Friday, June 28, 2013

Japan to launch talking robot

Yes, I'm still robot-centric here in the Echo Chamber.  

His name is Kirobo.

Or I'm presuming everyone is identifying him as male.  Robots do not yet have true gender identity but give it time.  Little Kirobo will be launched by the Japanese to the International Space Station.  Once there, he will await Japanese astronaut, Koichi Wakata to arrive in the fall to engage in the first robot-to-human conversation in space.

Here's what Kirobo comes loaded with: a camera, voice-recognition and natural language technology that is supposed to be fluent in Japanese, facial recognition and (get this) emotion recognition ability.

They've even tested the little guy in zero-g.  That must have been fun.  Kirobo is not alone, however.  An almost identical unit named Mirata will remain on the ground so that should, perish the thought, something go wrong with Kirobo, engineers will be able to formulate a solution. 

As one representative of the team that created Kirobo says, the Soviets put the first person in space and now Japan will have the first robot.  This might be interesting to watch unfold.  If successful, a robot like Kirobo might help alleviate the psychological and emotional issues of a one person or small numbered crew for a space voyage.

In surfing the Net on this subject, I did come across one point that struck resonance with me.  Something that has actually nagged at the back of my brain for a while now as we've seen models of robots unveiled in Japan.

Do they all look like Astro Boy on purpose?

If you're not a fan of anime or you just aren't acquainted with the character, here's an example:

The series has been around since 1952 in Japan.  I've never really watched it, but it takes place in a future where robots are commonplace.  Astro Boy is a multi-powered robot created by Doctor Tenma at the Ministry of Science to replace his deceased son.

Not ringing any bells?  Like I said, I never watched it.  I do, however, have vague recollections of this one:

Here's more video footage of Kirobo.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, June 27, 2013

IDW Comics reopens the X-Files

Good news tonight from here in the Echo Chamber.

A while back, IDW Comics announced that they would begin publishing a series called The X-Files: Season 10.  Yes, it's old news but I'm just getting around to blogging about it.  Go figure.

I'm certain it comes as no surprise that I absolutely loved The X-Files...and I had quite the crush on Gillian Anderson.  Or maybe it was really Scully I was in love with?  Who knows? If I saw a magazine and Gillian was on the cover, it was coming home with me.  I mean it wasn't a weird, "celeb stalker" kind of thing where I was outside her house wearing night vision goggles, but you get what I mean.  But I digress...

Admittedly I checked out after David Duchovny left, but we'll let that go for the moment.  In my experience, comic book continuations of movies and TV series are at best a hit-or-miss game with ample opportunity for someone to commit lese majesty in relation to the fans.  I never tried the Topps X-Files series but from all accounts it's worth a look so I may need to track down back issues.  But I digress...

Upon hearing this announcement, I did not have the same trepidations that I typically do over such a series.  That's because IDW has a good pedigree.  They've done a fair job of adopting fan favorite properties such as G.I. Joe and the like.  Therefore, I'm willing to give them a go with one of my all-time beloved franchises.

My preliminary scan of Internet reviews seems to indicate that I won't be disappointed.  The new series reunites Mulder with Scully and picks up where the last movie left off.  Skinner finds the couple and tells reports that the FBI has been hacked and that "sensitive" information has been "compromised." That's when weird things start to happen (in The X-Files?  Shocker.)  Hooded figures and a very creepy little girl show up, it's just like old times.

It is obvious, however, that the writers at IDW opted not to go after the UFO mythos that the show was built upon.  Instead, the idea is to encapsulate a contemporary feeling of paranoia in relation to technology.  That's both good and bad in my opinion.  Good in that the creators are branching out and trying new things with both the characters and the setting.  Bad in that it has been so long since I've seen Mulder and Scully tackle mythos-oriented stories that I was really hoping to see it with this series.

I'm sure all I'll have to do is wait.
In the meantime, check this exquisite cover variant with Mulder's poster.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Oceanic dead zones

A dead zone "the size of New Jersey" has been identified in the Gulf of Mexico.

Such an area of ocean is called "a dead zone" when there is not enough oxygen present in the water to support life.  This usually occurs when there is an overgrowth of algae that eventually dies off and decomposes.  That process results in a greater amount of bacteria that then proceed to absorb all of the oxygen away from other sea life such as fish and vegetation. 

And that's exactly what's been happening in the Gulf.  The massive storms that have moved through the Midwest these past months have caused floods that washed nitrate and phosphorus down the Mississippi and into the Gulf.  While this area is the largest discovered thus far, it is not the only one.  That should concern anyone who a) works in the fishing industry b) eats seafood c) has any concern for the world's ecological well being or d) heck, even if you like to surf.

So can anything be done about this?  Let's check the Scientific American article I just linked:

"Fortunately, dead zones are reversible if their causes are reduced or eliminated. For example, a huge dead zone in the Black Sea largely disappeared in the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union, after which there was a huge spike in the cost of chemical fertilizers throughout the region. And while this situation was largely unintentional, the lessons learned have not been lost on scientists, policymakers and the United Nations, which has been pushing to reduce industrial emissions in other areas around the globe where dead zones are a problem. To wit, efforts by countries along the Rhine River to reduce sewage and industrial emissions have reduced nitrogen levels in the North Sea’s dead zone by upwards of 35 percent."

There's the key, eh?  If we want to do something about it and if we act.  I am quite sympathetic to the needs of farmers.  After all, my grandparents were farmers and we all have to eat, right?  At the same time, there must be a way to strike a balance, whether it's through an alternative method of using chemicals or simply preventing runoff (if that's even possible.)  I mean, seems to me we've punished the sea enough through whaling, dolphin killing, oil spills, and ruptured nuclear reactors from submarines.

I'd say it's time to both clean up our act and our mess.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Can we all become gods?

Nope.  You can't do it.

That's what the U.S. Supreme Court said just a week or so ago.  You cannot patent human DNA.  One can, however, claim artificially copied DNA as intellectual property.

I can empathize with the opposition.  The very notion of claiming ownership of what is essentially a living part of someone is at best shifty and at worst a shade of slavery.  That said, this move does not impair the work being done.  While I share a degree of trepidation over fucking around with the basic building blocks of life, I believe there is good to be had.

Historically, we have aimed the bulk of our technological development outward.  Meaning, we use it to improve our surroundings and make our outer lives more comfortable.  But what if we focused the same innovations inward?  What if we took active control of human evolution?  You can be in the driver's seat, not genetics or hereditary chance. Up until now, I have mostly written about implants such as the kind that might allow direct computer interface or streams of nanobots within you, wiping out cancer cells upon sight.  What I'm talking about here is modifying the biological stuff of the body itself.

We're already doing it on a small scale.  Antidepressants (supposedly) correct chemical imbalances in the brain that affect mood, steroids build muscle, human growth hormone enhances performance, and Viagra...well, we all know what that does.  Biotech researchers are working to discover how to turn off the aging gene, allowing for people to live longer and to perhaps even have children much later in their lives. 

Then there's DARPA.  Wow, the stuff they have on the drawing table (if not the test phase) would astound you as always.  They're finding ways to alter a soldier's metabolism so they don't have to eat as much, developing fast coagulating blood, and substances that can block even the most intense pain in less than ten seconds.  It wouldn't surprise me if they were working on how to regenerate limbs.  This is just the beginning.  When we begin to truly alter genetics, that's when all kinds of doors will open.

Will this allow us to one day become super-powered gods?  Could be.  I think we're a long way from that and such applications would no doubt come with a hefty financial and mayhap physiological price tag.  Will there be downsides?  There always are.  I remain undaunted, however.  The idea of being in control of my physiology is just too damn appealing.  If anything, I believe it will make me appreciate life a great deal more.

So let's head towards the Posthuman Age.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, June 24, 2013

Robot drones: growing more complex, deadly

It is, as they say, only a matter of time.

Drones already play a significant role in the forward operations of the U.S. military.  They spare the lives of our own troops from engaging in dangerous situations.  There are, however, times where a human unit on the ground is more desirable such as in close quarters combat.  Human for now, anyway.

This CNN report shows human-like robots that walk, climb stairs, do push-ups, and engage in other movements that people do.  Now, imagine combining this with other projects at Google and DARPA where neural nets are being designed to give robots the ability to think and make decisions for themselves.  The report makes the obvious comparisons to Terminators and says that the debut of these robots on the battlefield is inevitable.

Combat robots that resemble "killer cyborgs" are so...gaudy, don't you think?  Is there not a more elegant solution?  Turns out there is.  How about a swarm of mini drones attacking at once?  That's what the Air Force describes in this article from The Atlantic.

These are called "Micro Aerial Vehicles" or MAVs.  I prefer the term "bugbots" as it sounds more like something from Transformers.  The idea behind these bugbots is that they would be dropped in swarms from aerial drones and could then navigate undetected through confined urban spaces such as alleyways.  They could perch atop electrical wires or on window ledges and observe a target for days...especially if the bugbot were solar powered.  You could even equip a bugbot to attack single individual with a shot to the head before the target could know what hit them or it could deliver explosive ordinance.

A more chilling option would be, as I mentioned, having numerous bugbots swarm a target at once and overwhelm him/her/it.

With all of the controversy over unintended deaths due to drone strikes, these forward-thinking developments have not escaped the notice of the United Nations.  Last May, a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council convened to discuss the ethics of "lethal autonomous robots."  Most of the concern apparently seems to be over whether or not a human is ultimately at the controls when the order to kill is given.

It's more than that to me, however.  If we have robots that think, it reasonable to assume that their thinking will evolve over time and grow more complex with more information acquired.  I'm not predicting a robot uprising or any such thing, but I can't say that I scoff at a time when robots would argue for their own rights.

If they command a swarm of bugbots are you going to say no to them?  Are you sure those birds are all really birds outside your window?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The planets of Kepler

"Billions and billions..."

Carl Sagan wasn't kidding...and the Kepler space telescope has confirmed it.  As of now, there are 2,740 planet candidates found around stars in our galaxy.  "Planet candidates" is the term used for when a black disk is observed against the bright background of a star.  While each case requires confirmation, this phenomenon is typically indicative of a planet in transit.  The picture above gives you an idea of what this looks like as well as the scale.  The upper right hand corner shows Earth and Jupiter in transit around our Sun to give the point greater emphasis.  I would recommend visiting the original NASA Kepler site in order to view the image at best magnification.

Everyone in the world should consider these findings.  You don't even have to visit the NASA page or a planetarium to do it, either.  Go outside on a clear night.  Look at the stars.  Disregard the ones such as Venus and Mars that are obviously planets from our own solar system.  Evidence is suggesting that every point of light you see in the black has multiple planets orbiting it.

Undoubtedly there are gas giants like Jupiter that have no real mass or surface.  Same likelihood goes for rocky husks like Mercury and Mars.  We therefore are forced to confront the fact, a fact most uncomfortable or even unthinkable for the given proclivities of certain parties, that there are also other planets very much like Earth.  Meaning, covered with water and fens and the like.  There must be.  A great deal of them, too.  And that means there must be life.  Festooned with life, life stranger than we can imagine.

We have identified 2,740 extrasolar planets.  The rough math that I've seen indicates that there may be upwards of 100 billion planets in our galaxy.  There are...let's say...100 billion galaxies in the known universe.  How many planets is that?  How much extraterrestrial life does that suggest?

That's our place in the universe.  Like it or not, Earth is a speck.  Anyone who sees humanity as the ultimate end-product of creation really needs to take a look at those numbers.  That is if you can get your head around them without becoming dizzy.  I know I certainly feel taken aback by the vastness of the scale.  I feel insignificant.

That's both good and bad.  It's bad for the ego, right?  This knowledge of how minute we are and how the universe will go along just fine when we're gone, thank you very much.  Then again, this scale must suggest that my mistakes are therefore minor on the universal level, right?

So I might not be so hideous and disgusting after all.

Artist's rendition of planet Kepler 62-f.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Star Trek crew meets the Legion of Super-Heroes

I have been informed by Dorkland! of a new release that I should have known about anyway.

IDW Comics has released a trade paperback edition that collects their crossover miniseries, Star Trek/Legion of Super-Heroes.  This storyline was quite a treat and I would seriously encourage fans of either franchise to get it ASAP.

I have blogged about the Legion before, detailing their bright and optimistic mythology within the DC Comics universe, right down to character names like Cosmic Boy and Lightning Lass.   But let's face it, Star Trek the original series was not short on optimism either.  The two really do gel together quite well.  Right down to Kirk mackin' on Shadow Lass and annoying banter between Spock and Brainiac 5.

So what brings these two universes together?  Actions on both sides draw each camp into the same parallel dimension.  They find themselves on an Earth that is under the control of The Imperial Planets of Terra.  It's not the "mirror universe," famous from the Star Trek episode "Mirror, Mirror"and for the "evil Spock's" goatee, but it's pretty close. This involves so many favorite villainous threats from both franchises, is as most often the case with these things.  Mordru, the Klingons, the Khund, and the Borg, and much more.  Likewise, the plot soon kicks into one with which most comic book fans will be familiar.  "We must work together to stop this for the sake of both our worlds!"

The downside here is one shared by most of the Star Trek films and by any other comic book with so many characters involved.  Old friends like McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura get shuffled to the back and there's just no way to get everybody's favorite Legion characters into the fore.  That said, it's just so much fun to see previously separate universes crossover and interact, but only when done well.  Things can often go quickly awry in the wrong hands.  This does not happen here.  I'm hoping that the quality of this comic and its sales will warrant further crossovers of these characters.

So head over to Amazon and do your part.  I am.

This delicious piece of art is done by J.K. Woodward.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

ESE Girl: Rhona Mitra

It has just been too depressing around here at ESE.

Therefore, I decided to get back to what built this blog: hot women.

That and I could use more traffic to my site and it seemed to work with posts about Dita Von Teese and Christine Nguyen.

So here's Rhona Mitra.  She's just a little bit of alright.

Rhona first came to my attention as Tara on Boston Legal.  Previous to that she was a hapless victim in Hollow Man but I didn't know it was her at the time.  She has since gone on to roles in films such as Doomsday and Underworld: Rise of the Lycans as well as a small (but captivating) part in Shooter.  If you ever want to torture yourself, you could watch the 1999 version of Beowulf.  Rhona's the only thing worthwhile in that stomach cramp of film.

So enjoy, fellas.

If all aliens looked like her, I wouldn't mind getting abducted.
Then again, it's already happened.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Loving the Alien

A signal stabs into the black void like an electrical spear.

It calls out with the simplest of messages, "Am I alone?"  There comes a response.  "No, you are not.  We are on our way."
 Anticipation builds until it becomes a near tangible thing of its own with its unique color, taste, and scent.  What will they look like?  Will our movies be correct?  Or will they be something altogether more strange, stranger perhaps than we can imagine?  Artists attempt their own predictions.  The resultant paintings and sketches range from the sublime to the ridiculous.  No one knows.  All that is known is that the most momentous event conceivable is about to occur.  We can't wait for them to get here. In fact, we begin wishing away time to draw the day nearer.  If only Carl Sagan could here...

Then they arrive.  It is an utter disappointment.  All of this waiting, all of this eagerness, and they are the most unexciting thing we humans have ever laid eyes upon.  Same number of legs, same number of arms, and faces nearly identical to our own.  The one difference?  Their color.  Alabaster white.  Plain.  Occasionally tiny, pimple-like growths break out on their skin, swelling to falcate droops before disappearing as fast as they arose.  Even their blemishes are fleeting and bland.
They don't do much.  No powers and abilities beyond our own, save for the knowledge to traverse space.  In fact, they begin to drain our resources.  Not in an "invasion" sort of sense, more of a parasitic one.  The drain is slow but it makes our lives more difficult every day.  Not at all what we expected.  Not at all what we wanted.  All of that excitement for naught.  In the end, we wonder, was any of this worth it?

We try to get our heads around it.  What were we expecting?  What were we so excited about seeing?  Why isn't it what we wanted and what, if at all anything, could we have done to change it?  Is our reaction more of a psychological mirror to ourselves than a referendum on our visitors? 
Can you toss someone away because they aren't exciting enough?  This may be an occasion where we didn't keep the receipt.  There's no going back.  "It is what it is" as we so often say around this place.  Not what we planned for.  Not what we had in mind.  But they are here nevertheless and we have no choice but to deal with them.

Tears form in my eyes as they approach.  I'm hoping I can come to live with these aliens.  Maybe even one day give them a hug.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, June 17, 2013

The "experts" at SETI

They are the "experts" on aliens.

Or at least that's what I've heard.  Funny thing though, I honestly can't think of anyone qualified for that moniker when it comes to this subject.

I am referring of course to folks such as Jill Tartar, Seth Shostak, et. al. at SETI.

This is not to say that they aren't nice people.  I haven't seen any indication to the contrary, even if Seth Shostak gets quite snooty and caustic at times, especially with UFO researchers such as when he needlessly took a dig at Dan Akroyd on live TV over the Chicago O'Hare sighting.  To be fair, many in the UFO field have attacked Shostak with emotional fervor rather than facts, so I suppose one can forgive his snark.  A bit.  After all, he sees himself as doing a public service.  Last month he did a fine interview about coordinating SETI efforts with new finds from the Kepler and even appearing on MSNBC to reassure us that an alien invasion is not imminent.

No, it's not any of this that gives me pause about SETI.  It I believe I have said before...their "esoteric myopia." There has always been a steady mantra from their camp that goes something like, as suggested by the late and great Mac Tonnies, "can't get there from here." That's right, folks.  Interstellar travel is nigh impossible.  How do we know?  Well, look at us.  After all, we're lucky if we can get anywhere with chemical fuel rockets.  Extraterrestrials must have the same issues, right?  Forget about Project Orion and poppycock of that sort.  It just can't happen.  Yes, I know Stanton Friedman says none of the SETI crowd is qualified to speak to such an issue of engineering, but what of it?

So our best bet is to send and listen for radio signals.  Of course they'd still be using radio.  Why wouldn't they?  Not only are alien radio signals somewhere in the universe, we're bound to find them...and in a relatively short amount of time according to SETI.  Anyone who thinks to the contrary of waiting for radio signals or is not dismissive of the idea that someone else could figure out effective interstellar travel is worthy of scorn.

It's this prevailing thought in science that we have everything figured out that causes me repeated concern.  Our perceptions are the correct ones and other intelligent life in the universe must be remarkably like us in many regards.

We have no idea what other life is like.  To make any assumptions based on our own puny and limited experience is to likely set ourselves up for a great deal of failure.

I just don't understand the dogged persistence over such closed-mindedness.  As an academic, I know full well the stubborn resistance against shifting paradigms, but this case bothers me more than usual.  Perhaps it's because this is such an exciting topic, making contact with alien life, and it has been rendered as boring and tedious as listening to contemporary radio.  Or more likely, static.

Fortunately, there are exciting concepts emerging from other SETI-like circles.  One idea is to scan extrosolar planets for excessive infrared signatures.  This phosphoresce would be expected from a technological civilization.  How would we search for such an infrared sign?  A proposed infrared telescope such as the The Colossus (pictured above) would do it.  Other ideas include looking into our own human DNA.  If, as certain parties have alleged, aliens have been experimenting on the human race in the past, there may be clues to such actions in our own selves.  That's a mighty big "if" I'm aware, but it's time to get innovative.  Speaking of which, I'm also not ready to discount the presence of artifacts on Mars.

No, I do not have a degree in astronomy.  I have never worked for NASA.  Heck, I can't even make the claims that Richard Hoagland does.  I am no expert on the nature of alien life.

Then again, neither is anyone else as near as I can tell.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, June 14, 2013

FFF: Metal Music

 "Music is the brandy of the damned." --George Bernard Shaw

Sometimes that brandy comes in a very cheap and sleazy container.  Sometimes it tastes bitter but ohhhh so good going down the throat.  Sometimes it arrives wrapped in spandex and tastes more like Jack Daniels.  Sometimes when you pop its cap, pyro shoots into the sky and naked women writhe.

Sometimes it's heavy metal.

Check that out.  Motley Crue, shouting at the devil.  There are moments when life has kicked you so hard in the gonads that you have no choice left but to kick it back.  Even a rat when cornered will bite.  Shout back at the devil.  "In a season of wither, stand and deliver, be strong, and laugh and...shout at the devil."

Music can take any form to soothe your savage mood.  I know this may come as quite a surprise to you if you've been reading my blog for a while, but there was a time when I was quite the metalhead.  I know, I know, me...the guy who loves Duran Duran, The Smiths, and The Cure.  But I was.  Hair down past my shoulders, black leather and concert t-shirts, spikes around my wrists, and a real "fuck you" attitude.  Like this...

It was about survival at that time.  The meaner and uglier I seemed, the further I was from harm.  Or so I thought.  This quote from Joseph Campbell by way of Nietzsche spoke volumes to me:

 “Nietzsche was the one who did the job for me. At a certain moment in his life, the idea came to him of what he called ‘the love of your fate.’ Whatever your fate is, whatever the hell happens, you say, ‘This is what I need.’ It may look like a wreck, but go at it as though it were an opportunity, a challenge. If you bring love to that moment—not discouragement—you will find the strength is there. Any disaster that you can survive is an improvement in your character, your stature, and your life. What a privilege! This is when the spontaneity of your own nature will have a chance to flow.

"Then, when looking back at your life, you will see that the moments which seemed to be great failures followed by wreckage were the incidents that shaped the life you have now. You’ll see that this is really true. Nothing can happen to you that is not positive. Even though it looks and feels at the moment like a negative crisis, it is not. The crisis throws you back, and when you are required to exhibit strength, it comes.”

That's Anthrax.  "Take me to the black lodge where you live."  They are making an homage to David Lynch and Twin Peaks, thereby proving that they are among the more intelligent heavy metal bands. Many Anthrax songs are about equality for all people and other liberal issues.

But I hear you.  You're listening to metal because you're hurting and you're angry.  Then my friend, it gets no better than Slayer:

Ahhhh, I can feel the hate swelling within you.

Metal, however, spread its ugly bat wings further and deeper into culture, rendering it into a state of diglossia because it...let's face it...eventually appealed to women.  The bands that did so were known as "hair bands."  To wit:

You may not have heard of Shotgun Messiah, but they were one of my favorites from back in the day.  Talk about a song of heartbreak, "Living Without You" is certainly that.  Just listen to that line: "If there's a tear in my eye, it's not for you."
It is at once hard-hitting and juvenile.  I say "juvenile" because it reminds me of getting into a fight on a playground as a kid.  You get decked and no matter how hard you got hit, you always got back up and taunted, "didn't hurt."  Even if you might be praying for death inside your soul.

I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.
--William Blake


Oh why must it be so persistent a part of life?  I don't know why.  In truth, I've been wondering why for over 30 years.  Still don't have an answer.

I just know that I want it to stop.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Nothing Deep About Depression

This thing is slowly eating me alive.

It's like a multi-clawed beast deep within my cerebral cortex and it is determined to gnaw its way out of my skull. It waits to jump into action at the slightest provocation of external stimuli.  A crushing defeat, a personal rejection, or even no reason it all.  Once active it shrieks with the sound of white noise, burrowing its way slowly and painfully.  It won't give up.  It wants me dead.

I'm talking about depression.   Think about the absolute worst day of your life.  Tone that feeling down about three notches and that is how I feel almost every day.  Do something about it, you say?  I am a chemistry set, a product of multiple experiments by doctors as they keep trying different antidepressent dosages and combinations.  Still, nothing has worked.  I know that many out there are opposed to such medications.  The source of the opposition ranges from the danger of the pills, the inefficacy of them, or even that curing depression would change the meaning of being human.  Let's talk about that latter point for a bit.

Today, while I combed the Internet looking for anything that even resembled a solution, I came across this 2005 essay by Peter Kramer called "There's Nothing Deep About Depression."  Here's an excerpt:

"A hearty, jovial man would rise and ask -- always the same question -- ''What if Prozac had been available in van Gogh's time?''
I understood what was intended, a joke about a pill that makes people blandly chipper. The New Yorker had run cartoons along these lines -- Edgar Allan Poe, on Prozac, making nice to a raven. Below the surface humor were issues I had raised in my own writing. Might a widened use of medication deprive us of insight about our condition? But with repetition, the van Gogh question came to sound strange. Facing a man in great pain, headed for self-mutilation and death, who would withhold a potentially helpful treatment?"

Indeed.  As a writer, I do understand the artistic and literary point of view.  Depression, repression, oppression, almost all of the 'pressions can foster breathtaking works of art and literature.  For example, my world would be so much the poorer without Morrissey and The Smiths and certainly without Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. Therefore, I would say that as with many aspects of medical treatment, it would be a matter of personal choice.

Because I want this thing out of me.  Yeah, I've lived the life of the artistic outsider, the Dark Knight, the rebel who writes.  I'm tired of it.  Like Kramer says in his essay, if science views depression as a genuine illness, then why would we even think of not attempting to cure it?  Would you think the same of smallpox or HIV?  Or would you remain wistful for the creativity that physical disease may produce, such as Love in the Time of Cholera?  Then again, perhaps you still remain in that archaic camp that sees depression as "all in your head" and that one should really just "get over it."

Kramer speaks to this ignorant viewpoint in his essay.  He cites people who have survived concentration camps and wars, but never felt as miserable then as they did with depression.  So, no.  It isn't fun and nobody chooses it.

Think of it this way:  there are many people who are weeds.  That isn't an insult.  A weed can grow in many different environments.  It can even survive in the cracks of your sidewalk or driveway pavement.   People like this can roll with punches and prosper or even thrive in any circumstance.

Other people are orchids.  They are fragile as all get out and can die under the slightest temperature deviations or environmental factors.  That said, they are beautiful and rare.  You will pay through the nose at a florist for orchids.  Weeds you can pluck in the swards by the side of any road or drainage ditch.

Orchid or not, I just want this pain to end.  God, I want it to end.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

S-fin UFO photographed over Netherlands

Picture from The Huffington Post

It was found by accident.

Tourists at a castle in the Netherlands took a series of High Dynamic Range photos.  According to the news article on this UFO incident, HDR photos are when a photographer takes several exposures at once and the images are overlapped.   What the photographer found later was a bit unusual.

There was a UFO in the sky.  Now I mean that by its strictest definition.  There is an object in the air and it is unidentified.  Enlargements of the photo (seen above) show a long, cylindrical (sort of) object with a unique s-foil at its rear.  The writers of the linked article sought out a photo expert with the FBI who asserted that no alteration of the photo had been made such as with Photoshop.  So then what is it?  The leading thought on the matter is the first one I happened to have when I saw the pic.

A bug.

This whole thing reminds me of all of the allegations of rods in our skies.  "Rods" are found when photos or video are taken of the sky and anomalous shapes are found darting through the shot.  When the photo or footage is blown up, you can sometimes see a rod with spiny protrusions...or even corkscrew fins as in the case at hand.  These are insects.  The camera's eye alters their image as they pass through the shot and the bizarre "rod" formations are what appear.  To me, this is what the Netherlands case looks like.

The one alternative explanation I might consider is a military test.  That S-foil shape, almost like a tail fin, is a bit of a departure for a rod.  I am willing to concede the possibility that this could be a new cruise missile caught on film.  However, there is nothing alien or extra-dimensional going on in this picture.  At least not in my opinion.  This UFO case is solved.

As I spelunk through the digital underworld of UFOs, there are times when the conspiracy buff really comes out in me.  I speculate that such innocuous, fairly easily explained cases like these make splashes in the news so that the "shadow government" that regulates UFO secrecy can further a "much ado about nothing" attitude.  After all, the more cases that can be brushed off, the easier it is to disregard truly stunning sightings and evidence.

It can all be explained.  Right?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, June 10, 2013

Travelers to Mars face a lifetime of radiation

Hi.  Jonny Nichols, King of Nothing.
Are you like me?  No reason to live?  Consider living on Mars.

That is if NASA can get that pesky issue of radiation solved.

Data from the Curiosity rover shows that the amount of radiation that astronauts would face on Mars is far higher than originally believed.   As stated in the NASA study, occupants of Mars would face twice as much radiation from cosmic rays and solar flares as they would if they received a full-body CT scan once a week for a year.  That's a lotta rads.  Therefore, given the amount of work that astronauts would be required to do on the Martian surface, it wouldn't be long before someone racked up a dangerous level of radiation exposure.  That means considerable damage to human DNA and especially to soft tissues such as (ouch!) reproductive organs.

America's space agency is undaunted, however.  This conundrum merely requires the development of technologies that don't yet exist.  And it's not like we haven't done it before with say...I dunno...the entire Apollo program.   We're talking about things like new radiation shielding and spacesuits that would allow for the crew to undertake the external duties necessary.  Who knows?  Rad-shielded sleeping bags and jammies might be in the offing as well.

I would also venture to guess that any mission to Mars would require protecting much more than the crew itself.  Supplies such as foodstuffs (whether brought with or grown on planet) would likewise require this radiation shielding.  Now mind you, I'm just thinking out loud, but how much energy would it take to generate a magnetic field?  After all, that sort of thing is exactly what keeps us safe from solar radiation on Earth.  Then again, people would still need to construct such a generator device on the exposed surface of Mars, so that brings us right back around to the question of protecting a crew. 

Unless of course automated craft go in first and begin to remote assembly.  Such a method has already been suggested for 3D printers and the Moon.  Would this work here?  I suppose it's about as feasible as any other suggestion right about now.  No way to tell until we play out a few experimental runs a bit closer to home.  We might find something that works.  See?  Now that was rather optimistic for a codger like me.

Me?  I'd like an RV built for that is completely radiation shielded, of course.  I can imagine rocking that bitch around Cydonia, finding monuments and laughing back to Earth with a hearty "hahahaha! Told you!"

But not really.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, June 7, 2013

Privacy and politics

He is not having an easy time of it.

President Obama ran on a political platform that included a few hard to deliver promises.  Just one of those that he has encountered is closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay.  He pledges a policy of preferring to capture terrorists rather than kill them, but then recommits himself to closing the detention center...with no suggestion of an alternative to take these proposed captives.  Like many people, I find the situation at Guantanamo to be deplorable, but there needs to be viable solution in the offing before something can be done.

Now the President faces another problem a-brewin' (lordy, I've been living in Indiana for less than a year and the slang is filtering into me.) Obama has always touted himself to have an administration of transparency.  That is until a report was released stating that in an operation called PRISM, the National Security Agency had collected phone records on millions of Americans...and tapped into the servers of the nine largest internet firms in the U.S.  

This means the monitoring of email, video, audio, and sent documents.  We're talking about companies such as Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Facebook, although Mark Zuckerberg has stated that the government does not have direct access to Facebook's servers. On the other hand, the Guardian has reported that much of the information mining conducted by both the NSA and the FBI was done without the knowledge of the IT corporations involved.

In Obama's defense, the report did show that this project began back in 2007 while Bush was in office.  That said, the graph demonstrating the amount of monitoring involved spikes up considerably during Obama's presidency. 

So do you feel violated?  I'm not so sure that I do.  I remember learning all the way back in the very early 1990s that almost all communication worldwide is passively monitored (heck, it was even in the 1998 movie, Enemy of the State.)  This means that security devices scan and wait for keywords such as "bomb" or "assassination" or any number of others.  Many are likely to be specific to Arabic, Farsi, or another language spoken by potential enemies.

Of course people can use the words I just listed in any number of ways that have nothing to do with terrorism or crime of any nature.  That's when the NSA shrugs, maybe documents it, and then moves on to other things.  But here's the rub: an opponent of such an operation might argue, "do you really trust them to do that?"

Does this mean that our government is keeping files on all of us with intimate details of our daily activities?  Probably, although I'm hesitant to conjecture on just how intimate they get.  A conspiracy theorist might claim that these files are kept so that they may be released if someone gets too outspoken about one policy or another.  The individual's dirty secrets (which we all have) are laid bare and they are then humiliated into obscurity or at least discredited.

Then there are those who object to such surveillance on the principle of it.  No one's privacy should be invaded, they may argue, for any reason because it is against the Constitution.  So would you feel comfortable if your privacy no longer truly existed?  Would you be okay with it if it stopped something like the Boston bombings from happening?  Ultimately this will be something for legal scholars and our government as a whole (hopefully) to sort out.  Glad I'm not the one to have to do it because all I see here are various shades of gray.

Being president must suck.  I don't know why anyone would want to do it.  I'd abdicate so fast it would make your head spin.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Japanese superheroes

In science fiction, we have a word for it.


But it's just so much fun.  To what am I referring in such a roundabout way?
Japanese superheroes.  That's what.

They've got their own way of doing it over there as they do with so much else.  I first learned about the breadth and depth of this unique and obscure sub-genre of science fiction at...where else...a convention for Godzilla fans back in 2011.  A speaker gave a lecture on the subject.  No really, this stuff actually goes on at these things.  Here's a bit of a rundown on the luminaries of the sub-genre:

He actually had what we would today call a "franchise" of films back in the 1960s.  I actually own two from the series, Atomic Rulers of the World and Invaders from Space.  I am still on the lookout for Evil Brain from Outer Space (and how can you go wrong with a title like that?)  As you might imagine, the stories are fairly straightforward.  Bad aliens (like the Salamander Men from the planet Kulimon.  Squee!) threaten Earth whether it be through nuclear destruction or what have you.  Starman must stop them.  So what are the powers and abilities of Starman?  Well, rather generic really.  Maybe even Superman or Captain Marvel-like.  Flight, excellent combat prowess, packs a gun, not much more to tell.  You can still find these in the $5 bin.

There are buttload of variations and incarnations of this series.  It will take a more serious Otaku geek than me to tell them apart.  Therefore, I'll talk about the one I used to watch after school in the days of my youth.
A man named Hayata works for the Science Patrol (another great name.)  As he is flying his SP-issued VTOL plane, he collides in mid-air with a spaceship.  Hayata is killed.  As fate would have it, the spaceship is piloted by a superhero named Ultraman.  This being greatly regrets causing the death of the hapless human.  Therefore, he merges lives with Hayata and brings him back to life.  Hayata lives out his own life most of the time...that is until he and the rest of the Science Patrol are menaced by giant monsters.  Hayata then activates his Beta Capsule, turning himself into Ultraman.  Ultraman, as it turns out, can vary his size from giant to humanish.  He shoots multiple types of energy beams and can karate chop giant monsters with the best of them.

(pictured above)
This one is actually Chinese, but it often gets lumped in with the others.  Plus, if Wikipedia is to be believed (and come on, when are they ever wrong?), this is the first superhero film ever produced in China.  So it's a piece of history.  I guess.
The Demon Princess Elzebub (hey, I couldn't make that name up) is making a bid to control the Earth from her underground, Inner Earth kingdom.  So at least it's not aliens.  They decided to go the Richard Shaver route.  Anyhoo, cities fall to ruin as she unleashes her army of "Skeleton Ghosts" and her Ice Monsters.  One scientist at Science Headquarters (really, that's its name) has a plan to save us, but it requires the sacrifice of a young man named Lei Ma.  Lei must transform his body into a red and yellow cybernetic one.  This will grant him all manner of deadly weapons and super abilities that seem a bit like those of The Six Million Dollar Man.  He is now...wait for it...Infra-Man!  The monsters of Elzebub are no match and are defeated by Infra-Man at Mount Devil.  Yeah, I'm pretty sure that's not a spoiler.
I think I dated Demon Elzebub.

Kamen Rider
I've never seen this series, but I think any discussion without it would be incomplete.  Kamen Rider deals with "a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world." No.  Not that one. This one is called "Shocker." Apparently their M.O. is to kidnap unsuspecting people and then brainwash them and turn them into cyborg warriors for the Shocker cause.  Well things backfire when they take a freelance photographer named Hayato Ichimonji.  He fights off the brainwashing and escapes...but not after the fine folks at Shocker have given him all the tricked out, neato keeno cybernetic powers.  The "rider" part of the name comes in when he teams up with a motorcycle racer.  Oh and an FBI agent.

No, I will not talk about The Power Rangers.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

He's not a cyborg...yet

"There are quotes from people like Arthur C. Clarke and Gandhi saying that when people come up with new ideas they’re called ‘nuts.’ Then everybody starts believing in the idea and nobody can remember a time when it seemed strange.”

That is a quote from Dmitry Itskovy in this New York Times article about the 2045 Initiative.

This project, simply put, is one that aspires to have lifelike, cybernetic duplicates available to people at low cost.  The consumer would then be able to upload their mind into the avatar, personality, memories and all.  Truly transhuman.  But you can see why Itskov gets his share of "you gotta be nuts" comments.

For a millionaire like Itovsky, it's all about immortality.  While that may sound vain, the man's ambition has the attention of a few of the most foremost authorities on cybernetics in the world.  We're talking about people from places like Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and M.I.T.  He's also attracting scientists from the disciplines of molecular genetics and neuroprosthesis.

As the NYT article snarks on, the inevitable invocation of Kurzweil and The Singularity arrives.  Despite the prognostications of Kurzweil, the idea of uploading one's consciousness into a cyborg body is still treated as a fanciful pipe dream, "even in this crowd" as the author puts it, the "crowd" being academics and researchers.  Itskov is thankfully undeterred.  Already completed is a replica mold of his face that will go onto his eventual machine, granting it a more lifelike and personal appearance.  More than that, it will be a highly sophisticated face.  Most robot replicas of humans have 20 motors in the face.  Itvosky's will have 36.

Naturally, this leads to the paradisaical speech of the transhuman; what this will do for problems such as world hunger and individuals dependent upon getting organ transplants, etc.  I share this enthusiasm.  Hell, I've been hoping for it.  In fact, I hope it goes beyond simple transference of consciousness and an end to the failings of the flesh and all those rude questions of survival.  I truly want to shut off my emotions.  Here's to hoping.

These all sound like science fiction solutions to life and death problems, plumbed from the most obscure hadals of warped imaginations.  But maybe that's what we need.  Perhaps that sort of creative thinking is what has been lacking.  I'm not expecting a mad rush of people wanting to swap out for cyborg bodies.  The allures of the flesh are too strong, even though Itvosky has assured that these avatars will be able to have sex...and feel it.  I don't know.  As tempting as all of that is, I'm still most looking forward to an end to incessant depression.

Who says human is the best way to be anyway?  I honestly think it sucks.

Link to the 2045 Initiative.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

David Lynch and Surrealism

A big special thanks to Pop Trash Beauty for tweeting this article by Smith.

I am a big fan of David Lynch.

I'm certain that comes as no surprise to most of you.  Twin Peaks was a pivotal point in my college experience.  The cloudy and somber mood of the Pacific Northwest, all of those trees ("What do you call these trees?"), the mystery over Laura Palmer's death, and the just plain wacky disjointedness, it all added up to a unique work of art.  This is to say nothing of Lost Highway, The Straight Story, Blue Velvet or even Wild At Heart, even though that latter film does not hold up so well in my opinion.

I also like academic interpretation and geekery. Now, a second year film student named Justine Smith has written a strong paper that draws the parallels between Lynch's films and surrealist art.  First, like all good scholarly types do, she defines her terms.  Exactly what do we mean by "surrealism?"  Smith says:

"Borne out of a legacy of fantasy art, Freudian psychology and Dada, an anti-art movement, Surrealism has no consistent style. It is often described as artwork produced by drawing on the subconscious. However, it is different from art that is merely fantastic as surrealists made a sincere attempt to create a new mythology while stressing the inner-compulsion to release their subconscious fears and desires (Hughes 212). Political and revolutionary, many surrealists purposefully tackle taboo ideas and institutions in their work, like sex, war and religion, believing that the mind cannot be free if certain topics are off limits. It is a movement that is often seen as rebellious and playful. They are often purposeful contradictory and purposefully upset the status quo through a variety of stylistic techniques."

As an example, Smith cites the above painting "Two Young Children are Menaced by a Nightingale" by Max Ernst.  The title of that painting alone could be a Lynch movie.  Another example associated with surrealism is Salvador Dali, an artist whom I am trying to acquire a taste for.

An aspect of surrealist art is to take the mundane and make it bizarre or even frightening if possible.  David Lynch does that in spades.  There is nothing he likes doing more than taking white bread, apple-pie-and-mom iconography and turning it on its head.  Just look what he has done to the notions of cowboys, 1950s diners, and suburbia in general.  What was once safe and normal no longer is once in Lynch's hands.

The construction of a new perception of reality is yet another common theme in surrealism. Smith takes Lynch's Lost Highway as something of an example of such a theme.  I remember liking Lost Highway, but it has been a long time since I've seen it.  Probably about time I owned the thing.  After all, Trent Reznor did the soundtrack.  But I digress...

Lost Highway is a film that switches between POVs and even jumps around timelines.  Smith astutely points to the number of mirrors and doubles that pop up in the film, signifying altered perceptions and new realities.  Douglas Sirk uses mirrors and anything glass to a similar end in Written on the Wind, a soap opera melodrama, sades of which can be found in Twin Peaks.  Again, I digress...

I would argue that something Lynch is superb at doing is rejecting the given reality and supplanting it with his own.  As an apt example of this, check out what he did with this live UNSTAGED performance by the magnificent Duran Duran in 2011. Spokes of a bicycle wheel, grilling hot dogs, even puppets and perhaps a zither are superimposed over the live footage.  I loved it.  Other Durannies?  Perhaps not as much. You might not like his vision, finding it distorted, nonsensical, or even horrifying.  Or you might dig it as a work of art worthy of a canvas in a gallery.  What you cannot do, however, is ignore it.  The films of Lynch demand that you notice them.

At the end of the UNSTAGED performance, Simon Le Bon tried to get David Lynch to come out on stage for a bow.  He did not.  Le Bon said something to the effect of "David has ascended to another reality."

I'd argue he's always been there.  Thankfully, he sends us beautifully surreal postcards.

Along with damn good coffee.  And hot, too.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, June 3, 2013

Blue Planet Project

Recently, I brought you a UFO post on the Serpo Exchange.

I have now come across something equally as sketchy but interesting nevertheless.  As I half-watched a UFO doc on TV (there are so many of the damn things now, I couldn't even tell you which one), I heard someone mention a supposed manual called the Blue Planet Project.  The tome is supposedly a collection of notes from a "scientist" (anonymous, natch) who claims to have once been directly tied in to the US government's UFO cover-up efforts.

Best of all, Blue Planet Project is readily available on the Internet at this link!  How about that?  What wondrous mysteries might be contained within its pages?  Well, click the link to see for yourself.  For your convenience, however, here's my rundown on it:

One of the opening statements is among the more bold, something to the effect of: "the cover-up began thousands of years ago."
Thousands?  Technically, there wasn't even a United States until a shade over 200 years ago, so how the cover-up could have been engaged that long ago...well, defies my understanding.  As we move on through the text, we get a handy recapitulation of Friedman and Shandera's Top Secret/MAJIC (fairly, the author says as much) as the history of Majestic 12 and its component members are described.  There is an extensive look at the structure of the cover up in as far as which federal agencies are handling what and the specific names of individuals who have been involved.  More on that in a future post as well as the supposed deals we've cut with the "visitors."

As many conspiracy screeds are wont to do, Blue Planet Project also alleges that UFOs have basically dropped like flies and crashed all around the world.  This doesn't say much for alien technology in my estimation.  Then again, we're not much better according to the BPP.  The US government has acquired several of these crashed saucers and at least in a few cases, attempted to reverse engineer and then fly ourselves.  This has resulted in the deaths of several pilots.   The document even provides sketches of recovered UFOs and our own craft we have built based upon them.

From there, we move into descriptions of the various flora and fauna of alien life visiting our planet.  That's right.  Multiple races according to this thing.  There are at least three types of "Greys" including their automatons, most of them don't care about us whatsoever and are only here for our bodily fluids (which they seem to need).  There are also blob-like beings, Nordics, insectoids, dwarfs, and even David Icke's lizard people.  In the case of the latter, I did appreciate the inclusion of newspaper clippings of the sightings of "Lizard Man" from 1988 as "evidence."  Eventually we even get to star charts that give the location of the aliens' home planets and a bit about their culture and history.

One high moment from this section: the author compares one race of aliens to the kind seen at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind...and then encourages us to see the Extended Edition as to get the full effect.  Good to know even a threatened and anonymous government whistleblower can still have cinematic standards. 

Not only are we being visited by aliens, but also by time travelers and "Ultra-terrestrials," non-corporeal beings formed in the center of quasars (scientifically impossible, but we'll keep going.) There are also beings from other dimensions in the "multiverse." These beings are described as being able to tailor their manifestations to their observer's beliefs.  This almost comes as a head nod to the work of Jacques Vallee, thus giving this text an "everything and the UFO kitchen sink" feel to it.  Basically, anything you've heard about the UFO phenomena?  Abductions, mutilations, crashed saucers, cover ups, time travelers, etc.?  It's all true. So there.

It's even got a section on Dulce Base and the underground tunnel network.  Talks about the seven floors of the base, the "Nightmare Hall" of hellish experiments on abducted humans, flash-guns, retina readers, and the shoot-out between aliens and members of US special ops.  About what you'd expect.

As you may have picked up on by now, I place almost zero stock in this supposed text.  For one, it's anonymous and offers next to nothing in the way of supporting evidence.  I know, if this were really material from inside a government UFO conspiracy, a) what evidence would there be and b) who would sign their name to it?  Secondly, there are misspellings and grammar errors throughout.  I know, that doesn't mean the information is false, but it does little for the anonymous author's professional credibility.  I mean, if they are supposed to be a scientist...

Finally, so many aspects of this texts have direct correlations to comic books.

I'm serious.  For one, the Greys are said to be here in part to find the secret of the "metagene." That can be found in DC Comics.  Ultra-terrestrials are code-named "Ultron." That's a villain from Marvel (one of my favorite villains by the way).  The civilization of Atlantis was supposedly so advanced because of alien assistance.  When the city sank, several denizens continued to live on underwater as a species called homo mermanus.  This is exactly the term used for Namor the Sub-Mariner's people in Marvel.  Likewise, alien experiments and the fall of Atlantis helped produce a race of beings called "Deviants," grotesque creatures that the image of mythical demons come from.  Once more, see Marvel.

This does not mean that the information provided in Blue Planet Project is patently false, but...come on.  It's not looking good, is it?  Unless someone wants to try that old chestnut of "leaking UFO information out through pop culture to 'condition' us."

Oy.  I'm going to have to find a serious, substantial UFO story to write about...and soon.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets