Monday, June 30, 2014

A REAL(?) warlord of Mars?

Every once and again, I encounter a UFO-related story that has a certain effect on me.

I have described that rident effect before as being similar to a response given by Flounder on Animal House:

"Oh boy, is this GREAT!"

By this I mean a story so sensational that it has very little to it in the way of evidence but emits such a pulpy bouquet that I find it undeniably fun.  The narrative of "Captain Kaye" is exemplary of this sort.

Captain Kaye is a retired Marine who claims to have been stationed on Mars for 17 years.  How can that be?  Well it was all part of this secret space program, see.  Apparently we're all over the place up there.  Not just us, but the Russians and the Chinese as well.  In fact, Kaye claims to have been trained on a a secret base on the Moon called Lunar Operations.  The ex-Marine maintains that while training there he learned to pilot three different fighters and bombers built for space.  Good thing too.  For as we're given to understand it, our reach extends beyond the Moon and Mars with chapters established on Saturn's moon Titan and even deeper into space.

But it was Mars where Kaye saw the most action.  What kind of action?  Specifically, defending a colony of humans from the indigenous population of Mars.

"Oh boy is this GREAT!"

"Wait, Jon," you may say.  "The current thought in exobiology is that while Mars might have had water and supported life at one time, it couldn't be much more than microbial lifeforms by this point."

I guess we've been woefully misinformed according to Captain Kaye.  After all, he did 17 years on the planet and the US Mars colony apparently goes back decades before his start date.  In that time we've discovered that not only is there life on Mars but it's considerably more advanced than microbes.

Naturally I've been looking for anything to bear any of this out.  The link above has a video from UFO-TV (and if you can't trust them then just who can you trust?) that I watched.  It told me...nothing.  Hell, you could find out as much fact and fiction about Mars from a Google search.

So then I found this link at UFO Mania.  It too has a video.  This one is from Michael Salla of exopolitics fame and he actually interviews Kaye...or a guy alleging himself to be Kaye.  And it has audio of very dubious quality.  What can be learned about Kaye from the interview?  Well, he doesn't know that "irregardless" is not a word.  Aside from that, the man describes the various installations he has visited on the Moon and Mars as well as the forms of conveyance that brought him to "Forward Station Zebra" of the "Mars Defense Force."

His briefing described the indigenous lifeforms as savage insectoids and reptoids.  Kaye found out later that this was not the case and the Martians are a "very evolved species with quite a bit of technology, quite a bit of civilization."  The rest of it sounds like something from various Hollywood films, including his time in captivity among reptoids.

While there isn't a shred of evidence for this tale, I would like it to be true for one reason only.  Kaye claims that his retirement ceremony on the Moon was attended by various "VIPs" and among them was Donald Rumsfeld.

Rummy on the Moon?  Did he bounce around in zero g while reciting poetry?

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Friday, June 27, 2014

Fish, insect, and bat drones. Oh my!

For the "it sounds like a cyberpunk story" file.

Biotechnology has been co-opted into the design of the next generation of drones.  In fact, it is nature itself providing the inspiration for the robots.  You can see a few of these designs at this link from the BBC.

The journal of Bioinspiration and Biomimetics features 14 different research teams and their robotic developments.  Many of these designs are based on birds, insects, and even snakes.  The reason for this is rather humbling.  Drones don't fare well in high winds.  Butterflies, hummingbirds, and even pigeons on the other hand do just fine.  What can be learned from this in regard to wing structure?

For that matter, what can a bat teach us about drone design?  That was the creature one set of innovators chose to emulate.  Turns out that a bat's membrane wings are ideal in terms of form, flexibility, and ability to absorb shock and impact.  "They deform instead of breaking," explained Prof. David Lentink of Stanford University. "They are also adapting better to the airflow because they're so flexible."

Insects are another model of choice. Tiny robots with optical sensors based on insect eyes would allow for them to navigate in narrow, confined areas such as urban environs.  Harvard University has developed an insect-sized drone that is built out of carbon fiber and weighs less than a gram.  Building on insect capabilities, it is also thought that these drones could coordinate efforts in a swarm pattern.

Imagine that.

While the design teams interviewed by the BBC all stressed that drone development must be undertaken with a focus on ethics and benefiting society, one must remain skeptical.  Not of the motivations of these fine people but of what happens when the technological genii is out of the bottle.  These kinds of things inevitably make their way onto the battlefield.  More than that, they often end up entirely changing just how humans fight wars.

The small size of these drones make them ideal for surveillance and gathering intelligence.  As they get smaller and maybe approach a micro size, which it is only logical that they would, such devices could infiltrate and exfiltrate with little or no detectable signs.  And what of the aforementioned "swarm functions?"  Wetworks, anyone?

Robot drones aren't even confined to the air anymore.  There are plenty of varieties that travel underwater such as the kind employed in the search for Flight 370.  Military applications likewise abound for these drones too.  China currently has access to a shark-like unmanned drone with long range capabilities.  These fishy things could be deployed for minesweeping missions that would otherwise be too dangerous for people or for submarine detection/monitoring or for the perennial espionage mission.  Of course likening it to a shark has me thinking about silly things like robo-sharks with lasers for eyes.

Guess I'll write yet another cyberpunk story after all.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

More news on Grendel meets The Shadow

If you heard the "squee!" of a comic book geek coming from somewhere in the Midwest recently, well...that was me.

More information has come forward from Matt Wagner on his upcoming crossover of Grendel and The Shadow.  Most of you loyal ESE readers know what a fan I am of Grendel: Devil by the Deed.  I just love the idea of a comic book series centered around a criminal and not very nice guy such as Hunter Rose.  He's charismatic, he's a wealthy man-about-town, he's a philanthropist, and he also happens to be the bloody scourge of the criminal underworld.  Not out of any real altruism, mind you but rather to rig the game for himself.  Oh yeah and he's a writer.  Specifically, a famous and wealthy one known for his disquieting and controversial works about societal norms.  As both a writer and an artist, Wagner has yet to top this integral creation in my opinion.  That would indeed be a difficult thing to do.

But crossing him over with The Shadow is great start.  How, you might ask, will the contemporary Grendel fit into the milieu of the classic pulp and radio drama character?  Well in the linked article, Wagner announces that he has made the smart decision (in my opinion, anyway) of placing Grendel in the Shadow's native time period of the 1940s.  As Wagner says:

"Grendel as Hunter Rose is almost a character out of time. He seems like a character who kind of missed the Golden Age of America in the '30s and '40s -- the times he would have loved to have lived in. Especially the American urban scene and the American art scene of that time and the Hollywood high style and fashion realities. In my "Grendel" narrative, Hunter's life takes place in the early to mid '80s, so I have to find a way to put these two characters together."

Indeed, the art deco style of Grendel is likely a better fit for the 1930s and 40s, that era where, as Wagner points out, every man wore a hat and cities had actual shadows.

I am at once intrigued and apprehensive about what might transpire with the characters' personalities.  For one thing, both the true identities and the alter egos of these guys are rather similar. Both of them blur the line of good and evil and both are merciless, granting their enemies no quarter.  These two are on a collision course and the common people of New York City better hope they're not in the way when it happens.  A blithesome romp this will not be.

On the other hand, the character of Hunter Rose was very much formed out of a tragic love affair that ended in heartbreak and death.  This is something I identified and still identify with so much.  If he is placed as existing before that time, will that tragedy still have occurred?  Will he still be the Hunter Rose we know?  Hope so.

Regardless, I'll gladly fork over my money and find out.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Are you in a cult?

A winding and twisty road unfolds in this post.  Be forewarned.

I saw an article in The Atlantic entitled "The Seven Signs You're in a Cult."  In it, a man describes his involvement with a college prayer group that disintegrated into madness and sadly even the death of one of its members.  Cited in the article are seven ways one can discern a cult from a religious community as formulated by the founder of the International House of Prayer (yes, they do abbreviate as "IHOP."  How is that even a thing?)  Among these attributes are:

-Opposition to critical thinking.
-Emphasizing special doctrines outside of scripture.
-Seeking inappropriate loyalty to their leader.
-Isolating members and penalizing them for leaving.

"Sheeee-oot," I thought.  "This could describe any number of religions."  But I digress...

That's when I started thinking.  I was reminded of something Francis Ford Coppolla allegedly said to George Lucas.  He said that Lucas should seriously consider starting a religion based upon the concept of The Force from Star Wars.  "Movies make money but religion is power," Coppolla is said to have gushed.

He's right.  So maybe I should start my own cult?

From just a quick Google search, I found that there are plenty of self-help resources out there to help one do just that.  I especially like this one from the Huffington Post as it distills the process into seven easy steps (again, seven seems to have numerological appeal to the quasi-spiritual set.)  Here they are:

-Create your own reality in an isolated location.
My Grandma has a farm in the middle of nowhere Ohio.  Check!

-Next, set the leader (that's me) as the only one with the keys to paradise.
It says the leader also has an inner circle.  I'm drawing up a short list of names.  'Nuff said!

-Keep making increasing demands of followers and have them turn over all their possessions.
I can do that.

-Keep turning out stories about the greatness of the leader.  The more unbelievable the better.
This could be tough as I'm very self-deprecating.  However, I have one hell of an imagination.  Maybe I can embellish a few of my true life experiences.  Bullets bounced off of me in Haiti, a Montana grizzly bear ran in fear from my presence, Natalie Portman uncontrollably disrobed immediately upon meeting me (in reality it was Ernest Borgnine), etc.

-Have the cult members recruit more converts, growing your numbers and solidifying their commitment.
Well that's just basic Amway logic.

-Keep everybody busy.  The busier they are, the less time they have for critical thought.
That's easy.  When they're not doing the grunt work necessary to keep up the compound, I'll have them watch daytime TV.  I'll also limit food intake.  People don't think well when they're peckish.

-Keep the flock fixed on the carrot.  The payoff is just around the corner.
Hmmm.  I'll have to figure out what kind of "rapture" these people will receive.
Hell, I guess the old standby of "the spaceship is coming to pick us up" will fit the bill.

I think this could work.  The International Alliance for JN will grow in power and influence.  Its members will work their way into the highest levels of the government, the legal system, the media, pro sports, and breweries.  Conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones will claim to expose my evil plan of dissolving Congress, suspending the Constitution, and ruling by decree.  He'd actually be quite perceptive for once as that would be my plan.  No matter.  I'll be sitting on a throne before he knows it, wearing my black robe and telling him "Everything that has transpired has been so according to my design."

I for one believe you should welcome your new geeky transhuman overlord.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Deforestation, climate change, and a world on fire

I was contacted by a blog follower today.

His name is Aldo Baker and having read a few of my posts about climate change, he nicely passed along this infographic on the disappearing woodlands of our world.  Here are few of the more sobering points about deforestation:

-Between 46,000 to 58,000 square miles of forest are destroyed every year.
-That is equal to 36 football fields worth of trees destroyed every five minutes.

Still unimpressed?  Well then look at the parts that my eyes zeroed in on:

-The world's forests store 1 trillion tons of carbon.
-That number is twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

So fewer trees guessed it...nothing around to absorb CO2 so...

-Deforestation accounts for 15% of all greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

More CO2 in the atmosphere means climate change.  Seems like a simple equation, right?  Why there is any further garboil over the matter is beyond me.  Oh wait...politics.  Yeah.  That's right.

After looking at these issues for a while, one can amalgamate them into an interconnected picture.  For example, deforestation by burning is thought to account for over one fifth of humanity's carbon emissions since the Industrial Revolution. These fires have helped bring about climate change.  As temperatures rise, regions can become dry and more susceptible to wildfire.  That leads us right back to fires that a) cause even more deforestation, b) destroy property and endanger lives, and c) cause ice to melt in the polar caps.

A little more on that latter point is necessary I'm thinking.

Back in 2012, a wildfire 136 square miles in size burned through Colorado.  Dry trees were a contributing factor in this blaze but it was the observations of a glaciologist that granted the fires an additional danger.  Soot from these fires actually contributed to ice melt in Greenland.

Soot collected in the atmosphere reduces the ability of ice and snow to reflect solar radiation.  So the heat gets absorbed, the temperature rises, and ice melts.  This means rising sea levels and must have the idea by now.

Want to help stop the effects of deforestation?  Want to take ownership of your world's environment?  Then I urge you to revisit Aldo Baker's infographic to learn about buying reusable, reclaimed, and upcycled products.

On a programming note, I am now giving posts such as these the label tag "Man of Mirth." I figure it's a snarky response to those who might see me as something of downer.

Heaven forbid we discuss serious matters that concern the whole damn planet.

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Monday, June 23, 2014

LSD simulation and "brain hacking"

I have never done hardcore illicit drugs.

I suppose that's just one more mark in the "boring" column for me in many people's eyes.  Oh well.
There is one substance, however, that piques my curiosity but never enough to get me to actually try it.  That is LSD.  The health threats combined with its illegal status were always enough to scare me off.  That and the fact that my imagination is so vivid and often dark that I'd probably wet myself and cower in a corner, thinking that bats and drakes were spewing out of light fixtures and my car was talking to me like Speed Buggy.  I mean, how humiliating to have somebody find me there rocking back and forth in a puddle of my own filth muttering, "I'm all alone in this world...I'm all alone in this world..."

And yet...

And yet...

I am left wondering if LSD truly can transport one to a higher state of consciousness?  As Terrence McKenna said:

"My notion of what the psychedelic experience is, for us, that we each must become like fishermen, and go out on to the dark ocean of mind, and let our nets down into that sea. And what you're after is not some behemoth, that will tear through your nets, follow them and drag you in your little boat, you know, into the abyss, nor are what we're looking for a bunch of sardines that can slip through your net and disappear. Ideas like, "Have you ever noticed that your little finger exactly fits your nostril?" and stuff like that."


Well if you've ever been curious about what an LSD hallucination is like but don't actually want to take the drug itself, it turns out there are brain hacks one can employ to simulate the experience.

In the 1930s, a researcher named Wolfgang Metzger found that sensory deprivation can lead to hallucination and it's something you can easily do from within your own home.  Using an MP3 player (I'm assuming Wolfgang used something else in the 1930s), headphones, a ping-pong ball, and a red light.

Geez, sounds like list of what MacGyver would use to build a nuclear reactor.  But I digress...

Download white noise onto the MP3 player and plug in. Turn the red light on. Cut the ping-pong ball in half and tape them to your eyelids, making sure that no light can get through the seal.  As the linked article claims, this should induce all manner of nifty hallucinations as images will supposedly just come to you.  If you decide to attempt this...and I am by no means encouraging you to or telling you that you should...please make sure to come back here to the comments section and let us know all about your experience.  Hey, at least it seems relatively benign to your health and it won't get you in trouble with the law.

There are also any number of YouTube videos that claim to simulate the experience of LSD.  Here's just one of them.   I can't vouch for how realistic the experience is for as I said, never touched the stuff.  The comments section offers varying opinions but that's typical.

YouTube comments are something like a Purgatory on earth.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Life that thrives on radiation

I recently saw Godzilla.

It's already received plenty of flak and a full review from ESE might be in the offing, but for now I want to concentrate on a few thoughts the film generated for me.  Namely, can there really be organisms that thrive on radiation?

Turns out there are.  The first example that I found goes all the way back to 1995, although the initial discovery of the lifeform is listed as 1956.  This article from New Scientist (you'll need to register to read the whole thing, sorry) speaks of a form of bacterium called Deinococcus radiodurans that can absorb several thousand times the amount of radiation that would kill a human.  Each one of these bacterium carry several copies of their single-loop chromosome, allowing them to survive breaks and splits in the DNA chain.

Closer to our present time is this 2006 post based on an article appearing in Science.  Several hearty researchers descended into gold mines in South Africa and uranium mines elsewhere, braving natural gas and extreme to find water-filled fractures as yet uncontaminated by humans.  The findings in the uranium mines were of particular interest.

The microscopic organisms in those locations two miles down cannot, of course, obtain sunlight.  Instead, they rely upon radiation from the uranium.  The radiation creates hydrogen from decomposed water and that in turn leads to reactions between hydrogen and sulfate.  The organisms live off of the chemical waste.

Even better.  A 2007 piece from Science Daily tells of fungi that devour radiation as an energy source.  While not as sophisticated as the massive kaiju featured in the film, fungi are much more complex organisms than bacteria and that alone is compelling.

What this means for us is not nearly as significant as the implications for exobiology.  Space is full of deadly radiation.  This, it turns out, may not prevent life from forming on the micro scale and living...perhaps even thriving...just beneath the rocky surface of planets and asteroids previously thought to be entirely barren.  Granted it would likely not be intelligent life, but it would be solid evidence of life existing off of our planet.

Then again, that brings to mind a few interesting scenarios.  What if there are highly intelligent microorganisms?  What if they survive via a parasitic arrangement?  By that, I mean they inhabit the body of a larger, intelligent lifeform such as humans.  The tiny organisms, however, are fully self-aware and in control of their host.  Are they already here?  Might explain a few things.

I'm sure it's been done.

Even better.  What kinds of life will we find in Fukushima one day?

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Thursday, June 19, 2014


Who's the black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks?
Right on.

I am quite sure you're having trouble getting the melodious sounds of Isaac Hayes out of your head right now.  You're welcome.  Come on, it won an Oscar.  If it doesn't suit you, blame Obama.  Everybody else seems to.

But I post this because Dynamite Comics has announced a new line of comic books based on the character of Shaft.

Shut yo' mouth.
Just talkin' 'bout Shaft.

For the uninitiated, John Shaft was a tough character played by Richard Roundtree in a series of "blaxsploitation" films in the 1970s (see the above poster for the first one.)  Shaft was a private detective of portent in Harlem.  In the first movie he gets hired by a mafia kingpin to rescue his kidnapped daughter.  Here's a trailer for that film:

If you're looking for a version of more recent provenance:

What I was unaware of until reading the Shaft post over at Dorkland! was that the character of Shaft originated in a series of pulp books.  The books were written by Ernest Tidyman.  Tidyman wanted to create an African American version of James Bond.  In the linked story at Comic Vine, Tidyman was quoted as saying on Shaft's origins: "It was time for a black winner, whether he was a private detective or an obstetrician."

It will certainly be interesting to see how Shaft's exploits play out in comic book form.  What may be especially interesting to see is if Dynamite Comics will crossover Shaft with any of their numerous other properties?  Can you imagine Shaft meeting The Green Hornet?  Or the Six Million Dollar Man?  Or even better...Vampirella?

Just talkin' 'bout Shaft.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Mercury in retrograde

I am not a fan of astrology.

Yeah, yeah, go ahead.  Mock me for my interest in matters such as UFOs and other weirdness while eschewing horoscopes.  It's hard enough to walk into a library or bookstore in search of UFO literature and knowing I have to look in the "New Age" or "Metaphysics" sections.  Amid the numerous tomes of year-to-date horoscopes and witchcraft, crystals, and "channeling," I might find a decent book or two.


For me, the subjects are two totally different cars parked in totally different garages.  Like it or not there is evidence for UFO phenomena.  There is no evidence for astrology.  In fact, physicist John McGervey looked at the professions of 23,000 people.  No tendency to cluster in occupations according to Zodiac sign was found.  Psychologist Bernard Silverman surveyed 2500 married and divorcing couples.  No connection could be found between "compatibility stars" and who split and who stayed.  Astronomers Culver and Ianna tracked the predictions of astrologers for celebrities over a five year period.  Less than 10% of the predictions came true.

So why am I bothered by this "Mercury in retrograde" nonsense?

I noticed it mentioned on news sites.  Having heard the phrase and being vaguely aware that it was not good astrological news, I got curious.  Turns out the whole thing is a mixture of science fact and New Age hoo-hah.

Starting on Friday, June 7th, the planet Mercury will move in retrograde.  That means it will move in a manner that seems opposite to the other bodies of our solar system.  True story.

Here's where it gets weird.  Astrologers profess that each planet exerts a unique influence on us and how we live.  Not sure what "invisible vibes" they're talking about, especially when it comes to birth signs.  Hell, any baby is exposed to orders of magnitude more radiation at the time of birth by the lights and tech in the hospital than anything from space.  But I digress...

Anyway, when Mercury goes retrograde, all hell breaks loose.  Travel delays, technological malfunctions, troubles communicating, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.  I was all set last week to write critique of this notion, ready to take on any and all scofflaws of astrology with my typical wit, aplomb, and snark.

Then things started to happen.

-Ghost Dogg and I tried to see the new X-Men movie.  The satellite link at the theater failed and we never saw it.

-I spent yesterday morning racing about in search of a flash drive I thought was lost and gone forever and with it 200 pages of my new novel.  Where was it?  On my desk, exactly where I left it.

-There are contract re-negotiations at work.  Nothing bad, but it's been a zany back and forth process.

-I've had unusual problems with my email.

-I'm dealing with a student in crisis.

-I've had friends report an increase in daily chaos and struggles involving kids and pets.

-My personal life is in a bit of upheaval with all manner of exits and entrances rocking the boat.

I just want to take this opportunity to ask the universe "What gives?"

I'm well aware that I'm probably committing the logical fallacy of "confirmation bias." I'm looking for a common cause to explain the current storm and "Mercury in retrograde" would be a convenient one.  I've tried looking to see if there is any credible source that endorses astrology outside of the actual movements of celestial objects.

I found Esoterica.  It is an academic journal published out of Michigan State University.  It's fully peer-reviewed and covers "alchemy, astrology, Gnosticism, gnosis, magic, mysticism, Rosicrucianism, and secret societies, and their ramifications in art history, history, literature, and politics."  While that sounds like fascinating academic reading, it doesn't really get at what I need.  I probably need to find like a yogi or oracle who can consult the stars and tell me what to do.

Like, what kind of whammy can I put on Mercury to get this shit to stop?

So there's this: The Oracle of Starbucks.  Enter your most commonly ordered drink and it will tell you exactly who and what you are.  It says I'm completely boring and lame.  Like I needed a coffee oracle to tell me that.  Score another for Mercury.

Turns out there's not much you can do but ride this "Mercury in retrograde" period out.  Don't make any agreements, don't travel, don't buy new gear, don't take people's comments too seriously, and so forth until this all blows over on July 1st (or as late as the 7th, depending on which astrologer you want to believe) and Mercury goes direct.

Good thing I don't believe in this stuff.

I guess.

Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Mars: extroverts need not apply

I may be well-suited for space travel after all.

Extroverts, while having an advantage with most things in life, are not ideal personality types for prolonged flights through space.  This as found in research from DePaul University (go Blue Demons!) The Atlantic article where I found the study frames the results in terms of a Mars expedition.  Logical I suppose for Mars is the longest manned mission currently being planned.  Also, it's a one-way trip.  You're not coming back.

It's not too difficult to discern why extroverts might not be good fits for a mission to Mars.  As a member of such a crew, you would be one of several people in a confined space for...well, the rest of your life in one way or another.  Whether it's "floating in a tin can" as the venerable David Bowie would say or living and working within the colony structures, you will again know the feeling of being truly "outside." Try putting yourself in the place of an introverted or at least more reserved crew member as somebody comes into your compartment bouncing like a tennis ball and wanting to talk your ear off.  Most of us have had it happen either at work meetings, dreadful parties, or road trips.  In fact, that latter example may well underscore the point.

As the study found:

"In one study of a spacecraft simulation, an extroverted team member was ostracized by two other members who were more reserved, Bell said. 'They thought he was too brash, and would speak his mind too much, and talk too much.' "

And the questions.  Geez, their incessant questions!

I want to be fair to extroverts for a moment.  There are a few that I genuinely like having around me.  In the classroom they help lead to engaging and often productive discussions.  On a personal level they help me to get my views out and to talk things through.  They are also great sources of comfort in times of dismay.  In further support of extroverts...and no, I am not transfiguring into one before your eyes...they would likely find great suffering on Mars.  They require prolonged interpersonal contact and with as much of a variety of people as possible.  Long stretches of isolation would no doubt be murderous for them.

Wow.  Mars is sounding more and more appealing to me by the moment.

Nah, I'm not so sure I mean that anymore.  Mars ain't the kind of place to find happiness.

In fact it's cold as hell.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

How weird landscapes form

A "face" and other alleged structures on Mars are topics that pop up on these pages from time to time.

Prevailing thought is...and with good reason...that these formations are due to to a process called "differential erosion."  I recently found a nifty article that sheds a bit of light on how this works.

The integrity of rocks is variable depending on chemical composition and the conditions under which the rock in question was formed.  Different parts of the same rock can have different levels of hardness and durability.  As the article says:

"Minerals that form under surface conditions of temperature, pressure, and moisture are most resistant to weathering at the surface, while minerals that form deep within the Earth are weakest at the surface. Rocks that are crystalline solids are more resistant to weathering, while those with cracks, joints, and fractures have more exposed surface area prone to weathering. When rocks with different weathering properties are adjacent to each other, the result can be beautiful."

Indeed the surface of Mars is an example given at the page of differential erosion.  Sandstone with variable resistance to erosion shows itself in a stair-step pattern.  Weaker sandstone flattens while the stronger remains relatively intact, giving the appearance of a steep stair.  It's therefore easy to see why someone may mistake such formations as artificial.  As an aside, it's rather marvelous to me how the pic from Mars looks like it might just as easily come from someplace like Egypt or the Southwest U.S. rather than another planet.

Speaking of places closer to home, the link has several other examples of these kinds of weird formations right here on Earth.  One of these is Goblin Valley, Utah.  Once again we're dealing with sandstone layers of variable strength.  As the weaker parts are stripped away by wind, a free-standing, bowling pin-like blob is left.  Check out the pic.  While it might not look like an army of goblins to fantasy gamers, it at the very least resembles a mob of sandy-colored penguins.

Which sounds like a helluva lot of fun now that I say it.

Let us not forget the force of water when it comes to erosion.  The Sea Stacks of Italy are a great example of water at work.  Note the cavern and bridge shapes resulting from weaker strata at sections of the base.

But what of the notorious "face?" Turns out there are plenty of erosion-formed faces around here as well.  The Weather Channel has an entire list of them.  I am especially enamored of the "Sphinx of Romania." It's got a Castle Grayskull quality to it.  It's really a game of staring up at puffy clouds and discerning non-existent "faces" or if not nonexistent then organic and unintentional.

Hey!  What's that one look like to you?

Shatner.  It looks like William Shatner.

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Friday, June 13, 2014

"Left Behind"

"The missionaries tell us we will be left behind

Been left behind a thousand times, a thousand times."  --Arcade Fire

I finally sat down with Bernard (Ghost Dogg) and watched the first of film in the Left Behind series.

As I've conjectured, it was predictably hilarious.  Kirk Cameron turned in a performance that was supposed to make somebody somewhere believe that he was "action journalist" Buck Williams where he pledges to "drive it to the bone" on any story.  Speaking of pulpish character names, I need to give a tip that you can take with you throughout life.  If you run into a guy named "Nicolae Carpathia" it's a pretty good bet that he'll be an antagonist in your own story.

But something really bothered me about the film and it wasn't just the craft (or lack thereof).

It was the attitude.

Only in my most dour and gothy moments of melancholia have I actively longed for the apocalypse.  For an idea of what I mean by that description, just listen to Morrissey's "Every Day is like Sunday."  "Come armageddon, come armageddon, nuclear war."  As I've mentioned many times, nuclear war has and still does scare me.  That's why I chose the mushroom cloud pic for this post.

Yet the fandom that sprang up around the Left Behind series of books and movies seems to anticipate the end of all that is with a certain amount of glee.  They might even see themselves as attempting to manifest it.  After all, only the most righteous, only the most worthy devotees, only the real Christian believers who have rationalized away any sense of guilt and emboldened themselves with a special place in creation via faith alone will be raptured up and saved.  Everybody else will pay for their transgressions and infidelity by becoming ambulant wretches muddling about in the aftermath.  It's the ultimate "I'm better than you, so nyahhh."

Funny how that came about from a religion that is supposedly built on love and compassion.

Funny how often that dichotomy becomes apparent in the members of the faith.

I will check myself, however, from pointing too many fingers.  It's been argued that I and other transhumanists have our own sense of rapture.  "Transhuman technology will (truly) arrive, we'll leave our human forms behind, and we will find ourselves in a much better world."  I don't mean to speak for all transhumanists.  Not in any sense.  It's my own wishful thinking sometimes and perhaps that of others as well.  Inherent within it is also a sense that those who opposed such a merger with technology will not be as well off.  I confess that makes me uneasy.  At its root, it may not be all that dissimilar from the notion that "One day, God will come down and make everything right."

That line of quasi-dogmatic, judgmental rhetoric should make anybody queasy.

So if you're looking forward to the End Times and the fact that you will be saved while others are punished, you may need to re-evaluate your sense of ethics.  Reminds me of what Trent says.  "Down on your knees or be left behind."  Conversion by the sword, anyone?

Then again, as the immanently quotable Bernard Sell says: "Ha!  Joke's on them!  I'm the coolest guy around."

"If you're looking for hell, just try looking inside
If you want to be righteous, if you want to be righteous

Get in line"  --Arcade Fire

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Kree-Skrull War, pt. 9

At last!  We have finally reached the end!

Our deconstruction of the comic book epic that is the Kree-Skrull War wraps up in issue #97 of Avengers.

As per logic, we pick up where we left off.  Rick Jones is back in the Negative Zone, confronting Annihilus.  Lucky for him, Rick finds that he can shoot energy beams out of his forehead that blast Annihilus.  Both Rick and the reader are confused.  Annihilus is none to clear on the matter, either.  "What bedeviling bolt is this?  From out of nowhere?"

Rick basically wills himself back to the cell he shares with the Kree Supreme Intelligence.  The latter explains, in a sort of meta-fiction, that Rick had these crazy powers all along.  All humans do and it's called imagination. “Stored deep within your mind, boy," the Supreme Intelligence continues to gloze. "During the childhood which is the greatest impresser of memories — are heroes to equal even the Mighty Avengers!”

Thus, Rick thinks back to comic books he read while growing up in an orphanage and wills the Golden Age, Nazi-fighting superheroes known as The Invaders into existence to fight Ronan and his Kree soldiers.  His powers also enable him to paralyze all Kree and Skrull forces, whether on foot or in spaceships, across the galaxy.  This even has consequences on Earth.

While giving an alien-bashing stump speech, Senator H. Warren Craddock is revealed to the world as a Skrull.  A mob rushes him and beats him to death...victim of the very xenophobic hate he himself stirred up.

The Supreme Intelligence reiterates that all humans have Rick's abilities inside of them and one day in the future they will know how to best utilize it.  For Rick it's just too much and he doesn't know how to handle it.  Spent, he passes out.  The Supreme Intelligence tells Captain Marvel that the only way to spare Rick is for Mar'Vell to merge with him once more, giving him his "lifeforce." The Captain protests, pointing out that this will render Rick a prisoner once more.  The brainy Supreme Intelligence says it's the only way so Captain Marvel goes through with it.

Then the Avengers go home.

As you can see, there's really no resolution to the Kree-Skrull War.  In fact the conflict will rage on in future Marvel comic books.  All of the subplots, e.g. Rick's new powers, the Skrulls own "game of thrones," the Vision-Scarlet Witch romance, etc. will have to wait for later.  As a story arc, this ends on a weak note as it just...ends.  Sadly, such divergent and permanently loose threads are a prominent feature of the storyline.  In his afterword, writer Roy Thomas cites difficulties with deadlines for much of this.  However, I think there's a reason.  Here's where I really guess at a writer's motivations.

Upon analysis, I posit that Thomas intended this whole epic as a think piece.  That's right.  A think piece not only on the happenings of his times but on the whole of human nature.  There's the McCarthy commentary on racism and the tendency of people to blindly hate.  A nice literary piece of poetic justice is Craddock's end.  There is the underlying grimness, the turbulence, the postmodern realization that "heroes are people too" and have as many warts and flaws as anyone.  What can save us?

In a way, Golden Age values.  Bright characters that turn off the dark.  I won't say that Roy Thomas foresaw the era of non-stop "grim and gritty" comic books on the horizon, populated by semi-psychotic anti-heroes, but boy it's quite a coincidence.  A statement?  A call for a "return to values?" Maybe.  Perhaps more likely is a comment that our salvation as a species must be found in the better sides of ourselves.  Namely, our imaginations and our capacity to create great things.  We must have faith in the goodness of humanity.

What I do know from Thomas' afterword is that he did intend to give us the perspective of a tiny nation as the battleground for the conflict of two other superpowers.  He cites This Island Earth (the novel) as inspiration as well as Pacific islands during World War II.  Mix with the sense of impending nuclear doom of the Cold War, shake, serve, and you've got the nugget of a great idea.

Too bad it didn't quite turn out that way.

Wow.  Glad that's all done.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Transhuman Smithsonian

Last month's issue of Smithsonian Magazine centered on several aspects of transhumanism.

It was positive overall and I thought I'd do a post on the what the issue covered.  The "fun" stuff was looking at how science fiction affects our perceptions of what the future holds.  As to what fantastical innovations people are most open to, an article based on data from the Pew Research Center was not entirely encouraging.  The majority of the respondents, weighing in at 29%, chose "Don't Know" as to what sci-fi-inspired invention they would most welcome.  The runner up at 11% was "None/Don't Care." Yay people!

The next closest answer of any real merit is 9% of people responding that they are looking forward to "improved health and longevity." Hard to argue with that.  What are people opposed to?  Seems that lab-grown meat and driverless cars are not a popular idea.  Personally I think that's a gut reaction and that attitudes towards both innovations will change once they are able to be implemented in a cost-effective way and they are proven safe.  These are still rather new technologies so there is a bit of a way to go to drive out the bugs that inevitably arise in the system.  People are also quite leery over forays into brain implants solely to enhance memory and intelligence.

The Smithsonian also talked to Patrick Stewart about transhumanism.  It seemed an odd choice at first, even if I am an enormous geek, but Stewart had insightful things to say on the subject.

"I hope that the moral questions will be addressed as enthusiastically as the technical questions when it comes to artificial intelligence," he said.  Stewart then goes on to say that if we create a lifeform that has independent thought, even if it's a robot, but we keep it under control, is that any different than slavery?   Indeed this is the kind of important question I ask my students.  We obviously don't have human rights under control as it is.  What happens when we begin creating artificial lifeforms?  Will they get even fewer rights just because they are creations or "property?" Then there's modifying the human personage to enhance intellectual capabilities or to be able to see invisible bands of the spectrum or even just to live longer and healthier.  If we change us, does that change our rights?  Stewart seems to think that for at least right now "we are as good as it gets." Maybe but I'm looking forward to taking evolution under our control.

But a stand-out article for me was a look at Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) through electronic brain implants.  The idea behind this is one I have described before on these pages, namely that the recipient gets a "pacemaker for the brain." The device essentially bridges "broken circuits" in the brain, sending electrical impulses through the implanted electrodes to areas of the brain affected by movement  and emotional disorders such as Parkinson's, dystonia, and even depression.  In other words the goal is to restore movement and to alleviate pain.

In relation to that, I've long been interested in how transhuman technology might be used to erase emotions.  Seriously.  Get rid of them.  Please.  My existence would be improved considerably (even if my writing might not be) if I could at least dull my emotions without the physical harm that serious drugs cause.  To get as close to flat or neutral would enhance my productivity and quality of life greatly.  I can't seem to find too much on that subject, aside from the paranoid rantings of Alex Jones that transhumanists are going to turn everyone into soulless machines.

Me?  I say bring it on.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Buck Rogers for Ten Bucks

Can you put a price on science fiction?

I guess you can put a price on anything.  Regardless, a good bargain is something this working class geek can certainly appreciate.  And man did I ever find a great one.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  Starring Gil Gerard.  The entire series.  For just $10.

Let me repeat that so it sinks in.

Buck Rogers.  Staring Gil Flippin' Gerard.  The entire series.  Ten bucks.

Yes!  I had feared this treasure of late 70s, early 80s television had been consigned to digital purgatory, the demand for its transfer to DVD just not being large enough.  This is one instance where I'm just fine having life make me out to be a prevaricator.

Produced by the legendary Glen Larson of Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers was yet another attempt by Hollywood to cash in on Star Wars fever.  So if you're going to do that, why not go classic and draft the one of the original "space guy" heroes?  NBC revived the classic Buck Rogers franchise from the 1930s serials and gave it an updated look.  For the 70s, I mean.

The story begins with astronaut Buck Rogers (Gerard) awakening in the 25th Century after being frozen inside his spaceship.  This is quite a shock to poor Buck as he was launched in 1987 (in the story, anyway.)  He now finds himself as a man both without a time and a nation.  You see, human civilization was leveled in a nuclear exchange not too long after Buck left Earth.  Humanity now lives in futuristic, utopian, crystalline cities amid the ruins.

It is one of these Mega Cities (ahem) called New Chicago that Buck meets the cast of characters for his series.  They range from the super sexy to the annoying.  I'll start with the latter.

Remember Twiki?  He was the robot with the grating voice ("bee-dee-bee-dee-bee-dee") who was obviously intended for comic relief...but failed at it.  He was even voiced by Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, et. al.) and that still didn't make him funny.  One interesting touch was that Twiki was often tasked with carrying around Dr. Theopolis, a sentient AI contained in a disc that attached to the robot's chest plate.

Then there's Erin Gray as Col. Wilma Deering.  Not much I can say about her other than she helped get me through puberty.  Her in those skintight spacesuits were almost enough to make forget about Twiki.  Almost.


Buck was not without his challenges in the 25th Century.  Earth faced threats at home (the Sandpeople-like mutants of the radioactive wasteland) and from out there (the Draconians).  Every episode however, Buck bested each threat as an action hero capable of the greatest feats of derring-do. Then things changed up for the second season.

At that point, Buck and the majority of his cohorts joined the crew of a ship called the Searcher on a journey into space to find "lost tribes of humanity" that scattered from Earth after the nuclear war.  If that sounds like Larson's Battlestar Galactica, you'd be right.  If it weren't for the fact that each show was owned by a separate network, it's not that much of a stretch to think we could have had a kick ass crossover.

Wow.  Pardon me while I change my pants.

The second season also saw the addition of an alien named Hawk and the villainy of a space vampire.  See below:

I could go on for pages.  Really.  It is, however, getting late.

And I have a case of beer and literally hours of Buck Rogers to waste my life on.

A Gold Key Comics issue of Buck Rogers I actually remember owning.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

The UFOs of September

Tonight's post is concerned with UFO activity specifically on September 12th, 1952.

A numerologist or astrologer might have fun with the fact that I would be born exactly 19 years after that date.  I've never placed much any credence in astrology, but with my lousy day today, I am somewhat open to this theory of "Mercury in retrograde."  But I digress...

I found out about this UFO convergence from Lesley Gunter on Facebook.  Lesley has been a contributor for UFO Magazine and indeed this story comes from the blog of said publication.  A researcher named Frank Feschino, Jr. asserts that he has determined that on September 12th (my birthday...plug plug) of 1952, an unprecedented level of UFO activity took place over the United States.  In all, Feschino claims to have uncovered some 21 sustained hours of sightings.  These sightings were of objects of varying shapes, including ovals, cigars, tops, and of course the old stand-by, saucers.  It seems that the majority of the reported shapes fall in that latter category.

These sightings stretched across an area from North Carolina to Ohio.  More startling even than the multitude of UFO sightings themselves is the claim that these incidents included both landings and crashes.  Feschino claims that a few of these UFO landings seemed to be making an effort to rescue and recover said crashes.  Granted I don't know what he bases that on, but the blog post did have space for that so I will need to read the full report.

But it gets better.  The date of September 12th, 1952 should be a familiar one if you've read through enough UFO lore and not just because it's my birthday, a fact I have now successfully plugged ad nauseum.  It is, in fact, the date of the Flatwoods Monster incident in West Virginia.  This was a Close Encounter of Third Kind involving several witnesses with an entity best described as...well, click the link and see for yourself.  This encounter occurred in conjunction with a fair amount of UFO activity in the Flatwoods area as Frank Feschino outlines in his book on the subject of the Flatwoods case.

Apparently, if this research is correct, Flatwoods was far from the only location in the Eastern U.S. to be experiencing high strangeness of the UFO variety.  There is, however, another strange and even sadder dimension to this case.

The whole summer of 1952 seems to have been one of intensive UFO activity.  Just over a month before this day of massive sightings, the airspace over Washington D.C. came under veritable siege by UFOs.  The objects were seen over the Capitol Building, tracked on radar, and pursued by Air Force fighter jets.  The Washington D.C. incident still stands as one of the best UFO cases in terms of evidence and in official, on-the-record statements by governmental and military leaders (not to mention a case that bolsters Mac Tonnies' theory that the entities in charge of these craft actually want to be seen.)  In the wake of this, the Air Force made well-known and aggressive pursuits of UFOs.  Really, they were rather eager to bring one of these things down.

On the night of September 12th, 1952, the Air Force sent at least one fighter plane to intercept these UFOs.  It was an F-94 Starfire crewed by 2nd. Lt. John Jones and 2nd. Lt. John DelCurto.  This plane dropped off radar during flight.  Despite search and rescue attempts, neither Jones nor DelCurto were ever found.  To this day, no wreckage of the F-94 has ever been located.

What happened?

This, as I said, adds a tragic aspect to the case.  Regardless of the UFOs, two servicemen lost their lives that night according to the Air Force and no clear explanation has ever been given.  This is not acceptable.  Though skeptics may be strident in their demands for evidence...and that is something I certainly respect...if Feschino's research might somehow lead to answers for the families of these men, then it is worth it.

UFOs or not.

More on this as I read further into the case.  While I'm not prepared to endorse any theories just yet, this is a striking amount...and variety...of UFO activity for one night.

Feschino started by gaining my interest.  He has now churned my imagination.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

FFF: Never enough

Yesterday, I heard an artist on NPR.

She described her work with mannequins as a direct response to being repeatedly accosted by her mother, wondering why her daughter was not married by the ripe age of the early thirties.  The woman acquired fashion mannequins from a closing store and photographed herself with her fake, plastic "family" as snarky retort to her mother's incessant nagging.

The complaint is not lost upon me.  How many times are we subjected to it in our lives?  On how many occasions are we subtly accused that we are not "enough?"

Two cases in point:

You're 18 and just graduated high school.  The barrage of questions begins with "Where are you going to college?"  The response you give no doubt will communicate a great deal in interrogator's eyes about your academic record.  Following that, you will be asked what your "major" will be.  This is to help determine how much you "have it together" (Note: never answer that you will study any of the Humanities unless you like to be looked at as if you've just been caught fucking a fish.)  Once you've completed college, you're duty is done, correct?  No.  Next come the questions of "what are you doing next?  What job?  What graduate school?" Still, an answer there will not be enough for long.  If you do have employment and are still there, say, five years later, people will start to wonder.

It extends to personal relationships as well.  Found a nice man or woman whose company you are enjoying through dating?  Get ready for plenty of "Is it serious?  When are you getting married?"  And say you are fortunate enough to find someone with whom you wish to enter that blessed union.  You won't be at peace for long.  Rapidly you will get questions of "So when are you two having kids?"  Oh what's that you say?  You choose not to reproduce?  Prepare for the same accusations of peregrine behavior (see "Humanities.")

Why are we never enough as we are?

I subject myself to the same.  My achievements, however few there are, are never enough.  No matter how much I get I always want more.  When will it be "enough?"  How can it ever be enough coming from a culture that doesn't let it be?

Like I said, I don't excuse myself from this dangerous philosophy.  I have often engaged in what Tolstoy might call, "Writing for all the wrong reasons."

Tolstoy also went through a protracted stretch of melancholia where he was restless and unsatisfied with his work, believing his greatest literary achievements to be behind him.  He wondered, as many writers do, about the meaning of life.

“For man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”

Not religious but perhaps spiritual.

So when will "it"...however you define "it" in terms of achievements, money, or enough?

Maybe the idea is to be at peace with right now being enough.

That's difficult.  Especially when there are family members pressing you to attain a marital status, when friends push you to have kids for no better reason than the fact that they've done it too, and when a barrage of media images assault you, telling you that if your income is not ever-increasing then you are a worthless piece of shit.

"To thine own self be true."

That's getting harder and harder to do.

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Kree-Skrull War, pt. 8

We have survived this far.

Now we find ourselves at the penultimate episode in the comic book epic known as The Kree-Skrull War.  Armando asked me, "How did you re-read the entire Kree-Skrull War without gouging your eyeballs out?" My answer to that: purpose.

But what purpose?  To demonstrate that any text can be deconstructed for meaning?  Self-loathing penance?  Not sure.  I'll just keep going.

Avengers #96 opens with the Avengers arriving at a secret space station operated by SHIELD.  The organization gives the Avengers a spaceship and we see Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Vision, and Goliath (please check Marvel's online onomasticon if you do know these characters by now) head out into space (in another scrumptious full page of Neal Adams art).  They arrive in a distant part of the galaxy, right smack in the middle of a Skrull armada.  Battle ensues.  It is a fairly one-sided battle as the Avengers, with the strength of Thor and the Vision on their side along with Iron Man's firepower and Cap's tactical thinking, trounce the Skrulls.

The Skrulls, however, are sore losers.  They "execute Plan Delta" and a ship launches towards Earth.  Demanding to know what this plan is as well as the coordinates of the Skrull homeworld where the Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch are being held, the Vision begins bludgeoning a Skrull.  The other Avengers hold him back, playing good cop to his bad.  It also becomes clear and no longer debatable that the Vision loves the Scarlet Witch, but that subplot is going to have to be teased out a little longer.  Why?

That's because the "Plan Delta" ship is carrying a nuclear warhead to Earth.  This doomsday weapon will "dwarf all our daydreams of destruction" and turn a planet the Skrulls originally intended to capture into "a lifeless, seething ball of hellfire instead."  Captain America immediately gets on the horn to Goliath who remained behind in the borrowed spaceship.  Cap orders him to stop that Skrull ship "at any cost...including your life!"

Goliath pursues, overtakes, and boards the Skrull bombship.  The problem is that he threw out his giant growth serum in a previous issue.  He is now just plain Clint Barton and without the Hawkeye arrows.  What now?  We don't know because the location of the action switches once again.

On Hala, homeworld of the Kree, Rick Jones is brought before Ronan the Accuser.  Ronan once again reiterates why the Skrull and the Kree are so interested in Earth, "a backwash world" as he calls it.  Earth is equidistant between both stellar empires, therefore making it strategic for location if nothing else.  Think of Midway Island as battle raged in the Pacific during World War II.

Jones is his typically snarky teenage self during the convo, but Ronan is impressed by the youth's brashness.  He decides keep Rick alive as his "body-slave." We have no further text from which to derive what exactly that means.  Thank goodness.  Who knew Ronan was such a perv?  Is this kind of writing meant to induce what Foucault calls "the politics of discomfort?" Take nothing for granted.  Question everything.

Thrown into a prison, Rick finds that he is sharing his incarceration with the Kree Supreme Intelligence.  Enacting an as yet unclear escape plan, the Supreme Intelligence once more sends Rick back into the Negative Zone. There he comes face to face once more with Annihilus and the issue ends.

I am going to cite Foucault once more.  After all, many people in composition and rhetoric studies do and they seldom seem to know what he's saying.  Why should I be any different?

Foucault saw the analysis of discourse as an analysis of statements..."statements" being defined as texts and elements of texts.  It also includes the rules that govern said texts.  How many "statements" have we encountered thus far?  How do the "rules of the discourse" come into play or how have they been changed?  As said before, there appears to be a heaviness present, a weight that was typically not in comic books of the era prior to the publication.  Superheroes are finding that they are not all-powerful and that the world they inhabit...hell, the quite flawed.

Goliath looks at the very real possibility of sacrificing his own life to save the Earth.  What's more, Captain America had to make the snap decision to order Goliath to do so.  If Goliath dies, which one of these characters is better off?  It'd be tempted to say Goliath as Captain America, a man of the utmost ethics, will then forever have a difficult time reconciling his conscience that he sent his friend to die (would he ever see it as a completely moralistic choice?)  The Vision, though an android, succumbs to the cocktail mixture of love and rage and is completely comfortable with killing a Skrull to get the information that he wants.  As Vision says, "I always know what I'm doing."  The implications of that statement with the machines actions are chilling.  I would argue that attributes such as these blow up the "rules" that heretofore governed the discourse of comics.

The storyline does, as once more I've pointed out multiple times, break the rules of what is generally accepted as good storytelling discourse by breaking and branching off in several directions while leaving the Kree-Skrull War as thread...and at times a barely visible hold it all together.  In fact, one can almost sense the deus ex machina on its way in the next issue.

At least it will all be over.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

I say ACA, you say Obamacare: playing games with words

Like anyone else, I am subjected to the perennial question of "so what do you do for a living?"

A pessimist would say the other person is sizing me up.  An optimist might argue that the questioner is merely looking for safe small talk, something not as charged as I don't know, politics.  So I answer "I'm a writer and a college professor." They then pursue whichever line of questioning sounds more interesting to them.  If it's college, they'll ask, "what do you teach?" To keep it simple, I usually say "English." That's usually followed by a joke about them "watching their grammar" but if they're savvy about higher ed, they'll ask "what part of English?" I'll answer, again to keep it simple, "rhetoric."

My shirt tail definition of "rhetoric" is "finding ways to use words to persuade an audience." I'm especially glad to have chosen this line of study during national elections as I attempt to discern truth from half-truth and spin from outright lie.  It has also been helpful in discussing hotly contested political issues such as the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Or do you say "Obamacare?" Those are, of course, two names for the same thing.  Both carry charged meanings and both are usually employed for distinct political purposes.  Comedian Jimmy Kimmel did a "person on the street" interview asking which one of these two health care plans people preferred.  Many chose "Affordable Healthcare Act" over "Obamacare." Cognitive dissonance much?

Senator Mitch McConnell seems plagued by the same issue.  In his home state of Kentucky, the ACA has funded a health care system called Kynect that has allowed over 430,000 of its residents to have access to medical services.  In other words, this system that is quite popular in his state would not be possible without the ACA.  As usual, McConnell's re-election rhetoric has been heavy on pledges to repeal "Obamacare," to "rip it out, root and branch, and start all over." When asked if he would dismantle Kynect, McConnell replied, "I think that's unconnected to my comments about the overall questions."

Nice try.  No really, Mitch, it was a nice try at evasion.  Just keep spinning things to make it seem that one has nothing to do with the other when in fact they are linked in tandem.  You're on your way to becoming my favorite gnomist.

McConnell joins others of his party in having difficulty with the charged meaning of words.  I'm sure many of you remember the Missouri senate race of 2012 where Todd Akin made comments about "legitimate rape." The problem being that the word "rape" is an absolute.  Someone either was or wasn't the victim of a sick crime.  Adding the modifier "legitimate" in front of it in no way makes sense.  It's like asking if someone is "legitimately pregnant." It's ignorant at best and misogynistic at worst.

Less offensive but unfortunately more prevalent is the use of the word "entitlement" when referring to programs like Social Security.  The word is typically sparged over budget talks and bestows a negative connotation, something along the lines of "you didn't really work for that, you just feel you deserve it." Used in a sentence: "These kids today.  They just think they're entitled to everything."

Well yes, people do feel "entitled" to have Social Security one day.  Why?  Because they worked and have already paid into it.  Using the word "entitlement," however, changes the tenor of the conversation.  I wish I could blame just one party for this but in fact it's both.

I could of course give many other examples and I wish I could go into this kind of depth when I get that question, "So what do you do?" I say this because the more that people know and understand, the less likely they are to be manipulated.

After all, you want to look smart if you're stopped by Jimmy Kimmel, right?

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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Abyss

starring Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Michael Biehn, Leo Burmester, and Chris Elliot as The Beav.

A US Navy submarine sinks after coming into contact with an unknown object.  A civilian deep sea diving crew is tapped to help search for the wreck.  While embroiled in the mission, they encounter alien beings dwelling deep beneath the ocean.

First off, this won't be one of my typical movie reviews.  I am actually much more captivated by fundamental concepts within the film.  What can I say about it as a critique?  Well in watching it this past weekend for the first time in almost 20 years, I can say that I had forgotten how good it is.  It's truly one of the best science fiction films to come out of the 1980s.  True, it has many of the tropes of a James Cameron film of that era, namely military types, salty characters, bad acting here and there, but it's a visual feast.  Especially impressive is all of the underwater photography that still holds up today, giving the viewer the illusion of being at the deepest parts of the ocean.

What really struck me were the aliens themselves.  First off, Cameron's depiction of their underwater ships is exactly what comes to my mind when I consider the phrase, "extraterrestrial technology."  Yes yes I know that no far as is openly acknowledged anyway...can have any educated say as to what the phrase "should" really mean.  I'm going on a hunch.  What are shown in The Abyss are elegant devices.  "A machine, but alive," as one of the characters notes.  One solid form with no welds or seams and inner workings that resemble the structures of a microorganism, hence the "alive" aspect of it.  I was also fascinated by how water was manipulated as a mechanism, the depiction of which helping to give birth to the "morphing" techniques now seen all over the place.

When we finally see the aliens, they are very similar in appearance to the Grays.  This got me thinking.  I have written a great deal before about how many UFO sightings take place on or near the seas.  In certain cases, the alleged craft actually arise from the ocean or are seen plunging beneath the waves, resulting in the USO (Unidentified Submerged Object) phenomenon.  If aliens are indeed here (and why they would be is logically puzzling, but that's another matter) and they needed to take up a prolonged residence on our planet and needed to do so unseen, then the bottom of our oceans would be the ideal location.  After all, we know very little about the ocean floor and visit there quite infrequently.  Aliens could establish bases there with relative ease.

However, would aliens be able to carry out their objectives with just as much ease by basing themselves on the Moon or ensconcing themselves on a tumbling rock somewhere in the asteroid belt?  True it's further away but if covert operations are your true aim, that really fits the bill.  This caused an extension in my thinking.

It is never definitively resolved in the film as to whether or not the beings really are extraterrestrial in nature.  Take a minute and consider that.  If it's a nonhuman, intelligent and technologically advanced species and it's on Earth but is not alien, then it's an offshoot of evolution, most likely of ourselves.  I'm aware of how fantastical and honestly improbable it sounds, but it really fascinates me.  At a point in the distant past, lines diverged and an intelligent species evolved separately from us.  They grew in sophistication and advanced more rapidly than we did.

They probably don't like us very much, either.  Somehow we became the dominant lifeform and have done a great job of mucking up the world.  The "others" are staying hidden and watching it all happen.  Either that or they're affecting things as much as they can while remaining safely deep beneath the ocean.

Like I said, it sounds more like fanciful than anything else, but I am far (and I mean far) from the only person to think about the concept of a hidden civilization.  Mac Tonnies wrote about it in Cryptoterrestrials and Ivan T. Sanderson got to it first with Invisible Residents.  It's a fascinating idea however you look at it and the fiction writer side of me really wants to tackle it one day.

Unfortunately, the academic side of me has a great deal to tackle first.

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Monday, June 2, 2014

Enclave: Congo in pink

Art seldom translates well over the radio.

But when I heard about the work of Richard Mosse on NPR, I knew that I needed to get online and further investigate the art.

Mosse is an Irish artist and photographer who has spent many years in the conflict-torn Congo.  In documenting this landscape of violence and human rights transgressions, he made the inspired choice to use a now defunct form of infrared film once employed by the military to locate camouflaged installations by air.  The result is eastern Congo rendered in kaleidoscopic Technicolor and lurid hues of bubble gum pink (see above).  These pieces evolved into a multimedia installation he calls The Enclave.   Quote Mosse:

"When viewer is seduced by the beauty, usually they realize that they're deriving aesthetic pleasure from human suffering.  My approach was to try to make people feel something. So it's a kind of advocacy of seeing, to make people see. It's about perception."

I see what he means.  Examine the above shot.  Through the filter of the film, the lush and normally green vegetation is rendered more like stretched out cotton candy.  Our view becomes oblique.  We are transported to somewhere surreal and non-existent to our way of understanding.  That is much in line with our perceptions of the Congo.  This conflict, where 5.4 million people have died since 1998, is scarcely reported in mainstream media, especially in America.  While I'm aware that there are numerous flashpoints and wide swaths of extreme poverty in Africa, I certainly didn't know about this level of warfare in the Congo.  This goes back to Mosse's point about perception.

"To go back to the film medium itself, it sees infrared light. Infrared light is invisible to human eye. So it really is about registering the unseen and overlooked. And the eastern Congo conflict is massively overlooked."

Indeed it might as well take place in a far away, imaginary land of carnation pink dirt, fuchsia foliage, and rivers of pluvial waters of a green hue like the rinse bowl for a grade school watercolors class.

The multimedia installation has done quite well for Mosse, garnering him the prestigious Deutsche Borse Photography Prize.  I very much recommend clicking the links and going through the galleries.  Fair warning: given the nature of the subject, there are images that may be disturbing to sensitive viewers.

Then again, maybe that's the problem.  

If you're interested in what's happening in the Congo, please take a moment to look at a wonderful effort called EduCongo and the work being done by the One campaign.

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