Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Robot uprising? No. Fear our own stupid

Stephen Hawking made quite a stir with a few comments about robotics.

Well, more accurately, he was talking about artificial intelligence and the dangers he sees it posing to humanity. He asserted that:

"Once humans develop artificial intelligence it would take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn't compete, and would be superseded."

It's not a far leap in logic to postulate that this would include robots endowed with AI capabilities, the so-called "robot uprising" that has been popular in media since time immemorial. Like I said, the comments caused something of a stir in the various technological communities. After all, the opinion of a genius-level scientist such as Hawking can go a long way in the forming of opinions in the public writ-large.

Which is why I was glad to read this article by Mark Bishop in New Scientist.

Bishop is a professor of Cognitive Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London. He disagrees with Hawking's postulation, arguing that the level of AI that Hawking refers to is unlikely to develop. Supporting that assertion, Bishop identifies three interesting points:

-Computers lack understanding. A program may scan a text and recognize aspects of it, but it has no genuine understanding.

-Computers lack consciousness. He says: "An argument can be made, one I call Dancing with Pixies, that if a robot experiences a conscious sensation as it interacts with the world, then an infinitude of consciousnesses must be everywhere: in the cup of tea I am drinking, in the seat that I am sitting on. If we reject this wider state of affairs – known as panpsychism – we must reject machine consciousness."

-Computers lack mathematical insight. In other words, the way human mathematicians tackle a complex problem is psychologically un-mathematical.

This is not to say that there's nothing to worry about and let's all just let the AIs run free. Bishop concludes with (rather chillingly):

"In my role as an AI expert on the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, I am particularly concerned by the potential deployment of robotic weapons systems that can militarily engage without human intervention. This is precisely because current AI is not akin to human intelligence, and poorly designed autonomous systems have the potential to rapidly escalate dangerous situations to catastrophic conclusions when pitted against each other. Such systems can exhibit genuine artificial stupidity.

It is possible to agree that AI may pose an existential threat to humanity, but without ever having to imagine that it will become more intelligent than us."

That's right. It's not that AI robots will be smarter than us but perhaps it's that they will be dumber than us. More accurately, they might be born of our own stupidity. That's a sobering consideration and a more immediate concern than Hawking's flapdoodle, in my opinion.

I do wonder about Bishop's views of AI, though. I don't want to call him a defeatist as he obviously knows far more about the subject than I, but something in my gut is nagging me. Could the shortcomings he mentioned in his three points eventually be overcome? Also, what should we be more apprehensive of? A conscious robot or one that operates purely on logic?

Nah, I'm still more scared of human stupidity.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bringing biotechnology into the home

Today I watched a most intriguing TedTalk on biotechnology by Cathal Garvey.

Young Garvey is the founder of the blog, Indie Biotech, whereat he aims to bring biotechnology tools into wider accessibility, even into people's homes. As he points out, many of us are directly benefiting from genetic modification in one way or another, whether that be from medicines we take, vaccines we've received, food we eat (much to many people's chagrin), clothes we wear (genetically modified cotton), or even those who have genetically modified pets. We learn more and more about this subject all the time, including just recently the isolation of the germ cells that create sperm and eggs. So why not take this technology out of cloistered labs and bring it into home use?

Computer programmers are already at the forefront of this "biohacking," manipulating E. coli bacteria to spell out "hello world," the first program most hackers learn to run. The advent of 3D printing will only make things more accessible.  Garvey demonstrated how he was able to form a DIY centrifuge out of a standard hardware drill and 3D printed plastic. This the allowed him to separate cells, DNA, proteins, and "all those things you hear that cause zombies" as he says.

Well, what happens when "maker culture" obtains the ability to synthesize DNA from scratch? It's not that far away as biotechnology has developed its own form of 3D printing. Called a bioprinter, the device can already produce cells, proteins, and gels. It may soon be able to produce full organs. Exciting, yes, but more immediate uses would be a bit more tame than printing out limbs should you lose one. To wit:

Imagine this: bioengineered house plants that produce plastic. Once these plastics evanesce into being, you harvest them and place them as raw stock in your 3D printer. Spider silk has a powerful tensile strength, enough to repel bullets (as anyone who has read Spider-Man comics will tell you, natch.) One problem with that, however, is you can't very well milk a spider. What one can do is isolate the enzymes and bio matter that make up the silk and reproduce it via biotechnology. Pretty soon, you can have your own spider silk clothes that are hearty enough to deflect bullets.

So that's the idea. Why buy technology to modify and repair your body when you can do it yourself at home? Additionally, as Garvey points out, why be afraid of biotech when you're already eating and wearing it with seeming abandon?

There is perhaps one thing you should be afraid of and that's me. If you've been reading the blog for any length of time, you probably already know that and why.

I'll put it this way. Have you seen Planet of the Apes? Wellll, it occurs to me that having my own simian army might not be such a bad thing. Comes in handy, I'm thinking. Given the proper DNA and biotech tools such as Garvey is describing in his talk, I'm pretty sure I could cook one up. Just need a gorilla. Or a chimp. Or what the hell? Why not both? It's only a matter of time before my bipedal apes accompany me to campus.

Who am I kidding? I'm sure DARPA is already on this. After all, why have drones when you can have an ape army?

Makes sense, right?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, December 29, 2014

UFOs: Do we have a plan against invasion?

Proponents of a UFO cover-up are fond of pointing to a 1987 speech by President Ronald Reagan to the United Nations:

"Perhaps we need some outside universal threat to recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world. And yet I ask you, is not an alien threat already among us?"

The "alien threat" he refers to is actually humanity's predilection of making war on itself, but others chose to see this as Reagan hinting towards knowing more about UFOs than he ever admitted. But what of his musings? Would humanity come together in the face of such a threat? The concept of alien invasion has been constant sub-genre of science fiction. It started with H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds and runs all the way up to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Independence Day, Signs, and who could forget our old friend V? (happy sigh) In nearly each case, humanity unites and fights back. Is that how it would go? All mirth and kumbuya? More than that, is there actually a plan to fight back?

First of all, is there any indication of UFOs being a harbinger of any kind of invasion? Let's look at a few cases involving the military:

-In 1948 in Kapustin Yar of the former Soviet Union, a saucer-shaped UFO appeared before an experimental air force jet. The Soviet aircraft attempted to fire on the UFO. A beam of light shot from the object and simultaneously blinded the plane's pilot and deactivated its avionics. The UFO departed the scene and the plane's systems came back on, allowing the pilot to land safely.

-1952 saw the sightings during Operation Mainbrace.

-At the same time of Mainbrace, an RAF Meteor fighter jet came into land at Topcliffe, North Yorkshire, England. Numerous witnesses saw it pursued by a UFO.

-I have heard reports that a 1961 mass sighting of UFOs at high altitude over Europe nearly triggered a nuclear war, almost purposefully so. Still looking into it.

-Speaking of UFO incidents involving nuclear weapons, there's Rendlesham Forest and a few ICBM base cases as well.

-A former Army Sergeant Major named Richard O. Dean alleged that in 1964, NATO was presented with a document called "The Assessment." It is claimed that said text confirmed the suspicions that UFOs represented visitation by multiple alien species, four of which have been confirmed visually. The sightings and the interactions between the UFOs and military assets have been part of a "carefully orchestrated escalation."

I am often asked that, given all of this, do I think that the U.S. and other militaries have plans for what to do in the event of an alien invasion. My answer is always an unreserved "yes."

I say that not because of any research or inside information as to a UFO conspiracy, rather I say it because it just makes sense. When thinking militarily, you attempt to plan for any conceivable threat. As humans have grown (at least a bit) more spacefaring and more UFOs are sighted, the hypothetical of an alien invasion is one that military planners would at least have to consider. There are books available on the subject, but they seem of flimsy substance. Any real plans are of course classified.

Also, I am willing to bet such plans are rather skimpy. There's just so much that we don't know, so it's difficult to see how any kind of intricate plan could be laid out to repel such an attack. I know, I know, many UFO theorists say it's quite the contrary and that we know exactly who and what we're up against if the time comes. I am not like them. While I'm quite willing to believe that governments know much more about UFO phenomena than they are letting on, however I am suspicious of it involving alien contact. Additionally, the reports bullet-pointed above do not indicate hostility but rather more like curiosity.

I am coming towards suspecting that we are confronting something more ethereal than a sci-fi alien invasion.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, December 26, 2014

Please! Somebody think of the oil companies!

We bob as corks far from shore in that sea named "the Holiday Season."

As such, times get hectic. It is easy to get tunnel-vision while having all t
hose hair-pulling and teeth gnashing moments with family
 that fun. You forget there is a world outside your window. There are people in need right now, living with the terror and dread of bitter uncertainty. What will happen next? How will they survive as every day seems to bring them less? You know who they are. They are a part of our daily lives and we at best ignore them and at worst regard them with scathing disdain.

I'm talking about the oil industry.

I stopped at a gas station here in the metro Chicago area. And what to my wondering eyes did appear but a price tag of $2.08/gallon.

I rubbed my eyes.

I dabbed at my sweat.

I got that uneasy "should I or shouldn't I?" sensation that I get when I find money on the sidewalk.

Did I somehow get the date wrong? Was it April Fool's Day? I ran inside the station and found the clerk. The man smelled of beef jerky and lay half asleep upon the counter (yeah, you'd think he would be grateful for his minimum wage job.)
"You, shopkeep," I roused him. "Tell me. What day is this?"
"It's Christmas Day," he grunted and then mumbled "jackass" before returning to his slumber.

I stumbled back to my car at the pump. Dazed and not knowing quite what else to do, I went through my usual routine of fueling my tank. The final tab came in at a full $10 beneath my usual total.

Guilt doesn't even begin to describe my feelings. And that's when I heard the shuffling footsteps behind me.

It was a man in a navy blue pinstripe suit and a red tie. He was pasty and aged, a right wrinkly old elf. He kept a cigar lodged tight between his gritted teeth. I would have questioned his wisdom of smoking near a gas pump, but he appeared affluent so he must know something that I don't, I figured.

"Please sir," he said to me as held out his hands. "May I have some more?"

I didn't know what to say. So I just stood there, looking at the panhandler.

The man went on to explain that he was in "upper-tier management" at an oil company. For almost 90 consecutive days, the average price of gas per gallon has been dropping in the United States. Crude oil prices have plummeted by the barrel. Summarily, the whole industry was looking at a hit in its profit margin and all of it happening at holidays. The man wearily expressed to me that he might not be able to get his family to the Caribbean yet this season.

"And it's turning really cold out, too!" I gasped.

He nodded glumly. I didn't know what else to do, so I forked over the ten I thought I owed him. He spoke not a word as he took it from my hands. I asked if he had anywhere to stay for the holidays. He said he did and that in fact his 
 friends were coming over to spend the night in his combined armory and library. There they would be forced to sully themselves by drinking moosemilk brandy while attempting to bolster their spirits with the written word, taking turns reading from the spiritual texts of Ayn Rand and Ann Coulter.

My stomach turned and my eyes welled with water as I watched the elderly but well-dressed man saunter out of sight, telling me over his shoulder to have "a happy whatever."

I hurried home, feeling that I was owed an explanation. Why had I not heard anything about this crisis on Fox News? I struggled and wriggled in my cranium, but I could not manage to recall one time when they mentioned these dwindling gas prices (I just knew it had to be Obama's fault). I called someone I know who works in the oil industry down in Houston. He is part owner of a consulting firm for the industry and he and his partners have been looking to sell the company as they all approach their twilight years. Alas, with prices as they are now, I discovered that few if any potential buyers expressed interest. Not even a nibble.

"Nobody wants to buy an oil company now," he said. The statement mirrored another plaintive bleat I had heard just days earlier from the Island of Misfit Toys. "Nobody wants to play with a Charlie in the Box."

Well, is not Shell our Charlie in the Box? Is not Exxon our choo-choo train with square wheels?

Don't attempt to be my "Annie in the orphanage," pointing to the fact that the Dow closed at above 18,000 while singing "the sun'll come out tomorrow." Something must be done and done now. In the name of all that's holy, these men are our "job creators!" They fuel our conveyances, shielding us from smelly, crowded things like commuter trains and buses. They defend us from crazy, greenie pipe dreams of clean energy, like solar and wind. Does the corralled calf bite and tear off its mother's teat? Does the addict dare strike his dealer? Of course not. That would be idiocy supreme. Such would be the same for us. We owe these oil men our allegiance, our subservience, and occasionally our time by scrubbing Palmolive on an oil-slicked duck.

Yes, yes I tossed that last bit in there for you environmentalist types. I'm certain you will try to somehow hold random mishaps such as the BP oil spill against these pillars of our community or perhaps you'll bring up that great liberal hoax known as "climate change." Well where you see a "climate crisis," these men of vision see a "capital opportunity." With the ice of the Arctic melting away, we now have access to millions of barrels of crude oil that we wouldn't otherwise have. Sure, no oil company has ever operated in an environment as extreme as the Arctic and no one really knows how you would clean up an oil spill in pack ice or broken ice, but that's all part of the challenge of doing great things. Besides, what's the worst that could happen?

And don't you even cry to me about the wildlife in the "ecosystem." We can't fuel our SUVs and our Hummers with cute baby seals or goofy caribou. In ten years, are you going to remember some indigenous species that went extinct or will you be too busy fondling and caressing the saved cash in your wallet? We need oil...not no ecosystem.

So this holiday season, I urge you, I implore you, I double-dog dare you, to think about others. Think about those who do so much to us for us and our world. Yes they have bags full of support from Republicans in Congress but that's not enough. The support must come from us, the "small people" as BP's Carl-Henric Svanberg once called us, coyly hinting at the industry's endearing pet name for we in the hoi polloi. Wow. I just saw tiny red hearts pop up and spin all around me when I realized they think about us.

Please. Please, come on. We do it for banks "too big to fail" and rightly so. I mean, why else would we let Citigroup write 80% of a House Financial Services bill that allows major banks to be exempt from regulations? Can we not do the same for the oil industry in  this time of crisis? Can we...I dunno...make it easier for them to add additional charges on speculation, legal to drill inside National Parks, or something? 

I therefore ask you to put aside for a moment your petty troubles. Don't dwell on how you will pay to heat your home this winter or something equally as picayune such as paying your rent or mortgage. Instead, try to see yourself as you are. Try for just one moment to grasp your true patriotic purpose. We are cogs in but a much larger machine. Without the lubrication of our currency, this machine could quite probably fall to pieces and create a healthier, less-polluted world for no damn reason. You may dance at these low gas prices but I assure you, dear reader, you do so on the grave of an industry's profits.

Will somebody please think of the oil industry?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

BBC's History of Science Fiction

Editorial note: this will be my last post for a few days as I observe a holiday hiatus.

Just about all of the BBC's programming is of a high caliber.

Its "Real History of Science Fiction" is no exception. I'm entirely certain that there is a naysayer somewhere out there stomping her/his feet, wailing "But they left out (fill in the blank)!" And they may very well have left out your fill-in-the-blank. Given the constraints of four, one-hour episodes, I still find the miniseries of interviews and archival footage o be most insightful.

As I said, there are four installments. These deal with the subjects of space, time travel, alien invasion, and robots. While all four are quite good, I will keep my blog comments confined to the last of those four subjects as that is where my mental bandwidth is devoted these days.

I liked how this installment keyed in on one aspect of science fiction that has always seemed to fascinate us. We create robots in order to, in a way, create life. Perhaps more to the point, to create other versions of ourselves. To mimic that which god is alleged to have done, to...paraphrasing Genesis here... "create in our own image." There are, of course, dangers and unseen pitfalls to such an act as well as serious responsibilities. To know these robotic responsibilities, one must go straight to Isaac Asimov and his Three Laws of Robotics.

That being said, just what would our relationship be with our robot companions? Master-servant? Pals? Enemies?

While certainly not being the first to address the question, George Lucas added a significant contribution to it with Star Wars. Yes, whether you want it to be so or not. The "droids" R2-D2 and C-3PO can be seen as such and certainly have grown to be endearing symbols of the "buddy" robot. It is rightly pointed out in the episode that Lucas took his inspiration for Threepio's look from that of the robot Maria in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Also as another aside, I found intriguing this statement from Anthony Daniels, the actor who portrayed C-3PO, to a group of roboticists:

"You are all very clever but none of you know what it feels like to be a machine. I do."

Given that it is science fiction, such a "sunshine and lollipops" mentality cannot be sustained for long. There is a warning. The next logical question is, "What if our robots decide to turn on us?" Indeed, there are any number of examples of that in the genre, from the earliest R.U.R. (yes, left out of the documentary) to current books and films.

In the case of the latter, you can find examples that range from the though provoking to the commercial and popular. The Kubrick/Clarke collaboration of 2001 brings us HAL. While on a journey to Jupiter, the spaceship Discovery has a problem with its computer, HAL. Specifically, HAL decides that the most logical and efficient way of completing the mission is to do so without the human crew. HAL then goes about methodically ridding the Discovery of said crew. If you've seen the film, I'm certain you're hearing HAL's chilling voice right now as you read this. "Dave...what are you doing, Dave?"

Such a program could not leave this thread of thinking without citing The Terminator and The Matrix. These films series, while obviously heavy on the splodey action, are also cautionary tales. What happens if we are not careful with our creations? Ma and Pa always taught us to be responsible with our toys, but the most we might have done is break a window or put out an eye. Now, we might create machines that hunt down all of humanity or take us as power cells while trapping us in a reality of their own making. What happens when the machines control us?

This naturally prompts a paradigm shift from the external to the internal. Asimov mused about a time when "Robots drift away from metal to being organic while humans drift from the organic to metal." Obviously there's some of that in the Terminator series, but for the real deal, one must go to that sumptuous cocktail of Philip K. Dick and Ridley Scott with Blade Runner.  Are replicants people? Well, that's the big, throbbing question isn't it?

While not specifically related to robots per se, the installment of the BBC series closes out with a bit from the venerable William Gibson. In his all-too-brief interview, Gibson once more discusses his inspiration for Neuromancer. He watched kids in arcades as they played games, their faces all bathed in viridescent light. They appeared to him to want to be inside the machine, to be in the "feedback loop." Is it not a forgone conclusion that we would merge with computers?

At the end of it all, I was heartened. There really is nothing new under the sun. While many of the pieces of aforementioned science fiction are brilliant, they absorbed and then built upon what came before them. Whether it was the droids of Star Wars or the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, the song remains the same. While that may be, great writers and artists modify this song to produce variations on a similar theme that have both fresh presentations and questions.

If I'm very lucky and I actually know what I'm doing, my robot Stem may become an entry into such a legacy.

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, December 22, 2014

Fembots: the ideal Christmas gift

What do you get when you infuse robotics with art and sex?

An ideal Christmas gift for any guy afraid of dying alone, that's what.

As you might know, I've been languishing for almost two years over a book about robots. I just don't ever seem to feel like I'm quite finished or that the writing it is "good enough."  Symptomatic of such, I keep doing research on robotics and never fully seem prepared to declare the project as "done." That may change as my research has led me into a bit of rather strange territory.

A 3-D artist named Cesar Vonc has designed an actual sex robot...or so says the text of the article at Moviepilot. You can take a look at the pics of it at the link. I won't post such photos here as they...well, are rather NSFW and they tend to creep even me out after looking at them for too long. The images depict the fembot as sawn in half lengthwise. It's almost like a cadaver cross-section. I mean you can see all the various, um...well, options that the owner would have.

Let's not dwell on that, shall we?

What the cross-sections afford us are a look at the robotic systems involved. There's wiring, circuitry, a metallic endoskeleton, and what looks like a hard plastic shell for the body. There that look as if they may be composed of surgical latex, but I can't be for certain. Now as one commenter points out, this is far more art than it is robotics. It doesn't seem like it would quite be workable in the realistic sense. If this is what one desires, I'm thinking a Real Doll based upon a pornstar would be a better return on the money. You know what I mean? I'd buy that for a dollar!

Not that I would know anything about such a device, of course.

Art installation or not, this is a sure sign of things to come. Sexual desire has driven the development of many technologies we now find (or did once find) commonplace. This list includes devices such as the VCR, CD-ROM, interactive DVD, and many aspects of the Internet. Are we really going to tell ourselves that we won't soon have robots as sexual surrogates? And if we do, is there really anything wrong with it? I mean, the robots would provide a...service...that someone would be willing to pay for. It might drastically reduce incidents of prostitution and the spread of sexually transmitted disease.

Plus, someone could get exactly what they are looking for. Think of the artistic license someone could have with hair color, flesh tones, and rubricate lips or pink parts. You could have any coloring you'd want. Maybe marsala to honor Pantone's color of the year (don't ask me how I know that, either.) The possibilities are endless.

That said, is it right? Is it ethical?

I'm not sure. I asked a woman I know what she thinks of this. Her reply? Paraphrased:

"You mean my man could come home and something else could take care of him while I have a glass of wine in the tub or in front of the TV? I'm down with that."

This view does not reflect the views of all women, but I was still rather taken aback.

Then again, who is to say these robots would be solely for straight men? I see no reason why male versions of the sexbots would not be in the offing. The fact that the word "fembot" exists does speak to a patriarchy, but that's a post subject in and of itself. Right now, I'm just trying to hold it together for a post on robotic sex surrogates.

I keep going back to the images. In all honesty, I do find them troubling. It reminds me of something I wrote once. A roboticist sat in his "workshop." As the various limbs and torsos hung suspended from tracks on the ceiling, I imagined the place having an almost charnel house atmosphere or perhaps even a butcher's shop. No blood mind you, but lifeless limbs all dangling about just the same.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, December 19, 2014

First Earth-based telescope to spot an exoplanet

Time now again for Science Friday.

Until now, the vast majority of exoplanets have been discovered by space telescopes such as the Kepler.

Now, a ground-based observatory has spotted an exoplanet. The 97.5 inch Nordic Telescope in La Palma, Spain has discovered 55 Cancri e, a planet orbiting a star 50 light years from Earth. Before you space fans get your hopes high, this exoplanet is unlikely to support life, at least not as we know it. It is estimated at being eight times the size of Earth and is thought to have an average daytime temperature of 3,000 degrees F. Much of that is due to 55 Cancri e being the planet in its solar system that is nearest its sun. Think of it being rather like our own Mercury. Despite the harsh conditions on this new exoplanet, astronomers are still studying its atmosphere for signs of water vapor.

The home star for 55 Cancri e (doesn't really roll off the tongue, does it?) is in the constellation of Cancer and can only barely be seen by the naked eye. Interestingly enough, that star has a companion star, a large red dwarf, orbiting it from a distance of 1,000 astronomical units (or 1,000 times the distance between the Sun and Earth.) Perhaps more interesting than any of that is the fact that the discovery was made with an Earthbound telescope. Such observatories face many limitations due to atmospheric interference and whatnot. This bodes well for the potential of new, space-based observatories such as PLATO and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) slated for launch in the next few years. These telescopes have cutting-edge technology for astronomy and are created solely for the location and study of exoplanets.

But there is a hell and it's called "The Comments Section." A reader seemed a bit put-off by this quote from an astronomer involved in the study of the new exoplanet: "Observations like these are paving the way as we strive towards searching for signs of life on alien planets from afar. Remote sensing across tens of light-years isn’t easy, but it can be done with the right technique and a bit of ingenuity."

The response from the reader? Paraphrasing, she/he lamented the fact that so many times we hear about the discovery of a new planet, but the conditions on it are not thought to be suited for life. We must therefore be the only intelligent life in the universe.

I gnashed my teeth for a while and paced about a bit, percolating a (perhaps vituperative) response to such an ignorant comment. Fortunately for me (and the commenter), someone else posted there own response before I could have it out like a savage:

"You’re right of course – of the estimated 100 billion solar systems in the Milky Way alone, I think we can deduce from the 50 or so planets we have identified that there is no life in the universe other than here.

Indeed, I'm not much skilled at math but even I can get a beginner's understanding of the sheer size of the matter. One small point: while agree very much in spirit with the response, I believe we've discovered a few more than "50 planets." Actually, the number's upward of 1,000. And counting. Nevertheless, it was a spot-on comeback.

Ah, the Comments Section. Not a place for one with mysophobia.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, December 18, 2014

On UFO crashes...

You might be able to gather from my writings on UFO phenomena that I'm a fan of The X-Files.

Or you might have just read the posts I've already done on the show beforetime.

One thing the show did, especially early on, was tap into the mythos of UFO crashes. There were "Blue Beret Retrieval Teams," the confiscation of evidence, the intimidation of crash witnesses, and MIBs all floating in the mix. All this stems from alleged real-life incidents such as Roswell and Kecksburg. There's something about supposed UFO crashes that bothers me but first let's take a look at aspects of "crash mythology" that may have concrete roots.

-Special Operations Manual 1-01. This was part of the "Majestic Documents" leaked to Stanton Friedman and Jaime Shandera. The authenticity of these papers is hotly contested. If veracity were ever established, however, it would be proof-positive that the U.S. government had a procedure in place for the recovery of both extraterrestrial hardware and "biological entities" (aliens). Within this protocol, officials are directed to take "extreme measures" if necessary in order to keep a crash and its recovery completely quiet. You can read PDFs of the supposed documents here.

-Air Intelligence Squadron.  This outfit in the Air Force was originally staffed with veterans from World War II and Korea. If a Soviet aircraft were to crash somewhere accessible, the squadron's task was to quickly recover the wreckage so that intelligence might be gleaned from it. This unit had an additional charge in the 1950s and that was to gather information on UFOs. Was this an outgrowth of a need to recover downed alien craft?

-The Fort Dix alien. A man named Jeffrey Morse alleges that "dozens of glowing UFOs" were sighted over Fort Dix in New Jersey. Morse further asserts that a police officer responding to the reports came upon a Gray alien in the road. A UFO also appeared overhead at that moment. The cop shot both the alien and the UFO. The UFO sped away and the alien ran into nearby trees. Later, the alien was found dead on an unused runway between Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base. A military retrieval team, according to Morse, then rolled on to the scene and took complete control. The alien corpse is said to have been taken to Wright-Patterson, Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

-The Extraterrestrial Exposure Law. UFO devotees and true believers often point to this bit of U.S. regulation as a "smoking gun" of alien contact. After all, why have a law that makes it "illegal to touch or be in the proximity of" something from outer space unless there is a pressing need for one? Truth is, the law has much more to do with astronauts than UFOs. This came about in 1969 just before NASA sent Apollo 11 to the Moon. There were concerns at that time that astronauts might bring back an alien virus or other such disease a la The Andromeda Strain. So there were rules set in place to prevent such an occurrence. Question remains though, could a hypothetical government cover-up be based around the idea that UFOs and aliens pose significant health risks to humans?

In light of all of this, it's easy to see why accounts of UFO crashes persist. Add to that the fact that "official" explanations for events such as Roswell just don't add up and the murkiness only grows. Like I said, however, I have a bit of a problem with crashes and here it is.

If we proceed from the ExtraTerrestrial Hypothesis (ETH)--which I still debate--what do all of these crashes say about the technology of alien visitors? I mean, there have been at least seven UFO crashes I've heard of in the United States alone. Then there are said to be ones in Iran, the former Soviet Union, former Nazi Germany, Venezuela, Mexico, and so on and so forth. So these aliens are quite capable of traveling trillions of miles to get here, but as soon as their UFOs hit our atmosphere, they start dropping like flies? What sense does that make?

I'm not saying that alien technology, if it even is alien, would be infallible. It just seems that logic would dictate that spacecraft would be a little less prone to falling apart if they're capable of making it all the way to our planet.

No, there seem to be more plausible explanations for "UFO crashes" in most cases. Namely, top secret aircraft that have malfunctioned and crashed, combined with misperceptions and imaginations. For those cases that can't be so easily explained away, I point towards Terrence McKenna:

"We are part of a symbiotic relationship with something which disguises itself as an extraterrestrial invasion so as not to alarm us."

Oh and UFO crashes also make for great fiction. Just look at The X-Files.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Transhumanism for non-humans

"I don't wanna be no robot, man."

When discussing transhumanism, that is often the kind of ever-so-articulate, sandals-and-acoustic-guitar response that I get. I try to bring the discussion back around to the personal level. "If it were someone you love who was in need of say, an artificial pancreas, a cybernetic heart, or a retinal implant to restore their sight, you might think differently. Can you imagine that?"

I don't have to imagine it. I've been in that place. Three times. And I had no problem finding the chutzpa to put aside any (however few I had) "let's just be natural" feelings I had in order to save my kids.

As you might know, I have two dogs. One dog blew out her left hind ACL, the other blew out both of his hind ACLs (weakness of the breed). Fortunately, transhuman-styled technology was available to repair them to save them from lives of pain and impairment.

It is because of this...and many other reasons, such as fostering the growing philosophy of treating pets as living beings and members of our families as well as awareness of the benefits of transhuman technology...that I was glad to see an article from the venerable George Dvorsky on several of the ways we humans are extending our technologies to our beloved pets. Here are a few:

-Wearable tech. We're using things like Fitbit, so why can't our pets? This is about more than monitoring how much exercise our pets are getting (even though that's a benefit too), but also about keeping watch for health conditions. One of the most frustrating things about being a parent to a pet is that your furry kids don't speak in any human language. It is therefore not always easy to know when they are ill or having something wrong. Wearables can monitor vitals such as heart and breathing rates for changes.

-Biological uplift. That is a phrase being used to describing enhancing intelligence in humans. Why shouldn't we do the same for dogs and cats. One research firm is working on just that with a wearable device called Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations or FIDO (ha! See what they did there?) This is a wearable computing device for dogs who work in service to the blind or hearing impaired, search and rescue, and police officers. Sensors in the harness help interpret for humans what the dog's posture, actions, and verbalizations mean.
There's even a program called "No More Woof" that aims through the use of EEG to translate a dog's thoughts into human speech. Suffice it to say it sounds like they've got a ways to go on that project.

This is all great. But I hope it's just the beginning.

While there are obvious physical differences between humans and animals, I want the technologies we are working on for ourselves...modifications dealing with restoring eyesight and hearing, lost limbs or dysfunctional be extended to anyone we love, whether they have two legs or four. Yes, there will undoubtedly be a high cost to this. At first. As with any new developments, the price will eventually deflate. Of course if you're not already willing to pay whatever it takes to maintain a healthy quality of life for your dog or cat, I have to question your motivations in having one to begin with. But hey, that's just me.

I'm just thankful there was already sufficient technology to help my babies when they needed it. Here's to hoping there can be more for others who need it.

UPDATE: This just in, George Dvorsky has posted this story of how 3D printing has turned one dog into a cyborg.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

What the suburbs say about us

I have a dear friend who detests the suburbs.

Her particular disdain is for the Chicago suburbs, but it would not surprise me if she harbored antipathy towards suburbia in general. Part of it, I would argue, is psychological. Suburban living was not kind to her on many levels. Another part of it is quasi-elitist. Places not open late enough, places that are open are chain eateries, et. al.

But there's a big part of her objections that are valid.

All of this was brought to mind for me by a piece on Urban Archeology on PBS' Nova. Our common conception is to think of "archeology" as involving digs in remote locations, mummies in Egypt, or at the very least bullwhips and fedoras. We don't realize that much of that field of study takes place in the neighborhoods of cities. The Nova piece highlighted work being done in the Boston area that has made discoveries as to 17th and 18th Century living in those parts. I know that here in Chicago, similar work is ongoing in the Ft. Dearborn area. This work should tell us about what happened during that era of history, who the people were that lived there, and what they as a society valued.

So if similar research is undertaken on the suburbs one day, what will it say about our society? What do suburbanites value?

To answer that question, I had to recall quasi-journalistic work I did in a previous lifetime. I once randomly asked residents of a highly-affluent Chicago suburb what they liked most about their burb. The phrase I got most in return?

"We have the Riverwalk and lots of great stores and restaurants."

Right, wrong, or indifferent, that's a statement of societal value.

The respondents did not mention the school systems, the community programs, art and culture, or even the parks. They went straight for where they eat, shop, and look at pretty things.

I am not attempting to bag on suburbia per se. I lived in one for many years and I understand why they came about in theory. There were people who wanted the best of both worlds. They wanted the amenities of an urban area but with a small town feel and safety for their children (check this: Suburb-hating is anti-child!) I can empathize. One finding of our society has been, however, that where you live helps to determine your values and your mindset. If that archeological excavation ever does take place, what mindset will the suburbs reveal?

A predilection for insipid architecture?

Subdivisions of identical housing units?

An almost sexual need for shopping malls?

An extreme preoccupation with sports?

Pathological addiction to fossil fuels despite numerous signs that oil and coal are running out?

Intellectual vapidity that is treasured and then indoctrinated into children?

Expensive, copycat fashion and architecture combined with massive consumption in order to obscure all that subfuscous matter within?

Riverwalks and chain restaurants?

Ask yourself what we leave behind.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, December 15, 2014

7 steps to a brain implant

It would be a stunning achievement in biotechnology.

There's a chance it might even silence the nigh omnipresent protests from those claiming biotech "robs us of our humanity," stealing away our chances to either walk in the woods in sandals or barefoot upon thalassic beaches.


That opinion might change if brain implants could return hearing to the deaf, sight to the visually impaired, or movement to someone bound to a bed or chair. Work has been going on for many years now on how to bring such implants about and BBC Future has provided a 7-step list of considerations in creating just such devices.

-Know the route. We need to know the brain. Fortunately, our understanding of the most essential and complex of human organs is increasing. Just where an implant goes in the brain will be determined by the implant's end goal. Is it to restore motor function? Is it to compensate for stroke damage? Begin with the end in mind.

-Crack the code. In order for implants or any other biotechnology to work, we must comprehend just how signals are sent, received, and understood by the brain. This is tricky to say the least. What are the algorithms? So not only do we need to know the brain but we need to speak its language.

-Train it. The article mentions work with a retinal implant and determining how the brain receives and understands information from the eyes. The biotech device will need to be "trained" on how to contribute to this process through a set of practical experiences. I see this as a sort of calibration routine, not unlike what one might need to enact with cameras or timing devices.

-Infiltrate the brain. The fact that electrodes cause scarring and tissue damage has been a hurdle for biotech. There's also that pesky human immune system that likes to attack foreign objects. The trick with implants will be to construct them so that they do not cause such irritation or incite such attacks. One possibility? Hydrogels.

-Light. Another option is to stimulate neurons with pulses of light. The article describes a process I had not read about before called "optogenetics." It's been done with retinal implants and it involves communicating with neurons behind the eye with short flashes of light that kick the "meatstuff" into action.

-Power. How will these devices run without power? Another concern is that if they are running on electrical power, what if it heats to a point that the temperature is damaging the surrounding tissue (again we're back to that question)? One thought right now is a tiny antenna that can receive wireless charging through the skin. It's a work in progress.

-Hacking the senses. Now here's the really sexy stuff. I have described using implants to help those who are in physical need. There is, of course, also the potential for augmenting senses that already work just fine, making them better. There is already a journalist in London who has hacked his hearing aid so that he can actually hear WiFi signals. It's not all that far of a leap to then imagine super-enhanced hearing. That's not at the top of my list, but it's a start and I'll take it.

That's right. Sign me up for an implant. I'll undergo surgery. No problem. Of course I have my own objectives and the implant must meet or exceed them. After all it is my brain and I feel like I should be in control of it. Any technology that helps me do that is a benefit in my opinion. I want to be smarter, I want process information faster, and I don't want to feel pain.

Because pain sucks.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, December 12, 2014

David Bowie Is

Note: Sadly, due to copyright laws and MCA rules, photography at this exhibit was not allowed. I will instead attempt to convey my visit through words and augment them with occasional products of a Google search.

There is no art this man cannot create.

Painting. Sketching. Writing. Acting. Video. And of course, music,

Hell, he can even do mime.

I entered the exhibition "David Bowie Is" at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago certainly as a fan of David Bowie. Thanks to the production at MCA, I have somehow emerged an even bigger fan. I believe that is because I now truly identify with him.

Please, please, please do not confuse that with me saying I am as talented as he is. I'm not. Not by a long shot. I do, however, relate strongly with his artistic philosophy as well as his methods. I just wish I were as fearless as he is. 

And being as talented wouldn't hurt. But I digress...

The exhibit at MCA is truly an immersive multimedia experience. Right from the beginning, staff hand you headphones. At different nodes in the exhibit continuum, the headphones receive narration, interviews with Bowie and his collaborators, and of course a soundtrack of his music. That latter point is especially fun as I caught myself singing along and noticing my fellow art patrons were doing the same.

The whole thing begins, logically, with his formative years. I was heartened by hearing that Bowie has always been a voracious reader and his original intention was to be a writer. The exhibit features his original paperback copies of the Colin MacInnres novel, Absolute Beginners, a title Bowie would later crib along with the title of the play, Look Back in Anger. 

The next station of the exhibit featured his intense interest in science fiction culminating in his signature songs "Space Oddity" and "Starman." Glass cases housed copies of J.G. Ballard novels owned by Bowie and posters for Kubrick films such as 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, both having profound influences on Bowie's music at the time. There was even the actual sea-green jumpsuit designed by Willie Brown that Bowie wore for a performance of "Starman." See below.

I think I could totally rock that outfit. The little flying saucer pins are just

Bowie also took considerable inspiration from Japanese art. Consider the following caped stage costume designed by Kansai Yamamoto:

Sort of looks like those space alien villains from the Toho films. Part of the translation on the gown, according to the exhibit text, is "spits fiery words."
Seriously. How fucking cool is that?

I was very pleased to see space devoted to Bowie's connection to William Burroughs. The original typewritten pages of Burroughs' Rolling Stone interview with Bowie were on display, but more importantly you see much much the cut-up method of writing as pioneered by Burroughs and Brion Gysin is a part of Bowie's writing process. This is in part how he arrives at amazing turns of phrase such as "gazely stare," "heart's filthy lesson," and even "hot tramp." Artistic verbigeration.

Bowie became fascinated with the concept of dystopia and had planned to do a musical stage production of George Orwell's 1984. Sadly, he could not get the rights to it. That did not stop him. Instead, Bowie worked up his own stage environment called "Hunger City" (suck it, Suzanne Collins. Bowie was first) where a totalitarian regime oppressed the proletariat. A roving gang called The Diamond Dogs is led by a character named Halloween Jack and draws heavily on A Clockwork Orange inspiration.

This might be where I find my deepest connection with Bowie. Someone once asked me, "What do you write about?" My friend Dorkland happened to be standing there at that moment and immediately piped in "Whatever he's obsessing on at the time." That comment irked me, but with a cooler head now I can honestly say it's true.

Same goes for Bowie. He would grow enamoured with a visual, a concept, or even a word. He would then focus on that new idea to the exclusion of all else, laser-focusing his vision on the concept. He would build worlds around it such as Hunger City or the cafe from "Serious Moonlight" and populate them with characters such as Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, and Nathan Adler. In the process, he would transform himself and his entire persona (one striking example is his role as John Merrick in a stage production of The Elephant Man.) When he would see his vision as complete, he would then discard it and become immediately fascinated by something else.

I took heart in this. No doubt Bowie had received the same snide comments as I have, "You keep changing your look" and "So that's what you're into this year."

There was a phrase painted on an exhibit from Bowie's Berlin era: "Plagiarism or Revolution." Like all great artists, I believe that Bowie is both. He consumed all he could of that which inspired him, then mashed it up until it was made into his own before disgorging it in the studio or onto the page. 

There is so much more to the exhibit but space and time demand that I end here. I could go on talking about Bowie's work with Brian Eno and Klaus Nomi as well as his Dadaist art. Most impressive of all was the video room with his costumes from "Ashes to Ashes," "Blue Jean," and "The Heart's Filthy Lesson." Then there's the "David Bowie Is Live" room with his stage costumes (his blue suit from Live Aid!) and concert footage projected upon a scrim a la "Sound+Vision." 

I was especially shocked to find a case with a crumpled tissue in it. The tissue had his lipstick on it from I think the Aladdin Sane era. That means his DNA is on it. I wanted to steal it and clone my own Bowie.

That beats anything from the giftshop.

If you go to the exhibit, I suggest allowing at least two hours to watch every video, read all text, and see all the fantastic outfits.

Above: Bowie's stage wear from Earthling designed by Alexander McQueen.
Below: An original Bowie painting.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Revisiting Battle Chasers

I stumbled across my trade paperback copy of a popular comic book from the late 1990s.

In fact, I'd say it was tremendously popular for a while. But as the saying goes, "the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long."

The comic book is called Battle Chasers. It was the baby of artist Joe Madureira and is a fantasy story set in an arcane land, making it somewhat of a departure in comics even to this day. Here are the principal characters:

Gully- a little girl, the daughter of an epic hero named Aramus, a man who is either missing or dead. The young girl inherited her father's magic gauntlets. When worn, the gloves give her superhuman strength.

Knolan-an old wizard and master of the magic arts. He's got a rather punky attitude and hides a shadowy past.

Garrison-a warrior and the most legendary swordsman of the land. Due to his own traumatic past, he has sworn never to pick up his blade again.

Monika-a thief, pure and simple. She looks rather like Red Sonja and has a blood lust to match.

I know what you might be thinking. Thief, wizard, warrior, and a kid carrying the mystical weapon that once belonged to her father. It's either a Dungeons & Dragons adventurers party or a Joseph Campbell hero cycle. Perhaps both. Just wait. There's an interesting twist...

Calibretto-he is a "war golem;" a giant machine built for battle and powered by I'm not sure what (steam?) While not exactly a living thing, he holds tremendous compassion and is especially protective of Gully.

Like I said, it was a departure for the milieu of the time as there weren't really any fantasy comics being printed by the big publishers. There might have been a Dungeons & Dragons book from DC or somebody, but it didn't really make much of a splash. Battle Chasers had fun, sumptuous art and an entertaining, while not especially original, story. Unfortunately, it was also nefarious for having a late publication history and ultimately the series just...ended. Permanent hiatus. On a cliffhanger, no less.

I mean it's not like you don't get a mostly satisfactory end of the story arc, but the final page alludes to more. Much more. Therefore, many fans felt (and still feel) rather cheated. Due to Joe Madureira's multitude of other ongoing projects, he has pretty much stated that Battle Chasers will remain unfinished.

Prithee, messer Madureira, reconsider?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Does science fiction have to be realistic?

What follows is an excerpt from Stem, a science fiction book that I hope to soon have published.

A bit of setup. The characters are discussing the assembly of a robot. The artificial intelligence system of the robot holds brain patterns gleaned from the DNA of several prominent leaders and artists in history. Behold:

“So what happens when the batteries go dead on this thing?” Matt asked.
“Never happen as long as it eats sugar,” Jenna answered.
“Come again?” Don asked.
“The robot’s battery is powered by microbes,” Jenna furthered.  “They eat sugar and they shit electricity.  As long as the battery is fed just every so often, it will never die.”
“This is truly frightening,” Matt said.
“More like fucking nuts,” Aldo added.  “Don’t you see this makes no fucking sense?  Do you even know how DNA works?  Just because you got the fucking DNA…old and mighty fuckin’ dusty DNA I might add…of all those stiffs, that in no way means you’re going to bring back their personalities and memories.  What the fuck are you thinking?”

“Hey!” Jenna, a full three heads shorter than Aldo, strode over to confront him.  “Drop those questions.  You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about."

And indeed the questions over the robot and the DNA end right there. Why? Well, I suspect that you already know the reason. What I am describing is scientifically impossible. I know that and since this is a work of satirical science fiction, I'm having the characters poke a bit of fun at that fact.

This does lend itself to a larger issue about science fiction, however. Must science fiction be realistic?

I read an article about that very subject by Steven Lyle Jordan just recently at the web site, SciFiIdeas. Jordan begins by describing a book where the plot involves Earth after "global cooling." The writer of the book took his ideas from an organization called Space and Science Research Center that is very much against the concept of human-made climate change. One Facebook poster commented on the matter thusly: “I suspect your book will be much better fiction than anything peddled by the SSRC. Science does not have to be believable, as long as your characters are.”

That may be the crux of things when looking at through the prism of composing literature. Should facts ever get in the way of a good story? If so, how much?

Jordan points out an interesting dichotomy. Consumers appear to delight in heading straight to their computers and lodging their online complaints about how scientifically inaccurate Interstellar was (fair warning: I haven't seen it.) By the same token, many of those said individuals will glow and delight about the new Star Wars trailer. As much as I adore Star Wars, it's obviously not very scientific. Other examples of this contradiction are big breadwinners such as Guardians of the Galaxy (represented by Groot above).

The upshot of Jordan's thesis seems to be that we (writers, readers, fans, etc.) neglect the "science" half of "science fiction" at our peril. To wit:

"I (apparently) represent a dwindling number of science fiction authors who believe that the science in science fiction is important enough to take every effort to make it not only believable, but as far as we can determine, possible.  We put considerable effort into researching our science and technology, crafting our stories around as plausible a series of scientific details as we can work out."

I get that.

For a long time the genre has suffered from near terminal dilution. Sped along by the popularity of Star Wars, a new "brand" was ushered in called "Sci Fi." It's fast, glossy, poppy, and essentially an action movie in space. Any "science" occurs by happenstance. Guardians of the Galaxy sure seems to fit this mold...or maybe I'm just bitter because they're not my Guardians. Harlan Ellison will write and speak at length about his particular disdain for "Sci Fi" and its fans.

It appears this is may be a variation on similar themes: art vs. commerce. Literary vs. genre.

I see both sides of the argument as I'm a fan of texts on both sides. Therefore, I suppose I can really only speak to what my motivations were in writing Stem.

I infused a fair amount of research on how a robot such as the one in my book might be constructed. However, I chose to eschew scientific accuracy when it came to what can realistically be done with DNA. I did that because I wanted to make a larger point. I wanted to make a statement about society. I wanted to write about higher education, specifically the crazy trials, tribulations, and honestly the faculty that currently make up the field.

Vonnegut would do similar things to make his satiric points. I certainly do not claim to be anywhere near his level of talent, instead I'm saying I'm merely employing a similar tactic. While his writing, especially Slaughterhouse Five, fits squarely in the literary canon, it has its obvious science fiction tropes as well. Are they scientifically accurate? Hardly. But I would argue that was never his intention. He had bigger fish to fry.

Like us.

H.G. Wells was somewhat in the same camp. While he was interested and knowledgeable about scientific progress, he was far more interested in where it was taking us and what it was doing to us. Was War of the Worlds scientifically accurate?

In the end, does it matter?

Guess it's your intent that decides that.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Mixed thoughts about Orion

Orion has launched into space and I am ambivalent.

Though this first launch was un-crewed, Orion signifies at a least a step towards returning America to manned missions in space. More than that, the intention of the Orion spacecraft is to take humans to the Moon and eventually Mars. Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator, paraphrased Vice President Joe Biden by calling the Orion project a "BFD." 

And I suppose it is. After all, this is the first test of a spacecraft solely designed to take humans into deep space. A NASA launch is tentatively scheduled for 2020 where humans will orbit the Moon and return. Then it will be on to Mars. Last week's test flight was considerably more underwhelming than that, but then again it needed to be. It was, after all, a test run.

The Orion was launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket. As one of my student's described it, this rocket is "basically a Saturn V [the rocket that took men to the Moon] on steroids." The Orion capsule flew to a height 15 times that of the International Space Station. The capsule separated and then orbited the Earth twice before splashing down in the Pacific where the Navy recovered it. Data is now being analyzed from the test flight, determining how well Orion's heat shield handled the 4K+ degree temperatures. Sensors were also to record just how much radiation astronauts are exposed to when passing through the Van Allen radiation belt.

So why am I left so flat by Orion?

Overall, however, it seems like NASA just recycled the Apollo program. Yes, Orion is larger and it will carry a crew double that of Apollo, but this just betrays, to me anyway, a startling lack of originality and vision. Is this the best that NASA can come up with?

I don't mean to capriciously portray myself as any kind of philosophaster. I'm not sure exactly just what it was I expected from a new space program. I want human space exploration to continue. I want us to return to the Moon and to go on to Mars. I also won't quibble over the definition of "deep space." This is, overall, a good thing.

Maybe it's because of the actions of the private sector and for once I mean that in a good way. It seems that folks like Elon Musk are demonstrating greater innovation and vision when it comes to moving out into space, especially when it comes to Mars. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if a privately funded and crewed mission arrives on Mars a decade or so before NASA can even get out of Lunar orbit.

But Orion is better than nothing.

I guess.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, December 8, 2014

Pyramids and UFOs

It seems that there is always someone attempting to connect UFOs with pyramids.

Whether it's alleging that UFO occupants built the pyramids or just the whole New Age thing, the two items seem to go together like cottage cheese and applesauce.

Or maybe I'm the only one who does that. But I digress...

The concept seems to boil down to a few basics. Pyramids can be found almost all over the world. There are the obvious and most well-known examples in Egypt as well as others in places such as Latin America and most intriguing to me, a few small, oddly-placed ones in the desert of Sudan. "Ancient alien theorists" such as Giorgio Tsoukalos and Tom Durant have alleged that such disparate and separated ancient cultures could not have known what each other was doing and therefore could not have copied off of one another. The AA crowd further argues that ancient peoples had neither the tools nor the know-how to build such structures.

There's a lot wrong with that argument but that's a post in and of itself. The question that does grab me is one that has puzzled me since I was a teen.

For a history project, I built a model of the interior of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Much to my surprise, I found that there are very few chambers inside that pyramid.  In fact, for a burial vault, as the pyramids were ostensibly intended to be, there was a whole lot of wasted space. Is it possible then that the pyramids were more than tombs and funerary art but sort of "multi-purpose facilities" as well? A man named Edward Malkowski thinks so. It is his hypothesis that the pyramids were primarily wave compression generators. They were a network of power stations for electricity. What's more, the pyramids were actually placed by their builders on strategic points throughout the world. These are points along so-called "ley lines," natural flows of electromagnetic energy around the Earth.

What does any of this have to do with UFOs? Well if one were to accept the premise that aliens had a hand in building the pyramids to be generators (and I'm a long way from doing that, mind you), then the generators could be power stations to re-energize UFOs. Proponents for this theory cite numerous UFO sightings in Earth's polar regions, claiming that the alleged aliens are powering their craft via the Earth's electromagnetic poles.

What sightings, you may ask? Well there was a spate of UFO sightings around Deception Island in Antarctica back in July of 1965. Typical stuff. Saucer-shaped craft, hovering, accelerating to incredible speeds. There was Operation Highjump; the massive, naval-based military operation led by Admiral Byrd in 1946. That was a mission to combat escaped Nazis, aliens, inhabitants of the Hollow Earth (there's an entrance to said land in a mountain in Antarctica, says Bill Birnes) or a wacky combination of all of the above.

Most compelling of all polar sightings, to me anyway, is the one involving Japan Airlines Flight 1628 over Alaska in November of 1986. The pilot of this flight reported that his plane was being followed by a massive UFO "twice the size of an aircraft carrier." There is evidence for this sighting in the form of tracking on Air Force radar. According to John Callahan, a former FAA official, the FAA was briefed on the matter. Both recordings of cockpit-to-tower transmissions were heard and videotapes of radar returns were viewed. At the end of the briefing, Callahan testifies that "CIA types" then confiscated all materials related to the case and swore all of the FAA officials to secrecy.

Were the UFOs in these cases, especially the latter case, actually juicing themselves up from the magnetic field? More to the point of the post, is that what the pyramids were for? Truly ardent supporters of this theory will point to pyramid-like structures on Mars in attempts to make further links to "out there."

This is fun to write about, maybe even make a bit of fiction out of, and I will admit that the UFO buff of me is having a sort of Pavlovian reaction to it all, but sadly I just don't see it. The whole "alien" thing gets snipped to shreds by Occam's Razor.

All right that's enough for tonight. Need sleep.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, December 5, 2014

Climate change: it can reach into space

Time now again for Science Friday.

Being a primarily responsible publication, Discover magazine has named the past year's research on climate change at #2 of its top 100 Science Stories of 2014. This encompasses everything from the UN's study that concluded climate change is "almost certainly" of human origin to the melting of Antarctica. Even as the climate change worsens and temperatures continue to rise worldwide on average, the past year did present a glimmer of hope. The U.S. and China recently agreed to reduce greenhouse emissions. At the same time, however, the Republican takeover of Congress seems to spell a forthcoming halt to any of the administration's efforts to ameliorate the situation. It takes no measure of clairvoyance to see we're headed for trouble.

This is all grave enough, but I had no idea that the problems with our climate actually extend into space.

I found an article from a few years back that explains what this means. People familiar with space will tell you that the Earth is encapsulated by a veritable cloud of metal. This "cloud" is made up of spent rocket boosters, satellites both working and dead, and millions of particles of debris sometimes no larger than four inches across in size.

In other words: space junk.

As the lower atmosphere of Earth gets warmer due to the collection of greenhouse gases and the trapping of infrared energy, the upper atmosphere cools. This reduces friction. The lessening of friction means that less of the metal junk gets dragged back down to burn in the atmosphere. And that means more space junk sticks around.

The debris we're talking about already poses a serious risk. On the one hand, it threatens new launches. A rocket carrying a new probe or satellite or...even worse...a vehicle carrying a human crew, could conceivably collide with these orbiting fragments. This debris is also a threat to satellites already in orbit and working fine. A collision with space junk could take out a satellite that assists our national security system or one designated to bring you your next NFL game. I'll leave you to decide which is worse.

Unintended consequences.

Human actions are loaded with them and climate change is just one example. If the consequences of such an environmental effect can reach into space, I'm willing to bet that yet more "unintended consequences" lurk in waiting as a result of our actions.

This is going to suck.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Doyle, Stoker, and Lovecraft

For a book geek, the 11/25 episode of Coast to Coast AM was about as good as it gets.

It featured a writer and scholar whom I'm sorry was hitherto unknown to me. His name is Leslie S. Klinger and the majority of his scholarly work has been focused on authors Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and H.P. Lovecraft. Specifically, he has concentrated his writing on the primary fictional characters of those first two writers, those of course being Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. I am also happy to see an annotated guide to Neil Gaiman's Sandman series on Klinger's CV, but I digress...

While the C2C appearance was mainly spent around the mythos of Lovecraft, with its strange, horrific, undead beings, wanions, and the insignificance of humanity, I found myself most interested in the literary trifecta as a whole. Their obvious commonality is that they inhabit the milieu of the 19th Century.

I know, I know. Lovecraft wrote in the 1920s and the 1930s, but his books had an empathic sense of the Victorian era. There was a feel of antiquity about it (eldritch, as Lovecraft himself might say). It could have fit in quite nicely with the works of Stoker and Doyle and indeed there are writers who have tried to do just that in the latter case with the short story anthology, Shadows Over Baker Street.

Yes, all of these works have horror and the occult in common. They also, particularly in the cases of Dracula and the Sherlock Holmes cycles, show the shift in thinking that occurred throughout the 19th Century. There was an appeal to reason. There was an attitude, one started alllll the way back in the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment, gaining momentum. This, simply stated, is that humans can better themselves through the application of reason. We can understand our world and we can understand ourselves. That's when we can begin to make changes.

Although Dracula is a supernatural antagonist, the main characters oppose him through the use of what was then considered cutting-edge technology, such as microscopes and telegraphs. And Sherlock Holmes is all about reason. He uses his extraordinary mind and powers of deduction to solve crimes. As Klinger pointed out in the interview, the character of Holmes demonstrated to those of the Victorian Era that one could make sense of the violence and chaos of London (e.g. Jack the Ripper). It didn't just "happen." One could discern patterns and make predictions based upon the occurrences. Holmes had his own dealings that were occult in overtone, primarily "The Hound of the Baskervilles." In that mentioned case, it was Holmes' slavish adherence to intellect in the face of fear and superstition that won out the day, determining that the threat was actually quite mundane in nature.

Chalk another one up for Occam's Razor.

While I suppose it could be said that most any writer, whether consciously or not, reflects the philosophies of their own era of history, these case studies presented by Leslie Klinger interest me especially. Maybe it's because I grew up on them to a degree. Maybe it's because of how they represent a literary "appeal to reason." Maybe, then again, it's because I love mixing things up.

That's right. Couldn't you just see a horror/fantasy book that mashes up Dracula, Holmes, and the Cthulhu Mythos? I'm sure somebody out there has already done it and I would have to do a tremendous amount of research on the 19th Century. Can you imagine Dracula vs. Sherlock Holmes? Dracula is really a thrall to Cthulhu? I'm positive somebody must have don it, but...damn.

I'll think about it.

What follows is a video from 2011 of Leslie Klinger interviewing Neil Gaiman at World Fantasy Con.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

If it's furry...

A researcher has investigated what many...justly or not...would call the weirdest subject I have ever blogged about here on ESE.

Ever heard of "furries?"

They are, as defined by Canadian researcher Debra Soh, people who adopt the identity or persona of an anthropomorphisized animal in social interactions. The popular conception is that many of these are interactions are often sexual in nature. Could furries then possibly be diagnosed with paraphilia? Soh and a fellow researcher attended a furry convention in Toronto to find out, expecting to find a full-on sex orgy with couples just bumpin' away while dressed in animal costumes.

When they got there, nothing could have been further from the truth.

As detailed in the article, the furries were hanging out and talking, playing board games, and showing off their fursuits. Yet even the wearers of said homemade suits were proportionately in the minority. As reported:

"There is an important distinction between fursonas and fursuits, as almost all furries have a fursona, but only a small proportion wears a fursuit."

I could see that being a GRE or SAT logic question. But I digress...

What I liked about this article is how it demonstrates how assumptions and misconceptions about subcultures are often incorrect. We tend to want to categorize people. If you are (fill in the blank) then therefore you must be/enjoy (fill in the blank). Case in point, if you are a furry then you must be a sex addict. No, you're just kinda weird. That's all right. Many subcultures get started by people who already feel ostracized by the world and just want to be weird together. If you've been reading this blog for any amount of time, you no doubt know that I'm weird.

And I'm unquestionably okay with that.

Plus, if you look at the photo provided at the link above, the convention really doesn't look any different than if you gathered a bunch of NFL or NCAA mascots together. Heck, it's not altogether that different from cosplayers. So none of us should be quick to judge.

In fact, one of those wolf or tiger suits look kinda fun. I mean, I'm not ready to plunk down the change for one, but who knows?

For a list of other misconceptions about furries, click here.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets