Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The transhuman prank

For a moment there, I'm sure opponents of transhumanism thought they hit a gold mine.

It was an exclusive interview for Singularity 1-on-1 at the Singularity Weblog.  On April 1st, site founder Nikola Danaylov sat down to interview Chet Getram, CEO of ByoLogic, a "lifestyle biotech firm." The setting of the black and white interview was suitably dank, taking place in a medical facility where dragged body bags and occasional screams punctuated the discourse.

Wait, I should really preface this.  The whole thing starts out with protesters picketing the ByoLogic facility.  Getram steps outside with a megaphone to assuage the crowd.  He is of course flanked by guards in black fatigues and gas masks.

Once in the interview setting, Getram proceeds to tell Nikola about the many exciting products on the way from ByoLogic.  Among these is their latest innovation, ByoRenew, a pill you can take that sets the basis for further subscription upgrades you can purchase, such as immunity from the common cold and up to protecting you from heart disease or cancer.  But what is perhaps the company's biggest upcoming success is ByoBaby.

ByoBaby is a series of serums injected into expectant mothers.  These procedures protect and enhance their fetus.  Latest test versions of ByoBaby have already reached four years old and are performing very well in school.  Nikola asked Getram if ByoBaby and the other technologies have had FDA approval.  Getram pointed out that ByoLogic is Canadian-based and has "a very good relationship" with that nation's version of said agency. "You have to make sure you have the little people on board," Getram said.

Of course if you noted the date of the interview...or even the title of this no doubt recognize that the whole thing was a satirical fabrication.  So April Fools.  This dystopian vision was brought about by Trevor Haldenby, a futurist and designer from Toronto.  He also plays the role of the fictional Chet Getram.  As Haldenby says:

"ByoLogyc’s CEO Chet Getram is a ruthless and manipulative fictional character — a living experiment designed to explore how the language of human-centered design, sustainable business, and social innovation could be used to obscure a nefarious and short-sighted vision of profit as generated by a new biological economy."

He makes a fair point.  I also believe you could view the exaggerated nature of the presentation (see it for yourself) as speaking to the many fears people have regarding transhumanism....and poking fun at them. While the video interview doesn't address cybernetics or uploading, you could easily substitute them in with the ByoLogic products and expect similar reactions.

That said, Haldenby's basic argument stands as valid.  Can we really trust a biotech corporation that just wants us "to live our best possible life?"

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

UFOs: It's all about the swag

I'm back, everyone.  Anything cool happen while I was gone?  Didn't think so.

I asked a question of my students today and in dwelling upon it, I thought it might come about to make a decent post on UFOs.  My question was basic yet rather deep: "what do humans want?"

After a volley of the usuals (e.g. food, shelter, love), one student attempted to answer the question quite succinctly: "swag." We're all about the further accumulation of swag.  This led me to ask myself, "What do UFOs want?" I've posited numerous theories on the matter before with most of them being from the perspective of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis.  I am in the process of greatly reconsidering my stance on that hypothesis so when I've given things more thought, I will elaborate.  For now, I'm just thinking.

So what do other people think UFOs want?  I mean, why are they here?  Well a quick spin about Google tells me that aside from a pervy interest in our butts, there are many who agree with my student: "The aliens are out for swag."

Michael Salla is one of many UFO proponents who asserts there is an alien presence on our moon.  In fact, he goes so far as to argue that both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were threatened with death should they reveal their own UFO experiences from the Moon landing.  After all, a whole two minutes of video footage is missing from the Apollo 11 mission, an incident that NASA attributes to "an overheated camera."  But what were the UFOs doing there in the first place?  Mining Helium-3...a stable isotope of helium that is in abundance on the Moon and has the potential to be an incredible energy source.

I could go into much about Dr. Salla and the whole "exopolitics" scene, but Paul Kimball really took care of it quite handily several years ago.

Still, the "swaggers" (as I have taken to calling them) persist.  They point to the Karnes City incident of 1971.  This is where a UFO appeared over a uranium mine in Texas.  A report from an eyewitness alleges that the UFO shined "hundreds of penlight size lightbeams that alternated in all colors of the spectrum" into the mine.  The uranium ore was turned to a white, chalky substance.  "Many a night I have laid in my bed thinking about what happened," states the witness. "I think the UFO needed the uranium for some reason."

Furthering this line of thinking, supporters of the "aliens are here to plunder our swag" theory point to UFO incidents at military nuclear facilities such as Malmstrom AFB and Rendlesham Forest as well as sightings over nuclear power plants that led witnesses to suspect that the craft were "recharging" over the cooling towers.

While I am still very intrigued by the sightings at the aforementioned military bases, the rest of this really doesn't add up.  In fact it flies in the face of logic.  Elements such as uranium and helium-3 are readily available across the universe.  Why come all the way here for them when you could get them from an asteroid?  On that subject, asteroids would contain many minerals found here on Earth.  Why muck about with an inhabited planet if you just want mineral swag?  Oh wait, what's that you say?  They want our nuclear power?

Again, why?

If such aliens really are behind these sightings, then they must be considerably more advanced than we are and therefore our crude nuclear facilities would hold little value to them (weapons systems, however, might be another story.)  When you're an advanced civilization, why frivol about with such things?  Yet more reason I find their alleged interest in uranium to be laughable.

So I'd say the coveted swag of humanity is safe for the time being.  

At least from aliens.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, March 31, 2014

Inaction on climate change to be "catastrophic"

It is no longer simply a matter of rising temperatures...or even sea levels.

The coming change in climate will have direct affects upon our homes, the food we eat, and therefore our health.

This is the consensus of a UN report on climate change being mulled over by scientists and political leaders.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued their report after much discussion and now stand by it as evidence of the enormous scale of the problem, calling it "severe and pervasive."   Secretary of State John Kerry had this to say in response to the report:

"Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy. Denial of the science is malpractice...There are those who say we can't afford to act. But waiting is truly unaffordable. The costs of inaction are catastrophic."

The report, one that comes on the heels of another with a similar projection I might add, highlights the fact that there will soon be no citizen of the world who will be unaffected by climate change.  Food crops such as corn, wheat, and rice are projected to have 25% less yield by 2050.  That's a big deal, especially when you consider how much of the world is already starving.  Additionally, certain fish will migrate due to warmer waters, decreasing the catch by 50% in certain areas.  That doesn't mean just higher prices for your damn crab legs.  There are many populations of the world who are wholly dependent on seafood either for sale or subsistence.

Yeah, we're in trouble.  What's more, it's all more or less written in xylography with the report also calling the changes "irreversible."   What we can do, however, is keep the problem from getting any worse and (hopefully) find as many ways as we can to heal the environment.

So what am I doing about it?

That's a fair question.  I mean, after all, it's one thing to moan about this crisis but if I'm not actively helping to do something about it in my own life, well...

Here are few...albeit minor...efforts I've been making:

-I have converted as many of my home's light bulbs as I can to compact fluorescent bulbs.  I make absolutely certain that if a room is empty, the light is turned off.

-I am in the process of reducing how much meat I eat.  Not only does that assuage my conscience in terms of animal rights, it helps reduce the amount of methane from large farms and CO2 from transporting the meat.

-It might be a while before I can come anywhere near buying a new car, but I'm already looking at hybrid vehicles such as the Prius. In the meantime, I walk as much as I can.

-I kept my home at 62 degrees this past winter.  Might sound chilly, but it wasn't so bad as there are always more clothes you can wear.  I am well aware the summer will be a different story.

Might not sound like much, but I know others who are making similar efforts as well.  These little actions can have big consequences.

I don't see how anyone can still disagree with the fact that we are completely changing the environment of our world.  Our way of life is about to be turned completely upside down and I can only imagine the reaction from denialists.  "It had nothing to do with industry or weather!" "Why the hell didn't anyone warn us?"  Does it mean the extinction of humanity?  I guess it depends on how adaptable we really are.

Makes me wish I was a punky teenager again.  Without people or things to care about, I could just sit back and watch the show unfold with a sort of perverse glee.  "The hubris of humanity felled as the chickens come home to roost," and whatnot.  In the midst of the heatwaves and food riots, I could quote song lyrics such as "History shows again and again how nature points up the folly of man."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 28, 2014

FFF: High Anxiety

"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." --Leo Tolstoy

You're half right, Leo.  I think about changing the world quite a bit.  Changing myself, well...that's a matter of grave concern for me as well.  Lately, my stumbling block for doing so has been anxiety.

"Anxiety is a desire for what one fears, a sympathetic antipathy; anxiety is an alien power which grips the individual, and yet he cannot tear himself away from it and does not want to, for one fears, but what he fears he desires. Anxiety makes the individual powerless, and the first sin always occurs in weakness; therefore it apparently lacks accountability, but this lack is the real trap." --Soren Kierkegaard.

I see what you mean by that, Soren.  But the thing is, I don't entirely agree.  True, it is rather something like "praying for exactly what you don't want" or focusing on the worst-case scenario until it consumes you as reality.  By all rational, logical thought, it's something you should not do.  It should be a case of switching that part of you off and moving forward.

Who ever said the human mind was rational?

No, Soren.  A quote I find far more relatable on the subject comes from the venerable Trent Reznor:

"It won't give up, it wants me dead, goddamn this noise inside my head." 

I've blogged extensively and candidly about my struggles with depression.  In fact, it was just one year ago to the day (as I write this) that I began going through one of the more difficult times of my life.  But this is different.  This is more fear-based as I mentioned once before.  All rooted in that fear of "what comes tomorrow." Seems unlikely that someone who writes so much about matters Fortean, but I have a genuine fear of the unknown.

I remember grade school.  If I didn't see one of my parents there to pick me up when the day was over, I somehow presumed they were never coming for me.  Worry commenced.  Don't ask me why, I have no idea.  I have worn grooves into floors from nervous pacing.  I don't know if my stomach problems can be traced to anxiety so much as stress and angst, but I wouldn't be surprised. 

Social occasions have at times been gruesome affairs for me.  Bars and nightclubs are not my favorite places and weddings (yes even my own, making my way through the real life edition of My Big Fat Greek Wedding) are especially egregious.  Fortunately, both situations come with copious amounts of alcohol and that makes things barely tolerable.  In other cases, well let's just I've really embarrassed myself out of fear or "fight or flight" instinct, my actions landing in various shades of both ends of that spectrum.  I really hate that about myself (bringing on more self-loathing) but there it is.

I tried Xanax once long ago.  It didn't do anything for me.  My brain can pump out fear chemicals faster than any medication can hope to inhibit.  Alcohol works better.  At least in the short term.  But that brings a whole host of negative consequences with it.

"Losing yourself in your art" seems a tack taken by many writers and artists.  Kafka certainly did it, as did T.S. Eliot.  In this frank (and tortured) article on anxiety  in The Atlantic, the common association between artistic brilliance and neurosis is made once more:

"In his 1941 essay “The Wound and the Bow,” the literary critic Edmund Wilson writes of the Sophoclean hero Philoctetes, whose suppurating, never-healing snakebite wound on his foot is linked to a gift for unerring accuracy with his bow and arrow—his “malodorous disease” is inseparable from his “superhuman art” for marksmanship. I have always been drawn to this parable: in it lies, as the writer Jeanette Winterson has put it, “the nearness of the wound to the gift,” the insight that in weakness and shamefulness is also the potential for transcendence, heroism, or redemption."

I could live with that...were I not absent any evidence of being particularly brilliant.

What will I do?  No idea.  Therein is the root of much of my anxiety.  Please don't tell me about herbal teas or meditation or to "just get exercise" or "only eat organic." That latter one slays me.  Like who has the money for that?  Especially with money being such a major source of my anxiety.

Along with age.

And weight.

And thinning hair.

And time running out.

Oh sweet oblivion, if only...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Kree-Skrull War, part 2

When we last left this comic book saga, a Kree Sentry had smashed its way into a medical wing of Cape Canaveral.  Its quarry: the convalescing Captain Marvel.

As Avengers #90 opens up, we see the same three Avengers from the previous issue, Vision, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch, attempt to battle the sentry and protect the fallen Mar-Vell.  It does not go well.

The Avengers fail and the Sentry kidnaps Captain Marvel.  There is barely any time to absorb the bitter sting of defeat as these Avengers receive a call from Clint Barton.  Barton appears in his Goliath persona and not Hawkeye, which is a bit disappointing for me but I digress...

Goliath informs the three plus Rick Jones that he received an emergency call from Janet van Dyne, aka the Wasp.  It seems that she and her husband Hank Pym, aka Yellowjacket at this point, were aboard an icebreaker headed to Alaska to determine why a government research station stop responding to radio calls.  Riding on dragonflies, the two headed inland and found an expanse of tropical jungle in the middle of Alaska.  Fearing for Jan's safety and wanting to investigate this bizarre discovery on his own, Hank punches his wife (!) and knocks her unconscious.  He instructs her dragonfly to take her back to the ship.

The summoned Avengers wing their way to Alaska and the out-of-place jungle.  Upon arrival, they see that it is no mere jungle but a land filled with prehistoric plants and animals; animals such as dinosaurs and sasquatch-like apes.  The reason for this?  Ronan the Accuser and the Kree Sentry have constructed a citadel that broadcasts a "devo-ray" (no "Whip It" jokes, please) that reverts everything back to that era. The reason?  Well, the Kree first visited Earth during prehistoric times (cue Giorgio from Ancient Aliens).  If everything...including superheroes...were returned to that primitive and primal state, the planet would be easy pickin's for the Kree.

Among those affected by the devo-ray are Hank Pym...who has now devolved into a Neanderthal-like state and is posturing to attack the Wasp.

To be continued...
So where to begin with all of this?

Well, I wasn't all that hip on this issue.  First of all, no Cap, Iron Man, or Thor.  Second of all, it seems to be a great example of Plot Contrivance Theater.  There's new trouble a-brewin' in an unrelated corner of the world and it just happens to be caused by the bad guys from the previous issue.  Also, it's still unclear just how this all relates to a Kree-Skrull War.

Then there's the awful business about Hank hitting Jan.

One might think that writer Roy Thomas was foreshadowing the drama-laden storyarc of the early 1980s where Hank as Yellowjacket really begins to lose his mind and hits Jan once again.  The consequences of domestic violence were at least talked about in that arc, but nowhere near as much as they should have been.  But somehow I don't think that Thomas had any of this in mind.  You might argue that Hank was already under the influence of the devo-ray when he hit Jan, acting out in a brutish and violent means as his thinking grew slower.


Still, none of it is clear and it remains very unsettling to read it through contemporary eyes.

Then again, that may be something that Roy Thomas was at least hinting at.  These characters should be written as people and as people they would have flaws and ugly sides just as anyone else does.  In this issue, the Vision points out that superheroes are actually great examples of misfits.  Captain America is a man living 20 years out of his home time, Thor is a god among mortals, and Iron Man...well, "who knows what dark secret may lie hidden within his heart beneath that gleaming chest plate?" As loyal readers know, the answers to that include womanizing and alcoholism.

The beginning of cynicism in comics?  A plash or early pang of postmodernism?  Don't know if I'd go that far, but...

Like I said, wasn't a fan of this one.  Here's to hoping part 3 is better.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ode to Erin Burnett

During the sad saga of Flight 370, I have watched what feels like a true cast of characters play out their roles on CNN.

That dramatis personae has included the bushy-moustached Les Abend, Miles O'Brien, who returned to the network after losing half his arm (talk about a tough guy), Mary Schiavo of the ever-changing hair, and there was Jim Tilmon, a man I remember from his days as a meteorologist in Chicago...and from that day in 1979 where he explained with a model plane how a DC-10 managed to crash at O'Hare.

But none of them can hold a candle to Erin Burnett.

What is it about you, Erin, you news anchor goddess?  As the Bard said, "let me count the ways."

First of all, let's face it.  You're hot.  Just plain hot.

You're also top-notch journalist.  To paraphrase Don Henley, "you can tell me about the plane crash with a gleam in your eye."

But I'm not kidding myself.  You're way out of my league.  You're younger than I am, far more successful than I am, and in an entirely different tax bracket.  I might as well be on Mars.  What could someone like me ever offer you?  Well I think, no...I know...I have an answer.

As Batman had Alfred, as OJ had Kato Kaelin, and as Walter Cronkite had whoever he had, I'll be your "man who does."  Your "Jonny Friday."

I'll clean the house, wash the windows, shop for groceries (I am rather thrifty with my eye for sales), and walk the dogs.  That is if you have dogs.  If there are other mammals involved I may need training.

I could build you a fort in one of your backyard trees.  You could go in there and hide while I play interference with the home office  "No, I don't know where she is.  Hang up, Wolf.  You're drunk."

I will sit and listen to you talk about your day after I've poured you a glass (or two) of wine.  You can bounce story ideas off me and I'll always say, "that's brilliant, Erin!" I'll laugh at all your jokes.  I'll listen to you vent about your workplace.

You: "That Anderson Cooper is such a whiny bitch!"
Me: "I know, Erin.  I know."

What else can I bring to the deal?  Well, you might learn things such as all the lines to Blade Runner, all the lyrics to songs by Duran Duran and U2, and how to manage a man's inordinate comic book collection.  Who knows?  Once in a while you might even learn an interesting tidbit you could toss out on your show..all by watching TV with me.  "You know, it's a little known fact that another word for an English dandy is coxcomb.  No, it's true and yes I just called Felix that.  Now back to Odd Couple: In Theory."

So think about it, girlfriend.  You know where to find me.

Oh and I know you're married. I am too.

That's not a problem, is it?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets