Thursday, February 28, 2013

Kurzweil's Mind-Machine

Ray Kurzweil was on Coast-to-Coast AM last Monday.

The venerable high priest of the transhuman ziggurat discussed the further merger of humans with machines.  But a more basic step must occur before we all begin getting cybernetic limbs.  That is, we must fully understand how the brain works.

This does not simply mean how nerves may transmit messages between the brain and transhuman implants, but an understanding of how the brain relates to abstract concepts such as "irony, humor, and beauty." Once we begin to reverse engineer how the brain creates and relates to these thoughts, further steps may be implemented to build computers that can think in much the same manner.  Thus, the "Mind-Machine."

Kurzweil spent the remainder of his C2C time doing the usual flogging of those alarmists who see transhumanism as the downfall of civilization.  Sadly, such a ritual will be necessary so long as people like Alex Jones are around the Internet.  Humans are not really afraid of immersion with technology as Kurzweil accurately points out.  One need only look to the ubiquity of smartphones as evidence.  The same will hold true for body augmentation to overcome the limits of our frail biology.  After all, machines are already a part of us.  We created them.

This is the sort of plain fact reasoning that Kurzweil is renowned for...despite however "out there" his theories might get at times.   It truly resonates with me because I'm tired.

I'm tired of stomach issues.  I'm tired of the multitudinous failings of the flesh that diet and exercise alone won't begin to relieve...and even if they can, why bother if there is a more efficient and utilitarian solution?  More than anything, I'm just tired of being tired.  If I can modify the source code, why not?  I'm simply using the operating system to its fullest potential.

Go ahead, Alex Jones.  Stay meaty.  Just don't complain when it fails you.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Not my G.I. Joe

They are like a second family to me.

That might sound sad, but I believe that everyone has a stable of fictional characters, whether it be on a TV show or in a movie, that they know so well that they almost feel real.  For me, those characters are not any of the usual suspects with "Star" somewhere in the title.  Honestly, for me it's G.I. Joe.

And I'm talking about long before the cartoon showed up with red and blue lasers and a "knowing is half the battle" parable and certainly long before that dreadful movie G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and the upcoming sequel, G.I. Joe: Whatever It's Called.  Additionally, I'm not so sure the new line of comic books by IDW are what I'm after, either.

According to Dorkland, the new comics portray G.I. Joe as a unit of "celebrity soldiers" in an age "where news and advertising are as much weapons as guns and knives."  Up front, I need to say that I have not read this current crop of comics from IDW, so in a manner of speaking I am not fully informed.  But ya know what?  I'm not so sure I want to be.  Not my cup of tea, you see.  For this is not my G.I. Joe.

Several times, Dorkland has questioned why this is for me.  Whenever I would argue that contemporary movies or comics were too "out there" to really be G.I. Joe, he would respond, "G.I. Joe is a science fiction story."  I respectfully disagree.

True, there are elements to the G.I. Joe mythos that are science fictional.  To be exciting, the technology the team has is highly advanced and a bit "out of this world." Plus, the whole notion of Cobra is science fiction in that anything of its kind could even exist in the first place.  Despite all of that, what made G.I. Joe a smash success as a comic book (155 issues!  12 years!) and toy line, thereby cementing itself in the cultural chemistry of the 1980s, can be boiled down to three words: writer Larry Hama.

In addition to be a seasoned and sharp writer, Hama is a military veteran.  He created a story that is quintessentially about a covert military team.  The characters were distinct, fresh, and engaging.  Each of them had their own history and backstory.  People got hurt and sometimes didn't come back at all.  There were very few laser weapons for his team to employ.  Instead, they would have to rely on "Vulcan 20 Mike-Mike" from the SkyStriker, let's say.  If you were down to your last ammo clip in a firefight, no superscience was going to get you out.  You'd have to rely upon your wits and hope that you had a good E&E trainer.  These were war stories, pure and plain.  They were not the light zephyr of the cartoon series or even the current line of comics.

Hama's stories were about men and women devoted to silent service, to honor, and to each other.  True, their personalities could be bigger than life, but never once did they feel like they were bigger than the job at hand.  Sure, one could argue that this was all about the macho and "militaristic" Reagan era, but it went deeper than that.  The characters mattered.

I wish the current Powers That Be knew that.

And The Baroness is hot.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2013

UFOs: an inconvenient truth

I have come to a slightly uncomfortable conclusion regarding UFO phenomena.

No, I don't believe it's all a hoax.  Not entirely.  However, I do not believe that there are aliens while at the same time I do strongly suspect the presence of UFOs.  Confused?  Good.  Hang on.

A while back, I posted a pic on the Facebook page for ESE.  This pic had a collage of the various types of UFO craft that have been allegedly spotted.  My pal David commented that he believed this wide variation to be indicative of UFOs being a falsehood (paraphrase).  In a way, he's correct. 

Consider the wide variety of reports, the ones that extend far beyond the stereotypical "flying saucer" or triangle reports.  For example, at the dawn of the 20th Century, there were numerous sightings of "mysterious airships" many of these accounts closely resembling the cigar-shaped balloons and dirigibles of the time yet with flight characteristics just a step beyond.

This is to say nothing of the wide disparity in the descriptions of UFO occupants.  The brilliant and thorough Jacques Vallee has done numerous studies on the subject.  This is not a recent phenomenon, rather it was one that reaches back to prehistory.  The first records indicate encounters with "half human, half animal" beings.  By the establishment of Christianity as a world force, we see these encountered beings resembling "angels." Around the same time, there are reports of "gnomes" and "hairy giants." Modern "alien" experiences began with contact people and our "space brothers" or supposed extraterrestrials that are very humanlike in appearance and were here to help us.  They also have scientific interests with a few reports stating that the aliens were observed taking soil samples (not unlike the Apollo astronauts of the same era).

Then there are wilder encounters, such as the "Hopkinsville goblins," beings such as Mothman as written about by John Keel, and others with visages not unlike the kind depicted above.

Unfortunately, all of that was but zakuska for the terrors that followed.

By now, reports of UFOs and their occupants have once again become largely homogenized and conform to a broader template.  In plainer language: The Greys.  The bug-eyed, diminutive, rather sinister beings described in books such as Whitley Streiber's Communion and Budd Hopkins' Intruders, each of them depicting frightful and rather cookie-cutter accounts of people ripped from their beds at night by Greys and then subjected to painful and traumatizing medical exams.  Yes, one need only look at pop culture to see that the majority of people think "Grey" when they hear the word "alien."  Although I will admit that David Icke and his "reptoids" are beginning to give the Greys a run for their money.

How can all of this be?  Is it all psychological, meaning people influenced to mass hallucination by popular culture and media?  The physical evidence suggests against that.  However, the reports are far too all over the map to be alien in nature either.  And here's where Vallee and John Keel begin to get it right, in my opinion.

There is a psychosocial aspect to the entire phenomenon.  This is something that adapts to what we want and what we expect to see.  Or perhaps what we fear to see.  We may be encountering a higher intelligence, lifeforms that exist on another level of consciousness that morph their visage to meet our expectations.  This dovetails with John Keel's notion of the "superspectrum" from The Mothman Prophecies.  If so, then what do these beings want?  What is their nature?  What is their endgame?  What do they hope to accomplish through abduction and experimentation?

Then again, human consciousness and the power of the human mind may be collaboratively constructing these beings and experiences.  This opens the floodgates on a whole number of other issues, such as tulpas, the incubus and succubus, and larger questions about human nature, such as but not limited to what we as a species want and what we are capable of doing.

Sigh.  I really miss the simplicity of spacecraft and visitors from other planets.

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Monday, February 25, 2013

A robot with "dermal displays?"

I have taken Bernard's advice.

I am referring of course to my writing partner nigh-lifelong pal, Bernard Sell.  About one month back, he asked me the question, "have you ever written anything about robots?"  It was such a simple question and I was astounded by my answer.  No, I have never written about a science fiction concept of which I have always enjoyed.  Aside from my youthful yet abortive attempt at a take-off on "Kilroy Was Here."  

So I do have a book in the works that will deal with a robot.  In sifting through the Interwebs in search of research material, I came across this tidbit from Gina Miller, whom I am given to understand goes by "Nanogirl."  She did a bit of animation for a concept project called "dermal displays." Dermal displays entail the implantation of three billion pixelbots just beneath the surface of someone's skin.  Through light emitted by the nanobots, an actual display read-out would be visible upon the user's epidermis.  You can watch a mock up vid of it here featuring none other than Ray Kurzweil.

One potential application of these dermal displays would be interaction with a contingent of medical nanobots already in the user's body.  The display would give vitals, such as heart rate, respiration, and blood sugars, and the user would give the medical bots instructions based accordingly.  I shall leave other applications to your imagination.

Will my bot have dermal displays beneath its latex skin?  I think so.  Question is, what will the displays be for?  That all depends how wild I choose to get in context of the story's tone, which is right now rather satirical.  I could take a cue from William Burroughs, who said that "the word is now a virus" and that "modern man has lost the option of silence." Should my robot be Burroughsian in that it is mute, communicating instead through dermal displays?  To be effective for the reader, however, such communication must entail words.  I would think, anyway.

Maybe it's a challenge for the author.  Can I convey what I want to say through description of symbolism in the dermal displays?  Perhaps a combination of speech and display?

I don't know.  The story is still developing.

What would your taste as a reader suggest?

Wait, I've got it: Etch-a-Sketch tattoos.

My e-novella, Hound of Winter is available for only 99 cents
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Friday, February 22, 2013

Cliff Pickover's 6,000

Afraid it's going to be a quick post today.

I came across a blog edited by Cliff Pickover.  Pickover is a writer and futurist whom I've been fortunate enough have a brief (very brief) Twitter conversation in the distant past.  He is the author of The Math Book, The Physics Book, and maintains his own site, Reality which I just learned that the inventor of Vaseline ate a spoonful of it every day.  Weird.  But I digress...

The blog is called The Six Thousand.  On it, Pickover lists 6,000 people you should meet online before you die.  No, of course I'm not on it.

Those who are featured read like a Who's Who of the online world.  There's Natasha Vita-More, futurist and transhuman, Rudy Rucker of SF fame, Rebecca Skloot, science writer for The New York Times, dear departed Fortean Mac Tonnies, Xeni Jardin from Boing Boing, screenwriter and former stripper Diablo Cody, and astronomer Emily Schaller. Yes, it does seem a somewhat conspicuous list of attractive women for the thinking man, but I see nothing wrong with that whatsoever.  Although why I couldn't find Rachel Haywire on the list is anybody's guess.

You really do owe it to yourself to check these thinkers out.  No, I'm not on it.  Though one day, I may do something to be deserving.

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Thursday, February 21, 2013

My encounter

A full 24 hours later, I can finally muster the gumption to tell my tale.

So there I was...leaving the academic building after 15 hours on campus (or 12 or whatever it was.  At any rate, a long-ass day.)  That's when I saw the UFO hovering in front of me.  The craft was classic saucer shape, I would estimate it to be roughly half a city block in size.  I snapped a shot of it with my iPhone, but the quality isn't that great.  My shaky hands didn't help matters, either.

Yeah, I know it's blurry, but it's an iPhone camera.  What do you expect?
Was I scared?  Sure.  Especially unnerving was the fact that it seemed no one else was witnessing this aside from myself.  That and if you'll notice, there is a door or aperture of sorts at the top of the UFO, just underneath those slats of cruddy orange painting.  I stepped closer and got another pic.

Note the gleam off of the ship's metallic surface.
As the ship began to land on campus, utterly in silence I might add, that very same door I mentioned previously began to open.  This was when my buttcheeks clamped together.  Were those insidious Greys about to emerge from the ship?  Was I going to be abducted?  Whatever the result, I was about to make physical contact with a (presumably) alien race.  What did this mean for me?  I'll tell you what.  Ufology gold, just like George Adamski.  Humanoid figures appeared within the light of the craft's interior, beckoning me inside.  Here goes, I thought.

Much to my happy surprise, the aliens were not only most human-like, they were actually quite delightful.  And each one of them was female.  Why, one looked like Natalie Portman, another Scarlett Johansson, and one even had an uncanny resemblance to Asia Carrera.  Their apparent leader had a visage something akin to Bea Arthur in a thong, but I was telepathically told "do not be afraid."

Yet I was.  I had to ask myself, am I really qualified to be practicing exopolitics?  Who am I to be matched up as a specimen of humanity?  Granted, I'm smarter than the average bear, but with my innumerable other shortcomings, Earth might really be in the soup if I'm the yardstick.  Yet after a few more glances at Natalie and Scarlett (that's what I called them, anyway), I knew that I had to press forward...for SCIENCE!

They brought me through the halls of the ship, leading me to a cafe with a relaxed atmosphere wherein I was treated to the finest food and drink of their planet...yet come to think of it, I'm not sure they ever mentioned where they were from.  The ladies told me that they were possessed of extraordinarily long lifespans, many thousands of years in our measurement.  I had so many questions for them.

"Survival is on my mind.  Very much," I said.

"Yes, we are quite concerned about your planet and Global Warming," Asia told me.

"No, I meant me personally," I said.

"Well, all of your professional and marital problems will be resolved one way or another.  Let's put it that way," reported Natalie.

"Uh, ok."

"Are all humans as self-absorbed as you?" Scarlett asked.

"Pretty much, yeah.  Hey my college is going through a fair amount of financial difficulties and austerity measures.  Can you tell me where that might be headed?"

"There will be difficult times ahead for all higher education if your people do not change your ways," Scarlett said.

"So...does that mean you'll make a donation?"


"Say, think I could get you guys' digits?"

"Our what?" Natalie inquired.

"Your phone numbers."

"Oh.  The request is irrelevant," Asia explained.  "We reproduce via a large-scale method of asexual fission.  No other member is required."

"Sigh.  If I had a beer for every time a woman told me that..."

Another one of them emerged from the umber of the cafe, this one a dead-ringer for Dita Von Teese.

"It's time for the exam," she said.  "Do you know what the word 'trondant' means?"


"Good.  Please sign this waiver."

"Hey, is this the part where you gals take the...heh...bodily fluid samples?"

"No, but we will be implanting a small device deep in your colon via a probe about the length of one of your Earth's broom handles."

"I can live with that."

As for the procedure, well...the less said the better.
The ladies returned me to the entrance.  It was my last shot to glean their knowledge.

"I really can't decide," I implored.  "Should I file my Incredible Hulk comics under  'i' for 'incredible' or 'h' for 'Hulk?' "

"Well, looks like we're out of time,"Scarlett said, showing me the door.

Sadly, the conundrum would remain unresolved.
Then they departed.  I managed to snap this shot of the spaceship from underneath.

Oddly enough, none of the photos I snapped of the sexy aliens appeared on my phone.  Weird.

Like most contactees, my life is now changed forever (not that it would have taken much).  So I'll spend my time hoping they come back, each day a pale, listless copy of the one before by comparison to the miracle night of just 24 hours previous.

I wonder if there's any Chinese food left in the freezer...

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Computer Contest

It has been a day of reminiscence.

Though long and arduous, my thoughts could not help but drift back to February of 1989.  That was when a team of high school geeks, consisting of Graymalkin, Neutron Frog, and yours truly, attended a computer contest at the college where I would eventually attend undergrad and currently teach.  What did this contest consist of?

I can't remember much of it, other than debugging or hard coding programs in either Basic or Turbo Pascal on Zenith PCs.  What I do recall is feeling how "cutting edge" it all was.   In high school, we worked on the Commodore CBM.  Don't remember that particular vintage?  You're not alone.  Or you're not old enough.  Here's a link to one for reference.

You can imagine our reaction then to seeing a Mac (can't remember which iteration but it was 1989) scan in graphics or play an audio clip of John Cleese from The Life of Brian (at least I think that was the Python film it was from.)  That was also the day that I was introduced to The Church of the SubGenius and their divine entity known only as "Bob," whose devotees seek not grace but slack.  It was all shown to me through files on the IRC, that forerunner to what we now call the Web.  The future gleamed in front of me and my years ahead seemed to glow with silicon. 

Our team won the contest and I think a few of us went to Neutron Frog's and played Contra.

I was just on the cusp of discovering cyberpunk as Gibson would show up on my radar only a few weeks later.  In the coming years, that HyperCard creation Beyond Cyberpunk! would worm its way into my consciousness, just after Dreamer, Ahab and myself would create our own cyberpunk setting through the first version of SimCity.  That latter game would propagate itself through the dorm like a virus, passing between PCs for copy protection was virtually non-existent for software in those days.  The pirates would then grow addicted, playing the game until when they closed their eyes they could see the grid outlines of the city they tended.

Cyberpunk took a bit of the gleam off the silicon and added a tarnish to it.  Still, those were relatively optimistic times for me.  Wish I could go back again, but the tensile strength of time is paper thin, nearly non-existent as a matter of fact, offering nil pliability.

But to be young again, to be with those guys, to be discovering all that technology for the first time, primitive though it may be by today's standards, it's indescribable.

Not every day you get a front row seat for a revolution.

On a somewhat relevant side note, check out this tattoo of the ARPAnet as it stood in 1970 (courtesy of Boing Boing).

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Alien abductions: just another black op?

There are many aspects of UFO phenomena that fascinate me.

For example, there is the notion of crashed and retrieved UFOs as well as the bodies of their occupants.  Apparently, these ever-so-sophisticated craft have dropped like flies and we've picked up the pieces.

Another aspect of the mythos, namely alien abductions, has not attracted as much attention from me.  Maybe it's because many cases can be easily explained through mundane means.  Maybe it's because the evidence is weak.  Or maybe it's because the whole concept just scares the hell out of me.

Then along comes Nick Redfern with an alternative that might be even more unsettling than alien abduction itself.  That notion being that the phenomena is orchestrated and executed by our governments.

Redfern opens his proposal with an account of peace protestors in the 1980s demonstrating against the deployment of US nuclear cruise missiles in Britain.  The protestors, mostly women according the the accounts cited, began to experience intense depression, anxiety, and migraines.  In time, few wished to continue the demonstrations.  Talk began to circulate that the US and Britain had a sort of electromagnetic projector that could cause such symptoms in people.

It is true that electromagnetic waves can have the exact sort of effects on the brain as described by the activists.  Might it be that such technology is involved in perpetrating the abduction meme?  Say what you want to about UFOs, but it's really a foregone conclusion that the United States government has been active in proliferating disinformation on the subject for many years.  Note, this does not mean they are concealing aliens as the effort may be undertaken towards other secretive ends.  Could abduction be a similar smokescreen?

If you are familiar with UFOs, you are likely acquainted with the abduction template.  You've seen it in the case of Betty and Barney Hill or read about in Budd Hokins' Missing Time or Whitley Streiber's Communion.  Less well-known are abduction cases where the alleged abductee reveals under hypnosis that their experience had nothing to do with aliens.

Redfern discusses one such case, a woman named "Allison." Allison claimed to have been abducted on five different occasions.  Each time began with her pets acting distressed and ended with her groggy and collapsed in a different part of the house than where she had been.  And of course, there was missing time.  There would be other incidents as well, including strange power failures, an odd humming noise outside the house, and rooms being bathed with light.  Allison recalls that while semi-conscious during one of the abductions, she would see small figures scurrying about her house.  These beings would bring her outside into a hovering craft where they would perform and nasal and gynecological exam.

On her fifth abduction, however, the pattern altered considerably.  As the aliens brought her back into her house, the humming noise stopped.  Suddenly, the "aliens" stopped looking like greys and turned into very human men in black combat fatigues.  These men appeared shocked by the sudden transformation and one reached out with his hand as if to tell Allison, "stay there." The military men then slowly backed out of the house.  Though still disoriented, Allison made her way to the window where she did not see a UFO but a sophisticated black helicopter with powerful lights.

Allison now believes that her abductions have had nothing to do with UFOs.  Instead, she asserts that she has been an unwilling participant in a US military experiment.  Could this be?  I maintain that it must be considered.  As mentioned previously, EMP waves can have disorienting effects on the human brain, including paranoia and the sensation that small people are lurking around behind you.  Other aspects of the abduction scenario could be duplicated with hypnosis and drugs.  If this is so, then I ask you what is the more frightening: aliens abducting you or your own government?  I think Nick Redfern is correct in that this is a possibility that needs further examination.

However, if this theory should proven correct, this does not mean that all abduction claims have no alien or otherworldly origins to them. If not alien, they may stem from darker, more nefarious forces that lurk in human consciousness.

And that's what scares me.

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Monday, February 18, 2013

When an asteroid strikes

Any false sense of security should be gone.

A meteor came in fast and exploded over central Russia last Friday.  There were injuries of varying reported amounts, but each figure hovers around the 1,000 mark.  First came a flash, then a deafening bang that shattered glass from a burst that was the equivalent of 300 kilotons.  And by most standards, the meteor was on the small side, maybe half the length of a football field according to NASA. 

This incident is, of course, renewing calls from space science and space industry workers  to take the threat from asteroids and meteors seriously.  Yet because of the relatively small size of objects such as the one over Russia, it becomes rather difficult to track every incoming threat.  Nevertheless, this incident should indeed remind us that we are mere insects for the swatting in the cosmic scheme of things.  If we do not wish to be swatted, we need to be proactive.

Sadly, this event was also an occasion to showcase the scientific ignorance of the average American.  A CNN news anchor asked Bill "the science guy" Nye if the meteor hit was related to Global Warming.  Nye politely assured that the global rise in temperature had nothing to do with meteors, other than perhaps "meteor" being the root word of "meteorology." Then again, asteroids and Global Warming might have a connection and it is for the positive.

Last fall, a study suggested that asteroid dust might aid in curtailing climate change.  In this approach, we would blast the surface of an asteroid to send a cloud of dust between the Sun and the Earth, acting as a sort of dusty sunscreen.  Because an asteroid generates its own gravitational pull, the dust cloud will remain synched in place and disperse.  What could go wrong?

I kid, I kid.  I'm just glad someone is working on a solution, any kind of solution, to the threat of global climate change.  That is to say if it really isn't a myth or due to the Sun going through phases.  Yeah.  Right.

One thing I'm looking forward to: seeing if any unusual microbes or organisms are found in that area of Russia.  Extra data on what kinds of life meteors and asteroids may carry would be most welcome indeed.  Then again, in our hubris, we'll probably recant any issued discoveries, presuming that any found organisms would simply be ones we hadn't yet discovered and are purely terrestrial in nature.

Oh well.  Our time will come.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Free Form Friday

Apples and oranges.

That's what they say we're supposed to be.  If nothing else for the sake of our own mental health.  "Don't compare yourself to other people.   You'll just drive yourself nuts.  Besides, you don't know what life they lead."

Guess there's a bit of truth in that as Edward Arlington Robinson points out, same goes for Simon and Garfunkel.
All those jealous statements made in the silence of one's head or worse aloud.  Those words go straight into the devil called negative karma.  And the check is coming due.

"What see'st thou else
In the dark backward and abysm of time?" --Prospero, Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Indeed.  Look into the abyss and it looks back into you.

But it's all up to us, right?  We're the only ones who can do it.  So do it by hook or by crook.

Get some balm on the ache, willya?
There's an elite few of us who choose books to that end.

"I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness, and the bettering of my mind." --Prospero, Shakespeare's The Tempest (again).

Many others try love.  That's what yesterday was all about, right?  Yes, Sister Yesterday.

Alas, poor Ian.  I knew him well.  Or did anyone really?
No one beats him for the void, not even Mozz.

What happens when the ointment meant to soothe burns?  Because it can.  Just like the scorpion who stung the frog as they crossed the river, it does it because it can.
Or more likely we let it.  We're left alone in the void with the balm.

And maybe we learn that the balm in Gilead is only ourselves.

Not that it will make any difference.

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Thursday, February 14, 2013

Why I'll never be as cool as io9

Good thing I'm not even trying to beat them.

Because it just wouldn't work.  In my insatiable quest of cool/weird hunting, I have a stable of web pages that I check on a daily basis.  One of those is io9.   They put me to shame.

Always at the forefront, surfing far ahead of the zeitgeist, even ahead of Boing Boing I might add,  io9's bread and butter is science fiction.  Obviously that covers a wide area of ground but somehow they get it done.  In spectacular fashion.  Pop culture "sci-fi" is often featured, but never at the expense of literature or "hard" science fiction.  There are feature articles and "top ten lists" regarding authors like Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. LeGuin.  Then there's a bit on a man fighting the Battle of Hoth in his living room. 

This is what I mean.  Not fluffy enough to be brushed off.  Also not so stuffy that you can't have fun.  The categories do not begin and end with SF, however.

Here's an example.  The current headline at the site is "The Worst Lies That Mainstream Nutrition Has Told You."   Science, pop culture, weirdness, it's all fair game at io9.

It really makes me wonder why I bother sometimes.  That sensation creeps up, starting at the nuque and working its way up into the cerebral cortex.  "You're not good enough."
I suppose if I had a worldwide staff like io9, I could be on the cusp of each and every new development, whether it be artsy or transhuman.  Oh well, just like me to make myself feel bad via a comparison to others. 

Then again, I've probably got them beat when it comes to UFO weirdness.
Or not.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

NASA and the next generation of space travel

It could take us to Mars.  Or so they say.

The Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) was showcased at NASA recently.  The spacecraft will have its first unmanned flight in 2014 and is slated to carry crews to the Moon and Mars.

As for human-crewed flight, well that's further off.  Of course it is?  Why wouldn't it be?
The estimated first Orion flight for humans is 2021.  A great deal of other technology is coming together in the meantime, developments that will learn from the lessons of Apollo.  For example, one issue with Moon exploration was the dust and grit that weaseled its way into space suits and gear.  An electrode coil in the astronaut's suit may be the answer to that annoyance. 

At the same time, a new lunar rover called RESOLVE is under development.  It has even undergone "test drives" over lava beds in Hawaii.   Another new rover design has a different feature from previous incarnations in that it is meant to drill into planetary material called "regolith." It is hoped that the resources necessary to sustain a lunar or martian base, elements such as hydrogen, could be found on site.

Good, I suppose, but not terribly exciting.  I suppose a bit of my "meh" response is the fact that we should never have left the Moon.  The Apollo program should never have ended.  We should be on Mars by now.  So on and so forth. 

Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to NASA has been political correctness.  Space exploration and scientific research in space just doesn't fit the mold of utilitarianism anymore.  Therefore, the cost cannot be justified.  Defense, on the other hand, is an utterly sacred and any cost is justified.  What?  Nuclear-powered engines for spacecraft?  Utterly unthinkable.

And then apathy set in.

Moaning and groaning aside, I'm glad something is being done.  Perhaps Chinese ambitions in space have reignited the sense of competition that Americans apparently need to have in order to do something.  Will Orion work?  Will it get us back to the Moon let alone Mars?

Here's to hoping.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013


Been a long day.

Not a bad one, thankfully, just long.  One thing after another.  Therefore, I've had a difficult time in devoting the headspace to come up with a post for the evening, so I'm stabbing around in the dark a bit.  Here's the best I've got.

I have been really enjoying the website "Adbusters." In their paragraph manifesto, the organization describes themselves as:

"We are a global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society.
Now 98,125 strong!"

Changing the way that corporations wield power.  Cue the Tea Bagger meltdown in 3...2...1...

The site features numerous spoof ads, cutting through the persuasive glitz and rhetoric to demonstrate the true motivations behind product ads.  Adbusters also sponsors campaigns such as "Buy Nothing Day" during the holiday shopping season, Blackspot innovative and inventive open-source alternative to Nike, and Digital Detox Week where one elects to forgo digital communication for seven days.  As you might imagine, I'm not a big fan of that latter initiative but I understand where they're coming from  in terms of shutting out corporate propaganda.

 So visit Adbusters.  The war for your mind may depend upon it.

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Monday, February 11, 2013

Tactile photographs

I love discovering new art and this is new to me, anyway.

But not really.  At least it shouldn't be.  The idea of tactile photography isn't all that far removed from a geographic map or globe that demonstrates the raised textures of the Earth.  Ever do that as a kid?  Close your eyes and run your fingers over such a globe, feeling "nature's Braille" in the raised mountain ranges and ridges?

The same seems to go for tactile photographs.  I came across the artwork of photographer James Patten.  This particular page was for a gallery exhibition a number of years ago developed for the deafblind community.  Though dated and I am obviously quite late to the party, Patten provides a compelling account of his work that demands it remain relevant:
"As people touch the images, the surface of the wood continues to wear, and people's experience of the work becomes part of the work itself. I think of these works "interactive art" even though there are no computers or sophisticated mechanical mechanisms.
The most fascinating part of this work for me is watching people interact with the images, and seeing the different ways that sighted, blind and deafblind people experience them."

Make certain you check out the gallery at the link.  Of particular interest is the joyous expression on the visually-impaired art-goers as they run their hands over the photographic prints.  Also interesting is Patten's account of how the pictures were created:

"The works are produced through a CNC laser etching process that removes the top portion of the wood. The darker the image is a any particular point, the more wood is removed by the laser at that point. The result is a photographic relief that can be touched as well as seen."

After a bit of googling, I found other examples of tactile photography.  A few, such as these, are a bit more...suggestive and with fair warning, are perhaps a bit NSFW.  Not that there is anything wrong with that, just wanted to I said...fair warning.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

50 years of Doctor Who

It was like an ugly bait and switch.

A couple weeks back, Wired reported that all 11 Doctors would be appearing in the 50th Anniversary episode of Doctor Who.  That's right.  All.  How, might you ask, would the three deceased ones such as Jon Pertwee make it back from beyond?  Why, special effects of course.

This turns out to be almost entirely a rumor with little to no basis in fact.  Yeah, it let me down, too.  This is not to say that the reunion won't happen, but it is far from confirmed and the odds are against it.  And I'm still going to watch.

In truth, I know relatively few of the Doctors.  My childhood introduction to Doctor Who was staying up late to watch it on PBS and the Doctor at the time was Jon Pertwee, a grandfatherly type of presence that granted a calming effect whenever the word "exterminate!" started to be repeated.  After that came Tom Baker and his, in my opinion, classic episodes "Ark in Space" and "The Pyramids of Mars."  I also seem to recall an especially atrocious feature film with Peter Cushing as the Doctor, but I could be mistaken.  As I entered my teens, I dropped away from the show, stupidly believing myself too cool for it.  However, when BBC resurrected the series with Christopher Eccelston, I was hooked.

BBC America recently ran a three-hour retrospective on the series and I found myself especially intrigued by the earlier incarnations of the Doctor, my exposure to which as I stated previously, was limited.  Case in point, the first Doctor, William Hartnell.  It was his Doctor who outlined the rules for a time traveler in an episode dealing with Aztec times.  More than that, the subject matter was originally intended by the BBC to teach history to children.  Fascinating, but I digress...

So what will the anniversary episode entail?  Writer/Producer Stephen Moffat is tight-lipped about it as you might imagine.  I'm certain he likewise has the cast and crew threatened into silence as well.  What is known is that Doctors Matt Smith and David Tennant are pretty much locks for the show.  Eccelston, however, has shown open resistance to joining the episode (yet, as the link above points out, playing "Destro" was just fine with him.)

What menace will the episode feature?  Well, the Daleks are probably the go-to choice, but they're rather overexposed.  I would rather see an old nemesis like The Master make a return, but let's face it, it could be anybody.  Perhaps even a villain that is entirely new to the mythos.  Whatever it is, I fully plan to be there to find out.

After all, I'm never opposed to a ride in the TARDIS.  To turn that down would be foolish indeed.
Rule Britannia!

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

That "weird hunk of metal on Mars"

A valid question, I believe.  Even if inelegantly phrased.

The story ran in The Atlantic with the title "Um, What's This Weird Hunk of Metal on Mars?"  If you can wade through prose that resembles something more suited to Yahoo's OMG! or "popular gastronomy" or something, you will find that the article's topic is a protuberance from the Martian soil spotted by the Curiosity rover.   The probe's Mastcam snapped a photo of something sticking up from the rock and possessed of a "metallic gleam" according to observers such as Universe Today.

A bit of math work with the object's shadow determined that the projected piece is only half a centimeter in height.  What is it?  As you might imagine, theories abound.  Un-oxidized iron, maybe?  A fragment from a meteorite?  No one knows yet, but astronomers are actually leaning towards something metallic and NASA is going to attempt to get another looksee from Curiosity.

Comments on the article are jocular to the point of being tiresome.  As usual, the possibility of the metal's nature being anything but prosaic is unthinkable.  I'm not saying that it must be out of the realm of known experience, but the option must be considered.

And that's where the problem comes in, at least to my way of thinking.

As many others have said, there exists a strand within science that is wholly unscientific.  "Don't consider that, no, don't even go there.  It's complete bullshit." I really don't mind someone saying that, provided they have investigated the case.  If that is the consensus they come to upon consideration, fine.  Just don't dismiss things on a knee jerk basis. This, in my opinion, has always been the case when considering exo-archeology on Mars.

A popular topic in this vein is the alleged "face" in the Cydonia region.  It is something that, yet again, I can't fully decide upon.  An initial photo taken by the Viking lander showed what appears to be a sphinx-like face staring upward from the surface of Mars.  This, alleges Richard Hoagland, is but one indication of the remains of dead civilization on that planet.  Hoagland's theories are admittedly radical and this has turned him into a convenient straw man to attack when discussing exo-archeology on Mars.  Subsequent photos of the Cydonia region revealed that the "face" is a lot less face-like than the original photo suggested.

And yet...and yet...

Mac Tonnies, a thorough researcher and greatly missed voice in the paranormal/science fiction community (sadly, he died in 2009), wrote a persuasive essay entitled "Emphatically Still a Face" that grants compelling evidence and reasoning for one to pause and reconsider.  For example, exo-archeological detractors point to the wear and tear on the "face" in the latest photos.  If it is indeed a monument of sorts and built at least thousands of years ago, erosion is inevitable.  Even on Mars.  But monuments on Mars is just plain crazy, right?

Ah ridicule.  The most effective means around if you need to stifle a question.

Let's hope solid conclusions can be drawn regarding this new discovery.
Then again, if it were anything other than prosaic, would they even tell us?

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Humans: the next step

The unintended consequences of improvement.

That seems to be, at least in part, what Chip Walter is getting at with his article in Popular Science on transhumanism.  Author of Last Ape Standing, Walter argues that our rapid advancements in technology, transhuman and otherwise, are changing our world faster than we are able to adapt.  From an evolutionary standpoint, that's not good news.

 "We are undoing ourselves because the old baggage of our evolution impels us to. We already know that every animal wants power over its environment and does its level best to gain it. Our DNA demands survival. It is just that the neoteny (youthfulness) that has made us the Swiss Army knife of creatures, and the last ape standing, has only amplified, not replaced, the primal drives of the animals we once were. Fear, rage, and appetites that cry for instant gratification are still very much with us. That combination of our powers of invention and our ancient needs will, I suspect, soon carry us off from the grand emporium of living things."

 But wait.  As Walter specifies, this does not mean "end" in that Doomsday Prepper, cataclysmic sense.  It will be more of a metamorphosis into a "cyber sapien," as Walter calls it, that has cybernetically enhanced itself.  I prefer the sound of the moniker "techno sapien" myself, but whatever.

Transhumanists have been saying this for a while.  In fact, this merger with machines is already well underway.  When was the last time you checked your smartphone?  When you hear its tone for a text or email, do you have autonomic reaction to respond to it?  Now think of this integration on the nano scale.  Nanotechnology adhered to your own blood cells for healing or to your neurons for thinking.  Why stop there?  In the future, one might trade in the human neurobiology for an enhanced cybernetic one.

Yes, Walter is correct.  "Human" as we know it is coming to an end as the term is going to have to be completely redefined.  I will be shedding no tears.  This is actually a trajectory of the human race that I am quite hopeful about.  Something wrong with the "meatware" you were given?  No problem.  Tweak the DNA.

However, this is all of course dependent upon a few factors.  If not everyone elects to have these modifications...and by the sound of it there is still is much resistance...will this result in divergent strains of humans?  Will those who choose not to become transhuman be subjugated by those who have due to the enhanced "powers" of transhumans?  Alex Jones certainly thinks so, but he's not exactly the yardstick for rational thought.  Will the availability of transhuman and cybernetic mods be based solely on one's finances?  "Want to evolve?  That will be 500 grand, please."  The future might arrive but as Gibson says, it might not be evenly distributed.  And then there are all of the silly and paranoid "terminator" scenarios.

The unintended consequences of progress.

Yeah, but I'll take my chances.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Black Hole

As you may recall, I hate Disney.

There is that one exception, however.  That exception's name is a science fiction film called The Black Hole.
The reason I like this film so much, despite all of its obvious flaws, is how original and innovative it really is on so many levels.  Given that the film's release was in 1979, Disney obviously wanted a production that would exploit the success of Star Wars.  They could have gone with an entirely feelgood knock off of it.  Instead, they chose to do something utterly unique. 

The film opens with a spaceship called the Palomino coming across a black hole.  Inhabiting a null gravity field near the event horizon is another, far larger ship.  Upon further inspection, the crew of the Palomino discover that it is a derelict, a long lost vessel named the Cygnus.  The Palomino becomes damaged and is forced to land on the Cygnus.  Once on board, the crew discovers the single, solitary remaining member of the Cygnus, a German scientist named Dr. Hans Reinhardt.

Reinhardt informs his visitors that the Cygnus was damaged by meteors and he sent the rest of the crew back to Earth.  He alone pressed on by constructing a crew of androids to run the ship with a new mission: enter the black hole and find out what's on the other side.  Needless to say, the crew of Palomino thinks that this is crazy.

Little by little, it begins to appear that Reinhardt is concealing an ugly secret.  One of the android workers is seen walking with a limp.  A gathering of androids has a funeral for one of its fallen.  When Reinhardt's secret is found (one which I refuse to give away here as it is so deliciously creepy and wholly un-Disney-like), he kills one of the Palomino's crew members.  What follows is a shoot-out to escape him.  In the midst of the fighting, meteors damage the Cygnus, knocking out its null field.  The Cygnus begins to spiral into the black hole.  Do our heroes survive?

As I said, I find it entirely original.  One of its strongest areas of invention was the art design.  As a design concept, the Cygnus is amazing (see the pic above).  All of the scaffold-like surfaces and spiky cathedral rises and all of it on a ship that is miles long.  The Star Wars influence is probably most invisible in the presence of all the robot characters.  The Palomino has a robot named V.I.N.CENT voiced by Roddy McDowall.  He is something of a pragmatic space probe in design, using anti-gravity to hover alongside his human companions.  On the Cygnus, he meets a much older model of his robotic design named B.O.B. voiced by Slim Pickens.  This of course is only one of the many types of robot on that spaceship.  There is the android crew plus a contingent of military guards that are transparent stand-ins for stormtroopers.  Most memorable of all is Reinhardt's evil robotic henchman, Maximilian.   This 'bot was big, red, and ominously mute with only a Cylon-like horizontal light for a facial feature.  He could also hover like V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. but carried a pair of spinning blades for defense...or more frequently, offense.  Again, a startling but most welcome choice for a Disney film.

There is also the cast.  Robert Forster plays Captain Dan Holland, the square-jawed hero of the Palomino.  Maximilian Schell plays Dr. Reinhardt in an ominous and operatic manner similar to that of a Bond villain.  Anthony Perkins is foppish civilian scientist, Yvette Mimieux is the token female in the otherwise sausage fest, and best of all, Ernest Borgnine as a civilian reporter along for the ride on the Palomino.  In 1979 there was a line of Black Hole action figures.  So as Tarantino said in True Romance, I love the idea that somewhere out there, a kid was playing with an Ernest Borgnine doll.

So watch The Black Hole.  If you saw it as a kid and thought it sucked, it may surprise you today.  If you've never seen it before, try to look past the cheese and see the art.

There.  I have successfully given credit where credit is due to Disney.  Wasn't easy, but I did it.

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Monday, February 4, 2013

TV Mania!

I must admit, I never thought it would arrive.

In the late 1990s, Nick Rhodes, keyboardist for Duran Duran, and Warren Cuccurullo, former guitarist for Duran Duran, had an idea.  The title of the concept was TV Mania: Bored with Prozac and the Internet?  As is the case with nearly all things Duran, it was to be a hybrid of music and visual art and despite what art and music critic purists might say, that is by no means detrimental to either one.  To be dismissive of efforts of this nature would be, to paraphrase Bob Geldoff, "to be dismissive of Roxy Music or David Bowie and that would be ridiculous."

TV Mania was years ahead of its time.  So much so that it might have been categorized as science fiction back in the day.  Today, it's regular life.  It's a concept record about a family that surrenders its privacy to scientists in exchange for a high tech lifestyle.  Additionally, their every moment is broadcast on TV.  That's right.  Years before reality TV.  As for the music, Artist Direct describes it this way:

"The tracks were constructed by blending television samples and looping rhythm tracks to create a sonically sophisticated collection of songs that now serve as the perfect backdrop for the frenetic energy and atmosphere of today's digital age."

After listening to a 30 second snippet of the song "Beautiful Clothes," I'd have to say its an apt description.  A mixture of ambient and industrial sounds interspersed with sound bites of society at its most telling and vapid.  This is not to say that Rhodes and Cuccurullo intended the project as a dyslogistic statement, but more of a "it is what it is" commentary.  After all, they are both happily "pop trash." So much so that it was also thought that TV Mania might one day become a Broadway musical with an enormous TV serving as a backdrop while the family lives out their soap opera-like lives underneath the omnipresent electronic eye.  I think that would drive the thesis of the project home all the more, but it looks less and less likely that it will happen.  Then again, I never thought the TV Mania record would get released, so what do I know?  I'm just a blogger.

Speaking of blogs, the fervent and ubiquitous presence of technology sends the concept of TV Mania meandering  into cyberpunk in a manner that I believe Gibson would admire.  The subject matter of the songs include video surveillance, virtual shopping, pharmaceuticals, and of course, film, fashion, and fame.  To quote the venerable Nick Rhodes:

“When I found the master recordings, I thought ‘Wow, this sounds unbelievably contemporary’” said Rhodes. “When we put them up on the system, it was not only a great surprise, given what we had thought their fate was, but it was also literally like finding a painting and blowing the dust off of it. Times have certainly changed since we made the record, but the subject matter that inspired this album happens to be at the forefront of today’s world, so the songs have weathered the test of time in a strangely beautiful way.”

Naturally, I plan to at least download TV Mania: Bored with Prozac and the Internet? from iTunes upon release.  If funds prove positive, I might even order the deluxe package that comes with a number of goodies such as a 12-page booklet of original art and a Nick Rhodes signed Polaroid hand dipped onto white art stock 12" square paper.  But as I await the release, I'll content myself with the antics of TV Mania on Twitter.  Case in point, Nick tweeting the photograph below with the question, "I wonder if TV Mania will ever play here again?"

Beautiful decay.  Just like our cyber TV society.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

The Travis Walton Incident

Note: Much of what your about to read is taken from The UFO Book: Encyclopedia of the Extraterrestrial by Jerome Clark.

It occurred to me that I have not done a UFO post in a while.

In an effort to rectify that, I thought I would write today about a UFO case that has long intrigued me.  It does so mainly because I simply cannot make up my mind about it while nevertheless it has become one of the more well-known abduction cases in the field of Ufology.  It goes like this...

Travis Walton was a logger in Arizona.  On November 5, 1975, Walton and six other men were doing a job outside of Turkey Springs, Arizona.  The loggers were behind on their contract and were therefore working until the sun was low.  As they made the drive back to town, they saw a glow in the trees and thought it to be a forest fire. The light turned out to be from a disc-shaped UFO, hovering over a clearing.  Walton jumped from the loggers' truck and approached the UFO despite the protests on his co-workers.

The loggers then claimed that a blue-green beam of light shot from the craft and struck Walton.  Walton's body went stiff and then dropped to the ground, motionless.  Believing Walton dead and not mention being scared out of their gourds, the other loggers drove off.  They later returned to the scene to look for Walton but found no sign of him.  The saucer was gone as well.

Local law enforcement was skeptical of the tale to say the least.  Together, the loggers were accused of everything from having kidnapped or killed Walton to attempting to punk out on their logging contract by claiming an "act of God."  The men were given polygraph tests.  Each of them passed, save for one of their number who refused to complete the examination.  Meanwhile, a search continued in the hills for Walton.  No sign of him was found.

Walton returned on November 10th, 1975 at just before midnight.  He called a family member from a payphone and was summarily picked up.  So what happened to him?  Well, Travis Walton's narrative goes something like this...

After being hit with the beam, Walton woke up on a reclined bed of sorts.  Bright lights hung above him.  At first, Walton believed himself to be in a hospital.  Then he saw the three beings standing next to him, each wearing an orange jumpsuit and having the classic appearance of a "Grey" alien.  Terrified, Walton grabbed the object nearest to him: a glass-like rod on a shelf.  He attempted to break the rod, thus turning it into a makeshift weapon, but the object would not break.  Still, his brandishing of the object was enough to convince the aliens to flee the room.

Walton then exited the apparent "examination room" and wandered a bit through the rest of the UFO.  In time he found a white room similar in construction to a planetarium with a single chair in its center. Devices on the chair allowed the user to transform the room into a massive "viewport" of stars.

Hearing a noise behind him, Walton turned and saw a human male wearing a glass space helmet and blue coveralls.  The man smiled and motioned for Walton to follow him.  Walton was brought what he described as "an aircraft hangar."  In fact, his description sounds to me rather like those under-deck hangars on aircraft carriers.  Several other disc-shaped craft were visible in this "landing bay" of sorts.  There were also other humans, both male and female and all of them smiling.  They led him up a steep plank into one of the saucers and a door closed behind them.  Before Walton could do anything else, a mask was placed upon him and he blacked out.

He awoke outside a gas station in Heber, Arizona with a UFO hovering over him.  After a moment, the UFO darted away, leaving Walton to go find a payphone.

Oh what to think.  First off, this is an entirely atypical abduction.  Walton was not immobilized and was able to escape his abductors, even managing to threaten them despite his supposedly weakened condition.  He was also taken for a much longer period of time than the standard abduction and he appears to have full memory of it.  The appearance of human (like) beings is also unique.  I don't know if any of this really speaks for or against the story's veracity, but there it is.  What's more, there never seems to be clear indication of the motives of either alien race other than the perhaps intended examination of what, to the Greys, must seem an atavistic race.

Was this all a hoax cooked up by the loggers?  We can't rule that out.  Philip Klass certainly thought so, but he seems hellbent to call even breathing a hoax, so I don't take him all that seriously (you can find his points here).  Klass also brought up the notion that the loggers were attempting to get out of their contract via an "act of God" claim.  Interestingly enough, Walton's co-workers never once asked for such a thing during all of their interrogations.

That's another thing.  For a time, it was looking more and more likely that Travis Walton's coworkers would face criminal charges, maybe even murder.  Under that application of pressure, wouldn't most people confess the hoax just to put an end to the risk?  Or maybe you wouldn't if you knew that Travis would be back in five days and you'd be in the clear.  At any rate, all of the loggers would need to be in on it and the more people involved in a charade, the more likely it is that someone will slip up and spill the beans.

Have they profited from this?  I suppose Walton certainly has with books and the movie Fire in the Sky based on his alleged experience.  But that's really it.  Today, he still lives in the same town in Arizona, working as a foreman in a lumber yard.  Other than a few appearances on the UFO convention circuit, his life for all appearances seems very normal.  If this were a hoax meant to propel him to fame and fortune, I'm not so sure it succeeded.  Indeed, Travis Walton sticks to his story to this day and has been quoted several times as saying "I really don't care if you believe me" and seems content to live out his life in relative obscurity.  To be fair, however, Travis Walton was the subject of intense media attention at the time his story broke.

And this is why the case intrigues me so.  I simply don't know what the truth is for I can see arguments for either side.  I don't see a whole lot of evidence for the abduction.  By the same token, there are seven people attesting to the same incident and have passed (all but one anyway) polygraph tests on the matter.  Then again, polygraphs are now found to be nearly all but worthless.

Back and forth.  Back and forth.  And so it goes.
Travis Walton appears to be a man of good character and I'm certainly not calling him a liar.  I just hope that evidence might one day come to light that validates the incident once and for all.

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