishment was achieved by a machine, that's nothing to sneeze at. Writers today, I believe, are struggling enough to find legitimacy in a digital world. What happens when an AI can churn short stories out too? I used to think that the profession of writing was something safe from the inexorable march of robotics and automation.

Now...I don't know.

Then again, could an AI's ability to express itself creatively bring it closer to humans? Might that not engender a sense of empathy, thereby easing fears of an AI takeover? Maybe.

One thing is certain from both stories: like it or not, a merger is happening. Whether we are becoming more machine-like through implants or they are becoming more human-like through emulation, we're both racing towards a middle point. Don't believe me? Check right now just how far you are from your smartphone or tablet at any given time. Do you sleep with it? I do. We are connected to computers and Internet devices on an intimate level. There is no other technology or media in history that we can say this about, not even television. This merger of human and machine is happening.

Might many of us be too scared to see it's already happening?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets