Sunday, July 31, 2011

On "evidence"

A phrase you will often see me use in relation to claims of the paranormal is "where's the evidence?"  
That is typically something that a skeptic will say and when faced with any such claim I will always be skeptical first.  It is only through that method that the wheat may be sorted from the chaff and the truth demonstrated through accepted methods or so I have been conditioned to think.  Carl Sagan was fond of saying, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
I like Sagan, but I wonder if he was going about it from a skewed perspective.  First of all, "extraordinary" to whom?  What exactly constitutes "extraordinary" evidence?  Why should there be more evidence required for a given claim as opposed to any other?  It makes me wonder if there could ever possibly be enough evidence to convince a true skeptic of...well, anything.  Additionally, if theories from researchers such as John Keel and Jacques Vallee are anywhere near the mark...and I think they might be...then garnering enough "acceptable" evidence might not be possible. This brings up an old axiom: "absence of evidence is not always evidence of absence."  If something is true, it is no less true if there is no readily understandable means of explaining it.

This brings us to another popular axiom: Occam's Razor or in Latin, lex parsimoniae.  This recommends that when faced with competing hypothesis that are equal in other respects, select the one that makes the fewest new assumptions.  In other words, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.  Die-hard skeptics tend to lean on this axiom quite heavily.  The problem is that it is just an axiom.  It is not always the best instrument with which to work.  The correct answer is not always the simplest one.  Often times, things are very complex.  And while we're at it, what is "simple" to one might not be simple to another.  As paranormal researcher Albert Budden said, "science should look for the correct answer, not just the simplest one."
Since my main area of interest in the "field of weird" is UFOs, I will refer to them in terms of our discussion here.  I came of age through a sci-fi perspective.  UFO=alien.  Not just me, but the whole of the Western world came to the overall assumption that if real, UFOs were spacecraft from other planets that arrived here perhaps by traveling through wormholes or by warping space.  Vallee's wide-ranging review of UFO cases going back to events many years BCE, pokes a few holes in that ET theory.  What it does suggest is more along the lines of Keel: we're not dealing with a physical, tangible reality.  This phenomenon may be a "living" thing that responds to our thoughts and perceptions...or perhaps our thoughts and perceptions themselves made visible and real.  Those experienced with reading about Eastern thought might still be with me here but I'm willing to be I've lost most of the American audience.  As I said, "correct" isn't always "simple."

Okay, then let's go back to the ET hypothesis, even if it might not be the best one.  Arthur C. Clarke said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  It is not outside the realm of possibility that an advanced alien race could visit and leave little to no evidence behind save for an errant glimpse from an eyewitness.  As the skeptics argue, "if 'they' really are "here," then why aren't our skies filled with their marvelous spacefaring technology?  Why haven't detected a single radio signal as they should be communicating back and forth?"  Why indeed.  The Fermi Paradox strikes again.
Cybernetics may be one reason.  We humans are just now finding ways to transcend the limits of our given biological limits.  An advanced race would no doubt have accomplished that long ago.  They could then easily mask their presence from us and likely use methods of communication so far beyond our piddly radio signals that we would never detect them at our current level.  Why stop there?  It might be that we're being visited all the time and we never see said visitors as they move in ambsace about us.  There could be entire races that are so advanced that they've long since shed their corporeal forms and exist as beings of "pure energy," if I may crib a bit from Spock.  

No one likes to have their view of the universe challenged.  Not even me.  And if someone is telling you that they do, then I'm skeptical.  Ha!  
It's an unsettling feeling, learning that things might not be as you thought them to be and might even be weirder than you have ever been capable of imagining.  A part of me really does yearn for the relatively simple notion of, "flying saucer lands, aliens walk out, people get probed."  Yes, "far more things in heaven and earth..."
Luckily, there are scientists like Michio Kaku who are not afraid to challenge accepted perceptions and don't mind things getting turned up on end.  It will be through their efforts that we finally arrive at the truth...whether there is discernible "evidence" for it or not.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

TV review--"Alphas"

Alphas, airing on SyFy (that name seems dumber every time I write it.)
There is a unit of civilians and intelligence agents that secretly works for the government.  Where have we seen that before?  But wait...these people are super powered.  Oh we have?  Well, anyway...
"Alphas" are the term given to these otherwise normal people who have spontaneously developed these powers.  There's an FBI agent whose adrenalin kicks in to make him super fast and strong.  There's a guy who is "hyperkinetic," can "see" the trajectories of moving objects before they're even in motion.  There's a kid with Asperger syndrome who can see digital communication signals.  And of course there are the babes.  One is a "pusher" who can mentally manipulate people for short periods of time and the other can heighten her senses to extreme levels.  I've read where this latter character's ability was called synesthesia...leading me to believe that the writers need a definition for that word.  Wrangling all these people is a wise doctor played by David Straithairn, who was nominated for an Academy Award for playing Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck and now does his best Professor Xavier for the small screen.
They fight crime.
A lesser writer would have stopped there but not Zak Penn, the show's creator and producer.  He wanted these characters to be as "real" as possible, complete with divorced families and psychological issues.  He even embraces one of the most cliche marketing tropes a show can have these days: it's grittier, it's edgier, complete with no shortage of gore and more cynicism than you can shake your hipster head at.  Really folks, no capes or boots here.  It's all "cutting edge."
I read an interview with Penn in last Sunday's Chicago Tribune.  In it, he said that he liked comic books but was never a fan of Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man.  I'm paraphrasing, but Penn said, "I could never figure out why they dressed up in costumes and did what they did.  Wouldn't someone in real life ask, 'what's in it for me?' "  I'm not sure how closely Mr. Penn was reading those comics mentioned, but each one of those characters has very clear motivations for their choices.  Additionally, these choices serve to make the characters more likable.  Which is more than I can say for the ones in Alphas.
All you end up with here is something that is very reminiscent of Heroes and not in a good way.  I'm talking about Heroes when it was really beginning to head downhill.  I really had to fight to sustain my interest through one episode.  Therefore, I will not be returning to it.

On the positive side...well, it's not as bad as Falling Skies, I suppose.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

Brain and brain what is brain?

It has been recently determined that unlike our relatives in the family of great apes, human brains actually shrink with age.  But did you know that humans can live normal lives with a severely underdeveloped brain?  I’ll spare you the jokes about “that explains Congress.”

Seriously, this site provides an intriguing look at this (apparently) true medical phenomenon.  It cites a few cases that truly enraptured my attention.  One involved a university student in England.  He was academically successful and had an IQ measured at 126.  While visiting the campus doctor for a minor need, the doctor noticed that the young man’s head was larger than normal.  He referred him to neurologist Dr. John Lorber.  Dr. Lorber performed a CAT scan and discovered that the student had virtually no cerebral tissue.  How is this possible?
It’s not the only case, either.  The article goes on to detail an account of a New York City janitor who died suddenly at age 35.  An autopsy revealed a virtually empty cranial cavity.

This Dr. Lorber is said to have identified hundreds of people similarly non-existent or atrophied brains.  Now in the day job, I’ve had to study the structure of the brain in order to impress upon students that the brain directs every function of the body, heartbeat and breathing being among two of the more crucial ones.  If these subjects mentioned previously had such tiny brains, how were those vital functions carried out?  Not only did they survive but thrived.  They may not have used aureate language or cured cancer, but there were several cases of subjects having IQ’s measuring over the 120 mark.  I find this disconcerting.  I have never had a CAT scan or an MRI done on my cranium.  Do I have a brain?  Do you?

While I am not ready to accept these findings until I can find corroborating sources from scientific journals, it just begs so many other questions.  If intelligence is not seated within the brain, then where is it?  Where does it come from?  Where then is consciousness located?  The purported subjects were all self-aware and far from “soulless.” 
A few biologists have proposed a radical theory.  Memories are not stored in our brains nor does thought take place there.  That flies in the face of research evidence and it gets even weirder.  Our craniums are more like radio receivers, catching and collecting waves that form up our memories of the past and modes of thinking.  Then from where do these “waves” emanate?  

That theory sounds very Matrix to me…not mention creepy and unsettling.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

"Untouchable" no longer?

Tornado-level winds have been corkscrewing out of the Washington D.C. area as both political parties clash over the issue of the debt ceiling.  With the chorus of competing voices, it’s difficult to discern who is right, who is wrong, and which plan is the best to adopt.  Primate politics as usual.  Expect a post on this topic in the coming days.

There is one significant difference between Republican and Democratic budget plans that has given me pause to think.  In his proposed plan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would place a cap on funding for military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other “similar activities,” sometimes called Overseas Contingency Operations.  Apparently, U.S. operations in Yemen and Somalia fall into this latter category.  This could end up reducing budget outlays by $1 trillion, a 13% reduction in ten-year defense spending.  House Speaker John Boehner’s plan has no such attribute.

So I’ve been thinking.  We’ve long since past a point where defense spending isn’t even considered part of our budget.  It’s high levels have been rendered unassailable as to do so would seem crazy, unpatriotic, limp-wristed, or a combination of all of the above. 
Let me be clear: I am and have always been supportive of a strong defense.  Through the study of military history and the consumption of military fiction (yes, yes, I’ll admit that I’m talking about G.I. Joe), I came to a great appreciation for the sacrifices the women and men of our armed forces make on a daily basis.  Because of that, I believe that they are deserving of the absolute best in weapons, gear, and care that we can afford.  I also believe in funding advanced research projects to keep our military on the cutting edge.

I must ask, however, is the military really getting what it needs?  Are the right projects being funded or is there a great deal of taxpayer waste going on in the form of big money defense contracts and pork projects?  One needs only look at the scandal of the Air Force refueling tanker contract of not too long ago to see an example of this sort of thing.  Give them what they need, give them the best, but don’t make the budget “untouchable” as that just produces a breeding ground for corruption.
Also, what if the military truly was a “department of defense?”  Meaning, they defend us if we are directly attacked and are not implemented for any sort of imperialistic venture.  We could bring a lot of troops home.  A lot.  I don’t just mean from Afghanistan and Iraq, not that Afghanistan was not justified, but from many other locations around the globe.  I still think that we should keep a few overseas bases such as in Britain, Germany, and Korea, and forward operating locations such as Diego Garcia, but cutting our overseas presence could save a lot of money. 

While I’m still uncertain as what to think of Sen. Reid’s plan (I’m concerned it could place troops in the theaters of operation in danger once the cap is met) I don’t think it’s a bad idea to be critical about the defense budget.  I really think that we can be sensible, safe, and do right by our troops, but do it for less than what we’ve been spending.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

As we do to other things, so one day we'll do to ourselves

I am profoundly saddened and disgusted as I write this post.

I happened to stumble across an article on Live Science from 2008 entitled, “10 Species You Can Kiss Goodbye.”  Since extinctions happen frequently to all manner of plants and microscopic organisms, I presumed those species would make up the majority of the list.  I was wrong.  So very wrong.
What was on there?  Oh, minor things I suppose, in the worldview of many.  Animals like the rhinoceros, the mountain gorilla, the orangutan, the red wolf, and the Siberian tiger.  And the reason for their imminent demise?  Well in several cases, the habitat of these animals is being encroached upon every day.  The world population is growing at an unrestricted rate and people need more land on which to live.  So clear out all the trees and start popping up condos and McMansions.   Then there's the effects of global warming as species are losing their habitat to flood and drought.
Sadly, those are not the only reasons for the extinctions.  In the cases of the rhino, the gorilla, and the tiger, poaching and souvenir collecting are largely to blame.  Just click on the link and take a look at that pic of the dead gorilla.  It’s ghoulish the things that we do to other living things.
This goes beyond wanting to “save cute animals.”  There is inherent logic and illogic within this matter.  Every organism on Earth serves a logical purpose within its ecosystem.  When an organism is removed from the equation, nature is out of balance.  When an organism reproduces at an unchecked rate, nature is out of balance.  Humans are that unchecked organism. 
Then there is the illogic of why species such as gorillas are hunted to extinction.  While I’m trying to become a vegetarian, I can understand the past need of using animals for food and clothing.  That is not the motivation for the slaying and poaching of many endangered species.  No, those acts of barbarism are precipitated by human greed, ignorance, and the fact that humans kill simply because they can.  Religion doesn’t help things either, this fallacy that humans are entitled to mastery over all the Earth in order to somehow ethically justify these actions. 

In reading through the comments on this Live Science article, I’m glad to see that I’m not alone in the “feeling disgusted” department.  Actually, several posters have made me feel oddly encouraged.  You see nature really does seem to abhor imbalance.  Combine that with the fact that we humans are very good at killing each other, whether it be through war or wrecking our own environment, and you can see that there is an eleventh species to add to that list. 
That’s right, we’re next.
I get a sort of sick satisfaction from that notion.

Now, I leave you with a bit of musical accompaniment: Ladytron, “Destroy Everything You Touch.”

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Almost thought I saw one

Let me set the scene for you.
I was at the day job today, waiting for someone to unlock the door to the School District building.  It was going on 4pm on a pleasantly warm day here in the Chicago area.  Then again, after you've seen 100+ heat indexes, 87 doesn't feel too bad.  The sky was crystal blue without a cloud to be found.  Winds ranged from supple to firm out of the east.  

Whenever a plane crosses over in our congested airspace, I can't help but at least glance at it.  Comes from a lifelong interest in aviation.  So I glanced at one while I stood there.  Only it didn't move.  It just hovered at an angle overhead towards the northeast.  It was orb-like near as I could tell and colored a silver metallic.  The bright sun was beaming off of this thing like you would not believe and it just kept sitting there in the sky, unmoving and not making a sound.
So here's what I was thinking at the time: 1) If this is a real UFO, this could be the greatest day of my life.  2) If this is a real UFO, who the hell would believe me because of the things I write about?  I decided to sort it all out later and to just keep watching the thing.
The object seemed to suddenly shrink in size and its bright reflection was gone.  It was difficult to make out in the sky, but I managed to follow it as it made a lazy drift towards the south.  Then it grew to its original size once more and with it came the brilliant sheen.  This cycle repeated itself at irregular intervals as the object continued to make a slow, seemingly aimless path in the sky.  Were they trying to communicate with me?  To impart mantic messages?  Was I about to get butt-tubed?  As the wind ran across the hairs of my arms and the object shrank once more, it suddenly came to me...

This was a Mylar balloon.  Albeit it was a larger than average one, it was just a helium-filled balloon.  This explained the shape, the aimless trajectory, and the shrinking and the shining.  Each time the wind caught the balloon, it would twist the shiny side either towards or away from my POV, either catching or dodging the sunlight.  Aside from being thoroughly dejected, I learned something.
Often times, investigators point out that many if not most UFO witnesses are not the three tooth rednecks that you see in The Weekly World News.  They are pilots, military officers, policemen, and the like.  I consider myself to have about average intelligence, maybe a bit more...and I was nearly fooled today by something in the sky.  Perfectly smart people can make mistakes in observation or can see things that are deceptive in nature.  I hold a Masters degree and for a minute there, I was willing to call that Mylar balloon a recon craft from Zeta Reticuli.  Under the right conditions, the human eye can be tricked into almost anything.  Smart's got nothing to do with it.

Can I be 100% positive it was a balloon?  Of course not.  But I'm willing to bet in the high 90s.  So I guess I'll just "keep watching the skies."

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Monday, July 25, 2011

The microterrestrials are here!

When I come to the end of a semi-trying day, nothing recharges my batteries more than a really goof-ass UFO story.  The one I am about to relate to you certainly did not disappoint.
This article gives the harrowing account of what the people of the island nation of Malaysia have experienced: sightings of microterrestrials.  Or at least that's what the author of the piece calls them.
As the name implies, "microtrerrestrial" accounts describe humanoid beings that range between three and six inches in height.  They generally have larger-than-proportional heads and rounded eyes.  Eyewitnesses describe them as being dressed in flashy tunics and carrying "ray guns."  A few accounts even state that the tiny alien-like beings had two structures protruding from their heads much as antennae would.  In almost every case, sightings of these beings were also accompanied by miniature flying saucers that measured an estimated three feet in diameter.  It was at this point in reading the narrative that I started squealing like Flounder from Animal House: "Oh boy is this GREAT!"

The first report of these beings took place in 1969 when four students in a schoolyard told their teacher that they just saw a tiny, silver UFO land on the playground.  In utter shock, the kids watched as five, six-inch tall aliens in red uniforms emerged from the craft.  As they noticed the crowd of sweaty, short pants-wearing kids growing around them, the visitors popped back into their spacecraft and soon vanished.
That incident kicked off quite a UFO wave in Malaysia.  Ahmad Jamaludin, a local investigator who published his report of these occurrences in the November 1979 issue of MUFON UFO Journal, came to a startling conclusion about these cases.  He asserts that alien "humanoid encounters [in Malaysia] have been confined to only one type--tiny entities measuring three to six inches in height."  What is more, "...there has not been a single case of a UFO measuring greater than 3 feet in diameter landing on Malaysian soil."  This makes Malaysia utterly unique in all the world in terms of UFO sightings.
Oh, but it gets weirder.  As the sightings and encounters continued, they occurred almost exclusively in schoolyards.  One incident entailed a creature cutting through a school's wire fence with "an intense beam of light."  In a couple cases, the kids attempted to capture one of the little "spacemen."  This prompted the supposed aliens to draw their "laser guns" and fire off a few beams. One boy was said to have a tiny burn mark on his leg from where a beam hit him.  All the more reason that kids should not be allowed to wear short pants to school.  But I digress...
Another tiny UFO landed at a Royal Malaysian Air Force base sometime in 1975 or 1976 (don't you love how exact all the details are?)  A nine year-old schoolboy on the base later came across a three-inch humanoid creature.  This tiny being thwarted any attempts at capture and the kid ended up going to tell his teacher about it (tattle-tale).  When the teacher went looking through the undergrowth near the school, "There was no sign of the creature in the area, but I saw a Red Indian-like wigwam beautifully weaved out of grass."  (Man!  This is awesome!)
Yet another case involved three school kids and two adults in 1979.  The witnesses spotted a tiny UFO hovering.  Its gear was extended, so the observers speculated that it was about to land.  When they attempted to touch the craft's metal hull, it fired an intense beam of light that temporarily blinded them.  This allowed for the UFO to escape.  Given the size of the UFO, any occupants that might have been inside it could have been no larger than three inches tall.

While this reads like pulp SF and has entertained me immensely, we still must ask, "where is the evidence?"  Names and dates are hazy in the reports.  That, according to investigator Jamaludin, is due to the difficulty he had in tracking down the primary sources for interviews.  What physical evidence is there?  Admittedly, there were one or two circular burn marks where the small UFOs were said to have landed and there was the one kid with the burn on his leg, but those are all far from contributing to an ironclad case.  And why the heck are these tiny creatures so fascinated with school kids?
In the absence of solid evidence, these stories are explainable through a variety of means: child imagination, rumor and urban legend, group psychology, light from Venus refracted through swamp gas.  Okay, maybe not that last one but you get the idea.  
This is not to say that these events didn't happen.  I think it highly unlikely that they did but I certainly don't know everything.  So maybe we're looking for all the wrong things.  It's not massive motherships that we may find hovering over our largest cities one day, it might instead be fleets of tiny UFOs swarming about, their crews the handsel of invasion, avenging indignities thrust upon their scouts by Malaysian school children.  
Microterrestrials.  Heh! Awesome.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Chemtrails: it's a conspiracy, y'know

My God.  What hath The X-Files backspun?
I need to make it clear: that was a joke, ok?  Need to get that across before I start getting comments telling me, "The first chemtrails were spotted in 1963!  Decades before X-Files, you dumbass!" or something like that.

I've developed a modest, passing interest in the notion of chemtrails.  Interest, not belief.  The idea goes that at least a few of the trails left behind by jet aircraft are really chemical or biological agents sprayed at high altitudes and allowed to drift down into our lungs.  For what purpose?  That's unknown.  Could be anything really.  Population control, weather control, or perhaps even psychological or somatic control by an as yet unknown shadow government bent on a New World Order.  One of the more interesting theories that I have read posits that the skies are being seeded with metals such as aluminum and silicon in order to facilitate greater manipulation of the weather by the HAARP installation in Alaska.
What's the difference between a chemtrail and a regular contrail?  According to believers, it all comes down to persistence.  If a contrail remains stationary in the sky for more than half a day, it's a chemtrail.  
Certain citizens of the United States, Britain, and Canada have petitioned their respective governments, demanding to know what is going on in their skies.  The response from entities political, scientific, and military have been pretty standard: it's a hoax, it's explainable, there's no evidence to support the existence of chemtrails.  Proponents of chemtrails point to samples that have been collected of both soil and water after purported chemtrails have come to ground.  Analysis, they assert, demonstrates higher than normal levels of barium.  Opponents refute this claim, stating that the levels, while high, are still within normal range and people are really just seeing regular plane contrails.  And back and forth and so on.

Sound familiar?  It should.  While I am far from prepared to support the existence of chemtrails, I will acknowledge that the notion is no "crazier" than the UFO conspiracy.  After all, if our government would conceal alien life from us, what else would "They" do?  One interesting bit I learned is that Rep. Dennis Kucinich once introduced a bill to Congress that proposed a ban on weapons testing in space or in the atmosphere.  It specifically mentioned chemtrails.  The Pentagon expressed vehement opposition and the bill died in committee. Curious.
Like I said, not ready to buy into chemtrails just yet.  But as I see plane contrails crisscross the sky above my house, located in one of the most heavily congested stretches of airspace in America, I'll always wonder.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Water, water everywhere...

A mass of water around a supermassive black hole has been called the oldest body of water in the known universe.  This cloud of water vapor has trillions of times more water than all of the Earth's oceans.

The black hole in question is actually a quasar, twelve billion miles away.  Quasars are the brightest and most powerful objects astronomers have found in the universe.  They form when black holes consume gas, dust, and other matter and spew back intense bursts of x-ray and gamma energy.  The black hole in this particular quasar is 20 billion times more massive than the Sun.  Given the enormous size of the water vapor cloud, scientists postulate that this black hole is far from done with and may grow to be a full six times larger than it is now.  At least to our perspective as what we're seeing actually occurred billions of years ago due to the time it takes for light to travel to Earth.  

In addition to giving us more knowledge about quasars and black holes, this find is more than just mere intellectual curiosity.  I think that it underscores something that people are not fully aware of and that is that water is actually very common in space.  Whether it is in the form of vapor, ice, or deep inside rocky planets or asteroids, water is there to be found.  Where there is water, there is life.  Or at least there can be life.  There may not be living things wherever water is in the universe but it's something that we need to live.  And it makes it easier to travel to a destination in space if you don't have to haul all your own water with you.  Not that we're headed to a quasar anytime soon, but I hope you get the idea.  Water, water everywhere... 

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Friday, July 22, 2011

Prince Charles vs. the Gray Goo

I always like to see news stories from long ago that I didn’t catch the first time around.  Sure, it makes me feel a little unaware but in the Information Age, taking in everything can sometimes be a herculean task.

Back in 2004, Britain’s Prince Charles apparently caused a bit of a stir when he “spoke out against” nanotechnology.  That is of course a bit of an exaggeration but Chuck did compare nanotech to thalidomide, a comparison that many scientists at the time immediately called “inappropriate and irrelevant.”  While that is quite true, the Prince’s statements were distorted by the media (shocker!) into headlines of “Prince fears grey goo nightmare.”

Aside: “Grey (or Gray) Goo” refers to a scenario dealing with nanotech robots.  In this hypothesis, the nanobots go out of control, self-replicating and consuming all things in the world in order to construct more of themselves and leaving behind only "gray goo."  Even Eric Drexler, the nanotech innovator who first coined the term, says he wishes he’d never used the phrase “gray goo.”

What Prince Charles actually said was far more reasonable than those headlines.   While writing in The Independent, the Prince said: "I do not believe that self-replicating robots, smaller than viruses, will one day multiply uncontrollably and devour our planet.  Such beliefs should be left where they belong, in the realms of science fiction."
Although he intimates that science fiction is something silly, I’ll back what Chuck said as he is really on the same page as most scientists.  Gray goo is at best an unlikelihood and at worst something that could easily be prevented.  The crux of the Prince’s real message was this:
 “Nanotechnology is a triumph of human ingenuity. Some of the work may have fundamental benefits to society, such as enabling the construction of much cheaper fuel-cells, or new ways of combating ill-health," he says.  But “how are we going to ensure that proper attention is given to the risks that may ensue?”
Smart.  I liked this story because I believe it to be an exemplary reflection of the human tendency to fear technological advancement.  The media took what the man-who-would-be-king said and exploited that tendency.  No innovation comes without risk or at the very least without a downside and history bears out that the downside can sometimes be rather awful.  That is why this urging of caution is absolutely valid.  Caution.  Not a halt.  The benefits of new developments in nanotechnology are worth their potential risks and are worthy of energy and effort.  Feigning crisis over a possible “gray goo” is not.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

"Delta Green": it cries out to be written

In the murky days of the 1990s, my roommate Armando introduced me to a role-playing game called Delta Green.  That game could be a book or a film in and of itself, however I think that it has within it the germ of an idea far larger in scope and the writer in me is eager to explore it.

Delta Green is steeped in the Cthulhu mythos of legendary horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft.  As the backstory goes, the U.S. military performed a raid on the town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts back in the 1920s following the events of Lovecraft’s Shadow Over Innsmouth.  The government learned that the horrors of the occult are very real and that there needs to be a cadre of operatives willing to keep the world safe from the proverbial things that go bump in the night.  Thus, the super-secret Delta Green was born. 
The membership of Delta Green is made up of agents culled from the military and government agencies such as the FBI, ATF, and many other acronyms.  Teams of Delta Green members would be deployed on “black ops” to handle dark horrors or even alien incidents.  In the 1980s, things apparently went south after an op in Cambodia and Ronald Reagan along with Majestic 12 cut a deal with Grey aliens of UFO conspiracy lore.  Delta Green then “went rogue” and began operating independently. 
Sounds a bit like The X-Files, right?  Well, I wouldn’t blame you if you thought so.  In truth, Delta Green was published a full year before that show ever hit the airwaves.  Even if the game did gain subsequent inspiration from The X-Files, I don’t consider that a detriment as I’m a big fan of the show.  Heck, I’m a big fan of the entire milieu…which brings me to my inspiration.

While I truly enjoy and appreciate the work of Lovecraft, I’d rather see something that focused a bit more on alien threats.  If we follow the thought process of UFO conspiracy lore, then there must indeed be a shadowy, black ops organization that handles extraterrestrial matters, whether that entails crash retrieval, evidence acquisition, witness silencing, or even direct combat with the aliens as in the case of Dulce. 
What kinds of people would do this sort of work?  What would their lives be like?  What would it be like to witness such amazing and at times harrowing things and never be able to speak of them?  Would these people be able to have families and home lives?  If so, what would that be like for them?  I see the narrative as having action of the kind in the classic game X-COM UFO Defense only with a strong backstory and rich characters.
Then again, I'm not sure I'd want to write this as singular story but rather as an aspect of a much larger narrative.  I'll let you know. 

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

We have reached Vesta

As you read this, NASA’s Dawn space probe is orbiting the asteroid Vesta, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. 

"We are beginning the study of arguably the oldest extant primordial surface in the solar system," said Dawn principal investigator Christopher Russell, of UCLA.  That’s right, Vesta has been around since the get-go of our star system.  Given its 330-mile diameter, several astronomers view Vesta as more of a “protoplanet,” a stellar body that was on its way to becoming a planet similar in composition to Earth but never quite made it.  For that very reason, the study of Vesta that Dawn affords will give us a greater understanding of how planets come to be and that in turn gives us a clearer picture of how the cosmos works.  After all, we’re still not exactly certain of how life arose on the this planet from initially inorganic matter.  If microbes and other microscopic life exist on asteroids and meteors, that could explain much as to how life got here (look up the theory of “panspermia.”)
Additionally, determining Vesta’s composition can tell us what minerals could one day be mined from an asteroid.  Valuable metals and other ores abound inside asteroids.  This is one point of contention that I have with ancient astronaut theorists.  There are those in their number who claim that visitors came to us long ago to take our gold, silver, and other precious minerals.  Why?  It would be far easier for an advanced civilization to get all that from an asteroid, to say nothing of the shorter journey as asteroids are pretty much everywhere.  Indeed, President Obama has directed NASA to land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025, a step that could be a forerunner to actual mining operations.
But perhaps most pertinent of all, any knowledge of asteroids is a good thing to have as one might try to kill us.  I have blogged several times before about the risk and the terrible aftermath of a significant asteroid hit on the Earth.  Placing a spacecraft in orbit around one as we have done with Vesta is a critical step in determining how we could deploy future space vehicles to alter the trajectory of an incoming “planetkiller.”  I’d call that a necessity.

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Monday, July 18, 2011

Author Profile--Jack McDevitt

I have recently had cause to sift through my paperback books. 

And there’re a lot of ‘em.  As I might have mentioned before, they were spilling from my shelves and falling into stacks on the floor, each one much like an individual stone in a medieval castle wall.  Frequenting used book stores will have that effect on your house.  But I digress…

Among the pile of unread books is Odyssey by Jack McDevitt.  McDevitt is an author who came highly recommended to me so when I saw one of his books going for $1 I couldn’t resist.  Of course I would have to later find out that Odyssey is but one installment in a series but that is par for the course with me. 
In researching McDevitt as an author, I felt a certain kinship to him.  He said that after studying literature, he read David Copperfield and decided that he could never write at that level and therefore should find something else to do.  He went on to hold a series of varying jobs and a full twenty-five years elapsed before he ever wrote again.  By American standards, he might be considered a late bloomer.  Therefore, his success is something that I can take heart in.  There may still be hope!
Odyssey itself is a science fiction tale about the immorality of big business and the shortsightedness of America when it comes to space travel.  I like it already.  It also entails UFOs still being seen as humanity moves out into space and attacks by extraterrestrials that might or might not be false flag operations conducted by our own species.  Yet there are still aliens out there and they have left their artifacts throughout our solar system.  That is a concept that I am fascinated by, as I’m sure many of you have picked up on from previous posts.
So I look forward to reading McDevitt’s work and I’ll post a full review once having done so.  Whenever that is.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

All the best of Japan

My week's vacation came to a spectacular finish yesterday as I visited G-Fest with my brother Spike, my nephew Xander, and my best friend Armando.  
What is G-Fest?  You think it's a festival of rappers as in "what up, G?"  Oh you heathens.  It is a convention of Godzilla fans.  No, it's more than that.  It is a gathering of those who wish to celebrate all that is great about Japanese science fiction, whether they be four years old or 94 or whatever age.  Xander is a four year-old.  The entire visit to the Crowne Plaza in Rosemont, Illinois was worth it for no other reason than to see his little face as he walked into the dealer's room, amazed at all of the Japanese giant monster toys for sale.  Here's a few other highlights:

-Caught the very end of a presentation on Godzilla sculpting and modeling by Hiroshi Sagae.  While unfamiliar with Sagae San, I couldn't help but be impressed when learning that he is a resident of Fukushima, one of the cities of Japan that was worst hit by the tsunami/nuclear meltdown combo of last spring.  He spoke openly about how his sculpting work kept him focused and sane.  Amazing what a driving passion can do.

-Listened to a panel on Japanese superheroes.  I'm talking the best science fiction heroes that Japan has to offer: Ultraman, Starman, Kamen Rider, Infra-Man, Spectreman, the robots from Space Giants, and many others, including a mummy from Atlantis that awakens in the future.  Awesome!

-Sean Rhoads presented his Masters thesis in East Asian Studies on Godzilla vs. Hedorah, or as you might possibly be more familiar with...Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster.  Yeah, yeah, go ahead and laugh.  I appreciated Mr. Rhoads' as a scholar and as someone who is trying to take a subject matter that is entertaining and exploring the serious underlying subtext that makes the film both enjoyable and socially relevant.

-Got to watch Terror From Beneath the Sea with Spike and Xanderzilla in the movie room.  Oh what a triumph that film is!  We had too much fun watching it.  I think that Spike has a brilliant idea in that we should rip it off into James Bond vs. Hugo Chavez And His Evil Undersea World.  There were many good films (well, "good" as in the fun, b-movie sense) being shown throughout the weekend.  Spike and Xander even got to see Gamera vs. Giras.

-Picked up a DVD copy of Samurai Bikini Squad.  With a title like that, did you really think I could say no?

-Marveled as I watched a crew of dedicated amateur filmmakers create their own kaiju ("monster" in Japanese) film in one conference room of the hotel.  They built their own model city and used professional gear to film rubbery giant monsters slugging it out over the urban expanse.  They even had a hydraulic lift for their own Ghidorah-styled monster.  Make fun if you wish but as someone who has directed their own digital films, I can tell you this took a hell of a lot of work.  My hat's off to the crew. 

Then we left.  Had to take little four year-old Xanderzilla to get something to eat and a place to crash.  We capped off the night by watching Toho's classic Destroy All Monsters and my new copy of Infra-Man at my place.  I can't deny that there is a part of me who really wants to stay over for the whole weekend next year.  I mean, those geek hotel room parties have got to be off the hook, y'all!  If nothing else, the G-Fest organizers arranged things so that the hotel's in-house TV channel showed nothing but Japanese science fiction all weekend long.  While I might not be the most passionate Godzilla fan around, this just sounds like a blissful escape from my gruesome reality.  The more of that I can get, the healthier I believe I will be.

I love you, Japan.  Let's never fight again.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Grandma's paranormal nexus

I have just returned from a week long respite and retreat at my Grandmother's farm in Ohio.

Ohio.  Big Sky country.  My Grandma lives in an extremely rural area just north of Dayton and west of Columbus, a portion of an area commonly referred to as The Miami Valley.  It's a seemingly endless expanse of farmer's fields and dense woods.  It's the kind of place where you see a lot of shoulders barren of clothes but covered in tattoos; where roadkill is as common as stop signs, where the nearest vegetarian is a cow, and where the youth have an odd predilection for collecting scrap metal.  Your closest neighbor might be a mile or more away.  It's also where The Weird can and does happen.  Here are two such occurrences from my Grandmother's home region.

Back in Christmas of 1991, I had a family member tell me of a UFO encounter they once had.  I will not give this person's name nor their relation to me out of respect for their privacy.  Suffice it to say that they are someone whom I have great respect for and that they have spent their life as a highly successful professional, holding a graduate level degree in a field of scientific study.  Sufficiently vauge?  Ok, moving on.
The sighting took place back in the 1960s when they were still in high school.  While driving at night to a school basketball game, they saw a red light in the sky.  Eventually this red light appeared on the horizon on the side opposite to where it was formerly.  While that was bizarre enough, you can imagine my family member's response when the aerial object flew across the road directly in front of them.  More than that, it shot a beam of light into the car's interior.  My family member pulled over to the side of the road and watched as this craft hovered above a field, completely silent.  They described the UFO as a cluster of lights with no readily discernible structure or hull.  Being a teenager at the time, my family member soon restarted their car and moved on so as not to miss their game, leaving the UFO behind, still hovering.
Throughout their academic study, my family member never once came across an apt explanation for how that flying object they witnessed could hover without making any noise.  We can barely do that now, let alone back in the 1960s.  I should remind everyone, however, that my Grandmother's location is near Dayton.  Dayton is home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.  This base includes the Air Force Research Laboratory, Material Command, and Institute of Technology and therefore has strong ties to Area 51.  It is also said to be the original destination for the debris from the Roswell crash of 1947.  It was home base for the farcical Project Blue Book.  When the politcally powerful Senator Barry Goldwater asked the Strategic Air Command's Gen. Curtis LeMay to show him UFO crash debris stored at Wright-Patterson, the General gave him "holy hell" and responded, "not only can't you get into it but don't ever mention it to me again!"

As I said earlier, this partciular area of Ohio is definitely farm country.  Still, I am always surprised to see just how much wooded area there is.  In fact, there is a sizeable woods located just behind my Grandma's farm.  The woods of Ohio's Miami Valley are thick, wild, and sparsely populated. 
While on a family vacation in 1980, my Grandma phoned us and told me that Bigfoot had been sighted in Ohio.  Well, that alone was enough to make my pants dance, but to then find out that the sightings were a mere twenty minutes from Grandma's house...well, it was more than this budding little paranormal investigator could take.  I demanded that my parents take me to Grandma's house and then on to Westville, Ohio.
The sightings themselves were run-of-the-mill as cryptid encounters go.  Hairy "ape man" seen in brush and wooded areas.  Enormous footprints found later.  Occassional talk of the creatures pounding on the sides of houses or tearing down clotheslines but with no evidence to back up these accounts.  There was, at the time, a theory amongst investigators that the sasquatches had migrated to Ohio from the Pacific Northwest, instinctively anticipating the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980.  Again, there was not much to back that up and I came to write it all off during my "I'm too cool for the paranormal" teen years.
Then in 1989, my Grandfather said to me, "I believe that there really are such creatures and that they were in Ohio at one time.  I've talked to friends who saw them and these are people that I just can't see making up a story like that."  Indeed.  The people of that region aren't generally prone to such dellusions.  If anything, they would be terribly reluctant to talk about such an encounter for fear of being ridiculed and getting a "reputation" in their small town.  If someone made up these stories in order to gain fame and fortune, wow.  They seriously misjudged the outcome.
There's no one in human history that I respect more than my Grandfather.  If it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me.

So there you have it.  As I said, it's an isolated region of sparse population.  The lonesome country roads there are quite the thing to travel at night for us cityfolk.  And after hearing true accounts of The Weird such as these, they take on an entirely new countenance.

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Saturday, July 9, 2011

End of an Era

I watched yesterday's launch of the space shuttle Atlantis with mixed emotions.  Despite all threats of bad weather, it made it off the ground and is now in orbit (over Canada at the time of this writing.)

As many of you no doubt know, it is the last ever mission for a space shuttle.  Over.  Done.  Finite.
I remember watching the very first launch, Columbia (RIP) in 1981.  Yes, I am that old but in my defense I was still in elementary school at the time.  Despite its delays and terrible tragedies, NASA's shuttle program is an achievement unparalleled in the annals of space exploration.  Where would we be without the shuttle?  There would be no International Space Station.  There would be no satellites or telescopes repaired while in orbit.  While I know it is time, I am sad to see the shuttle fleet retired.  In a small way, I feel like I'm losing a friend or at the very least, a constant.

What comes next is an exciting yet uncertain future.  The role of hoisting humans and gear into space is gradually being turned over to corporate industry.  This holds promise.  Over the years, NASA has become a bloated bureacracy impeded by its own weight.  Minds outside the NASA system can now innovate and move forward.  Sir Richard Branson is already underway with such a project in Virgin Galactic.  SpaceX, with its Dragon and various Falcon vehicles, is example of momentum shifting to the private sector in the movement of equipment and people into orbit.  In time, these programs may be able to incorporate people from many different walks of life into space exploration.  This will hopefully give the public at-large a greater sense of space as a common future for humanity.  In my more grandiose musings, I can almost see a sort of Starfleet Academy where young (and why not old?) people will study both physically and academically to go into space, circumventing the need for military involvement. 

But what of NASA?  Even former Apollo astronauts like Armstrong and Lovell have been openly skeptical as to the future role of this federal agency.  To hear the folks in Houston say it, NASA's going to be just fine.  They've been given until 2016 to come up with a replacement for the shuttle program.  The leaders in that race appear to be Boeing's CST-100 crew capsule and SNC's "Dream Chaser."  NASA is also tauting their Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, a spacecraft meant to take a manned crew to Mars, to asteroids, or even further than that or so they say.

Sorry.  I'll believe it when I see it.  NASA has accomplished great things in its time yet they also have a history of delays, cost overruns, and less-than-optimal work culture.  How long have we talked about colonizing Mars?  How long have we talked about moving outward into the galaxy?  Granted, NASA has been hamstrung by budget cuts as more wordly concerns needed to take priority and for that very reason, the private sector may be the way to go.

I hope that NASA's right in their assessment of their situation.  Likewise, I hope that the private start-ups are correct in that they can sublimate their enthusiasm and entrepreneurship into big results.  We need to move forward into space.  That much is certain to many of us.  How we get there need no longer come from just one organization.

And for the four shuttles still with us and the two gone but not forgotten, rest easy.  You've done your job well.  I regret I never saw one of you launch. 

By the way, Strange Horizons will be on vacation for a few days.  See you on Friday.

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Wearable tech

Wearable electronics is something I’ve been wanting for a long time and I daresay I’m not alone.  Sure, laptops, netbooks, and iPads are all great, but how much easier…not to mention elegant and aesthetically pleasing…would it be to have the computer be a part of your clothing?  Or at the very least, be something that you merely attach to your personage like we used to do with watches or with cell phones that clipped to your belt.  No lugging cases or even bags around that end up getting left in taxis, trains, or restaurants. 

Torrone correctly begins the article linked above by citing the work of Steve Mann.  Mann is a tech designer who has been on the vanguard of wearable electronics for quite some time.  Since 1980 if the humorous photographs in the article are accurate.  I say “humorous” only because that is the sensation the early photos evoke, much the same sort of reaction one gets from seeing a brick-sized cell phone or a 5.25 floppy disk.  At that time, however, it was state-of-the-art and Mann had started to lay important foundations for his later achievements.  Mann has even been called “the first cyborg” due to his innovations.
That work is now beginning to translate into things we will soon view as common.  How revolutionary was a Bluetooth headset just a few years ago?  Now it’s seen as just a wearable phone that can now play music. Tiny video cameras can be as wearable as glasses, recording everything you see and experience.  This is great for someone such as myself whose organic memory grows more strained by the day.  I’ll grant you that such camera glasses could be employed towards nefarious ends but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater just yet, okay?  There’s even such a device as a “search engine belt buckle.”

Personally, I love the idea of having a computer with me wherever I go.  I like even more the idea of it being something that is worn and not lugged around in a bulky case.  Why stop there?  I long for the day when the computer can be cybernetically implanted into the brain or even through just a socket on the neck or head.  I doubt I’ll live to see that day but I’ll soon have other options available, even if they are less glamorous than such a total infusion.

So what will be the fashions of the coming years?  I see a lot of metal and LEDs.
Though there are those who might call it all futilitarian. 
Sorry.  I just liked the word.

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

U2--Soldier Field, Chicago

I was there.

So was Matt, a co-worker of mine at the day job.  We both witnessed the triumphant return of U2 to Chicago.  I say “triumphant” because the band has had to overcome a fair amount of adversity over the past year and a half.  This particular date was postponed from last summer as an entire tour leg had to be scrubbed due to Bono’s severe back injury.  But through the wonders of modern surgery and physical therapy, the now transhuman Bono looked to be healthy last night at Soldier Field.

The stage set is more than a bit ostentatious.  When you’re approaching an NFL stadium and you can the see the top of the band’s stage jutting out above the upper lip, you begin to think that the word “big” doesn’t fully cover the situation.  In preparation for this tour, the band again turned to longtime collaborator Willie Williams as architect and artistic designer for the stage set.  His design called for a relatively uncluttered, 360-degree stage but with a four-legged structure nicknamed “The Claw” standing over it.  

 From the 2009 show.  Better view of The Claw.

My view last night.
I contemplate The Claw.  Behind me, someone who likes to get really talkative during slow, introspective songs.

Williams is said to have taken his inspiration from The Theme Building at LAX.  I can see that but it appears that from that framework, Williams took the design more in the direction of those crab monsters in Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster or perhaps something even more Lovecraftian than that.  Matt saw it more as a “dune buggy from hell.”  In looking at the stage from the vantage point of our seats, the suspended amps do take on a sort of tire tread appearance. 

Also intriguing was watching the lighting crew be lifted up and snapped into place, mounted on the insides of the legs.  It was like watching a Transformer assemble.

I must say our seats weren’t bad.  The rim of the stadium’s upper deck blocked off the top half of The Claw but the stage was entirely visible and that’s what’s imperative.  Likewise viewable was the 360 viewscreen as it scrolled random facts to entertain the crowd between set changes.  I snapped two shots of this, choosing of course to get what time it was onboard the International Space Station, how Google searches were performed last year, and how many blog posts there were yesterday.  I’m proud to say that I was one of them.

During the actual show, fans were treated to a zero-g message from Mark E. Kelly onboard the International Space Station as he introduced “Beautiful Day.”  Kelly is the husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who nearly lost her life to an assassin’s bullet last January.  The band played a snippet of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” Bono’s singing of the line “tell my wife I love her very much, she knows” taking on poignant new meaning. 
That wasn’t the only connection to space.  Video animation showed a flying saucer with stylized meatmen inside, kibitzing about the show before getting buzzed by their own UFO…The Claw.  This segued into the lowering of a pinecone formation of multiple LED screens that encapsulated the stage, displaying the side of a spaceship that was very much inspired by Close Encounters.  Given the size of the stage, it almost felt like the real deal.

Such dazzling special effects were impressive, but the artistic highlights came down to three moments for me.  One was the scrolling of footage from the Middle Eastern spring uprisings during “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” and another “Where the Streets Have No Name” which never gets old no matter how many times I hear it live.  The other came at the very close of the show.  Bono said that this week marked the 25th anniversary of the loss of their friend, Greg Carroll for whom the song “One Tree Hill” was written for on The Joshua Tree (read: one of the best records in human history.)  This is a magnificent song that the band has played on only the most rare of occasions. 
Last night was one of those occasions.  And I was incredibly fortunate to be there for it.

Here’s the song list as I remember it:

(Band takes the stage, Adam Clayton in bright white pants and shoes and a short-sleeved top looks like he's about go work the Promenade Deck with Gopher.)

Even Better Than the Real Thing
The Fly
Mysterious Ways
Until the End of the World
Trying To Throw Your Arms Around the World
Out of Control
Get On Your Boots
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
Beautiful Day
Pride (In the Name of Love)
Miss Sarajevo
City of Blinding Lights
I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight
Sunday, Bloody Sunday
Walk On

Where the Streets Have No Name
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me  (Paying tribute to the film this song is from, Bono does a fair Batman imitation, swinging on a line.)
With Or Without You
Moment of Surrender
One Tree Hill

If I have a criticism, it would be the sound quality.  The first few songs were muffled and muddied and any banter from Bono was garbled.  I can’t tell if that was a tech issue or just the poor acoustics of Soldier Field, a venue meant to hold a football game and not a rock concert.  Wind off of the Lake distorts sound, plus we were seated in a sort of tucked away area beneath the lip of the upper deck.  That would play hell with sound quality.  Man, phuck physics.

 Bono and the boys.

In all seriousness, this band truly walks the walk when it comes to making the world a better place.  Please consider visiting the following programs and donating your money, your time, or your voice:

The ONE Campaign
Amnesty International

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Monday, July 4, 2011

The 4th: a view from the anti-Kip

"Nationalism is an illness that must be overcome."--Albert Einstein

I know that I'm supposed to gush all red, white, and blue on this day, acting like Ronald Reagan threw up all over me, but I'm not going to.
I believe it is entirely possible to be both thankful for what you have and thankful to those who afford it to you while keeping a balanced and critical perspective.
I know I'm supposed to set off firecrackers until someone gets their eyes or fingers blown off but I'm not going to.  Just can't imagine it's what Thomas Jefferson had in mind.
Face it, America.  You've been bought and sold.  
George Carlin is quite a bit cruder about it than I am but I believe that his fundamental argument is on target.  I am especially in agreement with his view on how "the powers that be" want our minds to operate.  Only an idiot would believe our political leaders, regardless of their party affiliation, to be altruistic patriots who only want what's best for us.  If you are in political power or if you are the CEO of a corporation, the last thing in the world that you want is to have a general populace that is capable of thinking for themselves or formulating their own opinions.  You want people to keep their words about the nation sweet, for fear that they might otherwise seem right or wrong to be the bitter seeds of treason.  You want people to think that "women's suffrage" means keeping them in the kitchen.  Sheep, brainless sheep who hold no concept of where they have been or where they are going, who need only to have a cloth of red, white, and blue waved in their faces to lead them.  Oh and docile, too.  Don't forget docile.  Provided your bank account is sizable, your carnal needs are sated, and your TV is all reality, then it's all good, right?
Have I mentioned that I can't stand firecrackers?

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