Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Underground worlds of science fiction

Space is an obvious setting for science fiction.

The future is too, whether it be teched-out or dystopic (or sometimes both.)  But the idea of a whole other world sitting beneath our feet and our notice is one that really intrigues me.  I thought I was alone in this regard until I saw this list of "underground realms from science fiction" on io9 a while back.  The choices for the list really run the gamut of arcane civilizations, technologically advanced empires, or "lots of dinosaurs."

It's rather axiomatic that Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth be included on any list of this nature.  Hard to dis the king in this regard.  The io9 article pretty much focuses on the film adaptation of the book, highlighting the spectacle of giant mushrooms, the dinosaurs, and the connection to Atlantis.

I was glad to see 1956's The Mole People make an appearance.  True, one could quibble as to whether or not it's really science fiction, but come on.  It's got Alan Napier in it as a Sumerian priest named Ishtar.  That's right.  The guy who went on to play Alfred on the Adam West Batman series.  Dragging things down towards the negative a bit is the fact that the actual "mole people" creatures aren't seen all that much in the movie and we're left instead with a small city full of albino Sumerians.  Cheaper that way, I guess.

Comic books are replete with subterranean worlds.  The list goes to the obvious example of Subterranea in Marvel Comics.  Good choice, really.  It truly is an expansive environment all its own where characters ranging from the Fantastic Four to the Hulk have had adventures.  Another plus is that it is absolutely loaded with diverse races.  There are the Lava Men, the Mole Men that are under the rule of...well, the Mole Man (who is apparently the villain d'jour in the Fantastic Four reboot), and Lizard Men.  Note, said Lizard Men are not to be confused with the variety found in the Savage Land.  Not sure what DC Comics has as their version aside from Skartaris in the Warlord series.  I love Warlord but it's more of a fantasy comic (quibble quibble quibble).

My favorite entry on the list?  Seatopia!  That's right, Kaiju fans.  The underground kingdom from Godzilla vs. Megalon makes an appearance. In this installment of the original line of Godzilla films, a race of "cryptoterrestrials" gets annoyed by our nuclear tests on the surface.  They send the monster cockroach Megalon to give us the what for.  Godzilla defeats this monster with the help of a robot named Jet Jaguar (if you've seen the movie, I just know you've got the Jet Jaguar song in your head right now.)  Oh yeah, somehow the Seatopians are in contact with aliens from Nebula M.

The readers had a few good suggestions of their own.  Beneath the Planet of the Apes had mutated and telepathic humans living beneath what was left of New York City.  They also worshiped a nuclear missile, so that's a kitschy plus.   I was also glad to see someone else remember The Inhumanoids.  Oh and The Last Dinosaur!  It's an unintentionally hilarious b-movie about an expedition that drills into the Earth to find a prehistoric world and....oh it's better that you just find out for yourself.

What would I add?  Superman and the Mole Men comes to mind.  The titular character fights yet more mole people from an underground civilization.  I believe the 1951 short film was actually a precursor to the George Reeves series.  Anyway, it's got the usual subterranean tropes: tiny, gnome-like people who are disturbed by humans and our incessant drilling for oil.  They send an expedition to the surface with sophisticated (maybe not in depiction) technology, misunderstandings ensue, and the wacky hijinks just go on from there.

Along similar lines was an old movie serial called The Phantom Empire.  Gene Autry plays a cowboy who discovers a malevolent civilization exists beneath his ranch.  Cowboys versus underground dwellers.  Yeah, I said it.

Speaking of wacky, if you want to read really great stuff about underground civilizations, check out The Shaver Mysteries.  It's all about the Hollow Earth.

Best part about it?  The author claims it's not science fiction.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The choice for 2016

Nothing is perfect. 

One of my most favorite bands recorded Pop and my most treasured film franchise brought us Jar Jar Binks.  Yet these blemishes do not detract from my overall enjoyment of U2 and Star Wars.  I embrace them for their preponderance of facets that do work.

This is much how I view presidential candidates and it is why I believe Hillary Clinton is the best choice for 2016.

Many of our more immediate issues will still press us in two years and the new president will have to face them from the get-go.  These range from immigration reform to tax cuts for the wealthy as well as the undoubtedly continuous efforts of the GOP to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  While these issues carry weight of their own, there is one that I believe stands far above the rest.  I believe that history will judge both the next president and the next set of congressional leaders by how they act on climate change.

It’s simple.  The scientific consensus is clear that there is more carbon in the atmosphere and that will cause temperatures to continue to rise.  As temperatures rise, so will sea levels.  A report issued last month from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts this change will result in a 25% drop in food crops worldwide.  Secretary of State John Kerry responded to the report by saying, “There are those who say we can't afford to act. But waiting is truly unaffordable. The costs of inaction are catastrophic.” 

I believe Hillary Clinton knows this.  At a Clinton Global Initiative University panel last month, she called for “mass movement” to address climate change and that the subject “is not some ancillary issue” but one that will affect the life and health of people everywhere.

All right, I’m certainly with her so far.  So where’s the imperfection?   Well, while Clinton has stated concern for the environment and climate change, it’s not entirely clear how this will translate into policy platforms for her (still hypothetical) campaign.  For example, as CNN’s Tim Miller points out, Clinton has yet to take a stance on the Keystone Pipeline...something her Department had jurisdiction over under Obama.  While she sees it as an issue, it is still difficult to determine just how much focus the threat of climate change will receive.

I can accept this ambiguity for two reasons.  

First of all, to do anything about climate change one must first get elected to office.  Hillary Clinton has the best chance of winning for the Democrats.  Her domestic experience as a Senator and her foreign relations experience as Secretary of State places her well beyond the crowd on either side of the aisle.  The most her GOP opponents will be able to muster are repeated bleats of “Benghazi Benghazi Benghazi” and a few weak accusations of obliquity from Rand Paul.  Which brings me to my second point: who do the Republicans have to offer in response and what actions do they intend to take on climate change?

My shirt tail answer is a shrug and a muttering of “not much” on both counts.  Chris Christie might have an interest, seeing as how his state was struck by a massive hurricane not so long ago and environmental changes make such “superstorms” more likely, but he has his own baggage to combat...baggage the size of a bridge to be precise.  The rest of the Republicans will spend their time pandering to a base that has issued a lock-step refusal of the science behind evolution let alone that of climate change.  At this critical juncture in the life of our planet, we simply cannot afford to take any steps backward.

No, no choice is perfect.  We should therefore never expect our presidential candidates to give full focus to what we might personally see as most critical issue.  But when examining the sobering, the dire, and quite honestly the frightening implications of climate change, the need for action becomes clear.  Hillary Clinton has at least articulated that fact.

When you couple that acknowledgment with Clinton’s record of skill and service, she becomes Earth’s clearest and most realistic hope for 2016.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

An honest discussion

There have been political advances.

The very fact that we have an African American president renders that indisputable.  Sadly, we can see from recent events that the issue of race is still a pox upon our nation.  Let's take a quick look at just a few news items from the past four months or so.

In December of last year, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty (a show I admittedly have never watched but it is apparently quite popular for reasons that pass understanding) asserted that black people were "happy" before the civil rights movement.

Rancher Cliven Bundy, while endearing himself to conservatives in a dispute with the government over federal land and grazing (a dispute, incidentally, that carried the implications that it's okay to offer armed resistance to officers of federal law, but that's a whole other rant of mine for another time), decided to (paraphrasing), "tell us one more thing he knows about the negro."  The "knowledge" imparted thereafter had something to do with subsidized housing and picking cotton (yeah, I'm not making that part up.)

This week, finally, we come to the story of Donald Sterling.  Sterling owns the Los Angeles Clippers and was caught on tape making a whole string of racist remarks.  As of today, this spectacular display of obliquity has earned him a lifetime ban from the NBA.

Like many others, I'd like to believe that racism is dying out.  You might even be able to make the terse and slightly insensitive argument that it is on its way to dying given the ages of the three men I just mentioned.

I wish that were true.  Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my favorite writers at The Atlantic (or anywhere else for that matter), wrote a skewering send up of the underlying sense of white supremacy in certain sectors of our governance by leading with a captured tweet of Congressman Patrick Garofalo.  Garofalo is a Minnesota Republican who last month tweeted: "Let's be honest, 70% of teams in NBA could fold tomorrow + nobody would notice a difference w/ possible exception of increase in streetcrime."

He's my age.

What should we do about it?  I keep hearing the refrain of "We need to have an open and honest discussion about race in this country." Indeed dialogue is one of the problem solving tools of the thinking person.  Great.  When?  Where?

Well, right now might be good and as for the where, our educational institutions would seem a logical fit.  But I'm here to tell you that even at the level of higher ed, there's a lot of fear.  There are educators who see the issue as so volatile, so sensitive, and so laden with genuine and justified pain that any queries or intentions can easily be misunderstood.  Even something as factually rooted as the reading of slave narratives carries its dangers.  I can only imagine what the level of apprehension is towards this subject at the high school level.  Words like "lawsuit," "suspension," and "termination" make great conversation killers.

So...when and how again is this conversation happening?


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Monday, April 28, 2014

The art of Jonathan McCabe and cellular automata

Art is everywhere in nature.

We've all seen the standby examples of snowflakes, conch shells, and the like.  Alan Turing, best known as the mathematician who greatly advanced computer science and offered "The Turing Test," said that these natural patterns, such as stripes and shapes in animal fur, could be the result of random slates of cells.

Now, artist Jonathan McCabe is creating his own art by applying this principle to pixels.  Wired describes the process thusly:

"Each pixel gets a random value, usually a number between -1 and 1, which is represented in the final image by a color. Then, McCabe applies a set of rules that dictate how each pixel’s value shifts in response to the ones around it. As the program progresses, pixel values change, creating clusters of shapes that begin to emerge from the originally random mix of numbers. In the end, McCabe’s digital canvases sometimes take on a startlingly biological appearance, resembling everything from mitochondria, to spots and stripes, to a cross section of leaf tissue you might study under a microscope."

The outcomes are exactly as the article headline describes: hypnotic.  They appear as these splashy combinations of Pollack techniques with the kind of trippy, psychedelic/LSD art that was so fashionable back in the late 60s and early 70s.  Stare at it long enough and you do sort of start to see patterns emerge.  Sometimes they are spiky, gear-like cogs and others are pluvial streaks.  That might simply be pareidolia or my tendency to always want to find meaning in art and I agree that the latter can be detrimental to my thought process in matters such as these.  After all, the rendering of a canvas need not always have meaning and sometimes you simply need to let art wash over you.

That is exactly what I advise you to do with the McCabe video at the Wired link.  Just watch and see what rises out of the random.  Then check out McCabe at his website.  Anybody who touts that they are "Finally in a book with Yoko Ono and Richard Dawkins" is just fine by me.

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Friday, April 25, 2014

Cap, SHIELD, and the writer's conundrum

April 21st ended up being "Marvel Comics Monday" by accident.

First, I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  A good installment in the Marvel canon but perhaps not as good as its predecessor.  On the other hand the action is diverting and there is of course the ever-so-delectable Scarlett Johansson as The Black Widow.

After that, I caught up on the episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that had been languishing upon my DVR for the past couple months.  If you've seen the Cap movie, then you know the massive role that SHIELD plays in the plot (it also has Batroc the Leaper!) This got me thinking about a couple of things.

First of all, I'm really liking how Marvel is reworking their highly integrated comic book universe to fit TV and movies with the same level of interconnectivity.  You don't have to watch all of it, but you get a much richer experience if you do.  Secondly, I want to write a "super espionage" series.

I'm talking about a clandestine organization that specializes in the collection of information.  They know there are a lot of bad people in the world and something has to be done about it without the hoi polli being any the wiser.  These specialists would come with all of the tropes.  There would be combat operatives of the kind that specialize in close quarters fighting and know the nearest safehouse in any world city.  There would be computer hackers and scientific geniuses who support them.  There would be crack vehicle operators.  And of course, we'd hear the classic (read "cliche") lines from characters on the S.H.I.E.L.D. series, such as "The Bus leaves in ten minutes" and "Those are my people on that op!"  Are there super powered beings like Captain America involved?  Don't know, but it might push things into the direction of "SpyFi" and that could be kitschy fun.

It's right about there that the stern bucket of reality dumps cold water right into my groin.

I need to publish.  Sounds silly and perhaps even conceited for me to say that.  Any writer needs to publish or at least wants to.  When you're a writer whose main job is teaching at a college, however, your fiction publications are your lifeblood and they need to be of a certain standard...and genre writing is not among said standards.  Especially not of the kind I've just described.  As a writer, I really need to re-prioritize...and this is not something that is of "serious intent."

So why couldn't I do it "just for fun?"  Much of my work with Jake Timber is intended as such, even though writing for Jake can be an utterly miserable experience.  Contradictory?  Sure.  But we writers are full of those.  The real problem is that I notice my available time getting shorter and shorter, especially if I want to stay married.  There are only so many projects I can focus on at a time.  Sometimes it feels like I'm capable of only one at a time at best.

That brings up another grim strand of inner loathing.  I'm scared.  I'm scared that I'm a really bad writer.  Especially when it comes to fiction.  I think my fiction is missing something.  What that is exactly I don't know but it must be.  Otherwise I'd have more stories published by now.  Come on, I have a Masters degree in this stuff.  I thought I would be good at it  by now.  The missives of rejection would indicate otherwise.

It could be that I'm just really really bad at writing stories.

What to do?

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Kree-Skrull War, pt. 3

Continuing my dissection of the comic book epic that is the Kree-Skrull War, we now move from part 2 to part 3.

Part 3 takes place in Avengers #91.  Sadly, not much goes on.  The Avengers involved (Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Wasp, Goliath, and Yellowjacket) spend the majority of the issue in a slugfest, cleaning up the prehistoric mess they've been enmeshed in via Ronan the Accuser.  The last issue ends on a cliffhanger with Yellowjacket, devolved into a massive Cro-Magnon man, looming over the unconscious form of his wife, the Wasp, seemingly about to deliver a deathblow with his club.

But wait!  The devolved Yellowjacket pauses and utters " club...hurt...pretty...take you with...for later."  The primitive man then carries the woman off, slumped upon his shoulder.

Well, there are a lot of ways you could take this.  The feminist consensus probably wouldn't be a positive one.  Then again, I'd be curious (and a perhaps little apprehensive) to hear what Camille Paglia might say on the matter.  Were I to write an encomium of Yellowjacket, I might argue that he was under the influence of the devo-ray and therefore acting out his most primal, animal instincts.  Yet at the same time, he refused to kill the Wasp...even though he punched her out (!) in the previous issue.  Does this mean that Thomas Hobbes is wrong?  Even in a "state of nature," man is not truly "nasty or brutish?" Ronan doesn't think so.  He sides with Freud on the action, stating that the only reason Yellowjacket spared the Wasp was so that he could have a mate.  Again, the sex drive wins out.

Speaking of Ronan, he spends most of the issue in histrionics.  He spouts on about his fiendishly clever plan in the way most cliched comic book villains do.  His captives, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Captain Marvel, are forced to hear him prate on ad nauseum.  There is an upside to this however.  We learn that the Kree's motives behind the devo-ray plot are actually rooted in what might be termed "real world" politics.  If Earth is spawning superheroes with powers and abilities above other mortals of the galaxy, might it not be a good idea to get them out of the way of your imperialistic goals?  Sure it is.  Sure it is.

Around time of one of these lectures we see one of the few truly interesting developments in the issue.  The romance between the Vision and the Scarlet Witch actually comes out into the open.  Or close to it, anyway.  Vision expresses disappointment that Scarlet Witch was captured.  Wanda tells him that  it doesn't matter as long as he is all right.  The two come close to kissing.

The couple are then cock-blocked by Ronan erupting in laughter.  An android in love with a mutant.  "Only on Earth!" he might as well have cackled.

Perhaps as karma, Ronan's hilarity is short-lived as an urgent transmission comes from the home star system of the Kree.  A massive scale attack is underway by the Skrulls and the Kree Empire is at war.  At last!  Finally!  We take our first tiny step towards anagnorisis!  There is at least a mention of the title of this story arc.  And we're only three issues in!

Seeing that there are now far more pressing issues to attend to, Ronan and his Kree Sentry activate a transporter beam that sends them back to the Kree homeworld, effectively abandoning the devolution operation.  The Arctic begins to return to normal and the Avengers along with Captain Marvel head for home.

Like I said, not much happening in this ish.  We still don't see the "big" Avengers characters (sorry to keep harping on that, but it's kind of a thing with me) but at least the whole "devo in the arctic" business is laid to rest and we can move on.  Who knows?  There is a ray of hope in this issue that we might actually get to see the Kree-Skrull War, but I remain philosophically skeptical.

I wonder how The New Yorker would review this saga?

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The transhuman prank

For a moment there, I'm sure opponents of transhumanism thought they hit a gold mine.

It was an exclusive interview for Singularity 1-on-1 at the Singularity Weblog.  On April 1st, site founder Nikola Danaylov sat down to interview Chet Getram, CEO of ByoLogic, a "lifestyle biotech firm." The setting of the black and white interview was suitably dank, taking place in a medical facility where dragged body bags and occasional screams punctuated the discourse.

Wait, I should really preface this.  The whole thing starts out with protesters picketing the ByoLogic facility.  Getram steps outside with a megaphone to assuage the crowd.  He is of course flanked by guards in black fatigues and gas masks.

Once in the interview setting, Getram proceeds to tell Nikola about the many exciting products on the way from ByoLogic.  Among these is their latest innovation, ByoRenew, a pill you can take that sets the basis for further subscription upgrades you can purchase, such as immunity from the common cold and up to protecting you from heart disease or cancer.  But what is perhaps the company's biggest upcoming success is ByoBaby.

ByoBaby is a series of serums injected into expectant mothers.  These procedures protect and enhance their fetus.  Latest test versions of ByoBaby have already reached four years old and are performing very well in school.  Nikola asked Getram if ByoBaby and the other technologies have had FDA approval.  Getram pointed out that ByoLogic is Canadian-based and has "a very good relationship" with that nation's version of said agency. "You have to make sure you have the little people on board," Getram said.

Of course if you noted the date of the interview...or even the title of this no doubt recognize that the whole thing was a satirical fabrication.  So April Fools.  This dystopian vision was brought about by Trevor Haldenby, a futurist and designer from Toronto.  He also plays the role of the fictional Chet Getram.  As Haldenby says:

"ByoLogyc’s CEO Chet Getram is a ruthless and manipulative fictional character — a living experiment designed to explore how the language of human-centered design, sustainable business, and social innovation could be used to obscure a nefarious and short-sighted vision of profit as generated by a new biological economy."

He makes a fair point.  I also believe you could view the exaggerated nature of the presentation (see it for yourself) as speaking to the many fears people have regarding transhumanism....and poking fun at them. While the video interview doesn't address cybernetics or uploading, you could easily substitute them in with the ByoLogic products and expect similar reactions.

That said, Haldenby's basic argument stands as valid.  Can we really trust a biotech corporation that just wants us "to live our best possible life?"

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

UFOs: It's all about the swag

I'm back, everyone.  Anything cool happen while I was gone?  Didn't think so.

I asked a question of my students today and in dwelling upon it, I thought it might come about to make a decent post on UFOs.  My question was basic yet rather deep: "what do humans want?"

After a volley of the usuals (e.g. food, shelter, love), one student attempted to answer the question quite succinctly: "swag." We're all about the further accumulation of swag.  This led me to ask myself, "What do UFOs want?" I've posited numerous theories on the matter before with most of them being from the perspective of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis.  I am in the process of greatly reconsidering my stance on that hypothesis so when I've given things more thought, I will elaborate.  For now, I'm just thinking.

So what do other people think UFOs want?  I mean, why are they here?  Well a quick spin about Google tells me that aside from a pervy interest in our butts, there are many who agree with my student: "The aliens are out for swag."

Michael Salla is one of many UFO proponents who asserts there is an alien presence on our moon.  In fact, he goes so far as to argue that both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were threatened with death should they reveal their own UFO experiences from the Moon landing.  After all, a whole two minutes of video footage is missing from the Apollo 11 mission, an incident that NASA attributes to "an overheated camera."  But what were the UFOs doing there in the first place?  Mining Helium-3...a stable isotope of helium that is in abundance on the Moon and has the potential to be an incredible energy source.

I could go into much about Dr. Salla and the whole "exopolitics" scene, but Paul Kimball really took care of it quite handily several years ago.

Still, the "swaggers" (as I have taken to calling them) persist.  They point to the Karnes City incident of 1971.  This is where a UFO appeared over a uranium mine in Texas.  A report from an eyewitness alleges that the UFO shined "hundreds of penlight size lightbeams that alternated in all colors of the spectrum" into the mine.  The uranium ore was turned to a white, chalky substance.  "Many a night I have laid in my bed thinking about what happened," states the witness. "I think the UFO needed the uranium for some reason."

Furthering this line of thinking, supporters of the "aliens are here to plunder our swag" theory point to UFO incidents at military nuclear facilities such as Malmstrom AFB and Rendlesham Forest as well as sightings over nuclear power plants that led witnesses to suspect that the craft were "recharging" over the cooling towers.

While I am still very intrigued by the sightings at the aforementioned military bases, the rest of this really doesn't add up.  In fact it flies in the face of logic.  Elements such as uranium and helium-3 are readily available across the universe.  Why come all the way here for them when you could get them from an asteroid?  On that subject, asteroids would contain many minerals found here on Earth.  Why muck about with an inhabited planet if you just want mineral swag?  Oh wait, what's that you say?  They want our nuclear power?

Again, why?

If such aliens really are behind these sightings, then they must be considerably more advanced than we are and therefore our crude nuclear facilities would hold little value to them (weapons systems, however, might be another story.)  When you're an advanced civilization, why frivol about with such things?  Yet more reason I find their alleged interest in uranium to be laughable.

So I'd say the coveted swag of humanity is safe for the time being.  

At least from aliens.

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