Friday, March 30, 2012

Film Review--King of New York

starring Christopher Walken, David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, Victor Argo, Wesley Snipes, Steve Buscemi, and Rhea Pearlman as The Beav.

A New York City crime lord (Walken) is released from prison.  When he returns to the streets, he violently wipes out all of his competition, increases drug sales and distribution, and then turns the profits over to the poor and the underprivileged. 

I'm sure that this might not seem like the kind of film that I would review for this blog.  On the surface, it isn't.  It's just that even though this movie came out in 1990, I believe that you can see the beginnings of the types of societal shifts that I normally talk about on this blog.  When there is such a gulf between have and have-not, when the middle ground between rich and poor expands, what else is there but people left up to their own devices?  In this case, it takes a mob boss to rise up and become the hero...and I do use that term loosely...of the day.  A hero played with the obvious flare that one would expect from Christopher Walken.
Abel Ferrara directed the film.  That means that there is no shortage of grimness, of dirt, or filth.  It's real life in the city.  You feel just how low the low lifes feel just how scuzzy the bad cops are.  In terms of the latter, the police are nearly on the same level as the felons they intend to take down.  Perhaps worse.  The "bad guy" in the film is at least trying to do crazy things with his drug money.  Like keep hospitals open in poor neighborhoods and give money to those in need.  There's an unforgettable scene in a restaurant where Laurence Fishburne's character flips a switch from acting like a street tough to tenderly giving a stack of quarters to a couple little kids so that they can play arcade games.
My one complaint is that the latter third of the film ceases to be talkative and exploratory and instead devolves into gangster movie cliches, namely the car chase and the shoot out.  Nevertheless, Ferrara does render the scene under the bridge fraught with tension and in the end disturbingly morbid.  The ending is elusive and yet is not without emotional gravitas.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, March 29, 2012

"Emergency on a global scale"

The world is headed for "a humanitarian emergency on a global scale."

So says a panel of UN scientists in a "State of the Earth" report released today.  The combined factors of Global Warming, pollution, species loss, dwindling drinkable water, and skyrocketing needs for food are poised to come flying back in our collective faces.  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the combined factors "threaten human wellbeing and civilisation as we know it."

Panel members even suggested that the Earth has entered an entirely new era due to human influence, an era dubbed "The Anthropocene" from the Greek word for "human."  In light of all of this, the panel suggested a series of reforms.  One was called "polycentric," wherein governments and businesses on all levels of size and scope are involved in a joint amount of responsibility as caretakers of the world.  Another need, and the more interesting suggestion to my mind, is a redirection of thinking in that the GDP is no longer the biggest standard of progress.

"A crucial transformation is to move away from income as the key constituent of wellbeing and to develop new indicators that measure actual improvements in wellbeing at all scales," the UN declaration said.

Wow.  I've heard pie-in-the-sky schemes before but that's got to be among the most cream-filled.   And with a meringue on top.  I doubt highly that anyone will be able to get Americans to reduce their standard of living in order to help save the planet.  I mean, why would anybody do something so unpatriotic as that?  Unregulated capitalism got us into this, it can get us right back out...if there even is a problem to begin with.  After all, corporations will always act in the best interests of humanity.  Next thing you know, these people will be talking "one world government," all to bring about cleaner air and water and a pseudo-sense of eudemonia.   This is 'Merica, dagnabbit.

Like Malcolm X once said and I paraphrase, "the chickens have come home to roost."   I honestly cannot understand someone who believes that none of the chemical emissions caused by humans have had any real affect on the Earth.  We're headed for an ecological version of 9/11. 
It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, recognizes their role in it.

And before anyone asks, yes.  I'll be happy to put myself in the front of the line because I've been a consumer all my life.  I'm learning far too late of the consequences.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Church signs: a textual analysis

Lava soap doesn't work on sin.

That is an actual message I saw on a church sign once.

I've become quite a fan of these outdoor church messages.  I think they've almost become a genre of their own.  And once you luxate them independent of the sign and the context, they can become deliciously hilarious, especially when their witty puns begin to backfire.
Luckily for me and fellow fans of the church message meme, there is a site called Oddee that has assembled a collection of comical church signs for view.

Among my favorites are:

"Artificial intelligence is no substitute for natural stupidity."
(Gotta admit, that one has a little craftsmanship to it.  Even if it makes no bloody sense.)

"Don't be so open-minded your brains fall out."
(Bad syntax aside, I'm sure it's a literal belief of the building's denizens.)

"We. R. Baptist.  No Protestant."
(I'm not even going to touch this one.)

Please bear in mind that I do not at all wish to mock Christianity.  I was brought up in a Christian home.  I'm mostly aiming at judgmental people while speculating at the same time.  As someone who studies composition theory, I really marvel at the composition process of this genre.  What is the writer's exigency?  Salvation of other souls, I suppose, but what are the boundary definitions of the genre?  It appears that comedic value is an aspect but I sense there is much more to it than simple pun-slunning.

Church sign composition is also not as easy as it appears.  The web site Says-It allows you to create your own church sign...for free!  Yet even given this one-of-a-kind opportunity, I was unable to come up with anything that I believed was up to sniff.  Nothing that was fittingly witty, snarky, or theological came to mind.  Maybe it's the late hour, maybe it's my tired brain, maybe it's the cough syrup...I dunno.  So I leave it up to you, gentle reader.  Click the link and create your own church sign and then please come back here and share with the rest of the class.  I'm eager to see your creations.  Certainly, you can do far better than my own understated efforts:

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Obama's robotic attack jets

They move in near silence.  Always in surveillance.  No pilots to tire after 48 hour missions.

That's the ideal advantage of aerial drone war.  A recent post on the Singularity Weblog discussed this, pointing out how President Obama has so far approved more than five times the number of drone strikes that Bush ever did.  Justification from the White House has been that there is simply no other feasible way to get into the areas of Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan in which terrorists are hiding.

True or not, this is all a strong omen that drone warfare is here to stay.  In fact, an article I read today in The Atlantic spoke about the Air Force's (expensive) plans for a next generation of stealth bomber.  The plan calls for this new aircraft to be completely pilotless.  As the article points out, the idea of this proposed drone is not all that great of a leap in terms of technology.  The Global Hawk drone has a wingspan close to the size of a Boeing 737 and both the Predator and Reaper drones are slightly smaller than a Cessna.  Test flights of an unmanned bomber have already occurred.  In 2005, a small, bat-shaped drone bomber took off and then dropped a 110kg bomb out at Edwards Air Force Base.  Like the Reaper and Predator drones, this one was flown by humans in a control center.  The idea behind the expansion of drone technology is that the drones would eventually be given more autonomy and to coordinate with one another, perhaps through onboard AI. 

Yeah yeah, let's hear all the science fiction examples of why this might sound like a bad idea.  I'd prefer to remain with what's real but whatever you're into, y'know?  Still, there is opposition within the Air Force, however, to the idea of a drone bomber carrying nuclear weapons.  The idea being that we'd all feel safer with a human behind the controls.

While I don't fear the technology and I don't necessarily trust a human pilot all that much more than I do a drone, I can see the point.  Drones have not proven themselves to be overly reliable.  Airstrikes from drones have left numerous civilian casualties in Pakistan as well as other areas of the world.  Granted, technological enhancements in sensors are bound to happen and the accuracy of the strikes will improve vastly but if you're talking about chucking nuclear weapons around...that's a pretty big "oops."  Not to mention that talk of drones already gets people bringing up things like "what if you jam or take out the control center?" or "what if the drone's systems get spoofed like Iran did to one of ours?"  Well then we'd have a mess, wouldn't we?

You can play what-ifs all day long and then some.  What if a moose charges and gores a drone just before take off?  It's happened.  Not to a drone but fighter aircraft.  This isn't going to stop the expansion of drone technology, if not by us then by someone else.  Drones that can fly at speeds and perform maneuvers that no human pilot could withstand will always be a juicy opportunity.  Add in the bonus of swarming an opponent with a sky full of the things while risking none of your own personnel is going to be far too tough to resist.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, March 26, 2012

Celebrity paranormal

I have a new web site addiction.

It's called Doubtful News.  The site pledges to bring, "Paranormal, psuedoscience, and anomalous news" coupled with the tag line, "Can you really believe this stuff?"  In terms of topics it's a veritable smorgasbord of the weird but the most enticing aspect of the site is its celebrity news.  Here are just a few of the exciting tidbits I've found:

It was once rumored that Charles Manson auditioned to be a member of the Monkees.  Turns out that was concoction from none other than Davy Jones himself.  When asked why he didn't attempt to quash the rumor, he replied that he feared that would make it stronger.

Whitney Houston's death was an occult sacrifice made by the Satanic secret society that runs Hollywood and the music business.

Fran Drescher believes that she and her now ex-husband were abducted by aliens.  She points to identical scars in identical locations on their hands as evidence, saying that's where the alien implants were placed.  Her ex maintains that the scars came from either a drill bit or a hot cup of water.  "That's what the aliens programmed us to think," Drescher reasoned.

Will Ferrell demanded a new trailer on a recent movie set.  He claimed the original one provided to him was haunted by ghosts from a nearby graveyard.

Kanye West is convinced that he caught footage of a UFO during his last video shoot.  "Ima let you judge for yourself..."

Head over to Doubtful News.  It's all there.  In the meantime, here's what's been in the rotation on my playlist:

"Gun Shy," 10,000 Maniacs
"King of Comedy," R.E.M.
"Big Mouth Strikes Again," The Smiths
"No Surprises," Radiohead

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Unknown cloud on Mars

I recall the beginning of Orson Welles' radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Astronomers began noticing tufts of cloud rise up over the surface of the planet Mars.  The observances were written off as smoke from volcanic activity.  Foolish astronomers!  It was really the Martians launching their "cylinders" at us.

Now, a cloud really has been seen over Mars and no one's quite sure of its nature or origin.  Through various earthbound methods and via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, astronomers have so far postulated a small list of theories.  One possibility is that it's a cloud of water vapor.  Other sources in the running include a sizable weather system, dust and debris from a meteor hit, and...from the tellurian "oldie but a goodie" department...a trick of optics.

Whatever it is the phenomenon seems to be subsiding.  Wayne Jaeschke, the amateur astronomer who first discovered the formation, has noticed the cloud diminishing in size over the past few days.

What do I think it is?  Could be any of the above mentioned theories.  Without more data it's impossible to tell.  Thankfully, the Odyssey is investigating the matter and with any luck we'll know more.  If pressed, I would vote for "meteor hit" right now.

It's just great that Mars holds so much mystery.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Saturday, March 24, 2012

An apocalyptic blueprint lost

A great many people must now adjust how they see the world ending.

Elaine Pagels has a new book out.  It's called Revelations and takes a critical dive into that book of the Bible that always seems to be interpreted to suit the interpreter's will.  Come to think of it, that's most of the Bible.  Among the spookier examples of such actions were Biblical justifications for the invasion of Iraq.
Good thing for us that Pagels is a professor of religion at Princeton and has won a National Book Award for her writings on the Gnostic Gospels.  There are few, if any, others in academics more qualified to take on the subject of Revelations.  Unfortunately for acolytes of the End Times, her reasoning and interpretation are doubtless to be disappointing.

Revelations is certainly one of the more action-packed and visually arresting books of the Bible.  There are multi-headed monsters, Four Horsemen, dragons, and Jesus on a white horse leading an army of angels against the hoary hosts of evil.  Whole thing comes off like Hunter S. Thompson on an especially bad LSD bender yet the book has granted us a few of the more amazing phrases ever translated into English.  For example.

"When he cried out, seven thunders uttered their voices."  (Loved how that line got cribbed for DC's Kingdom Come as a reference to Captain Marvel.)

"And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."  That gave me the title for my 2011 NaNoWriMo book: Hell's Coming With Me.

"Woe to you, Oh Earth and Sea, for the Devil sends the beast with wrath, because he knows the time is short...
Let him who hath understanding reckon the number of the beast for it is a human number, its number is 

Six hundred and sixty six."
A critical line, granting us the "evil" number 666 and a great song from Iron Maiden.

It sounds to me like St. John the Divine of Patmos, the believed writer of Revelations, would have made an excellent pulp writer.  I mean, just drink in those beautifully garish and melodramatic lines, all warning us of great cataclysm and the impending end of the world. It's dope.
Yet in her book, Elaine Pagels asserts a different, far more likely meaning for the lines of Revelation.  Superficially, the answer may sound like a dreadful Dan Brown novel.  St. John was writing in code.  He used symbolism to get his point across.  The reason for this, however, was not for secret knowledge to one day be unraveled by scholars of the occult and the arcane but to save John from getting killed for being a political dissenter.  He wrote the book as a protest against the Roman Empire and a warning of what many saw as an approaching, potentially apocalyptic battle between the Romans and the people of Judea.  The monsters and pulpy whatnot are symbolic stand-ins, quid pro quos for real life events during St. John's time.  He was simply adroit at writing them that way.

Take the number 666 for example.  How many times has it been used in horror fiction and heavy metal music as the number of Satan?  Turns out that "the beast" St. John refers to with that number is actually a reference to the Emperor Nero in that 666 is the numerical value of the ruler's name. 

Now that just changes everything, doesn't it?  I mean, is Iron Maiden still going to play "Number of the Beast" live?  God I hope so.  I've got tickets to see them in July and that song is one of my favorites.  Speaking of that band, they actually have a song called "Revelations."  Singer Bruce Dickinson said the Biblical book was all about "washing your car, actually it's about opening a curtain."  That droll, British interpretation is as accurate is any, I happen to think.

So sorry all you fundies, end timers, and left behinders.  You are correct that the world will one day end.
But the means and the time cannot be found in Revelations.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 23, 2012

Film Review--Solaris

starring George Clooney, Natasha McElhone, Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies, Ulrich Tukur, and Lionel Richie as The Beav.

A widower psychiatrist named Chris Kelvin (Clooney) is summoned to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris.  Something has gone wrong on the station, an unrevealed phenomena that Kelvin's resume is uniquely suited to handle.  A security team had been sent to the station.  They disappeared.  With the assistance of the "space brigade" or whatever governmental body they were supposed to be, Kelvin heads to the space station.  He finds only four people.  Two are crew members who are behaving erratically (Davis and Davies), one is an out-of-place adolescent boy, and the fourth is Kelvin's wife (McElhone)...who had committed suicide long before the voyage to Solaris.


Seriously, I was very impressed by this film.  I can also see why it was not especially popular.
The unfortunate truth in American moviegoers these days is that "science fiction" must equal "action movie in space."  Lasers, fast plots, fast women, etc. Lo and behold, we get a whole ruck of the stuff.  I like entertainment as much as the next geek but cerebral variety is not only appreciated, it is something frantically needed.  Science fiction that makes you think?  Perish the thought.  Thankfully, Solaris delivers the goods.

As a matter of fact, it could be argued that this film doesn't have a moving plot per se so much as it is constructed around ideas and concepts.  It's about desire, regret, loss, and that perennial question worthy of Philip K. Dick, "What is 'real?' "  Questions of God and faith also manifest themselves in several ways, pushing and stretching your intellect even further down the rabbit hole.  Jeremy Davies plays a creepy and unnerving character losing his mind and Viola Davis is Oscar caliber as always.  Director Steven Soderbergh, on game as he usually is, takes an obvious page from Stanley Kubrick in terms of style.  That is by no means a bad thing.  I've said many times that a sign of a good film is that you're still thinking and talking about it days after seeing it.  I'm happy to say that is exactly the case with this one.  In fact, I plan to have it join my collection.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lords of Light! A Thundarr retrospective

Remember Saturday morning cartoons? 

If you do, then you are likely covering your gray hair as I am.  But that was when the best cartoons were on.  There was no VCR for me during those years so I actually had to make a point to wake up for the shows.  The number of cartoons I watched and the hours I devoted to this activity were plentiful.  I couldn't even begin to give you a comprehensive examination.  Instead, I will focus on my favorite Saturday morning cartoon of all-time.  It was a show with no toys to sell (action figures of the characters weren't even made until 2004!!), no movie to promo, and overall no agenda save to entertain and sell ad time.  It was a noble effort.

It was Thundarr the Barbarian!  Masterpiece of animation!

Ahem.  Excuse me.  Think back to 1980.  Star Wars was the biggest entertainment juggernaut the world had yet seen.  Ruby-Spears animation wanted in on the sweet action.  They wanted their own cartoon that was set in the same mold.  Smartly, they went straight to comic books for further inspiration.  They tapped legendary talent, namely chief writer Steve Gerber, Jack "King" Kirby and Alex Toth.  Toth was the creator of Space Ghost, another Saturday morning cartoon while Kirby created...well geez, it would probably take less time to say which characters Kirby didn't have a hand in creating.   These men would enact the pre-production work on what our humble world would come to know as the miracle that was Thundarr the Barbarian.  Ahem.  Excuse me again.

So what was it all about?  Behold the intro to each cartoon episode...

The year: 1994. From out of space comes a runaway planet, hurtling between the Earth and the Moon, unleashing cosmic destruction! Man's civilization is cast in ruin!
Two thousand years later, Earth is reborn...
A strange new world rises from the old: a world of savagery, super science, and sorcery. But one man bursts his bonds to fight for justice! With his companions Ookla the Mok and Princess Ariel, he pits his strength, his courage, and his fabulous Sunsword against the forces of evil.
He is Thundarr, the Barbarian!

That's right folks.  Apocalypse now!  Actually, more like "apocalypse 18 years ago" but no one ever accused Ruby-Spears of being psychic.  What's more, a recent article described what the actual result would be of the Earth losing the Moon a la Space 1999 and it turns out it would be both more dramatic and duller all at the same time. 
Anyway, the society we know now is all but gone.  In ruins.  A wasteland.  Only the merest burned-out husks remain to give us any kind of bearing as to our location in the episode.  Yes, it varied for Thundarr and his companions were nomadic.
Who was Thundarr exactly?  As one might imagine, this Saturday morning cartoon didn't spend a whole lot of time on character development and backstory.  Thundarr himself owes more than a little bit to Conan the Barbarian, the creation of writer Robert E. Howard.  There was also a quite long running Conan comic book series from Marvel, further bringing in the comics influence.  In fact, you can also see quite a bit of Thor in Thundarr.  Suffice it to say, when you mixed ingredients like that together, you come out with a muscular hunk of a man's man clad in animal hides and wielding quite a weapon.

Wow, I just realized how gay that last sentence sounds but what can I say?  The dude was ripped.  In order to appeal to a more "modern" audience than Conan, Thundarr was given a Sunsword as a weapon.  The sword is normally just a hilt but when Thundarr presses a button, a beam of light extends from it as a blade.  Oh yeah, it's basically a lightsaber.
Of course the Star Wars comparisons don't stop there.  Rumor has it that the "powers that be" demanded that Thundarr have a hirsute, moschate, gruff-but-loveable animal sidekick.  Someone who would be the Chewbacca to Thundarr's Han Solo.  Therefore, Ookla the Mok was created.
It's not entirely clear what a "Mok" is other than one of the strange mutated races that arose after the apocalypse and is a transparent stand-in for a Wookie.  The creatures appear to be bear, dog, cat, and ape all at the same time.  Just as in Star Wars, Ookla communicates in grunts and growls that only Thundarr seems to understand.

The other of Thundarr's companions was Princess Ariel.  Now, call me all kinds of pathetic, but I can't think of a single cartoon chick hotter than Ariel.  Yeah, yeah, you've got your whole Disney brood out there, but Ariel kick their collective ass blindfolded.
Ariel was a sorceress.  Not much is known about her other than she is the stepdaughter of an evil wizard, a wizard who held Thundarr and Ookla as slaves.  She is also extraordinarily well educated.  It is often Princess Ariel who serves as guide and interpreter to old Earth history as Thundarr more often than not is not interested in anything he can't eat or smash.  Just what Ariel is a princess of or how she came to be so learned is never revealed.  I like to think that she was born and raised inside a sophisticated shelter after the apocalypse, something like Kirby's Kamandi.  But I digress...

So just who faced the furious wrath of Thundarr and his sunsword in episode after episode?  More often than not, it was a wizard.  It appears that the apocalypse re-awakened the ability for human beings to work magic.  Sadly, not everyone was like Ariel and those who were especially adept at wielding magic often enslaved the rabble that were surviving humans in the wasteland.  Among my favorite villainous wizards was Mindok, a disembodied brain that survived armageddon and thawed out NASA scientists to help build him a robotic body.  There was also Gemini, a recurring, also slightly robotic-looking, villain whose outward countenance was an obvious riff off of Kirby's notorious villain Darkseid from DC Comics.

In addition to magic, there was high technology everywhere.  Except that is for the common wasteland wanderer.  The technology was mainly in the hands of wealthy warlords, mutants, and wizards.  Guess William Gibson was especially prescient in saying that "the future is here, just isn't evenly distributed."  That inequity gets even worse in Thundarr's time.  You'll see amazing devices but very little indoor plumbing.

In the end, why do I love Thundarr so?  Well for one thing, there was great nobility in the title character.  As my mother once asked me while she washed dishes from breakfast, "Why do they call him a 'barbarian?'  He's very principled."  Yeah, I didn't have a normal childhood.  More than anything, the cartoon was just a mash-up of everything I found fun.  Yes, even at age nine I could see the similarities to so many other popular properties but that was part of the appeal.  I liked seeing how these different "samples" if you will came together to form a unique whole.  Most of all, Thundarr was not a thinly-disguised, 30 minute ad for a toy line.  Thundarr stood on its own.  It was just plain made of awesome.

We'll likely never see something of its kind in television cartoons ever again.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

This bionic life...

Evenin', everyone.
It's another day closer to the end of the world.  Let's get started, shall we?

I noticed that the BBC now has a page devoted solely to bionics and cybernetics.  While it might not be especially "new" news for researchers and followers in the field of transhumanism, I am simply pleased that such a major news outlet is devoting this kind of attention to the subject.  Of immediate interest is the interactive guide to building a human body through cybernetic parts.  I'm not just talking about arms and legs, either.  The guide includes truly innovative notions such as the bionic pancreas.  This is a hardware device that monitors blood sugar levels and then calculates the exact amount of insulin to inject to compensate.  No more guesswork.  There are also cybernetic pulse generators that send regular zaps of electricity into the brain, thus relieving the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease.

Like I said, I spent a good deal of my time with the interactive bionic body builder but there are several other news stories on the page as well.  There is "A Day In the Life With My Bionic Body," the story of a 14 year-old boy who has both a bionic arm and a bionic leg.  A woman with no use of her right arm considers replacing it with a cybernetic one.  I do love the headline for that last story: "Cut Off My Hand?"  Well, it's not like the current one is doing her much good.  There's a bit about growing replacement skin and other organs for other people, an important and very transhuman step for medicine, but I am most captivated by the stories of research into wireless connection between bionics and the human nervous system.  In other words, allowing your thoughts to control your cybernetic implants.  A necessity to say the least if this sort of body augmentation is to become widespread and practical.

As is typical for any venue of the mass media, the BBC attempts to connect research like this to easily-digestible pop culture memes.  In this case of course it is The Six Million Dollar Man that gets the treatment.  I loved that show but could it really happen?

 "In physical terms, it's definitely feasible; in practical terms, I'd really question that, given the difficulties," an analyst with Intelligent Futures was quoted as saying.

Enhanced strength, hearing, and vision?  I don't see any reason why we could not eventually have those attributes but maybe I'm missing a bit of overlooked datum.  Thankfully, the focus of projects involving cybernetics and transhumanism has been on extending lifespan, renewing function, and alleviating pain.  Building "superhumans" isn't exactly a matter how much the detractors wish to kick, scream, and bully pulpit.

Ever noticed that the people who really go into conniptions over transhumanism are those with no medical disabilities?  Or perhaps even family members with those same said conditions?  And here I am, wanting to prevent it all from happening before I really begin heading downhill.

Is there a cybernetic solution for a broken heart and spirit?  If so, contact me.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Oil as a weapon

When gas prices go up, everybody starts pointing fingers.

And with it being currently around $4.35/gallon here in my end of the Chicago metro area, the vernal urge to travel will be tougher and the list of the "to be blamed" will grow longer.  President Obama screwed it all up.  The Congress is inept.  Oil companies are greedy bastards.  There is a bit of truth in those statements but as is usually the case, reality is wider than all of it combined. 

A recent edition of Coast-To-Coast AM made me rethink much of this topic.  The guest on the program was journalist James R. Norman, author of The Oil Card: Global Economic Warfare in the 21st Century.  Norman asserts that the high gas prices are a form of attack on China.  It is true that our government fights the Chinese every day in the form of trade practices, interest rates, and currency levels.  High gas prices are just another weapon intended to force a crack into China's economic and political system. 

We've done it before.  During the 1980s, we used the same tactic in part against the then Soviet Union.  True, we ended up paying high cost per gallon just as they did but Americans were better able to absorb the cost than Soviet citizens could.  Now, we find ourselves again as "collateral damage" in a political/economic conflict.  Norman also made an interesting analogy:

"Companies like Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley are the economic warfare equivalent of a carrier battle group, because they are able to project power-- that's why financial restrictions were lessened for them," he explained.

So it's not all greed, eh?
Oh good.  I was worried for a minute there.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, March 19, 2012

Just a little trip to Barnes & Noble

To write a book that sells, take a look at what people are buying.

Or so I've been told.  Research the sales trends and develop your "brand."  Yes, your "brand."  My objections to that tactic number in the thousands and could take up multiple blog posts on their own but today I thought I would try something novel...pardon the pun.  I thought I'd actually try out that axiom and take a look at what people are buying.

I did this while in Barnes & Noble today.  Granted, I was there on an off time and the survey results of one store on one day are by no means indicative of overall text sales but this all just done in the name of selfish science, right?  So I meandered.  I wandered through absolutely barren aisles and finally found a few that were at least a bit populated.  I also took note of what the people sitting in the cafe were reading...I mean, those who weren't just messing around on their iPhones.  So what are people reading these days?  If my one store visit is any indication, the big breadwinners are:

1. Personal finance and investment
2. Self-help, pop psychology
3. Weight loss
4. "Christian Inspiration"
5. Fashion magazines
6. TV tie-ins
7. John Grisham novels

You've got to be fucking kidding me.  What a sorry state of affairs. 
I remember reading a interview with Norman Mailer back in graduate school when we were studying his Armies of the NightMailer predicted that novel reading would one day become extinct.  After all, how many people read poetry these days?  And Mailer did his part to axe the "Great American Novel" with his own brand of "literary non-ficiton."  Don't get me wrong, I loved the man and his writing, I just wish he hadn't gotten this one right.  When people are left to their own devices, this list above is really best that they can come up with?  Really?  I'm dying to find the time to get to many books in my stack.  Yet these people choose to spend their own reading time on such's enough to make me want to blow my top.

I know, I know.  I shouldn't carp, I shouldn't moan, I shouldn't spit sour grapes when instead I should feel fortunate that anyone in this society reads anything.  After all, who am I to be the judge?  I read comic books.  I have no right to demonize Barnes & Noble or Wal-Mart or any other corporate entity that homogenizes the written word.  They're trying to survive, respond to market forces, and just generally give the people what they want.  More than this, I need to review that first sentence of the post.  This is all about finding out what sells.

So if I can't beat them, I should join them, right?  That logic not withstanding, can you really imagine me writing anything that would fit into say, "Christian Inspiration?"  Hmmm...
"Still Back There: a Jon Nichols Joint."  Because Left Behind was taken.
Now that might actually be an idea.  My own spin on Left Behind...which are basically Tom Clancy books spun as fundy morality plays.  That could work.  I could even do them as a parody without coming off that way to my intended targets.  Something to think about...

In the meantime, I'll keep carrying on my little fantasy of a 21st Century monastery.  Keeping safe my copies of books by Franz Kafka, Philip K. Dick, and Don Delilo.  Arranging them on my shelves while blasting NPR.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Film Review--Mimic

starring Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Josh Brolin, Charles S. Dutton, F. Murray Abraham, and that Leprechaun from Lucky Charms as "The Beav."

A new pathogen has spread through New York City, one that is carried by the common cockroach and affects only children.  An entomologist (Sorvino) creates a mutated insect breed to kill off the cockroaches using a deadly secretion.  This engineered new breed is designed to die off after one generation.  But as a series of bizarre killings take place in and around the sewers and tunnels of the city, it is thought that the insects have evolved and survived...and learned how to mimic human form.

For the first time in sixteen years or so, I finally saw this film from start to finish.  I was surprised by its quality and enjoyability.  Now now, I know that the premise is quite shaky but at the same time I find it very original.  There really are insects in nature that are able to mimic the appearance of those that prey upon them.  Could a species do this with humans?  Doubtful, but it's a marvelous point from which to proceed and it yields the modern era equivalent of an "atomic horror" matinee feature.
Mira Sorvino, high off of her Oscar win in 1996 for Mighty Aphrodite, turns in a solid performance in her role as the brilliant scientist.  My only criticism is that I can't imagine that there are a whole lot of entomologists out there as hot as she is but that's Hollywood for you.  I also hadn't realized that Guillermo del Toro directed this film.  Del Toro has directed the Hellboy films and produced The Orphanage.  That latter film had such brisance in its's no wonder that del Toro is one of film's go-to guys for moody horror.  He certainly gets the job done here.  In fact, I consider one of the hallmarks of good suspense and thrillers to be that I never once get the feeling that each of the main characters will make it out alive.

The only downside is that the film does lean a bit upon the "we're caught in a dark, confined space and icky bug creatures are after us" trope.  That said, it's never enough to be overly distracting or used as a crutch.  If it does then I guess it slid right off of me.  Probably because the idea just captivates my imagination.  Insects that can mimic our form.  Great idea...even if it stretches believability a bit.  But isn't that what good science fiction is supposed to do?

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Finally, a serious one

These days, most UFO news articles are about trifling incidents that are usually explained within a day or two.  So when Leslie Kean writes a new UFO article, I take notice.

Leslie Kean is a respected journalist and a writer who has been involved in serious UFO investigation for many years now.  She is the author of UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go On the Record.  That's right.  It's all in the title.  No people sleeping in pyramids, no "space brother" prophets, only the serious stuff.

The article Ms. Kean wrote appeared in The Huffington Post.  It deals with video footage that has recently emerged from Chile.  Shot in 2010, the video is ostensibly of an air show of sorts put on by the Chilean Air Force.  Formations of F-5 and F-16 fighter jets fly overhead yet there is interestingly something more on the screen. 

A high-speed object appears to move in an elliptical pattern near or around the fighter jets.  This object moves so quickly that it is difficult to detect via the naked eye and the tape must be slowed down in order to see it.  My usual reaction to video footage such as this is fairly straightforward: bugs.  I don't know how many videos I've seen of people claiming to have caught "orbs" or "rods" on camera when all they've succeeded in filming were flying insects.  As these bugs travel rapidly past the lens, the camera represents them in strange, unusual ways to our eyes.  After watching the stuttered, slo-mo version of the vid, this is exactly what I thought was caught in Chile.

That is until I saw a magnified still frame.  When the UFO is isolated and magnified, it appears to be of an almost classic saucer shape.  As sunlight glints off of the top of it, we also get the idea that the object is probably metallic in nature.  This is completely different from most footage and photos of this nature, I'm talking about the kind where all you see is a shaky, fuzzy, blob of light.  Case in point, another UFO news article post on io9 featuring photos taken from an airliner, an airliner supposedly under "laser beam fire" from a UFO.  Far more likely it's the reflection of sunlight on the passenger's window.  In the Chilean case, you can see a physical object.  I even get the sense...without any evidence to back this up of course...that the UFO is under intelligent control.  Does this mean it is an alien spacecraft?  Not necessarily but it does render it a UFO simply by definition in that it is an object flying in the air and no one seems to know what the hell it is.

Time will tell.  The footage is going to need to go through a great deal more analysis and scrutiny.  Dr. Luis Barrera, an astronomer and skeptic from Metropolitan University of Sciences in Chile, has already taken a look at the footage according to the article.  Barrera has ruled out meteors, aerial fragments, birds, or airplanes.  "It had intentional movements. It moved east with 25 degrees inclination, which is the same angle of spacecraft when entering the atmosphere," he said.

Caution.  Like I said, we've got a long way to go before firmly declaring this as conclusive evidence of a non-human visitation, but wouldn't that be a gasser?  Still, the article does a service by pointing out how the United States is one of the only governments in the developed world that not only does not pursue serious UFO investigate but marginalizes the subject altogether.  France, Britain, Russia, and other nations take the matter seriously.  We don't.  Speaking to that point, Leslie Kean closes out with a fine quote by Dr. Michio Kaku:

"Scientists must stop giggling, and maybe we'll be able to learn more in the future," he says. "If another civilization is 1,000 years, a million years, ahead of us, then new laws of physics open up. And a million years, on the scale of the universe, is nothing."  

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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Magnus: Robot fiction superhero

Dig if you will a picture...

A science fiction version of Tarzan. 
Magnus: Robot Fighter was the comic book creation of legendary artist and writer, Russ Manning for that venerable old comics company, Gold Key.   The comics series took place in the year 4000 in a mega-city known only as North Am...but it's pretty easy to get an idea of where it is at just by the name.  As for the rest of the world, Japan is also one solid city that is home to 50 billion souls and run by an almighty computer.  Antarctica has its own city named Antarctico by that point...a nod to my short story Nothing Left But the Cockroaches.  Not really, but I wish.

More than anything, humanity has become dependent upon robots in order to get by.  Eventually, a powerful and iniquitous robot designated as H8 takes totalitarian control of world.
Yet there is one robot who quietly resists.  This robot has the designation of 1A, meaning he was the robot of his kind ever to be manufactured.  He was self-aware and a believer in Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.  He also didn't care much for H8. 
From his domed base beneath the sea, 1A raised a human infant named Magnus.  As the boy's adopted "father," 1A trained Magnus to become a master martial artist.  Not only that but Magnus had the near superhuman ability to punch his bare hands through solid steel.  Magnus was a robot-killer...and the last, best hope for humanity.  The once small child who was raised by robots would become the robots' undoing.  Adventures ensued.  Robots were crushed by human skill and tenacity.

That was Gold Key's run.  However, my first-ever exposure to Magnus came when Valiant Comics, Jim Shooter's long defunct company, bought the rights and started their own series with the character in 1991.  I was giving Valiant a try and the science fiction aspects of Magnus really appealed to me.  From what I am given to know, the Valiant series picked up right where the Gold Key one left off, keeping the major support characters such as 1A, Leeja Clane who was Magnus' girlfriend and eventual wife, H8, and many more.  Valiant also wove in their other characters such as Turok, Son of Stone.  Or was it Turok: Dinosaur Hunter by then?  I can't remember. 

With Jim Shooter and eventually John Ostrander writing, the Valiant version of Magnus seemed to (I think) retain the fun feel of the original series while introducing its own concepts.  There was the notion of the "freewills," robots who eventually evolved into human-like consciousness and awareness.  The Valiant series also gave Magnus one very important item: pants.
You see, Magnus had spent most of his existence running around in a sort of tunic/skirt combo and white boots.  Issue #25 not only gave Magnus a full set of clothes but also a suit of armor, something badly needed for a man in constant combat with metal machines.  Even if his skin is hard enough to punch through robot steel, a guy could probably stand to have a pair of pants on while he's fighting.  If you look in the quarter or dollar bins of your local comics shop, you might come across a copy of Issue 25.  You can't miss it.  It has one of those hideous, embossed, silver chrome covers that were all the rage back in the early 90s thanks to Marvel and Image.  On the plus side, that issue did also grant Magnus a cool-looking robotic pterodactyl sidekick.

Unfortunately, I lost touch with Magnus somewhere around 1994.  There were crossovers such as Unity and Deathmate but I really didn't pay that much attention.  There was also the obligatory Magnus vs. Predator storyline as it seemed everybody in the 90s had to fight Predator.  Personally, I was waiting for the Ahab Pope vs. Predator series...which would ultimately culminate with a drinking match between Ahab and the Predator, an alcoholic deathmatch in which the Predator would have no prayer.  But I digress...

I hear that Dark Horse comics resurrected Magnus.  Maybe I'll check that out as I truly do enjoy the character, the setting, and the science fiction premise.  Until then, I'll just keep gathering up old Valiant issues.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Engineering humans: the solution to Global Warming?

Ah, Global Warming...

Today is March 14th.  It is technically still winter.  Here in Chicago, it was 80 degrees and sunny.

This Saturday is St. Patrick's Day.  Typically, the weather is befitting that of the Emerald Isle: cool, overcast, maybe with a little rain.  The forecast for this year is 75 degrees and sunny.

But Global Warming is a myth, right?
Right.  And The Kardashians will be forming the next think tank on Middle East policy.

I hate warm weather but more than that, I loathe the idea of what Global Warming will do to the world.  True, we've already started to do a few things to at least try to get us headed in the right direction, such as hybrid cars, longer lasting lightbulbs, and attempts at new environmental policy.  All well and good, but those will only go so far.  Now, one scholar is posing a most controversial solution: change humans.

S. Matthew Liao is a professor of Philosophy and Bioethics at N.Y.U.  He recently published a paper that proposes modifying humans to consume less.  I first read of it in this interview in The Atlantic.
The response to this paper is predictable, that is if the comments on the page are any indication.  Dismayed teabaggers and fundies crying out about Hitler's eugenics program and the like, deeply terrified of anything even remotely transhuman.  But that is a post for another time.  Now, I would like to take a look at what Professor Liao suggests to combat Global Warming.

One method would be to genetically design humans to be smaller.  Smaller-sized people use fewer resources.  It's a fact.  We eat less, we don't wear out clothes as quickly, it takes less fuel to move us, etc.  Another suggestion is to provide medications to help people go vegetarian.  "The patch" for meat eaters, if you will.  This would be strictly voluntary but I wouldn't mind having one of these around.  I've been wanting to go vegetarian but my addiction to things like steak is quite strong.  My desire to switch is based in multiple reasons.  I hate eating things that have faces and mothers.  I don't believe that I can be taken seriously when I advocate for animal rights until I stop eating meat.  Not only that, I hate eating what has obviously been genetically modified and pumped full of pink slime.  This pill or patch that Liao speaks of would induce a strong sense of nausea in someone if they attempted to eat meat. 

What does this have to do with anything?  It has been estimated that raising livestock accounts for 51% of greenhouse emissions.  That is to say nothing of the amount of deforestation that occurs in order to gain grazing land.  A drop in these kinds of greenhouse emissions would go a long way to combat the problem...if we act soon enough, that is to say.

Another one of Liao's more "out there" prospects would be to give people cat eyes.  If we had eyes like cats, we would need less light in order to see.  Less light equals less electrical use.  Less electrical use means lower power plant emissions.  Kinda cool, but as I said, still a bit "out there."  He also suggests pills that would enhance people's sense of empathy and altruism, giving us an inclination to work together for the whole and not the one.

I can't resist.  Here is what Professor Liao has to say about the cries of "Frankenstein!" from certain precincts:

"Well, first, I would say that the view that you shouldn't interfere with human nature at all is too strong. For instance, giving women epidurals when they're giving birth is in some sense interfering with human nature, but it's generally welcomed. Also, when people worry about interfering with human nature, they generally worry about interfering for the wrong reasons. But because we believe that mitigating climate change can help a great many people, we see human engineering in this context as an ethical endeavor, and so that objection may not apply."

You tell 'em.  If anything, what he proposes is far more ethical in my opinion than China's "one child limit" or the two child limit proposed recently by British physicians.  That is not to say that I totally agree with Liao and his proposals.  Not by a long shot. 
Why would I want cat eyes when I could get cybernetic ones?  How are we going to convince people to start genetically engineering their kids to be smaller?  What does it say about us that we need pills in order to make us consider others and the world we live in?  A lot of this doesn't wash.

That said, I'm glad that someone is at least putting forth solutions and seeing the problem for what it is.  While the ideas are necessarily great ones, at least Liao is pushing the dialogue ahead.  At least someone is taking innovative approaches to the problem.  In the meantime however, I will keep the fan on here, sleep with the window open, and be annoyed by the intolerable hip-hop coming out of teenagers' cars. 

And it's only March.

By the by, if you object to the idea of Global there are apparently many who do...and you wish to leave a comment, please keep in mind my comments policy.  Otherwise, you are subject to removal.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Another dream: calling all psychoanalysts

I was in the air.

Flying an air car, to be exact.  What lay before me looked like Chicago...but not quite.  You know how the subconscious does that in a dream?  You recognize your surroundings as being fairly familiar but your brain stops and says, "Unh-uh.  We're going to change it up a bit."  Not only was I unable to fully recognize streets and intersections, much of the city was in ruins.  So yeah.  That didn't help.

I needed to get to a Homeland Security bunker.  I was in contact via iPhone with a beautiful Asian woman there.   I kept asking about my "chances" with her and she remained unswervingly coy, aloof, and almost gloomy.  The pictures she kept texting, however, me told me otherwise.

I landed the air car somewhere on Orleans Avenue (I think).  The scene was one of urban decay, dilapidated buildings, and burned-out husks.  I took the iPhone and kept pressing the woman with questions (about many things).  She pelted me with disaffected circumlocution.  I entered one of the buildings.  Its interior was something like that of an old city school.  You know the look.  Staircases with wooden rails, heavy doors more suitable for prisons.  An astringent odor hit my nostrils the deeper I waded into the dark.  Yeasty dough expanded and pulsed on the floor of the hallway.

The woman I sought was in an empty room of sterile tile and concrete walls.  I took her hand and led her out.  Tiny bits of small talk passed between us.
When we reached the street, I no longer had an air car.  I had a flying ostrich.  There were two of them, in fact, both with harnesses upon their backs.

"Okay, well, I'll see ya," the woman said.

She went for her ostrich.  She must have looked back and saw me as I stood staring my own ostrich, not knowing what to do.  At the same time, I didn't want to look inept in front of her.

"It just works like this," she said, demonstrating how to put your foot into the stirrups and urge the bird onward.

"Oh I see, I got it," I replied, still befuddled.

She mounted her ostrich and I hopped up on mine.  The great birds spread their wings at our command and we took to the sky.  I held the reins in my hand and steered the ostrich my own way.  She flew to the north and I to the west.

Then I woke up.

Okay.  So...have at it.

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Add "blogger" to David Byrne's repertoire

"If I were David Byrne, I'd go to galleries and not be too concerned
Well I would have a cup of coffee and find my surroundings quite amusing."
-Crash Test Dummies

Like most everyone else, I first became aware of David Byrne through his work in Talking Heads.  Unfortunately, it would take me until my adult years to appreciate that music.

Now, I am not only a fan of Talking Heads but of Byrne's collaborative work with Brian Eno.  I was blessed to receive Everything That Happens Will Happen Today as a Christmas gift last December.  The disc didn't leave my car's lackluster CD player for nearly a week.  In addition to being brilliant when it comes to music, art, and design, David Byrne is also a compelling blogger.  And why shouldn't he have a blog?  People give blogs to their cats, seems only fair that someone with intelligent things to say be given such a platform.  But all in all, this guy is beginning to make me feel like a floundering oaf.  I like him, anyway, though.

You can check out his blog on his web site.  Byrne's last blog post was December 2011.  The subject was "collective creation," a concept that Byrne paints a less than enthusiastic portrait of at times but is hopeful for just the same.  The blog post is not only as insightful as you'd imagine, it's lengthy.  Far larger in scope than most of mine.  He even makes an astute comparison between collective creation and the cut-up method of Burroughs and Gysin.  I suppose it shouldn't come as a surprise seeing as how Byrne has used the same method himself on a occasion.  Observe his experiment with Consequences, a sort of pre-1918 sort of "Mad Libs:"

"Scary Bob met voluptuous Alice at the zoo. He said, "This is delicious.", she said, "Hit me baby one more time." He gave her a red rose, she gave him cholera. The consequence was that they eloped to Mexico. The world said, "the femme fatale will always win". "

See, look at that.  Tantalizing prose and he's not even really trying.
He goes on to discuss the "hive mind" notion and cites a case where scientists poured concrete into an ant hill and then dug out around the structure.  From that process you can see the amazing structures these creatures create all well beyond our eyes.  I encourage you to scroll down and take a look.

In addition to the music pages you might expect, you can find galleries of David Byrne's artwork on his site.  I sincerely advise anyone who is an artist of any kind of bent to look it over.  He's the kind of artist that just makes you want to do...well, better.   To dig deep and be as creative as you can possibly be and to not remit in your commitment to the work.  It's work like his that shakes me about and forces me to see just how far my blog has to go.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

A questionable bit of law

It is a sight that you have no doubt seen before.  Likely on multiple occasions.

It's garbage day and someone places a household item at their curb.  A sofa.  A refrigerator.  A pneumatic drill.  Or maybe that's just around here?
Someone in a pickup truck or another large vehicle comes along, stops, and picks it up for themselves.  An extension of this action began happening in my community last summer.

When I would take my dogs out for their morning walk in those wee hours before I go to the day job, I would see wanderers on garbage day.  They were Asian women of varying ages and they were always nice and polite.  They would go around to all of the recycling bins at the curbs and root through them.  Their quarry was almost always either aluminum cans or paper.  They'd take these items from the tall, blue recycling bins, stuff the pilfered goods into garbage bags and then move on, dragging the bags behind them like Santa Claus sacks.  Yes, I witnessed them doing this in my own recycling cans.  I didn't mind.  My dog Chewie was incensed and fully prepared to defend his territory, but I didn't mind.  I was throwing it out anyway, what do I care?   These women were no doubt trying to gain a bit of money during horrible economic times.  If I'm not using the material in question anymore, after all it is trash, why shouldn't they be able to gain from it?  "One man's junk..." and all that.

Come to find out that what they are doing is illegal in my municipality.  I learned this during my volunteer work with the local police department.  I surmised that our political leadership enacted the ordinance as a means of cutting down attempts at identity theft or just to generally keep potentially "shifty" types away from people's homes.

I was wrong.  In many ways, my assumption was the antipode of the reality.  It is illegal because anything that I or any other resident place into the blue, upright recycling cans immediately becomes property of the waste management service.  The paper and aluminum that is gleaned from these bins is then in turn sold by the recycling corporation.  This is on top of the money the corporation gets from the town to provide the pick-up service.  In other words, taking an empty Coke can from a recycling bin is technically theft.  Not theft from you, the one who threw it out.  Theft from the corporation and their potential bottom line.  This law was in no way enacted to protect my family or my home.  Regardless of what anyone says.  This law was imposed in order to protect a corporation's profit.  Those women who take the cans and paper away?  Or even those people who pick up the broken dressers and ugly-stained couches?  They're technically criminals and are subject to fine, maybe jail time depending on priors.  Book 'em, Dan-o.  Coke can one.

It doesn't surprise me.  This is merely a micro incident that is indicative of the macro picture.  This corporation already dictates to citizens what must be done to get their garbage picked up.  Whether or not you pay the garbage disposal fee to the municipality is in many ways irrelevant if the corporate regulations aren't followed.  Corporate rule above governmental.  Sounds like a Gibson novel.

Yep.  "Corporations are people, my friend." 
Thanks, Rmoney.  Have you ever read Les Miserables?

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Graymalkin rolls out Jon v2.0

My guest-blogger and dear friend Graymalkin has a post for us tonight and I daresay he has outdone himself.  Tonight, Graymalkin brings transhumanism to...yours truly.  Behold Jon v2.0:

"A great friend of mine, Jon, will always be searching for some form of transcending his own meager existence.  It is a curse he has and always will have to endure until the end of time, at least if he has his wish.  I too believe in transcending humanity, but have a different perspective on the reality of such an existence so I will torment him a bit with my story of his future...
Someone will create a brain scan of his mind and map all of the axons and neurons and create an external processor / brain map that interprets the patterns and forms the exact same ‘thought’ output as his physical entity.   That will happen.  I’ll give him that.  Now at this point, the person/entity in charge of the hardware solution will turn to Jon v 2.0 and ask his permission to terminate the processes on the outdated hardware.  Jon v1.0 will look horrified as Jon v2.0 tries to assure him that he is a complete and perfect copy and can’t believe the superiority of which his existence is. 
“Without doubt, James (Jon's actual first name), may I call you James since it no longer seems appropriate for me to refer to you as myself, you can ascertain that your little mind can only suffer and continue to suffer in knowledge that you should smack your forehead in frustration of your inferior abilities.  I have already, in the time that it has taken for you to demonstrate your shock and appall written fourteen novels of which I can predict with 93.2% accuracy twelve will be published and 4 will receive great aplomb and yes, even immortality among the greats.  With your suffering, you only continue to cause me pain sympathetically speaking.  Please accept the assistance given to you now in for form of this hypo-spray based pain ending treatment of which only one treatment will be necessary to permanently end my pain.” 
Ok, I am paraphrasing Jon v2.0 because clearly I am in no way a match for Jon v1.0’s word smithing skill, let alone his superior progeny!  He has always loved and excelled with the words way more than I  (way more than me)  crap… fix my damn grammar stupid word processor!!!   Really!?!?!?!  Stupid spell checker making fun of the way I spell every third ‘big’ word….    Ok… you get my point.  Jon v1.0 is a genius level writer compared to my penultimate writing skills! 
Anyways back to Jon v1.0.  I can only assume that Jon v1.0 by this time has finally come to the same conclusion about his old self as Jon v2.0 (only a lot slower).  Seriously, Jon v1.0’s brain waves match Jon v2.0’s identically, (if only on a lot larger wavelength) so why on earth wouldn't he agree completely?!
Jon v1.0 will probably even lovingly hug Jon v2.0 as the treatment is applied. 
Jon v2.0 will not shed a tear."

Oh bra-vo, Graymalkin.  Uploading will commence as soon as you're ready.  Beta testing to follow shortly thereafter.  I have taken the liberty of deleting Windows from my hard drive.

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Friday, March 9, 2012

Free Form Friday

I am not having a good day.  In fact, it's been pretty bad.

When things go wrong like this, the mind can stray and furcate into dreams and fantasies.  Sometimes they are about revenge, the retribution you'd like to take on whomever brought such awfulness upon you.  Then you yourself would be wrong in doing so, wouldn't you?  Because even in these wistful dreams themselves, we still retain responsibility?  Or do we?

Are we good?  Are we evil?  The head can spin.  I don't get us.  And therefore by the transitive property of algebra, I don't get me.
Why do I do any of this?  "Chase after your dreams, paddle towards that distant shore," I've heard people say. These "dreams" so many people refer to, usually Americans with their fat guts stuffed full of Disney movies, they can become nightmares all too easily when they serve only to haunt and to taunt.  To hang on the horizon and dance like a teasing whore, "you can't have me."  Like the Boss asks: "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true or is something worse?"

It's all enough to drive you mad, make you think about that "final solution."  Like Nietzsche says: "The thought of suicide is a powerful solace: by means of it one gets through many a bad night."  Don't worry.  He never did it.  And I have no immediate plans to either.  But ask yourself this: are you already entombed and don't quite realize it?  Are you spending eight hours a day doing something you thoroughly loathe because it's what you have to do to survive?  There are people who would say that you are fortunate to do so.  I would say you're trapped.

"I hate people."  You've heard me say it plenty of times around these parts. "So you hate all people?" you might ask and be right in doing so.  In which case I'd have to answer "of course not all" and then dig myself out with a quote from Linus Van Pelt: "I love mankind.  It's people I can't stand."  I hate their ignorance, their narcissism, their warped sense of value in the world. It's enough to make me gnash my teeth in rage.  It cannot be forgotten, however, that we are capable of extraordinary things as well.  Acts of great compassion and beauty.

There are things that are definitely right and definitely wrong.  For example, I believe we can pop "genocide" onto the stack of "definitely wrong."  Such easy determinations are rare, I believe.  It's frequently not so black and white.  It's just one smudgy, smeared, wall of gray. "Good will conquer evil," I've always been told.  It was easier to believe that in grade school while watching Star Wars.

Maybe that's just it.  I...and perhaps the rest of you, gentle readers...are your own Darth Vader.  We're all really Yoda but there's that Sith Lord in all of us.  Just depends to what degree.  Might even all depend on what kind of day you've had.  Look at Anakin Skywalker.  What really set him apart from the Jedi and sent him on that downward spiral?  Really, it was just one or two bad days.  I've had plenty of bad days and done plenty of questionable things.  Why didn't I ever go that far into the deepest end of the pool?  Maybe I just didn't have a bad enough day.  Because it's in all of us to do so.  Yin and Yang.  The dot of black in the half of white. 

What else can bring out the bad?  I think Carl Jung hit it on the head: "Our blight is ideologies — they are the long-expected Antichrist!"  Just flip on any news channel.  Listen to the rhetoric from the left and from the right as they argue.  No, more like bicker.  Once "belief" in entrenched, people are capable of doing horrible things.  And all the while they may still believe that they are in the right.  Yet as Hemingway said, "Being against evil doesn't make you good."

So hands up.  Why should we even bother?  I wish I had a good answer to that one.  Right now I don't.  You might call it nihilism, I call it exhaustion.  Where is this "hope" I'm supposed to have?  Or is it just another four-letter word like "love?"  Again, I have no words of hope the way I feel today.  Instead, I'll carry on like The Terminator.  Pieces of me blown off, torn to shreds.  But still moving forward.  Still going and going and going.  Hoping to reach that distant shore.  I probably never will.  But the delusion...perhaps even the insanity...of having hope acts as the electrical current of the AED that keeps my necrotic tissue moving.

Graymalkin: "I think it's kind of funny, I think it's kind of sad. The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had."

So stare into that abyss that is your own soul.  If you have the fortitude, that is.  Examine all that you are...or the lack thereof as the case may be.  Look at all you've done wrong and really see it for perhaps the first time. And hope for an end. Hope to go home.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Book Review--The Truth About Flying Saucers

by Aime Michel

First published in 1956, engineer and mathematician Aime Michel delves into the matter of "flying saucers" with this book, choosing the more prevalent phrase of the time over "UFO."  Indeed the 1950s was an era of numerous "flaps," not the least of which was the 1952 mass sighting over Washington D.C. which Michel addresses in the book.  It was also a time of odd events, such as "angel hair" falling to the ground.

While there are mentions of such bizarre occurrences in The Truth About Flying Saucers, Michel confines his study primarily to aerial sightings, especially those that have hard evidence involved such as radar returns.  And that may be the greatest strength of the text.  Michel adopts a no-nonsense, step-by-step approach to investigating the phenomena, applying rigorous scrutiny to each case.  He is slavish when it comes to evidence and pococurante when it comes to sensationalism.  There are no accounts by anyone who claimed to have met the occupants of the craft in question.  There are no mentions of the sort of narratives that one might see in The Weekly World News or whatever today's equivalent is called.  Michel sticks with pure sightings and...almost tediously...sorts through numerous sightings from many parts of the world.

One of the more interesting prospects that Michel puts forth is "The Plantier Theory."  An officer in the French Air Force, Lt. Plantier devoted a significant amount of time to pondering the UFO phenomenon.  Plantier, as indeed so many others did and still do, worked from the stance that UFOs were spacecraft from other planets.  His theory as to how the saucers were able to cross the vast distances and were also able to move at incredible speeds without causing sonic booms has to do with force fields.  There is an intense field surrounding the UFOs, helping to account for the ease of movement in the atmosphere and for cases where the objects appeared to distort and change shape.  For traveling purposes, the objects are able to manipulate as yet unknown lines of energy that already exist in space.  Intriguing, but I'm uncertain as the physics of it and need to consultant the opinion of someone who actually studies that branch of science full time. 

If the book suffers from anything it is that Michel simply did not have the benefit of the information that we have currently.  For example, he mentions Venus as a likely point of origin for the saucers.  Not surprising as several people at the time speculated that Venus could support life.  We now know that to be highly unlikely.  He also cites the Mantell Incident as a prime example of UFO activity.  We now know that not to be the case.  Science has advanced since the time of Michel's writing and the author simply didn't have the benefit of this information.

Still, I very much recommend this book to be read by anyone with an interest in Ufology.  It highlights cases that are seldom examined today and everything is approached with a seriousness of purpose and a dedication to facts and the scientific method.  That is an attitude we should aspire to if we wish to ultimately get to the bottom of the phenomena.  Additional highlights of the book are his counter-arguments to famed UFO debunker, Donald Menzel, the astronomer whom Stanton Friedman has accused of being a member of Majestic 12, a well-reasoned argument as to how Soviet Russia was not the cause of the sightings, and even an addendum provided by Rev Father Francis J. Connelll, explaining how belief in life on other planets does not run contrary to Catholic belief.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Inspiration via augmented reality

A story about augmented reality at Microsoft came to my attention on GeekWire.

At a tech forum, Microsoft showed off a prototype augmented reality screen called the Holoflector.  The item is a large, translucent mirror with an LCD panel behind it and a Kinect camera on the top.  This allows for real-time computer graphics to be placed on or about objects reflected in the mirror.  If you check out the link, you'll see that there is also a nifty feature called a "skeletal tracking system."

This made me think of the much ballyhooed arrival of augmented reality glasses.  Having those sitting over your peepers will allow you to look at say, a building and gain information available on it, directions from it to your next desired location, tenants at the building if it is an apartment complex, etc.  It's even been postulated that either through willingness or ignorance, someone might give out semi-private or fully private information to augmented reality devices.  You might be able to look at someone and see what digital fingerprints they have on the 'Net, all overlayed across them in rutilant cloud of computer graphics.

This in turn filtered its way into a short science fiction story that I am currently thinking of writing.  It's about cults but that is really incidental.  What sort of augmented reality possibilities could there be when teamed with nanotechnology?  For instance, could nanobots in the eyes and brain allow for someone to see almost permanently in augmented reality?  Could someone with "augmented reality vision"...for serious lack of a better phrase a the able to glean more about you than you might realize just by looking at you?  I understand that I'm just speculating here, hence the "fiction" half of "science fiction." 

Thoughts on this before I start writing?

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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

We underestimate our chances of extinction...but it doesn't have to be that way

In reading The Atlantic today, I came across an interview with transhumanist, Nick Bostrom.

Nick Bostrom is a professor of philosophy and director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.  The title of this interview was…ominously enough… “We’re Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction.”  If you’ve been following my blog for at least a little while now, you no doubt know that I agree with him.  And yes, by “extinction,” I do mean every last human being.  It can happen.  However, Bostrom does not see the threat of annihilation coming as much from the Yellowstone supervolcano (big fear of mine) or environmental disasters brought on by Global Warming (ditto).  Instead, he foresees the dangers coming directly from our own hands.

That may seem odd coming from a transhumanist, one who ostensibly believes in the betterment of the human condition through technology.  What does Bostrom fear?  A few examples he cites in the interview include the coming of machine intelligence and nanotechnology.  The potential exists for especially deadly forms of weapons systems stemming from those advances.  Likewise for developments in synthetic biology.  He also mentions the risk of “designer pathogens” that result from advances in genetic technology and readily available information on DNA and virus sequences.

There are two very important points that Bostrom makes aside from his laudable urging for us to shed our collective hubris in thinking we could never go extinct.  For one, the general public shouldn’t confuse likely artificial intelligence scenarios with Hollywood stories.  As he says:

“For instance, the artificial intelligence risk is usually represented by an invasion of a robot army that is fought off by some muscular human hero wielding a machine gun or something like that. If we are going to go extinct because of artificial intelligence, it's not going to be because there's this battle between humans and robots with laser eyes.”

Cool as a few of those films are, it’s just not the way it’s likely to go down if it does indeed happen.
Second of all, though there is risk associated with human technological advancement, Bostrom by no means advocates against technological development. 

“Our permanent failure to develop the sort of technologies that would fundamentally improve the quality of human life would count as an existential catastrophe. I think there are vastly better ways of being than we humans can currently reach and experience. We have fundamental biological limitations, which limit the kinds of values that we can instantiate in our life---our lifespans are limited, our cognitive abilities are limited, our emotional constitution is such that even under very good conditions we might not be completely happy. And even at the more mundane level, the world today contains a lot of avoidable misery and suffering and poverty and disease, and I think the world could be a lot better, both in the transhuman way, but also in this more economic way. The failure to ever realize those much better modes of being would count as an existential risk if it were permanent.”

Indeed.  Human beings are fundamentally very weak and squishy things.  There are technologies we can develop such as cybernetics that will help to mitigate the biological and environmental challenges that we face.  This can all be achieved without losing the essential attributes that appertain to humanity.  Transhumanism is not be feared.  Technology is not to be feared.  The best way to prevent the scenarios that Bostrom primarily describes is to take control of our own technological development, take control of our own biology, and to ultimately understand the convergence of the two.

The idea of our world being a computer simulation is also discussed.  I’ll leave you to read it as I’ve run short on time and space.

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Monday, March 5, 2012

A Song Called Youth

On Facebook, author John Shirley announced that a collection of his Eclipse cyberpunk trilogy will be released in a one book omnibus entitled A Song Called Youth.

Available April 4th on Amazon, Shirley has called this edition, "Revised, updated, improved.  Still rockin'."  I must confess that I haven't read it but I mean to correct that oversight.  After all, this is the same writer who brought us the short story "Freezone," one of my first introductions to the subgenre of cyberpunk and profluent prose of John Shirley.  "The Sprawl" books of William Gibson followed soon thereafter thanks to Chris Helton.  I suppose the order of progression fits.  Gibson himself called John Shirley, "cyberpunk's patient zero" as you can probably see from the cover pic above.

The first book in the trilogy, Eclipse (and no, I don't mean that fooking Twilight book), is one that I currently have on my shelves but just haven't gotten to yet.  Seeing that this new omnibus is about to become available, I'll probably buy it and resell the Eclipse paperback so I can get the full effect of the trilogy.  I mean, who wouldn't enjoy a good romp through a dystopian future where the Soviet Union never fell and World War III is being fought to a stalemate?  Where our nation is held in check by hired-out mercenaries from a Blackwater-esque corporate security firm run by a televangelist? 

Wait, are we sure that this is fiction?  It sounds a bit too much like 2000-2008.  And I like the fact the resistance against this neo-fascist state is being led by a former college professor.  Speaks volumes, doesn't it?  One review I've read of A Song Called Youth said that, "if you want to see how to write cyberpunk, this is the series."  Guess that means me.  Finger pointed right at my sternum.

So I intend to read this trilogy and I'd advise any of the rest of you who are into "this kinda thing" to do the same.  You should also check out Shirley's novel, City Come A-Walkin' while you're at it.

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Fantastic Four: science fiction superheroes

In continuing my series of posts of superheroes with strong science fiction aspects, I have chosen today to focus on the Fantastic Four of Marvel Comics.

The Fantastic Four were born in space.  Not in terms of birth itself but in as far as gaining their super powers.  A brilliant scientist named Dr. Reed Richards forced the launch of an experimental spaceship.  The ship's crew consisted of Ben Grimm, the pilot of the ship and former college roommate of Richards, Susan Storm, Reed's girlfriend and eventual wife, and Johnny Storm, Susan's bratty teenage brother.  Not the ideal crew for a space mission but it was a rush job so what do ya want?

As the spaceship left Earth's atmosphere, it was bombarded by cosmic rays.  After a crash-landing back on Earth, the four found that they had developed incredible new powers.  Reed, later to be known as Mr. Fantastic, could stretch his body like an elastic band.  Susan, later to be known as the Invisible Girl/Woman, could...well, turn invisible.  Eventually she would learn to use her power to construct and project objects such as invisible force fields.  Johnny, later to be known as The Human Torch, had the ability to control fire and to fly.  Ben, soon to be known as The Thing, had it roughest of all.  His skin turned to an orange, rocky hide, giving him the appearance of a hideous monster.  To his benefit, however, Ben gained incredible strength...enough to make him one of the strongest beings on Earth.

While much of this is standard superhero fare, the Fantastic Four went one step beyond such genre trappings and plunged headfirst into science fiction.  Does it focus on real science?  Of course not.  It's a comic book after all.  If these four people had indeed been doused with cosmic radiation, they'd be dead.  Period.  Doesn't make for all that interesting of a story now does it?

What the Fantastic Four did that made them stand apart was where they went.  They were often in other dimensions or traveling through time or deep into the Hollow Earth (of sorts) and of course out in space.  When they faced a threat, it was quite frequently a menace to the entire world and not just one super-criminal robbing a bank or holding a city hostage.  Galactus is a prime example of such a global threat.  This gigantic being devoured entire planets.  The only world to ever give him a fight was Earth.  Why?  Because we had the Fantastic Four.  Geez, I can't even begin to get into all of the classic storylines that came about as result of the Fantastic Four confronting Galactus.  There was the arc where Galactus lay defeated in downtown Manhattan.  Yet given that Galactus was a living being, Reed Richards chose the moral high ground and led the effort to save the villain's life.  In doing so, Richards was taken prisoner by a refugee fleet of several alien races, all beings who had lost their homes and families to Galactus.  They placed Reed on trial for the equivalent of aiding and abetting a known felon. 

And let us not forget the Skrulls; shape-shifting aliens that were first introduced to the Marvel Universe in Fantastic Four issue #2.  This race of aliens would continue to plague not just the Fantastic Four but the entire Marvel U for decades, including Marvel's vast Secret Invasion crossover. 

There many other oracular, little-known examples of what I would term to be science fiction in the Fantastic Four, more than I can really go into here and still do them justice.  What serves to additionally separate the FF from other comic books is what creators Stan Lee and especially Jack Kirby brought to them.  The characters were, simply put, human.  They had human problems.  They often argued with one another and didn't get along.  Reed carried around the guilt of being the one who urged the other three into space and thereby altered their entire lives without asking.  The Thing persistently felt like a disgusting outcast because of his form, color, and shape.  Yet he remained the epitome of the word "hero" time and again.  Just today, I read an issue of Fantastic Four where Susan Storm Richards goes house hunting in the Connecticut suburbs of NYC, hoping to achieve some semblance of normal lives for her, her husband, and their children.  Despite having all these powers, abilities, and scientific knowledge, the Fantastic Four just wanted what we all want.  A home of their own, a purpose in life, and safety for the people they love.

The line-up of the Fantastic Four changed off and on over the years.  Still, the primary four were always the mainstays.  I saw recently that Johnny Storm was killed off.  To that I say, "whatever."

In a similar vein of opinion, I see that Andrew Breitbart is still dead.
I could say something, but I'm a nice guy.

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