Thursday, May 31, 2012

When the stars align...

On June 5th, there will be a transit of Venus.

This means that the planet will be visible in silhouette as it crosses the face of the Sun.  With Venus, these transits occur only in pairs…with more than a century separating each pair.  You can check out this page from NASA to see areas of visibility for this astronomical occurrence.

This represents a rare occasion to observe the intricate ballet that is the workings of our solar system.  But this alone wouldn’t be impressive enough, would it?  No, there must be some paranormal, nay…astrological significance to this, doesn’t there?

At least that’s what this poorly written article asserts.  After all, Nostradamus predicted this transit would happen.  No really, he wrote it down and everything.  More than that, the transit of Venus represents a change coming in the eyes of astrologers.  The article explains this with what is in my opinion, an absolutely hilarious lead-in sentence:

“Other than the rational descriptions and viewing…”  Really?  Are there any other ways to view this occurrence?  If you’re not rational then what are you?  Perhaps, “irrational?”  But I digress.

“Venus is about love.  Love is about emotions.  Though great poems have been written about love, the bottom line is that words do not completely convey the feeling.  If love were verbal, and something of straight line linear thinking, it wouldn’t be love.”

The fact that the planet is named after a goddess of love is a purely human projection.  In reality, Venus has a dense, choking atmosphere that is 95% carbon dioxide and surface temperatures so hot that life as we know it would not last very long in its environs.  Hmmm.  Doesn’t sound too hospitable to me.

And if that’s anybody’s idea of love, they can count me out.

Astrologers argue that the significance of the transit pair lies not in the physicality of Venus, but in the shape generated by the transit itself.  When drawn, you supposedly get a pentagram.  Not only has this shape held meaning for occultists and mystics, the number five has long been associated with love.  Or so it is said.

I get really tired of this sort of thing.  Yes, I’m a weirdhunter.  I would like nothing more than verification of aliens or another Fortean claim but I need to see it done intelligently, professionally, and upon a great deal of evidence.  There are people working hard at NASA and elsewhere to further our understanding of the universe, both in how it works and our place in it.  Then astrologers, operating from their haimish storefront enclaves where they will offer you your destiny for the low low cost of only $40 per reading, peddle this pseudoscience that alleges human behavior is somehow tied in with the alignment of stars.

Right.  That and the month in which you are born determines your personality and tendencies.  How?  By the stars?  Hate to break it to you but a baby is bathed with far more radiation at birth from the lights in the maternity ward than from stars.  This is perpetual buffoonery.

“But emotions rule the world.”
That’s funny.  I could have sworn it was the base levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Should you burst into flames...

It is an area of the paranormal about which I know little.

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is a phenomenon I certainly have heard of, but it just wasn’t as sexy to me as other unexplained mysteries.  For the sake of diversity in posting, I decided to look into it.  My first stop was Wikipedia.

Oh come on.  Admit it.  It’s the first place you go too, particularly when you just want a quick summary.  I certainly wouldn’t cite anything from Wiki in an academic paper or as evidence in a post, but I likewise do not intend for this to be a formal treatise on SHC.  Moving on.

As the term implies, Spontaneous Human Combustion is when the human body bursts into flames from no (apparent) source of ignition.  The Wiki article cites 16 supposed cases of this, dating from 1470 to 2010.  I find it interesting that in all but four of the incidents listed, all were in either the United States or the British Isles.  Apparently, there are other commonalities that these purported cases hold.  Chief among them:

-The body is completely incinerated while nearby furniture and other items are unmarred.  If anything remains of the body, it is typically an extremity such as an arm or a leg.
-The fire is centered in the torso.
-There is no trace of an accelerant.
-The victim was usually alone at the time of death.
-There is no sign of struggle or that the victim seemed to skirr, trying to douse the flames.
-Almost all victims were people with low mobility, meaning they were injured, elderly, ill, or morbidly obese.  Perhaps various combinations of all of the above.

Those last two points when taken in tandem point towards rather prosaic explanations.  A dropped cigarette would do the job.  Cigarettes are already the number one culprit in home fires in the United States.  In the case of the obese, it is proposed that the “wick effect” might come into play.  This means that the individual’s clothes are exposed to a heat source; let’s say a cigarette to stay in keeping with the model.  The clothes alight, the fire burns through the skin, and from there, human fat acts as a fuel source.  Boom.  Pretty basic.

Or is it?

In 2005, a scientist named Zhiyu Hu posited that combustion could occur at room temperature with no external ignition source.  Natural organisms such as microbes, plants and animals obtain energy from oxidation of the same organic chemicals at their physiological, or body, temperatures.  Hu took nanometer-sized particles of platinum and placed them in with glass wool and methanol.  A “nano-catalytic reaction occurs.”  Spontaneous combustion.

In addition to becoming perhaps as valuable of a discovery as cold fusion one day (hopefully) will be in terms of energy, does this mean that there is such a thing as SHC?  Were the suspected victims of SHC within a set of variables that combined into a catalyst with a fiery result?  Not necessarily.  Although if the further testing on Dr. Hu’s efforts have supported his theory then the SHC phenomenon might be something attributed to a reaction hitherto unknown and occurring only under the rarest of combined circumstances.  After all, if there is the possibility that a sort of "cold combustion" may take place in other materials, why not within humans on very rare occasions?

Despite this new-to-me finding, the more simple and ordinary theories behind supposed SHC seem the most likely to me.  Just to be on the safe side, however, carry a fire extinguisher.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pac Man fever: the epidemic

I have made a cancerous discovery.

That is to say, with all due respect to those who have suffered from the true affliction of cancer, I've found something that is consuming all of my time.

You see, the summer of 1982 was, for me anyway, the time when video games broke wide open.  Quarters were being plunked into arcade games by the bucket and the Atari home system had cemented video games as a permanent recreational activity and far from a passing fad.  Yes, I am old enough to have been in the final days of elementary school during that time and I scrimped and scrounged every quarter that I could so I could plug them right into an arcade game like Asteroids.  Damn, do I remember those awkward transitional days between boyhood and puberty, attempting to drown it all out with arcade games and slushies.  Geez, I can smell Hickman's Ice Cream Shop right now.

While rooting through a few things this long weekend, I found two games I had forgotten that we had for the old XBox.  They were back behind a few other games, they were covered in dust, they were called "Arcade Classics."

In other words, many different games from the infancy of computer or rather arcade-style gaming.  Titles such as Gauntlet, a pseudo Dungeons & Dragons game that is far more of an 8-bit shooter than an RPG.  It's fun to slay the undead with your axe while crying out, "die varlet!" but it gets old after a while.

There are a few car-related games, including the classic Pole Position.  Never could figure it out.  Spy Hunter is a bit easier for me to handle, not to mention more entertaining with all of the Bond-style gadgets on your vehicle.  Locate a version of Spy Hunter online.  You owe it to yourself.

Anybody remember Rampage?  It's an arcade action, kaiju-style game of mass destruction.  Choose from blatant approximations of Godzilla, King Kong, or a giant werewolf (??) as you destroy a city.  In fact, you start out in my home state of Illinois, destroying first Peoria, then Joliet, and on finally to Chicago.  Fun, but again it grows old.

Defender!  Now there's a game.  I love watching someone else play it, seeing them race their spaceship amidst the adversary-filled canyon in outer space.  I on the other hand could never master the controls.  Still can't.

Of particular enjoyment is Galaga.  ("That man is playing Galaga!")  It's quite similar to Space Invaders but a bit more challenging.  Enemy aliens will not simply inch their way down to you, they will peel off and attack like dive bombers.  I can't believe nobody has made this into a movie yet.  Give it time.  Nothing's too dumb to work these days.

Most addictive of all for me is classic Pac-Man.  I'll manage to clear and entire screen and then get killed.  "One more game" I tell myself as I hit the controller button for "restart."  It's all hot air and vanity.  I know it will be more like "just ten more games."  Each time I get closer, each time I devour a few more ghosts that are pissing me off.  Just one more game...right.  They didn't call it "Pac-Man Fever" for nothing, those wily bastards Buckner and Garcia.  That's right.  I started out playing it for just little while this weekend...then the little got more and more.  Just keep trying to do better than the game I played before it.  Just want to get a little bit further in the game.  Just one more try...

Ok, this may require serious detox.  Not only is Pac-Man addictive, it may be only the first step in my active attempts at regression.  Next, I'll be buying action figures.  Wait, I already do that.  Then it'll be comics.  Uh, ditto.  Or I'll be wearing Pac-Man jammies to bed.  Damn.  I have those.  I'm wearing them now.

Oh well, I can't worry about this.  I've got a game to play.
Oh Pac-Man, you wickedly seductive and enticing devil...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, May 28, 2012

A book's question: Will humanity survive?

It is a simple enough question.

Will humanity survive the 21st Century?  Sir Martin Rees places the odds at about 50-50, given our current path.  Who is Rees?  He is the royal professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and the author of a book called, Our Final Hour.  The book's been around since about 2003 but it's only recently come onto my radar.

What's going to take us out?  That's a popular question/refrain that I get from the terminally optimistic whenever I bring this cheery subject up.  Oh well.  I see it as my duty to asperse bland conversations with the truth of impending existential demise.  Keeps me from having to go to social gatherings.  But I digress...

Supervolcanoes are threat.  The Yellowstone Caldera is probably the biggest and most potent example of such a catastrophe.  Asteroids, comets, and other space-borne killers are another, but I feel I've dwelt too long on that subject in recent weeks to provide any kind of fresh perspective.  A new, deadly virus is another risk.  So that leaves us with human-caused disasters as catalyst for the end.  Things like nuclear war.  Wars in the name of religious zealotry.  You can find more information at Global Catastrophic Risks, a site backed by Nick Bostrom. 

In his book, Rees apparently places far greater weight on the threat of our own technological advancements getting loose of our control and bringing us to ruin.  Things like robots with artificial intelligence or perhaps nanotech unleashed by terrorists.  As I've always maintained, transhuman advancement is open prey to human nature, but I by no means see a reason to cease development.  While disasters are certainly one potential outcome, we're far more likely to do ourselves in via another self-created catastrophe such as doubling the amount of carbon emissions in our atmosphere and raising global temperature past the disaster point.

Here's another kooky thought: what if Rees really is an optimist?  All of the scenarios that he and other "doomsday" analysts have researched are not remote possibilities.  True, the likelihood of any of them coming to pass tomorrow or even one year from now is low.  But we are in danger of all of these things happening.  When you're faced with an array of low-probability scenarios, the likelihood of at least one of them coming to pass is greatly increased. 

Something bad is going to happen.  It's just a question of what and when.  I can only hope that we can put aside human differences and hubris in time to prevent it.  Or failing that, to help as many of each other as we can to survive it.

Now who's being the optimist?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Film Review--Smilla's Sense of Snow

starring Julia Ormond, Gabriel Byrne, Jim Broadbent, Tom Wilkinson, Richard Harris, Robert Loggia, Vanessa Redgrave, Bob Peck, and Ann B Davis as The Beav.

A young boy falls to his death from a roof in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Smilla (Ormond) is a woman who lives in the building and was a close friend of the boy.  Since the kid was afraid of heights, Smilla begins to suspect that his death was no accident.  With only a mysterious downstairs neighbor known as "The Mechanic" (Byrne) to stand beside her, Smilla finds herself going deeper and deeper into a conspiracy that might leave her dead.

I am currently reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  Like that book, this film is an entry into what certain critics are calling "Nordic noir."  These are crime stories or other mystery/thrillers set in Scandanvaian locales.  While I have not yet finished reading TGWTDT, I am over two-thirds of the way done.  I feel that barring an enormous turn around in the plot, I may safely say that Smilla's Sense of Snow is a far superior tale.

This goes beyond the typical murder thriller.  There are complex characters brought to life by capable actors and set against a backdrop that is forelorn and cold.  Besides, the whole thing starts off with a meteor crashing into the ice of Greenland.  That certainly gets the attention of someone like me, but you're left wondering through most of the film just what it has to do with a young boy's death in Copenhagen.  The correlation is surprising, but not forced.  Let's just say that it has something to do with geology and the tight script makes the relationship seem effortless.  This movie truly kept me biting my metaphorical nails, unlike the vemtose tome by Larsson. 

If I have any real criticism, it is with the ending.  Things just seem to rapidly fall in place when they should have been given time to breathe.  There are also one or two contrivances to help us towards a happy ending.  That said, this is a film I really enjoyed.  It will hopefully grace my collection one day.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The UFO nuclear connection

They like nukes.  Or at least they seem to.  

In an article describing actual military plans to repel a hypothetical alien invasion, Professor Paul Springer of the U.S. Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and formerly of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, pointed to the number of UFO sightings that have occurred near nuclear facilities.  If aliens were to invade, one of their first orders of business would be to eliminate any weapons that might be a threat to them.  Our nuclear forces would be on the top of that list.  For over sixty years, military bases that hosed nuclear weapons have been the subject of numerous UFO visitations.  A few of those encounters are even among the very best UFO cases in terms of evidence.

Malmstrom Air Force Base near Great Falls, Montana is responsible for the oversight of numerous underground silos containing Minuteman nuclear missiles.  In 1967, a UFO appeared over the Launch Control Center of the complex and numerous missiles went offline.  Robert Salas, who was the Deputy Missile Combat Crew Commander at the time, has gone on record about this incident on numerous occasions.  I've read of other accounts where UFOs had actually begun to feed in the launch codes to nuclear missiles and then halted before release.  I'm having trouble corroborating those stories so that's going to have to remain anecdotal for the time being.  Nevertheless, the Malmstrom case leaves us with one troubling fact...a UFO rendered an arm of our nuclear deterrent unlaunchable.

There is of course the Rendlesham case in Britain of 1980.  Several veterans of the U.S. Air Force encountered a UFO while they were charged with guarding an airbase.  This airbase housed nuclear weapons and the object appeared to demonstrate great interest in the storage facilities that contained said weapons.  You can read more about this case and its evidence at the link.  Suffice to say that both the U.S. and the RAF stated that "nothing of defense interest occurred on the date of the sighting."  So either a UFO of unknown origin penetrated a secure base housing nuclear weapons or the men in charge of securing those weapons all suffered a mass hallucination, up to and including touching the physical craft.  Neither of which are of "defense interest."  Great.

Here's more on the two above cases from a 2010 gathering at the National Press Club.

Additionally, there are numerous reports of UFOs hovering around nuclear power plants or atomic energy facilities such as Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Savannah River.  Dr. Donald Johnson does a good job of going into this phenomenon at great length in his paper, Do Nuclear Facilities Attract UFOs?  One of the more interesting cases that he illustrates is that of a UFO sighted over the Chernobyl nuclear reactor during the time of the 1986 disaster.   Technicians reported sighing a brass-colored orb hovering over the reactor about three hours after the initial explosion:

"Two bright red rays shot out from the UFO and were directed at the reactor. It hovered in the area for about three minutes, then the rays vanished and the UFO moved slowly away to the northwest. Radiation levels taken just before the UFO appeared read 3,000 milliroentgens/hour, and after the rays the readings showed 800 milliroentgens/hour. Apparently the UFO had brought down the radiation level."

While it may be that this incident was a product of the understandably overstressed brains of the Chernobyl technicians, the fact remains that there Johnson posits and supports...a higher incidence of UFO activity around nuclear facilities.  No wonder that Professor Springer keeps this firmly in mind as he serves to prepare a response to an alien attack.  This standpoint, however, moves from the assumption that UFO cases are alien in nature.

They may be.  I'll grant you that possibility.  That is, however, only one of many horses in the derby of UFO origins.  Regardless of the nature and origin of the UFOs, they do exhibit strong interest in our nuclear capability.  Why?  Perhaps to siphon off energy for themselves.  Perhaps to warn us of as a few would conjecture, save us from the woe that may one day betide us for our nuclear dalliances.  Whatever the case may be, I'm tossing "UFO presence" onto the ever-growing list of "why to not own property near a nuclear plant."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, May 25, 2012

Area 51: the Google Earth Tour

Just one other sign that the digital age has benefited our lives.

It used to be that if you wanted to peek down into Area 51, you had to climb a mountain known as Freedom Ridge.  Then the government confiscated that land and rendered it off limits. 

But now, thanks to the Google Earth app and the proliferation of satellite photography, one can look over the entirety of Area 51 and the Nellis Test Range from the comfort of their own computer.  Err, the surface area, anyway.  I mean, you're not going to see any black triangles or other UFO-worthy objects sitting out in the open on the tarmac.  Anything that is truly amazing is going to be deep underground.  Nevertheless, it's still worth a spin around the base.  You can actually zoom in fairly close and get detailed looks at the surface structures, like hangars, towers, and roads that lead into the sides of mountains.  There are even two F-16s on one of the aprons, just waiting for anyone to get too close either by air or by foot.

To the Northwest of the main base, one observant Google Earth operator noticed yet another airstrip.  It's not as large or as fancy as the ones at Area 51 proper.  Then again, the Area 51 runways might just be the largest in the world.  This other airstrip has a few small structures around it and what might possibly be a SAM site (Surface to Air Missile).  There are also aircraft on this runway.  Aircraft that although not especially exotic in appearance are still planes that I cannot identify...and I am familiar with just about everything in the U.S. inventory.

So that got me thinking.  What other security-sensitive sites could be unintentionally exposed on Google Earth?  Could I ingeminate the process that allowed that one intrepid user to find the mystery airfield near Area 51?  A mere cursory search has shown that hunting for these locations on Google Earth is a full-on hobby for geeks out there such as me.  Through Google Earth, a British tabloid located a secret nuclear facility in Scotland in 2010.  Indeed the base is home to the Royal Navy's fleet of Trident-armed submarines.  Cool, huh? 

You can also look over Khotilov, a classified airbase in Russia.  Though if it's so "classified," I don't understand why that article I just linked you to exists.  In theory, the secrecy is due to the fact that the base's primary mission is to protect the airspace over Moscow.

So howzabout Pine Gap in Australia?  This facility is a satellite tracking and intelligence-gathering station in the dead center of the Australian outback.  Like most other bases that are held to high secrecy, Pine Gap has long had UFO lore connected to it.  You can see the Google Earth view here.

I've been probing around, trying to get a look at Archuleta Mesa near Dulce, New Mexico by that is proving to be problematic.  Every time someone provides a link the link is dead.  Ditto when someone provides actual geographic coordinates.  You can see that as a conspiracy theory or me not knowing what I'm doing.  Personally, I'm going to bet on the latter.

Looks like I have a new pastime.

For more on my fascination with and visit to Area 51, click here.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Reader poll

In the sagacious words of Coolio, "I got sumpin' brand new for the house."

It's hard work being a demiurge of a blog.  Sometimes I need to stop for a look around and to check myself.  Towards that purpose, I will be posting polls every so often in order to get reader feedback on a number of topics.  Sometimes the poll questions will be about the blog.  Other times  they will be about what you look for in writing overall.  Today, it's both.

So please.  If you have the time, please respond to this poll in the comments section or as a comment on my Facebook wall.  It shouldn't take long as I've tried to make this as easy as I can.  You may simply type one of the lettered choices or if you feel inspired, you may write in your own answer/comment.  Here goes:

1) I've noticed that my blog gets far fewer hits on weekends.  I'm considering taking weekends off.  On weekends do you:

A. Spend less time online     B. Spend more time online    C.  It depends   D. No difference

2) What would you like to see on the blog?

A. More about UFOs and weird stuff   B. More earthy topics like art and literature 
C. Anything new   D. Don't know

3) What kind of science fiction do you prefer?

A. Gritty cyberpunk    B. Classic space opera    C. Time travel    D. Anything with aliens

4) What style of science fiction do you prefer?

A. Strict adherence to science ("hard" SF)   B. Statements on society and potential futures
C. Just entertain me, dammit

5) What kind of characters do you enjoy reading about the most?  (open-ended)

I sincerely thank you for your feedback.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Posting...from...the FUTURE!

This blog post deals with the future.
We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future.

Okay, that's me cribbin' Criswell from Plan 9 From Outer Space.   But seriously, I have come across a few news items on the subject that I felt were worthy of being shared at this space.

--Over at the BBC's section on Future, science fiction author Elizabeth Moon argued that everyone should be given a barcode at birth.  She says:
“If I were empress of the Universe I would insist on every individual having a unique ID permanently attached - a barcode if you will; an implanted chip to provide an easy, fast inexpensive way to identify individuals."
As the argument unfolds, it tends to be mainly centered around the military applications.  Specifically, a scanner would be able to distinguish between friend and foe.  Identity theft would be next to impossible as would cases of mistaken identity.  This means of course that the final nail would be driven into the coffin of anonymity.  It also means that you could be tracked and watched from just about anywhere.  Moon contends that such surveillance measures are nearly there already in the form of video cameras everywhere, facial recognition software, and digital fingerprints.

Corporations in the U.S. are already finding ways to implant us with ID chips and perhaps even to utilize the barcode method.  The logic goes like this: My dogs have ID chips in them so that...God forbid...if they are ever separated from me, they could be identified as mine.  Seems like that might be a good idea to keep kids from getting lost or kidnapped, right?  Oh and what about senior citizens with Alzheimer's and dementia?  Be good for them, too.  What the heck?  Maybe we all should have them.   I don't know what to think about this just yet.  I suppose once the Singularity occurs we might all have our own unique signatures anyway.

--Just as it is in many locations, pollution is becoming a problem along the coastal areas of Britain.  The solution?  Robotic fish.  That's right.  Pikachu-yellow fish that carry chemical sensors within them.  Water flows through the fish's mouth and past the sensor.  This allows for the monitoring of pollutant levels.  What's more, the fish are equipped with an onboard AI, allowing them to decide where they should go and what's the best way to get there.  Theoretically, the ocean could at one point in the future be swarming with these things and for multiples purposes besides fighting pollution.
Intelligent robotic fish.  Haven't these guys ever read science fiction?

--Space did an interview with science fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson.  He has a new book coming out that illustrates humanity in the year 2312.  It is called, you guessed it, 2312.  In Robinson's particular view of this future, humans have established colonies not only on our Moon, but on several other moons as well as asteroids.  We have also begun to terraform planets.  What I find to be of the most immediate interest is the system he envisions for governments on these colonies.  There is no human "politics" involved.  A series of quantum computers allocates resources to everyone equally and fairly.  That is admittedly both optimistic and leftist, but I'm willing to learn more.

--Hey!  Remember that interview I did recently with an airline pilot?  Well, that pilot brought up a few interesting ideas around the future of air travel.  How would you feel about flying in a plane with no real pilot?  Chances are you already have.  Turns out most of the latest generations of airliners are jammed with computers that handle everything.  "It's like flying a video game," the pilot told me.  This individual envisions a day when there will be no real "pilot" per se, rather it will be one IT guy in the cockpit.  The plane's systems are monitored from the ground by personnel at a control tower.  Then we all know how airlines operate on cost-saving measures, it would be more likely that a monitor would be in charge of watching not one plane but up to three.  Basically, we'd all be flying in supersized UAVs.  This is of course all conjecture based on current circumstances but it's not an unreasonable projection.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bruce Sterling and robot "found footage"

I hope that you have already read about my consulting gig.

It’s non-paying of course, but that suits me.  As the link above demonstrates, I am volunteering as a “creative consultant” to my good friend Bernard as he heads up a high school production of R.U.R., the play in which the word “robot” was first coined.

Now, thanks to Bruce Sterling and his blog Beyond the Beyond over at Wired, I have learned that there was yet another opus dealing with robots produced in Europe…and only one year after R.U.R.  Instead of a play, this was an actual film entitled L’Uomo Meccanico or “The Mechanical Man” in Italian.  It, along with R.U.R., marks the first in a very long line of productions dealing with metallic, killer robots.  In fact, the meme survives into a cumulus to this very day.

Interestingly enough, only about 40% of the original film survives and it was found in an archive in Brazil.  Bruce Sterling posts the footage in its entirety on Beyond the Beyond.  Don’t have the patience to sit through the entire 26 minutes?  And once you start, are you thinking it’s too disjointed and abstract?  Fine.  Sterling has gone through and pointed out the highlights for you.  The man has been a scholar and a gentleman for your lazy ass.

1:34 The first onscreen appearance of L’Uomo Meccanico, the Mechanical Man.
12:04 Uomo Meccanico, who is about nine feet tall, busts into a cocktail party by bashing in some glass patio doors with his colossal iron arm.
My Note: The shot of Uomo Meccanico with darkness in the foreground save for the glowing eyes is really rather impressive, especially considering what the creators had to work with at the time.
12:34 Uomo Meccanico traps a victim inside a wooden wardrobe and carries him off to be thrown from a castle tower.
12:45 Uomo Meccanico bashes his way straight through a brick wall.
14:49 Uomo Meccanico busts headlong into lady’s private boudoir and rips her safe out of the wall of her home.
15:50 Bullets bounce off him.

There’s even a car chase.  Err…a car being chased by Uomo Meccanio.   Crude special effects give the robot its speed, but again it’s impressive for the times.  It’s not like I know how to do that with today’s tech.

I really like the "Golden Age" design of the robot.  It was a critical choice to make, furthering separating it from the androids in R.U.R.   I'm wondering how Bernard and I could fit a mechanical-looking 'bot into the play.  Doesn't look like it would be too tough to take lightweight metal or even cardboard and give the material a "riveted" look.  More to the point, I'll have to see if it would even fit the script.

Much to do...much to do...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, May 21, 2012

The asteroids await...

“NASA says that roughly 4,700 asteroids orbit close enough to Earth for us to be concerned for our safety—at least a little.”

That is the sub-headline of this article.  I like how that last phrase is tagged on, just to soften the findings and make them palatable to the masses of sheeple. 

Anyway, the fact remains that there are well over 4,000 asteroids near enough to strike our world.  This comes from a recent survey by NASA’s WISE (Wide-Infrared Survey Explorer) telescope.  Any asteroid that is nearer than five million miles from Earth and greater than 300 feet in diameter is officially designated as a “Potentially Hazardous Asteroid (PHA).”   The size criterion for such an asteroid is based upon just how much of the rock will be left after crashing through the atmosphere.  Scientists who study asteroids say that a rock about 40 meters in diameter would cause the equivalent of a three megaton nuclear explosion if it impacted the Earth.  It’s easy to see how something wouldn’t need be particularly large…in the cosmic sense, anyway…to qualify as a “planet-killer.”

National Geographic reports that an asteroid designated as 2012 DA14 will pass so close to us next February that it might collide with one of our communication satellites.  Astronomers at NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) concede that such an occurrence is mathematically unlikely, but it cannot be ruled out of the question.  Will it hit the Earth?  They’re giving us nearly 100% certainty that it won’t.

But consider this.  The asteroid in question was discovered only a few weeks ago.  Given its relatively large size, about 150 feet in diameter, it is only now a “fuzzy blob” seen through a telescope.  While this one wouldn’t do much damage (at least by the PHA rating rubric), what would we do if it were a threat?

Looks like NASA wants to do something about that risk.  They are partnering with the ESA and drawing up plans for a mission that would send astronauts to land on an asteroid.  The mission specialists would remain on the asteroid for one month, living in their landing module and driving little vehicles around on the surface.  While the mission would be to “study the asteroid,” the real reason behind the research would be to “study how to blow one up.”  That’s right.  Just like in that awful movie, Armageddon.  Including roundtrip travel time, the mission would last about one year.  How serious are they about this?  Apparently, very much so.  There is a capsule 65 feet deep in the Atlantic with several astronauts living in it for 12 days, just trying it out to see if anyone goes nuts.

Are people aware of this danger?  If so, do they just shrug it off with a “whattayagonnado?” and just continue shopping and crowding into bars? Or maybe they’re still focused on being scared of “them Muslims?”  I don’t mean to belabor my frustrations with the swirling toilet of our society, but I sometimes wonder if an asteroid hit wouldn’t do us a bit of good.
Yet that comparison the first article made between asteroid impacts and nuclear detonations does give pause for concern.  Namely that a military force might want to gain control an asteroid’s trajectory and hurl it towards Earth, rather like the aliens did in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Footfall.  This would only happen of course if the big rock could be accurately aimed.

At the very least, they could make for affordable satellite killers.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Rods and Rucker

"The camera doesn't lie."

Wanna bet?
Take "rods" for example.  Yeah yeah, I said "rods."  Let's all get our immature chuckling out of the way right now.

Like the human eye, a camera lens is an imperfect device that does the best that it can.  Certain sets of circumstances can cause it to produce artifacts...or things that really weren't there or things that were there but are depicted in a distorted manner.  Given this fact, I still don't understand why so many people cling to the notion of "rods."

I've blogged about them before.  They are objects that people have caught on video.  The objects appear as...well, rods that dart through the shot.  The rods appear to have rows of either straight or squiggly appendages protruding from their bodies.  Enthusiasts of Fortean studies have claimed these strange objects to be either undiscovered creatures that live in our atmosphere or UFOs.  While there is no way that anyone can 100% discount those theories, I believe that the preponderance of evidence points towards another conclusion.

These "rods" are distortions caused by cameras at a certain rate of shutter speed.  An episode of MonsterQuest on The History Channel as posted here on Above Top Secret demonstrates just how this happens.  At a fast enough shutter speed, you can tell that the "rods" are moths or birds flying past the camera.  Most of the time, it's just various kinds of bugs.

This does not prevent me from wistfully wishing that "rods" really are an unknown entity of sorts here as a mechanism in someone else's gambit.  A UFO probe from another civilization.  I'd like to imagine that they are biomechanical constructs, not unlike those envisioned by Rudy Rucker in his novels Software and Wetware.   You know, something like an aerial version of the cybernetic rats in his books?  To wit:

"For me, the best thing about Cyberpunk is that it taught me how to enjoy shopping malls, which used to terrify me. Now I just imagine the whole thing is two miles below the moon’s surface, and that half the people’s right-brains have been eaten by roboticized steel rats. And suddenly it’s interesting again.”

Speaking of Rudy Rucker, here is my lame segue to his current blog series on helping writers format their work for e-book distribution.  Sure seems like I have a great deal of brushing up to do on HTML code before releasing my novella, Hound of Winter.

More details on that to come!

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Saturday, May 19, 2012

"The city will never be the same"

There is a definite vibe in Chicago's air this weekend.

The NATO summit is being held at McCormick Place.  The city has been transformed into something of a fortress.  Overflights of fighter jets are not uncommon and large numbers of protestors have already arrived.  These protestors range from the mostly harmless National Nurses United to Occupy Wall Street then all the way over the the anarchists called Black Bloc whom many associate with violence.  Police arrested three members of this organization.  The men are alleged to have planned attacks on several locations in Chicago, vowing that "this city does not know what it is in for and it will never be the same."

I know that this little potboiler of ours just a microcosm of politics in America right now.  Yet it also has a distinct apocalyptic bouquet.  As a fiction writer, it makes me think of two works, recalled from my memory by a post on Chris Helton's Google+ wall.

The first is DMZ by Brian Wood.  In the Vertigo comic book series, a second American Civil War has broken out.  Yes, something I've been harping about since I started this blog, so you can probably see why I enjoyed the series.  As the name implies, the island of Manhattan is sealed off from the rest of New York City a la Escape From New York and turned into a demilitarized zone between the United States of America and the secessionist Free States of America.  Those who are left behind in Manhattan are few in number but are very poor.  Wood was said to have been inspired by equal parts 9/11 and New Orleans after Katrina.  The key character in DMZ is Matty Roth, a reporter who enters this no man's land and his run-ins with both sides of the conflict as well as those who still struggle to survive on the island.

Second is the 2005 concept album Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails.  The storyline for the record takes place in 2022.  The U.S. is a dystopian society ruled by a dictatorship.  While set in the future, the record is an obvious criticism of Bush (the second)-era policies.  For example, Americans in this future society are required to be Christian.  As one of the song lyrics go, "down on your knees or get left behind."  Brilliant play on words.  Trent Reznor, the man who basically is Nine Inch Nails, said that the songs were meant to portray a sense of our current state of militarism, how we treat the world, and the erosion of personal liberties by actions such as The Patriot Act.  Bioterrorism and nuclear war with Iran are thrown in for good measure.

Year Zero was promoted by a very ingenious campaign of viral marketing.  Jump drives were dropped in nightclub washrooms.  They contained documents for the Art Is Resistance! movement and a link to the album's website.  Cellphones were distributed at NIN concerts.  Lucky fans who received a phone dialed a number and were told of a secret meeting location.  At the warehouse location they were given a surprise NIN concert...until a fictional SWAT team from the United States Bureau of Morality storms in and shuts things down as "anti-American media" is illegal.

What do these two works have in common?  I mean, aside from taking place in bleak, dystopian futures brought about by political division?  One point of commonality is young people pushing back against an authoritarian government that is oppressing its once free citizens while lulling the masses with phatic rhetoric.  In many cases, rebellion takes place through anti-establishment art.  Another is how accurately both works capture the zeitgeist.  Of course we're not in such levels of dire straits yet, but it's not too hard to see how things could head down that road.  You need only be in Chicago right now, even if things at this moment are relatively peaceful.

The point is, there are a lot of unhappy people out there right now.  They come from both ends of the political spectrum and from all points in between.  At least a few of them have demonstrated that they currently are or may one day be willing to take up arms against those they deem as their oppressors.   "We came unarmed...this time" or so read a sign at a Tea Party rally.  I find this notion of a powder keg to be quite unsettling.  When two sides are deeply entrenched in dogma and absolutes, dialogue becomes nearly impossible.

With any luck, the city of Chicago will make it through just fine this weekend with no one hurt and no property destroyed.  It's what happens to America afterward that scares me.  Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, Soylent Green...I sure hope science fiction gets it wrong on this one.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, May 18, 2012

I totally need to cash in on the Rapture

I am admittedly having a crisis of faith.

Well, the term “crisis” is overstating it but that’s how the conventional phrase goes.  I’m trying to sort out a great many things, questioning even more things than I’m sorting, and just overall in a state of malaise or ennui.  That may skew or distort the lens through which I’m seeing a particular trend in writing and filmmaking.

Were I to act as many publishing advisers suggest and “write for an audience” or “write what’s selling,” then I would be a fool to ignore the Christian “end times” genre.  The obvious juggernaut of this meme is the Left Behind series by LeHaye and Jenkins that I have blogged about in previous posts.  You know, that opus where the Rapture occurs and the world ends?  True Christians immediately ascend to heaven while the rest of us woeful sinners must wander in the chaotic aftermath, trying to make sense of the world?  An evil Romanian named Nicolae Carpathia rises up and can only be stopped by a born again Christian named Rayford Steele?

The books might suck but the names are pure delicious pulp.  And in the film versions, I’m dead certain that Kirk Cameron must offer a tour-de-force performance that was grossly overlooked by Oscar.

Despite the popularity and sales of the Left Behind series, they are not the only Christian “end times” game in town.  A few years back, a miniseries named Revelations aired.  Now this one truly sounds like it has promise as it is a wacky buddy picture between a nun and an astrophysicist.

You read that correctly.  Bill Pullman is the scientist and Natasha McElhone is the nun.  If I were casting, I’d have it the other way around but that’s just me.  The astrophysicist has a daughter who is killed by Satanists.  The nun recruits the bereaved man to find out if the Lovecraftian stars are aligning and the Book of Revelations is indeed coming to pass.  I found that LeHayne and Jenkins decried this TV miniseries, calling it “unbiblical” and “weird,” as if written by an author who “doesn’t know that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”  Scathing!  Scandalous!  A civil war in fundyland!  “I’m more biblical than you, dumbass!”

But wait!  There’s more!  Science fiction has been dragged into the “end times” playground with a book called Judgment Day.  In it, their god gives a commune of the devoted the knowledge to build a faster-than-light spaceship.  

Yes, go ahead and take a moment to let that sink in.

Christians then prepare to depart this world for a planet that they will make their own.  They intend to name their new planet "America."  But there are those who would try to stop them.  At least according to the Amazon description.  There are liberal environmentalists who decry the spoilage of nature in the building of said spaceship, even if it is the will of god.  There is a liberal president who calls shipping children off into space with their families "child abuse."  There are liberal Christians who just don't get hardworking Christians.  Then it goes on to become sort of Star Wars meets Davey and Goliath as a massive battle erupts in space. 

Being a Star Wars fan, I'm rather queasy after making that comparison, but that's the image I get.  I may read it.  I may check out the Left Behind films as well as Revelations if I can find it.  They all sound too funny to miss.  I might even post my snarky, sarcastic comments in a podcast or such because religion aside, this just sounds like badly written fiction.  I might have the title for the commentary track already: The Fictional Adventures of the Invisible Spaceman Who People Treat Like Santa Claus.

Doesn't it just pop?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Fantasy fiction: Return to Legos in the basement

This meanders a bit, but I promise you it will get somewhere.  Whether or not it is where you actually want to go is wholly dependent.

Back in October, I saw a film called The Whole Wide World.  It was a biopic of writer Robert E. Howard.  Howard is of course the creator of Conan the Barbarian.  Set in rural Texas where Howard lived out his years, the movie depicted him as a wordsmith who was depressed, antisocial, agitated, and viewed as completely eccentric by his fellow townspeople.

I can relate.

Besides identifying with Howard (although I entirely lack his genius), the film became the omphalos, "ground zero" if you will of an entirely unintended consequence.  I began to go through my issues of Conan the Barbarian from Marvel Comics and purchased editions of Howard's short Conan stories in a used bookstore.  I enjoyed rediscovering Conan, that man of "sullen" or "smoldering blue eyes and a black square-cut mane" as Howard described him in slightly homoerotic terms (not that there is anything wrong with that.  Got it, North Carolina?)

Conan was a man of enormous physical strength and was a cunning warrior, a barbarian in the Hyborian Age, a forgotten era of history that took place between the sinking of Atlantis and the rise of known ancient civilizations.  A man of power yet one tinged with a sense of sadness and endowed with a bleak point of view that this life is uncertain and at many times pointless.  Everyone will one day die, the most you can hope for is to do so with a fistful of steel swinging in your hand.

I can relate.

Except for the sword part.

Among the more enjoyable reading experiences I had during this time was Howard's quintessential Conan story, Red Nails.  In that tale, Conan discovers a lost jungle city where the inhabitants are resigned to their own destruction and decide to live out their final days by reveling in perverse sexual acts.  Yes, Howard was making a statement.  The real effect that reading all these stories and comics had upon me was something that had not happened since the first installment of The Lord of the Rings films back in 2001.

I began to like fantasy again.

I yearned to be a 6th grader once more, discovering Dungeons & Dragons for the first time.  I wanted to play out stories involving clerics, wizards, elves, thieves, and of course...warriors who fear neither dirt, nor blood, nor blade.  While this inspiration was strong, I still didn't feel like I quite had the chops to write it.  I mean, I am a science fiction writer through and through, who also dabbles in action pulp thrillers and the odd "literary" piece...whatever the hell that means these days.  I just didn't know if I could write a Dungeons & Dragons type of story.

Then it hit me.  Why write it?  At least not in the conventional sense?  Might I not return to a medium I once practiced many many years ago?  One I have never talked about before?  Don't worry, it's not obscene.

It's the what is now cliche use of Lego characters acting out a story in either video or still shot.  My basement is full of Legos and other toys, several of them being from the "Castle" genre.  I also have a digital camera.  I have everything that I need.  Additionally, building the sets and all the other little arty undertakings are just the distraction that I need from the ennui of my own pointless existence.

So look out, Interwebs.  A Lego/Imaginenext cast photographed in a Howard/Tolkien mash-up fantasy will soon be uploaded to you.  I am still writing, still blogging, and still working on a as yet to be revealed secret project.  So no release date for the fantasy epic.  Taking it in a very casual manner.

Otherwise what fun would it be?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The plan to mine asteroids

Someone is a forward thinker.

Actually, a great many "someones."  They are collectively known as Planetary Resources, Inc.   The drivers of this new space venture are a few of the brightest in the fields of science and technology.  One of them is even James Cameron (and before you balk, remember Cameron's physics and engineering background as well as his undersea exploration projects.)  Their proposal: mine asteroids for minerals and water.

The organization recently signed Dr. Sara Seager of MIT on as chief science consultant.  You may recognize Dr. Seager from several astronomy-related programs on the Discovery and History Channels.  I often catch her playing "voice of reason" on shows such as Ancient Aliens.

As outlined in Dr. Seager's interview that I linked above from The Atlantic, the project is formed in part from businessmen and innovators who have grown frustrated with relying upon governments to take the next steps in space.
"The bottom line is that NASA is not working the best that it could," Dr. Seager said in the interview. "In order for people like me to succeed with my own research goals, the commercial space industry needs to be able to succeed independently of government contracts."

One way in which this asteroid mining project may benefit astronomy is through the launching of several small and cheap satellite telescopes.  These orbital telescopes will be used to scan for asteroids that would be the best candidates for mining.  Such an asteroid would be one rich in platinum metals.  For the next step, there are two choices in the mix.  One method would be to send several robotic space probes to the asteroid and have them mine the minerals and then return to Earth.  Another plan of action would be to capture the asteroid.

That's right.  Actually capture a small one and bring it back into Earth orbit.  People could then travel up to this asteroid and mine in the same way that we now go back and forth from the International Space Station.  Why not just bring the whole asteroid back down to Earth?  That would be a massive undertaking due to the physics involved and therefore cost prohibitive.

Which brings up another point.  This will require massive funding.  Not to mention a great deal of risk as developing new technology always involves a roll of the dice.  Will this actually work?  Will it eventually be more cost effective to get these valuable minerals from space rather than digging deep into the Earth?  Will new artificial intelligence be necessary for the automatic mining probes?  The whole project is on its own 25 yard line with a way to go and many challenges to overcome.  As I said, no different than any other big project.  Plus, it doesn't seem like there's any real shortage of people willing to share the risk.  Planetary Resources announced that it is looking to hire qualified engineers to help bring this space mining technology into reality.  The agency received over 2,000 applications.

I still say that just talking about this idea is a big leap forward.  Even if mining doesn't work out, the unforeseen benefits that may come about as by-products of these innovation may one day be irreplaceable.  Then what if mining asteroids actually becomes doable?  It has been speculated that asteroids with high presences of water could become "gas stations" in space for astronauts headed to other planets.  Water can be separated into its component parts and then turned into fuel for spacecraft.  Heck, just being able to get water en-route to somewhere like Mars would save cost and effort in launching it with the mission.  It's possible that we may one day establish permanent bases on asteroids.

Currently, NASA has an unmanned mission planned to an asteroid for 2016.  Who knows?  Planetary Resources might beat them to it.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


At first blush, this is not the typical variety of comic book that I write about on this blog.  After all, there is no science fiction present.

Or is there?

First things first.  That superhero you see depicted above is not named "Shazam" as so many fallaciously believe.  He is Captain Marvel.  Shazam is a wizard.  I shall explain.
The majority of comic book superheroes have an alter ego or secret identity.  In many cases, these aliases are meeker, weaker, and deceptively modest versions of their other selves.  Not in the case of Captain Marvel.  In this instance, Captain Marvel has an alter ego that may also qualify as being an altar boy.  He is Billy Batson, a newspaper boy somewhere between the ages of 10 or 12.

In the beginning, Billy was homeless.  One day he was led by a mysterious stranger into a subway tunnel.  After boarding the train, Billy soon noticed that the subway car had no driver.  The train passed by statues of the Seven Deadly Sins of Man and then arrived in the lair of the wizard Shazam.  To be fair, Shazam does not technically live in a subway tunnel.  It is later revealed in continuity that he inhabits dimensional location known as The Rock of Eternity.  But I digress...

Shazam endows Billy with the ability to transform into the superhero named Captain Marvel.  Marvel has the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.  Get it?  Hah!  In other words, he's super strong, super fast, nigh invulnerable, and very smart.  All Billy must do to enact this transformation is to say the name of Shazam.  A lightning bolt then strikes Billy Batson, turning him into the adult Captain Marvel.  Though Captain Marvel was charged with defending the planet Earth against all menaces, Shazam did make himself available for consultation.

Sounds like a lot of fantasy, eh?  That is until you consider a few of Captain Marvel's most nefarious adversaries.  Most formidable among them IMHO...Mister Mind.

That's Mister Mind on the viewscreen to the left of Captain Marvel.  This page is from World's Finest Comics 
issue #264.

Mister Mind is a two-inch long alien worm from the planet Venus (or at least I think I read that planetary point of origin in Showcase Shazam.)  He was originally drawn to Earth after hearing the planet's World War II-era radio dramas.  Charlie McCarthy was a particular favorite of Mister Mind's.  When he found out that Charlie McCarthy was not real but rather a puppet, Mister Mind decided to conquer the Earth in retaliation.  The alien worm has amazing telepathic abilities, powerful enough to take control of another person's mind.  While he has many other insect-based powers, such as rapidly spinning super strong strands of silk, it is primarily this mental ability to control and manipulate that makes Mister Mind such a deadly threat.  So deadly that only Captain Marvel can stand against him.

Yet Mister Mind is not the only game in town.  He eventually teams up with other ardent adversaries of Captain Marvel, namely Doctor Sivana: "the world's wickedest scientist."  Sadly, Sivana utilizes his tremendous scientific genius to invent advanced, bizarre contraptions meant to either take over the world or destroy Captain Marvel.  Oftentimes both.  One might argue that Doctor Sivana is symbolic of "science run amok" as so many other mad scientists have been meant to embody.

There are other menaces to Captain Marvel.  Adversaries and enemies such as the Crocodile Men from the planet Punkus.  Additionally, there was King Kull, last of a prehistoric race of warlike "submen"...and no relation that I can see to the character of the same name that was created by writer Robert E. Howard (more on him in the coming days.)

I don't own many Shazam comics but as I said before, I do have the Showcase edition.  The comics contained within that collected edition are simplistic, sophomoric, naive, and indicative of a far less complicated time.

In this day and age of gang violence, environmental deterioration, and constant political bickering...I can think of no fiction more enjoyable.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, May 14, 2012

On the transhuman front...

There have been a few developments in the realm of transhumanism and cybernetics that I would like to share with you.

A light-powered retinal implant is giving new hope to the sightless.   As implied in its name, the cybernetic eye gets its energy from light, thereby navigating around the problem that other bionic implants have in that they must run on battery power.  An advanced pair of glasses beams near-infrared light into the eye, thus allowing the device to transmit information that will allow the person to see.  No need for ungainly wiring, batteries fitted behind the ear, or other complex electronics.  Certainly good news for anyone who suffers from degenerative retinal diseases or is already blind.  Or even if you are just a guy like me who is terrified of going blind.  By extending this news, I wonder if transhuman technology of this kind will one day advance to not only lend sight to the blind but to enhance the vision of those who can already see?  I am currently writing a short story about people who can see through augmented reality via nanotechnological implants.  Here's to hoping I'm turning into a prescient science fiction writer.

By the way, that story comes to us via the BBC.  When you click the link, please check out their section on Can you build a human body?  You'll find more information on the eye implants as well as cybernetic limbs and the like.

A new iPhone app aims to program your dreams.  The author of the linked article likens this technology to the film, Inception.  I have not seen that one yet, so I'll be sticking to the cybernetics.  The app is called Sigmund (of course).  The program offers you to select one to five keywords from a list of about 1,000.  A female voice then reads the words you've chosen during your time of deepest REM sleep.  Of course that means programming the app to know what time you will go to sleep and what time you will awake.  If you don't actually adhere to the set times, why then it skews the whole thing doesn't it?  Of immediate interest to me is the fact that the keyword list is not all "beach," "mountain," "farm," and the peaceful like.  You can also choose from an "adventure" category and find words such as "war," "battle," "combat," "anaconda," or "harem" to name a few.  Yes, building on that latter keyword, there is a "sex" category.  Despite the typical Luddites, Kip Haggis-types, and Apple-bashers that this news inevitably brings out, I'm all for trying it.  Let all those slugs hold on to their landline phones, handwritten checks, and stubbornly refuse to get an exoskeleton as their eldritch bones deteriorate from age.

Speaking of augmented reality, Google announced last month they are about to intromit their new Google X augmented reality glasses.  They're still in the prototype phase but they would allow the wearer to see their environs overlayed with Google Maps, Google+, pics and video, and other data siphoned from the Web.  When this technology is combined with the cybernetics described in the first news bit, well...perhaps I am prescient after all!

I just hope I live long enough to see these developments come to pass.  Free myself from the Matrix?  Why in the name of all that's good would I want to do that?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Lethal injection might not be so painless

I came across this article a little while back and am just now getting around to writing about it:

"Lethal injection As the Death Penalty's Last Stand."

States with death penalties are running out of the chemicals necessary to perform executions.  Three chemicals are used in the macabre process: sodium thiopental to anesthetize the individual, pancuronium bromide to paralyze their muscles, and potassium chloride to stop the heart.  Currently, sodium thiopental is in low supply and therefore growing more expensive.  Certain states have tried importing the chemical but a federal judge issued a ban on doing so.  That takes an essential chemical out of the process.  The problem now is that sodium thiopental is only available from overseas manufacturers.  Many of these foreign companies do not want their product going towards executions and therefore won't sell them to American prisons.

Complicating the matter is that lethal injection might not be so painless after all.  Post-mortem examinations of tissues of the executed show that given the low levels of anesthesia found, the deceased were likely able to feel just about everything.  The reason for that being that most of them were likely scared and their blood filled with adrenaline.  Also, those performing the procedure have no medical training as healthcare professionals are prohibited from assisting in executions as it would violate ethical guidelines.  So you can imagine being paralyzed, unable to speak, an extreme burning sensation in your chest, your muscles seizing up, finding yourself unable to breathe, and then finally experiencing a heart attack.  Obviously we can never say this for certain as the only ones who would know can now no longer speak.  If true, this execution process would violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which prohibits "cruel and unusual punishment."

Bear in mind, please, that I am no hippie with flowers in his hair.  I used to...and still do on occasion...listen to punk rock and heavy metal.  I wore combat boots, not sandals.  I was once a big supporter of the death penalty.  There is human garbage in our prisons that if given a gun, I would volunteer to go do the job myself.  That is until I learned that the death penalty really does not serve as a deterrent.  Crime statistics are enough to bear that out.  It also does not save money.  This is because of the lengthy appeals process.  There is also the bone-shaking possibility of executing someone innocent by mistake or at least having strong doubts about it.  I think that Troy Davis should still be fresh in everybody's mind.

Then there is the case of a convict in South Dakota.  I heard about it a long time ago on NPR and sadly I can't seem to find a link to the news story.  As I recall, the man in question was a convicted murderer and rapist.  Lovely human being.  Kind of chump who is just sucking the oxygen away from the rest of us.  Anyway, he was sentenced to life in prison.  He appealed.

Not to get his case overturned.  The son of a bitch actually wanted the death penalty.  He said that he could not bear to spend the rest of his life in a tiny concrete cell, going through what disgusting atrocities happen to people in prison.  Life compared to death seemed worse, so he just wanted to end it all.

So you have to ask yourself: what is the more horrific punishment?  Ten minutes of pain and then basically falling asleep for good or a lifetime in a cell and subject to torture and trauma?  If you're looking for Old Testament-style, wrath of God justice, I think you'd want to go with the latter. As an aside, you might also want to read Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song.  The entire last third of the book will induce a queasy feeling in your gut as you watch them prepare the details of a man's death, asking yourself "are we really going to do this?"  It's just surreal.

Though not as surreal as being paralyzed, unable to move or cry as the last ten minutes of your life end in agony.  And no one but you will ever know.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Science fiction series to be an "hour-long UFO project"

Not a fan of zombies?

You're not alone.  I find the whole meme to be tedious, trite, and redundant by now.  I'm certain The Walking Dead has its merits but I'm just not interested.  Not my cup of tea.  But now, AMC, the network that airs the aforementioned series, is greenlighting a new science fiction series that has been termed "an hour-long UFO project" by its producers.

What is known about the show is that it's called Thunderstruck and it will entail the appearance of "powerful and enigmatic entities all over the world."  The series is thought to begin in the town of Great Falls, Montana (been there actually).  One of these beings arrives there and the residents must contend with the aftershocks and ramifications of the well as further visitations.

I know what you're probably thinking.  Science fiction doesn't have the greatest track record on TV right now.  There have been a set of disasters such as NBC's atrocious The Event, ABC's V (pale in comparison to its source...which even that was cheesy as all hell), and Falling Skies of which I am personally not a fan.  It's like The Walking Dead with aliens.  So I am trying to be hopeful about this new series.  I am especially interested to see just how closely the writers tie it in with the UFO phenomena as they allege that they will.  They have at least chosen Great Falls as a setting, the location of The Mariana Footage, still among the best pieces of UFO film to be recorded.  You can read more about it in my article on Baseball Meets The Weird.

Too soon to say how this will turn out.  The link above from io9 is the most information on Thunderstruck that I've been able to find.  I mean, I don't even know if AC/DC is going to do the soundtrack.  The pic I posted above is even just an artwork I came across online.   So I must prorogue any more news to sources who have a greater feel on the pulse of Hollywood than I do. 

Let's just hope the entities are not alien zombies.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, May 11, 2012

Film Review--Black Swan

starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassell, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, and Ice Cube as The Beav

A timid ballet dancer (Portman) has dermatillomania and an unbalanced and domineering mother (Hershey).  But things aren't all bad.  The dancer wins the lead role in "Swan Lake" based upon her ability to play the innocent Princess Odette.  However, things go from bad to worse as she falls into the dark side of the character, Odile, and she gradually loses her mind, fearing that a sexy rival dancer (Kunis) is trying to steal the role.

Black Swan is so...beautifully disturbing.  Then again, I should have expected nothing less from director Darren Aronofsky, the man who brought us Pi.  He appears to specialize in dark films about the human mind unraveling and questioning the very nature of reality...or at least the manner in which the individual perceives it.  This is a triumph of a film that really has so much going for it.  The striking visage of Natalie Portman in the black swan make up (how this film was not nominated for Best Make-Up, I'll never know), the use of the camera in manner on par with Stanley Kubrick, the eerie use of the Tchaikovsky score, the...distortions...I don't know how else to say but you'll recognize what I'm speaking of one you see them.  I know I'm going to take heat for this but Natalie Portman deserved every bit of her Best Actress award by giving a performance that ranges from sweet, to unnerving, and finally to heartbreaking.

That's right.  No spoilers, but if you know anything about the ballet Swan Lake and the parallels Aronofsky is making, you know that this can't end well. I just wasn't sure how he was going to get us to that point.  Aronofsky just keeps twisting and layering, building a menacing tone that utters sibilants the whole way like a lit fuse on a powerful pyrotechnic.  This is an art film that is as much paint on canvas as it is image on screen.  This is a psychological thriller with an ominous mystery at its heart.  This is a grim meditation full of existential angst as a young woman constantly questions herself and the validity of her senses.  This is a film with absolutely bonerific scenes of the ever so hot Natalie Portman.

This one is definitely joining my DVD collection.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, May 10, 2012

UFO case: The Kinnula Humanoid

Picture is from Phantoms & Monsters

Indulge me, please.

I am about to relate to you a UFO case that I came across online, one entitled "The Kinnula Humanoid" at this UFO site.  I am fully aware that this post likely does nothing to advance the study of the UFO phenomenon in terms of science.  The case itself, at least as it is described on the site, offers no corroborating evidence other than the supposed testimony of the two men involved.  If other evidence exists, there are no links for it on the site.  After a bit of Googling, I have found other sites relating the event as well as new witnesses.  Not sure what to make of any of this but I am for the moment quite skeptical.  It is however, a really great story.

It's February 5th, 1971.  Petter Aliranta and E.J. Sneck were woodsmen working in the forests of Kinnula, Finland.  As the day moved into afternoon, both men reported that a classic, saucer-shaped UFO (a sketch is provided above) glided in silently over the trees and then landed in the snow upon four thin legs.  From an opening on the UFO's underside came a humanoid being.  The alien...or whatever it was...stood at an estimated height of three feet.  It wore a green, one-piece diver's suit...or at least that was the best way Aliranta and Sneck could explain it.  The drawing makes it look like some kind of cross between the Pilsbury Doughboy and The Michelin Man.  Which would make it Cayce Pollard's nightmare come true.  Sorry.  Go read William Gibson's Pattern Recognition.

As if the being's appearance were not eerie enough, it demonstrated two behaviors that completely unnerved our lumberjacks (in fact, you could say "they were lumberjacks and they weren't ok."  Ahem.  Sorry.)  For one, the being slowly glided out of the bottom of the craft and then touched down.  The other being that despite the deep snow on the ground, the entity could walk on top of the snow without sinking.  Weird.  Nevertheless, the creature kept advancing toward the men with Aliranta being the nearest to it.

In a move I think we can all appreciate, Aliranta started his chainsaw.  Upon seeing this, the being retreated back to the UFO.  Aliranta decided to pursue.  As he got nearer the craft, Aliantra reported seeing a row of portholes along the side of the saucer.  Through the portholes were beings similar in appearance to the one he was chasing with the chainsaw. 

Oh boy is this great!

Once underneath the UFO, the humanoid again began to rise into the air.  Aliranta dove forward and got a grip on the entity's "boot."  Just then, the entity's suit began to burn with blistering heat, "like hot iron" Aliranta would later describe it.  Aliantra was forced to release the tiny, chubby guy and allow it to rise back up into the saucer.  Once the creature had done so, the craft lifted up into the air and took off out of sight.  All at tremendous speed.

There were marks left in the snow by both the UFO's landing gear and footprints from the being.  Sneck and Aliranta provided measurements of them but who knows if they actually stopped to take readings of the formation with a tape measure.  Regardless, the marks in the snow were the only evidence left behind by either the object or the being.  Well, maybe not the only.  Apparently, there were blisters and burns visible on the inside of Aliranta's hand for two months after the close encounter.  It would stand to reason that someone else in Finland saw these marks. 

I don't know about the wounds, but this site claims that there were other witnesses to both the UFO and the entity.  On February 2nd, three days before Aliranta and Sneck's encounter, two women were driving on a Finnish highway.  As their account states, the women saw a saucer-shaped craft pass over their car.  As they drove past a nearby field, both spotted the same, bizarre entity that the lumberjacks did.  A figure three feet tall and wearing a solid green suit with a helmet on it.  Being frightened at the strange sight and being bereft of chainsaws, the women drove out of there in a hurry.

What are we supposed to make of any of this?

I mean, it's a fantastic story.  It's got a UFO landing and then an alien getting chased by a lumberjack with a chainsaw.  What more do you want??!!  Oh yeah, evidence.  Right.

Well I'm afraid there is little of that.  If there is any further evidence out there, either no one has produced or I have to research this further and see where it is posted.  One proposed theory is that this was the result of a hoax perpetrated by a local radio DJ and that the lumberjacks were in on it.  Right now, that's as good of a hypothesis as any, probably better.  This is not to say that the people involved imagined all of this, fabricated this, or that it otherwise did not happen to them.  There is no way I can say that for sure.  The burden of proof, however, is always on the claimant.  Therefore, we must wait to see what kind of evidence someone comes up with to support the claim.

Part of me hopes that really happens.  If not for my curiosity but for a humanity to have a chance to atone for slighting a visitor.  What if the little guy only wanted to be friends?  "I come in peace" right?  Perhaps he wanted to share his love with the population of planet Earth and soothe a world battered by war and racial tension?  It was 1971 so maybe he wished to obtest that The Beatles put aside their philosophical and ideological differences and "come together" (sorry) as a band again? 

Like I said, it's a great yarn.  One worthy of a pulp science fiction short story collection.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

You can't wear The Jeebus

The Jeebus.

It's a name I stole from my friend Armando.  The phrase is meant to stand in for "Jesus."  I don't quite know how or why Armando came up with "The Jeebus" but I have adopted it for a very specific reason.  I use the term because it is what I have named a deity that fundy Christians appear to worship, one drastically dissimilar to the Jesus many other Christians follow.

Case in point.  A high school student in Nova Scotia, Canada was temporarily barred from school last week for wearing a t-shirt.  The shirt carried the message, "Life is wasted without Jesus."

Isn't there something in the New Testament about being boastful in faith?  Huh.  Coulda sworn it.

First of all, I'm surprised that this is happening in a nation as forward-thinking as Canada.  Seems more likely to take place in Indiana or Kansas.  Who am I kidding?  Those states probably suspend students for not wearing Jeebus t-shirts...but I digress.  Second of all, school officials were quick to point out that they had discussed this matter with the student multiple times and that suspension was a final resort.

Followers of The Jeebus might say that the shirt threatens no one (and they would be right) and that the student was exercising his right to free speech.  However, take another look at the phrase.  "Life is wasted without Jesus."

If you're an agnostic, an atheist, a Hindu, or a Muslim et. al.,what would you think about that shirt?  Many would likely turn and walk on.  Others could be offended by basically being told that their life is wasted.  Wasted according to one system of belief that has about as much physical evidence backing it up as any other religion.  In fact, the implications of the phrase are rather reminiscent of the rhetoric from one of The Jeebus' biggest supporters: "You're either with us or against us."

Here's a few other Christian t-shirts I've come across online from a simple Google search:

"My God can kick your god's butt."

"The Lord's Army: On a Mission From God"

"The Few.  The Proud.  The Christians."

"Hand-to-Hand Prayer Combat"

"Life Is Better With Jesus"

Don't those phrases, except for the last one, sound I bit militant to you?  Almost...dare I say, jihadist?

That brings up another point.  How would people react to a student wearing a t-shirt printed with an inverted cross and the phrase, "Life is wasted with Jesus"?  There would probably be concern over people being offended and rightly so.  What if a student wore a shirt reading, "Allah Akbar"?  I'm guessing he or she would be construed as threatening violence.  Sadly, the kid in Nova Scotia probably would have been ok if he had added the word "My" to his shirt, thereby reading, "My life would be wasted without Jesus."  That would be free expression.  At least in my opinion.

So let the cicatrix form over this most recent slice, oh followers of The Jeebus.  Get over it and move on.  You want to worship The Jeebus?  Fine.  Great.  Just don't do things to shove The Jeebus in my face.  Me and him aren't on speaking terms right now.

Strange days indeed...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

50K fish dead, cause still unknown

A mere four days ago, over 50,000 fish turned up dead in China.

Forgive, please, the title of the web site in that link.  It's a bit "out there" sounding but the news story is legitimate.  The location of the die-off, near the city of Shenzhen, is primarily an industrial expanse and yet someone intended to use a local pond as a fish farm.  From the link:
“We have invested a total of 350 thousand yuan (about 56 thousand USD) in the form of 60 thousand fish; now it’s all over,” said Ms. Liu, the fish pond owner. “These fish have been raised for one year, and could have been sold at market three months later.”
While the cause of this mass die-off is still technically unknown, it doesn't seem like one need be overly intuitive or that we must engage in much pother to come up with a sound theory.  The pond sits in proximity to an industrial plant.  Residents of Shenzhen reported heavy rains the day before the deaths.  It would stand to reason that the rain washed toxins and pollutants down into the pond and viola...tons of dead fish.
However, I am working on confirming other reports of dead fish across China, including 31 Yangtze porpoises.  Well, those aren't technically fish but you get where I'm headed.  I am given to hear that several rivers have thousands of dead floating upon them, dying off in a period from late April until now.  
Before anyone gets any ideas, I will say that I see absolutely no paranormal or conspiratorial angles to these occurrences.  What we are seeing are repercussions of our own pollution and environmental spoilage.  China has one of the worst pollution problems in the world.  It's not hard to imagine that the nation's lack of environmental awareness is to blame for these deaths.  I am not, however, unduly picking on China.  These mass die-offs serve as mere microcosms of what is yet to come for the rest of us.  We're headed for a massive environmental disaster and it will likely be connected to the sea or other bodies of water.  One can also see that the detrimental effects are not limited to "tree-hugger," "liberal" causes such as...oh, I don't know...wanting clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, respect for non-human life, et. al. There is also an economic cost to businesses as Ms. Liu pointed out in the linked story.
We know one thing.  It's going to smell like rotting fish in China for a while.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets