Friday, April 24, 2015

When black holes meet and "the big empty"


Time now again for Science Friday.

Two very interesting stories on space and astronomy caught my attention this week. Yes, believe it or not, even if it has nothing to do with UFOs, space still interests me. Photos of galaxies and nebulae from the Hubble put me into a place of complete sang-froid. But I digress...

First was this bit on research that suggests we're about to see what happens when two black holes pair and perhaps merge. This will be the first time that astronomers have ever witnessed such a thing. The leading belief at this time is that both black holes have synchronized and are producing a quasar that cycles between bright and dim. Quasars are once mysterious space objects that are extraordinarily bright and are thought to be expressions of energy that occur as matter falls into a black hole.

In the course of study of this quasar, astronomers found it followed a bright/dim pattern of every 542 days. The most likely explanation for this is that two galaxies are merging and that each galaxy has a black hole. These black holes are now in such near proximity that they are orbiting as a binary system.

Wow. This really is new. Granted I'm not an astronomer, but if someone had asked me just yesterday whether I thought this could happen with black holes, I would have issued a definite "no." Guess it's a good thing that I stuck with English.

Speaking of holes, astronomers have found a big one. In fact, it is now the largest known structure in the universe.

It's being called "the supervoid." It is a spherical blog 1.8 billion light years across...and it is really really empty. At least in astronomical terms, anyway. Turns out its not perfectly empty, but has 20% less material in it than other sections of the universe.

This "big empty" as I prefer to call it, was first suspected ten years ago when it was noticed in an astronomical study as being suspiciously cold. Stands to reason as such an empty expanse would have to be colder than even the frigidness of regular space. Turns out this a bit of hitch in the Big Bang model of the universe. As stated at the linked article:

"Cosmological theory allows for a bit of patchiness in the background temperature, due to warmer and cooler spots of various sizes emerging in the infant universe, but areas as large and cold as the Cold Spot are unexpected."

An article over at Discover puts it in analogous terms:

"To understand the effect of a void, imagine the universe is like a Swiss cheese, with holes – voids – corresponding to empty spaces devoid of matter and gravitational pull. When a photon, a particle of light, from the CMB [Cosmic Microwave Background] encounters a void it will lose energy but regain it as it exits.

However, since we believe that the universe is constantly expanding, the photon will exit into a medium that is less dense than before it entered the void. Lower density means weaker gravitational pull on the emerging photon. This means that the photon cannot make up all the energy it lost and ends up with a little less energy – and hence lower temperature – than light from regions on the sky that did not pass through the void."

So 1.8 billion light years of the cosmological equivalent of nothing? Suddenly I don't feel so bad about myself.





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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Suicide Squad




Surprise surprise, there's another comic book movie in the works. This time, it's one of my absolute favorites.

It's called Suicide Squad. The series for DC Comics truly has its origins in a 1959 issue of The Brave and the Bold, but it was the 1987 re-launch by writer John Ostrander that really caught my attention. Well alright, I'll be honest. I didn't start reading it until about 1991, just a few issues shy of its cancellation in the fall of that year. Just like me to be late to the party, showing up just in time to watch the whole thing sale across the sky like a bolide before winking into non-existence. Anyway, what was it about Suicide Squad that drew me in? Well, four points in answer to that question:

First of all, there was the basic concept. The protagonists of the series were all supercriminals. It's a story about bad guys. While imprisoned, they were given the option to undertake high-risk special ops missions for the U.S. government, missions with a low probability of succeeding (hence the name, "Suicide Squad.") The government got "deniable assets." The supercriminals got commuted sentences.

Second, the series took lesser known villainous characters and gave them a home of their own where they could really develop. Sure, characters like Penguin and Captain Cold each had story arcs, but those were rare. Most stories focused on characters like the tormented and sociopathic Deadshot, the manically depressed Count Vertigo, the ninja-esque Thugee known as Ravan, and the laughably base Flash villain, Captain Boomerang. While on missions, the Squad is coordinated by their eyes and ears, Barbara Gordon, who has become the computer hacker Oracle since being shot by the Joker in The Killing Joke. Riding herd on all of these crooks was the gruff Amanda Waller of the NSA, a character I saw somewhat reflected in that of Nancy, the NSA director on The West Wing.

That reference to the genius of Aaron Sorkin brings me to my third point. Suicide Squad was something of rarity for comic books as it took its inspiration from real life political situations and news stories ("ripped from today's headlines.") There were terrorist cells from the Middle East, situations that pertained directly to the Cold War, and espionage activities that mirror what went on behind the scenes of the world stage, such as toppling dictatorships. From time to time, real world leaders such as Reagan and Gorbachev made appearances. Writer John Ostrander said that he had a friend who would ask where the Squad was going on their next mission so that he could avoid travel to that location.

Ostrander was of course the fourth point. His writing was of a depth and quality that one seldom finds in comics. A series of this nature gave him all manner of opportunity to explore moral gray areas. And not just with the criminals, mind you, but with the actions of our own government. By employing literary devices such as psychiatrists and chaplains at the prison, Ostrander was able to delve deep into these characters and drag up their pasts while illustrating their psychological make-up. During the late 80s and early 90s, DC was really at the top of their game when it came to writing. John Ostrander was a big reason why.

As I mentioned at the top, there is currently a Suicide Squad movie in the works. It seems heavy on the Batman villains and has Will Smith as Deadshot. Not sure I can see that working as I've only seen Smith in roles where he is a wise-cracker and not a badass, but he may yet surprise me. This is not the first live-action adaptation of the Squad, however. The TV series Arrow has had its own version and it has turned out all right, especially with its depiction of Deadshot. I mean, they toned down his past and made it a bit more noble (the comics Deadshot had a past similar to that of Don Draper from Mad Men but not as warm), but it is the CW after all and they've been playing fast and loose with Green Arrow for a little while now. I'm not saying that's bad, just saying. We'll see how it goes.

Given overall quality of DC's films, I'm not optimistic.





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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Climate and Earth Day 2015




So it's Earth Day and the climate is still changing.

That change will render "two degrees" to become perhaps the most significant number in human history. How? A series of videos at CNN in honor of the day actually do a decent job of explaining that fact. Let me put it to you in personalized terms.

My students just got done studying the Industrial Revolution. That occurrence brought us a lot of cool stuff and conveniences that most of us would rather not go without. But there's a downside. Exhaust from combustion, everything from factory smokestacks to cars, has sent a record level of carbon dioxide into the air. As one of the videos at the link points out, CO2 is at its highest level in almost one million years. In fact, nine of the hottest years on record have occurred since 2001.

Say it with me everyone: climate change.

Thus far, the surface of the world has seen an overall increase in average temperature of .85 degrees Celsius since 1880. That might not sound like much, but consider what is already happening. This rise in temperature has resulted in a melting of 150 billion tons of land ice from Antarctica. That means an inevitable rise in sea level. Far more ominous is the concept of "two degrees."

That's Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit for the rest of us in America who didn't make the switch over to Metric. If overall temperatures rise two more degrees, that's when start to see massive changes. That ice melt I mentioned? It accelerates. So with it does a rise in sea level and that means the flooding of coastal areas. On the flipside, we'll also experience massive droughts in many parts of the world, on par with or worse than what California has to deal with right now. All of this combined can lead to species extinction. Not necessarily of humanity (although that's not far fetched) but of other species that we actually depend upon for our lives as we know them.

Keeping that temperature rise beneath two degrees gives us a chance to stave off a few of the worst possible consequences of climate change. The question is whether or not we have collective will to do so. Hell, it's a question of values as well. Do we value a livable environment over business? I'm not sure America does and frankly I'm well past fed up with it.

Oh but then again why worry? Let the flora and fauna stir in the heat together in a mirepoix. Who believes climatologists? That would be like me believing an expert mechanic telling me I need new brakes. Better yet, it would be like 97% of the world's expert mechanics telling me that I need new brakes (97% of peer-reviewed articles on climate change agree that it's happening and humans are the cause.) They're probably all after my money anyway. It's a liberal conspiracy.

Most insidious of all, what if we make all of these efforts to reduce carbon emissions and climate change doesn't happen...but we make the world a healthier place anyway? GASP! Yeah I know. I'm probably going to get into more Facebook fights over this post.

I'm okay with that.





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Monday, April 20, 2015

Healing minds with virtual reality


Virtual reality, more often than not, seems to aid more in preparing for war than healing its after effects.

That has changed.

An article on PBS' Nova website describes how the Red Sox Foundation at Massachusetts General Hospital is using virtual reality to simulate the sights, sounds, and smells of combat incidents for veterans. It might seem counter-intuitive for a vet with PTSD to relive their experiences, but that, as the article describes, is actually part of the healing process. Coming to terms with the reality of their experience helps them to move past it. Virtual reality helps get the details of the experience out more quickly.

“It brings back that muscle memory,” said one participant. “You get right back into that mode. You put on the headphones and start hearing that radio chatter and it just comes right back to you.”

A virtual reality headset provides the visuals while concomitant odors of rubber and cordite accompany the experience. As the veterans talk through their trauma while immersed in the virtual world, counselors can add virtual avatars or modify the pixelated environment, tailoring it to the patient's description.

Intriguingly, the article points out that PTSD is not the only malady that virtual reality is treating. There are also simulations for those afflicted with autism and schizophrenia. Even pedophiles are being studied through simulated conditions. Before the advent of such systems, it was difficult for psychologists to study exactly how and why pedophiles get aroused without placing a child in danger. Therefore, such research was not attempted. The downside of is that it makes it that much more difficult to ascertain what is going wrong in the mind of the offender and then treat...and hopefully prevent...such conditions. A virtual reality avatar does not incur danger. That has already allowed researchers to determine unique hand and eye patterns that are common to offenders.

To cop the atticism of the article, "virtual reality is not a panacea." It has its downsides. Not everyone responds to virtual reality treatment and there are no longitudinal studies that a) demonstrate how a patient does in the long run and b) how the treatments stack up in the real world. Additionally, VR technology is expensive. That latter point may be subject to change over time, however. Oculus Rift is an example of how VR tech is entering the consumer market and there is talk of a VR app available for smartphones that would run about $500. In terms of therapeutic value, more time will be needed to assess the efficacy of the virtual reality method.

While this is important for the afflicted (and our veterans who have suffered through so much certainly qualify), I can see a real benefit for their families, friends, and people in general. Traumas, psychic scars, and mental illnesses still carry stigma and are still difficult for many to understand. Through a virtual reality experience, maybe someone could learn just what it means to be forced to live with such things or perhaps to experience the moment that created them. If VR could lead to not only healing but greater empathy, that what be worth the cost alone.

Of course our entire living experience could be virtual reality, but that's a whole other story.




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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Does blogging make you smarter?





Tonight, I will be blogging about blogging.

How meta.

The road by which I arrived at this choice of posts is a bit twisty. Follow me if you can or will.

As someone with a mind oriented towards things like literature and art, I tend to avoid business like the plague. Sadly, complete avoidance is practically impossible for a writer in the 21st Century. Additionally, my interest in technology inevitably leads me into waters the color of money. That is how I came across this post that recommends that business executives keep a blog. Why should they do such a thing, you may ask? Well, there are actually a few good reasons listed in the article.

There are the typical talking points. Expand your social media network, increase brand visibility, procure your grubstake for new ventures (or at least that's how I'd put it), and the usual hollow jargon you come across on such texts. But one point really stood out to me.

Blogging, if done well, actually makes you smarter.

Yes, I've heard all the arguments to what it has done to language and composition. The Internet has opened the floodgates to the masses and to get at quality writing, you must first wade through a great deal of garbage. The same is true for music, filmmaking, basically any creative endeavor. Instead of all that, I'm talking about what blogging does for the individual writer. Here's a quote from the article:

"To keep my content fresh and interesting, I’ve been forced to research and learn about industry leaders, better ways to use social media, and new methods and strategies to help my clients better position themselves as good-fit candidates.

I’ve become smarter about executive job search, personal branding, online visibility, social media, networking, and so much more."

You know what? I agree. Even if I can't see eye-to-eye with the subject matter referenced, the heuristic mechanism is, I believe, a valid one. There is epistemology at work on good blog pages. In order to generate quality content, I scour several websites every day for news and bizarre goings on. Sometimes what I find ends up as a mere tweet. Other items, ones I feel a strong interest in/connection to or ones that I believe I can thoroughly expand upon, are what I deem as "blog-worthy." Contrary to a few criticisms I have received in the comments section, I really do try to track down and support what I'm writing about with links and resources. Hopefully said support is from quality sources more often than not, but sometimes it isn't and that is deliberate so as it's very much part of the fun.

So has blogging made me smarter? I really think that it has. It has forced me to read more, to expand my interests, and to investigate matters that I might not otherwise. Blogging is one of the things I look forward to at the end of the day. You wouldn't think it would be relaxing at the busy time of a semester, but it is.

Even if my brain feels like a hard drive about one year overdue for a defragging (see pic above). Seriously, I'm fried. I have an overworked inner child whining for comic books right about now.





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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

RIP Herb Trimpe




A great light has gone out in comic books.

Comic book artist Herb Trimpe has died. He was 75.
The name Herb Trimpe might not be as well known in the mainstream as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, or even Steve Ditko, but for many of us "of an age," he left an indelible mark on our childhoods. Trimpe had many accomplishments in the industry, but for me, he will always be the one who visually cemented G.I. Joe in my mind's eye (see above).

I've written before about just how big of a deal G.I. Joe was to me as a kid. Heck, it still is. With his keen artistic style, Trimpe laid the groundwork for all that would follow with his work on the iconic Marvel Comics series. This became a standard not just for the comics, but the animated series and even anything live action. So far, nothing has really come close to the bar he set, other than the possible exception of a few of IDW's works. Another Marvel property that Trimpe had a big hand in was The Shogun Warriors.





Likewise, I've also written about how much I loved Shogun Warriors. While not as big of an influence as G.I. Joe, the Shoguns were certainly among my very favorite toys and comic books. Still are. At the same time (or roundabout, anyway), Trimpe was also drawing the Marvel Godzilla series. While it had as much or more cheese as Shogun Warriors, it did give us a giant robot in its own right: Red Ronin. Good stuff and all certainly food for the soul of that gawky, awkward kid known as Jon Nichols.

Most of comicdom at-large will know Herb Trimpe for having an extraordinarily long run as the artist on The Incredible Hulk. That was a big deal for me too as the stretch of Hulk written by Bill Mantlo was especially endearing to me as a kid. Indeed during Trimpe's run as artist, most of the title's writers came to rely heavily on Trimpe for both plotting and character design. As a consequence, Trimpe ended up co-creating several very important figures in the Hulk mythos, including Doc Samson. What is likely the biggest happenstance for comic book and pop culture fans overall is that Trimpe was the very first artist ever to draw Wolverine.





There he was. Meant as a second or third-string, "guest appearance" character, and Wolverine goes on to become one of the most popular in Marvel history. Who knew?

Herb Trimpe was an outstanding artist at just about everything he put his pencil to. For me, however, I will always remember the way he drew gear. I'm talking machines. Whether it was the Shoguns, G.I. Joe, or even just equipment for SHIELD, Trimpe could draw vehicles and devices that somehow managed to look fantastical and plausible all at the same time. Plus, they looked just plain cool. You wanted to drive them, fly them, or shoot them. They really did bring out the little kid in you.

In the wake of Herb Trimpe's passing, writer Ron Marz made comments on Twitter that should give all fans of the medium pause:

"Comics as a whole is not very good at taking care of its veteran creators, those upon whose shoulders we stand.
"Hopefully with Herb Trimpe's premature passing we can give some thought to taking better care of those who came before us."

Indeed.
Herb Trimpe will be missed.




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