Saturday, January 9, 2021

1950s b-movies as a shared universe

Dedicated to my Svenpals!

It’s 1950.

World War II ended five years ago with the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan. American life is a mixture of gleeful prosperity and existential dread. Sure, suburbia is booming and we’ve got a lot of cool stuff, but is another war ahead? This time with the “commies” and this time even more destructive due to atomic weapons? Little did anyone know that the copious atomic tests of the previous five years would unleash “atomic horror.” Fortunately, it would all be chronicled in b-movies…that I now propose as a shared universe.

A few words about what I’m doing.

I am engaging in fanfiction. Just in case you might not know, this is where someone takes plot and characters from established, copyrighted media, and writes their own stories using the content. It has been around for at least 50 years in the modern sense of the term, and I’ve been studying it off and on through the lens of Rhetoric and Composition. To me, fanfiction writers are reclaiming their agency in order to engage in the natural human need to contribute to mythmaking. Often this means taking liberties with the “canon” of the media. In my case, I will be monkeying with the timeline of these movies.

Why am I doing this with no hope of publication or compensation? A couple reasons.
One, I am so tired of writing about small college closures, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Two, I am exhausted from a month of class-building in Canvas while watching America erode into chaos. To say I want something diverting is an understatement. Fortunately, I happened to be tweeting back and forth with a few pals during my weekly viewing of Svengoolie, and this idea of a shared universe was born. I couldn’t wait to play in it.

And to be honest, that’s what I or any fanfiction writer is really doing. Playing.

I feel I need to make one more point. As one may logically conclude, these 1950s b-movies are reflective of the ethos and ideals of the society that created them. That means they are very, very white. There is opportunity to add diversity. Maybe African American characters who overcame the Jim Crow of that era in defiance of all expectations? Not all characters in these films have explicit sexual orientations. Maybe someone is LGBT? There is much that could be retroactively fixed and lot of cultural baggage shed. I am currently trying to figure out how, but a handful of films did it already as this article on female scientist characters points out.

Here is my attempt to weave together what a 1950s “atomic horror” (plus a handful of other pop culture properties thrown in for “seasoning”) shared-universe would look like:

New Mexico-Authorities investigate a mute, wandering child and her parents’ apparent murder. Unbelievably, this leads to the discovery of giant, hostile ants inhabiting New Mexico. Radiation from the Trinity test mutated regular ants to the size of city buses. The military eventually destroys these ants. A few people stand out in the whole fracas. One is a G-Man named Robert Graham, and another is New Mexico State Trooper, Ben Peterson. Most of all, there is Dr. Harold Medford and his daughter, Dr. Pat Medford. Both are trained in the academic subfield of myrmecology (study of ants), but we’re open-minded and intellectually nimble enough to recognize and accept what was actually going on. As Dr. Harold Medford said, "When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict."
Once it was all over, these four all got a visit from a smiling “man in black” who said his name was “Indrid Cold.” He represented a covert government organization named Anomalous Scientific Events (heh! See what I did there?) or ASE (pronounced “ace”). The American government was growing aware of the unintended consequences of nuclear energy, and a team was being formed to meet the new challenges. The four accepted membership in the club. They might also have been persuaded by the presence of the ASE agents flanking Indrid Cold, as these men wore black trenchcoats, black hats, and their faces were obscured by black gas masks.
(Film source: Them!)

Japan-Something rose out of the depths of the Pacific. Resembling a dinosaur-like creature of enormous stature, it laid waste to a small fishing village. Dr. Kyohei Yamane, a paleontologist, determined the monster to have been in hibernation and then awoken, and perhaps mutated, by oceanic atomic testing. Given the name “Godzilla,” the beast attacked Tokyo and Japanese citizens suddenly felt like it was 1945 all over again. The Japanese military was less than useless against Godzilla, particularly as Godzilla could expel a fiery, radioactive breath. A scientist named Dr. Daisuke Serizawa was beseeched for help. Serizawa had built a device called an Oxygen Destroyer, but he refused to provide it, fearing it might proliferate into weapons even more deadly than the atomic bomb. As Tokyo burned, Serizawa’s conscience was moved and he agreed to use the device, provided he could first burn his design notes. Godzilla returned to Tokyo Bay and Serizawa dove down to plant the Oxygen Destroyer on the monster’s leg. The device worked, killing Godzilla, but Serizawa turned off his own oxygen tank, choosing to die and take the secret of the device with him. Yamane conjectured that if atomic testing continued, more Godzillas could await.
Indrid Cold met Yamane and invited him to join ASE. At the same time, ASE agents raided Dr. Serizawa’s lab and confiscated all they could to reconstruct an Oxygen Destroyer. Also, an ASE intelligence named Race Bannon spent two days interrogating Steve Martin, an American reporter who witnessed the devastation wrought by Godzilla.
(Film sources: Godzilla, Jonny Quest)

The Arctic-A secret nuclear test at the North Pole had an unintended consequence. It dislodged a block of ice containing a gigantic praying mantis, frozen since prehistoric times. This mantis awoke and attacked US military forces in northern Canada who were building the DEW (Distant Early Warning) radar line. From there it headed south, attacking New York and Washington D.C. Members of ASE, such as Drs. Yamane and Medford, formulated the means to defeat the monster bug and it eventually died trapped in Manhattan Tunnel.
(Film source: The Deadly Mantis)

The same classified nuclear test knocked loose yet another significant block of ice. This one contained a Nazi bomber of advanced design. It crashed in the Arctic in the 1940s as it was piloted away from American cities…by Captain Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America. The bomber and Rogers were found by ASE agents and US forces scouring the area following the deadly mantis attack. Incredibly, Captain America had been frozen in suspended animation all that time. Indrid Cold persuaded the newly-thawed Rogers that ASE…and all of America…still needed Captain America.
(Film source: Captain America: The First Avenger.)

By sheer uncanny coincidence, ASE enlisted yet another “special agent” at this very time. A researcher and industrialist had perfected his own rocket pack. With such propulsion on his back, a leather flying jacket around his torso, and a streamlined and bug-eyed helmet on his head, he quietly pledges his daredevil flight skills to Indrid Cold, ASE, and the good ol’ US of A. His codename would be “Commando Cody.”
(Film source: The Commando Cody serials)

The Arctic (again)-The US Air Force responded to a call from Polar Expedition Six about the crash of an unknown aircraft. ASE agents Peterson, Graham, and Captain America accompanied. It was discovered that the downed aircraft was in fact an alien spaceship. The ship was accidentally destroyed, but the ship’s frozen occupant, presumed dead, was brought back to the research station. The alien thawed out and immediately began killing mammalian life in order to devour its primary food source: blood. Dr. Arthur Carrington, Nobel laureate and lead researcher at the polar station, determined that the alien was a form of plant-based life and demanded that “The Thing” (for lack of a better term) be captured for study. Captain Kenneth Tobey, commanding officer of the military expedition, rejected the proposal due to obvious security concerns. After a fierce battle with Captain America, the alien made its way inside the outpost. Dr. Carrington attempted to reason with the alien, but was killed. The alien was at last destroyed by electricity.
Ned “Scotty” Scott, a journalist who accompanied the detachment, radioed the story along with a warning to “Keep watching the skies!” This transmission never made it to the newswire thanks to interference by ASE. Scott and Tobey, however, were recruited into the organization, with a keen eye on Scott’s ability to manage public information. 
This incident prompted a subdivision to form in ASE. The objective for this group was to confront possible extraterrestrial threats. Primary agents in this task force were Arthur Dales, Bill Mulder, and Carl Busch, the latter never giving his colleagues his actual name. This led to him simply being known as “The Cigarette Smoking Man” due to his three-pack-a-day-habit. Calling their subgroup “The X-Files,” these agents retrieved pieces of the alien’s destroyed ship. A computer was eventual salvaged and restarted. It contained numerous intelligence on terrestrial atomic weapons as well as data on Godzilla, the mantis, and giant ants. The three agents also confiscated all of Dr. Carrington’s analysis of the alien. This would become invaluable later.
(Film sources: The Thing From Another World, The X-Files)

Arizona-A small town seemed to lose its mind. Local resident John Putnam and a schoolteacher named Ellen Fields blamed it on a crashed spaceship and its mind-controlling occupant. ASE took statements and noted that an extraterrestrial presence appeared to be growing on Earth. To keep pace with the growing threat, ASE recruited a scientist named Dr. Clayton Forrester into the fold.
(Film source: It Came From Outer Space, War of the Worlds)

Los Angeles, CA-Two scientists construct a robot named “Tobor” designed to take the place of human astronauts in space travel, thus presumably saving human lives. Tobor was briefly stolen by enemy agents (presumed Soviet), but the robot prevailed with the assistance of Commando Cody.
(Film source: Tobor the Great)

Pennsylvania-An object fell from space outside a rural town. Later, two teenagers found an elderly man with a strange, purple, jelly-like substance. The youths took the man to a local doctor, but the old man was consumed by the growing “blob.” The blob would have devoured the entire town if not for the quick thinking of local high school students. There were two main outcomes from this incident. Teenager Steve Andrews became ASE’s youngest recruit because Indrid Cold “liked the cut of his jib” and said he could “really handle himself.” Secondly, ASE scientists and investigators came to suspect that the “blob” was an alien weapon covertly dropped on Earth.
(Film source: The Blob)

Mexico-Yet another object fell from space, this time splashing down in the Pacific off the coast of Mexico. An enormous alien robot rose from the ocean and came ashore, absorbing all energy sources it encountered. The news media dubbed the robot “Kronos” for reasons unknown. ASE responded to threat as its scientists determined that bombarding Kronos with nuclear ions would reverse its polarity. This worked and Kronos fell to pieces. ASE collected the fragments and began to reverse engineer the device. Despite the work of Ned Scott and Race Bannon, it becomes more difficult for ASE to conceal the alien threat.
(Film source: Kronos)

Washington D.C.-All efforts of ASE and its “X-Files” to cover up alien visitation on Earth are negated when a flying saucer landed on the White House lawn. A human-looking alien named Klaatu met with ASE scientists to warn that human experimentation with nuclear weapons has garnered attention in the galaxy. If the human race did not agree to abandon the nuclear arms race for the sake of its own existence and prosperity, then other civilizations may regard humanity as a threat and wipe the face of the Earth clean. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was onboard with the idea, but said the Soviets would never agree, so it was judged as a non-starter. Klaatu departed for his home planet, but not before imparting the ominous threat, “Beware. They’re coming.”
(Film source: The Day the Earth Stood Still)

Earth was invaded.
Cylinders dropped from the sky all over the world. These cylinders disgorged hovering war machines armed with heat rays. Blobs, just like the kind encountered in rural Pennsylvania in 1955, plopped into major cities. Additionally, giant ants, just like the kind encountered in New Mexico in 1951, attacked heavily populated areas for the first time. Drs. Medford determined that these ants were under the control of the alien invaders. Mind control, just as seen in Arizona in 1953, was brought to bear as a weapon against humanity as the alien invaders created small armies of zombified humans. Captain America and Race Bannon fought these brainwashed citizens in the streets. Commando Cody struck the alien war machines from skies with mixed success. Response from the world’s militaries was swift, but ineffective as weapons such as tanks and jet fighters disintegrated when hit by alien heat rays. Not even the atomic bomb made any difference. As broadcaster Ned Scott noted, “it was the rout of humanity.”

The tide of the war turned in the Pacific when the aliens awoke another Godzilla to do their bidding. Godzilla was not interested and turned his destructive force on the aliens. ASE agents, armed with experimental laser guns and commanding robot armies based on the designs of Tobor and Kronos, brought down war machines. Race Bannon single-handedly killed one of the aliens. He brought the corpse to ASE scientists, led by Dr. Clayton Forrester, in a makeshift lab built in the California hills after the loss of ASE HQ when Los Angeles. One breakthrough occurred at this lab when the aliens’ language was deciphered by Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones. Then analysis of the alien body found it to be identical the alien encountered in the Arctic in 1953. Using the notes of the late Dr. Carrington, ASE scientists developed a bioweapon against the aliens and dispersed it widely. The aliens abandoned Earth after many of them were felled by the virus, “the tiniest weapon ever known to man.”
Though victorious, humans faced a difficult situation. Over one million died and many more were injured, whole cities needed rebuilding, and we still had giant ants. What’s more, Godzilla still lurked somewhere in the oceanic depths. And rumors began to fly about a giant, pterodactyl-like creature that rose out of  Japanese volcano. In its own significant blow, ASE came to learn that sometime during the war, Indrid Cold had disappeared.
(Film source: War of the Worlds)

Arthur Dales believed there was far more weirdness out there than ASE was investigating. He left ASE, went into journalism, and changed his name to "Carl Kolchak."
(Film source: Kolchak the Nightstalker)

So there it is. The skeleton of a shared universe. A lot of grist for the mill, and plenty of nooks and crannies to fill in, but for now…I had fun. 

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, November 21, 2019

This is the year of Blade Runner

Figured I needed to get this Blade Runner post in while there's still a week left in the month.

November, 2019. As depicted above, that was temporal setting for one of my favorite films of all time, Blade Runner, based on the novella "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick. Thus, the movie is now about the present.

Maybe it always was.

So strange to think it is now November 2019, particularly when I remember my first viewing of Blade Runner sometime circa 1984. My young eyes and mind could not appreciate the depth and grandeur at the time. I thought it slow, boring, and most obtuse, but visually captivating. Oddly, my love for the movie grew in a snowball effect only after it was viewed in connection to multiple other texts (Derrida, I hope you're reading, because you were right...of course I would never argue otherwise).

A couple years after seeing the movie for the first time, I became a devotee of the short-lived ABC TV series, Max Headroom.

The show took place in a dystopian future where TV networks ruled the world. The character of "Max", while omnipresent in the series was also somewhat peripheral, allowing interesting plotlines to arise from supporting characters. I loved the show (still do) and began to recognize that I had seen a few of its aspects before. Like Blade Runner, the sun never seemed to shine in Max and everyone and everything operated under this oppressive atmosphere of weight. In my first months of undergrad, I would learn that this atmosphere and its accompanying generic motifs had a name.


At my friend Chris' blog, Dorkland!, he does a fine job of explaining what that genre means, so I'll leave you to read it at the link. It was through Chris and the role-playing game, Cyberpunk 2020 (odd yet again that next year will be the projected setting for that game) that I would be introduced to the wide range of books and films that fall under this umbrella category. Chris, in what he will no doubt eternally lord over me, introduced me to my most favorite writer, William Gibson. "If you want cyberpunk, you need to read its foremost author," Chris said, or something to that effect. I read Neuromancer and then Count Zero and the rest, as they say, is history.

Art by Liang Mark

Throughout my early 20-something deep dive into cyberpunk, I kept seeing the obvious connections to Blade Runner. In fact, William Gibson is said to have left a showing of the movie in deep distress. So much of what he portrayed in his book Neuromancer he saw depicted on the screen. He thought Hollywood had beaten him to the punch. But Gibson went on to do just fine, publishing numerous short stories in Omni and long line of books. It was Blade Runner, though, that took its time cultivating an audience. It was something a box office flop, but people like me gathered as a cult following and the film eventually came to be regarded as a classic.

Here in the actual November 2019, many are publishing articles of what the film got wrong and got right. Those "gotcha" pieces seem to satisfy a pesky need for people to crow, "Ha ha! Science fiction doesn't get it all right!" Of course it doesn't. Gibson said as much when I heard him speak in 2010.

"I'm surprised how often we [science fiction writers] get it wrong. There were no cellphones in Neuromancer," he said.

There weren't any in Blade Runner either. Neither Philip K. Dick, nor Ridley Scott, nor most anyone else involved foresaw the omnipresent connection of technology in the way we would have now. We also don't have Replicants, artificial constructs that mimic humans in most every way and only an empathy test can help tell the difference. This of course is probably the biggest disparity between real life and the 2019 of Blade Runner, but give it time as we're getting close. Still waiting on the flying car, but we're getting there as well.

So what did it "get right"? Well, voice-responsive technology is one check mark in the "got it" column. Image scanning and manipulation is another, even if it's not quite to the degree shown in Deckard's apartment. I'm going to guess going by the incessant rainfall in the film that there was a serious climate shift. The warmer air holds more moisture and the rain just keeps coming. It's also probably an acid rain, given the sheer amount of pollutants belched into the air by stacks in the film. We've taken steps to curb acid rain, but there is no doubt that our climate is changing in real life.

Corporations also dominate the world of Blade Runner. The Tyrell Corporation, manufacturer of Replicants and no doubt many other "must-have" products, operates above and outside the law, wielding influence over much and greeted with shrugs of "that's the free market." It's a paradise for Libertarians and a dystopia for everyone else. The gulf between the haves and the have nots is both wide and deep. Need I really draw any overt parallels between the two 2019s? When almighty business sits so high upon its lofty perch?

There is one other aspect of the movie that I believe stands out far and above all the others when compared to our 2019: people want to live authentic lives.

That sounds like a no-brainer, but I urge you to really think about it as you watch the film. The environment of Blade Runner is downright oppressive in economic, environmental, spiritual, atmospheric, and in many other senses. Yet people persist. They eke out livings using what is available to them, usually technology. J.F. Sebastian builds his own "family" using his skills in robotics and biotech. Scan the street scenes and pause from time to time, inferring the different ways people of the city find to survive.

In yet another connection to Gibson, this practice is evocative of one his better known quotes: "The street finds its own use for things." This is seen our time as protesters in Chile use inexpensive laser pointers to confuse police drones and cameras.

Photo from The Atlantic.

What is amazing to me is that the people of Blade Runner still want to survive despite all reasons not to. I see little quality of life for the common person, I see little chance of them surmounting the draconian mechanisms which confine them to their stations, I see no room for avocations apart from vices, and yet...and yet...through either fear or courage, they persist. Perhaps as Camus suggests, they imagine Sisyphus as happy.

All of this, one may argue, is neatly encapsulated in the film's final scene. Why does Roy spare Deckard? The viewer is left only to speculate. That speculation is percolated (or spoon-fed, depending on your ethos) by Harrison Ford's noirish voiceover. Maybe in his final moments, Roy wanted life so much that he could not bear to take it from Deckard or anything else. Why am I here? How long do I have? Or as Roy perhaps less eloquently puts it to Tyrell in an earlier scene, "I want more life, fucker."

Speculation. Not all the blanks get filled. That is often the mark of great art. More to the pity of Blade Runner 2049, where I begged for them not to answer the questions. Unfortunately, that was but the least of the sequel's problems.

We live in uncertain times. File that under Understatement for $100, Alex. Often I and others of a similar mind find ourselves asking just how do we continue during such an era of political and economic oppression? I don't just mean that in regard to myself, but more specifically to many others, such as the protesters in Chile...and if you don't understand why we should care about others then we really have nothing left to say to each other. Additionally, I question my own future vis-a-vis what I value and what I do. What place is there for someone of the mind in a "go into the trades" world? How do I have? How can I keep going?

Today, as in the Blade Runner version of 2019, there may be no way to win. But people keep going.

"It's too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?"

I leave you with an instrumental piece by Nine Inch Nails which to me sounds most Blade Runner-esque.

 Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, September 6, 2019

Hike for Hesed

In two weeks, I will be participating in the Hike for Hesed. This is a five mile walk to raise funds for Hesed House, the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois.

Why am I doing this? It all starts ten years ago with a man named Gordon.

It was a chance meeting in the food court of Chicago Union Station. I was in the city, killing time before meeting my adviser at DePaul University. While in the Metra station, I saw CPD hustle out two homeless men. 

“They do it to me, too,” someone to the right of me said.

He sat reading a discarded newspaper. He wore a 49ers sweatshirt that had seen the better of days. I saw weathered skin on his face, teeth a deep shade of yellow in his mouth, and detected the slightest scent which indicated an absence of soap and deodorant. We started talking. He told me his name was Gordon. In 2001, his wife contracted cancer. They found it harder and harder to cover the innumerable bills that came their way, despite their having insurance. They wiped out his 401k. They took out a second mortgage on their house. Then the other shoe dropped.

Gordon worked as a machinist at a Chicago factory. The CEO of the business decided he could make a greater profit if he moved the plant to Mexico. Gordon lost his job. He and his wife soon depleted their savings. She died. He lost the house. With no other family to speak of, Gordon went to the streets.

I never forgot that chance meeting. For the ten years since I have reflected on how we are all, in the end, subject to the capricious whims of chance. You never, ever know how someone came into their situation, whatever it is. I am certain there are those who would greet this account with counterclaims, such as, “He should have worked harder and saved more” or “Why didn’t he just get another job?” To those claims, I offer yet another question.

Would you say that to me?

If you are reading this, then chances are you know me, either informally through the ether of cyberspace, or as an intimate friend. You might even be an extended family member. My point being, seriously, would you say those things to me if I were homeless?

Because I easily could have been.

When Saint Josephs’ College closed in May of 2017, I lost my job. As my wife has serious health conditions, I was the sole provider for my family. I sent out hundreds of job applications and went on numerous interviews. I ended up getting two part-time jobs, which still did not come close to covering monthly costs of living. How did we make it?

Pure accident of birth. I am blessed and grateful beyond belief to have been born to parents with both the love and the means to help my family survive…and I do mean basic survival…for that year before I was again blessed and acquired a wonderful, full time faculty position. If not for my parents, my family would have been homeless. Every day I reflect on how few people have such a safety net. I also believe that to whom much is given, much is expected. 

Therefore, I must act.

There are unique pathologies within our society. One of them, I believe, stems from our pioneer times, times which disappeared well over 150 years ago. This thinking goes: “As long as you work hard, you will make it.” Another is a reductive equation which states wealth=virtue. If you don’t have money, then you must be poor in character and morality as well as finances. Thus, I concede the fact that someone out there would still have belittled me for my situation or worse, belittled someone like Gordon for his, with “You should have worked harder” or “it’s your problem.” I posit that those harboring such an ethos are susceptible to the many myths surrounding the human tragedy that is homelessness in America.

“Homeless people just don’t want to work, or if they just got a job, they’d be fine.”
A 2013 study from the Department of Housing and UrbanDevelopment found that 55% of homeless had worked in the previous year. Gordon had worked the year before I spoke to him. I worked in the first half of 2017. I then worked two part-time jobs, just as many housing insecure people do. A minimum wage worker needs to work between 69 and 174 hours a week in order to afford a two-bedroom rental.

“Fighting homelessness is too expensive.”
A study from the Central Florida Commission onHomelessness determined that subsidizing housing for people costs $10,000 per person, per year. If left homeless, then people can cause a strain on jails, law enforcement, hospitals, and other community services that amount to $31,000 per person, per year. If one cannot see assisting the homeless as a moral imperative, then perhaps one might yield to the logic of numbers and finance.

I am also struck by how many young people are homeless. Last March, a student confessed to me that they were living out of their car and were running out of cash for food. I connected this student with campus services in order to change that situation post haste. But this student was symptomatic of a larger and systemic plight. Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune reported that 16,000 public school students qualify as homeless. “I felt very embarrassed to tell people”, was a common comment from those students.
Nationwide, one may see the scope, namely a 70% increase, of homelessness among school-aged children in this chart:

Something must be done.

That is why I like the simply stated mission of Hesed House: “Because everyone deserves dignity.” Every human deserves the dignity of a roof, heating or cooling, and food in their stomach.
Consider the many victories won by Hesed House:

-Over 200,000 warm meals were served to people in need.
-80,766 Warm, safe nights of restful sleep were provided.
-120 children were served over the course of the past year.
-So many people who now have jobs and their own housing via Hesed House training and assistance programs.

You may read of more successes at this link.

So that is why I am participating in Hike for Hesed. Several of my fine colleagues at the college, along with a few of their family members, will be joining me. Our team name is “Waubonsee Walkers.” I assure you none of us are Walking Dead fans, but rather the name comes from my being unimaginative at the time of registration. Because we’re from Waubonsee and we’re…well…walking. If, however, you are a zombie fan and that motivates you to help, then by all means.

I ask that you please consider sponsoring my team in this walk by making a donation of whatever you can afford. In doing so, you will be helping so many people to change their lives. Yes, it is the moral thing to do, but it also just makes good sense.

Everyone deserves dignity.
Everyone deserves to feel like they matter.

I’m going to do what I can to help make that happen.

Thank you all so much and take care.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

RIP Stanton Friedman

Breaking my “blog fast” for what I consider to be another significant news item.

Stanton Friedman died on May 13th. I know it’s one month since then, but end of semester grading and seemingly endless amounts distractions at home have kept me from marking this sad passing on the blog. That is to my own shame and disappointment, but I hope to make up for it now.

Who was Stanton Friedman? He was someone who spent his life, in one manner or another, investigating. I once latched on to the conclusions of his investigations with a wholehearted embrace. Then I came to disagree with him. But I never once lost respect or admiration for him.
Friedman was a nuclear physicist who at one point worked on projects like nuclear-powered aircraft and rockets. He left all that behind in the early 1970s to pursue full-time his own research into alleged UFO cases, particularly Roswell. In undertaking what would end up becoming a lifetime endeavor, Friedman approached ufology, it seems to me anyway, in three ways. First, he wanted to lift what he called “the laughter curtain” from the subject, so that UFOs might be openly discussed without fear of ridicule. Second, if the taint of automatic ridicule could be removed, Friedman made the modest proposal that each case could then be fairly evaluated on its own merits or lack thereof. Third, inquiries into these cases should by conducted according to the scientific method (would you expect anything less from a physicist?)

All of this I saw in Friedman when he first came to my notice on a program about UFOs back in my teens. He was not a hippy-dippy New Ager sleeping in a crystal pyramid, and any certainly was not like any of the “Rockstar Ufologists” we have today, bringing us nothing but
"UFOtainment” on the History Channel. No. Friedman was scientist. He was level-headed, thoughtful, articulate, and while he did believe that extraterrestrial beings were visiting Earth, he believed they accounted for only a small percentage of UFO sightings while the remainder were mis-identifications and mundanity. He was, however, something of a conspiracy theorist. Often Friedman would use the phrase “cosmic Watergate” to describe what he believed to be the government’s concealment of alien contact. The first book of his that I read, Top Secret/MAJIC, was a deep dive into and a thoroughly-reasoned examination of this cover-up conducted by the shadowy figures known as “Majestic 12.” You can read my review of it here from wayyyyyyy back when I first started ESE. The book even included the infamous “SOM01-01” manual, an apparent field guide for covert operatives handling UFO crashes.

Since then I’ve read much that strongly suggests these documents leaked to Don Berliner, one of Friedman’s writing and research partners, were fakes. Friedman continued to hold to his argument that true UFOs are extraterrestrial in origin and they are in fact “nuts and bolts” spacecraft. As you dear readers know, I can’t accept that and I’ve only grown more and more skeptical of UFO claims. I am certainly not a believer in the so-called “Deep State” and many other conspiracy theories or that “disclosure” is on the way.

And despite my disagreements, I still held nothing but respect for Friedman. He was no “true believer” and would call out cases he thought were weak and people he thought were questionable (I’m thinking of his take on Bob Lazar.) He possessed a keen insight on the effect UFO phenomena was having on society and media, an effect that remains real and palpable regardless of the nature of the phenomena. More than anything, I think Friedman just wanted the truth. As the field (if you can call it that) of ufology grows more and more overrun by YouTubers, rock stars, and glitzy reality TV personalities, the more difficult it will be to arrive at that truth.

If there does happen to be any scrap of validity in UFO phenomena…and there just might be…it will take people like Stanton Friedman to find it. Sadly, he is gone.

And he will be missed.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Our first look at a black hole

Image from the National Science Foundation.

So I said I would break my blogging sabbatical if something big happened.

Well, it has.

Yesterday, in a series of press conferences around the world, astronomers and other space scientists announced that we at last have an image of an actual black hole. The image was obtained by specifically linking together a series radio telescopes located around the Earth, an effort called Event Horizon Telescope (EHT). The black hole pictured is located in the M87 galaxy near the Virgo galaxy cluster, about 55 million light-years from Earth. As predicted by Einstein's general relativity theory, the picture depicts a dark, empty region in the center and a glow of superheated gas and matter being drawn in by the hole's immense gravity.

I honestly didn't think I would see this in my lifetime. When I heard last week that this news would be released, yesterday morning had a certain "Christmas morning" feeling to it.

There's something very human about this news. For a long while now, black holes were something astronomer's believed in, but never saw. Now when I say "believed in," I don't mean that in necessarily a "leap of faith" sense. The mathematics were there, the gravitational effects on nearby stars were there, but we just didn't have the means to see a black hole with our eyes. To see what we always sensed was there, to view it in the most tangible means available, answers so many questions for us. While at the same time, it raises just as many others. Ain't that existence, though?

Additionally, as we go through a time of what looks like great division, it's nice to remember that humans of many nations can still do great things when we work together. One motivation for such behavior is studying the universe...something that is certainly bigger than any of us or all of us put together.

So, yeah. I'm loving this.

By the by, if you're loving it too, then thank Dr. Katie Bouman for the discovery. Her keen mathematical alacrity came up with the algorithm that helped make the EHT possible. Let's hear it for more women in STEM making great contributions to humanity.

Sure wish Stephen Hawking had been here to see this picture. Well, I like to think he saw it before any of the rest of us did.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 1, 2019

So my Ancestry DNA results are in...

Always living so close to Chicago, I would marvel at the wild revelries of Irish descendants on St. Patrick's Day. In the city one April, I stood in curious wonder at a parade celebrating Polish pride.

I say "marvel" and "wonder" because I've never had a really good sense of my ancestors' origins. Truth to tell, it never made that much difference in my family and for most of my life, I didn't see it as significant. I would look at the above mentioned groups of people and think, "I wonder what it's like to have such a large portion of your identity immersed in origins?" Marrying a woman who is half Greek only furthered this mixture of bewilderment and detached rumination.

Then last Christmas, my wife got me and her parents Ancestry DNA kits. For the uninitiated, it involves spitting into a vial which is then filled with a purple, preservative fluid. You mail off the tube, the folks at corporate process it, and then they send a full report to your Ancestry DNA app (or email, if that's more your speed.) Two weeks ago or so, I received my results, my "DNA story" as it were. My reaction to it was...unexpected.

Here's the breakdown:

-46% of me is from England, Wales, and Scotland.
-40% of me is from Ireland (specifically Connacht) and the western section of Scotland.
-12% of me is from "Germanic Europe".

Based on that DNA "map", the assessment painted a fairly accurate physical portrait of myself without ever having seen me. The report stated, and rightly so, that I have pale skin, blue eyes, and thick, wavy hair. The only part it was askance on was that my hair color was likely light, whereas it's actually a dark brown. Good news? I am unlikely to ever go bald. It also said that I like cilantro...which I do.

Now if you've done the math, you'll notice that 2% still remains in my DNA makeup. That remainder ended up being something of a shock to me.

-2% Viking.

Now anyone who knows me in real life would look at my slender hips, thin wrists, and ant-like arms and think, "Viking. Sure. First thing I think of." That is a point of view I can certainly understand. Just the same however, I have gotten a particular kick out of proclaiming...and I apologize...
"I'm a fucking VIKING!"

It's given me a sort of odd sense of confidence, even to get through normal, day-to-day challenges. Now that is, of course, purely psychological. I am not any different today than I was the day before I received the results. Yet I cannot help but reflect on that 86% of me that comes from the British Isles, particularly it would seem, Scotland.

Throughout my life, I've been an anglophile. Almost all of my favorite music, writers, and much of the film and television I enjoy come from the many cultures of those lands. In my youth I would see pictures of the English countryside, the Irish coast, and the Scottish Highlands and feel an odd sense of connection, like something was reaching out of the photo and yanking me back...home. Could there be something encoded at the DNA level, embedded deep in me somewhere, that instinctively brought about that connection? Then again, is it just because of what was popular during my "coming of age years"? Both, perhaps?

That Scottish aspect has me thinking...

One of my all-time favorite films is Braveheart. Not only do I own the DVD, if I happen to see it's playing on TV, I will stop and watch it no matter where it happens to be in the narrative.


Let me address two things:

1. I am aware of the derision Mel Gibson has received in recent years, and it is not undeserving. Since I like several of his films, I must now place him with others such as H.P. Lovecraft, Roman Polanski, and Bill Cosby: artists and entertainers who despite having said and done terrible things, I still can't help but enjoy their writing. My relationship with their texts is...problematic to say the least.

2. Were I to be teaching a class on medieval history, the only reason I would ever show Braveheart is so that students could pick out all of the historical inaccuracies. This is fraught with issues for a writer like me who takes the phrase "based on a true story" quite seriously, and that's even with the allowances one must accord an nonfiction writer. In summation, I'm never watching this film as a historical text. As for my views on literary nonfiction, in this case I'm afraid I must exercise my right to hypocritize myself.

That said, allow me to proceed...

Braveheart, even if ficitonalized, is the story of a man and a people who stood up and said "NO" to their oppressors. The clans of the Highlands said to tyrants, "You will take no more. You will grind us down no more. We will fight for our land. We will take back what is ours."

As it is with so much in recent years, I cannot help but think of my experience at Saint Joseph's College. I've even alluded to a few of these thoughts and feelings in last year's post, "Lost Causes."

So often during those final months at SJC, my head overruled my heart. Yes, believe it or not. I wanted to say more. I want to take bold and defiant action. Deep inside I wanted to paint half my face cardinal and the other half purple and lead my army of like-minded Pumas to take a stand and cry out "you will not take this from us!"

But I didn't. I was afraid of damaging my chances at getting another job. I was servile and obsequious to people I now have no respect for, fearing that if I did otherwise I might be dismissed on the spot and lose severance and a few months of remaining insurance.  I kept tergiversating, moving in a frenzied circle of wanting to act but then retreating. I kept thinking an action of the "manning the barricades" sort would surely result in making matters worse.

That was my brain talking. It was similar to the response from Sir Robert the Bruce's father when The Bruce described the leadership and passion of William Wallace.

"And you wish to rush off and fight with him?" the father responds with condescending laughter. "Uncompromising men are easy to admire. But it is the ability to compromise which makes a man great."

It reminds of responses I received to my own expressions of pain and anger in those awful spring months of 2017. "You're being emotional, not rational. Problem solve. Be positive."

How does one compromise on being treated with human dignity? How does one react to an injustice without emotion? At what point do you take the risk, against all reason if need be, and stand up to say "NO MORE." Sometimes the only reasonable choice is the unreasonable choice.

I keep reflecting on Wallace's famous, perhaps now somewhat trite, speech in the film:

“Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!! Alba gu bràth!”

Yes. What would I be willing to trade?

I know that I can't help but feel cowardly in retrospect. While I quietly worked to support a resistance, I still wish I would have done more. Much more. What did I learn from it? That may best be expressed by Sir Robert the Bruce in the film: "I will never be on the wrong side of anything ever again."

There may be no scientific evidence for this gut feeling, but I cannot help but feel a deep connection with the Scottish people represented in my DNA mosaic. I know the same can be said of many people and many cultures, but I am the biological product of humans who saw injustice, stood up, and spat back in the faces of their enemy. My physical and emotional reactions in the first half of 2017? They were pre-ordained. They were hard-coded into my biology via the experiences of my Scottish...and maybe even Viking...ancestors, and passed along as epigenetics. They never rolled over and took it. They fought.

Yes, would that I would have done more, but while linked to the past I can only control the now. That brings me to my big announcement.

You no doubt have noticed the decline in the frequency of posts from ESE. That has been due to my teaching five English composition classes, finishing coursework for my terminal degree, and giving my family much-needed attention. If I am to get this SJC book done, I am going to have to knuckle down and just write. After all that's what writers do. They write.

Therefore, we here at ESE have decided to "suspend operations" (heh! Get it?) in order to devote more attention to writing the book. I am not saying I won't pop in now and then for a post if a news development warrants know, aliens land or the Singularity happens...but I really must focus on writing.

So it's goodbye from ESE...for now.

I'm off to buy a Claymore.

Alba gu bràth.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets