Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Stephen Hawking talks alien invasion

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As extinction scenarios go, it would at least be fun to watch.

Stephen Hawking has once again reiterated his concern over contact with hostile aliens. Among the more interesting aspects of this statement is the fact that it does not come from a UFO enthusiast. It is from one of the world's leading scientists. And he is talking aliens. His gravitas and largess demands that people listen.

His concerns are not unfounded, at least if you extrapolate from human history as Hawking is doing in the article. Like other thinkers before him, he is considering what happened when the native populations of the Americas came into contact with Columbus and other Westerners. "If aliens visit us, the outcome could be much like when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans," he said. Sure, violence and subjugation were a massive part of that but disease played a role as well. That could certainly be a factor in any UFO contact scenario as well.

"Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach," Hawking also said. That just sounds plucked from popular culture. I struggle to envision aliens crossing such distances just to do that unless they are especially warlike. In that case, I would think it more logical that such beings would have killed themselves off before reaching into space but that's probably just me.

At any rate, the article implies that there isn't much we could do about it anyway. It opens with "Now, in his latest dire warning, the physicist claims that if AI doesn't conquer humanity, an advanced alien civilisation may do so instead." Indeed we probably wouldn't be much of a match for such a truly advanced civilization, especially when all they would really have to do is set a virus loose upon the planet. Still, a war for Earth has been an intriguing notion that can be seen throughout the history of fiction and I have always been a sucker for it. Would we slug it out in the open or more likely rely on scrappy guerrilla tactics? Maybe we'd develop new war weapons altogether.

I really want to write my own "invasion of Earth" novel. Each time I begin, I end up giving up.

"It's been done," that inner editor says.

Sounds like Stephen Hawking doesn't mind, though. Grant Morrison could probably do something cool with it, too.

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Silent Running

As I graded papers last night, a science fiction classic played in the background.

It was Silent Running. I had never seen it before and despite the obvious distractions with my work, I found it to be a compelling film. Somber, heavy, and really quite melancholy at times, but still compelling.

"In world where" all plant life is extinct on Earth, Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, a botantist stationed aboard the space freighter Valley Forge. The spaceship has enormous geodesic domes where Lowell has spent eight years preserving what plant specimens remain from home. "The forest," he calls it. To call him passionate about the plants would be an understatement. He sees the preservation of this life as the noblest of acts, even if others see no value you in it and call him an idealist dreamer. This prompts a "what's wrong with dreams" rant from Lowell on par with Don Quixote. As you might have guessed, Lowell is rather Lorax-like and is ultimately quite mad.

That's a problem when he gets bad news from the corporate owners of the Valley Forge and its sister ships. Funding for the project has been terminated and everyone is to come home. Before doing so, they are to destroy the all the domes...and all of the plant life within them. Lowell sees only one logical course of action open to him: mutiny.

He takes over the freighter and sets it on a collision course with the rings of Saturn. During what time he has left, he tends to his trees and gardens with the help of his robot companions, Huey and Dewey. No, that's not the end of the film exactly, so save your cries of "spoilers!"

Made in 1972, Silent Running is a very 1970s film. I mean very. Environmentalism is an obvious theme and there's even a hippie dippy Joan Baez song to underscore the point. That aside, the message is still a pertinent one. All these years later and we're still tussling with exact same issues. The story prompts questions and forces the viewer to think. That's when science fiction is at its best as opposed to the braindead, splodey shoot 'em ups gobbled by Sad Puppies and my dear friend whose Latin motto must be a translation of "I'll watch anything." A work of art like this could never be made today in the Hollywood system.

In terms of acting, directing, and production, there is so much to like here. Bruce Dern practically carries the entire show himself through his performance. It might come off as a bit forced to a contemporary audience, but I enjoyed seeing the expressions on his face when he would argue with his fellow crew, perfectly portraying a mind locked in frustration and alexithymia when confronting smaller, money-driven minds. The film is directed by Douglas Trumbull, long known for his special effects work on such landmark science fiction films as 2001, Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Though this is my first time seeing Silent Running, I've always admired the design of the Valley Forge. The massive geodesic domes growing food and foliage beneath them are concept many have adopted in their work. They also have a chance of actually working in reality. I've also read that the design of the robots was later aped somewhat for R2-D2 in Star Wars.

The upshot? It's slow, talky, and thinky. Just my kind of film.

"Earth's last battle will be fought in space."

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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

UFOs: The occupants

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I am continuing my exploration of UFOs and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH).

For more information on my motivations, click here.

Naturally, one of...if not the...most interesting aspect of the UFO phenomenon to casual observers (or anyone for that matter) would be the nature of the occupants of these alleged craft. What are they like? What does their physiology tell us about their home planet? What credible sources are there to go on? That latter point is the weakest of all links in this chain of information, but in the spirit of this exploration, I will merely examine what claims are out there.

Of immediate interest is the account of Col. Philip J. Corso. In his book The Day After Roswell, Corso asserts with no ambiguity that he saw an alien body. While stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1947, Corso came across several sealed crates being stored in a high security area of the army base. Curiosity got the better of him and with flashlight in hand, he pried open one of the crates. What he found astounded him.

It was a corpse...but it was not human.

"The contents, enclosed in a thick glass container, were submerged in a thick light blue liquid. At first I thought it was a dead child they were shipping somewhere, but this was no child. It was a 4ft human-shaped figure with arms, bizarre- looking four-fingered hands - I didn't see a thumb - thin legs and feet, and an over-sized incandescent lightbulb-shaped head that looked like it was floating over a balloon gondola for a chin."

Corso claims to have later learned that the alien corpse was part of wreckage recovered from the UFO crash at Roswell. It had stopped over on the way to Walter Reed Hospital where a cadre of military pathologists would carry out an autopsy. In his book, Corso writes of what he says were the findings of that procedure:

"Of specific interest was the fluid that served as blood but also seemed to regulate bodily functions in much the same way glandular secretions do in the human body. In these biological entities, the blood system and lymphatic systems seem to have been combined." (p. 95)

"Walter Reed doctors were also fascinated by the nature of the creature's inner skin. It resembled, although their preliminary reports didn't go into any chemical analysis, a thin layer of fatty tissue unlike any they'd ever seen before." (p. 96) "...I kept thinking, also, that the skin analysis that I was reading sounded more akin to the skin of a houseplant than a human being." (p. 97)

While I've made my skepticism of Corso's allegations quite clear before, I am intrigued by a few of them. For instance, you know those silver suits that the EBEs were said to have been found wearing? No? Well here's how the Guy Hottel FBI memo (again, dubious source but this post is all about that right now) described them:

"Each one [recovered UFOs] was occupied by three bodies of human shape but only three feet tall, dressed in metallic cloth of a very fine texture. Each body was bandaged in a manner similar to the blackout suits used by speed fliers and test pilots.”

Corso says that the clothing cited is actually spun onto the aliens inside a large device. I'm going to use that in a novel one day. But I digress...

Interesting as all get-out, but what about possible encounters with aliens that were a bit more...shall we say...lively than those purported by Corso? Of course there are inordinate amounts of abduction and contactee claims, but the majority of those can leave one flummoxed as to the biological nature of the supposed aliens. In the course of my searching, I did come across this interesting little anecdote.

The story takes place in the summer of 1947 (when else?) in New Mexico (where else?) A retired rancher was driving his pickup truck along New Mexico Route 12. He came upon what he thought was a child wearing a one-piece, gray outfit, walking along a fenced pasture. As he stopped the truck, the man found that it was no child:

"He said at this point it was very scared. He noticed four long fingers, but no thumbs, no ears, fairly large eyes."

So what else would anyone do upon encountering such a strange being? That's right. Ask it to hop into the car and then take the little guy home to the wife.

The man's wife offered the alien food and water, but it did not take it. The couple were, however, able to get it to calm down enough to sit in a chair. Mystified as to what else to do, the rancher called the sheriff. A deputy said he would be out in the morning. Shrugging their shoulders, the couple went to bed and left the alien sitting in their kitchen.

By dawn, the alien was gone.

It seems that there had been a spate of UFO sightings in that area previous to that encounter. What's more, a crashed, disc-shaped UFO was said to have been found near NM Route 12 that same summer, complete with dead crew members. Did one survive and wander off only to be found by the passing rancher? And then what happened to it? Was it rescued by its brethren? Did it walk off into the desolate expanses of New Mexico (of which I was personally introduced to this summer and can attest to its barren loneliness) to live out its finally moments in peace and isolation? Never mind the fact that it sounds like UFOs have a puzzling penchant of dropping out of the sky like flies for such sophisticated devices. This is a great story.

Doesn't tell us much about alien physiology, but I like it a great deal anyway. As a story, that is. I'll have to work that one into a novel as well. As for the nature of UFO occupants, I'll keep looking.

But I'm not expecting much.

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Monday, October 5, 2015

The Art of Eclair Bandersnatch

Art and politics have always co-mingled.

Artists have always painted, composed, or installed pieces to rail about what is going wrong and...a bit less frequently...what is going right. In that spirit, Eclair Bandersnatch is a street artist for the digital age as well as the age of deep division and fluid gender. This interview at Gizmodo got me acquainted with her work.

Bandersnatch's glittery stencil graffiti appears all over San Francisco, depicting subjects as diverse as Godzilla, Chelsea Manning, and women. Many many women, several of them portrayed with a cartoonish yet sensual, almost flapper sensibility and often in ways decidedly NSFW. One point of particular importance to Bandersnatch is Edward Snowden, as depicted in her "St. Snowden" spray stencil above. Snowden is of course the cyber expert in exile over his revelation of the NSA's domestic spying program. They spy on...well, everyone. If you've made a phone call or done absolutely anything online in the past several years, they know about it. Why does Bandersnatch find this important to her work?

"My work? They’re [Snowden et. al.] important to my life! And they should be important to everyone’s life!
"But there are still a large number of people who don’t get what the debate is all about because they aren’t able to absorb anything that is difficult or unpleasant. What I try to do is pry people’s snouts out of their phones for a minute and trick them into learning about issues with imagery and prose. People like to be entertained and they like eye candy. If something’s funny or has a flow to it, like songs do, then its much easier for it to stick in your head and its more fun to learn about, especially for short attention spans."

That's quite the herculean ambition these days, particularly when most every piece of art is conceived with commercial aims and most writing amphigory at best (yeah, I'm aware I fall into that latter category more often than not.) When an artist like Bandersnatch comes along and attempts to remind us of our wider political realities, we should sit up and take notice. Granted the stance on Snowden is controversial in many sectors, but then it would make for rather boring art and social commentary if the subject were otherwise, no? Besides, important social issues such as Edward Snowden and domestic spying require debate.

One aspect of the interview that really intrigued me was why Bandersnatch chose street and sidewalk art as her mode of expression. What does that variety of art allow her that others do not?

"What Banksy said to graffiti artists, that “all other forms of art are a step down”, it really is true. We’re showing in the largest venue in the world, the city. The drive to do this comes from the feeling of having no voice. Its an act of desperation and frustration, but through it comes an amazing release and a feeling that I am contributing and changing things. San Francisco seems to be at the center of a lot of things right now, more so than most cities I imagine. And because of that you can put a stencil of Snowden on Divisadero and have it end up on the cover of one of the largest papers in Europe overnight."

I want more artists like Eclair Bandersnatch. I want to see people use art to get us talking about the issues of the Digital Age, the ever-widening gulf between political ideologies, and human rights problems such as those facing the LGBT communities. I'll take such art any day over the bland, vapid, meaningless, so-called "narratives" spewed from TV sets and accepted into the gaping minds of many of our supposedly more intelligent citizens, gulping it all down like young puppies at their mother's teat. Yeah. Give me more like Bandersnatch.

You can check her out on Facebook. I leave you now with one of my favorite Bandersnatch works on trickle down economics

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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Transhumanism: being a machine is not bad


Perpetual opponents to transhumanism often recycle the same argument: transhumanism will take away our humanity.

This typically raises my ire to one of those points where I have difficulty discussing the matter intelligently and maturely. For the good luck of all, Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan has made the counterargument for me with his article, "Why I Advocate for Becoming a Machine." He begins by examining the very real limitations of the human body.

"For example, our eyes can only see about 1 percent of the light spectrum. Our ears aren’t much better: they are unable to register many noises that other animals like dogs, dolphins, and bats can hear. Our sense of touch basically only works if we’re actually touching something.
Despite all these obvious physical inabilities, humans insist what we experience is “reality.” However, reality to someone with built-in microscopic or telephoto vision and hyper-sensitive hearing is potentially many times more complex and profound than anything a natural human being might experience."

Indeed to someone who has telescopic or infrared vision or hypersonic hearing afforded to them through cybernetics, that perception of "reality" greatly changes. This is already happening with implants for the visually impaired and Cochlear implants that detect what others would find to be almost inaudible sounds. In a day an age where privacy is of great concern, this no doubt raises espial concerns, but that should not, once again, be a reason to halt cybernetic developments altogether.

This is all well and good but Istvan raises an important...and honestly befuddled and all-too human...fact of how human beings perceive themselves:

"The good news is I think most people would agree that even replacing most every inner organ in your body is not becoming a cyborg or something machine-like. But mess too much with the outer body, and everything changes quickly. When we propose electively replacing limbs, for example, most people feel something has fundamentally changed in the human being. A line has been crossed that cannot easily be undone. We may still have a mind of flesh, but our eyes tell us we are now partially a machine and something very different than before. And that freaks people out."

Don't mess with the outside. That's what makes us human, y'know. That makes no bloody sense, but yet there it is.

I will keep saying it for as long as it takes for enough people to listen. Transhumanism is about finally having a choice. Don't want to be limited by frail human physical nature? There's reason that you should be. At least not as long as we have the intelligence to develop the means to overcome these frailties. After all, what is the human body really but a machine? We upgrade machines all the time. There is nothing written that says we can't afford ourselves the same opportunities.

In fact, the future may one day regard our ambitions here as simple, standardized medical practices. Modifications to our bodies will not be meant as replacements but rather as preventative enhancements. The sensors in the fingertips of your cybernetic arm will be just as much...probably more...sensitive to stimuli as its meat counterparts. As Istvan so eloquently puts it: "Transhumanism is not the end of the human age. It is the expansion of it."

As most transhumanists say: Onward.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Boehner resigns...and that's not a good thing

"Usually the only orange empty head that is tossed out at the end of October is a jack-o'-lantern."

So quipped a friend of mine. He was, of course, referring to the resignation of John Boehner as Speaker of the House, effective at the end of October. It brought jubilation from each end of the political spectrum. It is misplaced, I believe. Grievously misplaced.

I have not been Speaker Boehner's biggest fan. I've sharply disagreed with him on most issues, found him reminiscent of an arrogant high school quarterback, and often referred to him as the "Hell no you can't!" to Obama's "Yes we can." Despite our differences, this resignation is really not a good thing for anyone who shares in the ideology that brought us the Affordable Care Act and measured, reasoned foreign policy. Why is that? I can best sum it up with one comment I saw online:

"Liberals everywhere mourn his fall from power, he was their kind of 'conservative.' "

Comma splice aside, the subtext of the comment is of course that John Boehner was no true conservative. Let's parse that for a moment. Boehner is someone who allowed 60 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Since Boehner took over the Speaker's role in 2010, House Republicans have threatened to shut down the federal government 12 times. Speaker Boehner has a voting record that is historically anti-environment, anti-education, and anti-choice to name just a few.

This is a man not considered conservative enough by many factions of the GOP.

In truth this schism in the Republican Party has been at least 15 years in the making. George W. Bush rode to power in 2000 by (among other things) following Karl Rove's plan of engaging the long untapped demographic of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the United States. Since Bush's departure from office, many of these said same voters have adopted the Tea Party as their political home. This has created a considerable shift in the flavor of the Republican Party as David Brooks pointed out on NPR last Friday.

Brooks called Boehner a "country club Republican." It's a stereotype of course, the affluent and WASPy character you might greatly disagree with but at least they know enough about politics to recognize that compromise is an accepted necessity. The Tea Party has brought a new breed of Republican to the fore, one Brooks called the "Duck Dynasty Republican." A quick Google search will show you any number of controversial statements made by the cast members of that aforementioned television show. These are the types of comments that appeal to the baser members of the population, those who only react and refuse to compromise. How can you compromise when your ideology is rooted in fundamentalism? These are the same forces behind both Ted Cruz in the past and Donald Trump today.

Boehner knew this. He said as much in an interview this week, calling other unnamed conservatives "false prophets" who are "spreading noise" rather than actually achieving anything concrete. This refusal to compromise is actually far more threatening than mere noise, though. As Greg Sargent points out in The Washington Post, the Tea Party "failed to block Obama’s transformation of the country; that must be because they didn’t even try, so they must be complicit. But this failure, too, is structural. Republicans don’t have the votes to surmount Dem filibusters or Obama vetoes." Yet the far right wing believes that this can be overcome by pure will to power and any Republican leadership that thinks otherwise is treasonous...yet more indication of compromise as anathema.

Blood's already in the water. The successor as Speaker will either signify a continuance of conventional conservatism or the rise of the Tea Party to control of the House. In the case of the former, that means more GOP in-fighting and a hamstrung Speaker. In the case of the latter, that means gridlock and senseless opposition on a level we have seldom seen before.

And that should scare you.

The current heir apparent is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. He is already taking hits from the far right. Conservative pundit Erick Erickson posted this at Red State:

“McCarthy is not very conservative...If House Republicans wish to not find common ground with the conservatives who make up their base, McCarthy is a fine pick. But if they want to get everyone together as we head into November and then into 2016, they should consider someone else. McCarthy is a non-starter for conservatives and the bad blood will continue.”

Conservative talk show host Mark Levin simply called him "dimwitted."

To me it seems clear. There is more gridlock and turmoil on the horizon and a widening of the already deep divide in our nation.

I never thought I would actually miss John Boehner.

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