Tuesday, August 31, 2010

For I have seen Cydonia...

A while back, I wrote a post about the supposed "Face on Mars."  
My introduction to said anomaly was in the pages of Omni magazine back in 1985 or 86.  Yes, I've just horribly dated myself.  Regardless, my reading on the subject of the face brought into contact with a number of other Martian concepts that I heretofore had only heard grumblings about.  Apparently, there is an entire movement of researchers engaged in what could euphemistically be called "Alternative Archeology."  In short, the study of ancient artifacts on Mars.
The "Face" stands in an area of Mars called "Cydonia," a poetic synonym for Crete in classical studies.  Not only is there a sphinx-like face in Cydonia, there are pyramids to go along with it or at the very least, there are mountains or hills near the "Face" that have smooth, diagonal edges and cast triangular shadows in a regular formation as opposed to a natural one.  That doesn't necessarily mean anything in and of itself.  There a multifold examples of natural formations on Earth that mimic this kind of shape and the Face's as well for that matter.  But when these things are collocated in the same region, it's enough to make a few people go "hmmm." 
What is more, Cydonia is not a casual clustering of a geological formations or even a precious handful of alien artifacts from antiquity in the eyes of a few.  No, Cydonia is the remains of what was once a thriving city on Mars.  There are researchers who point to grid-like formations in the soil, similar to those of city streets and blocks.  A few have even plotted out what the ancient metropolis may once have looked like, complete with a city plaza, a terrace, and even a fortress (I'm just imagining somebody play Mars SimCity.)  All that plus those good old stand bys, the canals.  
So if these are artificial structures, who built them?  Currently, there are four schools of thought on the matter:

1) Mars at one time had an indigenous population of intelligent lifeforms.  This civilization died out somehow, perhaps an environmental disaster on a planetary scale.

2) Another space-faring alien race visited Mars and built the monuments for whatever reason.  Perhaps it holds religious significance for them?  After all, religion is all over Earth, there's nothing to say it can't be elsewhere.  Perhaps these aliens even came to Earth and built the Egyptian pyramids a la von Daniken.

3) A hitherto unknown terrestrial species traveled to Mars and built the monuments.  This one is pretty wild, but it would help explain the similarities between ancient structures on both Mars and Earth (sphinx, pyramids, et. al.)

4) The "Null Hypothesis."  In other words, there are no artifacts, only tricky, odd, but naturally occurring formations.

Note the theories that connect Cydonia with regions on Earth, such as Luxor in Egypt.  I have written previous posts about the human fascination with Mars, something that extends from science fiction through to our own inner yearnings it would seem.  I can understand the enthrallment.  Evidence of a previous civilization on Mars would be alter the perspective of many on Earth.  So much so, that researchers such as the late, great Mac Tonnies even accused NASA of distorting the facts (not to the same degree as Richard Hoagland has accused them, but more about that tomorrow) and pictures to keep this matter from the general public. 
Like many Fortean subjects, the Cydonia issue is one I love to read about but I'm just not ready to place much faith in.  I want to be able to.  I want to so badly that there is this ache in my soul for it.  And while there is something in my gut that draws me to Cydonia and tells me there's more to this than just rocks and erosion, the evidence just isn't there...yet.  Suppose the only way to know for certain is to travel to Mars.

So let's get hell-a-flippin'-goin'.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Author profile: Bruce Sterling

If you follow me on Twitter (and you do, don't you?  Don't you??), then you know I've been tweeting about perhaps writing blog posts on all the books I've yet to read.  Sort of a premature review, talking in the future tense about what I expect a book to be like rather than the staleness of reflections on something past.  There would be an accounting for what motivated me to pick up the book in the first place, even if the rationale is flimsy ("just wanted to.")  I have also decided to post profiles from time to time on authors that I enjoy.  You've heard so much about William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac as of late, that I thought it was about time to bring the discussion back closer to Strange Horizons.  For that purpose, my first profile will be of Bruce Sterling.

Bruce Sterling is a multiple Hugo award-winning writer and futurist who lives in Austin, Texas.  Along with William Gibson and Rudy Rucker, Sterling is considered to be one of the seminal, founding authors of the "cyberpunk" sub-genre of science fiction.  He is uncannily prescient about technology, not simply in what new forms it will take but also in how it will alter society.  I have always been a wide-eyed optimist when it comes to technological advancement and I don't see that changing.  But Sterling's novels and short stories have forced me to at least consider the possibility that things might turn out so cool on the tech front after all.  Just read the descriptions of a few of his books.
Islands in the Net--I enjoyed this one.  In a world of global corporations, cybernetics, and de-localized power, one woman gets swept along on a wild ride through the poorest nations of Africa and Southeast Asia.  One reviewer called it a "modern day Candide."

Heavy Weather--a cadre of high-tech storm chasers pursue megatornadoes in the Midwest.  Such storms are far more plentiful in the region due to global warming.

The Caryatids--three female clones of a Balkan war criminal escape to a space station.  It is from there that they must find a way to save the world from environmental collapse.

In addition to being an accomplished novel and short story writer, Sterling has been a regular contributor for Wired and authored the nonfiction book, The Hacker Crackdown, detailing the story of hackers in America and the Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson's role playing game factory, Cyberpunk.  The full text of this book is available for free here via the efforts of Project Guttenberg.

Sterling is also a noted coiner of "neologisms," such as "blobject" and "slipstream fiction."  I rather like that last one as it refers to a certain stasis zone between traditional science fiction and the genuinely frustrating and pretentious world of so-called literary writing.  
So you won't be reading truly deep and philosophical characters in Sterling's books, at least not to my finding.  But just because it isn't "literary" is no grounds to dismiss the work.  Instead, you'll be given a glimpse at a world that as Max Headroom said, is truly 15 seconds into the future.   I'm confident to have Bruce along as my guide in the new age ahead.  I'm sure that there will be lots to be excited about...and terrified of.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Once more...feeling very Burroughs

I was introduced to Jack Kerouac by my friend, Dreamer.  I was introduced to William Burroughs through Jack Kerouac.
I could study these two for years.  What draws me to these two Beat authors is both particular and uncertain.  With Kerouac, it is the rhythmic, poetic, damned near musical style of his prose.  The very idea that he could have sat at a typewriter and just let loose with the unscripted thoughts in his head and allow On the Road to blossom forth in just three days is...well, both incredible and enviable to me. To say that he was quite a guy is an understatement.
Same goes for his friend, William Burroughs.  Or "Old Bull Lee" as he is veiled as in On the Road.  Burroughs' drug-fevered, often disturbing texts are not for the faint of heart nor for the easily embarrassed.  They are, however, a showcase of a writer whose gift for the pure craft of linking phrase to phrase is nonpareil.  His work is also a glimpse into the subconscious, a brave look at the realities of thought that everyone has for those brave enough to take a dainty peek.  I sometimes get the feeling that I and everyone else that I know secretly inhabits a Burroughs novel.  That is why I sometimes try to write like him:

Hair and eyes in the miasma of my thoughts.  Hypnotized.  Not many make it past the courtyard where they empty the tanks and the black sludge pours out, all slimy and rotting with fungus.  No boon to security.  Your lungs burn with the odor of green and your stomach contorts into knots.  I spread the toothpaste over the acne, the commercialized betterment covering the tiny points of swollen red.  I'm hoping, begging for the oil to dry or to at least run free, far so far away and let me live.  So bitter and caked, mint scent mingles and plays with the scent of pus and infection in the air.  Imperfection plagues me.  As if the oil seals me to the back of a runaway hog, I am a prisoner for the ride as we pass the grandstand.  Slowly bit by bit I must lower my standards.

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

All that remains...

It was Def Leppard who asked the musical/philosophical question, "Where does love go when it dies?"  That's pretty much what I wonder when I see abandoned buildings.
Urban decay and structures in disuse have become a sort of fascination for me, both in terms of history and art.  My data storage is corrupted with age, but I believe it started when I worked in a city school.  The elementary school was across the street form an abandoned hospital.  Nearly every window in the sprawling structure was broken.  Curtains turned beige with time billowed out through the jagged glass, causing the kids to tell stories of ghosts.  "It used to be an insane asylum," one boy told me.  "Yes," I replied.  "They build those next to schools all the time."
Weeds grew through the cracks in the parking lot.  Metal rods jutted up in the concrete, each one about nose-high on me and colored dark red with rust.  Bent.  Askew.  What were they?  Signposts?  Pipes? 
And I think that's just it.  What were those places meant for?  Many of us folks don't know.  But they were a labor of love for someone at one point or another, in the act of construction if nothing else.   The buildings are forever trapped in time, frozen in whatever era that their residents decided to walk away from them.  This creates an eerie sense of displacement.  They aren't high tech enough to be modern, they aren't preserved well enough to seem historical.  They just...are.  No wonder they are the breeding ground for so many ghost stories.  Yet with enough time elapsed and enough...well, decay...they become entirely new forms of art. 

I'm not alone in this fascination it would seem.  Entire sites and blogs have risen up on the subject of abandoned buildings.   There is even an underground movement of hobbyists called "infiltrators" who risk legal action through trespass and physical injury through rotted floorboards, just to skulk and explore these abandoned places.  A few of them are thrill-seekers, others are serious photographers wishing to capture these sites as art.  And it need not be your run-of-the-mill apartment or office building.  There are many fascinating places to choose from, everything from old movie theaters to closed missile silos.  
The one site that lights the fires of my imagination more than any other is the city of Prypiat in Ukraine.  The entire city was built in the old Soviet times as an "atomograd," meaning a residence for workers at a nuclear power plant.  Unfortunately, Prypiat's power plant was Chernobyl.  After the disaster in 1986, the entire city was abandoned.  Due to radiation levels that are still extremely high to this day, no one has ever returned to live in the city.  Admittedly I have not done thorough research, but there can't be many cases in history like Prypiat, where an entire population picks up and leaves within a span of a day or two, leaving everything behind, never to return. Only recently has plant and animal life returned to what is now known as the "zone of alienation."  Aside from the valuables that were pilfered by a few intrepid looters, all is as it was on April 26th, 1986.  I think it would be fascinating to visit Prypiat and to wander about, exploring these buildings that are decayed and frozen in time...while wearing suitable radiation gear, of course.   So many ideas for novels and short stories.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Get on your knees or be "Left Behind"

First and foremost, I must admit that I have never read any installment of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.  But sick curiosity has gotten the better of me and I decided to do a bit of research into just what this saga is all about.  Everything I've heard about the series suggests that, Biblical preaching aside, the books carry paranormal and thriller overtones, certainly something I cannot ignore.  My brother teaches World Religions at a university in Wisconsin.  I asked him what he knew about Left Behind.  He shuddered and said, "that way lies madness, Jonny.  Madness."  Undaunted, I pressed forward with my research.  Once more I need to stress that I have yet to read one actual page of these books, so any impressions I offer here are ones of mere first blush.

Our story begins as The Rapture occurs.  Those whom God has deemed "worthy" have been brought straight up into Heaven without needing to suffer death.  Yet those who are unworthy are "left behind" (hey!  I bet that's where they got the title!)  The world falls into disorder and chaos at this turn of events.  In the midst of the hurlyburly, a Romanian named Nicolae Jetty Carpathia (heh) becomes Secretary General of the UN.  He promises to restore peace and order.  What most of the left behinds don't know is that Carpathia is really the Antichrist, a leader whom most people will like and follow but who is actually leading us straight down the crapper.  A few people catch on to this and become born-again Christians to try and stop the devil.  Among them are Rayford Steele (snicker), a former non-Christian, womanizing airline pilot (surprised LeHaye didn't just go with "Quagmire" as the character's name.) There is also his daughter Chloe, Bruce Barnes (heh-heh), Ming Toy (cackle), and Cameron "Buck" Williams (guffaws, are you serious??)  Together, these born again fundies form The Tribulation Force, a Bible-based strike squad out to bedevil the devil, save or stop the sinners, and fight in the race against time before God renders His final judgment or Carpathia (who at this point might as well be named "Alucard") starts World War III.

Really?  Seriously?  People read this stuff?  They must.  The series is a runaway best seller and it was made into a film starring (gasp!) Kirk Cameron.  Sorry.  This just doesn't seem like my cup of tea.  I get enough preaching about the kind of Christian I should be just by existing in the morass of every day life.  I get enough demonizing of "globalization" from right-wing fear mongers in the daily news.  I don't need to turn to fiction for it.   In a way, see these texts as bookends for Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code; sensationalist distortions but for opposite political ends.
Ghost Dogg and Armando may be in for it.  I'm toying with renting Left Behind )or Growing Pains II: The Search for Ben) and making them watch it was we get loaded.  I suppose I might actually read Left Behind if I were in that Burgess Meredith episode of The Twilight Zone, where I'd be trapped in a vault at the onset of a nuclear attack with LB as my only book to read ("that's not fair...that's not fair at all.")  But even then I'd have to think about it.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Flying Humanoids!

(NOTE: the pictures included here are from  Weird Travels)

Every now and then, a Fortean matter comes down the pike that I just find irresistible.  Please don't mistake my fascination as any kind of statement on how truthful I think the phenomenon is or is not.  On the contrary, the zanier the case, the less evidence involved, the more fun I have reading about it.  Often this is due to just how closely the paranormal occurrence mirrors a trope in fiction that I happen to enjoy.

Nothing fits the above description more than "flying humanoids."

This is a vital new phenomenon.  Not really a new one, but one that breaks a lot of new ground in terms of the questions it raises.  Occurrences of flying humanoids have mostly been localized to south of the border, from Mexico on down to Argentina.  The sightings are exactly what they sound like: human-shaped objects (or entities) in the sky, seemingly flying under their own power.  Several have been caught on camera, such as this one:

As the labels indicate, there are two objects in the photo:  one is a "winged entity" (which could just as easily be called "a bird") and what appears to be a human form wearing a cape or cloak.  If you check the YouTube video of the sighting, you'll be able to see the actual waving and fluttering of the cloth.  Makes sense.  Given my love of comic books, I would definitely wear a cape should I ever become a flying humanoid.  Geez, I'm getting story ideas even as I write this.
Other sightings imply technological devices at play, perhaps even transhumanism:

All of this would be fascinating, even if unsubstantiated, on its own but the encounter that Officer Leonardo Samaniego had takes the whole kit and kaboodle up around the bend.
Samaniego was a policeman in Monterrey, Mexico.  In January, 2004, he was on a routine night patrol in his squad car.  He saw a dark shape drop from out of a tree and land in the middle of the street in front of him.  Samaniego at first believed it to be a large owl.  The form then straightened itself up and turned to face the car.  Samaniego turned on his high beams for a better look.
It was then that he really regretted doing that.  In Samaniego's own words (via an account on Jeff Rense's web site), this is what he saw:

"It was a woman...all dressed in black that fell from the tree but she didn't touch the ground, just remained floating several feet from the ground. I saw her very well and then she landed softly on the ground and stood there looking at me. She was trying to cover her face from the lights of the car, I think they were bothering her. I could see two big black eyes on her, completely black without eyelids, and her skin was dark brown. She was all dressed in black with cloak and cape like a witch and she seemed very upset by the lights."
After that, things started to get really weird.  The thing charged the police car.  With blinding speed it jumped onto the hood.  Samaniego grabbed the gear shift, shoved his car into reverse, and gunned the engine.  Within a second, the she-beast had cracked the windshield with her claws.  Samaniego began screaming over the radio for back-up.  As he hit the end of the street, he fainted.
Other units responded as did paramedics.  A TV news crew was not far behind.  A search of the area was conducted, but no flying humanoid was found.  Officer Samaniego was pulled from his car and taken to Monterrey's Hospital Universitario.  At the hospital, he was found to be uninjured and in good health.  Despite other, perhaps easier paths he could have taken, the officer stood by his account of what happened during the interrogations by doctors, commanding officers, and news reporters.  Tests were done to check for the presence of alcohol or drugs of any kind in Samaniego's system.  All tests came back negative.  Psychological inquiries were made and Samaniego was found to be perfectly sane...even if suffering from extreme stress and emotional trauma. 

As is always the question at the end of one of these posts, what are we to make of all of this?  The photographs of flying humanoids (Google it for a more comprehensive look at them) are often times explainable.  Birds, balloons, fakes, misidentified objects, heck, maybe even blow-up dolls filled with helium for all I know.  A few are compelling, such as the aforementioned "flowing cape" being.  But the account of Officer Samaniego really takes the cake.  I am convinced that something truly bizarre did happen to this man.  Google him or check YouTube and you can find the video of his news interview.  Heck, just take a look at his photos on the Rense website.   I'm no psychologist, but I'm a pretty good writer.  I consider myself to have a fairly good grasp on human behavior just through years observation.  And I can tell you one thing from looking at Samaniego: he was scared shitless.  That is raw terror on that man's face and that is a difficult emotion to evoke from someone trained to deal with high stress situations.  What's more, you wouldn't get that kind of a reaction from someone who misidentified an owl or somesuch, especially not from a man carrying at least two forms of firearms in his squad car...which he completely forgot that he had due to his own terror at the sight of something utterly unknown (I'm hoping that Ghost Dogg can weigh in on this as he has been in a combat zone before and might be able to shed a bit of insight on the workings of the mind during such times.)
Could he have made it up?  Doubtful.  What did he gain?  Nothing financially.  In fact, he probably endured days of ridicule from fellow officers as "that guy who was attacked by a witch."

Are the flying humanoid photographs genuine?  They're ginchy fun, but the jury's well out as far as I'm concerned.  
But I'm flippin' positive something happened to Officer Leonardo Samaniego.  And it was with a lifeform unknown to us.
Below is an artist's sketch of the she-creature that attacked Samaniego.  Note the surface similarity to the typical "Grey" alien.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

When it gets real...

After claiming contact with aliens, a scientist has a breakdown.
That might sound like the logline to an X-Files episode or somesuch, but in this case it's reality.
In November of 2009, Lachezar Filipov of the Bulgarian Space Research Institute (no, I'm not making this up and no I never knew such a thing existed, either) told Britain's Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail that he and fellow scientists have been interviewing aliens for quite a while now.  The extraterrestrials would encode the answers to the queries inside crop circles.  
Kevin Smith, not the movie director but a Phoenix-based Ufologist, says that he got in touch with Filipov shortly after the stories ran in the newspapers.  Filipov agreed to a candid interview with Smith, claiming that it was his "duty" to make his discoveries known to the world.  He did, however, express concern that there were elements of "world governments" that would be unhappy if he did so.
Then Filipov stopped answering his phone.  Days went by until finally a TV news team from Croatia arrived in Bulgaria to do a previously scheduled interview with him.  Filipov did the interview, but the entire thing ended up being unusable as he was "intoxicated."  Smith got hold of the taped interview.  Based on his experience as an INTERPOL agent, Smith asserts that Filipov was suffering from sleep deprivation...an old technique often implemented by the former KGB.  Repeatedly, the Croats ask Filipov if he has indeed been in contact with aliens.  In a final act of exasperation, Filipov looks at the camera and says, "That is the information that if I tell you, they will kill me."  
The interview has never been released and Filipov has remained incommunicado ever since.

So let me see if I can get this all straight: we have a scientist who claims to have been in direct contact with alien life.  He fears repercussions from shadowy government figures if he goes public about this.  He appears to crack up and the last interview he gives is suppressed, yet is acquired by an intrepid man who was once an INTERPOL operative but now hosts a paranormal radio show in Phoenix, AZ.  If I pitched this to a literary agent it would be thrown back in my face as "unbelievable."
What is the truth of the matter, then?  Well if we apply Occam's Razor, then the simplest explanation is that Filipov is exactly what he appears to be: a man with a substance abuse problem and/or mental illness and is prone to hallucinations.  This is especially likely in my opinion when you toss the whole "crop circle" angle into the saga.  Faithful readers know how little stock I place in those.  But could he actually be telling the truth?  As is so often the case with these matters, we may never know.

Just shows to go you, reality out-weirds fiction every time.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Blago goes to Comic Con

Over the years, I've logged a few hours at Wizard World or Chicago Comic Con or Geekfest or whatever you want to call it.  I've seen a few strange things.  A vendor playing up the fact that he brought along the midget who played the Jawa that shot R2-D2 in Star Wars: Episode IV.  Running into writer/artist/genius Rob Liefield as I was leaving the men's room, catching the look of utter puzzlement on his face as he saw my Justice Society t-shirt.  Clandestinely snapping a photo of Gil "Buck Rogers" Gerard at the autograph line just so I could show my friends how much the years have been unkind to him.  But nothing beats one of the main attractions of this year's gathering.

That's right.  Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, impeached from office and fresh off of his conviction on one federal count and a hung jury the 20-some odd other charges, set up a booth at the convention center...then charged comic book fans $50 for an autographed photo and $80 for a candid, posed shot with him.  And plenty of people bought it.
Wish I could have seen that.  Not to get the photos, mind you.  If I refused to pay $25 for my picture to be taken with adult film star Aria Giovanni, there's no way I'm coughing up the 80 bones for governor Rod.  It's just such a surreal occurrence that I'm actually remorseful that I was not there to witness it.  

And calling it surreal in the land of Chicago politics is saying something.  After all, our motto around here is "vote early, vote often."  However, the more I think about Blago's appearance at the con, the more it begins to make sense.
Blagojevich has become a comic book character.  He belongs in four-color print, fighting the system like a modern day Robin Hood, his implacable hair as his only shield.  He is as much a larger-than-life character as any denizen of Marvel or DC or even the independents...and he is just as unbelievable. The people of Illinois watched him drive the state into a financial abyss and gave him a 25% approval rating at one point.  Much of that seems irrelevant now as the citizenry has watched him on The Apprentice, proselytizing his innocence and pledging a comeback to Donald Trump.  Blago's radio talk show on WLS is gaining audience members, especially among the Tea Party set who see him as someone who fought Obama's federal government and stymied it.  He has fully entered the cult of personality and when someone does that in America, people have a tendency to overlook much.  Plus let's face it, he's hilarious to listen to.  Campaigner and BS-er that he is, I wouldn't be a bit surprised that he pitched himself to many a comics company for a series.  He does, after all, have legal fees to pay.
Should there be any doubt left that Rod Blagojevich belongs in comics, check out this footage of him over the weekend with Adam West.  Now there's a Batman team-up just waiting for the pages of The Brave and the Bold.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Book review--"Above Top Secret"

ABOVE TOP SECRET: The World-Wide UFO Cover-Up
by Timothy Good
Paperback: 592 pages 
Publisher: Quill (September 1989)
ISBN-10: 0688092020

This is a definitive work for anyone interested in the field of Ufology and one massive tome of a book that took me the better part of the summer to read.  That is because Good does something in it that few UFO books before had done: provide evidence.  Nearly one-third of the book is declassified documentation obtained through FOIA requests and citations to publications and interviews that an industrious researcher may go and check for themselves.  Because it is so research-based, the text is rather dry and makes for tedious reading at times.  Readers looking for rollicking UFO tales of the kind found in The Weekly World News will no doubt be disappointed and I don't think that is such a bad thing.  Good moves from nation to nation, including the US, Canada, Britain and much of Europe, devoting a healthy number of pages to how each government acquires its intelligence and then demonstrates how that has been applied to the UFO phenomenon.  Gradually, the case for a cover-up grows stronger as does the sensible rationale to have one in the first place.
This is not to say that Good doesn't include his share of "an anonymous source has told me that..." instances of hearsay.  Such things are unavoidable when dealing with the subject of UFOs, otherwise there would be no "conspiracy."  Not only that, but Good's stance can hardly be called a neutral one.  His drive to conclusively prove a UFO cover-up comes through loud and clear.  For instance, Good includes this correspondence he had with former NASA astronaut, Scott Carpenter (p. 381).  Carpenter said to Good: "...your continuing implication that I am lying and/or withholding truths from you.  Your blindly stubborn belief in Flying Saucers makes interesting talk for a while, but your inability to rationally consider any thought that runs counter to yours makes further discussion of no interest--indeed unpleasant in prospect--to me."
Regardless of his insistent fervor, Good did provide a much-needed publication to the UFO field by virtue of the included documentation alone.  Given the book's publication date, it obviously does not include more recent developments or progressive speculations, but I was glad to read in the closing pages that Good entertains the possibility that UFOs come perhaps not from outer space, but other dimensions.  
For anyone wanting or needing a baseline knowledge of the modern UFO mythos, this is essential reading.

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Art Fair 2010

Most suburban art fairs are rather pedestrian events.  Oil paintings of landscapes, homemade jewelry, wood carvings, sketches of Chicago, not exactly what you would call avant garde.
The Oswego Art Fair was no exception.  It had a healthy dollop of all the above, but there were those other artists who really grabbed my attention.  They were different.  A few of them took risks and went with material that would seem jarring to the average suburbanite (which I suppose isn't saying much, but I'll support them.)  Others went with the themes I mentioned above, but had very unique takes on them.  I'd like to draw your attention to all of these artists so that their work may be encouraged.

Gene Brack is an abstract artist who hails from Iowa.  To me, his pieces seemed like the result of many hours of improvisation at the canvas, trying sudden inspirations over and over again until the various components gelled.  While that sounds like fun, I'm certain there were several stretches of frustration, just as there are for us writers.  At any rate, there is a sense of freedom and individuality that comes through in his work and it really set him apart from the crowd today.  There is even the spirit of Warhol present...and that's never a bad thing.  I recommend Dark Squares from his portfolio.
Paul Nickless had one of his paintings positioned on the outside of his tent.  It caught my attention from all the way down at the other end of the street and drew me straight to it.  He just has originality coming out all over the place.  After reading that he is a self-proclaimed "abstract expressionist," I was halfway to liking the guy before even really taking a look at the pieces.  He sees what he sees and isn't afraid to depict it that way.  A really unique eye.  Besides, how can you not like an artist that titles their paintings With Teethlike Knives, She Was the Best Dance Ever, Sorry, My Fault San Andreas, and The Cosmonaut Eats the Werewolves.  I'm also a big fan of the Bulletground series, especially Bulletground Bravo.
I hope Paul Nickless makes it big.  Maybe one day I could commission a few pieces for the site here at Strange Horizons?

J.L. Benson paints realistic landscapes.  I know, you're probably saying to yourself "but you said you get bored with landscapes.  You got all pretentious and called them 'pedestrian.'"  Well, I did, but Benson's pieces really got to me.  He has painted many farm scenes from the area, several of them while during fall and winter.  This hit me on a personal level as I couldn't help but think of my Grandparents' farm.  The winter scenes conjured up many a Christmas that I spent there and the warm and magical times that they always seemed to be.  While those are cheerful memories, I could not help but feel rather melancholy at the sight.  Not just longing for those times again, but mourning the passing of a simpler, agrarian time...even though I would have no place in such an era.  Ironic, isn't it?
Speaking of melancholy, Benson's award-winning The Letter (first painting you see on the website) is craftily just that.  What is ostensibly a bucolic tableau is really a poor soul about to get very bad news in the mail.  Sift through the site, read the description, you'll see what I mean. 

Corrine Smith certainly did her part to keep the fair from being totally vanilla.  She is yet another abstract painter, one who seems to be in the mold of Kandinsky and Miro, with a dash of Klimt thrown in for fun.  The pieces are confined canvases with geometric forms as players upon a stage.  I loved how open to interpretation each painting was in that I could see a mere cityscape while my far more insightful wife saw a coastal lighthouse.  Fun!

Finally, Nancy Rice Early was intriguing for the pure fact that she does each of her pieces with Sharpees only.  But that's not the real reasoning I'm mentioning her.  As you'll see from the first page of her website, Nancy was involved in a crop circle experiment enacted by several artists.  How could Strange Horizons resist?

After walking through the fair, I went to a used book sale.  Not much to speak of, especially if you're looking for Fortean material.  I did however purchase The Touch of Twilight by urban fantasy author, Vicki Pettersson.  For 25 cents I figured it was worth the gamble.

I did manage to a get a few photos of the even but my camera's battery gave out far too soon.  As soon as things are recharged I'll upload them.  Cheers.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, August 20, 2010

Film Review--Soylent Green

starring Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Joseph Cotten, Leigh Taylor-Young, Chuck Connors, Brock Peters, Dick Van Patten, and Lee Van Cleef as The Beav

New York City in 2022 is an abysmal place.  Overpopulation is beyond out of control.  The exhaustion of resources has left people surviving on rationed water and a manufactured substance called Soylent Green.  But when the CEO of the Soylent Corporation (Cotten) is mysteriously killed, a detective (Heston) must delve into what Soylent Green really is.  He doesn't like what he finds.

A thoughtful, slow-paced science fiction film like this could never be made today.  A pity.  It's refreshing to experience "speculative fiction" where the characters are allowed to develop and think about the situation that they are in.  Lord knows I was thinking about it.  This film paints a depiction of a future that could be frighteningly similar to our own.  Proto-cyberpunk in its own way, we see how unchecked human behavior in tandem with corporate greed leads to suffering on a worldwide scale.  While Heston is his usual manly-man self, even if borderline misogynistic, his melancholy bleat at the end can be viewed as a cry of all humanity against an oppressive machine run by the few for their own gain.  It's a famous movie line and you probably know it, but I'm not going to write it here just in case someone hasn't heard it.  Edward G. Robinson turns in a performance that is quite touching.  Fitting really, as it was his last. 
All in all, a quality production but not exactly an escapist "upper."  Although I did like the riot control trucks.  I'd like to drive one of those around here.

RATING: PDG (Pretty Darned Good)

Not sure if I've posted this next review before.  If I have, sorry for the repeat.

starring Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, Rory Cochrane, and George Takei as The Beav.

In the near future, an undercover cop (Reeves) gets involved with a bunch of small-time users and distributors of a drug called Substance D. His own mental state begins to border on schizophrenia as roles and lines become blurred, sending him in for a series of psychological tests.

There have been many adaptations of author Philip K. Dick's work. Some have been triumphs (Blade Runner), others have sucked in ways things have not sucked before nor should ever be allowed to again (Screamers). I'm happy to say that this one falls somewhere in between those two polar extremes. It's a strong story with A-list actors told in an innovative, "augmented reality" sort of combination between live action and animation. This format could be headache-inducing among a few viewers, but it didn't bother me. Then again, I saw it on a small screen and the theatrical experience may have differed from my own.
Most satisfying are the moments were these "potheads," for lack of a better word, get themselves into predicaments and work furiously to get themselves out, often with humorous results. In fact, I'm wondering if Robert Downey Jr. modeled his character after Daffy Duck. Just something about his short haircut, omnipresent round shades, and the bill of his cap popped up. If so, I applaud him for taking after a comedic genius, yes I say that with all sincerity.

RATING: PDG (Pretty Darned Good)

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hi ho Ayahuasca!

Yesterday, during my daily afternoon listen to NPR, I heard a report about people undertaking spiritual journeys to the Amazon of Peru.  These were people from all walks of life.  Camera salesmen, computer programmers, housemoms, and the list goes on.  The salesman, a man in his 30s like me, gave this as his reason for undertaking the quest: "I thought something was missing in my life, in walking through the world. I have this job I hate. I feel miserable all the time. Everything is small and just how I related to people, everything was very superficial."
While I don't share his need for a social connection, what he describes is very much the sort of malaise that I find myself confronting.  You have all read me go on ad nauseum about my bloodsucking day job and my seemingly endless cycle of vacuuming, kitchen cleaning, and dog walking.  Therefore, I will spare you another bout.  Suffice to say, I became engrossed with what this spiritual quest entailed (so much so that I nearly missed that nice red, octagonal sign...but we won't go there.)

These people have gone to Peru to have ayahuasca administered to them by a shaman.  "Ayahuasca," as it turns out, is a psychoactive decoction made from "the Banisteriopsis spp. vine, and usually mixed with the leaves of dimethyltryptamine-containing species of shrubs from the Psychotria genus," or at least that's what Wikipedia has to say (and if you can't trust them, then who can you trust?)  These plants don't do anything on their own, but when boiled in combination, psychedelic affects await the imbiber.  
That and uncontrollable vomiting, diarrhea, and prolonged nightmares.  And according to the sound fx of the NPR report, the shaman's patrons were getting it in spades.  Being someone with a recurring stomach disorder, they lost me at diarrhea.  Can get that well enough on my own, thanks (sorry, TMI.) 
Still, perceptions of the mind and altered states of consciousness have become a recent interest of mine.  A close family member confided in me that they recently had a near death experience (perhaps a subject for a later blog entry.)  When you hear that sort of thing coming from someone that you respect and trust, well, it just makes you look at the whole subject a bit differently.

So I was willing to hear more about ayahuasca.  The shaman, an American actually, claimed that once this "great purge" runs its course, many people feel far more awake and alive.  They describe the affect as a great weight lifted from their shoulders (the skeptic in me says it was all lost in the vomiting and diarrhea) and that they want to live again.  "A window has been opened to the soul."  Or so they say.
While I'm certain that indigenous populations could teach the world great things about herbal remedies and holistic treatments, I'm always wary of those concoctions that are said to treat a person spiritually.  How often have such things ended up as being in reality just a form of placebo?  A hallucination or a trick of chemical circuitry in the motherboard of the mind?  I'm not disparaging those who get a lift or benefit from ingesting ayahuasca.  If it works for you, great.  Have at it.  As a veteran of a lifelong battle with depression, I am magnetized by any amelioration that harbors the chance of "lifting a great weight" from me and getting my brain chemicals back into balance.  Plus, there is a part of me that is very curious to experience hallucination, even though the darker side of my imagination might be a bit too much to confront when brought to life.
But it all comes back to diarrhea and vomiting.  Sorry.  Just can't do it.  So I'm afraid there will be no ayahuasca for me, no matter how curious I am about it.  What makes me even more intrigued is the pedigree of the celebrities who have said they've taken ayahuasca.  These include Sting, Tori Amos, Paul Simon (the singer), and David Icke (now that explains everything.)   After a random search on the substance, I came across this amazing find: William Burroughs narrating a film snippet that describes ayahuasca.  Let's face it, nobody knew altered consciousness like Burroughs did.   

If you want to hear the original NPR report, click here.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Just one more reason I hate Disney

My implacable affinity for websites that deal with the "fringe" has led me to an item I could scarcely have imagined.
In 1995, The Disney Corporation (damn, I love those guys) aired a one-hour special called Alien Encounters from New Tomorrowland.  This television program aired only once. As you might guess from the title, one of the main thrusts behind this production was the promotion of Disney's New Tomorrowland theme park.  It's when the show deviates from the commercial aspect that Ufologists take notice.
The program gives a brief overview of the UFO phenomenon.  There is an odd tone to the narration of the piece, odd in that the words chosen are not at all neutral.  Narratives of sightings and events such as the Roswell crash are treated as historical fact.  There are no interviews with "contactee nuts" or skeptics.  In fact, those who don't believe in UFOs seem to take the brunt of the ridicule this time around.
Alien Encounters opens with a statement from Michael Eisner, CEO at the time of Disney.  The intro is pretty much the kind of whitebread, cheeseball shtick that anyone with half a brain expects from Disney, but take a look at what Eisner says:

"Mankind is in the midst of the most profound event in history – actual contact with intelligent life from other planets. For nearly 50 years, officials have been documenting routine alien encounters here on earth, and thousands of people have seen or experienced this alien presence. Yet many others still refuse to acknowledge the obvious evidence all around them. From beyond the boundaries of our perceptions, intelligent beings are beckoning mankind to join the galactic community."

Unlike nearly every other program on UFOs, the text here treats the matter as established fact with no controversy over evidence.  Host Robert Urich (they got Spencer!) then takes over, narrating across various footage of UFOs:

"This is not swamp gas. It is not a flock of birds. This is an actual spacecraft from another world, piloted by alien intelligence – one sighting from tens of thousands made over the last fifty years on virtually every continent on the globe. Intelligent life from distant galaxies is now attempting to make open contact with the human race."

Again, there is a definitive tone to the rhetoric with no room or qualifications left to wiggle in.  Few, if any, programs of this nature take such a certain stance, preferring to stay secure within the realm of conjecture.
Was this video once meant to break the reality of alien contact to the general public?  A few years before the show aired, I remember reading Alien Contact by Timothy Good.  In it, Good quotes a source as saying that the U.S. Government approached the Disney Corporation about producing a disclosure film on UFOs and alien visitation.  I have no idea whether or not that's true, but it makes sense.  If you had been lying to the American public for years about something, wouldn't you want to disclose it via a source that could whitewash anything into a patriotic statement about mother, God, and country?   When many moro...I mean people hear the name "Disney," a sort of heartwarming sensation comes over them.  For the older set, it's the feeling of a Sunday dinner resting comfortably below the hatches while Wide World of Disney stinks up the TV.  For the younger among us, it's a safe, bland, and inoffensive vehicle of entertainment, often dressed up with shiny computer graphics and snooty celebrity voices.  Of course this company would be your go-to guys.  Have I mentioned I hate Disney?
Yet as Alien Encounters scrolls on, they do feature a few bits of alleged UFO footage that have been proven to be hoaxes, among them being those from Gulf Breeze and the so-called "Guardian" video.  This casts serious doubts to me as to how sincere of an effort this was as a means of disclosure.  Additionally, the program cites the detonation of the first atomic bomb as the signal sent into space that first announced our presence to alien beings.  Odd.  I would've thought it quite difficult to pick out that comparably tiny burst of energy amid a universe of far more powerful emissions.  Yeah, I'm thinking "commercial for Tomorrowland."  Effin' bastards.
Still, there is the unnerving matter of the script's tone.  Here is a bit more of the narration:  

"As early as 1947, large alien ships began to arrive, navigated by living creatures. Their advanced physics allowed them to traverse the galaxy and pierce earth's atmosphere with amazing speed. The U.S. military immediately went on the alert against the unknown menace. Sightings were perceived as threats to the security of an America still reeling from the edgy consciousness of war. And the sightings were taking place all across the country."

That's the kind of language one uses when writing about history, not speculation.  I'm not sold on this show being anything other than what it ended up being, but I do wonder about their choice of words.
And that's what scares me.  Should disclosure ever occur, the last way I want it presented to me is through Mickey flippin' Mouse and Wall-E, prancing around and telling me everything is going to be ok.
Damn it!  Have I mentioned I hate Disney?

To see the entire 45 minute video, click here.

If you don't want to spend the time and just want to read the transcript highlights, click here.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My brain hurts

I have mentioned in a few previous posts that I find humanity's capacity for "stupid" to be almost as paranormal as UFOs and the like.   Well, there certainly has been no shortage of stupid in the news as of late.  In fact, I'd say it surpasses the qualifications to be called "fucking stupid."  Maybe even "batshit crazy."  So much so that it makes my brain hurt, hence the post title.
Because it appears that the Crusades never really ended.  That is if the news stories about the "mosque at Ground Zero" are any indication.

America has accomplished great things.  We have landed humans on the Moon and our probes have traveled deeper into space than any other nation's (if they even have any.)  We are home to brilliant artists, despite what popular culture portrays.  We are in many ways, models of urban living for the rest of the world, regardless of Aurora, Illinois.  We are a democracy that has lasted over 200 years, a statistic that perhaps surpasses even the most optimistic thoughts of our Founding Fathers.  We as a people are capable of great acts of charity.  When there is a disaster in the world such as the earthquake in Haiti or the tsunami of 2004, who are usually the first ones on the scene?  We are.
Unfortunately, America is also capable of great xenophobia, religious zealotry, and yes...bigotry.  Events such as slavery and Japanese Internment are evidence enough of that.  We have those oft lamented "mush minds" from years of dodging reading while indulging in reality TV, leaving us incapable of discerning fact from bumper sticker-style political manipulation. 
My point being, the "mosque at ground zero."  First of all, it isn't a mosque.  It's a proposed community center for Muslims.  Second of all, it's a good two blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center.  While I'll grant you that is close, it's not exactly "on property" if you know what I mean.  
Plus, didn't  "W," our former fearless leader, state over and over again that our war is with terrorists and criminals, not the Muslim faith?  So I need to ask Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and other Republican leaders, "which is it?"  For if the battle truly is with jihadists and extremists, then it should not be a cataclysm for a collective of New York City Muslims, who had nothing to do with anything 9/11, to build a community center.  Please "refudiate."
But there are politicians who see this as an opportunity.  Islam can still be made out to be that bogey man hiding in the shadows.  Through crafty "symbolic intelligence," the word "mosque" can be associated with a dilapidated old house deep in the dark woods with its shutters hanging by solitary hinges, the kind of place Stephen King would write about, the kind of place where covens of devil-fanged pagans conduct their arcane and blasphemous ceremonies.  And it's remarkably easy to reinforce this image, just so long as enough people keep their brains next to a Bible inside tiny boxes painted red, white, and blue.  It's ok to compromise our own Constitutional promise of religious tolerance.  Why?  Because God is on our side, and by "our" I mean "the white Christians of the good ol' U.S. of A."  Besides, what's it matter?  Them Muslims come from countries that need to be "liberated" anyway.  "Bomb 'em, kill their leaders, and convert 'em all to Christianity."  
So that's what we have to look forward to.  Endless fucking war. 
There have been those who have compared this Muslim center to erecting a Shinto shrine adjacent to the Pearl Harbor memorial.  In my own way, I agree with this.
I know of no one who considers Japan "the enemy."  In fact, many of us geeks may feel closer to Japan than America simply through the act of consuming so much anime, manga, and daikaiju.  Since World War II ended in the middle of the last century, very few within my age group and younger would be likely to take issue with a Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor.  If anything, it would be wonderfully symbolic of how far the two nations have come since that awful day of December 7th, 1941 (as an aside, I can't help but wonder if there was any outcry over Christian churches built in postwar Hiroshima?)  It would be a testament to two peoples who despite their religious and cultural differences, moved forward  to forge a cooperative, even if competitive, relationship with one another.

I would hope that the Muslim community center in New York could one day mean the same thing.

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Two short-lived series to bring back happy times

I am pleased to report the release of two TV science fiction gems to DVD.

One is the groundbreaking  Max Headroom from 1987.  A cyberpunk classic, this ABC series featured notable actors such as Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, and Jeffrey Tambor in a near-future setting that was dirty, gritty, and dystopian.  So much so, that I doubt a series could get away with such a stylization today.  No, it would have to be cleaned up and actors barely out of their teens would have to be cast in the lead roles.  But I digress.
Max was both biting and sardonic in its commentary on society.  For in much the same way as William Gibson once said about his book Neuromancer, Max Headroom was far more about the present than the future.  It also presented Max as much more than a corporate spokesman (man?), but as a forerunner in the concept of sentient AI with its origins in actual human neurological patterns.  Doubtless that rewatching the series will bring me back to the spring of 1987 and simpler times (symbolic intelligence!)

The other series is Dark Skies, a short-lived NBC project from the mid-1990s that ostensibly seemed meant to cash in on The X-Files.  Given the timing and the show's UFO subject matter, it's not difficult to see how such a comparison could be made.  I was only able to catch half an episode before its cancellation (this was before the days of TiVo and the DVR) and wrote it off as the X-Files carbon copy that everyone else thought it was.
But I've read more about Dark Skies in recent years and I've come to find that the series really did stand on its own.  Set in the early 1960s, the show uses the assassination of John F. Kennedy as its jumping off point, claiming that the President was whacked to prevent UFO disclosure.  The full extent of the government cover-up of an alien presence on Earth then unfolds through the eyes of a naive Congressional staffer and all of this is seen the cultural milieu of the early 60s.  Megan Ward from Trancers and Jeri Ryan from Star Trek: Voyager are regularly appearing cast members.

Thanks to the home video distributor, Shout! Factory, I can now relive and enjoy an old favorite as well as perhaps rediscover a new one.  Dark Skies comes to DVD next January.  Max Headroom is available now.

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Anniversary of the "WOW" signal

If you read my previous post (and if you haven't, I suggest you do so.  I'll wait.  No really.  Do it.) then you know that I have become a member of SETI@Home.  As synchronicity would have it, I did so unaware that today is the anniversary of the "Wow!" signal.  No really, I was unaware.  Trust me, I'm not that profound.  

What exactly is the "Wow!" signal?  Glad you asked.
On August 15th, 1977, SETI astronomer Dr. Jerry Ehman was going through data received by a radio telescope at Ohio State University.  What he found that day was a narrow band radio signal that was over 30 times louder than the normal noise of deep space.  The signal lasted a full 72 seconds.  Ehman circled it and wrote the word "wow!" in the margins thusly...

The vertical series of alpha-numerical values has been called the "Wow!" signal ever since.  
Point of origin was estimated to be somewhere in the Sagittari star cluster.  Efforts were immediately launched to find the signal again.  SETI radio telescopes turned their dishes towards Sagittari...
And have been looking ever since.  Though the strength of the radio signal is consistent with what an alien transmission is guessed to look like, the signal should have repeated itself at least at some point during the past 33 years.  This casts considerable doubt on the captured signal being of extraterrestrial origin.  So then what was it?
One school of thought suggests that was a regular interstellar radio burst, amplified through an effect similar to atmospheric twinkling.  Dr. Ehman himself once suggested that the signal could have originated on Earth and then bounced back off of a bit of space debris.  He eventually stepped away from that theory.  You see, the signal was 1420 MHz, a protected bandwidth upon which Earth transmissions are prohibited.  The more that is learned about radio astronomy, the more anomalous the "Wow!" signal becomes.
A few have suggested that it was a transmission caught from a passing alien spacecraft.  Who knows?  But the bottom line is that the no conclusive explanation has ever been found for the signal.  "Wow!" may be destined to forever remain a mystery of astronomy.  
So if my little SETI@Home volunteerism turns up anything like "Wow!", you'll read it here first on Strange Horizons

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

So I'll give it a try...

I decided I couldn't be overly critical of something I've never tried.
So I downloaded SETI@Home.  For those of you who don't know, this is a cooperative software application that takes raw data from radio telescopes and uses over 3 million volunteered home computers to sift through the noise, searching for a signal from an alien civilization.
Those of you who have read my previous SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) posts know that I find the effort in all of its current incarnations to be rather pointless.   For one thing, only a very minor section of the sky can be scanned.  In fact, I've heard it compared to scooping water from the ocean into a glass, then analyzing the cupful asking, "any aliens out there?  Anyone?  Anyone?"  Secondly, they're scanning for radio transmissions.  It's very difficult for me to fathom an advanced civilization using radio waves as a means of communication. 
That said, I thought I'd give SETI@Home a try just to see what it's all about.  So I created an account there, downloaded their software app from BOINC (great name, eh?), and installed it.  I'm a little unnerved at all of the warnings, disclaimers, and denials of liability that I was issued at the onset, but like the brave (or stupid) soul that I am, I pressed forward.  The app is set to go, ready to scan the heavens while I sleep and when my Mac is not in use...unless I have insomnia.  It remains to be seen if this app will slow my system or cause any other unforeseen software/hardware conflicts, but as they say in Kenya: safari so good.
As a SETI@Home user, I'm allowed to post my own user profile.  According to the site admin, I have not "earned" my right to do so as I have yet to contribute a full scan.  I'll get to it eventually and when I do, you can bet I am going to post all of my heretical views on waiting for radio waves and on SETI in general.  I can't wait for the online flame wars I will likely become ensconced in.
But I look at this way: on the off chance that I discover a transmission from an alien source, Strange Horizons will finally make the news.  That's about as perfect a platform as any new author can hope to have when it comes to publishing.  I mean, you can't buy that kind of publicity.  And who wouldn't want me as an ambassador for the Earth?  Huh?  Huh?  You know you want it.
Aw, who am I kidding?  I'll be lucky if a black helicopter doesn't land on my lawn and spirit me away to where I can't do the human race any harm.  Come to think of it, that might happen anyway.  SETI or not.

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Global Warming for President

The mercury has been soaring here in Chicago just as it has in much of the nation.  The actual temperature is not unheard of for summer, but the amount of humidity is driving the heat index well into the hundreds.  Walking outside is like having someone toss a hot, wet, sticky blanket onto your shoulders.   This isn't like Vegas where walking down the strip at noon will work you up a sweat.  No, just sitting down outside will do that for you here.  We get rain every so often, but then so does a tropical forest.  Steams things up all nice and good and brings the mosquitoes out in fervor.  Only air conditioning and bug spray makes life tolerable for me here.

As I said, this goes far beyond Chicago.  Indeed it stretches around the world.  The western half of Russia was engulfed in a heat wave for the better part of July.  Now it must contend with wildfires.  China has also seen summer temperatures nearly 3 degrees above the average for the region.  The average temperature of our oceans is a full degree higher this year, the greatest rise being the waters of the Atlantic.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has made it official: this is the hottest summer since records were first kept in 1880.
But Global Warming?  That's just crazy talk.  It was all made up by a pinko Commie from Tennessee so that he could win a Nobel Prize and make time with massage girls.  If you believe in Global Warming, why that's like saying you don't believe in Jesus.  You must be a liberal socialist, trying to hamper corporate industry, put people out of work, and generally destroy the capitalistic way of life.   
Yeah, that's pretty much what it's become.  The issue of climate change has ceased to be a scientific inquiry and instead has become a political argument.  To oppose environmental measures and legislation is to align yourself with economic growth and prosperity...or tunnel vision and short-sightedness, all depending upon which side the fence you happen to inhabit.  Forget that this is a global issue that affects...well, everyone. We've got to stay in/get elected to office.
I am not 100% sold on the theory of Global Warming as it stands now.  I am willing to accept that climate changes could be occurring in part from natural processes and that we don't yet have the clearest picture of why weather happens the way that it does.  Hell, anybody who has watched a local weather forecast can tell you that.  What I do find impossible to accept is that the toxins and carbon emissions we've been belching out for over a century have made no difference in the global systems of our planet.  There is more than ample evidence that it has, but saying that seems to fall on pre-programed ears as "I want to close your business down, limit your income, and replace the cross in your church with a hammer and a sickle.  Have a nice day, comrade."  Let me be clear.  I have nothing against turning a profit.  I just believe that it can be done without rendering our future landscape a dystopian, barren plain with an average temperature of 110 degrees in August.  The upside of that of course is that many folks will find themselves owning beachfront property.
So let's find out what's going on.  Preferably through an independent study not funded by Al Gore, Fox News, or an oil company.  If this rise in temperature is indeed a phenomenon that can neither be prevented nor avoided, then fine.  Let's be at peace with it.  Let's all wear more sunscreen, place air conditioning domes over our cities, and rescue as many polar bears and penguins as we can.  But if it is our doing, and I suspect that it is, then we need to act to stop it.  And act now.  There is no time for political rhetoric and cries of wages lost.
So if you've changed your lightbulbs to CFLs, great.  Now we just have to change our leaders.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mystery Blimps

While that makes for a great pulp novel title, it's actually referring to the "great airship flap" of the late 19th century.  Starting in 1880, anomalous airships were seen over Poland, Germany, Russia, and especially the U.S.  The majority of the sightings appear to be of the same or at least similar objects; cigar-shaped, a shiny hull like aluminum, a fishlike tail, and numerous lights and searchlights on the craft's underside.   Doubtless if these things were seen today, we'd call them UFOs.
What makes these sightings unique is that they were said to hover and to move against the wind.  No aircraft at the time, such as they were, were capable of such actions.  At the time, the leading explanation for these sightings was that they were marvelous, Jules Verne-like inventions, born of the mind of an unknown genius.  Multiple accounts arose in newspapers of people claiming to represent a reclusive scientific mind, wishing not to make himself known to the world just yet, but continuing to test fly his new airship.  These invariably turned out to be hoaxes.
In the 1890s, the idea of extraterrestrial visitation began to be entertained.  The town of Aurora, Texas claimed that an airship crashed on a local ranch and its sole occupant, a Martian, was buried in the town cemetery.  This turned out to be a complete and utter fabrication of course, but it hasn't stopped plenty of UFOlogists from showing up in the town, wanting to excavate sections of the cemetery in search of the "Martian." 
The wave of sightings continued into the early years of the 20th Century, spreading even to nations like Britain and Australia.  Again these objects were said to be cigar-shaped and without any visible kind of wings.  A few, however, were said to have small propellers.  What began to make headlines was the fact that these "air torpedoes" moved at "remarkable speeds."  Sometimes the sightings only amounted to strange, fast moving lights in the sky, long before any powered flight or certainly any navigation lights.  Then as most of these flaps usually do, the sightings ended around 1912 for the most part.
So what were they?  Were these "airships" the 19th Century version of black military projects being test flown over various stretches of the world?  Maybe.  Was there really a mad steampunk genius out there?  That would be cool.  But what truly interests me is how our sightings throughout the years mirror what our perception of what an advanced aircraft should look like.  In the late 19th Century, someone's concept, if they even had one, of what a futuristic aircraft should look like would probably be dirigible airship of some kind.  
Fast forward to 1947.   Contrary to popular belief, Kenneth Arnold, the man is credited with the first UFO sighting of the modern era, never claimed to have seen "flying saucers."  He described their movements as "saucers skipping over water."  The craft themselves were actually more wedge-shaped.  But once newspapers and radio got a hold of the story, saucers were the ship design de jour for many many years.  Into the 1980s, speculation ran wild as to what form the super-secret stealth fighter had.  The prevailing concepts were rather triangular in shape.  As if on cue, many UFOs sighted at the time were said to be triangles, most notable among them the 1990 sightings in Belgium, one the best documented UFO cases to date.  To this day, triangles are among the most commonly sighted anomalous craft. 
I doubt aliens would alter their spacecraft according to our fickle aesthetics, so what was the 19th Century flap?  Experimental airships?  Psychological perception?  Who knows.  But it shows to go you that people have been seeing strange things in the sky for a very long time.

Much research for this came from Unexplained! by Jerome Clark

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wearing your CPU on your sleeve

Admittedly, carrying my cell phone is a bit cumbersome.  I don't have a belt clip for it, so I carry it in my front pocket.  It sits there like a miniaturized brick, knocking me in the thigh whenever I move or slipping from my pocket unawares to me. 
I could do something about this, but I don't.  And why should I?  Thanks to designers and entrepreneurs like CuteCircuit, I won't have to.  Imagine your cell phone, your MP3 player, your digital camera, and your laptop all integrated into the clothes that you're wearing?  No more bulky, block-y, or unsightly bulges.  No more fishing around to see which pocket you left your Blackberry in.  No more mobile devices falling out and being left behind in a taxi cab. 
CuteCircuit already has two prototypes in the works for just this sort of thing, but unfortunately for us guys they're both dresses (no offense to any of you men out there who enjoy wearing dresses.  Whatever you're into, y'know?) 
The "M-Dress" comes with a cell phone already built into the material.   The antennae is sewn in the hem and the SIM card and activation button are on the on the dress label.  
The other garment has already seen a bit of wear amongst the trendier celebs.  It's called the "Galaxy Dress" and it is pictured here, the photo being from the BBC and property of CuteCircuit.  The dress is composed of 24,000 LEDs, all powered through watch batteries sewn into the dress label.  Looking at the photo, I am reminded of something U2 did on their Vertigo 2005 Tour.  The band had vast curtains of these LED beads that would drop down behind or in front of them from time to time, displaying simple images.  Could a dress or other fashion design do the same?  I don't see why not.  The LEDs could change color, display different shapes or expressions depending upon mood or context.  Malleable art.  We could even all get corporate sponsorship to broadcast logos on our persons.  The age of "wearable technology" has arrived.
Well, maybe not so fast.  All of the tech devices proposed for these new fashions will of course require a power source.  That means new developments will have to take place in batteries and chargers before any of this is feasible.  The attachment of solar panels is one option being tossed about at this time.  And in rereading that last sentence, I realized how silly portions of this sound.  I'm trying hard not to picture a bitchy, Euro, supermodel vixen doing turns on the runway while boasting Skylab-size solar panels from her back or shoulders.
Additionally, I don't know how excited about this I really am.  While I cackle like a giddy and gleeful schoolgirl at the notion of a flexible computer integrated into my clothes that can access the Internet from anywhere, I'm quite hesitant to proclaim that this is where the future lies.  "Wearable technology" may have it's time and like most things in art and fashion it could depend on how many celebrities in the cult of personality are seen wearing it, but it is the full integration of tech into the human body itself that will be truly revolutionary.  Why depend on a computer in your jacket when you can have one in your head to access the Net?  A long way from that for sure, but it will change humanity far more than a passing fashion will.

This just occurred to me: how would one do laundry with wearable technology?

Now playing: Talking Heads, "Heaven"

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Symbolic Intelligence

I was listening to NPR yesterday as is my afternoon commute ritual.   A story aired about "symbolic intelligence," the (as far as we know) uniquely human ability to see a solitary shape and associate a flood of meanings to it.  A few examples of this would be a crucifix, the American flag, and a peace sign.  Many of these associated meanings are dependent upon the individual beholding the sign.
This thought process goes beyond just symbols and strays into the area of language.  After all, what is writing but a symbolic representation of speech?  Single words invoke any number of memories and associations from our brains' storage banks.  Try the word "Christmas," or  "sunshine," or even "death."  Specific memories come back that help define the word through experiences.  Sensations might even return, such as smells.  All this within the amazing human brain that works far more like a network of computers than we even realized.
This set me on a tangent.  I know, I know, I'll give you all a moment or two to recover from the shock.
How often have not just words and symbols been associative to me, but day-to-day objects as well?  I very often associate entire segments of my life (such as it is) with seemingly inane things. In looking around the house last night, I found a number of examples of this.
I recently bought a used copy of Whitley Streiber's Communion.  This will always remind me of 1987 when I first read the book in high school.  My friend Brad and I really took off with that alien abduction meme and invented all kinds of naive and sophomoric sketches around it.  I can feel the hard chairs of the computer lab we would sit in and hatch these plots and schemes.
My copy of Les Miserables takes me back to November, 1988.  I was a senior in high school and secretly beginning to believe I was destined to be a writer, even though it would take another 15 years for me to fully come to grips with it.  This book was required reading in English class.  It really got me thinking about character, plot, diction, and how human beings must often endure the most deplorable of conditions solely due to the greed of someone else.  Good thing that was way back in the 18th Century, right?  Uh-huh.  I can smell the greasy fast food I would consume without remorse during lunch that senior year.
The album Green by REM takes me directly to August 17th, 1989.  My first night on campus in college.  Aside from crying my eyes out in fear of the transition, I remember this album playing on the stereo of a guy I met and later became friends with.  I had heard of REM and liked the songs I'd been exposed to on the radio, but this was the first time I listened to an entire record.  Even though I was a metalhead, I was secretly sold.  REM would develop into a favorite of mine.  I can feel the heat of Indiana in August and hear the sound of a fan despondently trying to keep the flies at bay with kamikaze winds.
Next to Green I have REM's Monster.  This takes me to winter of 1995 and my girlfriend at the time.  I can taste the ranch dip her parents kept in the fridge for snacking.  Then I push all of these thoughts out of my mind as quickly as they came.  I still like the record, though.  
I've got a copy of The Prisoner graphic novel that DC did long ago.  I'm in 1992 at that point.  Again it's summer and I'm in my room at my parents' house with Ghost Dogg and Dreamer.  Ghosty has an rpg version of The Prisoner and I'm playing a character who really shouldn't be involved with espionage on any level. Dreamer is playing a crotchety writer who doesn't know how to drive...and I keep giving him the wheel.  Oh the endless cackles.  Amazing the hilarious time three dorks can have in one room with nothing but their imaginations and a pair of dice.

There are any number of other examples I have of these kinds of mnemonic functions.  The human brain and the connections that it makes.  It will never cease to amaze me.

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