Friday, January 31, 2014

Go home, Curiosity. You're drunk.

So what if Obama made no sweeping proposals for space exploration in his State of the Union?  The Onion has extended its satirical reach to Mars.

As reported one month ago (I know, I failed you all in not finding this story sooner), NASA has discovered that the Curiosity rover has now become delirious.  The automated rover began transmitting messages saying it had found a clear stream of liquid water and that Mars can definitely support evidenced by the palm fronds encircling the scene.

"We remain skeptical that Curiosity has in fact come across a plentiful source of water that we somehow overlooked for several decades," said rover project boffin, Ashwin Vasavada. 

At press time for the article, Curiosity reported discovering an alluring, seductive lady rover.

Now hold up a bit.  I'm all for skepticism and critical thinking, but perhaps the rover's NASA handlers are being a bit too tough on the guy?  He's all alone up there and not all of us are built for that sort of isolation...well, except for me, that is.  Anyway, it's entirely likely that the automated rover could...well, go a little funny.  A little "temporary data corruption" so to speak.  One could not blame Curiosity for losing his grip upon his faculties.

Then again, the rover may have come across our first confirmed find of life outside the Earth, even if in a robotic form.  All the pulp mags and 1950s B-movies said it would go down this way, right?  We'd find "alluring, seductive" versions of ourselves a la Queen of Outer Space and Fire Maidens from Outer Space.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 30, 2014

New book says Hitler died in '84

Pic from

Without a doubt, World War II is my favorite era of history.

That much is probably obvious if you've been reading my blog for long.

That may seem atrocious on the surface, what with the egregious loss of human life.  While it is a showcase of "man's inhumanity to man," it also has instances of great valor and sacrifice.  At age nine I came across the How and Why Wonder Book of World War II.  Reading that combined with the popular fiction that I consumed at the time (Captain America's origin, et. al.) and the era was pretty much cemented in my head.  I still enjoy it as both a vast canvas with which to place written characters and as a milieu of intrigue and mystery.

Among such mysteries are just how many Nazis escaped unscathed as Berlin fell.  While there are genuine cases of these men being tracked down and killed or apprehended in South America, other theories range from the sublime (they escaped to Antarctica and attempted a Fourth Reich) to the ridiculous (they made it to the Moon with Hitler's brain in a jar.)

Now there is a book that asserts that not only did Hitler escape Berlin in those final days of his Reich, but he lived to the ripe old age of 95.

Author Simoni Renee Guerreiro Dias claims that Hitler made his way from Germany to Argentina and then to Paraguay, until ultimately settling in Brazil.  He lived under the pseudonym "Adolf Leipzig" but residents of the area are said to have referred to him as merely "the Old German." And get this: to further disguise himself, Hitler got himself a black girlfriend, a young woman by the name of Cutinga.  Salacious!  Perhaps I'm boring, but that isn't as interesting to me as wondering what happened to Eva Braun.  Did he leave her back in the bunker?  Did she die later on before he moved to Brazil?  Did she dump his ass and move on, her silence on his whereabouts as part of the divorce settlement?  The book may address such things but the article linked above doesn't.

So how did the murderer of millions live out his final days?  Bingo?  Shuffleboard?  Nothing so banal according to this new text.  Hitler became engrossed with hunting for buried treasure via a map given to him by his friends in...oh boy...the Vatican.  I'm not touching that one.

If you're anything like me and I know I am, right now you're asking "where's the evidence for any of this?"  Well one piece that the journalism student who wrote this book offers is that she found a grainy photograph of the "Old German" (see the photo at the link) and proceeded to Photoshop on a mini moustache.  She was astounded by the results.

Well there you go, then.

As one might imagine, actual historians have been quick to condemn this book.  They cite the obvious lack of substantive evidence and place it on the pile of other fantastic "Hitler got away" theories.  Can't say that I blame them.

Let's suspend disbelief with steel cables and say that this author is correct.  Hitler escaped and lived in Brazil until he died in 1984.  It's not like he was able to do much after his escape.  Granted he would have escaped justice for his heinous acts and that alone is a travesty.  By the same token however, he was forced to live into his feeble years, watching as men like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and women like Rosa Parks progressively sweep away his ideologies and see the world as a whole relegate Nazism to the garbage dump of history.

It couldn't have been fun for such an egomaniac.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Income inequality

So the State of the Union address was last night.

In political terms, that translates to "stand and clap" or "sit and glare" depending upon which side of the aisle you're on.

As someone who has studied rhetoric, I'd say the President is up there with the best in terms of delivering speeches.  A political commentator at The New York Times pointed out that Obama was "left of center" in terms of proposals but "right of center" in terms of style and delivery.  Smart.  And while I didn't get the demand for a manned mission to Mars that I wanted (a guy can dream), the President did vow to tackle something...without legislative approval if need be...that has been on my mind and I'm sure the mind of any socially conscious person: income inequality.  The first step will be an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for government contract workers.

You can already hear the cries of "socialist dictator," can't you?  Well if that's what he is then he's pretty bad at it.  Not only is Wall Street reporting record numbers, Obama has issued fewer executive orders than any president of the past 125 years.  Maybe he's got something sneaky planned as a surprise over the next two years, but somehow I doubt it.

Fact is, socialism does not work as a political system.  One needs only look to history to see that.  At the same time, however, capitalism is not sustainable.  A system that basically says "get all you can, while you can, and find ways to keep others from it while your at it" can't work in the long term as the divide between rich and poor grows.

When I made a cold, frozen drive the other day, I listened to an NPR program about Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle.  The book, a muckraking classic about the Chicago meatpacking industry, focused heavily upon the Lithuanian immigrants that worked in the slaughterhouse plants in godawful conditions for both humans and...especially...animals.  The program had a guest commentator who was of Lithuanian descent.  Naturally, this woman said she had been raised to hate socialism and communism as the Soviet Union absorbed Baltic nations such as Lithuania and destroyed their cultures through ugsome practices.  When this woman first read of the wages and labor conditions in The Jungle, however, she could see how something such as socialism got its start.

Wait, aren't we supposed to "stop whining and work harder?" Well, the people who worked in those slaughterhouses worked very hard.  Harder than I ever have in my entire life I'm willing to bet.  You're supposed to be able to make progress when you work hard, right?  I thought that was the idea...not acquire enough wealth to buy senators and get your own rules made.  I know things are much different now than as described in that book.  At least on the surface, but then you may wish to read Fast Food Nation and then ask yourself how much has changed.

No, socialism doesn't work.  Neither will capitalism in the long run.  No such system can when it produces a wide disparity of haves and have-nots no matter how well intended it may be, especially when system allows the wealthy to dictate terms.  What may need to happen is a sort of "hybrid system"cobbled together from the pieces that do work.  I'm not envisioning a utopia with no work involved or country club living for everyone.

At this point, I'm sure many would be happy with earning pretzels and beer.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Quentin and the spoilers

Quentin Tarantino has me thinking.

About the relationship between fiction and an audience in the current age, that is...and about the market forces and capitalistic dimensions to both.

The reason for that is due to what has transpired just within the past week or so.  A script for a once upcoming film by Tarantino called The Hateful Eight was leaked to the Internet by either an actor or an agent.  The script was also posted on the blog site Gawker and as riposte, Tarantino has announced plans to sue Gawker.  He has also scrapped the project.

Okay, a few things first.  I'm not an enormous fan of Tarantino.  Pulp Fiction is a masterpiece.  Natural Born Killers is too (even though that one might be more due to Oliver Stone).  Kill Bill was pretty good.  As for the other movies, I either haven't seen them (Django, Inglorious Basterds) or am just utterly unimpressed (Jackie Brown, From Dusk Til Dawn).

The other thing is that Quentin has every right to do whatever he wants with his film projects.  He doesn't "owe" us anything and if he chooses not to direct a script for whatever reason, that's cool.  Plus, the leak was an obvious breach of his trust and should be treated accordingly to the fullest extent of the law.

But what I'm left coming away with is the notion that Tarantino won't direct the film because his planned Western about eight renegades is now "spoiled."

Ahhh spoilers.

The world at-large seems to hate them.  In line for the special screening of Star Trek II with William Shatner last May, I had a guy jump down my throat because I told a friend with me that there are "tribbles in the latest movie."  That's it.
"Why would you tell him that??"

A sacred seal had been broken.

I get it.  Sort of.  How poorer would my movie experience have been as I sat alone in the dark with films such as The Crying Game or Fight Club had I known their surprises beforehand?  Notice that even though those films are many years old, I'm not about to reveal the secrets here.  Wouldn't want to "spoil" anything.

At the same time, I like to know about what I'm getting into when I see a film.  "Spoilers" don't bother me so much because regardless of what I learn ahead of time, I still want to see how it plays out on the screen.  I still want to watch how the director renders the image that I have in my head.  How do the two compare?

When I was nine, I got the Marvel Comics adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back before ever seeing the film in the theater.  Did reading it make me want to see it any less?  Hell no!  If anything, it made me want to see the film's execution play out even more.  How would any of this look as "real" images?  The same goes for what I hear about films today.  After all, with so many adaptations of books and comics (God knows Hollywood can't seem to come up with an original thought), I most likely have a thorough understanding of what is to come.  The joy...if there be any to be had...will be in seeing the execution, to see the characters and the localities brought to life.

Have we made "spoilers" into too big of deal?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, January 27, 2014

Yes, climate change is still real

Bruce Sterling saw climate change coming.

Even now as we wonder why the climate crisis has not resonated, as the short-sighted and the unscrupulous seek to despoil an already melting ice cap, and as there are those who erroneously point to this year's harsh winter as an absence of rising global temperatures, Sterling had it down years ago.  I remember reading about it in his cyberpunk books.  But because such a literary genre (and a subgenre at that) is overall viewed as "escapist" and perhaps because Sterling has no PhD to assuage academics, there was no way he could possibly know what he was talking about.  Alright.  Check out this interview clip:

"A lot of the worst malefactors since Kyoto are going to pay."
I'd like to think so.  Yet they likely have the financial resources to mitigate their circumstances and will get by just fine.

One example of climate change that Sterling cites in the video (already several years old at this point) is that "a sheet of ice the size of Texas has broken off from the North Pole." (paraphrase)  As one of my friends pointed out to me, this is reminiscent of a clip from Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (great movie by David Cronenberg, can't vouch for the book by Stephen King):

I understand it's already become a meme for climate change. 

And if you need pictures...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, January 24, 2014

FFF: Regression

"I don't believe in living in the past.  Living in the past is for cowards.  If you live in the past, you die in the past."  --Mike Ditka

Da Coach.  Great man and quite accomplished.

I'm certain I would churn his stomach.

Depression has been really getting to me lately.  It has mutated from sadness to a form of anxiety that borders on the crippling.  I'm talking about an icy cold fear that stabs its fingers into your chest cavity and pins you to your bed in the morning, threatening you that getting up would require a great deal of ripping, tearing, and pain.  And that's only the beginning of your day.  To very much my credit, I get up, go out, and do my job anyway.

So how do I do it?  I guess I attempt to lose myself in creative pursuits.

Yeah, yeah.  Depressed writer.  Angst-ridden artist.  The old cliche.  Yes, I'm aware of how boring, how insipid I've become.

Cliches exist because they often contain a kernel of truth.

This sucks.
Oh wait.  I know.  Those four words.  "Ask your doctor about..."

Forgive me if I'm suspicious of pills pushed far more in the interest of a medical-industrial complex than the health of an individual.  Besides, I've found something else to...however futilely and temporarily...ease my "heat oppressed brain" as the Bard would say.


Indulging myself in dalliances from a (perhaps deceptively) simpler time.  This was a time when fun was the main purpose to existence and someone else handled all those pesky matters of mortgage payments, grocery shopping, insurance co-pays, and whatever other inanities came in life's way.  I was free to create and imagine without pressure.  For me, I place this halcyon age as somewhere circa 1979.

The quintessential geek, I eschewed sports and outdoor activities, preferring to cement my thoughts firmly in "a galaxy far far away..."

Beautiful, aren't they?

I've found a few of them at my parents' house.  They've seen better days but they sure bring back memories.  I even found an Indiana Jones action figure that I forgot I actually had.  You know, the one with the "whip action" arm?  I've also taken to eBay, looking up other Star Wars toys that have long since escaped my possession.

"Behold the child, by Nature's kindly law,
Pleas'd with a rattle, tickled with a straw." --Alexander Pope

It hasn't stopped there.  Late at night when I can't sleep, I binge watch episodes of Battle of the Planets, the old Batman TV series, and Superman: the Movie.  Yes, I have copies of old Battlestar Galactica episodes, but they're in VHS format and my access to the arcane device known as the "VCR" is limited at best.  I'm always reading comic books, but I've focused my attentions on those originating from the idem time period.  Marvel's Shogun Warriors and Godzilla are probably my favorites at the moment, given their startling lack of depth but confectionery-like addictive properties.

"Inside every adult is a kid wondering what the hell happened."

Like any drug user, I usually feel worse about myself after these indulgences.  Here is a man in his 40s attempting to find refuge...however temporary...from his present condition via his childhood.

That is until I found The Happening Book.

The Happening Book is a Tumblr produced by someone my age who kept a journal when he was in second grade.  He now revisits those entries through his current eyes.  This means, among other things, healthy doses of Star Wars fandom.  While he certainly pokes fun at the crazy notions he and the rest of us had at that age, I believe that he operates this Tumblr page out of a need for an ameliorating nostalgia...kindred to what I've been doing.

Which makes me wonder.

Maybe all of us adults are just faking it.  We're all just pretending that we have it all together.  We project a front that says "I know what I'm doing" when there's a scared kid inside each one of us, one that wonders where it all went to.  I don't care how much capitalism has crowned your fucking ass, part of you is scared.  It's just a question of to what degree.  And there are those of us who through either biology or situationalism must face that fear to a greater degree.

What would Batman do?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Things would work if I were Doc Savage

As you will find out more tomorrow, I've been in an escapist mode.

Pulp books of the 1930s certainly fit the category of escapism.  They were never meant to be great literature and no writer behind them seemed to bear any aspirations of landing a short story in The New Yorker.  The stories were intended to be quick, "in and out" bits of entertainment that carried certain lurid and prurient aspects to thereby become even more marketable (you never go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator.)

Which brings me to Doc Savage.

Doc Savage is mainly the creation of Lester Dent and first appeared in print in 1933.  As a character, the "Man of Bronze"  Doctor Clark Savage (first name dropped in favor of catchy, folksy aphesis) was...well, damn near perfect.  He had the physical prowess of an Olympic athlete in peak form.  He possessed the agility of a gymnast and was proficient in several forms of martial arts.  But Doc Savage was not a man who could simply solve problems with his fist.

The man was a genius.  He was equally at home at being either a detective or a research scientist.  The more challenging and intricate the puzzle he faced, the more he seemed to enjoy solving it.

In light of all of this plus a secret chill-out pad near the North Pole, it's easy to see how Doc influenced characters like Superman.

You might think the stories would be boring.  Doc Savage should be so invincible that there could be no possibility for conflict.  Nevertheless, he was mortal and faced any number of challenges that played out through numerous books, radio dramas, comic books, and film...even though most fans prefer, through plausible argument, to say that the latter does not exist.  A critical facet that made these stories entertaining was not Doc himself but his staff of aides and adventure partners.  These were characters such as Renny, Monk, Ham, and Littlejohn, men who while talented were also flawed, thus providing a foil for Doc.

My introduction to Doc Savage was...of course...through comic books.  DC Comics had a mini and eventually an ongoing series for Doc Savage back in the day.  Writer Denny O'Neil attempted to update Doc for the late 20th Century, giving him a kid and a group of companions who had aged.  The story wasn't bad, but I just couldn't identify with its postmodern take.  Then there was the Dark Horse crossover of Doc and The Shadow which had it's moments as I've already pointed out.  Of far more interest to me was DC's First Wave series that took Doc and mixed him into a dieselpunk milieu that also contained The Spirit, The Avenger, and DC Comics characters such as Black Canary, the Blackhawks, and most especially a version of Batman that mirrored his original 1930s form.  I have the first issue and really enjoyed it.  I missed everything after that as real life tends to get in the way.  Here's to hoping there's a trade.
UPDATE!  There is a trade.

Would it be boring to be Doc Savage?  To have it so easy?

I dunno.  I'd be willing to risk it and find out.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Alien implants

As you might have noticed, alien abduction is not my area of interest when it comes to UFO activity.

There are so many simpler explanations for these cases that pass the test of Occam's Razor that I just can't fully buy into it.  These solutions, such as sleep paralysis, past sexual abuse, etc. do not, however, cover each case.  It's all really a question of evidence.  As such, the cases where physical objects have been removed from the personages of alleged abductees interest me.

I happened to catch a television program profiling Dr. Roger Leir.  Leir is a podiatric surgeon.  For the past few years, he has been removing objects from people's bodies, objects that patients claim were put there by aliens during an abduction.  According to Leir's October appearance on Art Bell's Dark Matter, he has removed 17 such objects.

Naturally, Leir has sent these objects to be studied in laboratories.  The analysis?  One lab report (according to the television program) said that the closest match to the material in question would be a "meteorite fragment." By definition, it would therefore be "extraterrestrial." A logical question would then be how are shards of meteorites ending up inside people?  And why is there allegedly no scar or portal of entry for the object?  Perhaps more unsettling, why does the patient claim a "new sense of freedom" once the object is gone?

Curiouser and curiouser.  In listening further to Leir's guest spot with Art Bell, he points out that he must pass the removed objects on to the laboratories for study and in order to do so, he must be able to present a case. So he is selective with patients.  Another interesting bit from the Art Bell show, Leir was part of a surgical team that attempted to remove a supposed implant from behind the ear of Whitley Strieber.  In the process of this, the object allegedly moved in order to avoid the scalpel.  Strieber backed out of the procedure at that point.  "It's still there, it still moves, at least the last time I talked to him," Leir said and Bell concurred that he has indeed seen Strieber's ear turn bright red.

In terms of the implants, "this knowledge should be the knowledge of every man, woman, and child on Earth" says Lier.  If true, I would most heartily concur.  That's why I have attempted to look at the other side of the issue.

No shocker, but skeptics aren't a big fan of Leir.  He also made it onto an episode of Penn&Teller's Bullsh*t.  Granted, as much as I love Penn and Teller, their presentation is every bit as slanted as a "true believer" program would be, just from the opposite direction.  In fact, the refutation offered in the P and T program boils down to "those could be pieces of anything."  That's also what good ol' Joe Nickell contends, that the materials in question are actually glass or metal that anyone could have picked up by walking around barefoot (although this is in conflict with Leir's stated criteria for the object having "no portal of entry," not to mention the analysis and findings he claims to have received.)  Also questioned was why Leir has not submitted his findings to The New England Journal of Medicine.

Well I can tell you why.  The people behind such a journal are academicians and would dismiss any such article from anyone simply after seeing the title.  That's not right but that's how it is.

What's the truth?  I'm not prepared to say.  Skeptics say there is no evidence.  Experiencers hand them fragments removed from their own bodies.  But fragments of what?  That still remains in question. 

This will require more reading.  Fortunately, I like doing that.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Climate change's "biggest offenders"

Climate change arguments are rather like a Puxatawney groundhog.

They tend to pop up this time of year with the contentions geared towards the ferocity of the season...or sometimes the lack thereof.  In the current case of the U.S., the heavy snowfall coupled with sub-zero temperatures and flesh-slicing williwaws prompts a few voices to cry, "Ha!  There is no global warming!  It's all a lie made up by liberals who don't support the troops.  You can tell because they have to call it 'climate change' now to keep the lie going."

Well, that's the thing about science isn't it?  It can change in light of the facts.  There is indeed a "climate change" occurring and it means more than just warmer temperatures and hot summers.  True, the output of our sun has increased, causing temperatures to rise on other planets in solar system.  But that's not the whole story.  The affect human pollutants have on the atmosphere is documented.

As such, this article from The Atlantic illustrates just who the world's "biggest offenders" are in terms of contributing to climate change.  A team at Concordia University in Montreal developed a map that depicts countries in proportion to their emission of greenhouse gas.  The more red and bloated the country, greater the amount of emissions.  As such, the researchers claim that only "seven nations" are responsible for 60% of the climate change up until 2005.

The United States leads this list with China coming in second.  I must admit that I was slightly taken aback upon reading this.  The environmental situation in China appears far worse than that of the United States.  In fact, I was under the impression that even though we might seriously be lagging in our environmental thinking, the U.S. has greatly reduced its CO2 emissions.  Then I the article and was reminded that the study tracked emissions up until 2005.  Indeed since 1700 and the Industrial Revolution, the U.S. has outpaced most everyone else in CO2, aerosol, and other atmospheric pollutants.

Okay, so that was the past.  What about now?

Well for starters, we can accept that climate change is real and that humans are a part of it.  Not only does it affect where we and other species live but it contributes to major social issues such as global poverty.  We can also look towards clean, renewable energy sources.

No one said it was going to be easy.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, January 20, 2014

Meet Jake Timber

So there's this guy named Jake Timber.

I met him around this time last year.  It must have gotten around social media that I was considering writing a line of pulpy...I don't know what...stories under the pseudonym "Jake Timber."  That is until I found a crumpled piece of parchment underneath my windshield wiper one day at the college.  The paper smelled like old mayonnaise but I read it anyway:


Given that most of what I do is against my better judgement anyway (I am trying to be a writer, aren't I?) I went to the local branch of the Golden Arches across from campus.  Inside I found Jake.  No, I won't describe him as he won't let me.  He wants to stay clandestine and undercover.  More on that in a minute but let tell you, Jake can put away McRibs.  "In the time I'm from, the nanny-state liberals have made them illegal," he told me, engulfing his third McRib like a meth junkie who used to do a little, then the little wouldn't do it, and the little got more and more.  See what I did there?

Yes, Jake is from the future.  Or so he tells me.  He gets rather testy when you push him for particulars on how he managed to traverse the gulf of time.  DeLorean?  British call box?  Both suggestions earned me the tip of a combat knife pressed to the bottom of my chin, so I backed off.

You see in Jake's future, the United States is under the control of a dictatorship.  Jake, a former Army sergeant, gathered his own band of freedom fighters to try to take the nation back.  Eventually, Jake got the idea that his greatest weapon might be literature (I believe he said it was after he took a shell.) If he could get back in time, he could tell the accounts of the battles he had fought and maybe convince all of us to stand up and stop this "dictatorial regime" before it ever happens, thereby preventing decades of urban combat and hangnails.

I must admit, I expressed doubts.

"Yeah?  Taken a look around lately, jackass?" he asked, wiping synthetic bbq sauce from his chin.

Jake supported his case by citing NSA monitoring of email and phone communication, the growing ubiquity of surveillance cameras in public places, facial recognition software, and x-ray machines.

"That and you got a guvmint that spends like drunken sailors to appease the 50% of the population that feels entitled to everything.  It's easy to dominate sheep," Jake capped off his argument.

Needless to say, I was feeling rather uncomfortable by that point.  When Jake outlined his series of "man of action" adventure books that told the alleged story of his war in the future, didn't get any better.  He told me "I don't really read books but I can tell you do." (Thanks?)   "And I need somebody who can write my stories,  you know, string words together and shit."  Not only that, but Jake's unswerving aversion to being anywhere online or photographed in any regard meant that I would also have to handle all promotion of the book and all social media relations.

"I don't think so," I said.

Jake slid a stack of money over to me.

"Sorry but no," I said.

Jake doubled the stack of money and tossed the full Star Trek the original series box set into the pot.

"Take the fucking job, Nichols," he said, picking the McRib from his teeth with his combat knife.

I counted up the cash.  It was enough to buy me two lattes.  Last week.  Yeah, I think "writer" is Old English for "whore."

I took the job.  Lately I've been wondering if I should have taken the knife, but that's ok.

Jake took me to his home.  It looks something like this:

Yep, tucked away in the middle of the country, living off the grid.  He says I'm the only person he's ever invited over.  Should I be flattered?  Anyway, here's what I've learned, in all its perspicuous glory, from my preliminary interviews with Jake.

As you might imagine from the picture of his survivalist hut, Jake is adept at staying alive.  He owns a fair-sized armory ("for when shit gets real") and has devised an ingenious homebrew system that renders a beer similar in taste to a can of Old Milwaukee left open for a day or two.  He doesn't watch TV.  Mostly because he doesn't own one.  However, he admits that he once watched Two and a Half Men fervently and cites Charlie Sheen leaving the show as "the point where we as a nation really turned away from Jesus." As that quote might indicate to you, he is a member of the 700 Club and is a devout Green Bay Packers fan.

Yeah, we get along great.

Like I said, Jake wants nothing to do with the Internet as it's all too easily traced ("Them NSA bastiches.")  He does, however, have a satellite phone.  The signal is routed through several different hubs and he has a voice scrambler attached to it...which oddly improves the tenor of his speech.  It's almost melodious the way he calls me "dickhead" through what sounds like the electro-distortion of a Kraftwerk song.

Such as the time when he called me during class to ask the number for "a guy who can repair natural gas lines." That didn't sound good to me, either.  It sound incredibly less good when I learned he was calling from my house.  Jake invited himself in one day when he was hungry.  As usual, my kitchen had little on hand save for a couple boxes of cereal (Cap'n Crunch and Fruit Loops, natch) and a Costco-sized bag of frozen tater tots.  Aside from that, the only item of any substance was a cake mix.

Jake decided to bake the cake.

I did not, however, have eggs or milk.  Being a veteran of urban combat, one thing Jake can do is improvise.  He used an old can of Pam leftover from when I tried to bake Christmas cookies and a tin of Crisco I use for...well, never mind.  The resultant mess in the oven led to a near-evacuation for the whole neighborhood.  This would have been enough to ruin my day but Jake had to go the extra nine yards and hand the fire department a fake drivers license.  The card had my name on it written in gel pen alongside a photo of an action figure (see above).  I spent the remainder of the day down at the station, explaining that I was not Jake Timber and teaching a drunk man to sing "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

Trust me.  We are just scratching the surface of my time with Jake.  Just wait until you read his books, his "true" account of our future.  Do you like watching Red Dawn and enjoy leafing through the occasional Hustler?  Then Jake Timber is your guy.  Have you read Anna KareninaThe Sound and the Fury?  Then run away.  Far, far away.

You can read Jake's blog here.

You can find Jake on Facebook here.

You can follow Jake on Twitter @JakeTimber3.

God help us all.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, January 17, 2014

Wind power through concrete spheres

Most of us want cleaner energy.  There may be a way to get that through concrete spheres.

Wind power is often touted as a clean and efficient means of providing power.  But the common complaint or rub to such a system seems to be "what do you do when the wind isn't blowing?"  Getting electricity half the time or less is not useful to a city.  I had enough of that in Haiti, thanks.

A team of researchers at MIT might have a solution.  Take a series of concrete spheres with wind turbines and anchor the concrete out in the ocean.  The wind blows and the turbines turn, sending electricity to the power grid.  A portion of the energy, however, is used to pump seawater out of the sphere.  When the wind dies down, the pumps stop and the sphere refills.  The influx of water into the now hollow sphere turns the turbine once more.  Again, electricity is produced.

Not bad.  Pretty good, really.  Anything that provides a pathway to clean, sustainable power generation is worthy of examination, at least to this pinko, anyway.  It is of course still early on in the design process so it remains to be seen how much power can be generated.  Being a writer, my mind tends to take concepts like this one and kick them into tangential arenas (do all creatives harbor misology on one level or another?  Or at least an aversion to pragmatism?  Dunno.)

I can envision a contemporary community up in arms over the "eyesore" of concrete spheres anchored off the coast of their beachfront property.  Would the spheres require an "aesthetically pleasing" design?  I guess it would depend just how far out to sea the spheres would be placed.  I'm also seeing a cyberpunk novel here.

For whatever reason, Bruce Sterling's Islands in the Net really comes to mind.

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Thursday, January 16, 2014

UFOs and the Vatican

An interesting bit of news came across UFO Digest last week.

This article asserted that a senior official in the Vatican has gone on record several times on Italian television that the UFO phenomenon is a genuine and echt.  According to the link, Monsignor Corrado Balducci states that UFOs are "not demonic, they are not due to psychology impairment...and they deserve study."

UFO Digest cites another UFO site, UFO Disclosure, as its source. So far I cannot find any others that are more mainstream to validate the quote.  Not saying that's a bad thing, just saying.

Believe it or not, I do not find such an admission, if accurate, to be an entirely surprising one.  I have always admired the Catholic Church for its view of science.  In Catholicism, science and faith are not exclusive as science allows for a deeper understanding of God's creation.  As Pope John Paul II said, "Truth does not contradict truth." The Vatican has long endorsed theories such as evolution and the Big Bang.  The Church even has its own observatory and astronomers.

In November of 2009, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences made the statement that, paraphrasing, "If alien life exists then it is part of God's creation." The position towards intelligent alien life would be one of welcoming and, if all parties were interested, baptism into the church.

Where I must part ways with certain precincts of the UFO community is when I confront the idea that the church is somehow helping to conceal the existence of UFOs or that there is somehow a deeper connection between the two.  A case in point of this sort of matter is the supposed UFO sighted early in the morning of April 8th, 2005, the date of Pope John Paul II's funeral.  Examine the photo yourself and make your own determination, but to me it could be just about anything.

I can understand how someone might begin to suspect a connection.  There are pieces of frankly eyebrow-raising Christian art from the period of the Renaissance that would seem to suggest depictions of UFOs.  There is a 14th Century painting depicting the Crucifixion that was found in Kosovo.  Many have interpreted the image in the upper left and right corners (see above) of that painting to be a "UFO and its occupant," a sort of "Close Encounter of the Third Kind rendered in fresco," but it is important to note alternative and honestly more likely explanations (it's the Moon, not aliens) for the rendering.  There are similar explanations for other artistic anomalies and symbols.

But I'll warn you, they might not sit well with someone who has been binge watching Ancient Aliens.

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014


It is a cyberpunk classic of sorts.

I was in a used bookstore over the holiday break and came across an old edition of Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams.  Back in 1993, Chris from Dorkland had an extra copy of the book procured through either mistake or hornswoggling.  So he gave it to me (ain't he a nice fucker?)  I read it and then somehow lost the book while moving apartments two years later.

It's been a few decades but I can still remember the basics of the plot.  America has been ruined through a war with the Soviets.  Not just a piddly nuclear war, but a "rock war."  In such an exchange (if I remember it correctly), chunks of rock are thrown at the other side as kinetic energy weapons.  You know, get a fair-sized boulder hurling down on you from miles above and you can have a pretty big bang.  What's left of America are a series of balkanized states overseen by Orbitals, corporations that have set up shop in Earth orbit above the mess.

Enter our hero, Cowboy (yes, that's his name.)  He flew fighter jets during the war (I think) and is now a simple man trying to make his way in the wasteland.  Via cybernetic connections in his skull, he interfaces directly with his own personal hovertank and offers his services as a smuggler out to the highest bidder.  He gets together with another mercenary named Sarah.  Guns blazing, they strike out against the Orbital corporations controlling their lives.

While it's not exactly a literary masterpiece, I still like many of the concepts.  True, the whole Cold War angle feels dated and long-gone, but there is more to it.  I've always liked the idea of kinetic energy weapons as they would be relatively cheap to produce and would yield extraordinary firepower.  Then there's the punkish DIY vibe Williams kicks out in places.  Cowboy at one point flies a delta wing fighter that sounds similar to a stealth.  It was built in a garage using epoxy and other materials readily available.

I'll go ahead and chance it and say that the book is still relevant today.  It tells the story...however pulpy...of marginalized people using what they have on hand to make life work.  It regales us with a timeless narrative of "sticking it to the Man." Always nice to dream, isn't it?

 Oh and if you liked Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley, there's a strong chance you'll like Hardwired.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Am I a Ufologist?

Let me start by saying I am not sure how to answer that headline question.  Not at all.

Since someone recently told me that they had never heard the term, "ufologist," I'll give brief...albeit shaky and far from comprehensive...definition: "one who studies UFO phenomena."

A logical follow-up question might be "How does one become a ufologist?"  Well it's really interesting to see the various roads that the best UFO researchers traveled to lead them to their studies.  There are scientists who specialize in disciplines such as metallurgy, physics, and astronomy.  These include people such as Dr. J. Allen Hynek and Stanton Friedman.  Then there are those trained in journalism, where the rigors of research and follow-up served them well and helped them to do great work.  A prime example of this would be Leslie Kean.  Others still even take a psychological approach such as with Jacques Vallee.  As with many other subjects, I am passionate about how interdisciplinary involvement can yield tremendous findings.

But a common complaint from skeptics is that the findings of UFO researchers cannot be accepted as there is no formal or accredited process to becoming a ufologist.  One can't say, "Well, when I studied Ufology at Princeton..."  Therefore, in the eyes of academics, there is no evidence for any kind of validity to the studies.  It might also surprise you to know that there are those who pursue the phenomena who likewise decry the term "ufology" and bemoan the presence of "UFO nuts." That latter camp it seems is somewhat akin to the antebellum dogma of far right fundamentalists of Christianity; true believers who might or might not dress in costume, attend conventions and festivals (think of pictures you see from Roswell in July), and believe every conspiracy story that's out there to be true no matter how daffy and if you disagree with them, well, then you sir or madam are a heretic.  To the stake with you.  Either that or you are part of the government's nefarious "disinformation plan."

There is an argument to be made that the presence of this kind of attitude and behavior further de-legitimizes the field.  At the same time, I can't help but feel a bit of sympathy towards these people because I'm not that different from them.  In terms of "ufological validity" anyway.  Like them, my "credentials" in the realm of UFOs amounts to a lifelong interest and having done a great amount of reading on the matter.  I don't have a degree in ufology.

But then who does?  What exactly does make someone qualified to talk about the phenomena?  Do you need to have a degree in science or do you actually need to have had a UFO encounter?  If it's either of those criteria then I'm afraid I'm screwed.  I just happen to have a strong interest and a fair amount of knowledge, but never would I tout myself as an expert.  It's easy to see how, just like in academics, exclusionary devices can be constructed thus barring all points of view and even further dissuading more people from taking an interest.

Meanwhile, UFO and related sightings continued and we get no closer to an answer.  Feel free to fight amongst yourselves.

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Monday, January 13, 2014

Growing meat on the walls

Ray Kurzweil has a lot to say about the future.  Up until now, however, I had not heard him speak about meat.

First off, I'm a failed vegetarian.  I truly do not want an animal to have to die just so that I can live.  I do not want to eat anything that has a mother.
But I do it.  My love for steak, cheeseburgers, and chicken wings has derailed each and every one of my attempts at going vegetarian.  I blame football.  No, not really.
I do, however, blame taste.  I have never been a big fan of eating my vegetables.  I do it...sort of...but only because I have to.  The times I have stuck to a veggie diet, I have felt weak.  Only after consuming a meat product did I feel better.  I know, I know, you're saying it's all psychological and you're probably right.  Regardless, the situation remains.

That is unless Ray Kurzweil's prediction comes to pass.  Google's director of engineering and grand-daddy of the Singularity has more than a few ideas about how the world will change, but one concept that really stood out to me was how biotech will change the food we eat.

“There will be a new vertical agriculture revolution, because right now we use up a third of the usable land of the world to produce food, which is very inefficient," Kurzweil says.

Imagine it is the year 2030.  Instead of food grown in fields, it is produced in highrise buildings.  Artificial intelligence computers monitor the whole process of growing fruit and vegetables in hydroponics, recycling all nutrients and leaving next to no environmental after effects.  Meat would be grown in vitro as cloned tissue.

That's right.  You could grow meat on a wall.

Why not?  The eating of cloned animals has already been approved by the FDA.  It's not that far of a leap at all.  What's more, we're not after the whole animal now are we?  We just want the muscle, the meat.  So just clone that tissue and don't waste a life.  Tastes the same.  You can even modify the meat to be healthier by removing the saturated fat and replacing it with Omega 3 fatty acids, the healthy stuff we get from fish.  The "bad" qualities of beef could be brought down to an infinitesimal level.  Neat, huh?

Of course, the safety of this kind of process depends on who is doing it.  I've said before that I certainly don't object to GMO food, but I currently have no trust in the corporations carrying it out.  There's a seeming lack of transparency the mega-corps who produce our food and that's not a good thing.

But the concept of "grown" meat is good a one, I think, and like any other innovation it's going to need oversight.  Would it make me a "vegetarian?" I suppose not technically as it would still be animal tissue.  The definite upside would be that no animal had to die to let me eat what I enjoy.  I'll take whatever technicality I can get to do an end run around my shortcomings.

After all, us failures need all the help we can get.

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Friday, January 10, 2014

The bearable lightness of being uploaded

I have told you several times about my transhuman dream.

One day, through the wondrous advancements of transhuman technology, I connect myself to a device.  This device removes the contents of my brain.  I'm talking memories, knowledge, personality, consciousness, et. al.  That ethereal matter is then downloaded into a cybernetic construct.  Someone at that point asks me how I feel.  I reply:

"I feel nothing."

That scenario may sound terrifying to several of you.  To me, it is nigh paradisaical.  It would bring about an end to depression, self-hatred, and the constant fatigue of middle age.  At that point, I could simply think and be.

A recent article explains the benefits of uploading one's self into a supercomputer.  Responsibly, the author points out that we are still a very long way from being able to do this plus there are ethical questions (say, how spirituality views the human body) and potential hazards that are both known (you could still get a virus, this time a digital one) and unknown (who the hell can tell?)  But there are definite benefits.  Let's take a look at a few.

There would be an end to all bodily function.  Inside the computer, you would be a stream of zeroes and ones.  No longer will you age, get sick, or even need to use the washroom.  You won't even feel a single ache or pain.  If you absolutely must have sex, a routine could be programmed that would simulate the experience.  On a related note, you will have complete governance over your emotions.  I'm not talking about in a pop psychology or "I'm a man" method, I mean switching it all off and choosing the feeling you want...even if it's nothing...and not have that choice overridden by brain chemistry.  I am tired of hating myself for being a failure.  Solution after upload?  Just stop.

But wait...computers crash and lose data all the time.  What if this happens here?  We do the same thing as we do with current files: back them up.  Imagine multiple, redundant copies of yourself.  I freely admit that this brings all manner of questions with it.  Which one is the real "you?"  What if consciousness isn't even located in the brain?  What about the soul?  As I mentioned earlier, still many questions out there.

You could very likely get smarter.  Right now, even a kid in a slum in a city in Africa has access to nearly the sum total of human knowledge if she has an iPhone.  Just a few decades ago, not even the wealthiest and most politically connected had that.  Now imagine that same access only with no hardware required.  You would also have greater memory and accelerated processing speed.  This would likely lead to a "hive mind" situation, however, leaving one wondering if there would be a way to opt themselves out of such a construct or would it be a necessary or altogether unavoidable facet of your new condition?

One fascinating point that the article makes is about how this may benefit space exploration.  It is an arduous matter to determine how to keep human beings alive long enough to undertake an interstellar voyage of nearly any length.  Even a journey to nearby Mars is fraught with problems.  Not so with an "e-crew."  These astronauts uploaded into a spacecraft's onboard AI would be able to carry out their mission with no need for food, water, air, or radiation shielding.  This point really has me thinking both in terms of fiction writing and UFOs.

The article does mention downloading into a cybernetic body so that you would have mobility in meatspace, just as I originally envisioned.  After reading the above points, I'm now wondering if I even want that much.  Existence inside the supercomputer might be just fine with me, especially if you can customize your perception of the environment.  Why wamble about in meatspace?  I can imagine my uploaded self looking over at the remains of my meat form, all limp, ugly, and lifeless.  A voice might ask me "what do you want to do with it?"  My answer?

"It's an empty shell.  Treat it as such."

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Science fiction on a soundstage

There is an argument out there that CGI effects are the bane of science fiction.

I am not a proponent of this argument but my friend Armando is.  Somewhat.  Armando is an ardent devotee of kaiju films or as we in 'Murica call them, "Japanese monster movies."  In said films, at least half of the action takes place on a soundstage as a man in a rubbery monster suit stomps a model city while toy military vehicles attempt to repel the onslaught.  Even better, sometimes there would be two men in monster suits, duking it out for territorial rights.

"You can see something is actually there," he would defend the style of filmmaking over computer effects.  "There is a real actor that is interacting with and often manipulating a real environment.  Look at the Star Wars Episode IV.  All models and it looked great."

So when I saw this article on io9, I had to reconsider Armando's argument.  The article examined a few of the various science fiction films and television series that lived out the bulk of their time on soundstages.  Why?  Well, for good reason.  As stated:

" There are a few reasons to love a soundstage planet. First, you can get a lot more strange flora, by scattering weird fake plants everywhere. Second, it opens up the possibility for some really beautiful matte shots, which are still a thing even in the age of CG. Third, there's just something otherworldly and weird about an entirely manufactured landscape. Fourth, the sky can be any color you want, without post-processing."
An example of such film would be Forbidden Planet as seen in the above pic.  Almost everything but the actors and their costumes is artificial in that movie but it all looks incredible.  What's more, only scratches the surface of the world shown, leaving you with even more questions.  For example, I remember an interview with Steven Spielberg where he pointed out the diamond-shaped doors in the facility that the long-gone aliens left behind on the planet.  What kind of lifeform needs a door that shape?  Sadly, we never find out but that's a hallmark of good science fiction.  To me anyway.

Here a few of the other franchises covered in the article plus one of my own choosing.

Who can forget the scene where the crew of the Nostromo enters the chamber where they would first encounter the alien?  We of course find out more about this in Prometheus, but it sadly doesn't add much.

Star Trek
That classic show didn't exactly have much in the way of a special effects budget.  And it showed.  This forced the creators to focus on writing stories and characters that would engage the audience and keep them coming back for more.  For the most part, they succeeded.  To help them out, they had gorgeous matte paintings like this one:

Note the shape of the door on the right hand side of the pic. That's the type I was referring to in regard to Forbidden Planet.

Doctor Who
This BBC show found itself in much of the same predicament as the creative staff of Star Trek.  Consequently, they took the same tactic of focusing on quality stories and characters.  They were also quite inventive in how they managed to take a garbage can and a plunger and create the frightening Dalek.  Plus, there were quality sets, such as this one that looks like it should feature He-Man action figures:

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
If you're around my age and share an affinity for cheese, you no doubt remember this series.  Gil Gerard as Buck, the beautiful Erin Gray as Wilma (she got me through puberty...sorry, I shall comport myself), and who can forget Twiki?  Sigh.
I was glad to see io9 include this one as the show often had impressive (for the time) matte productions of "New Chicago" and its post-apocalyptic remnant, "Anarchia":

Space 1999
I'm including this one and I'm sure you've read about it from me before.  This was a vastly underrated science fiction series that I'm hoping to one day catch up on.  All models, all on a stage, and all of it looking amazingly like how actual space vehicles/colonies may one day appear.  In a word, they looked "functional."

I think Armando may have a point.

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Have we been told everything about Fukushima?

Tonight, ABC's Nightline will air an episode on "Fukushima's ghost towns."

I expect it to be a visage similar to that of Pripyat (which fascinates me) near Chernobyl only without such a passage of time.  You can still expect to see many homes and businesses that were shuttered and abandoned in the wake of the disaster at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan.  As you no doubt recall, the plant was badly damaged after the tsunami of 2011, resulting in one of the world's worst nuclear incidents.

While I plan on watching the episode, I can't help but feel this overall distrust with the mainstream media on this matter.

A recent edition of Coast to Coast AM featured three experts on nuclear energy.  Just in time really as there was a recent internet hoax going around about new explosions at the plant, the West Coast of the US needing to evacuate, and that the Pacific Ocean would soon be rendered uninhabitable due to radiation.  Not true.  Unfortunately, the truth is bad enough.

Scott Portzline, one of the C2C interviewees, had this to say:  "In my opinion, Fukushima is a level 8 on the international nuclear event scale, (the levels normally only go up to 7)."  This is due to the multiple sources of radiation coming from the plant and that unlike Chernobyl, the flow of radiation as yet to be turned off.  Another interviewee, Kevin Kamps (who is admittedly anti-nuclear power) reported that 72,000 gallons a day of radioactively contaminated water is flowing into the ocean, which adds up over the three years since. Making matters worse, Unit 4 at Fukushima could be on the brink of collapse, he added.

I was already aware that fish and other sea life from the Pacific were being found with extraordinary high levels of radiation.  That is almost to be expected.  The accompanying bits of this story, well, I don't know what to believe as it's tough to get confirmation.  What would confirmation take?  An increase in cancer diagnoses on the West Coast?  That could be written off as damn near anything.

Believe it or not, I'm really not that much of a conspiracy theorist.  Yes, I believe that our government knows much more about UFOs and other things than it lets on, but that's about it.  I don't go around looking for the paranoid slant to everything and I have no desire to write and pass out manifestos.  Logically, however, if the situation at Fukushima is worse than we were ever led to believe...and the evidence does indeed appear to be pointing in that direction...would "They" even tell us?


I can vividly remember watching the Fukushima disaster unfold and seeing ace physicist Michio Kaku on CNN giving commentary.  He said that the entire reactor needed to be encased in concrete.

So why wasn't it?

UPDATE: This bit of news reports that an ex-worker at Fukushima alleges that duct tape and wire nets were used as the method for sealing the leaks in radioactive water tanks.  “I couldn’t believe that such slipshod work was being done, even if it was part of stopgap measures,” Yoshitatsu Uechi, the former employee, said.

Now we need to take this with a bit of skepticism.  After all, an ex-employee is bound to say anything, especially if they may be disgruntled.  But if true...hoo boy.

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Multiple "UFO at airport" incidents

In a few days' time, there have been news reports of two cases of UFO sightings disrupting flights at airports.

The first instance comes from London's Heathrow Airport.  While actually taking place last July, the case is just now making the rounds in mainstream media.  The pilot of an A320 airliner reported that a "rugby ball-shaped UFO" came within a near miss of the aircraft and that the pilot actually ducked in the cockpit.  From the report: 

"The Captain ... perceived an object travelling [sic] towards them, at what appeared to be the same level, slightly above the flight deck windscreen. Having very little time to focus, he was under the apprehension that they were on a collision course with no time to react. His immediate reaction was to duck to the right and reach over to alert the First Officer [FO]; there was no time to talk to alert him. The FO turned and looked at him, thinking something was wrong with the aircraft.
The Captain was fully expecting to experience some kind of impact with a conflicting aircraft. His first words to the FO were, "Did you see that?", who replied, "See what?" The Captain perceived an object pass within a few feet above the aircraft. It could best be described as cigar/rugby ball-like in shape, bright silver and metallic-like in construction."

A preliminary investigation has ruled out balloons, meteorological phenomena, and other aircraft as possible culprits.  The object still remains unidentified.  Britain's Ministry of Defense stopped investigating UFOs in 1969 and has no comment on the matter.

Across the North Sea, a UFO disrupted flights out of an airport in Bremen, Germany when it appeared on radar screens at several different times.  One flight was cancelled and another was diverted. There was one eyewitness on the ground who described the craft as "looking like a plane but was louder."  Authorities are still calling the object "unidentified" but there as a similar incident last week turned out to be due to a remote-controlled, model airship.

And I believe that similar culprits may be found at the root of the Heathrow case.  Namely, I think that we may one day find that the UFO was in fact a drone and not anything alien or other-dimensional.

A while back, I interviewed a pilot for Virgin America airlines about UFOs.  While this pilot relayed accounts of coworkers having what I would call genuine UFO sightings, they expressed far more concern about the proliferation of drones in the skies and the competency (or lack thereof) of those controlling the vehicles.  I believe that this point will only grow in relevancy.

This is not to say that there have not been significant UFO cases involving airports.  One occurred in China in 2010 and another right here in Chicago in 2005.  Those still defy a concrete resolution.  In those UFO incidents, I am left with the most unsettling of questions:

What were they and what were their motivations?

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Monday, January 6, 2014

Pre-existing conditions

Always nice to kick off the new year with a political firestorm.

In all fairness however, the "firestorm" over the Affordable Care Act (no, there is no such legislation out there called "Obamacare") has been around since its initial round of voting through Supreme Court rulings to government shutdowns and most recently to a grievously flawed web site.  This issue of health care for the masses is not going away any time soon as anecdotes both pro and con ACA continue to fill mass and social media.

All I know is that I can finally go into a doctor's office and be covered for the medication I need due to a "pre-existing condition."  For the past two years, this has not been the case.  I can find no reason as to why my pre-existing condition could not be covered by insurance.  You see, I'm not one of the so-called "deadbeats" that the right wing decries.  I work.  I work all day Monday through Friday.  My employer provides health benefits and I help pay for them.  So why can't my "pre-existing condition" be covered?  It's not like I asked to have it.  The only reason I can come up with is insurance company greed.

So that's all changing.  I don't know how ACA will shake out in the end but perhaps it is a sign that many things are changing.  The way we do things needs to change as well.  Our political and societal pre-existing conditions may have already reached their terminus.

When President Obama was first elected to office, Jim Kunstler offered him a bit of advice.  Kunstler is a blogger and social critic and I remember the things he said back in 2009 mainly for how jarring and true they seemed.  He spoke of a society where consumerism was living out its twilight years as people continue to downscale.  He wrote:

"In the folder marked "unsustainable" you can file most of the artifacts, usufructs, habits, and expectations of recent American life: suburban living, credit-card spending, Happy Motoring, vacations in Las Vegas, college education for the masses, and cheap food among them. All these things are over."

Probably doesn't sound too good to many folks out there but I can't seem to find evidence to refute it.   Sure, Wall Street is doing better than ever but it's hard to see how that can continue if the other stratas of society do not similarly prosper.  Yeah, save me the Republican talking points.  I've heard them all before.

Could it be that we have no choice any longer but to work at building lives that matter?  Does this mean "living and buying locally?"  Does this mean taking care of things like the environment and people's health before other endeavors?

I don't know, but blogging about this is distracting me from the cold.  The Chicago area has seen about a foot of snow and the temperature is at about -45 with the wind chill.  Four people have died just from shoveling snow.  Ever seen The Day After Tomorrow?  Well, the weather right now is a good deal like that only without all of the stupid plot holes.

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Friday, January 3, 2014

Is it a question of mushrooms?

I need to make something clear.

I certainly do not mean to argue against the existence of God nor to berate anyone's religious beliefs.  This article originally appeared in The Atlantic and as such I believe it to be firmly within the free marketplace of ideas.  It warrants discussion. That is all.

There is a theory known as "the entheogen theory."  "Entheogen" means "that which causes God to be within an individual."  Ethnobotanists first came up with this theory, proposing that early documented cases of religious experiences might have been due to the consumption of psychoactive or hallucinogenic plants.  After all, we see drug use of many kinds in spiritual and mythological texts, such as in the Hindu Vedas and the "drug of forgetfulness" in The Odyssey.

The article goes on to detail research in Mexico with Amanita muscaria, a rare mushroom that is legendary for its hallucinogenic properties.  Shamans of the indigenous peoples there would consume Amanita muscaria in order to grow closer to their gods.  This mushroom plays a pivotal role in the rather controversial book, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross by John Marco Allegro.  As the article states:

"He [Allegro] further suggested that the existence of the mushroom was secretly encoded in the use of particular Sumerian word roots.
This secret encoding of the mushroom fertility cult down through the ages eventually led to the development of the concept of Jesus to encapsulate the identity of Amanita muscaria around the time of the sacking of the second temple by the Romans. Thus, according to Allegro, Jesus never actually existed. He purported to demonstrate, using philological analysis of the structure of the ancient Sumerian language, that the name Jesus actually meant something along the lines of "semen" and that Christ meant something like "giant erect mushroom penis." According to Allegro, the Bible (and the New Testament in particular) is really just a series of myths that describe the secrets of the Amanita muscaria fertility cult rather than real people."

Let's step back for a moment, shall we?

First, let us put aside the question of whether or not God exists.  If indeed hallucinations are the cause of prominent moments in religion, that does not preclude the existence of God.  These are almost two separate issues.

Second, I am not least for the purposes of discussion in this the question of whether or not religion is "bad" or its delitescent negative effects.  The Crusades, 9/11 attacks, Westboro Baptist Church...those deal more with issues of dogma and not spirituality nor altered states of consciousness.

At first blush, I'd have to say that Allegro's claim is shaky at best.  It seems a long way to stretch and from what I can tell it has little documented evidence.  Sure, I know that's a fine allegation coming from somebody who often writes about UFOs, but I'd like to think that I apply the same standards of argument and evidence for every matter I examine. As such, I'd be more ready to accept religion as a form of political and economic control than I would be for "it's all a big 'whoops' based on a mushroom."

More to the point, I find it to be a gross oversimplification of human spirituality.  Hallucinogenic plants or no, I still believe that people would be seeking a sort of value in their lives or at least a code of conduct.  This need, to my way of thinking, was present long before we ingested said plants.  It is inherent in all of us.  We choose to exercise it through Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, or whatever form we see as best even if it is no particular form at all (I've heard people say that their "god is music" for example and I think that's just as admirable.)

Were critical moments in religious history due to mind-altering drugs?  Perhaps a few were.  St. Paul might indeed have "been on something" on that road to Damascus and St. John might have been "under the influence" when he had his Revelations.  Maybe.  But even if so, that in no way can negate the whole of human spirituality no matter what faith is in question.  That, again, I would find to be an ignorant oversimplification.

I wonder how many religious visions will be coming out of Colorado this year?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Jackie and Ralph

A post over at Dorkland has me wistful for halcyon days.

It was the summer of 1992.  My friends Chris (Dorkland) and Bernard (Ghost Dogg) came over to my house to game.  The role-playing game for the evening would be a new me anyway.  It was called Ninjas & Superspies.  As the name depicts, it was an RPG designed for stories and characters taking place in a modern day setting of martial arts combat and James Bond-like espionage. 

What transpired, however, was a completely organic bit of wondrous storytelling.

My character bore the name Jackie Smiles.  He was a stereotypical private detective who wore a trench coat, smoked cigarettes, and carried a handgun.  Jackie was also infused with my cynical and depressed view of the world.  His trademark introduction was (usually delivered while lighting a cigarette): "Name's Jackie Smiles.  I'm a private dick. (shrug) Public dick if the money's right."

Bernard played Ralph Stone...the biggest freakin' kickass Korean you've ever seen.  He worked for Jackie and by contrast was usually quite upbeat.  Not only that, he was exceptionally strong and nearly invulnerable.  Shoot him, stab him, sic him with dogs (see later), do your worst...Ralph will probably survive.

How?  Well, we never got a chance to play the narrative out to see that aspect of his character revealed.  We had theories.  Magic amulet.  Exposure to radiation.  He's really from another planet.  Again, we never learned the truth.

He also had trouble keeping the name of his employer straight, seeming  to confuse Jackie with his own trademark line.

RALPH: Hey, Dick?
JACKIE: My name's Jackie.  "Private dick" is my job.
RALPH: How's that again, Dick?

Sigh.  Good natured, lovable, and certainly good to have in a fight, but Ralph was not about to be defending any PhD dissertations anytime soon.

These two boys eventually found themselves embroiled with an enormous yet nearly invisible espionage agency somewhat akin to Marvel's SHIELD.  Part of the adventure required the duo to break into the French embassy.  Ralph decided to jump the wall of the compound while wearing a Bill Clinton mask as a disguise (at that time, Clinton was about to accept the nomination of the Democratic Party for president.)  After jumping the wall, Jackie was told by Chris that you could only hear the sound of dogs barking.  Ralph's voice came over the wrist communicator: "Hey, Dick? There's dogs out here."  The op was a bust.

They were taken into custody by the SHIELD-like agency and interrogated by a beautiful agent named Alabaster.  It went something like this:

ALABASTER: Gentlemen, I suggest we get down to business.
RALPH: (removing his shirt) Darlin' I thought you'd never ask.
ALABASTER: That's not what I meant.
ALABASTER: You broke into the French embassy.
JACKIE: No we didn't.  You''re thinking of two other guys.
ALABASTER: We have you on these surveillance photos.
RALPH: That's not me!  That's Bill Clinton!

Somehow, we didn't end up in The Village as seen on BBC's The Prisoner, but it had to have been close ("You are Number Six."  "No he's not!  He's Dick!")  Yeah, both of us forced to live out Village-like lives.  Carrying punnets full of strawberries and whatnot. However, we did get to see Ralph ram a bus into a building a la Clint Eastwood in The Gauntlet.  In truth I don't completely remember the rest of the storyline, only that we had so much fun playing it and creating the characters.

And that's the best part of gaming.  When it really works, it's not just a bunch of hack and slash dorks, it's a group of friends building a narrative together and seeing where it goes.  Along the way, you develop characters that might actually come to feel like real people, perhaps because they are little extensions of yourself.  I'll always remember Jackie and Ralph.

If that's geeky then give me more of it.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Proving myself to Duran Duran

I wish to begin the New Year by renewing a commitment.

Back in July, I wrote a post that was an open letter to Duran Duran.  I pitched myself as the writer most qualified to author the band's official biography, a book that would hopefully erase that abysmally inaccurate text by Steve Malins.

Despite wonderful support I received from online friends of mine (ha! See what I did there?) I haven't heard anything back from the band.  I understand.  They're busy.  There's a new record coming out this year and we're all excited about that so it's not as if Duran Duran has had any shortage of things to do.  And yet, there may be another reason for their silence.

I have not yet proven myself to them.

Well I intend to do exactly that by turning my intellectual and compositional prowess towards something that has oft puzzled Duran fans: the meaning of "The Reflex."  I'm no Derrida, but deconstructionism is something I enjoy and why not have a go with my favorite band?

While certainly one of Duran Duran's biggest hits (straight to number one in the summer of 1984), the message contained within the lyrics is not entirely clear.  Snooty rock critics dismissed the song as meaningless.  I beg to defer.  I believe it is the very search for meaning that defines this song.

You've gone too far this time
And I'm dancing on the valentine
I tell you somebody's been fooling around
With my chances on the danger line

To me, these words imply a common theme for our age.  This sounds like the exasperation of someone who is trying to please everyone else.  Notice how we seem to have an issue with saying "no" to people?  In the absence of "no" we neglect ourselves and finally someone "goes too far this time."  As for the valentine business, perhaps Simon was seeing things from a female perspective for a moment and imagining being pushed too far by their screw-up boyfriend/husband/baby daddy (Men! Am I right, ladies?)

I'll cross that bridge when I find it
Another day to make my stand

Here we see courage falter.  The narrator is set to give the object of their frustration the what-for but decides not to.  There are always reasons not to.  You want to keep the peace or maybe you are a workplace subordinate to your oppressor.  So "I'll let it go this time, but if there's a next time, look out!"  Yeah.  Maybe tomorrow.  That's it.  Sure sounds familiar.

Why don't you use it?
Try not to bruise it.
Buy time don't lose it.

This can be seen as nothing less than an internal dialogue.  The narrator's inner voice is basically asking "What's it going to be?  Are you going to stand in this world and be counted for who you are or are you going to continue to kowtow to everyone else because that's what's expected?"  Or as Shakespeare might have asked in a bit less eloquent manner than Simon, "To be or not to be?"  But "another day to make my stand," right?

The reflex is a lonely child
Who's waiting by the park

Okay, this gets a bit problematic.  Child abandonment?  I'm trying not to see it that way and instead I come back to the philosophical notion of courage.  A kid lonely and waiting is likely also a scared tyke.  This child must summon the courage to either keep waiting for what/who they need or set off into the dark to try and find it.  Both will take guts.  Which will it be?  Stay in the park or venture off like a Viking in the Song of the Volsungs?  Fine, I admit I'm reaching a bit on that last point but has Simon ever openly said it wasn't that?  I didn't think so.

I'm on a ride and I wanna get off
But they won't slow down the roundabout

Oh God, haven't we all felt like that?  In order to survive I must not be myself.  I'd love to break away from this and live an authentic life but I'm a prisoner of the inertia of this machine.  Free yourself from The Matrix!  Ahem.  Sorry.

I sold the Renoir and the TV set
Don't want to be around when this gets out

This part could be taken more than a few ways.  The narrator may be ridding themselves of distractions in their search for meaning and identity.  Television is something of a cancer, so why further pollute your life?  Renoir, however, was a great artist and produced works of incalculable value.  Is the narrator selling this art to survive or is it perhaps a symbol of selling off that which we value most about ourselves?  Man, screw this world.

So the "reflex" itself may be the inner voice we hear in the prelude to the chorus.  "The reflex" may be that elusive courage telling us to take risks or to follow instinct.  It might even be that subtle yet constant nagging sense that something just isn't right with this world (and we're back to The Matrix.)  Societal systems are marvelous at crushing someone's identity.  "The reflex" is our natural instinct to "fight the power."

The song had its moment of inchoation through Simon improving the lyrics at the microphone or so I recall reading. Perhaps "The Reflex" is a product of this very spirit of instinct?

Maybe.  For after all...

Every little thing the reflex does
Must be answered with a question mark

So there you have it.  Do I get the job?

I'll be waiting by the park.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets