Thursday, February 26, 2015

Animal Stories

Animals and the paranormal. Two of my favorite subjects.

What brings this to mind? Well, I suppose it's due to my feeling a bit nostalgic this February for whatever reason. I grew up listening to WLS AM radio out of Chicago. One of the iconic personalities on that station...if not all of radio...was Larry Lujack. "Uncle Lar" and his sidekick, Little Tommy (aka "Snot-nose" Tommy) would provide a fixture of morning and then afternoon radio: Animal Stories.

As Lujack explains, this featurette was an outgrowth of a "dippy" farm report on at 5:30am in the morning. There were farm magazines in the studio and Lujack began to compile stories of bizarre incidents where farm animals would kill people in mishaps. This eventually turned into Animal Stories, a brief program where Lujack reads legit news stories involving animals...and a great deal of sex and violence, naturally. Whether through their inherent goofiness or Lujack's delivery, these stories were hilarious more often than not. And that's even despite my current unease with hearing about harm coming to animals.

How funny? Well, click the initial link I provided. You'll hear about how the United States military evaluates dogs for tasks such as guard duty and bomb sniffing. If a male dog squats while he urinates, that's a sign of immaturity and therefore disqualification. "I'd hate to be the soldier who has the job to check that," Tommy says, putting it all in perspective. Funnier even than that is the account of a chain-reaction series of mishaps in England that can all be traced back to a horse drooling on a biker.

It's probably no surprise, but the Animal Stories segments most memorable to me had to do with the paranormal. One narrative detailed a woman with two dogs and the spirits said to inhabit her house. The dogs, she said, would bark and growl at the dark basement. Yet there seemed to be nothing there. On at least one occasion, however, this woman heard the disembodied voice of a young girl coming up through the floor vents. Then there was Bigfoot...

I distinctly remember Uncle Lar and Little Tommy reading two pieces about the search for sasquatch-like creatures in other nations. One involved the Alma of Eurasia. A wilderness hermit was located who was said to have killed an Alma. Where was the body? Well, he ate it.

All of it?

Yes. All of it.

"Must've needed a big hot dog bun," quipped Tommy.

The other, a case involving the Yowie of Australia, told of a married couple living in the Outback. The husband was a prospector (I think?) and was gone for days at a time, leaving his wife alone and isolated. She struck up a sexual relationship with a Yowie. The husband found out and subsequently began to search the surrounding canyons for the manbeast and revenge.

"Yes it was the Yowie...who made her go 'wowie,'" commented Lujack.

Immature? Inutile?

Oh you bet. But funny?

Yes. That was sort of the point.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Transhumanism and "meaning"

I must admit that one early indoctrination I had into transhumanism was the film Total Recall.

The original, that is.

In it, a man is given the opportunity to upload "false" memories into his mind. False or not, these memories would feel like legit, "really happened" experiences to this man. This prompted a protracted...and honestly fairly deep for 19 year-olds...discussion with a friend about the underlying principles of the film. Was the story we saw portrayed real? Did it happen to the character or was it all an implanted memory? What is "real"? And if the memories were not real, are they any less meaningful to the holder?

This question of meaning arose for me once more as I read an article at Singularity Weblog. Written by Matt Frohlich, the thinkpiece was entitled "Transhumanism Needs to Establish a Meaning to Life."  It's a meditative piece that is quite heavy on philosophical reasoning. So much so that I still find myself mulling over its full ramifications. It's a somewhat Pickwickian take on the mode of thought with which transhumanism is approached. Maybe that's why I'm still thinking about it.

Frohlich wastes no time stating his thesis in the first sentence: "It is important that the transhumanist movement establish a consensus on the meaning of life. Failure to do so will result in conflict, the extent of which is difficult to predict." Like many schools of thought, transhumanism is indeed a loose confederation. As such, "consensus" can be an elusive devil. Frohlich also asserts that there are three motivations for transhumanism: utilitarianism, freedom, and meaning. He further contends, and not without a large degree of merit, that these motivations can be conflicting and at times contradictory.

As to the latter point, I think that the majority of "movements" have contradictory aspects to them. That should not be seen as unusual. The issue of "meaning" is much trickier. Matt Frohlich cites numerous examples from the book Brave New World, warning of an existence where suffering is all but banished. The people of BNW are profoundly happy, but their lives are ultimately meaningless. No argument there. Then again, by what yardstick are we measuring "meaning?" How many of us would meet the bar these days? I'm not entirely sure that I would. Then again, this may be the exact sort of thing that the author is arguing for transhumanists to button down.

Without consciously intending to stray from the arguments addressed in the piece, wandering off on a tangent is exactly what my mind did. In fact I got downright self-centered. How do I define "meaning" in my life? How will transhumanism help me to achieve it? First question first.

You might say I've been on a lifelong search for meaning. Many of us are, I suppose. I find meaning in achievement. By that I mean working with my mind to produce writing and thought that can help us consider and understand our world, and if I might be so grandiose, to act for the world's betterment. Failing that, then maybe the betterment of the individual lives of my students.

Yeah, I've just never been able to see any meaning in a life that makes and sells widgets for somebody.

How does transhumanism come in? My shirttail response is: it will help me to optimally pursue said meaning. Through transhumanism, I may be able to assume control of my biology and thereby nimbly avoid disease and ward off aging. I will have the blessing of more time, more time to pursue that which I value and that which gives my life meaning. Taking it further, transhumanism may allow me to enhance my mental abilities, giving me the means to accomplish even more and to set even higher goals. If taken to an extreme point, one where I would not require food or shelter, I would not be dependent on an income to "make my living." That's a rather pie-in-the-sky scenario, but it is one that would allow me to full-on pursue what is meaningful to me without any regard to finances.

What about this riff on Total Recall: I get uploaded and become disembodied intellect and consciousness. What then? Am I, like the memories from that film, not "real"? That said, those memories were real to the ones remembering them. Does that not suggest a meaning? At least on one level? "Meaning" may need to be redefined as we enter more virtual states of being.

Yeah, it's all something of a mind-bender but I can't help but think about it.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Linda Cortile UFO case

I wanted to take a moment to consider a UFO abduction case from 1989. It is alleged to have been significant due to its location and the number of...not to mention the nature of...actual witnesses involved.

At 3:00am on  November 30th, 1989, a woman named Linda Cortile (an alias) claims she was levitated out the window of her 12th story apartment in Manhattan and brought aboard a hovering UFO. As is often the case with purported abductions, this was not the first such time that Cortile had been taken by Grays. What made this time unique was that there were said to be at least three witnesses to the event...a rarity to say the least when dealing with the subject of alien abduction.

What's more, the three witnesses were a United Nations dignitary and his two bodyguards, moving by car on the street below the building. Using aliases, the two bodyguards in the case contacted famed alien abduction investigator, Budd Hopkins about what they had seen. Further allegations assert that the UN official was none other than Javier Perez du Cuellar, Secretary-General of the UN at the time, although he denied being any such witness. Likewise, no one has been able to ascertain the true identity of these guards in question. In fact, no one seems to have determined whether or not they even existed in the first place. Hopkins himself admitted that he never interviewed these men face-to-face.

Another problem with this case is the location. It's New York City. In fact, the location was well within view of the Brooklyn Bridge. Even at 3:00am, there should have been many witnesses to the UFO. Where are these witnesses? Well, Budd Hopkins asserted that one such witness from the bridge contacted him:

"The woman, a widow of about sixty, claimed to have been driving on the Brooklyn Bridge at 3:16 a.m., November 30, 1989.  She reported that her car stopped and the lights went out.  She too saw a large, brightly lit object over a building; in fact, the light was so bright that she was forced to shield her eyes, though she was over a quarter mile away.  Nevertheless, she claimed to have observed four figures in fetal positions emerge from a window.  The figures simultaneously uncurled and then moved up into the craft.  Ms. Kimble was quite frightened by the event, and people in cars behind her were 'running all around their cars with theirs (sic) hands on their heads, screaming from horror and disbelief.' "

So where are all these people? As a mass sighting, this would be quite a significant case and a cover-up would seem all but impossible. Why didn't this make news? Could the government have somehow coerced all of the drivers involved on the Bridge that night? Doubtful. Hopkins theorized that the aliens (or entities of undetermined nature) have technology that could make themselves selectively invisible or switch off the aspects of the consciousness of the witnesses involved.

I can almost buy that premise.

Consider if the "aliens" in question are not interplanetary aliens at all. Rather, they are interdimensional. Other dimensions and universes are moving beyond theoretical playthings and becoming seriously considered. As more data is crunched from experiments at the LHC, the evidence for such realities may surface. We may inhabit one of many universes or realities all under one umbrella. If UFOs and their occupants are beings from other dimensions, universes, or realities, that may explain certain inconsistencies in cases like these. If they are such, UFO craft and beings may seem to "blink" in and out of existence. There one minute. Gone the next. Leaving little if any evidence behind of their presence. This is due to the fact that they are moving between dimensions.

Could it be that abductees are not going into spacecraft as they report from their perspective, but are actually being shunted into another dimension or another state of existence? Perhaps even another state of consciousness? This opens up wider considerations for cases of abduction while avoiding the problems of distance and physics that accompany the extraterrestrial hypothesis (although I still hold out hope for Einstein-Rosen Bridges.)

Unfortunately for the case of Linda Cortile, such waxing theoretical does not supply hard evidence.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, February 20, 2015

FFF: Control


Last December, a fellow professor asked our freshmen class whether or not they felt they had complete control over their lives. Said question was prompted by an editorial on the subject of "Agency" by David Brooks at the New York Times.

How did the freshmen respond? A substantial, not to mention insouciant, majority claimed that they were in total control.

A few of us older folks chuckled. "Wait," we said. "There's a storm coming. It's called adulthood. It has the power and ability to knock you into places you never imagined being. Much of this can be due to happenstance...all largely out of your control."

To quote Yoda, responding to Luke Skywalker maintaining he was not afraid: "You will will be..."

Yes, yes, yes.

You can extol the platitude of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" when things get tough. And with good reason. There is at least a bit of truth to it. How we face adversity in large part is due to how much responsibility we take for ourselves. And yet...and yet...

"The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless."
--Alan Moore

At the beginning of this month, I was reminded of just how little control we can have sometimes. It was a Saturday and I had big plans. I was to do an improv show on campus with old college friends of mine and then drive back to Chicago to see my family. Not to mention watch the Super Bowl with them. A massive winter storm was due to hit that night and completely wreck those plans.

There was nothing I could do about the storm. I could watch it, track it, get the best guesses on what it would yield and when exactly it would hit. I was in control of what plans I would make and what adaptations I would enact in the face of the storm, but the weather itself? Not a damn thing I could do about it. That is aside from watching what I wanted to do get covered by a blizzard of snow and ice.

I had no control over that.

I think about all the times my success or failure was in someone else's hands. Sure, I could dot every i and cross every t, basically do every single thing I was supposed to do to the utmost of my ability, but in the end success might just come down to what mood someone was in that day. For me, it would be the most important moment of my life. For them, it was Tuesday.

I had no control over that ultimate decision.

"You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there's still going to be somebody who hates peaches."
--Dita von Teese.

How people in sales do it is beyond me.

But would we ever want complete control?

Would that make things boring? Too much? A great weight ever on our shoulders? For if we always had control, would not every outcome be our responsibility? Where does the philosophical if not actual obligation then lie?

On second thought, despite all of my manic tendencies, I can do without a portion of control.

"I am always with myself and it is I who am my tormentor."
--Leo Tolstoy

I think I'll just make this my theme song for every FFF.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 19, 2015

My time as a comic book superhero

For at least a little while there, I lived in a comic book.

My friend Dorkland runs a blog centered around tabletop role play gaming (RPG). Yes, things like Dungeons & Dragons. To the uninitiated, that's the only game of the sort. While it is indeed the biggest and perhaps the most popular, it's far from the only one. There are a multitude of games in a multitude of genres, including science fiction and superheroes.

My most treasured times playing such games fall in that latter category in undergrad. Recently, Dorkland uploaded a blog post on those days as he was involved in them both as player and referee. His post has prompted me to reflect on that effulgent era.

I took to the game quickly, given that the majority of my formative years were spent reading both Marvel and DC Comics, not to mention that DC's "Death in the Family" publicity stunt managed to suck me back into the art form just as I started college. Combine that with the pre-requisite early geek years of playing D&D and I already had at least my feet wet in the RPG pool. So when my good friends asked me to play, I embraced it without looking back.

We were a team of superheroes set in the universe of Marvel Comics. We called ourselves "Murphy's Law" after the axiom of "Whatever can go wrong, will." Seemed to fit us in many ways. In our eyes we were on par with the mighty Avengers. In reality, we were more like the Giffen/DeMatteis run on Justice League America.

Here is the roster as I remember it:

Real American: He was the requisite "strong guy." Super-strength and utter invulnerability. He was ultra-conservative, based I am told in part on the character of Golden Boy from the Wildcards series of novels. Funny thing about that? Armando played the character and he is far from a conservative. For him, it was just fun to play someone the total opposite of his real life personality.

Vixen: She was a cyborg from the future. I think. She didn't show up in too many of the comic book issues (meaning game sessions) that I appeared in, so I didn't really get to know the character that well. She was played by Dorkland (I think) and she married Real American.

Ace: She was a young, mutant girl. Her only real power was the ability to fly. Dorkland played her as well.

Anarchy: Played by Ahab Pope, this guy was a punk in a bowler hat. He could also summon and project illusions from his own mind that were worse than any acid trip could manage.

Cicero: He was a former mercenary turned cyborg who looked and talked exactly like the actor Michael Ironsides. Bernard played him and gave the character a great deal of depth and history, not to mention an extensive rogue's we will soon see.

Chelnov: This guy was the brainchild of Dr. Rich. Chelnov was a Russian exposed to extreme radiation (perhaps at Chernobyl, I don't remember.) This gave him the ability to run at extreme speeds. He could also throw radioactive boomerangs. Personality-wise, Chelnov was probably the closest to his real-life counterpart of all of us. There was also a pinch of Guy Gardener tossed in there, too.
If I'm incorrect on any of this, I will no doubt get a pedantic response.

Grey Mist: That was me. It was a character I inherited from another player who had transferred off campus but I'd to think I made Grey Mist my own. The character was an outgrowth of the Suicide Squad comic book, a thief and assassin from the Kali Cult that Ravan belonged to in that series. I took him more in the direction of a Storm Shadow homage ninja.

Along with that I added a secret identity, that of a global financier modeled somewhat on Richard Gere circa Pretty Woman. That last bit may be due to the fact we played the game in Armando's dorm room most of the time. He had a poster for said movie up on his wall.

As you might expect, our team of superheroes had many landscape-leveling fights with bad guys. These included a terrorist group known as Jihad (another spinoff from Suicide Squad) and our arch-nemesis, an omni-powerful plant being known as The Kale Man. Yeah he doesn't sound very threatening, but when Bernard rolled him up as one of Cicero's rogues gallery, the dice had other ideas. It sucked.

So did the ninja eggplant. But I digress...

Yes, there were many battles. But amid the mound of empty Coke cans and the swearing at my bad dice rolls, a few pretty incredible things happened.

We created characters with fully-formed personalities and breathed real life into them. They became extensions of ourselves, even if they were our diametric opposites as in the case of Real American. We became attached to them. I remember Armando being incensed when Bernard allowed his character Cicero to die so that he might play a new (and far less appeal IMHO) character. We felt as if we'd lost a friend.

Our adventures were legendary, even if only in our own minds. We still refer to happenings in those games as if they were real events we were a part of. In an existential sense, they were real.

More than anything, lifelong friendships were formed. Not bad for a game with dice.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Podesta asks for UFO files, but just what would they say?

I will assert that the government knows more about the UFO phenomena than it is telling us.

How much more is subject to speculation...and often exaggeration.

Such speculation got kicked up a bit more in the past few days due to a tweet from John Podesta, former White House Chief of Staff to President Clinton and a senior adviser to President Obama. The tweet stated as follows:

"Finally, my biggest failure of 2014: Once again not securing the #disclosure of the UFO files. #thetruthisstilloutthere."

That statement from such a high-ranking Washington insider has brought great din from the UFO camp, arguing that this is more evidence a government cover-up. While it's almost a foregone conclusion that the powers-that-be of the nation and the world know more about UFOs than they are letting on, I question the exact magnitude of their knowledge.

The federal government and the United States military have had a longstanding interest in UFO sightings. This dates back to, among other things, Project Sign. This was an official research study conducted by the U.S. government in 1948 into the nature of UFO phenomena. While the study was inconclusive as to just what UFOs are, the report asserted that the phenomenon is real and that the craft sighted are most likely of extraterrestrial origin. This hypothesis was, of course, rejected. But Project Sign did make one important contribution that seems to have stuck in official policy and that is the recommendation that strict control should be kept over the investigation of sightings.

Much later came the Condon Report. It was a report from the University of Colorado under the direction of physicist Edward Condon and funded by the Air Force. The upshot of the report stated that serious study of UFOs was unlikely to yield anything of scientific value. There was consternation surrounding the report due to a memo written by Robert Low, a member of the committee. The memo was to academics at the University of Colorado and its intent was to assure them that the study would conclude that UFOs had no basis in reality. This irked many in the UFO committee and Condon would later argue that the memo demonstrated Low's ignorance of the project. But the memo, once again, did contribute something that seemed to stick.

Low wrote that the Condon report would emphasize "the sociology and psychology" of those who report UFO sightings. In other words, focus attention on the witnesses, not the phenomenon itself. To me, this suggests the beginning of a modus operandi for an official line on UFO sightings. Namely, that one should always discredit discredit discredit. This m.o. seemed to already be in full force before the report at the time of the Betty and Barney Hill case.

The Hills were the first thoroughly documented abduction case. Among the more ludicrous and limp-wristed attempts at explaining their encounter? That the experience was a hallucination brought on by the stress of being an interracial couple in the 1960s. I am all for finding terrestrial, even mundane explanations for events deemed Ufological, but there are times when skepticism turns into the mental gymnastics of "denial at all costs." While I don't exactly throw my support behind the alien hypothesis for the Hill case, I have yet to read a worthwhile debunking.

Discredit discredit discredit.

So what exactly is the government hiding and why are they hiding it? If you ask the more paranoid corners of the Internet about the latter, its denizens might allege that it all has to do with Project Blue Beam. This is an alleged plot involving UFOs where the New World Order would fake an alien invasion to bring about a totalitarian, one-world state. Click the link and you'll see how there's a nifty tie-in to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Crazy? Probably. Still, when that weird spiral appeared over Norway in 2009, I had to wonder if it was hologram and the beginning of the Blue Beam scenario.

Of course it wasn't.

Once more I circle back to the question. What is our government hiding? To my thinking, I don't believe they know that much. They are concretely aware that UFOs, at least in a few cases, are real and represent something weird and perhaps outside of human comprehension. They don't know much more beyond that. There is no thaumaturge or cabal of shadowy minds that know all about what's in our skies or what to do about it should action be needed.

That, more than anything, is probably why they keep it under wraps.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets