Thursday, March 15, 2018

Stephen Hawking: In memorium

We have lost one of the greatest minds in human history.

Stephen Hawking died yesterday. During his time on our planet, he established a reputation for himself as a theoretical physicist whose name could be justifiably mentioned in the same sentence with Einstein and Newton.

Like most other people, I came to know Hawking through his book, A Brief History of Time and his research on black holes, specifically the "event horizon," or a black hole's point of no return. He determined that this surface should slowly emit radiation, what in time became known as "Hawking radiation". In addition to possessing a keen mathematical mind, he was a gifted writer, making science accessible to audiences of all kinds. This brought him into the public eye in a way few scientists come to know. I watched as he gradually became a pop culture figure with guest appearances on television programs. Most notably of those for me was a bit on Star Trek: The Next Generation where he joined Lt. Data to play poker with Newton and Einstein.

In recent years, Hawking became something of an elder statesman, warning humanity of things to come if we do not change our ways. He held particular concern over climate change and that we may have already passed the tipping point for Earth. As such, he earnestly advocated for humanity to stretch out into the universe and colonize other planets or at the very least, the Moon and Mars. This is yet another reason I will always respect him.

But I didn't always agree with him. I know that places me on dangerous ground to break ranks with a genius. It's just that I don't fully share his dire warnings about AI and transhumanism. There was also his bunglesome thinking that UFOs could not be alien in origin, because they would have landed and announced themselves by now (not that I am any real proponent of the ETH). Then of course there was my time travel argument with my friend Brad back in 1989. Mem-ories...

One comes up with no shortage of reasons to admire Stephen Hawking. As someone who is utterly inept at math but also diligently attempted to learn physics, I regard Hawking as possessed of a kind of sorcery. The equations, the theories, I will never understand how they came about, but I will marvel at what the skill produces them. We always want what we can't have.

More than that, Hawking is one of the greatest studies in perseverance. Despite his unparalleled academic achievement and his celebrity, life dealt him one of the worst hands someone can get. If you don't know what living with ALS is like, read Tuesdays with Morrie.

And yet...and yet...

He pushed on. He transcended his circumstances. He still found ways to succeed despite obstacles that would seem insurmountable to so many. If Hawking did not fear his own challenges, why should I fear mine? I do not have his genius, but if I aspire to his perseverance, I may at last be ready to make my crossover into a new universe.

Godspeed, Dr. Hawking. As you pass through the event horizon, may the next dimension greet you warmly.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

War in Space

Military conflict in space is not exactly a new idea.

Writers have covered the subject since...well, probably since the most incipient stages of science fiction. I've covered the notion here on ESE in various forms, from the serious to the fanciful. But now we're being told that the idea is no longer so speculative.

Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfien recently predicted that there will be open war in space in "a matter of years." As such, the United States needs to make sure it's ahead of its most likely adversaries, China and Russia. This means the need for new technology and of course, more money. It was even proposed last November that the U.S. Department of Defense should add a sixth branch of the armed forces. Based on the Marine Corps, this new branch would be called The United States Space Corps.

The Air Force was none to happy about that. After all, it would mean funds that normally going to them would instead be given to this new entity. No thanks, USAF said. We'll handle this in-house.

What exactly are they expecting to handle, though? Well, it is logical to presume that should there be conflict between America and powerful nations such as China and Russia, the opening skirmishes would take place in orbit. Our militaries are utterly dependent on satellites for everything from intelligence to navigation and communication. The first move by an adversary would be to "blind" its opponent by taking out as many satellites as they can. This may be achieved through technological means such as jamming or even generating an EMP wave. There is, of course, also the brute force method of just blasting them.

There are a number of ways that might happen. Ten years ago, China tested a satellite killing missile that forced many in the military to sit up and take notice. The Russians have long worked on the idea of "killer satellites" that would move to the circumferential edge of another satellite's orbit and then detonate. China may have developed a slightly less violent, not to mention technically fascinating, approach. They appear to have a satellite with a robotic arm that can grab on to other orbiting objects and "kidnap" them. For our part, the U.S. has been experimenting with lasers. Ostensibly the point has been to develop lasers that can incinerate all the junk we have cluttering our immediate orbit, but such a beam could easily be weaponized to eliminate satellites.

Also, let us not forget the X-37B, a sort of "drone space shuttle". It's long been rumored that fighter craft capable of entering space would be "the next big thing" in air defense and I thought that the X-37B might at last be a step in that direction. Doesn't seem to be, but just let this military aviation/science fiction geek keep dreaming, huh?

Speaking of fiction and depictions of it-might-actually-happen war in space, might I recommend Payne Harrison's Storming Intrepid? Not exactly high literature, but Harrison takes the technothriller places that Tom Clancy never did. Of particular note is the idea of the Kestrel spaceplane.

Then again if you want really entertaining fiction, just poke around at conspiracy websites and they'll tell you these new military plans are all to defend us against aliens.

Oh boy is that great.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 9, 2018

"I will now take control of your computer"

Technology. It's great when it works.

As much as I obviously harp about the future, I also tend to harbor a desire to keep things simple. I don't need to have the latest, top of the line everything. I just need what I have to work.

Last December, I ended up buying this new Lenovo Ideabook when my other laptop crossed the rainbow bridge to where good computers go for rest and cleansing ("The stuff he put on me...the stuff...") The Lenovo was real cheap. It had to be because of my current situation. But that's all right. After all, what does a guy like me really need? I need Word and I need an internet connection to watch Duran Duran videos.

That last task became difficult when the sound no longer worked on the Ideabook. Granted that's not really an essential feature for a writer, but I love music and I write better if I can hear Arcade Fire's "Everything Now", Portishead's "Over", and Billy Ocean's "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" (did I say that last one out loud?) I was most vexed. I ran a diagnostic and checked a few online message boards and came to the conclusion that the sound card needed an updated driver. No problem. I'll just download and install.

Except that it didn't work. Nothing worked. For an Ideabook less than a month old, it was a problem I should not be having. What was worse, it became clear that I would not be able to solve the problem with my wits alone.

I was going to have to do it, wasn't I? I would have to venture into that gnarled krummholz filled with tepid responses, frustrating language barriers, and outcomes with questionable benefit. I swore I would gnaw my own leg off before doing it again, but Arcade Fire waits for no man.

So I made coffee, settled onto the couch...and called tech support.

I made my way through the menuing system and surprise! I got a live human fairly early on in the process. He told me his name was Mark, but due to his accent, I couldn't shake the suspicion that the name was a pseudonym given to him by corporate so as not to frustrate/alienate culturally illiterate Westerners with his given-name. Kinda felt bad for the guy.

Anyway, I gave my serial number and told Mark the problem. He then said "I am now going to take control of your computer."

Say what?

This was a new one for me. Was this for real? Did I call the right number? Was this tech support or some guy operating out of a storage unit as part of an identity theft ring? This could only happen to me.

"If at any point you feel uncomfortable in the process, there is a killswitch in the upper right corner of your screen," Mark told me. "Click it and the connection is terminated immediately."

Interesting. There are so many situations in life where I would like that same convenience.

It wasn't like I had any idea what to do and there was indeed the big, shiny, red, candy-like killswitch button should things go awry. I turned the controls over to Mark. I watched as the cursor went into Windows, clicked a few things, downloaded a file, and then rebooted.

"Try it now," Mark said.

It worked. The melodious strains of Salt-n-Peppa's "Push It" did indeed stream from my tiny speaker. I could almost see Mark dancing on the other end of the phone. I thanked him, promised to fill out the customer satisfaction survey, and hung up. I did, however, keep reflecting on the experience:

-The surrender of control of the computer was, as I said, new to me. I presume it happens for efficiency's sake. Having talked someone through a computer procedure on the phone, it can get frustrating. On one occasion, I likened it to one of those movies where someone in a control tower has to guide a non-pilot in landing a plane. The "remote control" way was much easier. didn't teach me anything. I'm no good at coding, but I'm decent with tech. If something goes wrong, I'd like to learn how to handle it so I can do it myself next time. Didn't get that in this case. Which leads me to...

-Is "just fix it for me" now the approach people have to tech support? Much of tech support is outsourced, hence the issues with language barriers...and hence another likely reason for remote control. I wonder though if it's more than that. We seem to want to outsource even our own participation in the troubleshooting.

-I have a sneaking suspicion a writer like Kurt Vonnegut would have found this whole occurrence quite amusing.

I'm still having problems with the Lenovo. The hard drive is so cheap and tiny, that MS Office and McAfee were enough to fill the whole damn thing. Now, Windows can't install updates (8 gig needed). What to do? At least I can still write. And listen to music.

Up next: Mojo Nixon. "Poontango."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The strange tube structures of Mars

More discoveries on Mars.

New photos from the Curiosity rover show tiny, tube-like structures in the rock of the Martian surface. This caught the eye of one scientist who believes they resemble Ordovician trace fossils here on Earth. Does that mean we have evidence of life...albeit fossilized...on Mars?

Of course no one is jumping to that conclusion just yet, though it remains a tantalizing possibility. Another possibility is that the structures in the photographs are "crystal molds" in the rock. Crystals that have dissolved away leave these molds behind. The same thing happens in rocks here on Earth. This is one of several potential explanations.

Another is what's called "bioturbation". This is what happens when organisms living in sediment disturb the sediment around them. A common example on Earth would be worm burrows. There is far from enough evidence to seriously entertain that notion, but its naturally an exciting possibility for it would not only mean the presence of life, but lifeforms that are beyond the microbial scale.

Life elsewhere in space has prompted writing since nearly time immemorial. Additionally, Mars has held a special fascination to the collective human psyche, one that I have always shared. In fact, I have had a story kicking around inside my brain for the past couple years that is in part set on Mars, but the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have sent my writing efforts in other directions. Maybe I'll get to it one day. One other reason I've shunted it to the side is that I want to make sure I have something at least a little bit new to bring to the table. For as I said, people have been writing about Mars for an awful long time.

In fact, there is so much "fiction" about the Red Planet today that I'm perturbed.

The article about the "maybe fossils" was published at the beginning of January. It didn't make much news, but since I go through science and technology websites about once per week, I found it. What does seem to make news? All manner of cockamamie claims about "objects" spotted on Mars by armchair "researchers" who sit in their parents' basements, eating Hot Pockets and look over Mars rover photos while the equivalent of "What does that cloud look like to you?"

I'm normally not so caustic, but not only are these claims specious and of dubious sincerity, they distract from real research. The finding of what may be (a very cautious may be) fossilized life on Mars is extraordinary. This is a genuine mystery, whereas all the mystery of the other claims vanishes upon closer inspection.

And yet...and yet...despite better reason, I can't fully let go of Cydonia. 

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 2, 2018

A tribute to Svengoolie

This past year has not been a good one.

In fact, I'll go ahead and call it the worst I've ever endured. The loss of both my job and a place I called home,'s been a sort of drawn-out torture. Yet as I kept throwing myself into the demoralizing process of job searching, as I worried about money every waking (and non-waking) hour, and as I genuinely wondered if I could take any more, I told myself the same six words:

"Just make it to Saturday night."

That's when Svengoolie's on.

Chicago's own Svengoolie (pictured above) is a host for (mostly) b-grade horror and science fiction movies. I started watching him on Chicago's WFLD 32 when I was a kid back in...longer ago than I care to mention. It was through Sven's show that I first saw all the Universal Monster movies, developing a special affinity for Creature from the Black Lagoon. On a cold afternoon one February, I saw Hammer's The Horror of Dracula for the first time, my little self gasping at the climactic scene as Peter Cushing holds candlesticks as a cross and drives Christopher Lee into the sunlight. Of course, the giant monster movies were the biggest hits at our house. I remember playing along to Godzilla and The Deadly Mantis, using plastic army men and dinosaurs.

As fun as the movies are, they are only half the attraction. In fact, I watch Svengoolie regardless of the feature that week, so I suppose one might argue that a particularly fun movie is but an added benefit. No, I watch Sven for his host segments. These include corny jokes and genuinely informative background on the actors in the films and sometimes behind the scenes accounts of the film's writing and production. Oh, there's music too...

On the right, that's the show's "musical director", Doug Graves. Each episode, Doug accompanies Sven in a parody song. A few are funny, a few are groaners, but they never fail to be fun.

By the way, have you ever been to Berwyn?


Berwyn is a suburb of Chicago. When Sven mentions the town's name on the show, "BERWYN?" is groaned back to him. Why? Well, check this for the answer.

A derivative of the town name's also forms the moniker of Sven's rubber chicken pal, Kerwyn. He joins in for Sven's reading of fan letters and for general wise cracks.

In 2011, Sven started airing on MeTV on Saturday nights. More recently, MeTV arranged for Sven's show to be the centerpiece of a true cavalcade of delight. At least that's what I think. It's called "Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night" and when I tell friends and family that I'm walling off Saturday night to watch Sven, it really means I'm sitting in front of the TV from 6pm until...well, at least midnight or whenever I fall asleep. The Saturday night line up features several shows I've covered here on ESE:

-Wonder Woman.

-Star Trek.

-Battlestar Galactica.

I should also point out that the original Batman with Adam West is a pivotal component of the line up. Oh and if you can stay up long enough, you'll also see Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Lost in Space, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I usually can't these days, but thank God for DVRs.

So why exactly has this Saturday night line up become such a fixture in my life? Might sound weird, but I've decided to examine that question through the lens of my profession: professor of writing. In the course of doing so I have come to three conclusions:

1. My study of writing, both fiction and nonfiction, has mostly been relegated to texts deemed by academics as "worthy". That's my word for it. Another phrase might be "the canon." Sometimes in grad school I would get the false confidence to suggest there's a literary value to the types of films shown on Sven or the shows that are part of Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night, and I would inevitably get a haughty response from a few of my professors that suggested my taste in literature clearly peaked sometime around age 15. While they scratched the padded elbows of their tweedy jackets, I continued to ponder my response.
We write to communicate. We also write because humans tell stories. It's one of the traits that makes our species unique. One of the driving motivators ("exigencies") in telling stories is to entertain. That is what the movies on Sven aim to do and more often than not they succeed. In fact, one of my more common responses to a Sven film or one of the episodes of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica is, "That must have been so much fun to write." The writers of b-grade horror and science fiction weren't trying to be Joyce or Moliere. They were just trying to be fun. How freeing that must be.

2. There is something of a metatext involved here too. One of the big attractions for me with Super Sci Fi Saturday Night is the "live tweet" feature. Using Twitter and the hashtag #Svengoolie, we viewers can add our own jokes and commentary as we watch. There's also tweeting for Wonder Woman, Batman, and all the rest. Our narrative grows out of the shows and gets added to them, creating a sort of external text above the shows. Sounds hoity toity? Maybe. What's for certain though is that this live tweeting creates a community. Every Saturday night, I look for the same people on Twitter and it's not quite the same if one of them is missing. Even though I've never met them in real life, sorry...IRL, they still get a virtual invite into my living room each "Sven night" and we enjoy the shows together. I have never before had such an experience with television programs.

3. Sacred space. Again, this might sound hoity toity, but I don't care. We humans create sacred spaces. These are places we demarcate as different from all others. Sometimes this includes the use of ritual, such as in a mosque or cathedral. Sometimes it includes a block of time, such as church every Sunday morning at 10am. Sometimes it includes storytelling, such as readings from sacred texts or rhetoric such as a homily or sermon. It is a meaningful time, meant to enrich ourselves.
I must ask, isn't this what I'm experiencing every Saturday night? I certainly feel much better after watching. I have rituals associated with my viewing. I get my snack foods set up and kept nearby. I make certain to have my iPhone charger positioned just so across the couch as my phone's battery will inevitably drain from all my tweeting and Facebook check ins. Judging by posts on those social media platforms, I'm not alone in these rituals. What's more, I see pics of whole families gathered together to watch these shows. I am reminded that I started watching Sven as a kid with my own family. My brother and I came to share a love of the monster movies, perhaps even spurring us on to our respective academic studies (myth and eastern religion for him, narrative and rhetoric for me.)
Are there that many things more sacred than family time?

It is sacred. Flirting with another lofty cliche, I'm going to say that Svengoolie is far more than a TV show. He's actually doing a great service to humanity.

How, you ask? How could a guy in black greasepaint and a whole pile of rubber chickens ever be thought of as more than diverting and disposable entertainment?

Well, these are dark times. They are full of deep political division, caustic rhetoric, and real-life horrors like school shootings. Many struggle to just to get by and wonder if they can afford basic necessities such as health care. I can certainly attest to the fear, stress, and anxiety of job loss, and I know my story is one of the tamer ones out there in terms of suffering.

Sven, if even for just a few hours, is an antidote to our condition. He's bringing happiness into the world. He doesn't do it with "edgy" and ironic, postmodern humor, which tends to be a reminder of all our daily woes. He does it with rubber chickens, a guy named Kerwyn, a cigar-smoking skull named Zallman T. Tombstone, and wonderfully bad movies. He brings people together, whether it's family and friends in our living rooms, or those we meet online in the live tweets. While the show may seem silly (and it is), there is a true nobility involved in bringing happiness to others that should not go without notice. I'm not sure Sven's aware of just how meaningful his show is.

I know that he, along with all my other blessings, saved my life this past year. An exaggeration?
I assure you. It isn't.

Thank you, Sven.

NOTE: I suppose I should point out that I am not employed by MeTV and am not on the payroll to falsely fluff up the network and its programming. I just love what they do. Then again, if one of the higher ups reads this and wants to hire me, I'm real cheap right now.

Jonathan Nichols. Writer/producer. Like the sound of it.
Maybe I'll finally succeed in getting Buck Rogers added to Super Sci Fi Saturday Night.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Onion at its best

Photo from The Onion.

Just when I'm going through Winter Olympic withdrawal, I see this headline from The Onion:

"Spectators Bombarded with Gamma Radiation As Rapidly Spinning Figure Skater Collapses Into Singularity."

Now think of all the various directions you could take this as a writing prompt.

-Somewhere in space, another civilization happens to observe the collapse of our solar system into the newly formed singularity. Somehow, for whatever reason, they are able to perform a sort of "rewind" and see the events leading up to the tear in the cosmic fabric. They learn about the Winter Olympics. They grow fascinated with the concept. "What is this...curling?" Long after the demise of Earth, curling endures in a distant corner of the galaxy.

-Not only does the spinning skater collapse into the singularity, several other skaters are plucked from the kiss-and-cry and are drawn straight into the vortex. They emerge on the other side in a field of streaming, blinding white light. The bands of light dim and squiggle to form a hoop or halo. A slender figure with hair shellacked into a pompadour saunters out of the halo.
"Hello," Johnny Weir smiles and tells them in a voice that is at once gentile and powerful enough to shake the heavens. "I've been expecting you." Pandas skate around him.

-Shaun White leads a cadre of young snowboarders into the vortex for the ultimate thrill ride. They disappear. Tonya Harding, Alberto Tomba, and Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards go in after them on a Zamboni.

-Or we might never find out the singularity formed at all, because NBC actually cut away one skater before it happened, believing the gold already settled. Instead, we are treated to 30 second clips of three different sports and the story of an athlete competing in the name of their grandmother with the gangrenous leg.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets