Monday, March 31, 2014

Inaction on climate change to be "catastrophic"

It is no longer simply a matter of rising temperatures...or even sea levels.

The coming change in climate will have direct affects upon our homes, the food we eat, and therefore our health.

This is the consensus of a UN report on climate change being mulled over by scientists and political leaders.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued their report after much discussion and now stand by it as evidence of the enormous scale of the problem, calling it "severe and pervasive."   Secretary of State John Kerry had this to say in response to the report:

"Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy. Denial of the science is malpractice...There are those who say we can't afford to act. But waiting is truly unaffordable. The costs of inaction are catastrophic."

The report, one that comes on the heels of another with a similar projection I might add, highlights the fact that there will soon be no citizen of the world who will be unaffected by climate change.  Food crops such as corn, wheat, and rice are projected to have 25% less yield by 2050.  That's a big deal, especially when you consider how much of the world is already starving.  Additionally, certain fish will migrate due to warmer waters, decreasing the catch by 50% in certain areas.  That doesn't mean just higher prices for your damn crab legs.  There are many populations of the world who are wholly dependent on seafood either for sale or subsistence.

Yeah, we're in trouble.  What's more, it's all more or less written in xylography with the report also calling the changes "irreversible."   What we can do, however, is keep the problem from getting any worse and (hopefully) find as many ways as we can to heal the environment.

So what am I doing about it?

That's a fair question.  I mean, after all, it's one thing to moan about this crisis but if I'm not actively helping to do something about it in my own life, well...

Here are few...albeit minor...efforts I've been making:

-I have converted as many of my home's light bulbs as I can to compact fluorescent bulbs.  I make absolutely certain that if a room is empty, the light is turned off.

-I am in the process of reducing how much meat I eat.  Not only does that assuage my conscience in terms of animal rights, it helps reduce the amount of methane from large farms and CO2 from transporting the meat.

-It might be a while before I can come anywhere near buying a new car, but I'm already looking at hybrid vehicles such as the Prius. In the meantime, I walk as much as I can.

-I kept my home at 62 degrees this past winter.  Might sound chilly, but it wasn't so bad as there are always more clothes you can wear.  I am well aware the summer will be a different story.

Might not sound like much, but I know others who are making similar efforts as well.  These little actions can have big consequences.

I don't see how anyone can still disagree with the fact that we are completely changing the environment of our world.  Our way of life is about to be turned completely upside down and I can only imagine the reaction from denialists.  "It had nothing to do with industry or weather!" "Why the hell didn't anyone warn us?"  Does it mean the extinction of humanity?  I guess it depends on how adaptable we really are.

Makes me wish I was a punky teenager again.  Without people or things to care about, I could just sit back and watch the show unfold with a sort of perverse glee.  "The hubris of humanity felled as the chickens come home to roost," and whatnot.  In the midst of the heatwaves and food riots, I could quote song lyrics such as "History shows again and again how nature points up the folly of man."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 28, 2014

FFF: High Anxiety

"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." --Leo Tolstoy

You're half right, Leo.  I think about changing the world quite a bit.  Changing myself, well...that's a matter of grave concern for me as well.  Lately, my stumbling block for doing so has been anxiety.

"Anxiety is a desire for what one fears, a sympathetic antipathy; anxiety is an alien power which grips the individual, and yet he cannot tear himself away from it and does not want to, for one fears, but what he fears he desires. Anxiety makes the individual powerless, and the first sin always occurs in weakness; therefore it apparently lacks accountability, but this lack is the real trap." --Soren Kierkegaard.

I see what you mean by that, Soren.  But the thing is, I don't entirely agree.  True, it is rather something like "praying for exactly what you don't want" or focusing on the worst-case scenario until it consumes you as reality.  By all rational, logical thought, it's something you should not do.  It should be a case of switching that part of you off and moving forward.

Who ever said the human mind was rational?

No, Soren.  A quote I find far more relatable on the subject comes from the venerable Trent Reznor:

"It won't give up, it wants me dead, goddamn this noise inside my head." 

I've blogged extensively and candidly about my struggles with depression.  In fact, it was just one year ago to the day (as I write this) that I began going through one of the more difficult times of my life.  But this is different.  This is more fear-based as I mentioned once before.  All rooted in that fear of "what comes tomorrow." Seems unlikely that someone who writes so much about matters Fortean, but I have a genuine fear of the unknown.

I remember grade school.  If I didn't see one of my parents there to pick me up when the day was over, I somehow presumed they were never coming for me.  Worry commenced.  Don't ask me why, I have no idea.  I have worn grooves into floors from nervous pacing.  I don't know if my stomach problems can be traced to anxiety so much as stress and angst, but I wouldn't be surprised. 

Social occasions have at times been gruesome affairs for me.  Bars and nightclubs are not my favorite places and weddings (yes even my own, making my way through the real life edition of My Big Fat Greek Wedding) are especially egregious.  Fortunately, both situations come with copious amounts of alcohol and that makes things barely tolerable.  In other cases, well let's just I've really embarrassed myself out of fear or "fight or flight" instinct, my actions landing in various shades of both ends of that spectrum.  I really hate that about myself (bringing on more self-loathing) but there it is.

I tried Xanax once long ago.  It didn't do anything for me.  My brain can pump out fear chemicals faster than any medication can hope to inhibit.  Alcohol works better.  At least in the short term.  But that brings a whole host of negative consequences with it.

"Losing yourself in your art" seems a tack taken by many writers and artists.  Kafka certainly did it, as did T.S. Eliot.  In this frank (and tortured) article on anxiety  in The Atlantic, the common association between artistic brilliance and neurosis is made once more:

"In his 1941 essay “The Wound and the Bow,” the literary critic Edmund Wilson writes of the Sophoclean hero Philoctetes, whose suppurating, never-healing snakebite wound on his foot is linked to a gift for unerring accuracy with his bow and arrow—his “malodorous disease” is inseparable from his “superhuman art” for marksmanship. I have always been drawn to this parable: in it lies, as the writer Jeanette Winterson has put it, “the nearness of the wound to the gift,” the insight that in weakness and shamefulness is also the potential for transcendence, heroism, or redemption."

I could live with that...were I not absent any evidence of being particularly brilliant.

What will I do?  No idea.  Therein is the root of much of my anxiety.  Please don't tell me about herbal teas or meditation or to "just get exercise" or "only eat organic." That latter one slays me.  Like who has the money for that?  Especially with money being such a major source of my anxiety.

Along with age.

And weight.

And thinning hair.

And time running out.

Oh sweet oblivion, if only...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Kree-Skrull War, part 2

When we last left this comic book saga, a Kree Sentry had smashed its way into a medical wing of Cape Canaveral.  Its quarry: the convalescing Captain Marvel.

As Avengers #90 opens up, we see the same three Avengers from the previous issue, Vision, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch, attempt to battle the sentry and protect the fallen Mar-Vell.  It does not go well.

The Avengers fail and the Sentry kidnaps Captain Marvel.  There is barely any time to absorb the bitter sting of defeat as these Avengers receive a call from Clint Barton.  Barton appears in his Goliath persona and not Hawkeye, which is a bit disappointing for me but I digress...

Goliath informs the three plus Rick Jones that he received an emergency call from Janet van Dyne, aka the Wasp.  It seems that she and her husband Hank Pym, aka Yellowjacket at this point, were aboard an icebreaker headed to Alaska to determine why a government research station stop responding to radio calls.  Riding on dragonflies, the two headed inland and found an expanse of tropical jungle in the middle of Alaska.  Fearing for Jan's safety and wanting to investigate this bizarre discovery on his own, Hank punches his wife (!) and knocks her unconscious.  He instructs her dragonfly to take her back to the ship.

The summoned Avengers wing their way to Alaska and the out-of-place jungle.  Upon arrival, they see that it is no mere jungle but a land filled with prehistoric plants and animals; animals such as dinosaurs and sasquatch-like apes.  The reason for this?  Ronan the Accuser and the Kree Sentry have constructed a citadel that broadcasts a "devo-ray" (no "Whip It" jokes, please) that reverts everything back to that era. The reason?  Well, the Kree first visited Earth during prehistoric times (cue Giorgio from Ancient Aliens).  If everything...including superheroes...were returned to that primitive and primal state, the planet would be easy pickin's for the Kree.

Among those affected by the devo-ray are Hank Pym...who has now devolved into a Neanderthal-like state and is posturing to attack the Wasp.

To be continued...
So where to begin with all of this?

Well, I wasn't all that hip on this issue.  First of all, no Cap, Iron Man, or Thor.  Second of all, it seems to be a great example of Plot Contrivance Theater.  There's new trouble a-brewin' in an unrelated corner of the world and it just happens to be caused by the bad guys from the previous issue.  Also, it's still unclear just how this all relates to a Kree-Skrull War.

Then there's the awful business about Hank hitting Jan.

One might think that writer Roy Thomas was foreshadowing the drama-laden storyarc of the early 1980s where Hank as Yellowjacket really begins to lose his mind and hits Jan once again.  The consequences of domestic violence were at least talked about in that arc, but nowhere near as much as they should have been.  But somehow I don't think that Thomas had any of this in mind.  You might argue that Hank was already under the influence of the devo-ray when he hit Jan, acting out in a brutish and violent means as his thinking grew slower.


Still, none of it is clear and it remains very unsettling to read it through contemporary eyes.

Then again, that may be something that Roy Thomas was at least hinting at.  These characters should be written as people and as people they would have flaws and ugly sides just as anyone else does.  In this issue, the Vision points out that superheroes are actually great examples of misfits.  Captain America is a man living 20 years out of his home time, Thor is a god among mortals, and Iron Man...well, "who knows what dark secret may lie hidden within his heart beneath that gleaming chest plate?" As loyal readers know, the answers to that include womanizing and alcoholism.

The beginning of cynicism in comics?  A plash or early pang of postmodernism?  Don't know if I'd go that far, but...

Like I said, wasn't a fan of this one.  Here's to hoping part 3 is better.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ode to Erin Burnett

During the sad saga of Flight 370, I have watched what feels like a true cast of characters play out their roles on CNN.

That dramatis personae has included the bushy-moustached Les Abend, Miles O'Brien, who returned to the network after losing half his arm (talk about a tough guy), Mary Schiavo of the ever-changing hair, and there was Jim Tilmon, a man I remember from his days as a meteorologist in Chicago...and from that day in 1979 where he explained with a model plane how a DC-10 managed to crash at O'Hare.

But none of them can hold a candle to Erin Burnett.

What is it about you, Erin, you news anchor goddess?  As the Bard said, "let me count the ways."

First of all, let's face it.  You're hot.  Just plain hot.

You're also top-notch journalist.  To paraphrase Don Henley, "you can tell me about the plane crash with a gleam in your eye."

But I'm not kidding myself.  You're way out of my league.  You're younger than I am, far more successful than I am, and in an entirely different tax bracket.  I might as well be on Mars.  What could someone like me ever offer you?  Well I think, no...I know...I have an answer.

As Batman had Alfred, as OJ had Kato Kaelin, and as Walter Cronkite had whoever he had, I'll be your "man who does."  Your "Jonny Friday."

I'll clean the house, wash the windows, shop for groceries (I am rather thrifty with my eye for sales), and walk the dogs.  That is if you have dogs.  If there are other mammals involved I may need training.

I could build you a fort in one of your backyard trees.  You could go in there and hide while I play interference with the home office  "No, I don't know where she is.  Hang up, Wolf.  You're drunk."

I will sit and listen to you talk about your day after I've poured you a glass (or two) of wine.  You can bounce story ideas off me and I'll always say, "that's brilliant, Erin!" I'll laugh at all your jokes.  I'll listen to you vent about your workplace.

You: "That Anderson Cooper is such a whiny bitch!"
Me: "I know, Erin.  I know."

What else can I bring to the deal?  Well, you might learn things such as all the lines to Blade Runner, all the lyrics to songs by Duran Duran and U2, and how to manage a man's inordinate comic book collection.  Who knows?  Once in a while you might even learn an interesting tidbit you could toss out on your show..all by watching TV with me.  "You know, it's a little known fact that another word for an English dandy is coxcomb.  No, it's true and yes I just called Felix that.  Now back to Odd Couple: In Theory."

So think about it, girlfriend.  You know where to find me.

Oh and I know you're married. I am too.

That's not a problem, is it?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The coming of the Ant People

An occurrence almost as rare as seeing a UFO happened to me:

Something on Ancient Aliens gave me pause to think.

The episode dealt with humanity's relative fixation with insects.  As a case in point, the show looked to the Hopi and Zuni tribes of the American Southwest.  Petroglyphs of the area depict humanoid figures with elongated skulls, antennae, and spindly appendages.  The Hopi called the beings in these depictions the "Ant People" who helped the Hopi survive storms and cataclysms by living with them in an underground world.  I found a site on the subject that while entertaining, might not have the most credible information.  Anyway, it alleges that according to Native American legends, these "ant people" first came from the stars before setting up shop beneath the ground.

This is not the first occurrence of "ant people" in ancient legend or literature.  Vigilant readers of the Classics will recall from Homer's Iliad the ant-like soldiers who fought at Troy in a hive-like mentality.  When viewed as a cross-section, the catacomb dwellings of Derinkuyu, Turkey very much resemble ant "farms" for serious lack of the proper term.

Is there anything to "the ant people?"  I'm nowhere near ready to definitively say, but here are a few possibilities I see at first blush:

1. We are always trying to make sense of the natural world.  Our ancestors did this in the best ways they knew how.  Sometimes, this meant appropriating animals in a totemic sense and attaching a narrative to it. End of story.

2. There really is (was?) a humanoid race of ant-like beings that live beneath the Earth.  Native peoples such as the Zuni and the Hopi encountered them.  These encounters were documented in both petroglyphs and oral tradition.  Do they still exist somewhere in an underground civilization a la Shaver's Hollow Earth?  This conjures up what Mac Tonnies was getting at in Cryptoterrestrials, even though I think he was mainly concerned with more "ethereal beings" higher up on Keel's superspectrum.  More on that once I finish the book!

3. The beings depicted are actually aliens.  Note the elongated heads, the large eyes, and the skinny bodies.  This is comparable to a modern day Gray.  Did the ancient peoples encounter aliens and describe them relative to things they already knew: ants?  That sounds like the Ancient Aliens conclusion.

One other interesting note about all this.  New Mexico is included in the region we're discussing.  That state is, of course, home to two major aspects of UFO lore.  One being the crash at Roswell and the other the alleged underground base at Dulce.  If the "ant people" are aliens, then what is it about New Mexico that draws them?  Is it the activities of our military and our intelligence agencies?  If the "ant people" are from beneath the ground, was Roswell the result of them coming to the surface to ask what the hell the big bang was at the Trinity Site in July 1945?

I don't know.  If I had ten dollars to bet on my three theories, I'd put five dollars on number one, three dollars on number two, one dollar on number three, and keep one dollar for myself.

It's dollar day at the college cafeteria tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, March 24, 2014

Would you work for a robot?

A psychological experiment was carried out at the University of Manitoba.  It involved a robot.

One by one, a group of people were observed to see how well they would take instructions regarding the routine task of switching graphics files from jpeg to png extensions.  The instructor was either a male aged 27 or an Aldebaran Nao robot operating under the pseudonym "Jim."

As you might imagine from the brief description, the work was tedious and boring.  This was done to deliberately induce people to quit.  Both the robot and the human administrator would then employ various encouragements and pressures to keep the subject working.  The findings of the study were rather intriguing.

About half the people working with the robot continued the experiment to the end.  For the human instructor, 12 out of 14 remained until the end.  There were participants who argued with the robot and then left.  Yet there were also people who argued and then remained after the robot told them, "Please, we need more data.  It is essential that you continue."  I find the fact that a fair amount of people remained to work to be of great interest.

If you watch the video at the link, you'll see that the robot speaks in a melodic yet nearly emotionless voice to its subjects.  Is this evidence of a calm, neutral voice negating someone's freak out?  After all, if you're getting emotional, you likely desire a certain response from the person you're targeting.  If you're confronted with calm and logic, you might be more likely to subdue yourself in that you're not getting your desired response.  This might be a benefit to human-robot relationships in that their logic and demeanor might have a calming effect upon us.  Then again, this only worked in half of the test cases.

Of other interest from the study is the question, "What if what the robot is asking you to do is unethical?  Would you still do it?"

Aside from being a complex philosophical question, I really got a laugh out of the video's intro that speaks to this subject.  The Nao robot, wearing a tie of course, tells his unseen "staff" to "shred the files" because "the police are on their way." He ends the directive with the plea, "I'm too short to go to prison."

Robots have been replacing all manner of work roles.  The first ones to go are typically ones that are manual, repetitive, and tedious but that's not where things end.  All manner of work may be subject to robotic replacement and mine is no exception.  Just recently, the first news story on the minor earthquake in Los Angeles was filed by a robot with the designation, "Quakebot."  It is not unreasonable to think that even managerial level jobs are subject to replacement by robots (in fact, there's a few of us who might argue that it's already happened in the jesting sense.)

Would you work for a robot?  There is no doubt a gut reaction from many fussbudgets and Luddites, crying out "Hell no, I wouldn't!" If the U of Manitoba study is accurate, however, that reaction would only occur about half of the time.  Depending upon the task, I mean.  Another factor that needs to be considered is the economy. If you need a job and can get a paycheck from an outfit with robotic supervisors, you might change that gut reaction rather fast.

If you disagree, try unemployment and a bad credit rating for a while.  Then get back to me.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 21, 2014

Interview with Jason Chapman

Today, author Jason Chapman sat down virtually with ESE for an interview.  I selected Jason as I believe he represents the kind of fusion of topics, namely writing, science fiction, and UFOs, that I attempt to deliver around here.

If you’re a fan of a good old fashion conspiracy thriller, and loved The X Files back in the day, or you could be looking for a new book series to get into, then this is definitely for you.  The Angel Committee is a Cold War conspiracy thriller with a good dose of science fiction.

-First things first Jason, tell us about The Angel Committee, what’s the plot line?

The Angel Committee is a blend of historical fiction mixed with science fiction. The story mainly revolves around a Cambridge physicist, Professor Ralph Frederick, who is assigned to head up the science division of a secret panel of experts whose key goal is investigate UFO sightings across the United Kingdom and throughout the commonwealth.

-You mention historical fiction, but the subject of UFOs is generally considered in the realm of science fiction. How have you incorporated the UFO phenomenon into your storyline?

Yes, the UFO phenomenon is considered by many as mere fantasy. However what a lot of people don’t know is that both the British Government and the United States government have run research projects into this phenomenon. In 1952 British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill wrote a memo requesting information on flying saucers. The memo he wrote was declassified several years ago and can be obtained from the National Archives in the UK.

-So Winston Churchill had an interest in flying saucers?

I don’t know if he had an ongoing interest, but at the time there was a top secret group operating called the Flying Saucer Working Party. They were a real life version of The Angel Committee and investigated UFO sightings throughout the UK and the rest of the world. Information about the FSWP has been declassified and again is available from the National archives.

-So The Angel Committee is based on a group that existed during Churchill’s second run as Prime Minister. Are you not worried that you might ruffle a few feathers?

No not at all. What you have to remember is that although there have been classified projects run investigating UFOs, the official standpoint of every government on the planet is that UFOs don’t exist. Therefore there are no feathers to ruffle.

-Do you include Churchill in your book?

Yes, Winston Churchill is included a few times, purely to add a little realism to the book.

-Are there any other historical people in your book?

I have mentioned a few people, President Harry Truman and President Dwight D Eisenhower, just by name. Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen are included in the storyline. Many people who are familiar with UFO lore will recognise quite a few people.

-How did you come up with the title for your book?

It’s quite a long story. I first started to write the book back in 1997. I came up with ‘Angel’ after watching an episode of The X Files called "Fallen Angel" in which agent Mulder investigates a UFO crash.
When I started to rewrite it in 2012 I was going to change the title. However I started doing a little background research for the main character. I came across reference to an elite discussion group known at the Cambridge Apostles which still exist today in Cambridge University. Former members of the Cambridge Apostles are referred to as Angels. I was very surprised to find this out so I kept the title.

-1997, that’s a long time to be working on one book. What has kept you going all these years?

When I first wrote The Angel Committee, it had a totally different storyline, set in modern day at the time. I tried to find a commercial publisher but no one was interested, so then I took a leap of faith and went to a vanity publisher. I lost nearly £2000 and ended up with no book published. I stopped writing for a few years, I guess by then I had enough of the whole writing scene. In 2003 I read Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. I immediately became hooked on Brown. That’s when I decided to pick up The Angel Committee and started to write again. However after several attempts at rewriting the book I decided to call it a day. For reasons I couldn’t explain I was unable to totally walk away. That’s when I sat down and hammered out the new storyline and it worked. I finally published in November 2012.

-What are the pros and cons to self-publishing? And what advice would you give to anyone what wants to writing?

There are an infinite amount of answers I could give. It’s not easy writing a book in the first place. You have to be very dedicated and self-disciplined to archive your goal. Once you’ve written the book, you have to look for someone who can design you a book cover, and edit. I’m very lucky, I’m artistic, so designing things like book covers or promotional images isn’t a problem. I have also got some very ingenuous ways of editing my work, so that any spelling and grammar mistakes have improved 100%.

-Could you tell us please about this editing method of yours?

A lot of self-published authors are plagued with grammar and spelling mistakes, I am no exception. However I have a Kindle Fire and whatever I write I convert to Kindle format. I then use the text to speech app and listen to the book being read out load. This is a sure way to listen to what you have written, not what you think you have written, this way you will get over 80% of mistakes. Correct the mistakes you’ve made then read your work through again. Eventually you will weed out the main mistakes. Not everyone has a kindle fire, but most computers are equipped with text to speech software, it also helps if you listen through headphones in a quiet room.
Just one little bit more advice.
If you’re serious about wanting to break into the writing profession then you have to think beyond your first book. Most self-published authors don’t get past their first book because of poor or non-existent sales. The more work you have out there the more people will take notice of you. Look beyond just one book. In the commercial publishing industry all you needed was a good idea at one time. Then you needed sample chapters. Now a publisher won’t give you the time of day unless you not only have a finished novel, but five more lined up. With book series like Harry Potter, the Twilight saga, Hunger Games and Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, people want more than just one book.

-How have you developed your following online?

I have used the boost option on Facebook, which you have to pay for. Facebook can be very inexpensive to promote posts. For around $40 you can reach up to 100,000 people. If you were to advertise in a magazine with that kind of circulation then it would cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. I also keep posting, that way to keep people interested in what you are doing.

-What are you working on at this moment? And how much more do you intend to write?

The sequel to The Angel Committee, which I plan to release in May. I have also written a short story series entitled Tales from Majestic. It’s a spin off to The Angel Committee. Set in 1947 it’s about a group that President Truman set up in the wake of the Roswell UFO crash. It is an ongoing series, I plan to bring out 12 more parts later this year. As for how much I plan to write, I have 70 years of UFO history to cover, so I don’t plan on stopping any time soon.
I will also be writing a good old fashion Space Opera next year, along with spooky detective short story series set on the Norfolk Fenlands in England.

-What’s the reaction been like to your work?

So far I have had nothing but praise. There are many people who have been wanting this kind of genre for years. Shows like The X Files and Dark Skies were huge back in the day. Since then there has been nothing. I have had a number of radio interviews on US radio, as well as an upcoming interview with a UK based newspaper in the next few weeks.

-So we come to the final question. What’s your opinion on the UFO phenomenon and life elsewhere in the universe?

Back in the 90s I used to run a UFO research group. I encountered many people who made all kinds of claims. However, I myself have never seen a UFO or had any kind of alien encounter, so therefore I remain neutral on the subject. The internet has given rise countless conspiracy theories and given birth what I like to call UFO evangelists who have amassed huge amounts of followers.
As for life elsewhere in our universe, absolutely!. Now that science acknowledges that there are other planetary systems beyond our own solar systems I think it’s only a matter of time before we realise that we are just one of countless planets in our universe capable of supporting life.

The Angel Committee is available on Amazon.

You can also follow Jason’s work on his facebook pages.

I want to give my sincerest thanks to Jason for this interview.  It's an honor to have him here.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Kree-Skrull War, part 1

A long while back, I mentioned that the Kree-Skrull War saga is one of my absolute favorite comic book storylines.  Not simply in terms of Avengers stories but really in all of the comic book medium.

Over the next nine weeks, I am going to take a look at the saga one part at a time in one post per week.

FAIR WARNING: If you're not a fan of Marvel Comics, you're probably not going to get much out of these weekly posts.

 I'll tell you what happened in that particular installment, what I liked best, and also where the story's waters get a bit muddy as the plotlines wander into the woods (I totally mixed metaphors right there, but the astute among you are still with me.)  As Neal Adams, the exquisite artist for the saga, states in the introduction to me 2000 collected edition, the story does tend to "go a bit off track." This assertion inspired me to do a critical rereading of the edition in preparation for this series of posts and indeed I came up with a few more problems than I thought I had.  Oh well, the idea is to look at it all, good and not so good.

We begin with Avengers #89.  It carries the gut-churning title, "The Only Good Alien is a Dead Alien!"

In this issue, story begins in media res with a trenchcoated Captain Marvel skulking through the streets of Miami, apparently playing the role of The Fugitive ("Fugitive Alien...a Sandy Frank production.")  However, he is found by Avengers Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, the Vision, and their kid sidekick, Rick Jones.  They plea to Captain Marvel that they just want to help him, but he apparently wants none of it.  A small fight ensues and Captain Marvel is shot down by his trusted friend, Rick.  As they rush Captain Marvel to the hospital, the Vision recounts just how they got to that point.

The aforementioned Avengers answered a distress call at the Baxter Building, headquarters of the Fantastic Four.  Once at the building, they found that Captain Marvel had broken in.  His aim was to enter the Negative Zone through Reed Richards' portal and rescue Rick Jones who had languished in the limbo-like dimension for far too long.  This had the unfortunate side affect of alerting Annihilus, lord of the Negative Zone wasteland and all-around bad guy of the Marvel U, to the location of this portal.  Annihilus came through to our world and battled the Avengers.  The Avengers stopped Annihilus but during the melee, Captain Marvel stole the Avengers' Quinjet and escaped.

His destination was Cape Kennedy in Florida.  He thought he would hijack a rocket and modify it for interstellar travel so that he might return to Hala, his home planet in the Kree Empire.  This was not to be as the good Captain failed to notice how low on fuel the Quinjet was and he crashed somewhere in southern Florida before reaching his destination.  That's when he encounters the Avengers and his guilt-stricken friend Rick Jones renders him unconscious.

You see, the Avengers determined that Captain Marvel had absorbed an enormous amount of radiation while in the Negative Zone.  This radiation could cause a disastrous chain reaction that might threaten all of Earth.  That's why the Avengers chased him down, subdued him, and summarily rushed him to the hospital where one Dr. Donaldson attempted to decontaminate the Captain.

Meanwhile in the Kree Empire, Ronan the Accuser attacks the Kree Supreme Intelligence in a coup d'etat of sorts.  The totemic head of the Kree dethroned, Ronan activates Kree Sentry #459, the giant robot captured and in custody at the Cape as seen in Captain Marvel's own comic book.  The Kree Sentry attacks the hospitalized Captain Marvel with intent of destroying he whom the Kree view as their greatest traitor.  The issue ends on a cliffhanger...

All right, casting aside comic book science, there are a few problems here.  If Captain Marvel wanted to get to Cape Kennedy but ran out of gas, how does he crash in Miami?  Miami is well south of the Cape.  If he had the gas to make it that far, logically he should have made it to his destination without any difficulty.  Unless he got lost since he's "not from around here."

Wait a minute.  That doesn't make any sense, either.  Captain Marvel spent plenty of time at the Cape by then in his own ongoing comics series.  Shouldn't he be familiar with the geography by then?  Am I not reading this right?

My other complaint is purely a fanboy bleat.  The issue doesn't feature any of the "big" Avengers such as Captain America, Iron Man, or Thor.

Checking myself, that's not exactly a bad thing.  We get to see the focus on other characters such as the Vision for a change.  Additionally, we see the characters pause to ponder the consequences of their actions.  upon betraying and taking down his friend, Rick Jones says: "Avengers, I did your dirty work for you." Even the Vision, the android of the bunch, senses the pain Rick feels over what he had to do.

"I sense bitterness in your tone, young friend...when their should be none," the Vision says.
"You should be proud of what you have done here tonight, Rick," adds Quicksilver.
"Yeah, okay, so I'm proud," Rick says.  "Now let's go before I toss my cookies, huh?"

Besides being symbolic of the beyond-burgeoning cynicism of that era's youth (circa 1971), this response from Rick is a bona fide human emotion: guilt.  More specifically, guilt over something that you had to do but truly resented.  And just because you had to do it, did that really make it right?  Questions without full answers.  I believe writer Roy Thomas was really setting the tone for the saga in that small exchange of dialogue.

As for the Kree-Skrull War itself...well, we see very little of it at this point.  That's okay, though.  Great things often have small beginnings.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Arctic keeps melting

More good news in climate change.

This article in Wired describes how exposure to warm water from continental rivers is melting Arctic ice.  A team of scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory suspected a relationship between the seasonal release of river flows and disappearing ice and did a concentrated study on the Mackenzie River delta in Canada.  The findings:

"In 1998, Beaufort Sea ice coverage was the lowest on record — and outflows from the Mackenzie River system were the largest on record. But it was 2012 when sea ice coverage was the lowest throughout the Arctic. In the early summer of that year, the Mackenzie river was kept at bay behind an icy dam. It broke through the dam sometime between June 14 and July 5, flooding the sea with water that had been collecting behind the barrier."

There are 72 rivers that flow into the Arctic from North America, Europe, and Asia, all contributing to ice melt.  Additionally, the growing expanse of darker seawater is less reflective of sunlight than ice.  Wider open seas means higher temperatures and that means less ice.  Vicious circle.

A climate change denier might point to the fact that river flow is not subject to human manipulation.  Well, it can be, such as with irrigation for crops and such but it is wholly unlikely that this is the case with all 72 rivers involved.  So therefore, the melting of the Arctic's ice is not caused by us.  In the case of warm water from rivers, they may have a point.

The problem is when you see this natural phenomena in concert with the greater whole of climate change.  Continents are growing warmer and the ice of the Arctic is getting thinner.  Add in warm water from rivers and the melting is accelerated.  One model I've seen shows the Arctic entirely free of ice in summers by 2040...which is not that far away, folks.

Despite all that, a denier might still say, "So what?  It's only bad news for polar bears and anything else dumb enough to live up there.  For me, it means winters spent driving with the windows rolled down and wearing t-shirts.  And after the hellish winter of snow and subzero temperatures this year, I'm fine with that."

I'm going to forego any discussion of the ethics of humanity causing the extinction of other species as it would probably be like talking to a wall in the previously described case.  What I will say is that, firstly, extreme weather events such as the kind we've experienced this past winter would likely be the norm in a climate affected world.  Second of all, once sea levels rise, oceans dilute with freshwater, and temperatures get especially uncomfortable in the summer, you may care.


There is a susurrant voice speaking to us.  It has been for a while.  It's growing louder at a steady pace.  It's telling exactly what's going to happen to us and what kind of world will all soon inhabit.

But don't let that get in the way of you making any money.

Hell if anything, I hope the deniers are right.  I hope that they come out looking like the lone prophets in the wilderness that had it right while science had it all wrong.  We'll all look stupid while the deniers and corporations rightly thumb their collective noses at us.

If it meant the preservation of the natural world, I'd be okay with that.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Who else wants an exoskeleton?

Remember the climactic scene in Aliens?

Sigourney Weaver as the venerable Ripley climbs into a robotic exoskeleton and uses it as a weapon to defend little Newt from the queen alien?  Who can forget Weaver's now-classic cry of "Get away from her, you bitch"?

Well, engineers at an Italian firm have created an exoskeleton or "wearable robotics" that is something like that.  Perceptual Robotics Laboratory announced that its creation tracks the movements of its wearer while augmenting that person's strength, allowing them to lift up to 110 pounds in each hand.

Yeah, I know.  As you can see from the comments at the bottom of that link, many will point out that lifting 200 pounds is actually a modest accomplishment for most gym rats.  In that context, there are two points to take away from this working exoskeleton.  First, this is one of such "wearable robotics" being developed in the world and it is a technology that will only continue to advance.  As it does, the user will be able to lift greater and greater amounts.  Second, the difference between lifting with the exoskeleton and "pumping iron" is...let's face it...the degree of effort involved.  Less effort means less fatigue and that counts for something in the end.

The future uses that have been floated about for such an exoskeleton would include factory work.  In the video at the io9 link, one of the lead engineers on the project discusses how the assembly of large machinery such as aircraft could be expedited by these suits.  It would also make rescue work, such as clearing debris away after an earthquake, much easier.

Okay, we'll all be honest here.  The military is looking at this stuff and salivating like my dog staring at a stick of pepperoni.  Technological advancements, no matter how seemingly benign, can often be taken and made into weapons.  At the very least, the more evil or distressed among us can find new applications for common instruments.  We found that out the hard way with airliners a little over ten years ago.  As Einstein said, "Science is a powerful instrument. How it is used, whether it is a blessing or a curse to mankind, depends on mankind and not on the instrument. A knife is useful, but it can also kill." It's pretty much all up to us.

So consider my previous post on cloned woolly mammoths in Siberia.  In light of that, it's not hard to see what Vladimir Putin is going to do when he gets his expantionist hands on one of these suits.  That's right.  Weaponized woolly mammoths.  Just think about them marching over the frozen Bering Straight, headed straight for us.

I for one welcome our new robotic mammoth overlords.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, March 17, 2014

Pleistocene Park

An effort is underway to clone once extinct animals and place them in an amusement park.

No, it's not exactly like the movie in your head.  But maybe similar.

A project called Revive and Restore has designs on bringing the woolly mammoth back to life.  Once regenerated, the mammoths would mill around a preserve in Siberia called Pleistocene Park created by Russian researcher, Sergey Zimov.  Part of this interest was kickstarted by a discovery last May of a nearly perfect specimen of mammoth found frozen in the ice of Siberia. This newly discovered sample was so well-preserved that it offered lymphoid tissue, an intact liver, and free-flowing blood.  If you're going to clone an animal, this is a bonanza.

I'm not making this up.  Click the links.

At the same time, however, this does not come without its share of significant challenges.  First, you'd have to inscribe living mammoth cells with the animal's genome...and indeed biologists are still working out a full genome for woolly mammoths.  One idea would be to provide suppletory material for gaps in the genomic sequence with elephant DNA.  From there, the cells would be cultured and cultivated and then spliced into an elephant embryo.  This hybrid would go into a living elephant for gestation and eventual delivery.

Nifty if for nothing else than the technical achievement.  Makes me wonder what other animals from that era could be brought back, such as the woolly rhinoceros.  Presumably you could do it with just about any lifeform provided you could get a genetic specimen.  I think it would be impressive to see any once extinct animal come back to life and its behavior observed.  But ultimately we must ask: "is this worth it?"

There are those who would respond in the affirmative, citing that this course of action would not only help us to understand cloning better but preservation and conservation as well.  The whole idea of those latter actions is to allow our world to have maximum biodiversity and in this case, we can undo an extinction in which humans hand a direct hand through hunting.

As George Dvorsky points out at the end of one of the linked articles however, we should consider the quality of life that a cloned mammoth or any other revived organism would have.  The animal would undoubtedly be poked and prodded for research data throughout the course of its life.  Additionally, what kind of life would it have as climate change continuously takes away the habitat for which it was meant?  That's another thing.  There may be other pristine specimens of these animals in ice somewhere, but as the climate changes and the ice melts away, that means the specimen rots all the quicker too and thereby becomes useless.

Ha.  You knew I'd work climate change in there somehow, didn't you?

ADDITION: Don't know if any of the mammoths or other mammals would carry plagues that could affect humans, but we did of course revive a virus that was frozen in Siberian ice.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 14, 2014

Flight 370

I might as well get this done.

Several people have asked what I think about the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.  The subtext of those queries I believe is "Do you think it had anything to do with UFOs or the paranormal?"  My response?

It doesn't need either of those things.  This case is weird enough as it is.

There should have been something to go on right away.  Something far more tangible than what we were being told by Malaysian officials.  Here's what we know as of 8:45PM CST on March 14th:

-The Malaysian military announced that radar signals indicated that the plane was making drastic altitude changes.  A source I saw quoted on CNN said that one such change was at a rate of "40,000 feet in one minute" which he called "inconceivable."

-Flight 370 made not one but several erratic changes in course.

-There were satellite pings received from the airliner's engines that indicate the plane may have flown on for up to five hours after its initial course deviation.

-Analysis from the Pentagon calculates that the plane crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean.  Warships from the U.S. Navy are currently on the scene, conducting searches.

BREAKING: The Wall Street Journal is reporting that investigation into the case has now shifted towards sabotage.  One or more individuals on board the plane may have taken control of the aircraft and then tried to mask its location.

This seems to be the pulse on social media right now.  I took an informal poll on Facebook and Twitter and "hijacking gone awry" was the top answer for what happened.  The "awry" part comes from the fact that the plane has not been seen anywhere and it takes quite a landing strip to land a Boeing 777.  You need an awful lot of contiguous and conspicuous ground to get it done.  Not impossible, but it's looking unlikely.

Speaking of unlikely, I'm guessing that since this is ESE, I should look at the "out there" theories.  Here goes:

-Abduction by UFO.  You knew this was coming.  There is a long history of UFO sightings by airline pilots as I've previously written.  So yes, there has been much speculation among the dark corners of the interwebs that aliens may have taken the plane and passengers.  Why?  Who knows.  There are even a few alleging that there were UFO sightings in the area the night Flight 370 disappeared, but this is very difficult to corroborate and really can't be counted as evidence.

-Space/time wormhole.  I've talked about these just last week but only as a means of interstellar travel.  As applied to Flight 370, this would have to be a "soft spot" in the fabric of time and space and that things can fall through to God knows where.  Such an explanation has been offered for phenomena such as the Bermuda Triangle but there really isn't any evidence.

-There is a new device for terrorists.  When it detonates, it creates a mini black hole.  Seriously.  Someone said it on Twitter.

-On Facebook, Plucky suggested time travel a la the movie, Millennium.  Awful movie, by the way.

-The Iranians did it.  Someone floated this one out, saying that tickets were bought by Iranian nationals and there were engineers from Freescale Semiconductors on board.  The Iranians stole the plane to extract secrets from the engineers.
This is a little like adding one and one and coming up with 14.

-Have you seen Lost?  This was tossed about for a bit, especially after it was announced that when called, the cell phones of passengers were ringing.  This has since been tidily explained away.

-Hell, have you seen Donnie Darko?

I think the plane's engine fell into my bedroom last week.  Now if you'll excuse me, I need to burn a house down.

If you've seen Donnie Darko you'll understand the reference and know I'm not serious.

The fact is, nobody knows what happened (for a great...and quite technical...write up on this fact, check out The Atlantic.)  The mass media is filling air time while we wait for answers.  They're trotting out damn near anybody with any kind of aviation experience to offer their conjecture on the subject.  Have you ever ridden in a plane?  Hell, have you even touched a plane?  We want to talk to you.

"Rich Pesenko joins us from Pacoima.  He's seen Top Gun 321 times and has his theories on Flight 370."

And worst of all, I feed into it by watching it all nonstop.

I just can't resist.  It's a mystery.  An awful one given how many people are missing and...sadly and likely...dead.  I truly hope that something can be found to give the families of these people a sense of closure, but planes disappearing without a trace is not an unheard of phenomenon.  Our world may feel small thanks to global computer networks but it's actually rather large...and there's a hell of a lot of water out there.

I'll keep you all updated because...let's face it...I'll keep watching.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Alien Legion returns

One of the better science fiction-based comic books of the 1980s is slated for a return.

Alien Legion was originally published by the Epic imprint of Marvel Comics.  It featured the exploits of Force Nomad, a rapid-deployment "peacekeeping" unit modeled somewhat on the real life French Foreign Legion.  As such, it was a collection of diverse, motley characters with...shall we say "colorful"...backgrounds.

Writer Carl Potts was obviously influenced by Star Wars when he created the series and that's not a bad thing.  I see in the members of Alien Legion the same sense of "life can look like anything" that is displayed in the cantina scene of Episode IV.  To wit, Sarigar, the team's leader, is half serpentine in form.  This makes a nice break from the "everybody's bipedal with maybe wrinkled skin above the bridge of their noses" that plagues certain genre franchises.

Now, Alien Legion is being relaunched by Titan Comics, the same publisher that recently reacquired Doctor Who.  There's even bigger news, though.  At least for me.  The writer on the project will be Chuck Dixon.  Dixon is a writer I have followed over many years and have even had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing.  He's a very kind man and is renowned for his ability to write captivating action stories.  His long history with characters such as Batman and the Punisher as well as his creation of the Tim Drake (Robin) character have earned him a place of distinction for comic book fans.   Additionally, Dixon is no stranger to Alien Legion, having written stories for the comic back in the early 1990s.

What can we expect from the new series?  As with Doctor Who, Titan isn't saying much.  What can be gleaned from the press release is that there will be newbie troops joining the Legion.  They will of course be baptized by laser fire as what should be a routine mission rapidly descends into a "war really is hell" scenario.

One thing that I'm certain this new series will revisit is how diversity brings both conflict and strength.  If you've read the series (or even if you just want to hop over the Alien Legion website linked above), you'll see that this has been a major theme.  The Galactic Union is government trying to hold together a massive expanse of space.  Within this area are numerous cultures.  Sure, democracy is the best way to govern but it's often difficult with so many beings from so many different points of view.  Conflict is inevitable, as are greed, corruption, and that old human axiom of "gelt gets it done."

As the members of Force Nomad find out for themselves, sometimes the only way to keep the peace is to go to war.  Oxymoronic?  Perhaps.  But it often seems to be true.

Alien Legion hits comic book stores in June.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

David Byrne, the NSA, and Biz Markie

I am rather late to the party, but I consider myself a Talking Heads fan.

By extension, I am also a fan of David Byrne.  How can you not be while watching him strut around in that ridiculously oversized "monster suit" in Stop Making Sense?  Then, as if I needed even more incentive to like Byrne aside from his hilarious fashion sense and considerable musical genius, he does this at the "Artists Pay for Radio Play" benefit in New York City.

David Byrne covers "Just a Friend" by Biz Markie.

He doesn't do it as a joke, either.  He seems to genuinely respect the source material.  Just when you think the guy couldn't get any cooler.

Byrne also keeps his own online journal.  His latest entry, albeit two months old at this point, is about the "impossibility of security."  Pointing to the recent debacle with stolen credit card numbers at Target, Byrne wonders, and rightfully so, if any exchange of information on the Internet is truly secure.  Whether it's a financial transaction or a simple email, can it ever really be private?  I'd have to agree with him and say no.  Certainly makes you want to torch any claptrap that your credit card or other accounts send you in the mail called "privacy policies."

He also offers this sobering thought: if Google and Target have all of this information on you, what does the NSA have?  Tons more, that's what.

But even more unsettling than that is this bit from his own web site.  David Byrne recently wrote another piece about "big data" and how it almost has a life of its own and appears fully in charge of the game.  He cites a "now famous" case (which made me feel a bit bad as it was my first time reading of it) of a father complaining to some online "big business" or another that was attempting to market diapers to his young daughter.  "My daughter is not pregnant," he insisted.  He turned out to be wrong.  The data algorithms, however, knew better.

Depressing?  Oh sure.  But what can be done about it?  Not much.  Except for watching David Byrne cover "Just a Friend" a few more times.

 That'll help.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Scientists more certain than ever on climate change

My favorite part of the recent report on climate change?  This:

"The report, "Climate Change: Evidence and Causes," is written in simple language and filled with pictures and graphs to illustrate why scientists are certain human activity is causing the climate to change."

Even the inclusion of pictures and dumbed down language will not be sufficient to change certain minds on the reality of climate change.  No, it doesn't matter that a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society agree that humans are causing a rise in global temperatures.  Denialists will still refuse to see any possible correlation between human industry and a 40% increase in the atmosphere's carbon dioxide content since 1880.  Temperatures are not getting warmer, the Arctic is not melting, the acidity of oceans is not increasing, sea levels are not eight inches higher, and a global climate change is not affecting every plant and animal in the world.

And even if those things were true, humans have nothing to do with it.

Sadly, this fervent attitude is found not only in American business but in high levels of our government.  As an excuse against actually doing anything, especially if it costs money, they will quickly point to the nasty winter we've had this year.  Prolonged periods of sub-zero temperatures and a nigh incessant amount of snow (more tomorrow for us here in the Midwest) are taken as physical examples of one aspect in the climate report: the rise in temperatures is actually slowing.

Be that as it may, that does not mean that climate change is not happening.  The slowdown is likely due to "interactions between the ocean and atmosphere, quiet solar activity and an increase in sunlight reflecting particles."  So don't let it fool you.  The world is going to be warmer and that's going to have a whole host of negative consequences.

If you're interested about the subject, I'd encourage you to check out Climate Commons.  This interactive site is a clearinghouse of current weather data, anomalies, and news stories about both the science and politics involved with climate change.  The spiffy map allows you to find what's happening in your own area.  For example, there are several articles that speak to how the aforementioned polar temperatures are increasing the demand for coal at power plants.  It would be nice to instead to see an increased demand for wind and solar power, but I guess I'm just going to have to wait for I sweat through what will likely be another egregiously hot summer.

In light of that, tomorrow's snow doesn't sound all that bad.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 7, 2014

Wormholes and UFO travel

If you're a fan of the extraterrestrial hypothesis (ETH) for UFO phenomena, then you probably like the idea of "wormholes."

For a long while now, those in opposition to the idea of aliens visiting Earth seemed to cry in unison, "can't get here from there."  Albert Einstein pretty much pulled any ideas of faster-than-light travel through space over to the curb and put a beat down on them.  And he was right.  You just can't argue with the math.

Then came the concept of "wormholes."  While Relativity forbids an object from traveling faster than the speed of light, it does allow for the warping of space.  The age-old example is having to dots on opposite ends of a standard sheet of paper.  The shortest distance between the two points is not a straight line but rather to bend or warp the paper to bring the two points together, thereby eliminating any distance.  The ban against faster-than-light travel is not violated as the speed of the object does not exceed light locally at any given time. This is the idea behind a wormhole, also known as an "Einstein-Rosen Bridge."

So how do you create one?  In short, no one knows.  There are theories, such as the one outlined at the link above from NASA, that involve the gathering of super-dense matter (such as from neutron stars), but that's pure speculation.  It is important, however, to distinguish between wormholes and black holes.  For that, let's go to Stephen Hawking:

“I’m sorry to disappoint science fiction fans, but if information is preserved, there is no possibility of using black holes to travel to other universes. If you jump into a black hole, your mass energy will be returned to our universe but in a mangled form which contains the information about what you were like but in a state where it cannot be easily recognized. It is like burning an encyclopedia. Information is not lost, if one keeps the smoke and the ashes. But it is difficult to read. In practice, it would be too difficult to re-build a macroscopic object like an encyclopedia that fell inside a black hole from information in the radiation, but the information preserving result is important for microscopic processes involving virtual black holes.” (“Information Loss in Black Holes” [July 2005])

How might UFOs be utilizing such a technology?  Author and UFO researcher Wilbur Allen has some ideas on the subject.  He appeared on Coast-to-Coast AM last year to talk about footage he shot in Arizona that he alleges shows UFO craft entering into and emerging from wormholes.  As Allen stated during his appearance, you could see "arcs" or "holes" open in the sky, followed by a flash of light. One interesting concept that he mentioned was that these unknown objects may be "plasma-based spacecraft" that are sometimes viewed as balls of light.  In the interest of fairness, we should probably note that there are natural atmospheric occurrences that could generate a similar effect.  

Nevertheless, I find the whole concept of a "plasma-based spacecraft" to be an intriguing one.  If for nothing else, it may provide "furniture" for interesting fiction.

Then again, if we return to Stephen Hawking, UFO researchers might not like what he has to say on the matter:

“I am discounting reports of UFOs. Why would they appear only to cranks and weirdos?”

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Flash Gordon: revisiting the Filmation series

Kids today just don't get it.

Cartoons were not always accessible 24/7.  Typically, one needed to catch them in a two to three hour window after school.  But for the truly widest range of animated offerings, including such mind-broadening fare as Jonny Quest, Thundarr the Barbarian, and The Adventures of Batman, you needed to wait until Saturday morning.  For many years, Flash Gordon was a part of my Saturday mornings.

In an era frantic to cash in on anything even remotely like Star Wars, Filmation produced two seasons worth of The New Adventures of Flash Gordon between 1979 and 1982.  I was front and center for most of the episodes and a few years back, I was lucky enough to receive the complete series on DVD as a birthday gift.

I admittedly never really read the old comic strips or watched the b&w movie serials, but much of the Flash Gordon from those media seems to have carried over into the Filmation series.  There is of course the main character of Flash Gordon.  Just who he is never really gets developed...or even mentioned...unlike the movie version with Sam Jones where he's at least named as the quarterback for the New York Jets.  That and an appalling lack of Klytus may be among the only advantages that the film has over the cartoon series.  But I digress...

There's Dale Arden along for the ride, playing out one of the only female characters in the opus.  In a sad blow to feminism, her only role in the story appears to be that of Flash's girlfriend.

Dr. Hans Zarkhov is there as well, acting as the scientist who builds the rocketship that takes the three main characters to the planet Mongo.

Mongo!  That's where our three heroes end up after "blasting off on a desperate mission to save Earth from the evil plottings of the tyrannical space lord Ming the Merciless" or so the intro voiceover says.  But why this particular trio has taken it upon themselves to do this is very unclear.  At least in the edition I have.  There is a memory gnawing away at my brain, however, of seeing the beginning of this series set in Poland in September, 1939.  As Warsaw is overrun by the Nazis, Zarkhov takes and Dale and Flash with him in his ship to stop Ming for Ming is secretly supporting Hitler.

Ah yes, Ming.  That prototypical, "lawful evil" bad guy who rules Mongo as the Grand Tyrant with both iron fist and Machiavellian strategy.  He commands a full army of both human and robotic soldiers as well as fleets of spaceships.  The cartoon would probably never air today as Ming is portrayed as having Asian-like features not unlike Dr. Fu Manchu.  Someone would likely be offended.

Ming acquires Flash, Dale, and Zarkhov shortly after they crash on Mongo.  The three wayfarers are captured by the aquatic race known as the Gill Men who are in servitude to Ming.  Flash and the others also encounter characters who will be constant companions to them across the two season run.  Chief among these characters is Thun the King of the Lion-men.  He appears just as he sounds.  Thun becomes a loyal friend and right-hand man, err Lion-man to Flash.

Other characters likewise seem to bear out that royalty is in plentiful supply on Mongo.  There is Prince Barin of Arborea.  He's an effete and self-serving snob of a Robin Hood wannabe.  There's King Vultan of the sky-soaring Hawk Men (who had many attractive slave girls in his palace in the sky.)  There's Ming's daughter, Princess Aura, who goes through the series carrying the burdensome conflict between loyalty to her father and the burning in her loins for Flash...not to mention getting the stink eye from Dale over the whole thing.

There is, as you might imagine, a startling lack of logic as to how Flash Gordon and the others survive their pulpy near-death scrapes in each episode.  Once you're past that, you are then free to enjoy the fact that the series actually gets a few things right.  For example, the planet Mongo somewhat breaks the mold for genre fiction.  Typically, we get "desert planets" or "ice planets." Mongo has a full range of biomes and climates and is ecologically diverse just like Earth.  This would likely be the case with any other "living" planet.  The diversity allows for a population of numerous humanoid races and beasts.

Okay, so maybe there's only one thing the series got right in terms of realism.

It's fun, though.  Really fun.  I'm given to understand that Dynamite Comics publishes (or published?) a Flash Gordon comic book series.  I'll need to check it out.

ADDITION:  I knew it!  I'm not crazy!  Er, least not on this point.  There was a version of this Flash Gordon that started in World War II and Space1970 bears this out.  It also looks like a cool blog that I'll need to add to the blogroll.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Virus awakens from beneath the ice

A "giant virus" has been awakened by microbiologists after 30,000 years in ice.  It is still infectious.

Before you make preparations for a doomsday pandemic, take heart.  The virus is only deadly to single cell organisms and is not infectious to humans.

While the virus, found in Siberian permafrost, might not be contagious in terms of human beings, it is the principle of the matter that has a lot of people (like me) concerned.  Global climate change is melting entire swaths of land that many are hellbent on drilling and mining.  I don't mean to sound like I'm writing ad copy for the next "made for SyFy movie," but what else may await us as we disturb these regions?

Dr. Jean-Michel Claverie, a microbiologist and lead author on the study, had this to say:

“If it is true that these viruses survive in the same way those amoeba viruses survive, then smallpox is not eradicated from the planet — only the surface. By going deeper we may reactivate the possibility that smallpox could become again a disease of humans in modern times.”

Claverie and his team of researchers are planning to look at more ice cores from Siberia.  It is thought that a few of these samples might contain pathogens such as smallpox...which was rampant in Siberia at one time.  The possibility that there are yet other pathogens out there, perhaps more deadly ones in that we don't have vaccines for them, cannot be excluded. 

Here's the part where we start talking about human extinction.  

In fairness, however, let us first consider how the article at the link above finishes.  Another microbiologist not affiliated with the study accurately points out that humans breathe in thousands of viruses every day.   The idea that there could be enough civilization-threatening microbes beneath melting ice is more than a bit of stretch.  At the same time, I'm a bit apprehensive about discounting the abilities of a virus.

I've said it before.  There isn't much in the known universe that is tougher than a virus.  They can repair, replicate, and mutate quite quickly.  So much so that many scientists are now questioning whether a virus can ever truly be eradicated.  I have to wonder when our time will be up.  By that I mean, when will we encounter a viral strain that is highly contagious, not easily contained, and one we simply cannot develop a counter for?  

I'm not bashing humanity in this regard.  Such an occurrence wouldn't be our fault in the way that climate change is.  It would simply be the law of averages in nature (hypothetically, I mean) and it would be a humbling blow to the egos of we cockalorums of the universe, to say the least.

Looks like there may be more dangers to climate change than we first thought.

Great.  :\

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The art of confusion

We have seen the art before.

I remember popular illusory sketches from the late 80s that on the surface looked like skulls (usually) but were in fact something else, such as a woman seated at a vanity in the case of this Def Leppard album cover.  But long before there were such novelty optical illusions, there were serious works by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci.

Now there is a compendium entitled Illusion Confusion that surveys this style of art.  The BBC recently showcased a few of the pieces included in the study. Among the pieces included is the one above by Chinese artist Liu Bolin.  Bolin says that his art is meant to symbolize how the individual can be rendered invisible by in his case the Chinese government or by consumer culture in the world writ large.

Also in the showcase are a few examples of street art that appear meant to jar the observer, making she or he think that they have been transported somewhere else entirely.  As but one case in point, the BBC piece cites a painting done by Edgar Muller in Dublin that turns of stretch of pavement into an icy, gaping crevasse.  He has also done 3D street paintings that have turned day to night through the use of photoluminescent paints.

Reaching towards the lower of common denominators, there is also a postcard from 1900 in the collection that features a woman on horseback as viewed from behind.  Use your imagination.  Or go to the link, that might be easier and let's face it, we're all about "easy" these days in America, aren't we?

While it is a natural formation and not what I would call "art," the BBC link also features "The Old Man of the Mountain" or Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire.  Up until its collapse in 2003, the formation resembled a man's profile in rock.  Art or not, interpreting formations in rocks, clouds, and other pareidolia has become something a modest interest for me.  This might be an outgrowth of the on-again off-again controversy of the "face on Mars" and the religio-consumer driven craze of seeing the images of Jesus or Mary in foodstuffs such as potato chips and grilled cheeses.  Expect future blog posts on the subject.

Perhaps when I view this aforementioned interest through the lens of the art in this post, I see just why it is that I have it.  It's all about interpretation.  The artists probably don't intend to deliberately hoodwink or bamboozle the viewer so that the artist might prance about giggling, "gotcha." Instead, the intent is to force us to look at something differently.  Both the input of our eyes and the interpretations of our synapses are forced into question.  If we wish to be engaged, then we must think critically.

As I attempt to underscore with my students, there is always more than one way to look at things.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, March 3, 2014

Do we really need another war?

A while back, I made a modest proposal.

It said that political leaders who have direct say in military matters should be veterans.  That way, they might get to know what it's like to pull the bodies of their dead friends from burning vehicles or somesuch and thereby be reluctant to commit men and women to harm's way without good reason.  Now, as we watch with anticipation and no small amount of dread the news coming out of Ukraine, I'm reminded of what made me say that.

On CNN's State of the Union yesterday, Sen. Lindsey Graham basically slandered the President, saying that Graham "rolls his eyes" whenever Obama speaks to "thugs and dictators," calling him weak and indecisive on this matter of Russia and the Ukraine and that Obama needs to "do something."

That's right.  Show 'em we're still men.  Show 'em we got teeth.  Cowboy up and commence the chants of "USA, USA."

I think this has taken me all the way back to third grade.  There's no other way to say it and I would be saying it no matter what party affiliation the source of statement had.  Why is it that when something like this happens, the immediate reaction from the right is to say "we've got to show we're tough and mean business"?  I think I speak for the majority of Americans when I say that I am war weary.  Hell, I'm beyond that.  I'm sick of war.  The only people who would still willingly engage in a new military action at this point are either psychopaths or profiting from defense contracts. I realize that it has to be done sometimes, especially if there is direct threat to citizenry or home territory.  As far as I can tell from the situation in Ukraine, that isn't the case.

The fact is, senator, the President is "doing something." What you are calling weakness in him is actually the mark of someone intelligent and measured in their response to a situation. He is acting in concert with the other nations of NATO and the rest of the world.  He is prepared to impose economic sanctions against Russia and will work with other nations to further isolate Russia.

But wait.  That's not good enough you say?  Obama didn't bomb Syria into a firestorm and now you think he may pass up yet another opportunity to get out the toys and play?  Well then let's take a realistic look at what our military options are in the Ukraine against Russia...a nation with over 8,000 nuclear warheads.  Actually, Anderson Cooper does a pretty good job of examining at this.  Take a look at the video.

Wow.  Doesn't sound like a whole helluva lot, does it?  At least not without starting World War III...which I'd really rather no one did.  Yes, I really must add that caveat.  If we are to respond in any manner, it will require diplomacy and coalition-building with other nations.  That is something our President clearly understands.

Too bad his predecessor, "the decider," didn't.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets