Friday, November 29, 2013

Bionic Bigfoot

I have something additional for which to be thankful this year.

I couldn't believe my luck when I found it.  As most fellow sophisticates will understand, part of my developmental years in science fiction (not to mention transhumanism) was spent watching the Six Million Dollar Man.  So when I found that Season 3 was available for the bargain basement deal of 15 bucks, well what can I say?

Why the furor over Season 3?

You must know already.  Two words: Bionic Bigfoot.

I've already blogged about Steve Austin, the Bionic Man before and even mentioned a bit about the bionic Bigfoot.  But after watching the two-part episode on DVD today for the first time in what must be years, I feel compelled to explore this science fiction classic in detail.

Steve Austin and his government spook "handler," Oscar Goldman, head to the forests of Northern California to help setup experimental geological tech that may discern the time and date of the killer earthquake that California has dreaded for decades.  But things, of course, go terribly awry.

Two geologists go missing and equipment gets destroyed.  The only clues left behind in the attacks are massive, humanlike footprints in the soil.  Fortunately, there is a Native American (of course) aiding the military team and he says that the tracks and the destruction of trucks and heavy generators could only have come from what legends call, "sasquatch."  Known to whitey as "Bigfoot."  Steve takes off into the wilderness to find the beastly Bigfoot and hopefully track down the missing geologist.  He's successful in half his aims, resulting in the fight of his life.

Steve Austin throws down against the wight Bigfoot.  During the fierce (although in retrospect every bit as hokey as Kirk v. Khan in the episode "Space Seed") battle, he manages to rip off one of Bigfoot's arms.  Sparks shower out.  As Bigfoot retreats, Steve begins to suspect that he is fighting a robot and not a flesh and blood creature.  He pursues Bigfoot.

Via his bionic telescopic vision, Steve spots Bigfoot (still carrying the severed arm) heading into a cave.  Following him into the cave, Steve gets knocked unconscious in a spinning tunnel.  The cave, in fact, leads to an underground colony of aliens (shades of Mac Tonnies' cryptoterrestrials?)

These aliens take the unconscious Steve and do what aliens always seem to do...medical experiments.  They learn that he his bionic and become even more interested in him.  Upon awakening, Steve learns from an alien named Shalon that the ETs have been on Earth for over 250 of our years, watching humanity develop.  Bigfoot is in reality a bionic being just like Steve, built to protect the aliens and to fetch them the occasional human for testing.  Thus, the legend of Bigfoot began amongst the Native Americans.  The aliens are all friendly with Steve but things turn foul when they declare their intentions to stop Oscar Goldman from detonating an underground nuclear weapon nearby, thus destroying the alien colony.

But why would Oscar do this?  To prevent the oncoming "super earthquake" and save perhaps thousands of lives.  The aliens just don't share this desire.  Conflict ensues.

I remember watching this as a kid and being utterly enthralled.  Bigfoot was big in the news during the 1970s as sightings and footprints seemed to be occurring in higher numbers.  It was almost a craze if my six year-old self remembers correctly.  I was fascinated by the idea of the sasquatch and its relative the Yeti, reading everything I could find on the subject and even leading me into UFOs believe it or not.  So to have Bigfoot appear on my favorite show and be bionic...I'll have to ask my Mom if I wet my pants.

This two-part episode features several quality guest stars.  First, there's Stefanie Powers as the alien Shalon, looking quite fetching and sultry back in the day.  There is also Severn Darden as the alien leader.  He was magnificent as the mutant leader in Battle for the Planet of the Apes and also had a smaller role in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.  Lindsey Wagner makes a cameo appearance as the Bionic Woman.

There is of course the episode "Bigfoot Returns," but that is a post for another day.

Meanwhile, I'm going back to the TV for my second contemporary viewing.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Massive condom reef: if only

Happy Thanksgiving!  Now let's talk condoms.

Specifically, a two mile long mass of condoms aggregated together in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  I first heard about this a few years ago on the Internets.  Admittedly, the idea of an enormous "reef" formed of human refuse, especially used condoms of all things, gave me a great deal to chuckle about.  Even if one supposed "marine biologist" said: "I pity any freighter, submarine, or dolphin for that matter that might run into it."

Too bad the whole thing is a hoax.

Even if humans flush millions of condoms into sewage systems every year, there is no "condom island" somewhere out there in the Pacific.  In truth, this Internet falsehood might be a play on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch which is horrible enough in its own right.  Yet the meme's utter lack of truth in no way stops the science fiction writer in me.

A story of ecological disaster has long been percolating in the back of my mind.  It would be an "eco-thriller" of sorts with humanity facing the consequences of its mistreatment of the environment, only the story would have a strong satirical bent, something along the lines of Kurt Vonnegut (whom I am liking more and more with each page of his that I read.)  I mentioned this concept once before as it would feature a sentient hurricane.

But what if I add in an aquatic, living mass of used condoms?  In all that trash flushed out to sea, gallons of bio-material rides along in the reservoirs of the little latex balloons.  What new lifeform might emerge?  You can see it, can't you?  Rising up out of the ocean?  The borborygmus of the thing echoing over the seas as a nautical witness, aghast in slack-jawed horror, can only cry out one phrase:

"It's alive...alive!"

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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A breakthrough in biotech, prosthesis, and monkeys

They had me at "cyborg monkeys."

In 2011, it was announced that neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis and his team developed a two-way interface between the minds of monkeys and machines.  Computer algorithms were able to interpret electrical impulses from neurons and move mechanical limbs. 

Now, biotech scientists have trained monkeys to move not one but two virtual limbs by thoughts alone.  As reported in the article:

 "The researchers think that in the future, the process of controlling two avatar arms with the mind could be translated to controlling two prosthetic arms. However, this goal may not be reached any time soon, as the movements the monkeys achieved were quite simple. "It still remains to be tested how well BMIs [Brain Machine Interfaces] would control motor activities requiring precise interlimb coordination," they write in their [the research team's] paper."

This bodes very well for the future of bionic humans.  I'm in the process of cleaning the place for Thanksgiving so I don't have a lot of time, however I plan to read much more about this in the coming days.

Just watch the gelt pile up once this thing is marketable.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Brightest explosion witnessed by humans

An extraordinarily powerful burst in space is officially the brightest explosion ever witnessed by human eyes.

Spotted earlier this year in the constellation Leo, the explosion was actually a gamma ray burst noticed by several astronomical satellites including NASA's Swift observatory.  

Gamma Ray Bursts or GRBs are the death throes of supermassive stars.  Such a star collapses inward on itself and forms a black hole.  This ejects a glowing shell of stellar debris that expands at nearly the speed of light.  By analyzing the properties of the light and gamma rays produced by the burst, astronomers have determined that the dead star was approximately three to four times larger than the Sun.  However, it was twenty to thirty times more massive.  Also in terms of findings, this GRB is defying previous models and theories in terms of energy levels.  As a result astrophysicists may have to reconsider how particles are accelerated.

This particular GRB was quite distant, being in a galaxy about 3.6 billion light years from Earth.  I am forced to wonder what would happen to us if this should occur with a star that is in our own astronomical neighborhood.  I'm guessing that we wouldn't have much time in terms of warning and what could we do about it even if we did?

There have been several theories tossed about that Earth was once hit by such a Gamma Ray Burst millions of years ago.  This, according to the theory, resulted in the depletion of half the ozone layer and the rising of a brown, wroth smog of nitrogen dioxide.  As the theory goes, this brought about a massive die-off in invertebrate life in oceans and lakes, all of this being pre-dinosaurs of course.  Like I said, what could we do about it?

Happy holidays!

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, November 25, 2013

Ghost lights

Although "ghost hunting" is not my thing, however trendy it might be, I have a soft-spot for "ghost lights."  They brought me my first publication in FATE magazine.

More on that in a bit, but first what is one?  Loosely defined, a "ghost light" or "spook light" is an anomalous light seen in a confined area.  These lights have been seen in most every color of the rainbow.  They can hover and appear languid.  They can zip about and do aerial acrobatics.  Other names for ghost lights are "wil-o-the-wisp" and "fool's fire."

They can mostly be explained as swamp gas.  No, really.  I know it sounds like a lame explanation trotted out to explain everything from ghosts to UFOs to maybe even the second shooter on the Grassy Knoll, but it really does work for most cases of ghost lights.  Vegetation dies, rots, and methane gas is released.  This gas can ignite thus one can end up seeing lights where there should be no lights.

Granted, this doesn't explain all incidences of ghost light phenomena.  The Marfa Lights of Texas have defied full explanation for many years now.  In fact the cases I find most interesting tend to have a metaphysical quality to them.  These are sightings where the lights themselves seem to know that they are being observed.  They respond to the witness' thoughts or at least seem to behave as if they are curious about those observing them.  There is an unspoken connection almost between light and witness or at least it seems that way.  Of course this is fertile ground for hoaxing and I'm certain it has happened many times, but I remain somewhat intrigued.

You see, there was a "spook light" near where I grew up.  In college my friends and I would visit it.  In fact I think my first visit to the light was this time of year and thus it is on my mind this month.  With how cold it gets in November that may defy the "swamp gas" hypothesis, but I digress...

The ritual was that you drive out into the hinterlands of Indiana to a gravel road called Moody Road.  There is nothing out there but farmer's fields.  I mean nothing.  Pull off to the side of the road by a dead tree.  Flick your headlights off and on twice (or three times depending upon who you ask.  It also helped us when we had decanted several beverages beforehand, all except for the driver, natch.)  In time, you will see a light appear at the far end of the road.  On each occasion that I have seen it, it has been dark amber in hue.  The light then proceeds to draw nearer and larger and damn it if it doesn't flicker just like a lantern.

Ultimately, it would just disappear.

There are many stories around it of course.  "Moody's Light" is said to be the ghost of a farmer named Moody who carries a lantern while in search of the people who killed his family.  One version goes that Moody accidentally decapitated his son and the man now roams the night in eternal guilt-ridden penance.

Or it could just be the headlights from cars on a nearby state highway.

How exactly does one "accidentally decapitate" someone?  But I digress...  

There are plenty of explanations for these things and many of them are quite mundane and therefore quite likely.  But I hope lights like Marfa and Moody never get solved.

Like I said, a soft-spot.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Apollo module pilot: perfect job for introverts

"What is the furthest one human being has ever been from every other living person?"

This was a question asked on What If...XKCD recently.  There was a good response: One of the six Apollo command module pilots.

The Apollo missions required that one of the three astronauts remain in the command capsule as it orbited the Moon.  Did it make any of the lonely?  Hard to say, but here's what Apollo 11's Mike Collins had to say about it:

"Far from feeling lonely or abandoned, I feel very much a part of what is taking place on the lunar surface ... I don't mean to deny a feeling of solitude. It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon.
I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life. I am it. If a count were taken, the score would be three billion plus two over on the other side of the moon, and one plus God knows what on this side."

This appeals to me on several levels, but I must admit to a strong sense of uneasiness for several reasons.

I think that the reality of my situation would get to me as I sat there by myself in the module.  I would be inside an arguably thin case of aluminum, traveling through an almost perfect vacuum while being hundreds of thousands of miles away from Earth.  If even just one thing went wrong with the mechanical infrastructure...well, that would be it.  No hope of repair.  Even less chance of a rescue (that being zero.)

On the other hand, I can only imagine what an utterly unrestricted view of space must look like on the far side of the Moon.  No atmosphere, very little light could see the vastness of the cosmos on all its glory and even what is the protoplast of the universe.  Surely no picture can do it justice.

As for the sense of distance, think about this: Mars is even further.  If humanity should ever get off of its collective duff...and that's a big "if"...and travel to Mars or other planets, would we ever lose this sense?  As someone once said, I suppose there is "nothing routine about spaceflight." 

I know the risks.  Even with them in mind, I can't seem to resist knowing just once the sensation of being thousands...perhaps even millions...of miles away from all the people and garbage on Earth that I find so intolerable.  That and yes, the quiet and solitude appeal to me.  As Al Worden, pilot for Apollo 15 so insightfully put it:

"There's a thing about being alone and there's a thing about being lonely, and they're two different things. I was alone but I was not lonely...On the backside of the Moon, I didn't even have to talk to Houston and that was the best part of the flight."

Amen, brother.  You get it.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Comic book headquarters

There are points where my various geeky interests intersect and intensify.

I love comic books.  I love maps.  Nothing used to please me more than when an issue of a comic book I was following including a map of the hero's secret headquarters.  What follows is a cursory lit review of just that topic:

The Fortress of Solitude.  This is Superman's hideout and home away from home.  It has been in various locations across the world but it is primarily remembered as being in the North Pole.  The linked jpeg is from Superman Annual #10.

The Batcave.  Can't very well exclude Batman's HQ now can I?  This image is from a much older comic, but I like the cutaway view. 

Avengers Mansion.  The manor built by Tony Stark's father got a bit of a makeover after the Avengers moved in.  These specs come from Giant-Sized Avengers.

Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.  Home of the X-Men.  This page even gives technical blueprints of the team's modified Blackbird.

Challengers Mountain.  Challengers of the Unknown was not the most popular comics series ever, but I sure liked it.  Plus, this map is another cutaway view of a headquarters and I can't resist that.

The Baxter Building.  Headquarters of the Fantastic Four.  This one's from a Silver Age comic.

Justice League HQ.  As pictured above.  Gives the blueprints of both the cave and the satellite.  None of that Watchtower business.

Project Pegasus.  Remember this post?

Apple "Spaceship" Headquarters.  Sorry.  Saw this one and couldn't resist.  Love the snarky tone.

Ever wonder how much these types of pads would cost?  One intrepid G.I. Joe fan wrote up the team's HQ ("The Pit") as a real estate listing. 

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013


I saw an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation last night that I didn't remember from "back in the day."

The title of the episode was "Schisms." It dealt with alien abduction.

All of the classic hallmarks of abduction were there.  Crew members such as Commander Riker were unable to get restful sleep.  They would go to bed and an instant later wake up exhausted.   Psychological triggers abounded.  Dr. Crusher attempts to approach Riker with a medical tricorder and he flinches.  Worf goes to get a haircut and freaks out when the scissors near his face.

In the Budd Hopkins role, Counselor Troi calls together all the crew who have reported having these experiences and basically holds a group therapy session.  Through the wonders of holography, the characters pool their sketchy memories and recreate the medical examination table they had been taken to time and again in their sleep.  It is discovered that a race of hooded aliens have been reaching into the Enterprise through subspace pockets and spiriting crew members away to conduct bizarre medical experiments.  Seriously, it was like hypnotic regression only without the hypnosis. 

This really underscored with me the fact that the entire concept of alien abduction is now woven into our culture.  Maybe it always has been if you look at myth and legend (inccubi, succubi, changelings, etc.)  But there is this sense that to do the story, certain tropes must be in place and there is even an order and procedure to it.  The alien beings even made clicking sounds of the type that several abductees have reported the Grays making during their alleged experiences.  In fact, it might have been a somewhat gutsy move but I would have liked to have seen the show go the full monty and have it actually be the Grays that were doing the abducting.  That might have "broken the spell" somewhat and it might not have felt like fiction anymore, but could have been interesting.  I would like to have seen how the crew would have reacted.

Another aspect of the episode that I liked was the fact that it was rather unresolved.  The crew of the Enterprise halts these subspace intrusions, but they never really find what the motivation was behind the abductions.  Why were the aliens doing it?  Did they need human and other forms of DNA to further their species?  Were they irredentists gleaning necessary intelligence for a subspace invasion?  The intentions are never fully discerned.  Plus, the "reaching through holes in subspace" seemed to embrace the concept of abductions being extradimensional or perhaps even related to aspects of the subconscious.  I'm always interested in viewing UFO and ET matters through progressive means.

Anyway, not much more to say about it apart from my having found it interesting.  Some nights that's the most you can expect from me.

Oh and before you ask, no.  No one got butt probed.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

RFID nation

I have been doing a bit of ghost writing off and on.

It's for a series of books by a chap named Jake Timber and hopefully you'll get the chance to meet him soon (well, perhaps not so "hopefully." I need to let you reserve judgement on that.)  The books are basically adolescent male fantasies bathed in the paranoia of the far right-wing set.

Envision our nation in the future, willingly duped into enslavement under the New World Order.  We are under constant surveillance by x-ray machines, retina scans, and secret police in black combat fatigues.  Saucer-shaped robot drones hover and scan the streets for anyone suspicious.  Those who step out of line are tagged with stun darts and then carted off for "re-education"...or worse.  And that's all before the aliens get involved.

One of the prime tools employed by the NWO to keep the "sheeple" under control is that of the RFID tag.  Radio Frequency IDentification.  Since Jake just hands me the basic story (what he asserts is a true story, no less, but that is for another time), I decided that I needed to do a bit of research on RFID chips in order to give the story a bit of authentic flavor.  Or try to anyway.

The technology behind RFID chips is rather simple (it does not even require a power source) and has been around for a quite a while now.  If you have dogs or cats and are responsible parents, you probably have RFID chips implanted in your pets right now.  That way, should your babies ever (God forbid) get lost, it will be easier to find them and bring them home safely.  There are those who have argued that in light of this, we actually take better care of our pets than we do our kids.  I have no problem with that, but that's another story.  Anyway, with the number of children who are kidnapped or go missing every year, there are those who have expressed interest in "chipping" their kids.

Then there's the elderly.  Senior citizens with dementia or Alzheimer's can and do wander off and get hurt or worse.  Surely they and their families could benefit from chipping so that they could be found and brought home safely as well.

Oh what the hell?  It might be a good idea if we all had an RFID chip just in case, right?

Or so that's the progression of dominoes that conspiracy theorists allege will fall.  One day, it will be mandated that we all be implanted with RFID chips and the more rebellious among us, like Jake, will carve them out of their very skin in a proclamation of "Give me liberty or give me death,"  throwing them to the ground and stomping on them with their combat boots in righteous indignation.

In my research, I came across a book called Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID. On the surface, it appeared to be more conspiracy-heavy talk such as RFIDs causing cancerous tumors and how school kids were protesting RFIDs being placed in their school IDs and whatnot.  Then, I saw it.

The book has an introduction by Bruce Sterling.  Bruce, in case you don't know, is one the highest authors in the pantheon of cyberpunk fiction writers, up there with Gibson, Shirley, and Rucker.  He is also a lifelong tech journalist and writes the blog Beyond the Beyond for Wired magazine.  When he says something, I listen.

So I read the intro (you can too at this link.)  Here's a quote:

"This is an industry with some deeply schizoid doublethink problems, which come directly from its wacky origins in the spy and security communities."
Sterling then goes on to rattle off all of the corporations that have invested in RFID tech and ways to bug their customer's clothes, shoes, and other products.  These are moneymakers like Wal-Mart, Proctor & Gamble, Exxon-Mobil, and many other names that I simply don't trust.

I hate to say it.  There could be something to this.  I need to read more, but the idea that Jake might have a point about something...well, it's disquieting to say the least.

One day when you meet him, you'll know.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, November 18, 2013

Transhuman dream

I am an unrepentant, unabashed transhumanist.

That probably comes as no surprise, especially if you're a long time reader (and if you've checked out my latest, greatest publication *plug plug*)  However, I may not have realized just how much I want to commix my crude, human form with something more durable and sophisticated until this past weekend.

I've been sick the past few days.  That alone might make one seek out transhuman options.  After all, it was my bad stomach that first prompted me to search for technological fixes.  But something else came to me in a fevered dream...and I do mean fevered.  In fact it's one of the only real pluses to be sick with the respiratory flu: fever delirium.  Always good times.  But I digress...

As I tried to sleep, I had a half-awake dream...or so I like to call them.  I was in a dark cavern.  Black, wet rock, pointy things dipping from the ceiling, the whole bit.  The open expanse in front of me began to reassemble itself in front of my very eyes (nanotech?)  Bumpy, irregular rock turned into metal with a smooth sheen.  Even the walls of the cave took on the same texture.  Something in my head compelled me.  I was to utter what I wanted to most at that particular juncture.  Without thinking I said, "time." When I spoke the word, the walls responded in splashes of color.  There was bright red, cool blue, and several other colors that swarmed and swirled as if an unseen paint roller were responding to the rhythm and tenor of my voice.  I looked down and saw that...what I guess were my lungs and heart suddenly become outwardly visible...were turning to cybernetic devices.  My flesh began to reorganize itself in the exact same manner as the cavern walls and floor had just moments before.  Was this how I would get my "time?"

I think that's what I'm after.  I have badly screwed up my life and I think that the only way to fix it is by living longer.  Perhaps even somehow getting a "do-over" altogether but I know that's a long shot.  Is that wrong?  Lifelong readers of science fiction don't seem to balk at this thought, but others...well...

Most of the opposition I have encountered to transhumanism seem to fall into two camps: 1) "We're playing God" and 2) the somewhat misguided perception that merging with this technology will be mandated for all and that ultimately it will mean the crushing of the human spirit (whatever the fuck that is.)  Only in the dreariest of dystopian musings can I see this as a possibility.  There are people who choose to exist today without the Internet or even a computer.  My Grandmother is one of them.  I'm certain these people run into their share of obstacles and market forces may eventually push them into going online at one point or another, but no one is physically forcing them to get an Instagram account.  It remains a completely personal choice.  I can't see anyone mandating you to replace your meatself if you choose to keep it.  Depending again on market forces, it might become harder for you to do so in the entirety anyway.  But you don't want an implant?  Fine.  Don't get one.

As for "playing God," I would argue that most surgeries are a form of that.  Are we willing to dispense with such medical procedures?  I'm not.  Go into most hospitals and take a quick poll of the patients there.  I'm pretty sure they're down with it too.  They may not be excited about it, but it's probably the best bet they have of improving an aspect of their health, perhaps even their whole life.  Transhumanism is much like this.  I want to have an active say in what my physical and mental limitations are.  Technology may allow me to do this.

Take a look at Nick Bostrom's Transhumanism FAQ:

 "Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase."

That's the whole idea folks.  And I think that it is from a sort of egregious arrogance that several people form their opposition to transhumanism.  There is this since of humanity as being so certain of its "top of the food chain" place not just on Earth but in the whole cosmos.  We're it.  As they say south of the Mason-Dixon: "It don't get no better."

I disagree.


We can get better.  We can overcome our limitations.  We can extend our lifespan and have these "second chances" we never thought we might have. 

At least that's what I believe.  It might not seem like much hope but it's all I have.

 >H   (Google it)

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Friday, November 15, 2013

The Art of Chris Jordan and Alexis Rockman

"Unintended consequences."

Yep, I'm still talking about 'em.  Like I said yesterday, my discussions in the classroom over "unintended consequences" have been mostly over what happens when humans mess with the environment.  In taking a look at such consequences, I have been introduced to the work of two wonderful artists whose mission is to make us aware of just what we're doing to our world.  And they are doing it through art.

Meet Chris Jordan.  The art you see above is of course a rendition of Van Gogh's "Starry Night," but it is composed of millions of plastic lighters.  These lighters are discarded every day but they do not decompose.  Instead, they take their place as litter in our environment or inert space in landfills.  I saw a video of a TED Talk that Jordan gave over his art.  He is certainly passionate about his art and the message that he wishes to send with it.  Here is a statement from the artist as found on the link above:

“There is no Mount Everest of waste we can make a pilgrimage to and behold the sobering aggregate of our discarded stuff, seeing and feeling it viscerally with our senses. Employing themes such as the near versus the far, and the one versus the many, I hope to raise some questions about the roles and responsibilities we each play as individuals in a collective that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible and overwhelming.”

One aspect of our wasteful tendencies that Jordan opened my eyes to was that of e-waste.  How many computer parts have I personally just thrown out in my lifetime?  I'd hate to quantify it, but Chris Jordan, in a way, has.  The following art installation is made entirely of hard drives and circuit boards people have simply thrown out:

It looks like a futuristic city as seen from above.  Better yet, it strongly resembles what George Lucas' FX team cobbled together to create the surface of the Death Star.  The reality is actually more frightening.  This art is representative of a "throw away" culture.  Something doesn't work anymore?  Costs more to have it repaired than to have it replaced, doesn't it?  So just pitch it.  Throw it away to where it will sit and never break down.

The second artist I encountered was Alexis Rockman.  Rockman paints images that are also representative of humanity's interfacing with nature, but more so in regard to how we're altering it.  Consider "Paradise Now":

Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dali got together one night after a bender and this painting is the vibrantly colored but bloated and repulsive offspring.  I say "repulsive" because I argue that in a way, that is the reaction Rockman is going for.  As he has stated:

"My artworks are information-rich depictions of how our culture perceives and interacts with plants and animals, and the role culture plays in influencing the direction of natural history.
The Farm contextualizes the biotech industry's explosive advances in genetic engineering within the history of agriculture, breeding, and artificial selection in general. The image, a wide-angle view of a cultivated soybean field, is constructed to be read from left to right. The image begins with the ancestral versions of internationally familiar animals, the cow, pig, and chicken, and moves across to an informed speculation about how they might look in the future. Also included are geometrically transformed vegetables and familiar images relating to the history of genetics. In The Farm I am interested in how the present and the future look of things are influenced by a broad range of pressures- human consumption, aesthetics, domestication, and medical applications among them. The flora and fauna of the farm are easily recognizable; they are, at the same time, in danger of losing their ancestral identities

Okay, "repulsive" might be too strong of a term, but if you're not at least thinking about the genetic modification of our food after viewing that painting, may I suggest that you look it over once more and this time with a slower, more critical eye?  Before you ask, no, I have no problem with the genetic modification of food.  I do not, however, believe anything Monsanto and other corporations are saying about how "safe and healthy" their products are.  In other words it's a good idea, but I'm very skeptical about those that are currently implementing it.

Maybe Alexis Rockman is too.  His art, along with Chris Jordan's, should not only make us think about what we're doing to our environment, but what the corporations we support are doing.  Not just the environment, but the food we're putting in our bodies as well.

In closing, here's a panoramic gem from Rockman called "Manifest Destiny" that should help put everything in perspective.

Maybe a bit too much effing perspective.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Deep Web

"Unintended consequences."

That phrase has been bouncing around quite a bit in my classroom discussions.  Mostly it has been in reference to results of humanity's messing around with the environment for our own needs.  It does, of course, have far broader applications.  Nowhere else does the phrase "unintended consequences" fit more than with "the Deep Web."

Have you heard of it?  Until Time magazine ran a recent cover story on it, I certainly had not.  It goes something like this: Ten years ago, our government...specifically our military...built an entirely anonymous and hidden network within the Internet.  The intent was to allow intelligence agencies to clandestinely gather information, for law enforcement to secretly track criminals, and even for political dissidents in areas such as communist China to operate online in total privacy.  Now, this "dark underworld" of sorts has become an online venue for the sale of drugs, child pornography, and even the hiring of assassins.  All without being traced.

According to the article, the idea began with something called The Onion Router, a system named such due to "the layers of encryption that surround and obscure data as its passed back and forth."  The system was released to the Internet as an open-source project that is now simply referred to as "Tor."  (paraphrased from the article)  By running Tor, one can access the Internet with total anonymity.  Even your location is hidden.  You are then free to purchase the illegal good or service of your choice.  Payment is handled through Bitcoin, decentralized digital currency that is virtually untraceable.

What do I think?  Well, I'm amazed.  It pains me to say this as a geek, but my actual nuts-and-bolts knowledge of computers is quite limited.  I know how to "drive" multiple forms of computer technology just fine and can even fix a few things when they break down, but as far as actual source coding and programming goes?  Forget it.  Could never do it.  My lack of programming ability prevents me from fully understanding (but not keeping me from enjoying) the characters of something like Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon and many of Rudy Rucker's books.  Those are true cypherpunks through and through.  I suppose I'm rather like William Gibson in this regard (not in quality of writing by any stretch of the imagination.)  I see computers and computer systems as ideas in and of themselves.  That is perhaps why I enjoy reading characters of his such as Cayce Pollard navigate such computer-driven environments. 

That is what fascinates me about the Deep Web.  This is exactly the kind of environment I always envisioned Gibson's hacker cowboys and netrunners inhabiting.  And it's here.  Unintended consequence or not, William Gibson saw it coming.  All we're waiting for now is the ability for direct brain-to-computer connection.

We probably don't have long to wait for that, either.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I have a startling confession

I have hit another down time.

Recent events have forced me to question...well, everything.  Should I be writing?  Have I even really written anything aside from blog posts?  Do I have anything relevant to say?  What should I be doing, then?  Then who am I really? Am I too dumb to be in academics?

That last question is haunting me to no end.  In fact it's drilling holes straight through me.  Don't have a PhD?  Welllll then young lad or lass, you really have no business teaching at this level.  It doesn't matter how well you teach, how well you can engage students with the material, it really is more about the letters after your name and the publications that you have that indicate how much of an educator you are.

I have no qualms with pursuing a PhD...that is to say, if I haven't already been rejected 11 times.  The most recent one from a certain large Midwestern (Indiana specifically) university (read all about it here) was based on the grounds of not my academic record, not my GRE scores, but the fact that my research interests did not match theirs (even though I specifically tailored such interests to what the faculty listed on their bio pages, just as any grad school applicant does.) "Absent such interests, I'm afraid admission is impossible." I can still hear the fucker's words ringing in my head.  Mostly because they were polite but thinly disguised ways of saying, "Sorry, you're just too stupid."

So I've been feeling stupid.  I am talking really really stupid.  Like Snooki in a nanotechnology lab.  Like Kim Kardashian writing a paper on the overall work of Marcel Proust.  Stoooopid.  With three or four o's.  Worthless.

Which, believe it or not, brings me to music.  Music has always been a balm of mine and I really cannot imagine my life without it.  I listen to all kinds, but the bulk of it falls in that category of "black and white video," arty and British compositions from the heyday of MTV's 120 Minutes.  The problem right now is those songs are, by enlarge, very smart.  Their composers could have gone on to do any number of other things, but they chose to play alternative rock.  They are also a disquiet and uncomfortable reminder for me of how dumb I am.  After all, I could never write a literary or science fiction equivalent of "How Soon Is Now?"  The music has become a constant reminder of how dumb I feel (or likely am.)

So I needed something else to listen to.  Something that screams, "Think I'm not good enough for your precious institution?  Think I'm stupid?  FINE!  We're about to get alllll stupid up in here!" What could I find that was...well, not stupid per se, but with a focus that was shall we say, not altogether intellectual?  Yes, I think the band members I'm about to refer to would agree with that.  

You see, I was rather acquainted with these guys due to a deep dark secret.  I am about to share that secret with you right now.  For most of my life, I have been into new-wave and indie music of one form or another.  But there was a time, oh there was a time, when I was an angry young man.  Grew my hair long.  Wore jeans with rips in them.  My t-shirts were typically black and had tour dates on the back.  The most common phrase out of my mouth was "fuck you." My choice in music reflected this lack of desire for any form of heavy contemplation (except for Iron Maiden, but they are an entirely different beast...ha! See what I did there?...than the music I am describing.)

Therefore, I sort of regressed recently as my brain could handle no more heavy reasoning or self-degradation. I let loose with this secret that could be troubling to one's perception of me.  Why, someone could really form an opinion about me over this.  The horror!
But in the spirit of these songs, I decided not to care.  It is what it is.  If you don't like it, well, refer to my old favorite saying in the previous paragraph.   You're going to laugh.  I know you are.  Oh well. That pales in comparison to other things I've had happen to me.  So here goes.

Still with me?

And now...

Yep.  That's Warrant.

This band became one of the most maligned acts of their time.  Let's face it: the "power ballads," the white leather jumpsuit uniforms, and the choreographed (?) headbanging really didn't help their image.  Music critics hated them for vapid songs.  Metal fans hated them because they were "false metal" as Armando used to say.  The girls hated them...wait, they actually had no trouble in that department.  But for me this past week, the songs of Warrant have actually offered me a great deal of relief.  What I offer to you now is an "encomium of Warrant."

Were they misogynistic?  Maybe not that severe, but they certainly weren't waving the flag of feminism.  Then again, who was?  And I daresay, who is today?  Watch your average hip-hop video and then try to argue that they're more woman-friendly than Warrant.

Were the songs vapid?  You bet.  Yeah, you could say they were shallow or at least uninterested in pursuits of intellectualism.  Is that wrong?  If you're going to protest against brain candy, there are many more places you should begin than with Warrant (Gene Simmons, anyone?)

Were they "glam metal" or "posers?" (Interesting word often used by someone I know who denies being a hiptser but well, kinda is.)  I'm going to say no.

They were the victims of the marketing suits at the time.  "Let's have long hair and your guitars are loud.  You must be heavy metal!"
Warrant is not Black Sabbath.  Hell, they're not even Def Leppard.  And guess what?  They had and have no desire to be.  They are now what they always proclaimed themselves to be: a rock band.  Pure, plain, and simple.  The fact that they were subjoined with heavy metal bands is an industry fault, not the band's.

All in all, they are fun.  I know that there's nothing going on with Warrant that will break new ground in the departments of poetry, music, or even rhythm.  But again, they don't want to.  They just want to play straight-up raunchy, rude, crude, lewd, in-your-face rock n' roll.
It's very "come as you are" music.  Warrant doesn't care what your degree is in.  Warrant has less than zero interest in your academic publications.  Warrant doesn't give a damn about your views on social issues. They just want to rock your ass off and then hit the booze and have sex.  In fact I submit to you, Warrant is a truly egalitarian rock band in who they welcome to their music.

I gotta tell you, it all makes me feel pretty damn good right about now.  I can't stop bobbing and thrashing my head, screaming out the anthemic choruses, kicking in with the back-up vocals in "You're the Only Hell," and listening to "Bed of Roses" incessantly for whatever reason. And I defy you to tell me there's something inherently wrong with that.  I have snobbed and I have been snobbed by the best, so good luck telling me something I haven't heard before now.  Seriously.  Bring it.

I don't know.  Maybe it reminds me of being young.  I saw Warrant open for Motley Crue in 1989 on the Dr. Feelgood Tour.  They were fun.  That's right.  Just plain fun.  If you had a problem with that, again they would refer to that easily spouted two-word phrase.  It was all  I don't know of a better descriptor.  Seriously, I just want to start chugging Jack and rocking out while I tell the whole world that hallowed two-word phrase once more.

Plus, you can say whatever you want about lead singer Jani Lane (RIP), but the man had a voice.  It was one of the clearest, strongest, and most melodic of any of his screeching contemporaries.  By the way, if you hated the song "Cherry Pie" (and you'd have good reason for doing so), check out this interview with Lane where he describes why it wasn't written and why he himself couldn't stand it either.  I actually feel pretty bad for the guy and his closing comments in the interview are actually rather chilling considering what happened.

While you're into watching video, check out this clip from the band in 2001.  They still had it.  For all I know they still have it, but I haven't brought myself to listen to anything with their new singer.  Seriously, I can't get enough of the way they open this show and how Steven Sweet pretty much pounds his drumsticks into sawdust:


They're a t-top Camero from circa 1976 with a gigantic flamebird emblem on the hood, the stereo cranked loud enough to crack bulletproof glass, and five guys hanging out the side who are flinging empty whiskey bottles at every snob they pass.

So there it is.  My big secret from the week.  Sometimes you need this sort of thing to get you through the down times.  Want to ridicule me?  Fine.  Want to call me stupid?  You'd be far from the first so you're not exactly an artistic innovator yourself now are you, squirt? 

I'm going back for more Warrant now.  And I'll be happy to show you where the down boys go.

Follow me on Twitter: @jntweets

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The UFO-nuclear link continues

An actual UFO post.  Imagine that?

It's been weeks since I've written one.  It's been days since I've done an actual post for that matter.  Sorry for the gap.  Teaching has really been kicking my ass.  So much so that I've had to drop out of NaNoWriMo.  But I digress...

The instances of UFO sightings near nuclear facilities appear to be growing.  Actually, I don't know if "growing" is the correct term as the sightings I'm about to relate to you occurred in the past.  In the thick of the Cold War, to be precise.  The 1967 UFO incident at Malmstrom Air Force Base is one of the bigger cases of this kind.  Yes, yes, I know.  As the comment at the end of that post indicates, there are those who take great umbrage with the account of Robert Salas but then there are always researchers in competition with each other.

But just recently, Linda Moulton Howe, one of the more respectable journalists working on the subject of UFOs, went on Coast to Coast AM and reported a new case of a UFO sighted near a nuclear missile base.  Once again, this sighting involved US Air Force personnel.  The difference this time?  There was a purported abduction.

Retired Sgt. Perry Manack was stationed  at Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, South Dakota in 1973.  On a night in the fall of that year, Manack reports that two Air Force security guards stopped on a road near the base to investigate a broken down Winnebago.  When the men approached the vehicle, an orange light came down from the sky and the bathed the entire area.  Looking up, the men could see a saucer-shaped craft hovering above them. 

The next thing anyone knew, according to the story, is that one of the guards was missing.  Said guard awoke in the middle of a field north of the town of Wall...home to famous Wall Drug.  His boots were missing and his service weapon was off to his side, unloaded.  This Air Force guard then began the slow, barefoot walk to Wall Drug...where at least you get free ice water and if you're Air Force personnel, free coffee.  I know.  I've been there.  But I digress...

There is not much else to the story...except one last piece.  Manack states that there was symposium on the UFO phenomenon just a few months later at the South Dakota School of Mines.  At this gathering, Manack asserts that a sergeant whom Manack describes as a fairly straight-laced military type, confirmed base rumors that indeed a staff member had reported being "abducted" and deposited north of Wall Drug.  What's more, Manack asserts the presence of Men In Black at the meeting.

But no more than this is known.  Linda Moulton Howe is in the process of gathering more information on the story and is soliciting other witnesses to come forward.  Click the link above to get to her site (yes, the linked article does mention Robert Salas and his books. So if that's troublesome for you, you may not want to visit the page.)

Like I said, reports of UFO sightings around nuclear missile facilities during the Cold War are nothing new.  Air Force personnel being abducted in the process is a new facet.  At least as far as I know.  Too bad there is no more evidence to go on than what amounts to a story and a secondhand story at that.  It would indeed add an intriguing dimension to the case that UFOs seem to have a predilection for nuclear bases.

One such case that I'm looking into involves not a military base but an actual uranium mine in Texas.  In 1971, a UFO is said to have appeared over such a mine in Karnes City.  After the UFO departed the scene, the uranium in the mine was said to have been reduced to a white, chalky substance containing no radioactivity at all.  As I said, just started looking into it.

Maybe UFO occupants are as much for nuclear disarmament as many of the rest of us are.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Magnus: Robot Fighter to return to comics

Dynamite Comics just keeps bringing the classics back.

As one of the world's oldest teenagers, I'm just fine with that.

First, Dynamite brought back Flash Gordon, The Phantom, and several other classic characters (and intriguing original ones such as Cryptozoic Man).  Now comic book heroes from the old Gold Key line will be back in action in 2014.  I'm talking about Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Solar: Man of the Atom, Doktor Spektor (who apparently isn't "colon moniker" worthy), favorite...Magnus: Robot Fighter.

Don't get me wrong.  A character like Turok has definite kitschy, pulpy appeal.  I very much share the sentiments of writer Greg Pak on the comic title:

"I'm just going to go on the record and say that every single element in that description is solid gold.  I want to write stories with a Native American hero. I want to write stories about fighting for survival. And you bet your boots I want to write stories about a world populated by dinosaurs.  And now you're telling me I get to do all three?"

Additionally, Pak plans to write stories that delve into "the reasons why dinosaurs walk the earth and all of the social, historical, ecological, and political ramifications that follow." If he can do that, bring a bit of weight and depth to the pulp, well then so much the better.  Did I mention Turok is a Native American warrior who fights dinosaurs with a bow and arrow?  Righteous.

No dispersions cast towards the revival of these other Gold Key characters, but I am most excited for the return of Magnus (click that link for my full reasons as to why.)   This new series will be written by veteran industry writer, Fred Van Lente.  Van Lente says he plans to revisit many of the old thematic chestnuts that made this series and other comics like it great.  Namely, the nature of robotics and what it means to be human.  Also:

"That, and punching robots until they explode.  There will be a lot that old-time fans will find familiar, but the science of robotics and cybernetics has advanced considerably even since the last time Magnus had a title, and you'll be seeing a lot of those reflected here."

Wonder what Asimov would say?

These characters did enjoy a bit of a revival and resurgence with Valiant Comics back in the early 1990s.  You know, those heady and hazy days of foil and hologram covers?  When the pretty pictures on the outside were thought to compensate for lackluster stories on the inside?  Valiant never really committed those latter offenses with their writing, but the results of the Gold Key revivals were mixed at best.

Here's to being hopeful that Dynamite really blows it up this time.

Ha.  See what I did there?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Lockheed's new hypersonic gem

Now that's a pretty bird.

If you are a long time reader, then you know I have always been a big fan of military aviation.  While other kids looked at car magazines and talked cylinders and camshafts, I was enthralled with fighter jets and thought about missile lock and thrust.

I'll let the psych students out there sift through the homoerotic imagery in that paragraph for a moment.

Anyway, one of my all-time favorite planes was the SR-71 Blackbird.  It was a spy plane that flew over three times the speed of sound and could reach an altitude that was just at the edge of space.  And its airframe had a design that was sexy as all hell.

Now, Lockheed-Martin's famous Skunk Works factory has a new riff on the Blackbird design.  The SR-72 will be a recon aircraft that can reach Mach 6 and actually go into space.  One aspect of the plane that sets it apart from its predecessor is that it will have "optional strike capabilities." Naturally, not much more is being said about those but the engines are another story.  Engines that can propel at such speeds, even those of the Blackbird, are subject to problems.  Those problems are being tackled as stated in Wired:

"The new SR-72 will use a turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) that will employ the turbine engine at lower speeds, and use a scramjet at higher speeds. A scramjet engine is designed to operate at hypersonic velocities by compressing the air through a carefully designed inlet, but needs to be traveling supersonic before it is practical to begin with."

What I find most interesting about the plane, aside from its obvious awesomeness, is the question of whether or not it has actually been around for quite some time.  For decades now, there have been rumors of an ultra-classified spy plane code-named "Aurora."  Investigators asserted that they found adscititious budget lines heading to aviation projects unspecified.  Aurora was also said to be the source of numerous UFO sightings, especially the "black triangle" ones.

It was said to have "wave pulse propulsion" engines that produced signature "donuts on a rope" contrails that appeared mysteriously in the skies over the desert regions of the American Southwest.  Seismic tremors were recorded there for a while, traveling in a straight line off of the Pacific Ocean, over Los Angeles, and then in a Northeast trajectory, presumably towards Area 51.  I've read that during the first Gulf War, Heathrow Airport picked up an aircraft moving at higher elevation and speed than other military jets were said to be able to at the time, however I'm having difficulty now finding a link to substantiate that claim.  Might just be myth.

Myth, after all, is what the entire Aurora program was said to be.  No hard evidence for it ever really surfaced.

Then again, maybe it was just prototypes of what we're about to see from Lockheed.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Should we spy on friends?

Edward Snowden says his actions have sparked political discussion.

A bit of an understatement I'd say.

He writes this, or words to that effect anyway, in what he calls "A Manifesto of Truth" appearing in the German language publication, Der Spiegel.  As he says:

"The world has learned a lot in a short amount of time about irresponsibly operated security agencies and, at times, criminal surveillance programs. Sometimes the agencies try to avoid controls."

Among the more damning bits to be leaked from documents in Snowden's possession are that the NSA has conducted electronic surveillance of the political leaders of Germany, France, and Spain.  Ostensibly, these nations are allies of the United States and no espionage should be warranted.  As one might imagine, this has caused a bit of a brouhaha with the leadership of those European countries.  Delegations of these nations met with U.S. politicians in Washington D.C. recently in efforts to get to the bottom of the situation and attempt to rebuild trust that is "shaken."  One clear mandate from the EU nations mentioned is that the old adage of "spying has always happened, will always happen" is no longer a viable approach.

So why do we spy on friends?  Wait, wait, let me guess..."national security."  While we're at it, why does the NSA spy on its own people?  I'm guessing the same reason.

Yeah yeah, shut up.  I know it's not as simple as that.  Nothing about this situation that Edward Snowden has brought to the surface is cut and dry.  It's not all about being steadfast and patriotic in the defense of our shores.  However, it's not what Snowden called it in his "manifesto," either.  He judged the NSA's digital surveillance program as a "humanitarian" issue.  It's not a purely philosophical or "touchy-feely" issue where your human rights were "violated" because someone read your emails or your text messages.  Valuable defense intelligence was gathered and lives were no doubt saved.

So what's the truth?  Are we safer with or without the NSA program that Edward Snowden has brought to light?  Is he a hero?  A misunderstood warrior in the fight to free information while somehow letting everyone keep their privacy?  Or is he a traitor?  Let's see what House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Michigan, has to say about him:

"If he wants to come back and open up to the responsibility of the fact that he took and stole information, he violated his oath, he disclosed classified information -- that by the way has allowed three different terrorist organizations, affiliates of al Qaeda to change the way they communicate -- I'd be happy to have that discussion with him."

Ouch.  I'm guessing if Snowden ever gets to come back to the United States, Congress and the other pols won't be tailgating with him at a Redskins game.

There are no easy answers.  Therefore, my stance will, for the time being, be motivated by purely selfish interests.  I'm hoping that Snowden is keeping a "bullet in the chamber," so to speak.  I'd like to hope he's holding on to an especially explosive piece of documented evidence that could upend all of society and he's using it as his trump card to keep himself alive or at least free from prosecution or jail.

That's right.  Here's to hoping he has conclusive evidence of a governmental UFO cover up.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, November 4, 2013

Should all art be bland?

We make money, not art.

That seems to be the credo of the good ol' US of A.  Andy Warhol chose that as an artistic theme in his own way.  With The Factory as his studio and an almost "assembly line" method of silkscreening images, Warhol turned the bland and ordinary soup can into an image of the advant-garde.  One artist aims not to defy this trend, but to embrace it...only without all that advant-garde business.  It's the utterly ordinary that's the key now.  In the artistic manifesto of conceptual artist Jonathan Keats, the universe is "beige."  I can't really say he's wrong.

Keats is calling for what he terms a "Copernican Revolution" in art.  He seems to be advocating for art that demonstrates the world as "an average place and that our place in the cosmos is really nothing special."  The color beige comes into play as it is the averaged color of all light visible to the naked eye in the universe.  It's a color that is flat, neutral, inoffensive, serviceable, and boring as all hell.  Perhaps just like real life?

Indeed in the Atlantic interview linked above, Keats does call out Pop Art as a sort of predecessor to the Copernican movement.  Warhol's boxes of Brillo and cans of soup were sufficiently banal and were products indicative of their time, but to Keats, they fall short as Copernican Art as they are not representative as the leading products of the universe.  I mean, we can't say for sure, but its doubtful that Campbell's has thriving popularity on other planets.

As with most art movements, the article indicates a fair amount of debate (always is with a crowd oft described as pretentious and skeigh) going on in terms of locating the "first" true work of Copernican Art.  It doesn't matter.  The answer, if fitting, would no doubt be suitably bland, inoffensive, and so far beneath notice that it might not be worth the effort of locating.

After all, doesn't that just describe our workaday lives when writ upon a cosmic scale? 

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets