Friday, July 31, 2015

Starship Invasions





Special thanks to Jason who reminded me to look for this film.

I am still working my way through science fiction movies posted on YouTube.

Boy did I find a gem the other night. Then again I suppose that might depend on your definition of "gem."

It's called Starship Invasions. From 1977, the movie apparently had a theatrical release, but I remember seeing it as a TV movie. Even at a young age I knew it sucked, but I just couldn't quite tear myself away as it gave off that Star Wars vibe that I couldn't resist. Still can't.

The plot concerns aliens called The Legion of the Winged Serpent. They are led by Captain Rameses (played by the late, great Christopher Lee) in search of a new home as the star their own planet orbits is nearing the end of its life. The Legion conducts a series of abductions of humans and determines that Earth is indeed a suitable new harbor. Indeed, it appears that the Legion is descended from humans transplanted thousands of years ago. There's a problem for those who bear the standard of the Winged Serpent, however. That problem is called the League of Races.

Except the League seems to be composed of only one race: guys with small ears, black eyes, and big, bald heads from Zeta Reticulai. Yes, they resemble the Grays but are far more benign in action and demeanor. They conduct their observations on Earth from a pyramid beneath the Bermuda Triangle and caution Rameses and the Legion to have no interaction with humans. Anyway, Rameses sabotages the one of the League's saucers and it gets shot down by an American missile. As the League goes to retrieve their downed saucer, Rameses and his crew slaughter everyone in the base and then send for their own invasion fleet to track down the sole League saucer that managed to escape the base unharmed.

Meanwhile, the Legion deploys its "extermination device," a broadcast beam that manipulates humans into committing murders and suicides (as an aside, I remember all of content about suicide, especially scenes with families, to be a bit daunting for me at age seven. Kinda heavy for a science fiction flick of the time.) None of this escapes the notice of one man the world really doesn't want to listen to: a UFO investigator played by Robert Vaughn. The Grays are sure interested in him, though. The few that remain after the slaughter tap Vaughn's character to help them resist the onslaught of the Legion of the Winged Serpent. Space battles ensue, but will the Earth endure?

First of all, this isn't a good film. Not in terms of acting, not in terms of production value, but it does have entertaining moments with Star Wars-like space opera and a few hot space babes. While that is cheap fun, what really kept me enthralled was the sheer amount of UFO lore infused with the story. There is more UFO content in this than there is in Close Encounters of the Third Kind...and I love CE3K. But just take a look at everything Starship Invasions has in addition to basic UFO sightings:

Ancient aliens.
Beings capable of telepathy.
New Age views that there are "space brothers" looking out for humanity.
Alien abductions
Analysis of reproductive cells (highlighted in an especially humorous sequence when a poor, simple man is abducted for mating purposes.)
Zeta Reticulai and Grays (sorta).
A reproduction of the map that Betty Hill was shown during her abduction.
Undersea bases and UFOs that travel beneath the water
The Bermuda Triangle
Pyramids (one alien reports that it was the League that built the Great Pyramid at Giza.)
UFOs siphoning power from electrical plants.
There are silver robots in the undersea base that, of course, speak in monotone. Except that their design is almost dead-on for the Pascagoula entity.

All it needs is a few saurians to complete the UFO bouillabaisse. It might not have ended up being the greatest science fiction movie, but somebody really knew what they were doing on the UFO front. That alone was fun for me to watch and keep score at home. Not so sure the same would work for anybody else.

I would, however, enjoy seeing it handled by MST3K.


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Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Extreme Body Modification"





I really like how this article on transhumansim begins:

"We all want to be our best selves."

That, in a nutshell, is the driving force behind transhumanism. On one level or another, we all want to be more. We want to be able to do more or to just feel better. Quite often, that means devising the means to transcend our limited biology, rendering our physical form to an olio of cybernetics and nanotechnology.

Of course, robust debate has accompanied that effort, especially when it comes to augmenting the body with what might be construed as "non-essentials." This includes implanting cameras, permanent exoskeletons, or replacing healthy limbs with cybernetic appendages. At the top link, Gizmodo's Rose Eveleth spoke with two "biohackers" who have a keen interest in just where cybernetics is taking us.

One of these people is Tim Cannon from Grindhouse Wetware. His work has involved a number of different implants, one of which he placed under his own skin to transmit his body temperature to a computer. Swain has gone through numerous cases of trial and error with his own implants. He tried to implant an RFID chip that would allow him to instantly pay for his rides on the London metro, but he was unable to acquire the necessary medical-grade silicon for such a procedure. He was, however, able to modify hearing aids to detect and receive WiFi signals around the city.

What is of great interest to me are the differing philosophical slants from which both men approach transhumanism. Swain sees these augmentations as a way to "get at the most human things about us." Cannon, on the other hand, is far less romantic about it. He sees the human brain as "defective piece of hardware," something we should be working to design a replacement for. He's also clear on the point that his research is not motivated by medicine. "I'm not trying to cure people," he says. The analogy is then made, whether it's made by Cannon or Eveleth is rather unclear, to plastic surgery. That practice has its origins in helping trauma victims. Now, it's far more often employed to give new noses or larger breasts, neither of which are exactly saving the world.

Hearing these two talk reminds me of Kevin Warwick, "the cyborg professor." I mean that not in terms of philosophy but in the sense of hacking and tinkering with one's own body via transhuman technologies. With his own RFID implants, Warwick can control the thermostat of his house, turn lights off and on, and open doors...all without touch anything. He later had electrode arrays grafted to his nervous system and was able to control a cybernetic limb in London while he sat in New York. All the work these men are doing, when taken in total, adds up to one thing: progress,

I know that there are ethical questions involved with these types of modification. Hell, I spent two semesters teaching classes on that very subject. There is concern about what happens when our population is further bifurcated into one of haves and have nots, specifically who has the modifications (and thereby the advantages) and who does not. If history (and the present, for that matter) is our guide, than these will only be in the bodies of the wealthy. An additional concern is how one might weaponize these implants.

That should not stop us. We are on the cusp of an opportunity to eradicate disease as we know it. As the work of these three men progresses in tandem with other research, such as Google's work on virtual neural networks, our lives will ultimately change for the better, despite whatever pitfalls may await. I mean, those are always out there, regardless of whatever endeavor you undertake.

As Rose Eveleth ever-so-eloquently put it in the comments section of her article: "instead of saving up for tombstones, we can start saving for transition, or 'metamorphosis.'"

Again, that pretty much nails it.



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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Yukon UFO





There is a rather intriguing UFO case that I first heard about on a television program.

Just which show it was I can't remember. It's not like there is any shortage of UFO-related programming bouncing about the airwaves these days, not all of them created equal. Anyway, this particular case involved multiple witnesses and an object much larger than usually encountered in a typical sighting. You can read a bit more about it here, but watch out for the lightning bolts. That's what I call exclamation points and the writer of that post seems particularly enamored of that punctuation, something of a stylistic red flag for me in composition. But that's my own pet peeve in writing and...you guessed it...I digress.

It happened nearly 20 years ago in the Yukon. As you probably know, that's a fairly cold and isolated area, but this sighting involved at least 20 people. The first to see the object were motorists on a roadway. They observed a UFO in the night sky hovering over the Fox Lake area. These motorists described the object as being immense in size and covered in lights. The image above was drawn based upon these accounts. Naturally, the drivers slammed on their brakes and stopped to watch this craft pass directly overhead in silence. The UFO then moved on over a hill and out of sight.

Residents of a small town (like there is any other kind in the Yukon, which is filled with saxicoline communities) then caught sight of the object. At one point, a witness in that town directed the beam of his flashlight towards the UFO. The craft seemed to respond to the flashlight by moving towards him at an accelerated speed. The man in question turned off the light and the object stopped. The UFO then emitted a number of beams of light of its own, including one that swept along the ground in a scanning fashion. This witness, like the motorists, also watched the object pass directly overhead and he claims that the craft filled the entire sky from his vantage point, blotting out the stars.

I am uncertain just what else there is for this case in terms of evidence. The linked article is not especially great, especially when it lapses into fanboy-like drooling over the sighting and the bouncing about of terms such as "mothership" along with allusions to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So I decided to do a bit more digging around, even if it was a cursory Google. What do you want? It's late after a long day but you're still getting a blog post. You're welcome.

I kid. I kid.

Anyway, Bad UFOs has an alternate explanation that now seems more attractive to me. The "massive UFO" was in actuality a booster rocket re-entering the atmosphere, causing streaks of light in the night sky. Since this debris occupied a large swath of the visible sky, at least to a viewer's perspective, it might well have looked like the stars were being blotted out. The blogger at Bad UFOs says that any other anecdotal claims, such as the flashlight response or car engines failing, were entirely in the minds of the observers. I'm not quite ready to go that far, especially when there were those who reported an actual, structured craft, but facts are facts. There is no solid evidence for the claims, simply stories. And the booster rocket theory dovetails mathematically with an actual, documented re-entry.

I pledge to keep reading up on this incident and to keep you posted here, but for now I think I must tentatively side with Bad UFOs. This one has most likely been solved.

Most likely, anyway.



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Monday, July 27, 2015

How 2015 is becoming the warmest year on record


Our climate is setting records this year and not the kind we want.

Oh quick note: I'm writing this post from a hotel in Cleveland (traveling for the college.) That means I'm using the Blogger app for iPhone. That means I can't insert hyperlinks the way I normally would. So I'll pop them into parentheticals for you. Sorry for the extra step.

Could be worse. I mean, this year could be the warmest on record so far.

Oh wait, it is. (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/imageo/2015/07/20/earth-gripped-by-record-warmth-during-first-half-of-2015/#.VbbO6Ym9LCR)

The first six months of 2015 have had much warmer temperatures than any other year on record. In fact, both NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency that this past month as the warmest June on record. The world's oceans are also warmer than ever on the surface, particularly swaths across the equatorial Pacific, the North Atlantic, and the Barents Sea north of Norway. 

But wait! There's more!

There is another finding related to climate. The writer of this article ( http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/imageo/2015/07/18/new-esoteric-record-set-in-greenland-actually-is-important/#.VbbPEYm9LCR ) describes it as "esoteric but relevant"...which oddly enough is exactly how I would hope to describe this blog. Anyway, the warmer temperatures this past month caused a massive melt off of ice in Greenland. The amount of melted ice from the heat is not exactly record breaking, but it did reveal a finding that is.

Reflectivity. That's right. The amount of sunlight that bounces off of snow. It's actually an important climate variable. During the past month, Arctic snow reflected the lowest amount of sunlight in 16 years. This is partly due to climate change but there is another important factor: the composition of the surface snow. The ice and snow has soot in it from wildfires, blown to Greenland from hundreds of miles away. The fires are of course due to drier conditions brought on by...you guessed it...climate change, but it's more intricate than that. Warmer climate, melting ice, lower light reflectivity (albedo), and wildfires are all linked together in a "feedback loop."

As detailed in Discover:

"Warmer temperatures due to human activities have been contributing to increased wildfire activity. This has caused darkening of the snow in Greenland, which — as we’ve seen — has helped lead to increased melting at the ice sheet’s surface. More melting of the ice sheet’s surface decreases its albedo, which causes still more melting. Now, add in more global warming from human activities, and you’ve got more fires, lower albedo, more melting, lower albedo, etc., etc."

Yet there are still people, mostly nabobs and rural conservatives, who remain critical of climate change. Beyond critical, really. Downright disbelieving. They will claim many things, among them that climate change isn't happening or it is but it has slowed down or even "we had a miserable winter where I live, ergo it cannot be happening." That last argument is beneath comment, so I will address the one that came before it. 

Research shows that was never the case (please see the first link I provided for reference.) The very suggestion of it seems to have been due to human-emitted greenhouse gases sucked back down into the oceans (causing problems of its own with acidity), and warming trends began to stagnate. For a time. Any other slow down has been described as "spurious."

Oh but it's no problem, right? Climate change is "a hoax created by liberals to con us out of our 'hard earned money.'" Yeah. Get ready to hear disgustingly copious amounts of that this election year.

This is one time I actually wish they were right.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Ellis scripts as James Bond comes to comics




Big announcement in comic books.

Uber- talented writer Warren Ellis will be writing an ongoing James Bond comic book series for Dynamite Comics. James Bond 007 will hit the stands in November. The first six-issue story arc, to be titled "VARGR," will feature Bond returning from a "wetworks" mission in Helsinki. He is then called upon by Her Majesty's government to pick up the work of a fallen 00 operative. This brings him to the back streets and alleyways of Berlin...where a trap awaits him.

And we know little more about the story than that.

That's all right by me. I can wait. I already know I'm going to end up buying a copy. You see, Ellis is a natural choice for writing this series. While he has written superhero characters admirably, one can tell that he doesn't like them all that much. This, it seems, is not altogether uncommon for British comics creators. After all, those blokes were weaned on war comics and science fiction epics such as 2000 A.D. This fact, especially the former of those genres, has given Ellis great aptitude for writing "hard men." Seek out Desolation Jones and Jack Cross to see for yourself.

Men don't come much harder than Bond. This is especially true of the current incarnation with Daniel Craig. Gone is the persiflage and the hollowed-out volcano lairs. Back is the gritty pulp character first envisioned by Ian Fleming. 

Face it. In real life, Bond wouldn't be a very nice guy and that's another reason I believe Ellis to be a natural fit for this project. Also exciting is the fact that the character of James Bond has seldom found his way into the comics medium. Sure, there have been movie adaptations and I believe Marvrl and Dark Horse each attempted their own ongoings at one point or another, but the character never seemed to really get pushed. Now the time is right. The zeitgeist seems most receptive to "hard men" for hard times.

So this comic already has a buyer in me for the writer alone if nothing else. I have no idea who is doing the art. Go look it up yourself as that very seldom matters to me in comics.

I know that makes me an odd duck.


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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The politics of water




An absolute deluge covered my area of the Midwest throughout the month of June. 

Flooding has been longstanding and in a few areas, severe. In Indiana alone, it is estimated that there will be a nearly half billion dollar loss in crop yield this year due to flooding.

"You all have had more water than you can handle," said the owner of a hotel I checked into in the Southwest last week. "While we've been begging for water."

Indeed, one need only turn on the news to see stories about the severe drought, wildfires, and water shortages wrought upon the Southwest, especially Southern California. I wish I could say otherwise, but the news wails out an alarm of a looming crisis, a crisis I feel that will evoke familiar responses from many of our more conservative political leaders. 

"There is no problem."
"The science is not conclusive."
"This is a liberal hoax designed to swindle  us out of more tax dollars."
"I just turned on my faucets. Everything is fine."
"Why don't you people move to where the water is?"

Sound familiar?

Like it or not, we are facing an impending water crisis. Demand from a growing population cannot be met by current infrastructure. The color-coded map at the top of this article is from the International Water Management Institute in 2010. Even then the Southwest United States was marked as being an area of "physical water scarcity" with more years of drought predicted for California. To be sure, many, including California Governor Jerry Brown, have seen this coming and have worked to offer solutions. Among these solutions is conservation, limiting water consumption in affected areas. While that is indeed a necessary step, the nature of water adds a further dimension to the issue. Water is not a luxury item. No living thing in our world can exist without it. Therefore...

Who decides where the water goes? And how is that determination made?

Last week, a bill ostensibly meant to address water issues in California, passed the U.S. House of Representatives. Only five Democrats voted for the bill and the measure is opposed by the Obama administration. As the linked article states, "fundamentally, the legislation steers more water towards agriculture." While this benefits farmers and business interests in the central area of the state, this action appears to be taken at the expense of Southern and Northern California. In other words, businesses over people. This has already instigated a considerable amount of political sparring. "Republican Rep. Tom McClintock blamed the state’s water shortages on the “nihilistic vision of the environmental left,” while GOP colleague Rep. Ken Calvert blamed the “don’t-do-anything faction” and Rep. Devin Nunes contended that “continuously, nearly all the Democrats have said no” to water solutions.
"In turn, Democratic Rep. Jerry McNerney said Republicans were “recycling old, bad ideas” that would “further disrupt” the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and his Democratic colleague Rep. Mike Thompson charged the bill “makes a bad situation even worse.” The Obama administration has threatened a veto."

Again, how is water distribution decided? In California, at least for agricultural and industrial purposes, that is decided by the state government.  Frances Spivey-Weber, Vice-Chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, explains that water allotment for farmers is most often based on who has been in the fields the longest. "Junior farmers" will receive less water, especially during time of drought such as this, than others who have been at it for much longer. As for municipalities, that is left to the local governments. Spivey-Weber cautions in the linked video however, that if satisfactory agreements cannot be made, it will be handled in the courts.

You can almost hear the shuddering cries of "water courts!" from the same "big government" boogeymen that brought us "death panels" in relation to healthcare.

Be that as it may, serious questions remain on the side of the private sector. During a time of droughts and changing climate, can major corporations continue to freely bottle and distribute water such as Aquafina and Dessani? These bottled waters are merely tap water taken from ground sources. The difference in taste comes the disinfection process. While public works disinfect via chlorine, corporations choose more expensive methods, such as ultraviolet light and ozonation. Aside from those methods, the bottling companies are basically selling you your own tap water.

While that may elicit faint risibility and a smiling shrug of caveat emptor, can we afford to keep doing it? As a social media brouhaha of 2013 indicated, corporate involvement also suggests another possibility.

Two years ago, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman of the Board at Nestle, found himself having to untangle a mess where he was portrayed as saying that drinking water was not a human right and that he supports privatizing access to water. He denies such claims and in doing so, rather succinctly cuts to the heart of the issue:

"The reality is we are running out of water to grow food, for households, for energy generation and for industry. This is not a problem to be dealt with tomorrow. It is a problem that every single one of us should care about today. If nothing is done we will run out of water faster than we will run out of oil."

Whether that is corporate PR spin or not, it remains a fact. The problems in California are harbingers for what lies ahead of us. Policies will need creating, restrictions will be placed, and sacrifices must be made by us all. If such "big government" regulation scares you, then what is the alternative? Privitization? Forgive me if I am suspicious that such a system would afford fairness and equity to any save an elite few.

Water access is a public issue. It affects us all. It requires attention sooner rather than later.


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