Wednesday, February 29, 2012

UFOs, Nazis, Reptoids, oh my!

For once I am ahead of the Coast-to-Coast curve.  But not by much.

Yesterday, I came across this post on UFO Digest that talks about a new book by Timothy Green Beckley.  Well, not really by, but published and reprinted by Beckley.  The book is called Trilogy of the Unknown and it is by Michael X.  Haven’t heard of him?  That’s ok, I hadn’t either but the post filled me in and I must say, it was quite an engrossing read.  Is it true?  Is it a “load of codswallop” as one anonymous poster (that must take guts) once put it?  I’m thinking it’s the latter but regardless of its true nature, the UFO story is a great one.

In the 1950s, Michael X was one of the pioneering enthusiasts of UFOs.  He apparently once did sales work of one sort or another, but that was before discovering Ufology and leaving that mundane and boring life behind.  This speaks to, in my opinion, how UFOs can at times be taken to as a New Age religion, something that grants excitement and meaning to an otherwise bland existence.  Trust me, I’ve felt the gravitational tug a few times myself.  But I digress…

Michael X disavowed his last name so that “he didn’t become part of a cult of personality.”

Ahem.  Sorry.
Anyhow, Michael X claimed to have been in contact with a race of aliens originating from the planet Venus, aliens that looked remarkably like human beings.  The purpose for their visitations was to supposedly benefit all of humanity and to welcome Earth into the equivalent of the United Federation of Planets.  Now that all may seem trite and hokey to us today but “space brothers from Venus” was actually a popular meme at that point for UFO contactees.  From what it seems from the post, Michael X was at the vanguard of this movement back in the 1950s, speaking to gatherings and conventions of the UFO faithful, telling them of the coming of the saucers.

So why did Michael X stop?  Why did he ultimately choose obscurity?  It all goes back to one bad day.
X received a telepathic message one day from one of his alien friends.  Michael X was told to go to a secluded spot in the Mojave Desert so that the two of them could speak in private.  After driving to the predetermined location, Michael parked the car and waited.  A glint of light caught his eye that he supposed must have been from the approaching UFO.  Only it wasn’t.  It was a rifle.  Michael saw one of the men he was supposed to meet, pointing a rifle.  An “inner voice” warned Michael to get out of there, post haste.  Once escaped, Michael X dropped out of Ufology.

Dr. Frank E. Stranges, one of Michael’s friends in the government and author of Stranger at the Pentagon, told Michael that the-powers-that-be had determined that Michael had gone too far with his UFO research.  What were these supposed dark findings?

Nazis.  That’s right.  Nazis are cropping up again as being partly responsible for UFO phenomena.  German scientists supposedly discovered an incredible source of energy and used it to create anti-gravity propulsion systems for saucer-shaped craft that they hoped might turn the tide of the war.  But wait.  There’s more.  Hitler survived the end of the war and escaped to South America where he lived out the remainder of his days.  None of this is exceptionally new to our eyes and ears.  After all, the upcoming film Iron Sky deals with Nazis who escaped to the Moon and return to conquer the world with their UFO-shaped spaceships.  In the 1950s, however, the time when Michael X did this writing, few if any researchers spoke of Nazi UFOs.

It also seems that Michael X beat David Icke to the punch.  X writes of reptilian, humanoid beings from inside the Hollow Earth that inhabit Rainbow City in Antarctica.  From the bit of Googling that I’ve done, this is said to be an enormous metropolis of alien origin that sits under the ice.  The aliens for unknown reasons abandoned it but UFOs are still sighted in the area.  Now this is all in addition to the reptile people who live in the underground civilization.

This is where I begin to sound like Flounder from Animal House: Oh boy is this great!

But wait!  There’s more!  In later writings, Michael X also discussed the notion that NASA was given a strict warning by alien beings not to return to the Moon…our Moon is there’s for whatever nefarious purposes.  If you click the link at the beginning of this post, you’ll find black and white photos that are supposedly of giant spacecraft on the Moon.

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a shred of evidence for any of this.  Oh sure, bits and pieces support the existence of advanced craft built by the Germans and we haven’t been back to the Moon since the 70s, but I just can’t get behind the rest of it.  No, I don’t know everything, I haven’t read the book yet, and I’m not calling Michael X a liar.  I simply remain skeptical and I need to see more evidence.

Until then, even a lack of evidence does not keep this from being a really great UFO story.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Oh the posthuman possibilities

Imagine tiny robots manufactured by the sheet…and all of it inspired by pop-up books.

That’s what two engineers at Harvard have done, taken a child’s novelty and turned it into an innovative means of mass-production.  As explained on the site for the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences:

“In prototypes, 18 layers of carbon fiber, Kapton (a plastic film), titanium, brass, ceramic, and adhesive sheets have been laminated together in a complex, laser-cut design. The structure incorporates flexible hinges that allow the three-dimensional product—just 2.4 millimeters tall—to assemble in one movement, like a pop-up book.  The entire product is approximately the size of a U.S. quarter, and dozens of these microrobots could be fabricated in parallel on a single sheet.”

The robots that result, currently called the Harvard Monolithic Bees, or “Mobees” (no word yet if Moby will take action on this), are the result of an effort to create bio-inspired robots the size of bees that can fly and work in concert in a hive-like manner.  The inventers of this “pop-up” method stress that applications do not stop with microbots but may be applied to other areas of industry.  It might still be a bit premature, but this may be another signifier that manufacturing jobs will continue to decline in numbers. 

Personally, the prospect that really intrigues me is what happens when these robots can be built to even smaller specifications.  I’d like to imagine swarms of these things moving through human circulatory systems, reinforcing the immune system, repairing where needed, and maybe even augmenting if they can.  I wonder what cybernetic possibilities they might hold for the brain and for those who suffer from depression?  Stimulate production of serotonin maybe?  I'm not sure, but interfacing this technology with the human form is the next logical step.  I'll leave it to those blessed with mathematical skill to pettifog over the details.

It’s a transhuman world.  The Luddites are just living in it.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, February 27, 2012

I hate marketing

Today, I went on a shopping adventure.

I was in a grocery store, inhaling this collision of odors between exposed produce and yeasty baked goods.  The establishment was foreign in nature, featuring animal organs pickled in jars of pink fluid and hircine meats shrink wrapped in the deli.  As I made my way through the flexuous aisles, I couldn't help but remember another such excursion.  For whatever reason, the tape of it came right back up and out of the archives of memory.

It was in the spring of 1989.  It was late at night and my best friend and I were hanging out with a recent college grad, the son of a professor my father worked with at the college.  We stopped into a 24hour grocery store on a snack run.  This grad, we'll call him Sam, had served time as a missionary in various nations of Africa.  I had no idea just how much this would affect his shopping experience at the time.

As soon as we stepped in through the door, it was as if a switch flipped in Sam's head and his behavior became...bizarre.

"American food stores crack me up," he said.  "I mean, look at all this."

He grabbed a package of paper towels from a display and threw them at us while breaking into "Today Is Your Birthday" by The Beatles.  He then grabbed a pizza and tossed it like a Frisbee.  Needless to say, management was unhappy with this and advised that we all leave before the local gendarmes be called to the establishment.  My friend and I left in embarrassment of Sam's actions while Sam seemed genuinely mystified as to why we were kicked out.

Now, 23 years on, I get it.  I see what Sam meant.  The delusional justifications we make for our own excess.  The greed.  The commercialism.  Worst of all, the marketing.

Several people have told me I should work in marketing.  Earn a lucrative paycheck for coming up with clever ad copy and imaginative campaigns.  I should be "the face of someone's company" as my mother in law once said.  Great.  And the difference between me and a whore would be?????????  Honestly, I want to smash all that advice with a heavy steel pipe.

Why do I hate marketing?   Why do I loathe this very trend of "branding?"  It's the falsehoods, the fakery, the artifice, the chicanery.  "Hi!  I'd like to tell you about an important new offer!"  Bullshit.  You want my money.  Not one single solitary atom in your body gives a damn about me or anything that I care about.  All you care is that I might have money to spend on your boxes of cereal or whatever it is that you're hawking like a crack dealer.  I doubt that people in marketing have ever had an honest, genuine day in their entire lives.

I walked through the store today, brand labels smacking me in the face at every step, whining "buy me buy me buy me!" like cheap hookers at a street corner.  Even though the market was specialized in ethnic foods, it still carried all of the same processed, commercialized goods that we Americans have come to rely upon for familiarity's sake.  I kept walking until it all became a wall of white noise to me.  Numbness washed over me.  It all just became surreal after a time.

This what we are.  This is what we've become.  Most frightening of all, this may be all we will ever be.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Sunday, February 26, 2012

My magnetic ribbon is better than your magnetic ribbon

Giving me access to this site is a bad idea.

Remember when magnetic ribbons on cars became all the rage?
To my reckoning, it happened just after the controversial invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Yellow ribbons showed up everywhere, slapped on to vehicles that were mostly Hummers and pick-up trucks with massive wheels.  "Support Our Troops" they proclaimed.  The statement is only half accurate.  There is an implied phrase before those three words that reads "You Had Better."  If it were otherwise, then the statement would read, "I Support Our Troops" would it not?  Or the more humble, "Pray For Our Troops."  I always wanted to stop the driver of the vehicle with the ribbon and ask, "how exactly do you support our troops?" and see if they can provide an answer rooted in concrete action.  Sort of reminds me of the Bill Maher slogan, "Putting a Flag On Your Car Is (Literally) the Least You Can Do."

Now, the site I linked you to above gives you the opportunity to create your own magnetic ribbon slogan.  Of course you can order the ubiquitous patriotic statements or the call to awareness of afflictions such as breast cancer and autism.  The option that really appeals to me, however, is the one where I can play "choose your own propaganda."  The site gives a few options of their own:

"Support the Guy In China Who Makes These Magnetic Ribbons"

"Penis Penis Penis Penis Penis"

"I Support More Troops Than You Do"

Here are a few of my ideas:

"Why Bother?"

"We're All Going To Die"

"Support Your Local Rhetorician"

"You Live a Pointless Lie"

"Question Your Own Existence"

Oh I could get into trouble with this.  So I leave it to you, gentle reader.  What magnetic ribbon slogans would you recommend?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Dawn of the sexbots

I am about to take us into dicey territory here but I believe it is germane to the blog.

Remember Pris from Blade Runner?  Of course you do.  She was the replicant who was the "standard pleasure model" for the offworld colonies.   I was unaware of this (honest) but it appears that our society is drawing nearer and nearer to actual Pris models...even if not quite as lifelike.

The sexbots are here.  Customizable, anatomically correct, robotic girlfriends with programmable personalities.  That's right.  Dress them up in costumes and everything.  The sexbot described in the link, named "Roxxxy", is even Wi-Fi enabled so that you can go online, alter what you don't like about the bot's...uh..."performance," and then download the updates.  What brought on this questionable innovation, aside from base urges that is?  Uh, would you believe "terrorism?"  Here's what Popular Science says:

"Oddly enough, the inspiration for Roxxxy stems from the September 11 attacks, during which artificial intelligence engineer and Roxxxy inventor Douglas Hines lost a close friend. An attempt to preserve that friend's personality forever laid the groundwork for what later became Roxxxy's AI. Costs for the robots range from $7,000 to $9,000 depending on features, as everything from hair and skin color to bra cup size is customizable. As for the ladies out there wishing to create the perfect male, remember, patience is a virtue; a male version dubbed Rocky is already in the works."

Good to know that they're at least being fair.

One of my best friends once managed a local adult gifts and lingerie boutique.  Or as we call it, a "lingeree booty-q."  He told me once about full torso mannequins with correct genitalia that were composed almost entirely of surgical latex.  That means it's the closest thing to the feel of human skin without being the real thing.  Soaking the device in hot water only helps to complete the tone or so it is said.  Those models, however, were not capable of motion and they certainly didn't have AI.  In light of these new...uh, "advancements," what will this mean?

First of all, you Kip Haggis neo-Luddites can chill.   I highly doubt that people will ever stop doing the face-to-face real thing.  Actual mental interaction during the act beats any kind of AI out there.  For now.  If these "sexbots" can one day perform on a truly human level, would prostitution become obsolete?  Why take the chance of getting arrested or getting killed in a seedy part of the city when you've got the real thing on stand-by at home?  For men or even women who partake in relationships only for the sex, this could revolutionize things.  Why bother bandying about in the trenches of actual relationship work just to engage in coitus?  A Blade Runner-like pleasure model of the sort that Roxxxy embodies will never yell at you for leaving the cap off of the toothpaste or complain that "we never go anywhere" or want to know "where do you see our relationship heading?"  From this male's point of view, it definitely has a few merits.

Another question arises.  Is sex with a sexbot even sex at all?  I mean, does it "count?"  Or is it in that gray area that Bill Clinton hid in for a time?  What happens in a marriage if a man...or woman...brings home a sexbot and argues, "'s just for times when you don't want to do it."  Yet the sexbot can give that person every single thing they could want in a partner.  Will bots start breaking up marriages?

Short answer: I don't know.  Again I must stress, I can't see androids ever taking the place of real people in terms of meeting emotional needs in a relationship.  That is of course, not until fully aware AI comes about.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, February 24, 2012

In 1989, there was an "Invasion"

Ever since the 1980s, comic book companies have loved crossovers.

The publishers call it an opportunity for epic story arcs.  Fans have found it an excuse to drive up sales.  Certain crossovers have been amazing (Secret Wars).  Others have been abysmal (Secret Wars II).  My favorite crossover/miniseries of all-time is Invasion! by DC Comics and I would like to tell you more about it.

It’s an alien invasion story.  I suppose that doesn’t come as much of a surprise as I have always enjoyed the trope of our entire world having to band together in order to fend off an attack from space.  This has been fun for me on at least a small level, no matter how cheesy or clich├ęd the fare.  It’s doubly fun if there are superheroes involved.  And it was these said superheroes that were the impetus of the conflict.

An alien race known as The Dominators, beings drawn to look very much like the 1950s concept of aliens, saw how Earth was kicking out these pesky super-powered beings, or “metahumans” as they were termed.  The Dominators coolly deduced that metahumans might become a threat.  The decision was made to eliminate Earth’s heroes before that could happen.  The Dominators themselves lacked the physical prowess to carry out such a military campaign.  Therefore, they cobbled together an Alliance of other alien races, convincing them that it would be in their interests as well to wipe out super beings.  The Dominators had the brains, everybody else had the brawn.  The Alliance included:

The Thanagarians—the race that Hawkman belongs to, now under the rule of a tyrannical despot.  They would serve as the Alliance air force.

The Gil’Dishpan—aquatic beings that breathe methane and inhabit armored and armed cybernetic shells.

The Okaarans—tusked warriors who would serve as the weaponsmiths for the Alliance.

The Durlans—shapeshifters.

The Citadelians—clone monsters that would administrate the Alliance’s vast Starlag prisons.

The Daxamites—observers and scientific advisors.

The Khund—brutish, stocky, stubby aliens who live for combat and have centuries of experience with interplanetary war.  Sort of the "Klingons" of the outfit.  The Khunds would make up the bulk of the invasion force.

The ensuing invasion saw nearly every single superhero (and villain in a few cases) fighting for the continued survival of Earth.  And when I say every, I do mean every.  Superman played a major role as one might expect, as did Captain Atom, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Wonder Woman, Firestorm, and so on and so forth down the line.  The worldwide battle, as one reviewer on Amazon astutely observed, has a similar tone to Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising in that interspersed with the super-powered beings are human armed forces, fighting to save their home.  This is what crossovers should be in my opinion.  Epic.  Global, if not galactic in scale.  Adding to my enjoyment is the halcyon time period in which Invasion took place: the late 1980s.  That means Keith Giffen’s comedic version of the Justice League, Guy Gardner being an ass, Amanda Waller’s Suicide Squad, and a recently revamped Superman.  And who could forget the headline of The Daily Planet?  “Earth To Aliens: ‘Drop Dead!’”  Classic.

Plus, Invasion! featured artist Todd McFarlane at the top of his game and writing by Bill Mantlo, one of my favorite comics writers ever.  And it's superheroes during wartime.  Does it get any better?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 23, 2012

If it worked on Star Blazers...

"We're off in outer space...we're leaving mother Earth..."

Breaking news from Graymalkin:

"Just watching a show on the science channel.  They are talking about using a nuclear submarine, blasting it up into the orbit of the moon, filling up a football sized donut shaped bladder with water from the moon, spinning the donut around the submarine to create gravity and using the water from the bladder for energy through steam as a propulsion system.  sorry about the crappy sentence structure, but I'm tired today so I'm not bothering with editing...   ;)  Anyway, as they were talking about how easy inexpensive it would be as a transport system to and from other planets, it sounded so identical to Star Blazers!!!!"

For the uninitiated, the Star Blazers that Graymalkin refers to is a seminal and extraordinary anime series from the mid 1970s.  In it, Earth is threatened with extinction as it is continually assaulted by an alien race called The Gamilons.  There is one hope for Earth's survival: an element on the planet Iscandar.  The problem: we have to go get it ourselves.  To do so,  Japan's World War II battleship the Yamato (in the American translation it was the Argo) is converted into a formidable spaceship, complete with a carrier bay for fighters and the inordinately powerful Wave Motion Gun.  Click the link and you'll see that the Yamato is basically one massive gun.

I'm interested in the fundamentals behind this proposed "submarine in space" project.  I'm also curious about the principles behind the "spinning football of Moon water."  It has often been remarked that life aboard a nuclear submarine is comparable to a long space voyage, so that would be a proper baseline for the human factor in things.  The question I have is the initial power it would take to launch a submarine from Earth towards the Moon.  Just think of the force required to send one Apollo spacecraft to our lonely satellite...and they were nowhere near the size of one of our standard submarines.  Of course if our government were ever to openly disclose the alien technology that it has in its possession, that might clear things up right away.  But that's an entirely different can of tuna.
Sadly, I'm unable to find a link for further information on Graymalkin's submarine in space.  That is not to say that I question him.  His word to me is unimpeachable.  Maybe he can provide a link for an in-depth look.  The closest I've come is a link about the Air Force proposing nuclear reactors for spacecraft.

Regardless, I think the "submarine in space" proposal is a cool concept.  If it ever really does fly, I will argue heavily that the spacecraft be named The Yamato. Even if it be before a plenum of Congress.

As always, a big thanks to Graymalkin for this!

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A new class of planet

One of the most unusual planets ever encountered outside of our solar system was discovered in 2009.  Astronomers have now confirmed that strangeness.

Dubbed GJ1214b...we really need to get a new name for it...the planet orbits a red dwarf star that is 40 light years from Earth in the constellation Ophiucus.  In terms of size, it is quite a bit larger than Earth but still smaller than the outer gas giants in our solar system such as Neptune.  What makes this planet so unique is that its mass is almost entirely made up of water.  Other indications seem to suggest a thick, steamy atmosphere around the planet as well.  This certainly has many interests piqued for as according to our limited understanding, the rule of thumb is that "where there is water, there is life."

As someone is apt to ask (including myself), "how do astronomers know any of this?"  According to the article linked above, the Hubble Space Telescope watched GJ1214b as it crossed in front of its home star.  Astronomers were able to deduce the planet's watery composition due to the way that the starlight was filtered through the planet's atmosphere and by the infrared color of its sunset.  Fascinating!

"The high temperatures and high pressures would form exotic materials like 'hot ice' or 'superfluid water,' substances that are completely alien to our everyday experience," said one of the lead astronomers on the study.

What I like most about this discovery is that it bears out the old axiom of "the universe isn't stranger than we imagine, it's stranger than we can imagine."  "Hot ice?"  "Superfluid water?"  Not too long ago, such concepts would have been dismissed.  Not only that, but suggestions of a "waterworld" planet would have been relegated to science fiction, something like Kamino in Star Wars: Episode II.  Now we've found one.

Our definitions of what is "standard" keep getting plied like Silly Putty; not breaking, just stretching beyond points we previously thought unreachable.  Sort of akin to how black holes have gone from being a mere theory to a generally accepted fact.

Speaking of black holes, the next time you're experiencing a windy day, just remember that the smallest black hole known in our galaxy has winds of nearly 20 million miles per hour.  Imagine experiencing that while crossing the event horizon and moving ad rem towards the compression point.  Reminds me of a short story I wrote.   Maybe we can get Graymalkin to chime in here as is the black hole expert in residence here at Strange Horizons.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Wait, those were Korans? Oops.

Making its way through the headlines this morning was this story.

U.S. troops stationed at our largest military base in Afghanistan were ordered to burn a pile of refuse.  They were unaware, however, that a stack of Korans was in the "to-burn" heap.  Only after several Afghans noticed the burned pages was anyone the wiser.  The Afghans scrambled to douse the flames with their jackets and with mineral water.  Military officials were quick to offer sincere and earnest apologies for what they called an "error, a mistake."  Knowing how things work in government-operated entities, I can totally see this comedy of errors happening.

Nevertheless, the Afghans accepted no such apology.  As ABC News reported:

"By the morning, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside of Bagram [Air Field] and on the outskirts of Kabul. Some shot into the air, some threw rocks at the Bagram gate, and others yelled, "Die, die foreigners." Many of them were the same people who work with foreign troops inside the base. At one point, apparently worried that the base would be stormed, guards at the base fired rubber bullets into the crowd, according to the military."

"Die, die foreigners."  Tends to go against the tenets of most major religions but then what do I know?

I write about this today to demonstrate the dangers that religious extremists pose to the world.  Notice that I did not say religion, I said extremists.  And those are present in just about every faith.
If someone burns a Bible or an American flag, I'm typically rather indifferent.  This does not mean that I support either of those activities as I believe they bespeak the individual's utter lack of respect and should therefore be afforded none in return.  No, I'm simply saying that my principles are far stronger than either cloth or paper.  No one can destroy my beliefs through such a vulgar and infantile gesture.
Others of different faiths and nationalities disagree with me on this point.  To them, these burnings are cause for death and for destruction.  I find this to be an archaic ideology, reminiscent of The Crusades.  Then again, why should I be surprised?  Nothing much has changed it would seem in the past thousand years or so.  I enter into evidence a photo gallery of the Civil War in The Atlantic.  My apologies as I can't seem to find a direct link to the gallery I'm speaking of but I can at least get you in the vicinity.   Actually, I feel fairly confidant that if you browse the user comments on most of those articles, you will find the same things that I did.  Namely, North and South rhetoric still flying, the questionable idea of state's rights, and issues of slavery.  How little has changed.  How dangerous both nationalism and religious zealotry remain today.

If pressed, I would say that yes, I do believe the Koran burning was an honest mistake by our military.  It would seem an odd and counter-intuitive action after investing so many resources and losing...and continuing to many troops in action in Afghanistan.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, February 20, 2012

Author Margaret Atwood

I did not have to read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood in undergrad.  My younger brother did.

In certain respects, I rather envy him.

It was the first book for him in the first semester of freshman year.  Quite a few firsts in that sentence alone.   Regardless, I can still see his 18 year-old self in early August, sitting in a chair in my grandmother's house and reading The Handmaid's Tale.  At one point he closed the book and with a slow hand he placed it upon an end table.  He then gently rose up...and began to run for the door, flailing his arms while crying "AAAAAGHCK!  AAAAAGHCK!"

He is not the first to have that reaction.  You see, The Handmaid's Tale is about a future United States which is governed by a theocratic dictatorship.  Sounds timely.  Sounds prescient when you consider that the book was published in 1985.  Riffing on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales for the title, Atwood wrote a novel that explores how women are subjugated and how they reclaim agency in their lives.  The book won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the Prometheus Award, both of which are prizes for science fiction books. It was not, however, the feminist themes written by the Canadian author that ended up irking so many, it was her response to those said awards.  In fact, Atwood was once offended that anyone even called her books "science fiction."

As her Wikipedia entry states: 

"Atwood was at one time offended at the suggestion that The Handmaid's Tale or Oryx and Crake were science fiction, insisting to The Guardian that they were speculative fiction instead: "Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen." She told the Book of the Month Club: "Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians." On BBC Breakfast she explained that science fiction, as opposed to what she herself wrote, was "talking squids in outer space." The latter phrase particularly rankled advocates of science fiction and frequently recurs when her writing is discussed."

Indeed, I'm certain that it does tend to crop back up as it's quite insulting.  Atwood's point, however, is not entirely without merit.  

The genre of science fiction, like many others, has indeed been overrun from time to time by businessmen looking to reap quick profit by creating stories filled with exactly what Atwood decries.  However, notice that the true giants of the science fiction canon don't rely on such glitz.  Sure, there may be appearances of UFOs, spaceships, or robots, but they are often relegated to morceau amounts in proportion to the main ideas behind the pieces.  Distinguishing herself further from this, Atwood claims to write, at least according to interviews, is "social science fiction."  That happens to be one of my favorite kinds.

Works in this science fiction sub-genre take a speculative look at what society may be like in the future.  More than that, it examines how people will behave based on current trends, often times reflecting dystopias as cautionary tales.  I like that.  In fact if I may be so bold, several of my own science fiction short stories are ones that I would place in that category.  What I don't like is Atwood perpetuating the "I'm literary, you're genre, don't ever sully my writing with such a label again" attitude.  But who knows?  She may have softened that stance by now.

Whatever her views, The Handmaid's Tale now joins my Everest-high "to-read" list.  I just wish I had read it back in college.  Despite my brother's reaction.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Sunday, February 19, 2012

End Times: not as happenin' as I thought they'd be

"The planet is fine, the people are fucked. It's us- we're leaving. Pack your bags, folks."
--George Carlin

I promise that this will be my last "environment/world in decline post."

At least know, like 48 hours.

I am still stuck on the theme of my post from Friday.  There are certain members of evangelical Christianity that are indifferent toward or enthusiastic towards environmental destruction and the end of the world.  This has been reinforced by yet another online article that I found, this time regarding nuclear war, entitled "Rolling out the red carpet for the Second Coming with nuclear war."  God has ordained our end.  Ain't that fucking great?

To be fair, there are several bodies of evangelicals fighting for environmental balance and for disarmament.  I am hopeful that they will one day no longer be voices in the wilderness but powerful forces that can no longer be ignored by their greater whole.  I say this because I'm scared.  The end of the world is nowhere near as cool as I thought it would be.

Many times before, I have attributed my change of heart to my middle-aged status.  I now have far more to protect and to potentially lose.  I grow alarmed when I read things such as "scientific fact has little effect on public opinion."    It seems more and more unlikely that people will act en mass to do something about the problems that we face, mainly because doing so will make no money.  That greatest of all American sins.  So in the face of "apocalypse pretty soon," what are my hopeful options?  I mean, besides building bunkers or adopting a "well whattayagonnado" attitude towards the worst case environmental scenario?

Well one hope is The Singularity.  If we're dependent on the environment and the environment is going to hell in a handbasket of our own design, then perhaps one option is cease our dependence on the environment.  Replace vital human parts with cybernetic ones that no longer need clean air or water or to even upload one's self altogether into a computer.   That technology, though advancing by the day, is still a ways off.  The most optimistic estimates that I've seen place it at fifteen years away minimum.  A lot can happen in that time.

What about exoplanetary options?  Moving ourselves out into space?  I believe I can summarize the prevailing thoughts on that notion by a response I was once given by a professor: "It's, how shall we say, f-ed up?"
I respect him and think no less of him for the quote.  He is, after all, merely indicative of a far greater body that shares the opinion.  Where would we come up with the money for such an enterprise?  Where indeed.  Who would want to live out there?  Who indeed (flailing my arms like the geekiest kid in the class and hoping the teacher will pick me.)  It would certainly be a herculean undertaking but if you agree with thinkers such as Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, it is a necessary one.

This is going to sound extraordinarily selfish and  I hope that you'll forgive me.  The fact is that I am old enough to likely to shrug off this mortal coil before the real whirlwind of our environmental short-sightedness hits in forty years or so...that is if I'm unable to take advantage of cybernetic advancements.  Those younger than I will not be so lucky.  To them I say, "Sorry.  I tried."

"It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value."
 --Arthur C. Clarke

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Will instinct or intelligence win out?

Our world is home to over 8.7 million species of life.  It is thought that only 1.2 million of those has been cataloged and named by science with new species found every day.

That is, anyway, according to this article.  The article goes on to make an interesting point: " is normal for human beings to focus on their needs and wants – like all other species – rather than conserve ecosystems, despite our knowledge of environmental deterioration and our understanding of the natural world and our place in it."
Ostensibly, we humans are intelligent animals.  We are able least on varying levels...our place in the ecosystem.  We know that we need other species, such as bees to pollinate plants we harvest.  We know we need trees for timber and we're starting to figure out that we need them to help regulate climate.  Many of us are also keen to save whales, tigers, and polar bears because they fill their own ecological niche and because well, they're cool.

One of the important points that this article posted on Policymic makes clear is that while the aforementioned organisms are important, there are other ones that are arguably serving a far more critical role in terms of our own existence.  They, like the polar bear, are also in danger of extinction.  I'm talking about life such as fungi, salamanders, algae, et. al.  Can you imagine any of them being hoisted as poster children for conservation?  Yeah, me neither.

The reason I'm writing about this article is that it does such a wonderful job of articulating beliefs that run quite close to my own.  Most policy-making pachyderms see humanity as the top of the food chain, the most intelligent organisms in all earthly creation.  Might makes right and we therefore have the entitlement of doing whatever we want to the world.   In a way, they are correct.  Being so (questionably) intelligent, we can look outside of ourselves and see how we fit into ecosystems.  We can reason out that we are dependent upon other species and then act in ways to preserve and sustain our environment.  This in turn helps ensure our continued survival.  Right back full circle to preservation instinct.  By preserving the environment, we really do act in our own self interest.

Then again, we might opt to act solely on instinct.  Me, me, me, get me what I want and damn the torpedoes on everyone and everything else.  If that is indeed the case, then we won't need an asteroid, a Mayan 2012 prophecy, or any other major catastrophe to do us in.  We'll have our own greed and stupidity to handle that task.

Yes, we can think.  So let's act like it.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, February 17, 2012

If it's God's will...

Just when I thought people could not get dumber.

A conservative religious group is bashing evangelical church leaders for being concerned over levels of mercury in the environment.  The collective, known as The Cornwall Alliance, has also said this of Global Warming: “we deny that carbon dioxide … is a pollutant” and that “we deny that alternative, renewable fuels can … replace fossil and nuclear fuels.”  They have also called environmentalism "one of the greatest threats to society."

Let's unpack what's going on here for just a moment.  An organization called the Evangelical Environment Network, composed of Christians, is supporting pollution standards and regulations.  Evangelicals tend to be fairly conservative.  Even they are beginning to come around on the subject of environmental protection and climate change.  Then another group of Evangelicals attacks them for not being conservative enough. 

But wait.  Aren't conservative evangelicals "pro-life?"  Won't reducing mercury levels in the environment be good for children?  Wouldn't the unborn benefit from having a world that is not suffering from the effects of Global Warming?  Here's what they have to say about that: "The life in pro-life denotes not quality of life but life itself. The term denotes opposition to a procedure that intentionally results in dead babies."

Wow.  I mean, wow.  Seriously.  What is wrong with these people?

Then again, maybe they have their own theological reasons for not caring.  A research survey from last year found that 67% of evangelical Christians believe that natural disasters are indicative of the "end times."  This includes Global Warming.  By way of comparison, only 34% of mainstream Protestants and 30% of Catholics believe the same.

So if I understand this fundamentalist Christian line of reasoning, Global Warming and its related effects are not caused by humanity, rather it is God punishing us for our sins and bringing about the end of the world?

You've got to be fucking kidding me.

It shouldn't surprise me.  Evangelical leaders have said dumber things.  Pat Robertson asserted that the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was due to that nation's involvement with voodoo and that the 2005 flooding of New Orleans was punishment for abortion.
Why if I didn't know better, I would say that this is really the political disguised as the theological.  After all, this does sound an awful lot like what the teabaggers have argued as a central issue.  If you hate Obama, you need to be against environmentalism, too.  It's a socialist movement out to keep you from making money, you know.  In my belief, God granted humans intelligence in order to think our way out of problems like Global Warming.  God didn't do anything to bring about climate change, this one is all on us.  These aren't the "end times" by His edict.  But they are if we allow them to be.

There is hope, however.  There was a great comment on one of the articles linked above and the post is so inspiring that I am going to paste here in its entirety:

"As an evangelical Christian deeply concerned about climate change (I am currently working on a PhD in Christian climate ethics), I apologise for the lunatics who also profess to follow Christ. Some are misguided, some have let their faith be driven by their political ideology, some have simply sold their soul to the Devil."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sunlight under crystals

Came across an absolutely stunning photograph.

I'm not going to post it because it's obviously the property of the photographer, Chad Carpenter.  You can, however, view it here at More Intelligent Life by The Economist.

Quick blurb about the photo.  It is of nacreous clouds over Antarctica.  These clouds are found often in polar regions as they form in the extremely low temperatures of the high stratosphere.  In the photo, sunlight is diffracted through ice crystals in the clouds, causing undulating and prismatic lines.   Yet while admiring the beauty of the tableau, there is something else to consider.  The iridescent palette of colors that the clouds show is indicative of the widening hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica.

How symbolic, really.  Something pretty and shiny to entertain and distract us as we march ourselves towards our own unpleasant end.  As if to underscore the hidden gloom, there is the silhouette of a shrine towards the bottom of the photo.  The monument is for a construction worker who fell through the ice on his tractor in 1956. 

That's right.  Even in the admiration and appreciation of a photograph, I can still harp about environmentalism.  Oh well, if "they" are right and there really is nothing we can do about Global Warming and the like, at least we'll have pretty lights in the sky to gaze upon as we tear our own home apart.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

UFO chased over Mexico

Once again, the skies over Mexico appear to attract UFOs.

The action took place last month in Mexicali and even led to a high-speed chase involving local police.  The UFO was first sighted in the region of the city’s airport and was caught on video by closed-circuit security cameras.  As is typically the case, the video is grainy and essentially useless.  It depicts the usual “light in the sky” and not much else.

This light in the sky, however, led to a deluge of phone calls to the local police department over the “strange device in the air.”  It is estimated that thousands may have seen this object.  The UFO was described as being a cluster of white lights tapered at the ends and giving off blue and yellow flashes.  The object was observed “a dizzying array of aerial maneuvers that seemed impossible by conventional aircraft” as stated in the above link.  Police officers gave chase to the UFO but found it impossible to follow.  The UFO was said to be capable of “dizzying speeds.”

What’s more, a similar UFO was sighted days later, hovering in the skies of Tijuana.  Yes, go ahead with whatever jocularity you have in mind regarding the location and its reputation for drinking and drugs.  This does indicate a pattern, however, or a “flap” as it is sometimes called in Ufology…and Mexico has seen numerous flaps.

Unfortunately, I must continue to vilipend the videos in terms of constituting evidence. They really show nothing and have few reference points to gauge size and location.  However, the color still pictured in the previous link does seem to indicate a metallic object of a sort, but beyond that I couldn’t tell you its identity.  That, plus the fact that it’s flying in the sky, makes it by definition a UFO.   So hoax UAV, optical illusion, secret aircraft, alien spacecraft, or something even weirder than that, I invite you to debate.

Keep checking Inexplicata for more information as it comes in.

In other news, Mitt Romney is a jackass.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Transgenic Art

I have been looking over the artwork of Eduardo Kac.

His is art that is not all that new but is certainly new to me.  That doesn’t exactly say much but new to me or not, Kac is still breaking a lot of new ground with his concept of Transgenic Art.  Though I’m not entirely sure it’s ground that needs to be broken.

Kac’s m.o. is to take the advancements in technology, genetics, medicine and many other fields and to create life as art.  Perceptions of what is “human” and “beautiful” are in constant states of flux for any thinking person.  As Kac says on his web page:

“We observe this phenomenon regularly through media representations of idealized or imaginary bodies, virtual-reality incarnations, and network projections of actual bodies (including avatars).”

Keep in mind that was written in 1998, long before the movie.

So what exactly is Transgenic Art? Again, I’ll let Kac say it:

“Transgenic art, I propose, is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to an organism or to transfer natural genetic material from one species into another, to create unique living beings. Molecular genetics allows the artist to engineer the plant and animal genome and create new life forms. The nature of this new art is defined not only by the birth and growth of a new plant or animal but above all by the nature of the relationship between artist, public, and transgenic organism. Organisms created in the context of transgenic art can be taken home by the public to be grown in the backyard or raised as human companions. With at least one endangered species becoming extinct every day, I suggest that artists can contribute to increase global biodiversity by inventing new life forms. There is no transgenic art without a firm commitment to and responsibility for the new life form thus created. Ethical
concerns are paramount in any artwork, and they become more crucial than ever in the context of bio art. From the perspective of interspecies communication, transgenic art calls for a dialogical relationship between artist, creature/artwork, and those who come in contact with it.”

This is where I begin to question things.  I certainly don’t doubt Kac’s intrinsic passion for animals, given his statement about endangered species and what he goes on to say about dogs: “Among the most common domesticated of mammals, the dog is a quintessentially dialogical animal; it is not self-centered, it is empathic, and it is often prone to extroverted social interaction.”  My problem stems from a few of his works, namely Alba, the GFP (Green Fluorescent Protein) Bunny.  In 2000, Kac commissioned a French lab to implant a regular rabbit with green fluorescent genes from a jellyfish.  Lo and behold, a glow-in-the-dark bunny was born.  Kac now has intentions to do the same with a dog but that has yet to materialize.

I suppose I must ask, “Do we really need any of this?”  Why must a dog be made to glow in the dark for any reason beyond novelty’s sake?  I like to think of myself as a fairly forward-thinking person, a futurist if I may be so bold, but I’m having a slight tussle with the ethics of Transgenic Art.  Please note that I am not calling Kac a bad guy.  Not at all.  In fact, take a look at these other statements from his site: “These animals are to be loved and nurtured just like any other animal.”  “The result of transgenic art processes must be healthy creatures capable of as regular a development as any other creatures from related species.” 

Guess I’m just trying to sift through all the aspects of transgenic art.  So let’s take a look at his online gallery of Bio Art.  I’m rather intrigued by his work, “Specimen of Secrecy About Marvelous Discoveries.”  As is policy with me for most art, I usually pounce on whatever attracts my eye first.  I figure it must have meaning to me on one level or another.   Anyhow, these pieces are what Kac terms "biotopes," organic pieces that evolve and grow during the exhibition in response to their own internal metabolism and their environment.  The artist, with earth and water as his pallet, then alters the development of the organisms to create different effects.  Truly "bio art." 

Again, I don't think that Eduardo Kac is a bad man and he certainly is a very intelligent and talented individual.  I just question if we have the right to do things such as this to other sentient beings such as Alba.  Just because we can, doesn't mean we should.  I know, I know, the artwork is brilliant for the most part and until I stop eating meat and wearing my leather jacket I don't have much of a leg to stand on.  Still, the questions nag me.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, February 13, 2012

Virtual Multiverse

In the course of writing this post, I have spun off as many as eight different timelines and universes.  The number is probably higher than that but I stopped counting.

Through my various fumblings through the Internets, I have found a theory of free will called "The Virtual Multiverse Theory" developed by Ben Goerztel, an author and researcher in the field of transhumanism.  While he is not exactly the first person to ruminate upon these ideas, his "virtual multiverse" concept is rather innovative and bears inspection.

As I understand it, this concept is tied in heavily with the idea of the subconscious and with free will.  When acting wisely, we think about what we are going to do and the decisions we are going to make.  In considering options, the brain creates various future timelines in order to model the possible outcomes of each decision.  These are different "realities," universes unto themselves that never existed in our physical sense but were very real in our own minds.  No matter how mundane the decision or inane the situation, a line branches off as the world would be different even in just a small way as the result of the decision.

Goertzel invokes Jorge Luis Borges for the basis:

"The notion of a “multiverse” here is motivated by quantum mechanics (DeWitt and Seligman, 1974).  However, the theory I am proposing here is not a quantum theory of consciousness; it is compatible with both quantum and classical physics.  What I mean by a multiverse is a model of reality like the one explored by Borges in his famous tale The Garden of Forking Paths (see Borges, 1999). Borges portrayed the world as consisting of pathways defining series of events, in which each pathway eventually reaches a decision-point at which it forks out into more than one future pathway.  Borges’ “paths” are the “branches” of the mathematical “tree structures” used to model multiverses; and his decision points are the nodes or “branch-points” of the trees.  Actual reality is then considered as a single “universe” which is a single series of events defined by following one series of branching-choices through the mathematical tree.  The many-universes interpretation of quantum physics posits that the multiverse is physically real, even though we as individuals only see one universe; and that an act of quantum measurement consist of a choice of direction at a branching point in the multiverse tree.  On the other hand, what I am hypothesizing here is that we perceive a psychologically real multiverse – independently of whether there is a real physical multiverse or not – and that free will has something to do...with the choice of directions at branch-points in this psychological multiverse."

Think of it.  Each thought a virtual universe contained within the multiverse of your mind.  Is consciousness itself a multiverse?  If we extend this theory to its logical conclusion, then the answer would appear to be "yes."
Over at, a post was made regarding a related concept known as "virtual transcendence":
Virtual Transcendence- augmented minds discover that programming reality is too difficult or impossible- but the virtual multiverse will now be far richer and larger than physical reality- this growing difference will cause all societies to see physical reality as an information desert and we will all begin to shift into virtual space- transforming the physical world into a physical plant and substrate to support the expanding Virtual Multiverse."   

Falling further and further inward.  Endless permutations.  That doesn't really bother me but it's not exactly an exoteric notion and I'm quite certain it gives many the heebiejeebs.   It shouldn't.  The human brain is a computer.  What's described by Goertzel et. al. is the mind modeling outcomes, in other words, thinking.  As Goertzel emphasizes, the brain even models itself.  Really places the idea of free will into perspective, closing the gap on any real doubts that it exists.  We have the potential to create a multiverse with our minds.

Gives new meaning to what Ghandi once said, "A man is but the product of his thoughts what he thinks, he becomes."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, February 10, 2012

Free Form Friday

I would like to welcome you to a new feature here at Strange Horizons.  I call it "Free Form Friday."

What can you expect here?  Well, anything.  My own metaphysical musings on whatever is either philosophical or tropical or anything else in between.  For the inaugural post, I thought I would take on a subject topical to the days ahead.  Love.

My thoughts on this emotion have been almost everywhere you can conceive.  It's just a reaction of biochemicals and I don't need it.  It's amazing, it makes everything worthwhile.  It carelessly cuts you and laughs while you're bleeding.

I can't help but think of Leo Tolstoy on this subject.  He and his masterpiece, Anna Karenina.  The novel is not only held up by many scholars as the highest accomplishment in literature, it is also gut-wrenching in its exploration of love.  How love can make you miserable without it.  The agony of sheer longing.  Yet there is also the cruel irony of how having can be nowhere near as pleasurable as longing...and the socially unacceptable, no-win scenario of being in love with two or more people for different yet equally valid reasons.  Take it, Leo:

"He knew she was there by the joy and fear that overwhelmed his heart."

"Vronsky, meanwhile, in spite of the complete realization of what he had so long desired, was not perfectly happy. He soon felt that the realization of his desires gave him no more than a grain of sand out of the mountain of happiness he had expected. It showed him the mistake men make in picturing to themselves happiness as the realization of their desires. For a time after joining his life to hers, and putting on civilian dress, he had felt all the delight of freedom in general, of which he had known nothing before, and of freedom in his love — and he was content, but not for long. He was soon aware that there was springing up in his heart a desire for desires — longing. Without conscious intention he began to clutch at every passing caprice, taking it for a desire and an object."

That's how Tolstoy called it.  Social workers sometimes call it "co-dependence."  Bono calls it "With Or Without You."

William Shakespeare...or the any number of people who might or might not have been responsible for his work...was certainly no stranger to love's agonies and ecstasies.  Romeo and Juliet is all about that.

"Benvolio: What sadness lengthens Romeo's hours?
Romeo: Not having that, which, having, makes them short.
Benvolio: In love?
Romeo: Out-
Benvolio: Of love?
Romeo: Out of her favour, where I am in love."

Juliet: "My only love sprung from my only hate!
Too early seen unknown, and known too late!"

So many books, stories, movies, and plays...all of them trying to explain this thing called love.  A lot of it is sickly sappy, other views are terse and pitch black.  As with any set of extremes, neither viewpoint gets it completely right.  The truth is in the middle.  Yet it's a muddy, murky, and confusing middle.  So in light of all of this, why the hell do we do it?

Like other aspects of nature, it just seems to happen.  Even the lonest wolfs among us find things ultimately go easier with someone else to share the load.  For love need not mean romance or sex.  It can mean solid ground to walk on and bright light to steer by.  It can mean deep sacrifice and utter altruism.  It's that magic moment when you find someone who knows you better than you even know yourself, someone who will quarter no pretending as to do so would be pointless.  Someone who sees the ghost in you.

That's when love, in my opinion, is at its best.  Then it gets ugly.  There's that insidious tendency in us to want to change the other person.  To tweak them to our precise liking no matter who perfect they might be for us.  There is a sense of ownership in that.  Might sound sick, but we actually stop treating the object of our love as a person at that point.  When ownership enters the picture, they become a possession.  I'm no angel.  I've been both victim and offender in this regard.  I am fortunate to have someone who has gone through those times with me, those ugliest of moments where the darkness of love can make you say the worst of words, yet has chosen to remain with me.

Regardless of the reason, I don't think it's an accident that Valentine's Day falls smackdab in the middle of February.  This is a winter month in many parts of the world.  It is gray, it is dreary, it is at times snow-covered.  I love winter but even I can grow weary of Norwegian-styled skies.  Valentine's Day paints a wide splash of red across the entire month.  Bright.  Fiery.  Passionate.  Like the glow from inside a house in a Thomas Kincade painting, loathe as I am to use him as an example.  But it's that light within.  Who we love, for better or for worse, helps define who we are.

I was asked just recently to name my top three favorite love songs.  I honestly don't know if I could come up with a ranking.  But for sheer lyrical quality, it's hard to top this line: "If God has a master plan that only He understands, I hope it's your eyes he's seeing through."  Can be taken any number of ways.  Can be interpreted in many views.  Each of them valid.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 9, 2012

No warmth for cold fusion

I was thinking about cold fusion today.

Seriously, I don't know where this shit comes from.  Don't you just love my mind?

I think the thoughts of cold fusion are due perhaps to the time of year.  Back in 1989 at around this point on the calendar, I was in my physics class in senior year of high school.  I have just horribly dated myself with that statement of disclosure but I shall press forward.  During that time, two scientists announced wide to the world that they had enacted cold fusion in a laboratory.

Fusion, for the uninitiated, is the process of two or more atomic nuclei merging to form a heavier nucleus, such as deuterium and tritium fusing to form helium.  When this happens, an enormous amount of energy is released.  Nuclear fusion is the process by which the stars burn.  By contrast, when you hear about a nuclear reactor, the process involved is fission and yields a significantly smaller amount of energy.  One frustrating hurdle that prevents man-made fusion on a large scale is the enormous temperatures necessary to bring it about.  Think "core of a sun."  Then in 1989, two men named Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann proclaimed that they had created fusion at room temperature.

Their experimental apparatus produced, they claimed, excessive heat anomalies as well as the presence of neutrons and heavy water.  This would be indicative of a low-level nuclear reaction.  Hopes soared.  It seemed as if we might be on the cusp of finding a vast source of clean and cheap energy.  Pons and Fleischmann published their screed on the topic and other scientists attempted to replicate what the duo had done.  And that's when the trouble began.

Other researchers had extreme difficulty in achieving the same results.  Even with the direct help of Pons and Fleischmann, the results kept coming back as negative.  Hopes fell.  There were discoveries of flaws and experimental errors in the original process and many in the scientific community withdrew any interest or support in the matter of cold fusion.  In fact, I can remember the phrase itself being used synonymously at the time for something that was either poorly thought out or just pure hokum.  While sitting in that aforementioned physics class, we would watch a satellite TV program on physics that was of an almost cable access quality.   The physicist host of the program held up a newspaper article claiming the Pons-Fleischmann experiment to be complete shit (well, not in so many words but you get the picture) and urging the budding scientists out there...which I turned out not to not "rush into theories half-baked."  Those words are exact as I remember them for whatever reason...even though most everyone seemed to forget about cold fusion after that brief moment in time.

It's still a controversial topic today.  There are those that argue that cold fusion is possible.  There are even those who are asserting that it has already been carried out and the information is being suppressed by the academic intelligentsia or by forces more greedy and nefarious.  Just check this article from Forbes magazine, detailing NASA announcements that seriously downplay hopes for cold fusion, or Low-Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) as they are now called...perhaps in an attempt to shed the cold fusion stigma of 1989.  It's not going away.  In fact, columnist Forbes Mark Gibbs says of the buzz around a video recently released by NASA:

"Amongst the many staunch LENR boosters and the redoubtable believers in Andrea Rossi’s E-Cat device (which this blog covered last week and in several previous postings), this video has been hailed as somehow irrefutable proof that NASA, as a whole, is admitting to the existence of LENR as a practical technology for energy generation while others see this as a breaching of the misinformation and suppression campaign conducted by Big Physics (specifically the hot plasma researchers) and Big Energy (the oil, natural gas, a nuclear industries)."

That's right.  It's conspiracy time again, folks.  Just reading the comments to the article will give you a sense of the combative attitudes on the topic.

One point I will concede is that I can see how Pons and Fleischmann might have met initial resistance in the form of academic snobbery.  Nuclear science is thought to be the domain of physicists.  Pons and Fleischmann are chemists.  There tends to be an undercurrent in the scientific community that chemists should stick to inventing new forms of hair gel and laundry detergent and leave "higher science" to the physicists.  It's a disgusting attitude but it's present in the academy and not just in the fields of science.  Would this sense of pride go so far as to stifle a discovery as momentous as cold fusion?  I doubt it, but I wouldn't be surprised if the two men in question encountered it.

So the consensus is...the jury's still out.  If cold fusion, LENR, or whatever you want to call it is going to make any headway in the world, someone's going to have to come up with irrefutable evidence.  Don't get me wrong, I hope someone does.  The sooner we have clean, cheap energy for the world the better.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Superman: science fiction hero

It seemed only fitting to me that I begin this series on science fiction with the character that started it all.

To my way of thinking, Superman is the science fiction comic book hero.  He himself is an alien; a “strange visitor from another world.”  Devotees of “harder” science fiction would no doubt lament the fact that for an “alien,” he looks an awful lot like us.  Not to worry, there are ways of explaining that and those of you who have seen the “panspermia” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation are probably still with me.  Biomorphic features not withstanding, Superman is an outsider to us. 

Superman arrives as a child via spaceship after his homeworld is destroyed.  Traveling with him are technological wonders from the advanced civilization of Krypton, items that will one day aid him and bedevil him.  In his Fortress of Solitude, he will attempt to reconcile his human upbringing with his Kryptonian origins.  He is the ultimate immigrant.  And this is not by accident.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, were two geeky Jewish kids longing to create a superhero that would not simply be a manifestation of who they’d love to be but also someone who personified the concept of an immigrant in a new culture, trying to make good.  Just look at the baby in the rocket who is raised by those who find him and how the baby grows to be a man who will bring salvation to an entire people.  Obvious shades of Moses and Siegel and Shuster have never argued otherwise (to the best of my knowledge).  Later, DC Comics would take this biblical inspiration and make the character more Christ-like.  This was especially so in that dreadful Bryan Singer film.  But I digress…

Something else was going on in the creation of Superman, another sensibility was infused into his persona.  “Science fiction fandom was born in the 1930s,” comics writer Marv Wolfman said in the introduction to The Last Days of Krypton by Kevin J. Anderson (Wolfman might be off by a few years, but we’ll keep going.)  “Two such fans were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster…from their singular passion came the ultimate science fiction creation, Superman.  Superman was born out of this love for science fiction.”

Blogger Tom Floss takes an in-depth look at this birth on his blog, Fortress of Soliloquy.  He begins with the daily newspaper strips of Superman, an aspect I originally…and stupidly…failed to even consider.  When the daily strips began, they told for the first time the origin of the character.  Think of it as one of the first prequels done for an established, popular character a la Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode I fracas.  The origin story itself was something relatively new in comics.  No crooks or super bad guys involved.  Instead it was a classic science fiction theme of a doomed planet and a “space ark” (there’s that biblical meme again) to carry at least one inhabitant offworld.  This tiny young survivor would be the seed of hope for a better tomorrow.  More than just science fiction, this origin is steeped in Greek tragedy.  After all, Krypton’s destruction might have been averted or at least blunted if its leaders had listened to the brilliant scientist, Jor-el and not succumbed to human…err Kryptonian pride, vanity, and hubris.

The origin is far from where the science fiction aspects of Superman stop.  There is of course the extraterrestrial android, Brainiac, a living computer who became one of Superman’s greatest…and one of my favorite…foes.  There’s the bottled, miniaturized city of Kandor, the alien being Doomsday who killed Superman (he got better), and I could go on and on with the references.  Suffice to say, whenever an otherworldly threat accosted the Earth, Superman was the comic book go-to guy.

That, I believe, is the very character attribute that has kept bringing me back to read more Superman stories, even if he is no longer deemed "cool" or "edgy."  The origin story and science fiction aspects are fun but it is his sense of values and his inexhaustible will to defend others that make Superman so enduring.  

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Matter from beyond the solar system...

For the first time ever, matter from beyond our solar system has been conclusively detected.

A NASA probe known as IBEX (Interstellar Boundary Explorer) found the particles of hydrogen, neon, oxygen, and helium at the very edge of our solar system.  Well out in space past the orbit of the former planet Pluto.  One interesting point discovered, there are 74 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms in the interstellar void.  By way of comparison, there are 111 oxygen atoms for every 20 neon atoms within our solar system.

"These are important elements to know quantitatively because they are the building blocks of stars, planets, people," David McComas, IBEX principal investigator, said.  "We discovered this puzzle: matter outside our solar system doesn't look like material inside our solar system. It seems to be deficient in oxygen compared to neon."

That quote comes directly from the linked article.  Just so everyone knows I'm not cribbing.

The IBEX craft also detected that interstellar wind is also traveling at a different speed and in a different direction than previously suspected.  This is all in addition to a 2009 discovery by IBEX of a mysterious "ribbon" of charged particles, moving at millions of miles per hour away from the Sun and out into interstellar space.

I shall now address the omnipresent "so what?" factor.  Why should we care about any of this?
First of all, findings of this kind give astronomers and other scientists a clearer overall picture of the formation of matter in the universe.  For example, what is the significance of the greater oxygen density in our solar system?  Is this a unique feature of our tiny corner of the cosmos?  What greater role does neon play?  More data on these various facets will go a long way towards solidifying the theory of the "big bang"...or perhaps disproving it altogether.  If that doesn't float your boat, try contemplating the sheer "wow" aspect of finally finding (proven) material that originated elsewhere in the galaxy.  Though it is mere particulate matter, it is by very definition, "alien."  Through discoveries such as these, we may finally form concrete understandings of star systems beyond our own.  I'm also rather curious.  Exactly how fast were these particles moving as they seem to have been traveling against the solar wind?  What kicked them into such motion?  Are they supernova remnants?  I find this kind of thing fascinating but then I'm not exactly tuning in to the Kardashians or Jersey Shore every night, so what do I know?

If space is your kinda thing and you're still reading, check out these amazing images of auroral activity brought on by last month's massive solar flare.

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Monday, February 6, 2012

Good thing Global Warming is a myth or I'd be scared

Like most Americans, I was enthralled by the Super Bowl yesterday.  Took my mind off of the fact that things are about to get really, really hot.

An 18-mile fissure was discovered in Antarctica.  This crack will eventually cause a 350 square-mile block of ice to break off into the ocean and float northward.  That's one heck of an iceberg.  While scientists who study Antarctica admit that this kind of thing goes on all the time, they say that they have never seen a fissure of this magnitude before now.  This crack in the ice is likely due to melting.

In spite of this, we can all be reassured by the conservative Right's claims that nothing critical is going on.  The greenhouse gases in our atmosphere have nothing to do with the disruption of climate cycles.

Disagreements abound, obviously.  Even in the scientific community.  The disagreements, however, are increasingly more over the true culprit of Global Warming rather than "Global Warming: true or false."  Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find climate scientists who would disagree with the reality of temperatures increasing across the world.  Both polar caps are losing ice as temperatures rise.  And regardless of whether you believe the change is due to pollutants or just plain nature, rising temperatures are a fact.  We will soon have to deal with the consequences of this fact.  Climate change denial is growing more and more difficult to justify. 

But we'll keep on keeping on, won't we?  It won't matter to us until our personal bank accounts are somehow affected.  Either that or Global Warming intrudes upon our ability to watch a Super Bowl.  WTF, people.  WTF.

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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Film Review--I, Robot

starring Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Bruce Greenwood, Chi McBride, and Shia LeBeouf as The Beav.

Del Spooner (Smith) is a cop in a future Chicago.  He doesn't much like "robot cases," but he's got one.  A scientist (Cromwell) has been killed and a robot might actually be the culprit.  Working with another robotics expert (Moynahan), Spooner delves further into a plot that may place all of humanity at the mercy of the machines.

Given that this film was only "inspired by" the book I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, I approached the movie with apprehension.  I was pleasantly surprised and impressed.

While I'm not certain if the "action-thriller" aspects of the film would have appealed to Asimov, the heart and thoughtful meditations of the writer's work remain.  In fact, I, Robot has more than a few concepts in common with Blade Runner...and that is not detrimental by any stretch of the imagination.  Like Blade Runner, this film asks questions about what might happen if robots or androids develop emotional responses through a natural course of evolution.  What is the definition of "life?"  For that matter, what are the definitions of "thought" and "reason?"  Cromwell's character asks "Why when in the dark do robots always seek the light?  When stored in containers, why do robots almost always stand together?"
I also liked the depiction of the future city of Chicago.  It's akin to Metropolis or once again the Los Angeles of Blade Runner in that above there are aerial vehicles and shiny skies pied with color.  Beneath, where the working class dwells, it is dirty, dingy, and all-too real.
Aside from the potential liberties taken with the Asimov book, I also harbored trepidations that the film would be propaganda for the neo-Luddite set.  Kip Haggis and all such effluvium.  Then I needed to remind myself that Asimov himself wrote about the possibility of an age where humanity might be obsolete in the face of robotics.  There are things that might go wrong as we progress technologically and they need to be considered.  The detonation of the first atomic bomb brought about the science fiction films known as "Atomic Horror" that were filled with cautionary tales regarding what we were doing with nuclear energy.  Films such as I, Robot are an update of that for the Digital Age, cautioning us about the pitfalls that might be ahead.

All in all, this was an exciting film that was well-acted and still retained high concepts that made you think.  I recommend it.

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Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Spy, The Priest, and The UFO

I came across a most exciting and fascinating story while reading my latest issue of UFO Magazine.  Unfortunately, that is just what it will have to remain: a story.

The UFO article is attributed to only "Case Officer X," an author who refuses to give (I'm assuming the gender here) his name as he once worked for one of our nation's intelligence agencies.  He makes a reference to "the HQ lobby in Langley, Virginia."  That would of course indicate CIA but in the end it really means nothing.  So this spy, for lack of better term, was given a mission in the 1990s dealing with a college archeology professor.  This academic was involved with a shadowy, non-governmental agency that was researching the "otherworldly origin" of things here on Earth.  This archeologist excavated a highly sensitive artifact in Egypt but did not hand it over.  Case Officer X (hereafter referred to as COX) was sent to acquire the professor and the artifact before the man could turn it over to enemy, KGB, I'm thinking.

You can see why this had me hooked.  It's James Bond chasing after Indiana Jones because the latter may be in possession of a piece of a UFO.  Awesome.

Under a false identity, COX met the professor in France and lured him outside to a car.  A US special ops team was waiting inside the car.  They drugged the professor and drove him to a safe house.  Once they had the man restrained "for his safety" with a few strips of duct tape, they began to go through his belongings and found what looked like an optical disk with hieroglyphic markings on it.  The professor explained that he had found the disk within a 2,000 year-old dig site...and that he was convinced it was extraterrestrial in origin.  COX and his fellow team members, each former Navy SEALs according to him, tested the durability of the disk.  The flung it about, stomped on it, held it to a lighter.  Absolutely nothing seemed to damage this artifact.

The professor alleged that the hieroglyphic writing on the disk was similar to symbols found on the secret Nazi project called The Bell.  In World War II, the Nazis supposedly created this device that was capable of any number of rumored things such as anti-gravity flight, time travel, or other activities more occult in nature.  The UFO said to have been recovered in the Kecksburg UFO Incident was purported to have been approximately the same shape and size of The Bell.  Like The Bell, the Kecksburg UFO had odd, hieroglyphic symbols around its base, the kind that the professor in COX's story seemed to have knowledge of.

A retrieval team for the professor and the disk arrived.  One of the men was an Irish priest by the name of Malachi Martin.  In addition to being a clergyman, Father Martin had a background in archeology, history, and was conversant in numerous languages.  He was also an exorcist, involved even in the Amityville Horror case. 

This guy sounds straight from an H.P. Lovecraft story.  Are you following this?  It...keeps...getting...better.

What Fr. Martin's purpose for being there that day in France was and still is unknown to COX.  COX did seem comfortable enough to write that Martin was working with the same agency that had originally hired the professor.  Additionally, Martin "died in 1999 under suspicious circumstances."  Was the disk a piece of alien technology?  That remains unknown.

Great story!  Yet as I said, that's all it is at present.  It's a story told by anonymous author with not a shred of solid evidence to corroborate it.  Father Martin, on the other hand, was a real person.  A simple Google search confirms that.  He was the author of numerous books of theology, was friends with M. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Traveled, and was even a guest on Coast-to-Coast AM with Art Bell.  In one of his books, Martin asserts that Pope John Paul I was murdered.  The final book Martin was working on, entitled Primacy: How the Institutional Roman Catholic Church became a Creature of the New World Order, was not completed before his death.  Cue ominous music.

I know.  If COX is indeed who he claims to be, then there would be no evidence that he could offer even if it existed, at least not without forfeiting his life.  Of course that begs the question, why is he writing about it in the first place??  Another check mark in the story's favor is that Bill and Nancy Birnes usually do a pretty good job of vetting their stories for UFO Magazine and seldom print a story out of caprice.  That's all there is, though.  Not enough, in my humble opinion, to substantiate this as a bona fide incident or evidence of a worldwide UFO cover-up or ancient aliens or the like. 

That said, it remains a great story.  And I love a great story.

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