Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Should I even keep blogging?

That is not a whine for affirmation.  It is a simple question.

I don't snap back well after rejection or disappointment.  Today, I have been inundated by those factors from multiple flanks.  The experience always sends me into spiritual and psychological territories from which I have no road map of return.  An exaggeration perhaps.  I have always found my way back to a sense of "normal," but it isn't without effort.  Almost as if my GPS beacon back to "home" is jammed by purposeful interference from a foreign but camouflaged power.

Once returned to the land of "normal," I do my usual routine to distract myself from past failures.  I treat myself to a latte...pretty much all a loser like me in a capitalistic system can afford...I go through libraries and bookstores to be among the books, I write, or I just stare at the walls.  Those are the times that I call "the big lie." Just denying the truth, just shunting the reality of my existence a little bit further into the pink so I can pretend things are just fine.  But we can't be busy all of the time. You can't dodge self examination, unless you're completely empty-headed (and if you are, that's not an insult...I truly envy you.)  That is when the awful thoughts come, those intense desires to see it all just go away.

Routines, even things I like become tedious rituals.  Conversation requires a herculean effort.  It's not that I don't like you, it's that I don't think you're currently saying anything that's worth a shit.  The "normal" and often misogynistic and racist world disgusts me. 

I am reclusive by nature, but I see this intensifying.  Doing things invites rejection.  Interacting with people brings more problems.  The vapid, the money-minded, the lazy fuckheads, all of them milling and cavorting about in this joke we call "civilization," myself reflected in their mirrorshades only showing me that I don't want to be me.  Every endeavor merely a set-up for another disaster.

People who knew me in college will see this as nothing new.  My depression, my despondency in the face of gruesome reality and my empty rage at a situation I can seemingly do nothing about...well, it's all old hat to them.  I try to pretend that I was really someone else back then, to dissuade anyone from the accurate assessment that I had it right all along.

Back to the blog question.  Where the hell is it getting me?  For that matter, where the hell is anything getting me?  Maybe I'm just saying this because I've been preparing a lecture on existentialism and the meaninglessness of life is an adamant part of such a lesson...but it is difficult for me to find a point in anything. 

Nothing has gone right for me in seven years.  Seven years.  You read that right.  I see very little reason to have any form of enthusiasm about my future.  It will be tepid at best.  A constant maintenance of status quo, never achieving anything above and beyond that point.  I am 43 years old and I have never held a job that pays a fully sustainable wage.  That is the greatest shame an American can carry.  I do not shirk my responsibility in this matter.  In fact I take full responsibility.  It's just another testament to my failure, my inadequacy, and my shame. 

Everything I try fails.  Professionally, interpersonally, artistically...quote the Lord: "better that he never had been born at all."

I find myself longing for crazy things, like the simplicity of a Sierra game on a primitive PC monitor, believing it to be the zenith of technology.  Looking for meaning in things and I just can't find it.

I wish I could mutate like Kafka.  He did not entertain suicide and neither do I.  He wanted to disappear.  Through "metamorphosis" he wanted to become so small as to be insignificant.  Therefore, all his cares, emotions, and failures would insignificant as well.  What could I mutate into?  I'd settle for anything.  Anything other than human.

I would pay you.  I would pay whatever it took for you to wrest this gnawing blackness from my mind and soul.  Medications obviously won't do it.  There are no achievements of any merit on the horizon for me, so that must be discounted as well.

So I drift here in the black, sitting alone in my space station as it orbits, knowing that it was self-imposed exile all along.  The systems panel warns of a breach in hull integrity.  It means nothing to me now, just like so much else. Why write?  I have nothing to say.  Nothing of value, anyway.  Especially not in a world that finds reading such an arduous task.  Someone who shatters so easily was never meant to survive, let alone thrive, right?  Darwin would say no. 

Life is a nightmare.  And it will end.  The only question is when.  The black, the empty, the void, it can be comforting.  Let me fall into it.  Why write anymore?

If this is my last blog post, then thanks for reading.  Hope the experience wasn't too awful.  Hope you didn't waste too much of your time.

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Vial with virus goes missing

It was a small news blurb...

but it had a headline that made me wonder why it wasn't of greater concern: Virus vial missing from Galveston lab.

A vial containing the "Guanarito virus" that causes hemorrhagic fever was noticed to have been absent from the Galvaston National Laboratory in Texas.  The Center for Disease Control assures that there is "no threat to the public" and that the vial was likely destroyed during routine cleaning procedures.  There was no breach of security at the lab.

Turns out that the Guanarito virus is spread only by Venezuelan rats.  Therefore, one can only contract the virus if bitten by a Venezuelan rat as the virus is thought to be unable to survive in U.S. rodents.

This reminds me somewhat of a 2005 case at a lab in New Jersey where three lab mice went missing.  These mice were infected with the plague...also known as the "black death" that killed half of Europe once upon a time.  The FBI investigated the matter and again it was concluded that there was no threat to public safety.  Must not have been as I can't recall any sweeping outbreaks of the plague in the years since 2005.

That does not mean we will always be so lucky.  The plague and many other variations of viral infection await in labs and it only takes one careless mistake to set them lose.  A virus is one tough organism.  Eventually, we're going to meet one that is our better...and we will have no course of action against it.

Sorry.  That's all I got.  Today has sucked.    

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Monday, March 25, 2013

Ed Wood

I watched Ed Wood by Tim Burton again last night.

I'm writing something that I believe would be well-served by a "Criswell" kind of character, an opening monologue that sort of sets the stage for the impossible or at very least the improbable to happen.

Ed Wood was quite a guy.  A genius in his own way.  A genius at making terrible films, that is to say.  Yet he was extraordinarily passionate about his craft.  He cared about movies.  It was all he ever wanted to do and he would to any lengths to create them.   He was much maligned, I believe.  That is not to defend his work as "high art"exactly, but more in praise of what he did for popular culture.  There are Oscar-winning, so-called "classic" films that no one remembers.  Indeed, they have been relegated to the dustbin of history.  Something like Plan 9 From Outer Space, however, it remains.  It's known in the collective consciousness and continues to entertain...even if much of the entertainment value comes from just how bad it is (I really need to see the Wood documentary, Look Back in Angora.)  It really has me rethink "genius" and what that word is supposed to mean.

At the same time, I've been reflecting on how much I enjoy the films of Tim Burton.  Ed Wood is probably my favorite, but I would be remiss if I discounted Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, Sleepy Hollow, and certainly the first Batman ("never rub another man's rhubarb!") from that watershed year, 1989.  And who can forget Edward Scissorhands?

This is not to say that Burton goes without criticism.  I suppose there are those who would argue that he repeatedly returns to the same gothy tropes, the absurdly cartoonish or the ongoing surreal circus.  He has indeed released movies that I disliked, such as the unneeded remake of Planet of the Apes.  I also have next to no interest in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory regardless of its incarnation.  No big deal.  I've yet to come across a writer, director, or musician who doesn't have at least one piece of work I didn't care for.  Hopefully that's the sign of discerning palate.

Still, the disappointments from Burton are relatively few and far between.  As a matter of fact, I just now remembered Mars Attacks and its hilarious poke at 1950s SF sensibilities through a modern lens.  I can see those saucers spinning right now (not unlike they did in Ed Wood) and hear that telltale chorus of "Ack! Ack! Ack!" Yeah, I just don't think a "serious" Mars Attacks would have worked.  Fortunately for us, it becomes fun regardless as Burton takes us on one of his patented wild rides, caring not whether it might be cinema veritae.

Now that I think about it, Wood and Burton aren't so far apart.  I believe Tim Burton would take that as a compliment.

And it is.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Blade Runner: "This movie gets worse every screening"

It is a common enough meme.

The rejection letters of famous authors.  The stories of big stars passed over films or mega-hit bands turned down by recording labels.  So on and so forth.

It must reassure us creative types that often one cannot recognize genius when they see it.  At least the bean counters and the lawyers don't.  For example, Geeks Are Sexy recently posted a scanned copy of one of the original sets of screening notes for Blade Runner.  A few of the comments are downright hilarious in retrospect.

"I thought we decided to lose the stick figures."

"Deckard at the piano is interminable."

"This movie gets worse every screening."

The suits never get it.  That's ok since it's always about the money for them.  

While on the subject of Blade Runner, I read this post a while back on Retro-futurism...one of my favorite blogs (which reminds me that I really need to add them to the blog roll.)  Just in case you're not getting enough of a Blade Runner experience in America, what with our technology growing in capability and ubiquity while our people get dumber, you can soak up the environment in totality.  Check out this pic:

That's not from Blade Runner.  That's from China.
Say what you want about them, they got the whole "dystopian future" bit down.

More the cooler, happen to like those whiskey glasses Deckard had in the film?  They're available.  Here's a bit of ad copy from the seller that was reposted on Retro-futurism:

"We’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. We’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. But we haven’t seen anything half as cool as the Blade Runner Whiskey Glass."


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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Writing: the emergence of new genres?

I teach and study the academic discipline of writing.

Several composition theorists would probably take issue with my headline for one of a few reasons.  Is there really anything "new" in terms of genres?  If there is, isn't it rather an extension or perhaps a conglomeration of existing ones?  Or perhaps as Bawarshi might argue, any act of written word creates/reinvents genre with each execution so there is always a new genre?  You can see now why I'm apprehensive to apply "new" to a genre of writing.

To attempt to clarify things a bit, I am talking about writing for video games.  A recent article in Wired really caught my eye and made me consider the writing process for this genre.  It's title: Writing Gears of War Was More Journalism Than Fiction.   The writer in question is Tom Bissell.  Before writing for Gears of War, he published six books of both fiction and nonfiction and worked as a journalist.  One might expect approaching the project with at least a bit of insouciance, but Bissell describes in the article what an arduous process this was, even for a seasoned writer.

A few of the troubles are common to anyone who writes words for someone else to speak.  Oftentimes, one ends up realizing that it sounded far better in written form than it does uttered aloud. That aside, there is one critical regulation to this genre that is absent from  most others and that is that the end product must be playable.  For that to happen, as Bissell points out, the experience must feel as real as possible:

"There’s an obvious parallel between writing games and writing fiction, in that you’re dreaming up worlds and people. But on a deeper level, the process is more like journalism. You simply have to be there—to live there, at least for a while—before you can conjure it in language and make it feel true."

I have been reading my copy of the anthology Literary Journalism edited by Sims and Kramer.  Had to read in grad school and now I'm reviewing it in preparation for my eventual (I hope) book on Dulce.  The anthology begins with an essay by Kramer entitled "Breakable Rules for Literary Journalists." In it, he very clearly and succinctly establishes common traits of good literary journalism.  If you're wondering where I'm going with all of this, here it is: one of those traits is total immersion with the subject.  Literary nonfiction writers spend months, sometimes years living amid their subjects.

Now imagine doing that for a game.  True, it might behoove a fiction writer, perhaps especially a science fiction writer, to completely lose themselves in the world they're creating.  This may lend a greater sense of realism to the text, more so if the author has an especially vibrant and inventive imagination.  Writing for games, as Bissell points out, almost requires this kind of immersion.

I must admit, I'm intrigued.  I'm wondering now what it might be like writing for an evolving game with an open-ended universe, something like SkyRim maybe.  Or so I hear.

Will there be a new breed of writers, writers writing expressly for games and forming their own versions of Kate Wilhelm's Clarion Workshop or more on the wild side like the Algonquin Roundtable?  It will be interesting to find out.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Today is Wednesday and my brain is fried.

Wednesday is typically a 12 hour day for me on campus.  Therefore, I'm afraid I don't quite have enough mental bandwidth for an especially deep or thought-provoking post this evening.  No meditations on the primaveral meaning of the day.  Instead, I give you photographic evidence that I need more bookshelves:

As you can see, I've actually taken to stacking in front of those already stored.Thereby blocking my other books and making difficult to see/access.  Great.

And naturally I have a little alien guy in front of my UFO books.  In the foreground is the saucer I used for my supposed post on...uh what?  Ahem.  Sorry, didn't know what I was talking about for a moment.  What's the point of growing up if you can't be childish?

My academic bookshelves aren't doing much better.  Yeah, that's a monkey.

My shelf of DC Showcases, my shelf of Perry Rhodans and other vintage SF pulps, and my oversized books.  Have another whole shelf of Marvel Essentials and other trade paperbacks but I'm tired of taking pictures.  Actually, I'm just tired.  Physically tired from the long day.  Mentally tired from teaching.  Spiritually tired from uncertainty.

What's a poor writer/academic/Fortean to do?

Except scrounge more bookshelves.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"The aliens will save us"

Say what you want about them, but those guys in the Vatican can put on a show.

That's what I was thinking as I watched the installation of Pope Francis I.  As with the emergence of any new leader, there is always a sense of excitement and expectation that arises.  A few people appear to be more expectant than others.  I came across one such person on Coast to Coast AM the other night.

Cris Putnam, an expert in biblical prophecy, was the guest on the radio show.  He asserted that Francis I might be the pope that discloses to the world the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life.  Putnam is quite correct in pointing out that the Catholic Church has been quite active in the science of astronomy.  The Vatican Astronomical Technology Telescope in Arizona is but one example of this fact.  Indeed, Catholics are something of a rarity in Christianity in that they do not see scientific fact as being in conflict with theology.  Putnam, however, believes more is going on than astronomy.

Together with co-author Thomas Horn, Putnam is releasing a book called Exo-Vaticana: Petrus Romanus, Project L.U.C.I.F.E.R and the Vatican’s Astonishing Plan for the Arrival of an Alien Savior, which argues that "the Vatican is positioning itself as a religious authority in anticipation of the imminent disclosure by world governments of the existence of extraterrestrial life."

While I don't necessarily slam the door on the notion of the Vatican sitting on information about alien contact (although I doubt it), I bristle at the mention of "savior." 

It's not a new idea.  A few years back, Canada's former minister of defense charged that the United States "knows how aliens can make the world greener" or so the paraphrased headline goes. Yep.  They are our "space brothers"and are only here to help us out.  

My problem with this line of thinking has nothing to do with aliens and everything to do with human nature.  We are afflicted by earthquakes, hurricanes, and so many natural disasters that feel out of our control.  Adding logs to our pyre of execution are the fruits of our own actions.  Things like Global Warming and the threat of nuclear war...we're hoping someone will save us.  Mostly, save us from ourselves.

This, in my opinion, is toxic thinking.  It takes the religious concepts of "salvation" and "rapture" and merely transfers them to a science fictional realm.  We postulate a theoretical point in the future where a singular event will occur and all will be well.  In the meantime, we hypothecate towards our savior(s).

We are the only ones who can save us.  The "aliens" will not land and fix it all.  Jesus will not show up, twinkle His eyes, and set everything aright.  Nor should He or they.  We've made our mess.  We must either clean it up or die in it.

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Monday, March 18, 2013

A look into the future at MSI

It was not planned but very much welcomed and appreciated.

I was fortunate enough to get an invite to go with Rebecca and her son Jimmy Bob Jones to attend a lecture entitled "From Science Fiction To Science Fact" at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.  The lecture was slated to take place on a Saturday and I thought, "Great.  It'll be easy to get downtown on the weekend."

Oh nothing could have been further from the truth.  What was last Saturday?  March 16th.  In Chicago, that means dying the river green.  That means every frat and sorority house from Wisconsin to Kentucky cleared out and came to Chicago for the party.  Yep.  People drunk and stumbling in the streets and it was only 11am.  As I waded through them and they hollered "It's St. Patty's Day!" I was half tempted to answer "And I'm going to a lecture by NASA!  F--k yeah!"  I don't believe it would have been well received.

But I sure liked it.  The presenters were Dr. Gregory Scott and Michael Paul of the US Navy Space Research Laboratory and Penn State respectively.  Both scientists have received funding from NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program.  Scott took the stage first and told us about battery powered robots and by robots I mean something similar to the Curiosity rover on Mars.  What would be different about the batteries on these devices would be that they would be powered by microbes and bacteria.

"They [microorganisms] eat sugar and poop electricity," Scott said, speaking of how this form of battery may not be simply the new wave of power source for NASA probes, but eventually for more common technologies as well.

Michael Paul talked about his experience as a space systems engineer, particularly his efforts on the recent mission to Mercury.  He took a less technical, more storytelling approach to his talk than his compatriot did, connecting pertinent findings by NASA to aspects of the Star Wars saga.  That might sound overly facile to a few of you, but I sort of liked the balance that the two men were able to give, thereby living up to the title of the presentation. 

Unfortunately, the introduction to the program mentioned something that I would have liked to have heard a great deal more about, namely further remote exploration of Mars.  One of the ideas was that of a "bugbot-thopter." Yes, I did think of Dune when I heard the phrase.  I found one link to this program funded by DARPA, but the page is admittedly a bit sketchy.  The concept would be to have one rover be a central, mobile base that launches numerous thopter drones that could disperse and investigate a wider range of the planet.

Another project mentioned by picture but in passing was a robotic glider that would roam Mars and study it from above but from an obviously lower altitude than an orbiter.  The thinner atmosphere of the planet would be most conducive to this and would probably allow such a drone to stay aloft for great periods of time.  It made me think of a proposal made a few years back about exploring Mars via balloon.  This in turn made me think of Arthur C. Clarke and his banyan trees, a notion I have only heard about in passing.  Nevertheless, it's fun to think about exploratory balloons or gliders or 'thopters getting caught in the snarled ends of these trees like Charlie Brown's kite.

So of course there is always more you'd like to hear about during one of these things.  The sad fact is, the time allotment is finite and there is only so much you can cover.  That said, the two speakers did a fine job of opening minds and showing us what is possible.  During the Q and A session, I worked up the nerve to step to the mic and ask the speakers about science fiction.  Specifically, what they as scientists would like to see from writers like me.  You know, the guys who only write about what these gentlemen actually do all day long?

They both answered that they were particularly interested in DARPA's "100 Year Starship" initiative.  You can find out more about the concept at the link, but the idea is that of launching a generational spaceship to reach one of our nearer stars.  Who would go?  How would they be selected?  What challenges would this essentially brand new society face?  I was intrigued by these ideas at first until Rebecca pointed out that Clarke may have scooped everyone with this in his Rama Revealed.  I'll have to see.

Once the presentation was over, we roamed the museum for a bit.  Alas, we were unable to reach the wing with the spaceflight exhibits before closure, so that must be for another time.  I did, however, snap this photo of what is ostensibly an avalanche simulator but looks far more like the surface of Mars to me:

A good time was had by all.  I'd like to thank Rebecca and her boy Jimmy Bob Jones for the invite and most especially the ride back home (otherwise I would have been forced to endure the wind and cold of Chicago...not entirely un-Mars-like in temperature.)

Just a reminder, Jimmy Bob...get your mother's permission before you turn the swimming pool into a massive bacteria-powered battery.  And if you're caught with several pounds of sugar...she'll know why.

My e-novella, Hound of Winter is available for only 99 cents   

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Friday, March 15, 2013


This is one of the most unique publication stories in the history of comic books.

Rom the Spaceknight was originally a toy action figure from Parker Brothers.  As is typical for many toylines, Parker Brothers went to Marvel Comics to produce a comic book series to help promote the toy.  The toy Rom sold miserably and was off shelves in a fairly brief amount of time.

The comic book Rom lasted eight years in publication.

What accounts for this?  I mean, Rom had one hell of a fervent and devoted fanbase for those years.  He still does.  Well for one thing, Bill Mantlo was the writer for the series.  He's probably one of my favorite comic book writers of all time, a scribe who always told deep and entertaining stories but never dumbed down the language...as was common during the time for comics.  Sal Buscema was the artist, a legend in his own right.  Together, they came up with a unique science fiction story.

Rom was a cyborg from the planet Galador.  His home planet came under attack by a fleet of spaceships manned by a race called the Dire Wraiths.  To combat this threat, the leaders of Galador asked for volunteers to become "spaceknights," warriors encased in what appeared to be a robotic body.  Their humanity would be returned to them once the threat from the Dire Wraiths was squashed once and for all.  For weaponry, Rom and the spaceknights were given the "Neutralizer," a blast from which would send a Dire Wraith permanently to the dimension of Limbo.  In an interesting note, the people of Galador chose weapons of high technology and superscience while the Dire Wraiths employed shape-shifting and black magic.

Off in his quest to battle the enemy, Rom followed the Dire Wraiths to Earth.  He landed in a small town in West Virginia where the Wraiths actually assumed the forms of a few of the town's leaders.  While there, Rom meets the boyfriend/girlfriend couple of Steve Jackson and Brandy Clark.  Steve actually helps Rom in his struggle against the Dire Wraiths, but this relationship becomes strained in time as Brandy begins to fall in love with the noble Rom.

As the comic book series became far more popular than the toy, Rom became permanently integrated with the Marvel Universe.  He encountered the X-Men, Galactus and his herald Terrax, the Hulk, Power Man and Iron Fist, and the Fantastic Four.  In fact, one issue of Rom had him teaming up with the aforementioned Luke Cage and Danny Rand as they broke into the FF's Baxter Building.  That particular issue would be a blog post review in and of itself.  Maybe someday...

There has been talk of a Rom revival at Marvel but sadly the company no longer owns the rights to the character.  Those reverted back to Parker Brothers.  However, I am given to understand that the uber-talented Jim Starlin did a miniseries for Marvel called Spaceknights back in 2000-2001.  Rom is never mentioned by name in the mini, however it is explained that he and Brandy went on to marry and have kids.  Sadly, the human version of Rom is presumed killed off panel when his spaceship comes under attack.

Recently, in Marvel's prelude to its epic Ultron crossover that will "change everything" (again????), it was said that a "spaceknight" was hosting the Ultron artificial intelligence.  Rom?  We'll see.

While I owned a few issues of Rom back in the day, I am only now beginning to discover the series.  Through a comedic convergence of events I have come into ownership of nearly a full run of the series furled away in boxes.  So as I delve further and further into the series I'll be sure to post my thoughts.

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Mars could have once supported life

Earlier this week, NASA announced a finding from the Curiosity rover.

Mars could have supported microbial life in the past.  This statement is based upon rock samples taken on Mars that confirm the presence of chemical compounds necessary for basic lifeforms.  This news comes as a bit of yawner for Mars enthusiasts as this has been long suspected.  It is, however, the first time that the suspicion can be verified.

The life-sustaining conditions were found in an ancient strata of rock called "gray Mars," partially oxidized sediment that suggests that the surface of the planet was not colored red but gray and the rocky soil to clay-like matter. 

At the same time, even an announcement such as this is subject to being overturned.  Remember the "life found on Mars meteorite" brouhaha from 1996?  Oh how quickly that came to be dismissed...at least in many circles.  It is also critical to note that Curiosity did not find evidence of life currently on Mars.  There have yet to be any conclusive finds of organic compounds.

But does this or does this not mean one way or the other that Mars currently has life?  Again, NASA isn't saying much on the matter.  We do know that the planet is far drier and colder than it was in the past, making it seem less hospitable to the likelihood of life.  There are thought to be, however, caverns deep beneath the surface that may still have water.  This opens up a whole lot of other doors in terms of the search for life.

It would be easy to go on an emotional and madcap bender, proclaiming that it will be only a matter of time before current life is found or that these findings are the first steps in verifying a civilization once thrived there on the Red Planet.  The rational end of the brain tells me this would be foolhardy in the face of the data.

Still, a little hope would be nice these days.

Sorry.  Cutting this post short.  Internet connection is really wonky today.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Battle of the Worlds!

I have been reunited with a science fiction film from my past.

Back in high school, I was in a Suncoast Video store (it was long ago, such stores no longer exist so the younger set might not remember them.)  I found a VHS tape of an old Italian film I had never seen before: Battle of the Worlds.  The copy on the cover read "a must-have for any science fiction fan."  Since I like science fiction, I figured I must have it.

How MST3K missed this film I will never know.

The story involves an astronomer named Fred Steele.  Fred is about to transfer away from an observatory on (what I assume is) an Italian isle and go home and get married.  Before he may do so however, he discovers The Outsider...a runaway planet that has entered our solar system and is heading straight for Earth.  That means certain destruction for everyone involved.  The calculations with this discovery are confirmed by both an outpost on Mars and a crotchety but genius astronomer named Dr. Benson (played by a histrionic Claude Raines.)  However, Benson does not believe that The Outsider will collide with Earth but will rather just miss it.

Much to everyone's surprise and jubilation, Benson is correct...sort of.  The Outsider does not collide with our home, but rather it slows down and assumes an orbit around the Earth.  Benson argues that this can only mean that The Outsider is hollow and an alien intelligence controls the planet from within (Dr. Sitchin...paging Dr. Sitchin...)  We launch spaceships (in the classic "rocketship" design) to carry out an exploratory expedition to the planet.  But before we can reach The Outsider, a flight of alien ships (in classic "flying saucer" design) launch from the planet and meet us in battle.  It's not really much of a battle as Earth ships are wiped out.

One flying disc however is damaged and forced to land on Earth.  Fred Steele and his crew land their rocketship nearby and board the hostile vessel.  There they discover that the alien ships are entirely automated.  Far more pressing issues are rising, however.  Through a series of stock footage reels, we see that the proximity of The Outsider to Earth is causing hurricanes, tidal waves, tornadoes, and storms of all kinds across the globe.  Something must be done or we're screwed.   

Dr. Benson believes that given what was learned from the crashed saucer (Roswell...I'm still in Roswell), it would be possible to travel to The Outsider and assume control of it in order to "fly" it out of Earth orbit.  Defense officials, understandably concerned over resistance from aliens, take a stance of "let's nuke the bastards."  Steele, Benson, and their comrades will get their shot.  But if they are unable to succeed within a set frame of time, nuclear warheads will rain down on The Outsider.

After fighting their way through another wing of flying saucers, the rocketships of the second Earth expedition land and enter the underground of the planet/spaceship.  There, they discover the long dead bodies of humanoid aliens amongst the catacombs.  Benson surmises that the aliens attempted to flee their own star system for whatever reason but died long before reaching Earth.  Their automated systems, however, kept everything going apace without them.  "Their Noah's Ark became their tomb," Benson observes.  He then sets about learning what he can about The Outsider and its alien race.

Sadly, too much time has elapsed.  The high muckymucks of Earth launch their nuclear missiles.  Steele tells Benson they must go, but Benson refuses.  He claims "life without knowledge is not worth living" and elects to die while exploring the alien world.  Any other choice, he believes, would be truant to his scientific beliefs.  After a frantic escape and one not without its casualties, Steele's team gets back to the rocketship and heads back to Earth...just as The Outsider gets nuked to hell and back.

While made in 1961, this film has much more of the feel of a 1950s "atomic horror" sci-fi vehicle.  You will not see astounding visual effects, you will not hear crisp and realistic dialogue, and you will not find quality acting.

You may, however, find yourself having fun despite it all.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Dr. Rich on "SkyNet"

Responding to my recent post, Sequestor schmquestor, Obama's building Skynet, our very own Dr. Rich has written a guest-post on the matter.  Let's take a look:

 "Recently, Jon blogged about the potential of the US government to build an artificial intelligence entity, much like the Skynet character from the Terminator series.  The James Cameron movie/TV/book franchise is only one of the most recent media depictions of man's creation of artificial intelligence, a tradition stretching back to Capek's famous "R.U.R" and, some might argue, even as far back as Shelley's Frankenstein.  Almost all of these stories share a common theme, the intelligent entity attaining true sentience, choosing to turn on humanity and take the world for their own.  While often serving as a morality tale, timely parable or bedtime horror story, the advent of AI would most likely not follow this popular literary theme.

The steady increase in compute capability, plus advances in the understanding of neuroscience, make it nearly inevitable that at some point, a government or corporation will develop a computer network capable of matching human intelligence.  The first people to control such a technology will have a strategic advantage, either in the political or economic arena, or both.  Looking at past breakthrough discoveries however, it is unlikely that any one body will be able to maintain a monopoly on AI for very long.  The US was able to harness the power of the atom first, but soon was joined by the British, French, Soviets and Chinese in a deadly scramble for nuclear superiority.  Sixty seven years after the Manhattan project ended, global powers are scrambling to prevent smaller nations from joining the nuclear club.  The space race, once the domain of the two superpowers, now has moved to the private sector, with topics such as asteroid mining and property rights in space garnering legitimate debate in the world's capitols.

Advances in AI technology will almost certainly be experienced in parallel among various government and private research centers.  I am making a distinction between Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Sentience, however.  Governments and corporations can make many uses of an intelligent system, but would likely see free will and the ability to choose not to perform the task one was designed for, or choose a divergent agenda, as an undesirable feature.  Even if sentience emerges as an unintended side-effect, and the ability to choose can't effectively be purged from the most advanced of AI systems, be assured that AI-based propaganda machines will be running 24/7 to keep the Artificial Sentient machines marching to the "correct" drumbeat and "choosing wisely".

What will conflict in a late 21st century world look like?  Highly secure datacenters running the most advanced Artificial Sentient generals directing groups of Artificial Intelligent lieutenants, each AI controlling battalions and divisions of drone tanks, planes and ships against similarly automated armies.  Humans and Sentient machines waging almost daily cyber warfare across the Internet, attacking and defending infrastructure, industry, financial institutions and other resources.  Intelligence agencies across the globe supplementing human data gathering with AI data mining to perform espionage on foreign targets, and suppress internal dissent.  Future revolutionaries, terrorists and activists, armed with either black market AI, borrowed or "acquired" compute capability, or technology "donated" from a sympathetic remote benefactor, seeking to disrupt and destabilize the status quo and topple established regimes.  In short, the same people that are using today's technology will be harnessing tomorrow's in similar ways, for similar reasons, to attain similar goals.  All that, however, is only half the story.

The uses of AI, like all other technologies, will only be limited by the imagination and choices of the people who wield it.  All technology we have is used for good and evil, they are used to help and harm, improve the lives of some, diminish the lives of others.  There is no reason to believe that any new technology will be any different from old technology.  Artificially intelligent and sentient machines will be our closest allies and deadliest enemies.  They will be our co-workers, competitors, customers and companions.  They will be as diverse as the people who create them and evolve alongside us.  As with all other technologies, humans will have to choose when to use them, how to use them and when to not use them.

The dawn of the AI age will not be a monolithic "man vs machine" future.  It will be "man and machine vs man and machine".  Our future looks more like the one created by George Lucas in the Star Wars prequels (but with much better acting) than it does in anything James Cameron envisioned." 

Thoughts, anyone?

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Global Warming is "epic"

Today is a cold day in the Illinois-Indiana area.

Not unusual.  Especially for this time of March, just on the cusp of spring.  Not to worry.  Global warming will soon provide all the warmth any of us could ever need.

For Global Warming is "epic."  At least that is what this CNN article about the findings of Climatologist Shaun Marcott reports.  One hundred years ago, our world experienced one of the coldest decades ever.  By contrast, the decade of 2000-2009 was the hottest in over 11,000 years. Marcott cites research that says this sort of rise in temperature has never been seen before present times. 

" "If any period in time had a sustained temperature change similar to what we have today, we would have certainly seen that in our record," he said. It is a good indicator of just how fast man-made climate change has progressed.  "

If not for humanity's influence, the report on the data reads, the world would be much cooler right now.

But this sort of reporting is simply "sensationalist fear mongering" as one commenter on io9 greeted the news.  Then I'll check that out at the next meeting for "sensationalist fear mongers."  Because of course we can't possibly have any records of temperature going back 4,000 years.  We can't drill ice cores, check cave formations, or study coral reefs.  More to the idiotic point, the fact that we have been pumping greenhouse gas into the atmosphere nigh incessantly since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has nothing to do with the change.  Glad we got that cleared up.  Now I feel better about our shilly-shally over reducing carbon emissions.

This is not to say that there are not natural forces at work beyond our control.  Climate can and does change over the eons as does the behavior of the Sun.  But not like this.  And not so dramatically and consistently over the years.

I wish climate change would only harm the SUV-driving GOPpers.  Sadly, it won't.

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Sequestor schmquestor, Obama's building Skynet

No matter the economic conditions, our politicians always seem ready to spend money.

This bit about our federal government comes from The New York Times as relayed by io9:
"The project... will include federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in a concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain's billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness.
 Moreover, the project holds the potential of paving the way for advances in artificial intelligence."

Of course this raised all manner of comparisons to Skynet, the nefarious AI computer that kicked off all the troubles in Terminator.  Such comparisons are exaggerated at best.  What will likely concern people in the more immediate future is the cost: $300 million in federal funds over the next ten years.  That's not much in terms of our entire budget, but anything is scrutinized to the nth degree in the current political/economic situation.  Still, the financial benefits of research aren't always apparent from the outset.  The President pointed out the 140 to 1 return on investment for the Human Genome Project during his State of the Union address.

Like I said, not everyone is thrilled.  A commenter on the io9 piece said "first the map, then the drones."  Funny you should say that.

The Air Force is developing tiny, insect-sized drones that can swarm a target.  But wait!  There's more!  These drones "resemble winged, multi-legged bugs. The drones swarm through alleys, crawl across windowsills, and perch on power lines. One of them sneaks up on a scowling man holding a gun and shoots him in the head."

The writer of the Atlantic article linked above questions "how far ahead President Obama" is thinking with this development of drones and even calls for a treaty between nations banning such weapons.  How well do you think that will turn out?  Robots will be replacing humans on the battlefield gradually over the next 20 years.  Any thoughts on how to scupper those designs? Politics and wars just keeping going on.

If nothing else, I am hoping that a corporation will soon develop their own AI a la Gibson.  Then perhaps people will understand why I fear that scenario far more than Skynet.

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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Justice League No. 210

I found it among my piles.

From time to time, there's nothing I enjoy more than traipsing through my comic book "memory lane" of old issues.  I found issue #210 of Justice League America from 1983.  I clearly remember getting the comic as it was a "gift in time of convalescence and amelioration." In other words, I was a sick kid who got a few comic books to keep him busy.

This issue was in certain respects, rather standard for the pre-Crisis Justice League.  The entire world is in danger and the League must split up into smaller teams to prevent impending disaster.  What is unusual is that while the heroes succeed in their individual tasks, their efforts are ultimately futile.  They know it's all headed for ruin.  You see, the mysterious "X-Element," a subatomic particle that holds everything together...perhaps a Higgs-Boson particle but not really...is disappearing.  The Earth has mere hours before it breaks apart completely.

Fortunately, a few aliens arrive in a timely fashion.  Calling themselves The Treasurers, the aliens are a society based on pure capitalism.  They have the ability to restore the X-Element, but we have to pay up with interest.  In fact, we'll need to make a down payment.  Superman will have to scoop snow from the top of Mt. Everest while Flash, Wonder Woman, and Red Tornado must secure sand from the Sahara, and the rest of League must capture samples of the many flora and fauna of living things our planet features.  It's worth it just to see panels of Aquaman telepathically herding fish into a giant vacuum cleaner created by Green Lantern's ring.

Yet there is one demand from The Treasurers that goes unspoken to the JLA.  They want a man named Gordon Arthur Stuart of Grand Rapids, Michigan turned over to them.  In keeping with the contract, Stuart is taken into federal custody.

But why?  What is it that The Treasurers really want with a seemingly random dude? 

I have no idea.  I never found the following issue or "issues" as it seems there was a tertiary installment in this multipart story for the Justice League.  Remember, I was living in a small town in the 80s and I could only get comics at the drug store.  Whether they would get the next issue of my favorite title was anybody's guess.  I've looked through many back issue bins for numbers 211 and 212.  No joy.

Like I said, it's a unique story, even if it is standard superhero fare.  I especially like the parody of uber-capitalism.  Those aspects, however, do not counteract the fact that I don't know what happens.  If you know, please tell me.  Don't worry about spoilers or about pointing me to places I can find the issues online.  I simple precis of the storyline will suffice.

Somebody help a brother out?

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Art of Jack Kevorkian

I had a hard time believing it as well.

Jack Kevorikian...yes, that Jack Kevorkian...was an artist.  "Doctor Death" himself was a painter. He was also a jazz musician with a style that Entertainment Weekly apparently called "weird" but "good natured" (see that Wikipedia link.)  What I intended to focus upon in this post, however, is his painting. Other than a museum in Royal Oak, Michigan, I'm not certain where you can go to see this art in person.  The original prints aren't for sale so that rules out...I dunno, Art Emporium or Painting Rialto or some other such nonexistent mart that sells art.

The above piece is called "For He Is Raised" and is an obvious jab at the Christian holiday of Easter.  As related in the PBS Frontline piece linked above, Kevorikian characterized the painting and Easter as "The annual resurrection by dumb bunnies of a pathetic, despairing, almost scorned image of the purported divinity is hardly noticeable amid the tawdry paraphernalia of irresistible paganism at its vernal orgy."

"Nearer My God to Thee" is said to be Kevorkian's expression of how most people view death.   "How forbidding that dark abyss! How stupendous the yearning to dodge its gaping orifice. How inexorable the engulfment. Yet, below are the disintegrating hulks of those who have gone before; they have made the insensible transition and wonder what the fuss is all about. After all, how excruciating can nothingness be?"

Yep.  Back in the dark, impenetrable void, Jean Paul Sarte and Jack Kevorkian were a movin' and a groovin'.

"Very Still Life."  A piece that makes an effort at understanding the balance between the cold and the comfort of death, "spiced with the sardonic humor of irony."

"Fever."  "It depicts the great discomfort of intense bodily heat. The inferno is internal; and in some tragic cases even the will to live is charred."

Of all the Kevorkian paintings, it is "Fever" that drew my attention the most.  Not for its quality of art exactly, but for who the artist was.  Kevorkian was close to many people at death and not simply in cases of assisted suicide.  As a doctor, he watched many people in their final throes, several of those with fever no doubt.  He saw enough to know and he managed to capture the pain and the essence of such an occasion on canvas.  For whatever his flaws, Kevorkian was bold enough to get his face up in death.

And there is so much pain in this world.  Right or wrong, Kevorkian was trying to put an end to at least a bit of it.  That said, I can't say i care for his art.  Its cartoony and comic bookish, the kind of thing you'd find on the cover of a heavy metal album, not hanging in an art gallery.  

Of course, as with all matters artistic, that's just my opinion.

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

UFOs, Clouds, and Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern is at it again about UFOs and I'm pretty happy about it.

I know that I seem to be continually brown-nosing this guy, but I think I have good reason to do so.  Ufologically, I believe that we "park our cars in the same garage" so to speak.  To wit:

"If there is one thing more than any other that I like about the Flying Saucer era of the late 1940s and the early to mid 1950s, it’s the sheer wacky nature of some of the stories that surfaced during that long gone time. Indeed, they are of a caliber (and sometimes of a lack of caliber!) that we just don’t see today. The following is a classic example, and which, just maybe, does indeed have a degree,  or nugget, of truth to it. Who knows?"
That's the lead-in to this article entitled "UFOs, Clouds, and Secret Experiments."

And, as Redfern points out, this UFO story sounds more like something out of Amazing Stories than out of its true source, The Los Angeles Examiner.  An anonymous letter-writer alleged to have had contact with a Soviet merchant sailor.  Said Soviet was seeking out the means to sell 15 polar bear pelts he had accrued (disgusting) while involved in experiments in the Arctic where radioactive clouds were remotely controlled.  Wherever this cloud was directed, animals turned up dead.  At the same time, there were tests of atomic-powered aircraft very similar in shape to flying saucers.  These UFO-like planes were said to be the product of unpublished research done by a Russian chemist.

So wait.  Were at least a segment of the UFO sightings of that time really Soviet experimental aircraft?   Did the mystery aircraft have anything to do with these experiments?  It's unclear.

As with most far-out UFO stories such as these, the evidence trail is slim to none.  There are the actual newspaper letters and the fact that this case seemed to attract the attention of the FBI.  The feds did indeed investigate the case, but where things ended up is uncertain.  For example, just who wrote the letter and who was the mysterious Soviet merchantman?  For that matter, who was the Soviet chemist referred to oh so cryptically?  

Is any of this even feasible?  We do know for a fact that the United States as well as several other world powers have invested effort and research into controlling the weather.  Cloud control would logically appear to be part and parcel of such an endeavor.  Is it too much of a stretch to consider that the Soviets might have had a project like this at one point in time and perhaps it just didn't live up to expectations?  If so, how exactly do UFOs fit in if at all?

Oh boy is this great.

In other UFO-related news, check out these accounts of black triangle sightings in the Kansas City area.  There are spectacular photos included, if indeed they are genuine.  
Sure wish Mac Tonnies could be here to give his thoughts on this UFO weirdness in his own town.

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Monday, March 4, 2013

Do you *really* love your spouse? Want to go to Mars?

It would be ideal...for someone I am sure.

Millionaire Dennis Tito is seeking married couples to send on a mission to Mars in 2018.  The mission would not include landing on the planet, but instead would be a relatively quick flyby.  Why a married couple?  Tito claims that such a crew choice would be in order to help combat loneliness of such a mission.  " "When you're out that far and the Earth is a tiny, blue pinpoint, you're going to need someone you can hug," Tito told SPACE.com. "What better solution to the psychological problems you're going to encounter with that isolation?" "  Speculation on other reasons include experimenting with how sex and procreation would be handled in space.  Which is honestly a valid area of interest in terms of humanity moving out into the universe.

Tito is not shy about the technical challenges such a mission faces.  I'm talking about challenges before the thing even gets off the ground.  For the spacecraft itself, the design team has been using the Dragon capsule by SpaceX as a base model.  The problem there being that Dragon has only thus far carried cargo (and with a great many trials ahead of it yet.)  Unknowns should never be a dealbreaker to a project's vision, however.

I like the fact that this is getting space and Mars exploration further into the public discussion.  As much of a non-business person as I am, I do understand that our best hope of a robust space program sits with the corporate sector.  That includes space tourism.  And yet...and yet...I just can't go for this program, personally.  Why, you might ask?

For one thing, the mission will not land on Mars.  There is no way I could stand being that close to another planet and not being able to walk on its surface.  Especially Mars.  You mean all I can do is stare down at the Red Planet, admiring it like some ruby jewel or bibelot in the black?  No thanks.  I'd be jumping out of my skin, whining "I wanna see Cydonia!" like a five year-old in a mini van on the way to Disney World, assuring that my unknown crewmate would toss me out the airlock.

That brings me to my second and most important point.  The mission is planned to last 501 days.  All jokes about Asia Carrera aside, there is no one in creation that I could handle being alone with for that length of time.  It would take a rare couple indeed who could survive such an experience.  Keep in mind that much of that is due to my own quirky proclivities and need for alone time, but still...imagine yourself trapped in a tiny tin can (euphemism) with no recourse or anywhere else to go.  Not my idea of a good time.

That shouldn't stop you from considering it, though.

 If it appeals to you. 

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Friday, March 1, 2013

And more robots

This nascent idea I have for a robot novel is really taking over.

That is to say, my eyes are picking out more and more news stories related to the subject of robots.

Meet Roboy, the robotic human child; a "soft-tendon" robot modeled on human beings.

A working head and torso have already been established for Roboy.  Prototype mock-ups give the 'bot a creepy look, what with a Casper the ghost-like face but a transparent skeletal system.  Current thinking is that Roboy will get a coating of soft skin as his creators are hoping that the robot can be mass produced and sold as an assistant to the elderly.

When it comes to aiding the aged however, Roboy is not the only game in town.  A robot designed at Britain's University of Salford is likewise intended for that end.

Called "Carebot" P37 S65, this robot will bring senior citizens their meals and medication, remind them to exercise, report the news through a videolink, and generally just be good company.  Carebot is designed to be of the same height as the average senior citizen, so somewhat on the short side.  This likely will help skirt certain design and material issues.

I am optimistic about these advancements, but part of me calls for caution as well.  Not for any foolish presumptions of a "robot uprising," but out of questioning whether or not these robots will deliver the goods.  Will we finally have human-like machines that live up to all of the capabilities touted by their designers?

Sure would be great if we did.  I would love to say that I lived long enough to see things I read about as a kid translate into physical form.  These robots would be prime examples of such things.  I must, however, temper such hopeful enthusiasm with other real life experience, namely that things don't always pan out.  Then again, maybe I'll finally get my "JonDroid."

Yes, this idea of a book about robots is consuming me, as I am wont to do with most writing concepts in their incipient stages.  I can only hope that passion does not burn out before the work of writing is actually done.

Guess it's a bit like marriage in that regard.

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