Monday, May 31, 2010

Waxing philosophical on science fiction...and sushi

It all happened at a hibachi house down the street.  The diners at my table included my wife and my mother-in-law.  As our sushi appetizer arrived and we watched the chef prepare to do the usual line-up of tricks, my wife and I were in the midst of bemoaning the process of getting older.  I stated that this year's birthday was going to be an especially miserable one for me as it marks yet another turning point.  I mean, I never celebrate my birthday but this year I'm planning to travel to a foreign country, check into a hotel, hide under the bed, and pretend it isn't happening.
In an attempt to ameliorate our condition, my mother-in-law jumped in.  She said that neither my wife nor I look our age and that we have hobbies and interests that keep us young.  
"Jon, you're into science fiction, so that helps," she said.
It didn't make much sense to me at the time, but now I see what she was trying to say.  
I think. 
The consumption of science fiction may indeed have helped in my battle against age.  It is a genre that is always asking the question, "what's next?"  In turn, this tends to establish a heuristic method within the mind, an outlook that is accepting of new principles such as changes and advancements in technology.  There is a saying that any technology around at the time of our birth is commonplace.  Any technology that comes along before we turn 30 is new and exciting.  Any technology that arrives after that is to be treated with fear and distrust.  I need only look at a certain 19th Century Luddite I know to see this in action as he rants and rails like an Old Testament prophet against the "evils" of Twitter and social networking, calling for people to "get together" under a tree or something and play Eric Clapton songs on an acoustic guitar.  I do not share such cynicism.  
Perhaps that is another fundamental effect of the consumption of science fiction: optimism.  More things, such as interplanetary space travel, seem possible to fans of the genre than to those outside of it.  The universe is an amazing, exciting place and contains far more than commutes to a mundane job, TV shows, and smoked bbq.  Anything can and *does* happen in it.  Those with open minds and spirits know this.  We're just waiting for everyone else to catch up.   
Speaking of optimism, science fiction may also be the most philosophically optimistic genre in all of literature.  A bold statement to be sure, so why did I make it?  Well, a great deal of science fiction presupposes a future.  In a few cases it may be a bleak one and it may very well suck to be alive in them, but there is a future.  Life has gone on.  We did not destroy ourselves entirely, despite how things might be looking based on current events.  That could be the most pollyanna viewpoint of all.

Those were some tuna rolls!

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Of alien space probes

First of all, get your minds out of the gutter.  When the words "alien" and "probe" are collocated in the same sentence, it tends to conjure up the giggles.  No.  This is a continuation of thoughts from a previous post ("Resistance Is Futile")...or it's just the beer talking.
Are alien civilizations sending remote probes to our planet?  Why not.  We're doing it to them.  In a manner of speaking of course.
Our pairs of deep space probes, the Pioneers and the Voyagers, are all slated to depart our solar system and head deep into parts unknown, never to be seen from again (unless Star Trek The Motion Picture actually does happen.)  The Pioneer probes and the first Voyager are already long gone.  Aboard each one of these travelers is a message to alien civilizations.  There is a gold plaque on Pioneer that was built with durability in mind.  The plaque has depictions of male and female humans along with the Earth's position in the galaxy.  Essentially a road map to come and find us.  The Voyager probes have golden records that contain the sounds of the distant Earth.  Everything from animal noises and sea surf to Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and a greeting from President Jimmy Carter.  If aliens find the records and decide to land on the White House lawn, I wonder if they'll ask for Jimmy?  They better hurry.  He's looking a bit long in the tooth.
Point is, if we're doing it why wouldn't they?  These NASA probes are destined for other star systems, even if at a sluggish pace and arriving long after their battery lifetimes have expired.  I don't see why Earth couldn't have been visited by similar mechanical constructs, just to satisfy the  of curiosity of its creators.  Except I envision the alien probes to be quite a bit more lively when they reach our planet than when our intrepid explorers reach theirs.  The ET robots are likely to be far more durable due to advanced construction.  Their power source could grant them a far longer lifespan than NASA was able to give to ours.  The probes might even be capable of doing self-repair over the long stretches of space.  Additionally, they might even have advanced artificial intelligence onboard, affording them the ability to "think" for themselves, to duck and weave just beyond our perception.  It's just the logical extension of asking: "if a million year-old civilization like ours can build Voyager and Pioneer probes, what is a 10 million year-old civilization capable of?"
One of the criticisms I've heard of UFO sightings is that many of them boil down to this: I saw a light in the sky moving fast.  Indeed, a probe might look just like that; coming in fast, doing a scan, then departing the pattern.  It could explain much.
Of course the encounters involving humanoids raise entirely different questions.

On my iTunes: The Smiths
On the TV: the Chicago Cubs

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Ten Puzzling Ancient Artifacts

When we're dead and gone, how will we be remembered?
If an Extinction Level Event occurred, it is doubtful it would wipe out all 6 billion of us.  At least a few stragglers would survive.  The handful that were left, if conditions improved, would repopulate the species.  What would be remembered of our life now?  Probably shadowy sketches.  The things that legends arise from.  Perhaps there would even be ritual ceremonies, mimicking what was once complex surgery or computer operations.  All of it, dim vestiges of a decimated past.  The kind of thing that Atlantis is to us today: something from long ago that no one believes is real anymore.
So maybe there was a civilization before us.  Maybe humans are far older than established archeology wants to think.  Maybe. 
Graymalkin found this nifty link that describes ten artifacts from the ancient world that cannot easily be explained away.  For as Graymalkin says, "I always wondered if I was digging in my backyard and found a rusty piece of crap if I would see the potential in it being the missing link to some ancient civilization or if I would toss it aside and keep digging."

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Graymalkin--How to Educate a Future Human

First we are going to need an advanced computer to human interface of some
sort. Let's just say for shits and giggles that all humans will have
interfaces to computers genetically engineered into them so that they can
communicate directly with computers combined with implants that are
themselves bio-electrical computers. Basically DNA is just one big computer;
so essentially, I am saying that humans will have direct control over their

Second, we are going to need to have some great drugs that speed up the
biological factor of creating new axons and neurons in the brain. I'm not
going to dig into neural architecture for this anymore than to say we need a
way for the knowledge gained to be quickly formed into memories in the

Third we will need a computer simulate to run the educational modules. The
best way to learn something is to become truly immersed in it, so we'll just
call our computer simulation education module a fancy Sim City. Now just
program the parameters that you want to learn into the model and plug
yourself in and enjoy the game.

I'm assuming that for complete emersion a routine will need to somehow block
the reality of your existence from your Sim avatar, so obviously you will
have that parameter of the simulation in place. Now just immerse yourself
into the simulation and wait for the program to run to completion. It will
probably only take half an day or so to live a lifetime in the simulation

If you want to learn to speak Japanese, you will basically be a Japanese
child. If you want to learn empathy for cripples, you will be like me. I'm
just saying that when I was asked by the college professors the
philosophical question, "Is the tree real, or is it just a veil of
perception?" I will answer, "That is part of the program!"

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Book review--Ultimate Cyberpunk

Edited by Pat Cadigan
Publisher: ibooks
Available on

This is a good anthology of an SF subgenre whose death knell has been tolled many times  before but never got around to kicking it.  And that’s a very good thing.  There is much to like in this collection that Cadigan has cobbled together.  It gathers the pivotal authors of the genre and shows off just how diverse the stories can be.  No, not every cyberpunk narrative takes place in a gritty urban setting with characters in black pvc and technology that looks like it fell off a stealth bomber.  Here are a few of the highlights:

Alfred Bester, “Fondly Farenheit”—an android and a dialogue between ego and superego?  You make the call.  A prototype for the genre that would be cyberpunk.

Philip K. Dick, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”—are memories as good as the real thing?  This is a great entry by the legendary man of ideas that has none of the action movie tropes of its film version, Total Recall.  Sorry Bernard, no Michael Ironside.

Rudy Rucker, “57th Franz Kafka”—a new take on The Metamorphosis.  Disturbing and inscrutable, but did you expect anything else from Rucker?

William Gibson, “Burning Chrome”—fine work by the Master, a story of a cyberspace double-cross.  Gibson could probably make a tuna salad recipe sound like science fiction.

Greg Bear, “Blood Music”—could be one of the more realistic of the collection.  The time for this kind of nano-enhancement is upon us.

Lewis Shriner, “Till Human Voices Wake Us”—for me, this entry strays rather far afield from cyberpunk and enters the realm of biotech.  But that’s okay, it adds to the diversity of the collection.

John Shirley, “Freezone”—not much of a plot here, just Shirley taking us on a punky meandering through a dystopic future.  And I loved it.

William Gibson and Michael Swanwick, “Dogfight”—twisty.

Bruce Sterling, “Green Days in Brunei”—probably my favorite and the most satisfying of the pieces.  Strong and endearing characters.  A world not too far removed from our own.  A nice tale for illustrating the rise of the “developing world.”

If I have any overall criticism of the stories, it has to do with style.  Except for Gibson and Sterling, none of these writers compose with any thought to description.  They just lay everything out there, violating that cardinal rule of literary writing, “show, don’t tell.”  As I’ve grown sick of that phrase, I’m actually kind of ok with the so-called “transgression.”  But then I read the work of Gibson and his descriptions and phrasing absolutely blow me away, making the other stories look like amateur hour.  Character development is another issue.  Except for Bruce Sterling, the authors spend maybe a page on it.  With protagonists so thin, it’s difficult to cultivate much of an attachment to them, so you better hope the scientific principle that is being explored keeps you hanging on.
Oh and why Neal Stephenson wasn’t included is beyond me.  Maybe he’s never written in the short form before.  I don’t know.
All in all, Ultimate Cyberpunk makes for fine reading.  Plus, you get an 11-page insert of a “lost” comic book version of William Gibson’s classic, Neuromancer.  I’ve heard there is a film adaptation on the horizon.  Let’s hope not.  The book is amazing but I just don’t think it translates well to other media if this comic is any indication.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What happened with Operation Highjump?

In 1946, barely a year after World War II had drawn to a close, the US Navy set sail with an impressive fleet.  A total of 13 ships in all with 4 of them being combat ships and the others transport and support, headed due south to Antarctica.  A contingent of troops were also aboard the transports, bringing the total of US personnel to 4,700 men.  The entire task force was under the command of the legendary Rear Admiral Richard Byrd.  Four men were lost to "accidents."  The mission ended early, six months after it began.  Why did any of this take place?
The reason given by military officials was so that soldiers and sailors could become accustomed to operating in polar conditions.  Additionally, military strategists were said to be testing the practicality of building and maintaining Antarctic bases for the long term.  
This sounds reasonable and I think quite likely, but the hazy nature of Highjump's planning and execution has become fertile ground for the growing of conspiracy theories.  Consider the following:

1) The mission was oddly timed.  Why did the Navy and Admiral Byrd see an urgent need to expend such considerable resources just after coming out of the bloodiest conflict in human history?
2) Even after the end of the war, a handful of German U-boats were either captured or sunk.  Enormous stores of mercury were found in the cargo holds of these submarines.
3) The Germans had a known and documented outpost in Antarctica. It was called "Neu Schwabenland."
4) Finally, Byrd is rumored to have made a rather cryptic quote, that America needed to defend itself from advanced aircraft that could travel from pole to pole in no time.  I remember reading this juicy nugget, but in my search for a link to a source citing it, I've been unsuccessful.  Guess that says something about its validity.

From these enigmas, fringe theorists began to connect a few of the conspiracy dots.  Indeed the Germans were in the process of building very advanced aircraft at the end of the war with a few of them even planned to travel into space.  A few of the designs were saucer shaped.  They were also said to have been mercury powered.  If mercury is placed inside a glass orb and spun at high velocity, it begins to lift and to emit light.  This might account for the glowing orbs that WWII pilots reported as "foo fighters."

So here's how the "untold" story of Operation Highjump is supposed to have unfolded.  US forces traveled to the South Pole to dislodge the last vestige of Nazis because they were in possession of superweapons.  Things can be taken further, such as Hitler survived the war and fled to Antarctica, there was UFO technology involved (Hitler was a big believer in aliens) and maybe even the Hollow Earth.
That reads like great fiction, but it doesn't entirely add up.  For one thing, I would think that there would have been many more casualties than four men if we were fighting so-called "wunderwaffens," or wonder weapons.  Also, you would think that someone involved in the operation would have talked by now.  As for the seeming urgency of the mission, it was probably in response to what Washington saw as the growing Communist threat.   
So for my money, Highjump was just a military exercise.  But wouldn't it be wild if it was really something else?
You can read more about the "alternative theories" here.
The pic above is from the site.

Addendum: There will actually be an Operation Highjump video game.  It is to be tied in with the release of the upcoming, uber-cool looking move Iron Sky, which involves Nazis on the Moon.  Here's the link to a description and how can you not like their graphic?

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Resistance is futile...because you probably can't see us

So here's what I've been thinking.  I'm just spitballing here.  It's free association and I sure don't pretend to know everything.  I'm certain I'm not the first to come up with any of this, but this is the first time you'll hear it from me.

A term you'll see batted about here on Strange Horizons is "the singularity."  This phrase comes to us via the brilliant and ever forward thinking Dr. Ray Kurzweil.  He was the one who coined the phrase, referring to the point at which the line between human and machine will become barely noticeable. 
We humans are rapidly approaching this point.  It therefore stands to reason that any civilization sufficiently advanced enough to traverse the distance between stars would have long since passed their own "singularity" milestone.  They have become infused with their technology, somewhat like The Borg on Star Trek (at right), but nowhere near as garish and with devices that are more elegant and far less apparent to the naked eye.
The next logical extension  is that this infusion should allow them to mask their presence from us.  Should they decide to visit us without being seen, they could do it.  So they could be in our orbit, in our skies, and even (shocker) walking among us and we would never know.  After all, that's how we'd do it if we could, wouldn't we?
So why are UFOs being seen then?  I don't really have a good answer for this one.  Perhaps the technology only blurs their presence, resulting in all those fuzzy videos and photos of supposed craft.  Maybe their invisibility devices, like all technology appears to do according to Murphy's Law, breaks down from time to time.  After all, just because you can cross light years doesn't mean something can't go wrong.
Even more interesting to me is the notion that the "gray" aliens that are so commonly reported could themselves be artificial constructs, under operation by other beings.  I found a nifty graphic of this theory at right (the pic comes from Coast To Coast AM and was attributed only to "Kenny."  I'm afraid I'm unable to give any more credit than that.)  Biomechanical constructs would account for much, such as how the Greys are said to act without emotion, almost on automatic pilot.
All of this is pure conjecture and I fully realize that much (maybe even all) of it may turn out to be far more science fiction than fact.  But consider what SETI scientists have recently argued.  The first alien encounter, at least the first one they would believe in, will probably be with robotic probes.  After all, isn't that what we send out into the galaxy?

So...maybe we've already seen them.

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12 Events That Will Change Everything

Graymalkin found this amazing interactive feature on Scientific American's site.  Through a cool mix of media, you can see details on 12 different events that would change our lives forever.
To whet your appetite, here's a quick list of the 12:

1. Alien contact
2. Nuclear exchange
3. Global pandemic
4. Asteroid collision
5. Human cloning
6. The polar caps melt
7. Creation of artificial life
8. Room-temperature superconductors
9. Fusion energy
10. Pacific earthquake
11. Discovery of extra-dimensions
12. Machine self-awareness

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Bigfoot sightings upsurge "up north"

Sightings in Minnesota of the elusive creature known as Bigfoot seem to indicate a thriving population of the mystery hominids in the Northwoods.  While there are the standard findings of large footprints and eyewitness accounts, two aspects appear to stand out.  
One, there have been reports of "wood knocking."  Just as it sounds, wood knocking is the act of taking a stick or a limb and thwacking it against a tree trunk.  It has been determined that higher primates use this a form of communication and it has been heard previously in areas with high concentrations of Bigfoot sightings.
Two, there is a new photograph of the creature.  If authentic (and the jury is still out), the picture is one of the best of its kind ever taken.
Read the full story and see the pic at KSAX in Minnesota.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Fab Fi

I first heard about the Fab Fi Afghanistan project on NPR.  I'll let the Fab Fi site's wiki do the 'splaining instead of me:

"abFi is an open-source, FabLab-grown system using common building materials and off-the-shelf electronics to transmit wireless ethernet signals across distances of up to several miles. With Fabfi, communities can build their own wireless networks to gain high-speed internet connectivity---thus enabling them to access online educational, medical, and other resources. Project Summary (as of April 7, 2010)
  • 45 remote FabFi nodes are currently deployed in and around Jalalabad, Afghanistan
  • Longest link is 6,000m (3.72mi)
  • Data throughput 11.5Mbps
  • System extensible by anyone
  • Materials to make an endpoint link are $60US and available locally"

To me, this sounds like the very definition of cyberpunk.  It truly is a social revolution.  These are people in a fairly low standard of living, utilizing the materials they have on hand to build what they need in order to access the Internet.  This is the punk, DIY mentality at its finest and most productive.  "I have just as much right to computer access as anyone, so I'm going to take it!"
This is a movement of the future, folks.  I predict more and more setups like these coming out of the most remote and neglected places you can think of.

Check out their site at Fab Lab Afghanistan.
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Graymalkin: solar systems, the multiverse, and talking to yourself

Have you ever looked at an atom!?  Of course you have!  But what I mean is
have you ever looked at a picture of what an atom looks like.  You know…
The big ball that is a proton and a neutron and then it has one or more
little electrons going around it.  Kinda looks like a solar system.

So if they really are solar systems, there sure are a lot of them!  I’m
pretty good with numbers, so for ease, let’s just say a googolplex of them!
I’m assuming that everyone knows that a googol is 10 raised to the 100th
power and a googolplex is 10 raised to the power of googol. 

Surely a statistician out there would confirm for me that it would be likely
that there is at least one intelligent species on one of those little
planets.  I’d like to talk to one of those little people, but the problem
with that would be that they are traveling close to the speed of light and
have lived out their entire existence in just the time it took me to type
this last word.  How could we communicate with those people then?  It would
be pretty cool send them a message and have one returned.  It might even be
possible to pose a question about something we don’t understand and have the
answer come back to us evolved to the most brilliant degree!

I imagine that wormholes exist at that scale just like they do in our scale.
Perhaps even a wormhole exists that travels from our scale to their scale,
if you consider Murdoch’s multiverse theory, it could even extend into their
universe.  So all we need to do is find a wormhole somewhere that travels to
that universe and send a message. 

The only problem I have is that with my luck I would probably tend to find
the universes that are not populated with sentient beings, so I would end up
wasting a lot of time talking to myself or sending radio messages into

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

The "Secret Girlfriend"

First, let me just say that I am a very happily married man.
But should my dear wife shrug off this mortal coil before me (and I shudder to think that could be so) or more likely, she finally gets tired of all my geekyness and bolts, I know the one woman I would attempt to woo.  In my dreams, anyway.
Meet Asia Carrera.  Yes, she is a former actress in the "gentleman's cinema."  Yes, she is beautiful...with striking attributes that range from gorgeous eyes and a killer smile to aspects more prurient in nature.  But that does not even come close to a summation of her appeal to me.
Ms. Carrera is a member of MENSA.  She has studied literature and particle physics.  She earned a full-ride to Rutgers University.  She is an accomplished classical pianist and has played Carnegie Hall.  She programs her own code and had her own website up far before her industry peers.  Let me say that one more time fellas, she programs her own code.  All that and she was a well-known player in Unreal tournaments online.  She even refers to herself as "The Geek."  swoon and sigh...
So why, one might ask, did she choose to pursue a career in the adult entertainment industry when she has such obvious mental ability?  (I for one in no way begrudge her choice.  Let me make that ABSOLUTELY clear.)  Well, two reasons.  One, she ran away from home in her late teens due to inhumanly strict academic expectations placed on her by her parents.  She therefore needed a means to survive on her own and stripping and modeling are a path to easy money for a young woman of her hotness.  Secondly, Asia was able to make more money in adult film than she probably ever could have with academic pursuits.  Says a lot about us, doesn't it?
In the past few years, Asia has been through quite a bit.  She has been blessed with two children and struck by the passing of her husband.  Yet despite it all and struggling against the human demons that pop up in the wake of such things, she's still standing.  She's a brilliant and driven woman who in my own head will always be my "secret girlfriend."  Thank you, Asia!
Disclaimer: the "secret girlfriend" stuff is all in fun.  I don't mean to sound like I'm waiting outside her house wearing nightvision goggles.  I'll instead focus on getting all that Italian marble through customs so I can commission the statue of her that I want placed in front of the Smithsonian.

Pics are from Wikipedia

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Of giants and "wee folk"

I recently watched watched an episode of PBS' Nova that discussed the diversity of dog breeds and how they got to be so numerous.  Hiedi Parker of the National Human Genome Research Project had this to say on the subject:
"If we had this kind of variation in humans, we'd have people running around the size of Barbie dolls."
Do we?
I have no evidence for what I'm about to put forth, only my own musings and "what if's" that admittedly fly in the face a bit of science and even common sense.  Then again, when has that ever stopped me?
Human mythology is replete with accounts of giants and "wee folk," such as faeries and leprechauns.  Could these be stories of beings actually seen?  Could there be the same, as Darwin would say, "variations on a similar theme" going on with human beings, just not in as great of numbers or with the imposed circumstances as dog breeding?
It may surprise you to hear this, but people to this day report sightings of abnormally tiny and large humanoids. details a case of "little people" as recent as 2003 in this report.
If indeed true, then what are they?  The faeries and elves of ancient myth?  Aliens?  Or a breed of tiny humans that have always been around and are able to live underground and beneath our humdrum notice?
Then there's the other end of the spectrum: giants.  Researcher Steve Quayle has done quite a bit of writing on this topic.  While I'm not prepared to fully embrace his postulations, it without question is interesting reading and I cannot discount it without due consideration.   Especially intriguing is Quayle's semi-fictional telling of a supposed true incident of US Special Ops battling a giant in Afghanistan (the inserted pic is the cover of Quayle's own book on the subject.)
So let the discussion begin.  Are there giants and little people among us?
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Friday, May 21, 2010

Lingering in the Air: Mattoon's Mad Gasser

Drawing of the Mattoon gasser at left from the Myth or Real card to Jerry D. Coleman.

            Midwest summers loiter into September, past the start of school.  The air retains the stickiness of humidity while insects hum and buzz in the warmth. 
            In 1944, on the last day of a hot and humid Illinois August, C. Eugene Cole went home from work.  He was Chief of Police for the town of Mattoon.  The greatest altercation he saw in the previous year, driving through the shady, tree-lined avenues was a cat chasing a flock of starlings into the setting sun.  Airborne, the birds squawked out in defiance to the feline.  It was a calm, small-town police beat, but the job was not without its aggravations.  Paperwork had to be completed and filed.  Complaints had to be heard about noisy neighbors, stray dogs, and the unfortunate occasional occurrence of an abusive husband.  The fan in his office was broken.
            Across town on Marshall Avenue, Mrs. Bert Kearney put her three year-old daughter, Dorothy down for the night.  Her husband worked a late shift and would not be home until later.  The night was warm, so she kept her bedroom windows open.  That was how the smell hit her.  She later described it as a “sickeningly sweet odor,” like a harvested cornfield composting in October. Kearney’s first thought as to the source widened her eyes.  I left the gas on.
            Then the nerve endings in her lips felt as lit matchsticks.  Dorothy awoke and cried, complaining of the smell.  “The odor grew stronger and I began to feel paralysis in my legs,” Mrs. Kearney said.  “I got frightened and screamed.”
            Neighbors arrived.  Mrs. Kearney’s throat was so parched she could barely speak.  The bitterest taste lingered in her mouth.  The house was looked over, but the source of the smell could not be found.
            Bert Kearney arrived home at 12:30AM.  As he approached his house, he saw someone standing by the front window, a “tall man, dressed all in black with a tight-fitting cap.”  Hearing the car, the man turned his head, affording a full look at his gaunt features and sunken eyes.  The man fled and the police were called.  A search of the neighborhood was conducted.  No one was found.
            It was a bizarre incident.  Even more bizarre was that two identical, unreported attacks had occurred the day before.  The “Mad Gasser of Mattoon” had arrived.
            On a map, Mattoon sits down and right of center in Illinois, surrounded by farms and fields. An ancient glacier acted as a trowel and flattened the land for agriculture.  The mass of ice also caused fissures to develop in the bedrock, allowing for a modest “oil boom” during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  It’s a two-story town for which the adjective “sleepy” could be aptly applied.  Drive down the main drag and you’ll see signs for GoodYear, John Deere, and Pabst Blue Ribbon. You might not guess that you were in two world capitols. 
Proud citizens declared Mattoon as the ad hoc “baseball capitol of the world” and in 2000 hosted the Cal Ripken World Series for 11 to 12 year-olds.  Yet being just one capitol was not enough. When Lender’s Bagels moved their production facilities to Mattoon, the town was named “the bagel capitol of the world” and celebrates “Bagelfest” every summer.  Mattoon is also home to The Soybean Museum, boasting the world’s largest collection of soybean hybrids under one roof.  Plus, the town has the original Burger King. 
Despite these features, what happened in Mattoon during August-September, 1944, is not widely known.  Amongst paranormal investigators, The Mad Gasser of Mattoon is as old news, like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.  Books have been written on the subject, but they somehow don’t find their way into the “local history” section of Borders or onto Oprah’s Book Club. 
            Instead, the matter seems relegated to the sort of milieu found at the check-out racks of grocery stores, black and white tabloids printed on pulpy paper that you glance and laugh at in an attempt to keep your focus off the candy bars.  Indeed, I first learned of the case from a book on the paranormal that my brother and I had as kids.  Despite “Mad Gasser” bringing endless giggles to us prepubescent boys, the creepy nature of the case and the relative proximity of Mattoon to our home in Northwest Indiana unnerved me.  My brother delighted in this, sitting up at night with urgency, drawing in deep breaths before saying “man, do you smell something?”  We laughed, but for the people of Mattoon who experienced those days, it was no joke.
"It scared the life out of a lot of people," said Dorothy Dunn in a 2003 interview for the Mattoon Journal-Gazette.  Dunn was a resident at the time of the attacks. "It was bad enough to have the war going on without adding that to it. No one will ever convince me it was a hoax." 
In order to be seen as real, it kind of helps to offer something tangible.  That’s where the cloth comes in. Carl and Beulah Cordes arrived home at 10:30PM on September 5th, 1944.  Beulah found a white, handkerchief-sized cloth on the concrete slab that was their front porch.  The linen was crumpled and dropped haphazardly, as if in haste or carelessness.  Touching it, she found it to be damp and tingly, like it had been dipped in an ether or alcohol.  There was a definite odor.  She brought it to her face and drew a deep breath.
            “When I inhaled the fumes, I had a sensation similar to coming into contact with electrical current,” Beulah said.  “The feeling raced down my body to my feet and seemed to settle in my knees.  It was the feeling of paralysis.”
            Then she threw up.  Her mouth bled.  Her lips swelled.
            Chief Cole was informed and his officers responded.  Detectives found two more clues: a skeleton key and an empty lipstick tube.  Then a call came in.  Another street over.  Another paralysis.  And another witness who saw “a dark, mysterious figure at her window.”  Cole then ordered his men to conduct 24-hour patrols.  The cloth was sent for analysis at the University of Illinois in Champagne-Urbana.
The following morning, The Journal-Gazette broke the story.  The newspaper (erroneously) labeled Mrs. Kearney as “the first victim” of the “mad anesthetist on the loose.”  A sensational description of the newly christened “Mad Gasser” was thrown in for good measure.  In nearby Decatur, The Herald detailed the symptoms suffered by the Gasser’s victims and implied more to come.  That evening, three more attacks occurred.  The story hit the AP wire and appeared in papers such as The Chicago Tribune, mostly as an amusement.
Mattoon residents were not amused.  Local business owners organized a mass protest against what they saw as an ineffectual police department.  Eugene Cole watched them outside his unadorned window as the merchants all tried to look imposing, lined shoulder to shoulder in their suits and ties.  It was a demonstration Cole probably didn’t appreciate, but he had other worries.  Mayor E. E. Richardson was applying pressure.  If the Gasser wasn’t caught, the Mayor would offer a reward to whoever brought the fiend in.  To Cole, that meant people taking to the streets.  People with guns.  Vigilante nuts.  Crank phone calls.  He rubbed his eyes and the bridge of his nose.  Somehow, he and his department would have to put the thing to rest.
Cole and other staff from both Mattoon P.D. and the Illinois State Police, met to scrutinize each report and every fact gleaned from the case.  Everything from the mundane “I thought I saw someone” to the outlandish “the Gasser wore a tight, silver suit and a metallic helmet.”  Theories were formulated.  One stated that it was “an eccentric inventor, a lunatic.”  Another postulated that they were dealing with an ape-man (the source and rationale behind that theory is lost to history.  That’s probably a good thing.)  Others, including Cole, slowly cultivated another suspicion: there was no Mad Gasser.  After all, what solid evidence did they have to go on but a wet cloth?  As if on cue, the results of the cloth analysis arrived.  No clues were found to the gas’ composition.  Chief Cole slumped his shoulders and tossed the report down. 
That night, six more attacks occurred.  Cole’s worst fears took shape.  Citizens, some of them in farm equipment, began night patrols of the streets.  The fires of irrationality were stoked even further when a Mattoon official was quoted as saying, “there is no doubt but [sic] that a gas maniac exists and has committed a number of attacks.”  Events were building to critical mass.  A lot of people worried out there in the heartland town.  It was time for the embattled Chief Cole to make a statement. He attempted to quell the brewing panic with the facts as he saw them.
“Local police, in cooperation with state officers have checked and re-checked all reported cases and we find absolutely no solid evidence to support the stories that were told,” Cole announced.  “Hysteria must be blamed for such seemingly accurate accounts of the victims.”
Then Cole did what almost any other public official does in a tight spot.  He hypothesized that the gas was carbon tetrachloride from the Atlas Imperial Diesel Engine plant.  Indeed there was a war on at the time and plant production was in overdrive.  Thus, it kicked out more fumes. 
Atlas was quick to respond to this assertion.  Carbon tetrachloride is an odorless gas and was used only for cleaning.  Plus, if it were the plant, wouldn’t cases of this nature have arisen sooner?  Chief Cole’s job wasn’t getting any easier.
Then, deliverance came for Cole and his cops.  September 13th would see the final Mad Gasser attack.  Though the incident followed the standard “Gasser paradigm” of weird smell, paralysis, and prowler, there was a twist.  Eyewitnesses reported seeing not a man, but a “woman dressed in men’s clothing” outside the house.  Prints of a woman’s high heeled shoe were found in the dirt beneath a window sill.  When coupled with the empty lipstick tube, one must ask...was The Mad Gasser a woman?  Or failing that, maybe a cross-dresser? 
That is where the “The Mad Gasser of Mattoon” ends.  The attacks stopped, not with a bang but a whimper and certainly without any resolution to the mystery.  In the year that followed, Donald M. Johnson wrote a serious and scholarly paper for The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.  In it, he offered the occurrences in Mattoon as a case study of mass hysteria, brought on in part by lurid and overwrought newspaper coverage.  The Chicago Tribune picked this up and the findings became canon.  It was an assessment that Eugene Cole no doubt blissfully approved. Loren Coleman, investigator and author of Mysterious America, disagrees.
“A witness who chased the stranger several blocks still sticks to his story to this day.  So do the gas victims I was able to interview.  And there still is the evidence of the cloth.” Though where exactly the cloth ended up is uncertain.
The town has been long insulted by the accusation of “mass hysteria,” as well as the ridicule suffered through portrayals in the press as uneducated bumpkins lacking the sophistication of city dwellers (there is that attitude in certain climes of Illinois that says, “pity the poor woe-begotten soul born outside the city limits of Chicago.”)  Scott Maruna, a teacher in Jacksonville, Illinois, took it upon himself to reclaim the town’s honor.  “Mattoon was not hysterical in 1944,” Maruna shakes his head.  “The overwhelming, war-concurrent idea was that Mattoon, Illinois was somehow so backwards and uneducated as to have generated this artificial panic, symptoms and sightings.  Not so.”
In fact, Scott Maruna is quick to point out that Johnson was a mere sophomore undergraduate when he wrote the “conclusive” mass hysteria paper.  So with Johnson disregarded, Maruna set out to conduct his own interviews and a thorough investigation. After connecting enough dots, he believes he’s found the true identity of The Gasser.  In his book, The Mad Gasser of Mattoon—Dispelling the Hysteria, Maruna names the Gasser as Farley Llewellyn. 
Llewellyn was a young chemistry student at the U. of I.  He was experienced with insecticides and the sprayers used to administer them.  Investigators found that when breathed in, certain insecticides can cause sensations of nausea and paralysis identical to those described by the Gasser victims.  Tall, thin, and sallow, Llewellyn had few friends and kept to himself.  In time, rumors flew from high school hallways to beauty parlors and to old men in drinking coffee at the diner that Llewellyn was a homosexual.  True or not, the accusation isolated him.
So in Llewellyn, Maruna uncovered not only someone with ability, but with motive.  In fact, the first few victims were former high school classmates of Llewellyn.  Maruna also points out that Farley Llewellyn was committed to a mental institution not long after the incident.  And the prints of high heels? 
“Clumsy gassings done by his sister to exonerate him,” Maruna says.
An industrious researcher named Michael Shoemaker thinks otherwise.  Shoemaker turned up accounts of identical incidents in the Botetourt County area of Virginia during 1934...complete with prints of a woman’s high heeled boots beneath a window.  Was The Mad Gasser, whether female or cross-dresser, active ten years earlier, knocking around the green hills of Virginia?  The similarities are odd to say the least, but Maruna sees no concrete connection.
  “Gas is a wonderful weapon in the hands of an individual who wants to spread terror,” he points out, saying there have undoubtedly been copycats and predecessors.  “I’m surprised we haven’t seen more.”
An ominous, post-9/11 thought.  Illinois’ Gasser case could have serious lessons.  Did Chief Cole and his men face one of the first cases of domestic terrorism by chemical means?  I often wonder on summer nights as I sit in my Illinois home, just three hours from Mattoon.  The temperature is balmy.  My windows are open. you smell something?
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Jupiter loses a belt...again

If you're anything like me (and I know I am), you like having to wear a belt.  It's when your waistline expands to the point of no longer needing one that things get dicey.
The planet Jupiter does not seem to share this philosophy.  Then again, he's always been the biggest boy on the block.
What causes the planet's South Equatorial Belt to come and go?  Astronomers appear to be scratching their heads with great vigor over the question.  Although it is predicted that when the SEB returns, numerous planet-wide storms shall ensue.
Just another mystery in space.  Read the full article here.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

When Baseball Meets the Weird

Submitted for your approval…
            There are things in this universe human beings have yet to understand.  Things that control the vertical, things that control the horizontal, and even the fly ball.  When these unknowns overlap with the known world, strange things happen.  The paranormal gets in your normal like chocolate in your peanut butter.  Not even America’s Pastime is immune from these supposed incidents.  What follows is a trio of true stories of when baseball met The Weird.

            Key West.  The Florida islands.  The crème de la crème of the American tropics where they show you everything but Jimmy Buffet.  A place where you can actually smell the humidity as you peel your clothes from your skin.  A place where strange things can happen.
            On August 6th, 1974, The Class A Key West Conchs hosted the St. Petersburg Cardinals at Wickers Field, capacity 1,000.  The Conchs, a farm team at the time for the Chicago Cubs, boasted the worst record in professional baseball at 32-79.  There is something oddly fitting about that, but that is not from where the weirdness of the story is derived. 
            The first pitch was at twilight.  Fog rolled in over the island and undulated in a strange ballet in the skies above the game.  St. Petersburg left fielder Ernie Rosseau would later call the scene “eerie.”  In the bottom of the first, Joe Wallis came up to hit for the Conchs.  The wind gusted up to 20 mph, a factor that did not promise to aid the Conchs in their season record.  Undaunted, Wallis took a few warm up swings and got into stance.  He then waited for the pitch.  He hit a high fly that drifted in a lazy arc towards Cardinals right fielder, John Crider.
            And then the ball disappeared.
            Crider shook his head and then ducked for cover.  Thinking his teammate lost sight of the ball, Jimmy Williams ran from second base to assist.  Center fielder Claudell Crockett beat him there.   By the time Williams arrived, Crockett’s arms were up in the air asking as he asked, “Where the hell is it?” 
            “It just…faded into nothing,” Crider said.
            The outfield fell into chaos.  Every Cardinal ran this way and that in search of the ball.  Bumps, thuds, and grunts of frustration sounded out in a chorus.  Meanwhile, Wallis made a slow, tentative circle of the bases while pausing every few steps to look over his shoulder at the visiting team’s panic.  With no ball produced, the umpire ruled it a home run.
            Naturally, the Cardinals argued against this.  As an appeal to the rules was made, the fans (what few there were) exited the stands to search for the ball.  People scoured over the crushed gravel parking lot and the paltry oaks and palm trees that made up the landscaping.  No ball was found.  Bystanders who were in the lot at the time were asked if they heard a plunk, tree limbs rustling, the shatter of glass, or any telltale sign of a baseball coming to earth.  Nobody heard a thing.  John Crider spent the rest of the night in the dugout, just rocking back and forth.
            “As I hear tell,” he said.  “A ball ain’t supposed to do that.”
            The umpires contended that the ball exited the airspace of the park.  Witnesses from each team maintained that was impossible due to the baseball’s low speed and declining trajectory.  A local sportswriter for The Key West Citizen theorized that the trade winds caught hold of it and sent it out to sea.  Though hesitant to offer any real comment on the occurrence, meteorologists at The National Weather Service admitted that theory to be rather unlikely.  So what explanation is left?
            “It had to be a UFO,” said Cardinals player, Tito Landrum.  “Players don’t just go after a ball where they think it’s going to land and nothing lands.”
            Not a stretch for those who point out that Key West is somewhat tangential to The Bermuda Triangle, a place infamous for disappearances.  Or failing that, perhaps ghosts.  Key West is replete with tales of the dead crossing over to visit the living once more, such as “Robert the Haunted Doll:” a child’s doll in the East Martello Museum that is said to move about the building on its own…even when encased in Plexiglas.  The Conchs’ owner, a Cuban exile, attributes the ball’s mid-air disappearance to the ectoplasmic presence of author and one time Key West resident, Ernest Hemingway.
            “Papa has dat ball.  His spirit is everywhere on this island.  He took that one home.”
            He must have been a Conchs fan.  They won the game 7-4.

            Great Falls, Montana.  Home of The Electrics. 
Though the club’s history is largely unremarkable, one date stands out: August 5th, 1950.  That was when Nick Mariana was general manager of the minor league farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers. 
On the morning in question, Mariana arrived at Legion Field with his 19 year-old secretary, Virginia Raunig to “inspect the field” before a game later in the day.  In the midst of doing this, a glint of light caught Nick’s eye.  He looked to the sky and saw two silver discs flying over the ballpark at a high rate of speed.  Each one seemed to be rotating as it flew. 
Mariana ran to his car.  From it he pulled a 16mm color movie camera that he kept for team training purposes.  Brushing his thick hair from his forehead, Nick pointed the camera skyward and managed to shoot sixteen seconds of footage before the objects disappeared over the mountains.
A quick bit of history.  In 1950, a sense of paranoia pervaded deep into America.  To borrow a phrase from Tom Clancy, a Red Storm was rising in the East.  Many civilian and military leaders considered nuclear attack from the Soviet Union to be inevitable.  What is more, just three years prior a pilot named Kenneth Arnold sighted a series of unknown craft over Mt Ranier, Washington.  He described their movements as “saucers skipping over water.”  Hundreds of sightings like this followed by people across the nation.  Thus, “flying saucer” hysteria was born.  Hollywood was quick to capitalize on this with movies such as Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and War of the Worlds.  Invasion from across the ocean and outer space no longer seemed so far-fetched.  Within this context, it is understandable how the film shot by Nick Mariana, general manager of the Great Falls Electrics, would become a nationwide sensation.
            Nick’s fifteen minutes of fame began with the local civic groups of Great Falls.  He was first invited to show his home movie to the members of the Central Roundtable Athletic Club.  Inevitably, the local papers picked up the story and the film made its way to national media outlets. 
            It was suggested that the film be turned over to the police for an investigation.  Local authorities deferred the matter to experts at Malmstrom Air Force Base, conveniently located just outside of town.  Nick agreed to lend them the film for further scrutiny.  This act ended up leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of Mariana and other members of the community, for when the film was returned it was found that the first forty frames had been removed.  It just so happened that those frames contained the clearest footage, footage that according to others who viewed the film detailed two spinning, metallic discs with black bands along their outer edges.  The Air Force maintained it only removed one frame that was damaged during the analysis, an analysis that was deemed “inconclusive.” 
Additionally, Mariana said that men in a black suits and black ties visited him.  They told him in no uncertain terms that what he saw were reflections of two F-94 fighter jets.  Mariana retorted that the discs were moving faster than any jet anyone he knew had ever seen.  To that, one man supposedly got in Nick’s face and replied, “You really shouldn’t talk any more about what you THOUGHT you saw.”  Nick’s blood turned to snow and the conversation ended.
            Investigators of the UFO phenomenon were quick to pounce on the event.  Dr. David Saunders, a psychologist who studied UFOs during the 50’s and 60’s, even tracked down Mariana’s secretary, Virginia Raunig for her account of the sighting and the days that followed.  He especially pressed her on the matter of the missing footage purportedly in the hands of the Air Force.  To this, Raunig was hesitant and coy.
            “What you have to remember in all of this is…that Nick Mariana is a baseball manager,” she stated.  “That means he’s a promoter.”
            To this day, the “Mariana Film” or “the Baseball Film” as it is sometimes called, remains one of the best pieces of evidence for the existence of UFOs as it was shot long before the advent of PhotoShop, Final Cut, or any computer software that could easily fake such a movie today.  Indeed given the technology on hand in 1950, it would have been extraordinarily difficult to fabricate what the footage shows: two objects in the sky flying faster than any aircraft at that time was capable of.
            In the end, it all worked out for Montana.  Great Falls is now home to two minor league baseball teams: The Electrics and The Voyagers.  The symbol for The Voyagers is a flying saucer piloted by a little green man as it circles the Earth.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Administration understates oil spill

Just sit back and watch the finger-pointing as The New York Times has published an article "accusing the government of failing to conduct an adequate scientific analysis of the damage and of allowing BP to obscure the spill’s true scope," in the words of MSNBC.

Okay, hands up.  Who here is shocked?  You mean old white men and oil companies are still running the show?  Huh.  Didn't see that one coming.  Even a man as idealistic as Obama must have known the powerful resistance he would face from the oil industry.  I mean, those guys buy politicians the way I buy paper towels. So then they get to make the rules for as the old political adage goes, "it's good to be the King."
I am not blithely unaware of the need for the necessary evil for offshore drilling.  We are a nation utterly dependent on the black blood of the Earth.  And it goes far beyond our fuel needs.  Even if we could miraculously change the engine of every automobile in America overnight to one that runs on clean, alternative energy, we still wouldn't be free of oil.  Oil is used to create polymers.  Oil is needed for tires and for plastics.  Just take a quick look around at wherever you're sitting and...unless you're currently in a meadow using'll see how much we need plastic.  Hell, even if you're in that meadow, plastic went into your laptop or your mobile so there we go.  Can't win for losing.
Getting the world off of oil will be like treating a heroin addict.  We'll have to step things down gradually, maybe with the use of an alternative energy hybrid, serving as the equivalent of methadone.  We'll have to find a solution to the issue of plastics, one that is very much a matter of practical need versus damage done.  We'll have to come up with new ways to problem solve every time it seems that the easy way out is to self-medicate and get back on the oil habit.
And we'll also have our old white drug dealers, constantly bashing us about the head and shoulders with cries of "you need this, man!  Don't lie!  Why lie?  I got good shit here, baby.  My shit's so pure it'll make your car run better than any of that hybrid/electrical/helium junk!  You ain't nothin' without me!  You without me like cornflake without da milk!" 

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Graymalkin: DNA revolution

I remember being so fascinated by deoxyribonucleic acid when I first heard
that word. I couldn’t stop saying it for at least a day (at least it was in
my head and not out loud). Understanding the building blocks of life became
a passion for me and still to this day, my brain activity spikes anytime I
see DNA in a headline.

We are getting to the point where we are starting to ‘mess’ with DNA.

Some people are thinking about making their kids male or female or blond
hair children with blue eyes or whatever in the hell the want.

Some people are afraid of the consequences of messing with their children’s
DNA and see the repercussions of what will happen when their children are
‘natural’ and considered functionally retarded by the rest of society.

I don’t care what color my kids are or what sex they are or even if they are
asexual beings! My fear is that if we don’t take the opportunity to enhance
our DNA and make the next generation more capable of solving the world’s
problems we are going to end up in a world similar to the one described in
the movie “Idiocracy”. A world in which the overpopulation of the
under-educated beer drinking poor population out-breeds the educated wine
drinking population!

If I have children I will engineer my semen and my wife’s ovum to the
maximum of our technological prowess! My offspring will come out with IQ’s
way beyond the chart of intelligent quotient. My kids will come out
speaking all languages fluently and performing complex mathematical

Why would you not give your offspring the best chance at succeeding in this

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Dreamland--my journey to Area 51

A little over one year ago, I traveled to Area 51...or as far as I could get before someone would shoot me.  This is an essay I wrote on the experience.  Photos from the travel can be found on my Flickr feed.
            A gauzy film obscures the peaks of the mountains.  At first I think it’s fog.  Then I realize it’s the cotton consistency of a cloud. A white, bulbous, dreamy cloud.  The air of Nevada is odorless.  It does not smell like the Chicago suburbs, where I work at an unspeakably meaningless job.  There is no mixture of lawn shavings, spilled lattes, and SUV exhaust.  It does not smell like Las Vegas, where I just came from.  There is no milieu of strong drinks, stripper baby powder, and casino perfume.  No, the aroma here is a blank slate, waiting for something to be written upon it.
            I am two hours north of Sin City.  Miles away from nowhere and the wind doesn’t have a name, as a friend once termed it.  It is a clean and undeveloped landscape that seems a stranger to the notions of HMO’s and credit card payments.  I ride through this broad, natural canvas in a compact car that was a decent bargain for what money I had.  I am headed for the periphery of a placed called Area 51.  “Dreamland” as it is known in military parlance.  I don’t want to go there.  I need to go there.
            A bit of history first. 
            As the 1950s dawned and the Cold War surged, the U.S. Government needed a place it could go to be alone and test new weapons.  They found it in central Nevada at a desolate place called Groom Lake.  The area was isolated by a void of both towns and any real vegetation besides scrub.  It was ringed by mountains and really just located where no ordinary person would want to take the effort to get to.  It would be easy to secure the land and render it “off limits” to all but those authorized.  What is more, the lakebed of Groom Lake was dry and flat, an ideal combination for the construction of a series of long runways.  The location was named “Area 51” after its grid number on a geological map.
In this place, the Air Force and security collectives such as the CIA developed aircraft; aircraft that were essential to national security, aircraft that were exotic and decades ahead of what any common aviation buff could have imagined.  The bleeding-edge nature of the technology being tested led many to nickname the base, “Dreamland.” 
            Admittedly, I am a military aviation enthusiast. As I turn off Nevada Highway 375 and onto the gravel and tan dirt of Groom Lake Road, I would love to see an F-15 break the sound barrier overhead.  It would certainly make my whole trip to catch a glimpse of an exotic, sharp-angled, black-tinted jet heretofore unseen in the air by civilian eyes.  Sure.  That’d be great.  But as the car rolls over the road’s tiny stones, creating sounds like popcorn stirring in a popper and kicking up a cloud of dust that would make Pig Pen blush, I know in my heart that the jets aren’t what I want.  Not really.  You see, whenever a place has such secrecy around it, wild stories are bound to develop.   None are wilder than those of Bob Lazar.
            In 1988, Lazar, a physicist, went public and stated that he once worked at Dreamland.  While there, his purported duty was to reverse engineer the propulsion systems of retrieved extraterrestrial spacecraft.  And not only did our government have actual UFOs in its possession, Lazar alleged that it also had the bodies of the occupants.  Yes.  Aliens.  Once that story was coupled with the sightings of strange aircraft in the Nevada skies, the phrase “Area 51” soon became synonymous with the words “alien” and “UFO.”
            Maybe it’s my windmill-charging desire to know there is something greater than us, that there is a vast universe out there that doesn’t care if Wall Street is folding and that I’m “not making hours” at work.  Or maybe it’s from a misspent youth of watching movies like Ghidrah the Three Headed Dragon and Mars Needs Women.  Whatever the cause, I’m in Nevada for the aliens.  Bulb-headed, almond-eyed aliens.  While I don’t expect them to be ducking and hiding between the Joshua Trees or waiting at the base boundary line, tapping a butt probe in their hands (I mean, one could hope), I still run the chance of being closer to them than I ever have before…that I know of anyway. 
            The stories of aliens, while exciting in their own right, are actually a few of the tamer Dreamland speculations.  For years I’ve tracked down every allegation about the base and gobbled the tales up like sugary gumdrops.  And the weirder they were the better they tasted.  Kennedy is being kept alive on life support in one of the medical buildings?  You don’t say.  The government is experimenting with time travel out there?  Tell me more.  The base conceals an entrance to a civilization in the Hollow Earth?  Oh boy, now that is good stuff.  I spend more time thinking about what lies behind those mountains and than when my mortgage is due.
            There is a notch cut out of the hill ahead and the gravel road runs through it.  As I approach this point, that’s when I see the signs; two of them, one on either side of the road.  Both white with the large, bolded word “WARNING” boxed in red at the top.  They advise that travel beyond the sign is not permitted as the land is part of the Nellis Gunnery and Bombing Range, aka Dreamland.  The signs go on to inform base personnel that both they and their belongings are subject to search in order to prevent the wrong things falling into the wrong hands.  I probably couldn’t pay someone to take my monthly paperwork from me and these guys get a free pat down for it.  Some people have all the luck.
I get out of the car.  Rays of sun hit my exposed arms like streams from a hot shower.  On the hill to my left there is a thin metal pole jutting up between the Joshua Trees.  I can see a video camera and the spiny protrusions of a sensor array on it.  The rise to the right has a golden pickup truck parked atop it.  In the drivers’ seat, a man sits holding a pair of thick, black binoculars.  They almost resemble the eyes of the aliens I seek.  Every time I take a step, the man tracks my movements with the binocs.
There is no fence around Dreamland.  No need for one, either.  You can see anyone driving up the gravel road for miles because of the plume they trail.  Cameras track all movements.  Microphones listen for what can be heard.  Sophisticated sensors wait passively for the faint trace of ammonia that human skin gives off.  Yes, they can actually smell you coming.  And then of course there are the commandos in the trucks, stationed just a bit off to the side of the point of entry.  If I take one step past the sign, I’ll be treated to a personal introduction to a group of men who each know six different ways to kill me with their bare hands.  What do I have?  An Olympus digital camera that was on sale at Sears.
I snap pictures.  The signs, the truck, the barren environs.  I use my cell phone to Twitter gushing updates that read like I’m a 14 year-old girl seeing The Jonas Brothers. “Oh God!  I can’t believe I’m actually here!”  “I see a guard in a truck!  Think he’ll give me an autograph?” 
Yet there’s really nothing to see.  The Dreamland facility is about another ten or fifteen miles past the signs.  In an act of utter foolishness, I start to hop.  My thought is that if I gain enough altitude, I might see over the rise and catch a glimpse of the buildings in the distance.  Such a view is not forthcoming.  In fact, all I’m probably doing is giving Rambo up in the truck an itchy trigger finger.  So after a deep breath of blank air and a last look around, I go back to the car to head for the highway.  My thoughts churn with the gravel beneath the wheels.  I needed to come here.
            The Air Force holds war games called Red Flag in the skies of Area 51.  I’ve never seen the show, but I’m fairly confident it beats “team building day” at the office.  Technicians at the facility have worked on ultra-advanced aircraft from the old U-2 to possibly the Aurora, a spy plane that is reported to move at speeds greater than Mach 6.   I record minutia on state report forms with a sluggish Dell computer held together by bubble gum and fishing line.  Bob Lazar claims he deconstructed the components of alien anti-gravity drives at his job.  I spent the better part of one day at mine trying to find a way to unclog a toilet left horribly defiled by one of our clients.  I imagine conversations among Area 51 workers to run along the lines of “Were you here when that stealth fighter crashed in ’87?” “No, but I saw the Zeta Reticulans land in ’05.”  My fellow employees and I are more likely to ask “Why the hell do we need another staff meeting?” and “So let me get this straight, I have three supervisors?  And what are they paid to do the rest of the time?”  It is rumored that the entire base had to be shut down and evacuated due to radiation back in the 1990s.  I’ve pleaded.  I’ve urged God in prayer.  Never once has this happened at my office. 
            Dreamland is everything that I am not.  Whatever goes on at that base, whether it is the future of military aviation or things literally from out of this world, it is significant to humanity…and it is no doubt utterly fantastic.  All of it is right there in that lofty, desolate location, ultimately just a few miles out of my reach.
            I can think of no better name for this place than Dreamland.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Dostoevsky images on metro ‘could cause suicides’

 I say paint them and give it a shot.  Could be a great psychological study of art imitating life, incitement to action, Pavlov's dog, or what have you.  Take your pick.  

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