Tuesday, September 30, 2014

When real cities start looking like Blade Runner

So maybe cyberpunk isn't that cool.

I mean, Blade Runner is indeed one of my all-time favorite films, but when real cities begin to take on its dystopian aesthetic, well...then I don't think I need to tell you we have problems.  Specifically, problems with the environment.

The photo above is not from Blade Runner.  It is an actual photo of Beijing, China from 2013.  The density of smog and pollution in that city is so great that it is actually visible from space.  It also just happens to create the visually stunning Blade Runner vibe that you see on this post.  Here's another view of Beijing from Kotaku:

As a Blade Runner fan, I think it's all marvelous to look at.  First of all, in terms of physical space, Beijing seems to have a similar urban design philosophy as Los Angeles from the movie.  "We ran out of room to move out so we built up." Think of a city forced to grow on the vertical and not the horizontal.  Very cyberpunk.  That is not where the similarities end, thought.

Not only have the Chinese kept the angular architectural designs of the film as opposed to these pandurate blobs that keep popping up in America, not only is there a proliferation of LCD screen advertising just as in the movie, but they also get the atmosphere down.  They think of everything.  Neat, huh?

That is unless you have to live there.

The air quality index in Beijing must be in the absolute ugly end of the spectrum.  Any living thing in the vicinity of the city must seriously worry for its health given the amount of toxic chemicals they breathe in each day.  Aside from humans and house pets that must suffer an existence with them, I can't imagine there are any other animals to be found (aside from cockroaches and rats.  Any city is bound to have those perennials.)  Really makes you wonder about society.  Then again, I've been doing that for quite a while.

Just in case you're about to reach for the razor blades over the swirling toilet that is our society, here's something on the lighter side.  If you must experience a dystopian existence, why not replicate with Legos?  A few innovative designers have created their own cyberpunk city rendered in Lego.  It has a few features over Beijing from what I can tell, namely a mech design/repair center.

The future is now.  Question is, is it one we want?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, September 29, 2014

Kirk Cameron you so crazy

Can I just say how thankful and proud I am to work at an institution that sees scientific evidence as absolutely no threat to its faith?

I wish more people in religion were like that.

A few years ago, Kirk Cameron let everyone know just what his problem was with evolution.  Cameron, best known for his portrayal of Mike Seaver on the sitcom Growing Pains of the distant 1980s as well as a simply tour-de-force performance in Left Behind, has become quite the Christian fundy.  In an appearance on Fox News (where else?), Mikey Seaver claimed, drawing on what is no doubt years of studying biology at the graduate level, that evolution is a fraud as there are no transitional fossils.  Why are there not more hybrid organisms?  Why don't we have, as he put it, a "crocoduck?"

That's right.  An animal that is half crocodile, half duck.

Kirk Cameron thought he was quite amusing.  So much so that he went on to film a mockumentary about the search for such an elusive crocoduck.  None was found.  Why had nature not immixed these two animals through evolution?  Naturally, the absence of any such creature was proof-positive that Charles Darwin had it all wrong.

Fortunately, renowned atheist Richard Dawkins weighed in on the matter:

 "Why doesn't the fossil record contain a fronkey?' Well, of course, monkeys are not descended from frogs. No sane evolutionist ever said they were, or that ducks are descended from crocodiles or vice versa. Monkeys and frogs share an ancestor, which certainly looked nothing like a frog and nothing like a monkey. Maybe it looked a bit like a salamander, and we do indeed have salamander-like fossils dating from the right time. But that is not the point. Every one of the millions of species of animals shares an ancestor with every other one. If your understanding of evolution is so warped that you think we should expect to see a fronkey and a crocoduck, you should also wax sarcastic about the absence of a doggypotamus and an elephanzee. Indeed, why limit yourself to mammals? Why not a kangaroach (intermediate between kangaroo and cockroach), or an octopard (intermediate between octopus and leopard)? There's an infinite number of animal names you can string together in that way."

And by the way, fundies, there are plenty of transitional fossils in lines of descent.

Dawkins' eloquent smackdown of the less-than-informed views on evolution is sufficient in and of itself.  Recent events, however, have added a new and delicious irony to the fundy fail that is the "crocoduck." Fossils for a new species of dinosaur named Spinosaurus debuted in the September edition of Science.  What is significant about this species is that it the first semi-aquatic dinosaur found.  As Dr. Paul Sereno, faculty at the University of Chicago and one of the world's foremost paleontologists, puts it:

"It was a chimera: half duck, half crocodile. We don't have anything alive that looks like this today,"


Now while the Spinosaurus was not an actual crocoduck, it still showcases the adaptations present in the process of evolution...and it nicely digs at Kirk Cameron's ridiculous spoof.

I understand that evolution can be jarring, even world-ending to a few people.  Once after teaching about Charles Darwin, a young student stayed behind in the classroom.  She just sat there, staring forward and appearing to gradually lose all equanimity.  I feared that she had been offended by the class discussion so I went over to make sure she was all right.

"I'm fine," she whispered.  "I had just never heard any of that before."

Her only knowledge of how the world came to be up until that point was limited strictly to the mythological account presented in Genesis.  I told her that she was exactly where her thinking needed to be and that she should take a while longer and think everything over to decide what she believes.

That I understand.  Questioning is fine.  When, however, that questioning turns to disbelief in the face of glaring evidence so massive that it amounts to fact, that is detrimental to all of society.  That is when religion becomes such a powerful force that it can override the scientific method in the public's eyes.  "Who cares what the evidence says?  It's not what god says."  That line of thinking scares me like you wouldn't believe as it should be nowhere near the making of public policy.

But it is.

Wow.  Between the "crocoduck" fossil, this op ed piece in the New York Times, and Stephen Hawking's statement to the press, it's been a bad month to be a fundy.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, September 26, 2014

When the X-Files is onto something

I am obviously no bibliophobe.  I just occasionally enjoy a television show.

When someone eventually comes to their senses and creates a cable channel geared solely to my tastes (JTV), The X-Files will most certainly be on heavy rotation.

The show's deep ties to the UFO mythos had its immediate appeal, but that's not what kept me coming back for more.  It was the moody atmosphere created by a combination of music and cinematography.  It was the writing.  It was the paranoia of factions against factions within our own government.  It was the wonderful and deep characters.  It was the hotness of Gillian Anderson.

I caught an episode of The X-Files earlier today.  The title of it was "Wetwired" and it really got me thinking about...possibilities.  The plot went something like this:

A downright weird series of murders takes place in a community in Maryland.  One of the killers says he believed his victims was a war criminal he saw on TV.  Mulder and Scully come to suspect that people are being manipulated to commit murder by signals coming through television sets.  This line of thinking is furthered when Mulder finds a mysterious device inside the cable box mounted on a telephone pole outside a house where one of the killings took place.  The Lone Gunmen analyze the device and tell Mulder that it is indeed adding signals to the cable line.  These signals flash at the viewer 50 times in a second but are so fleeting they're imperceptible to the naked eye.  But the brain is being manipulated to feel sensations of paranoia and left susceptible to suggestion.  Scully becomes the next one to fall under the influence of this experiment, believing in her induced paranoia that Mulder is colluding with the Cigarette Smoking Man.  Mulder is left to stop this government charade...before Scully kills him.

Sound crazy?  "Our government would never do something like that" you say?

They already have.

Are you familiar with Project MKUltra?  It was a CIA operation centered on mind control.  Several U.S. citizens became unwitting participants in experiments involving hypnosis, isolation, verbal and sexual abuse, and especially LSD as methods by which to control someone's behavior.  The project came to an end in 1974 after Congress, then President Ford, and the Supreme Court got involved at one point or another, calling the whole thing what it was: illegal.  Dark, conspiratorial corners of the Internet suspect that both Sirhan Sirhan and Ted "Unabomber" Kaczynski are products of MKUltra conditioning, but the evidence on that is scanty (as it would have to be.)  Others maintain that the entire Jonestown Tragedy was a CIA mind control experiment.

The logical, 21st Century extension of these experiments would seem to be control through mass media.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Art of Jenny Kendler

"Human exceptionalism has got to go."

Now there's a statement from an artist I can get behind.

I first encountered the work of the lovely and talented Jenny Kendler in a Sunday edition of The Chicago Tribune.  The artist has three public installations set for this fall in Chicago.

I was attracted to the work in that it is not simply art but it is art as an expression of empathy for non-human organisms.  As that opening quote insinuates, Kendler is an activist in the eco community, using art to draw attention to such critical matters as climate change and the collapse of both ecosystems and the species that inhabit them.  As Kendler explains in the article:

"Both artists and scientists are truth seekers and creative problem solvers.  Artists look for meaning while scientists try to find truth.  We need both for a better world."

Yet more thinking this blogger can get behind.

While my writing here demonstrates an obvious value of science, technology, and their allied subjects short-handed as STEM for those of us in higher ed, I'm hopeful that the posts are all balanced out with pieces on the arts.  I am by nature a creative person.  I enjoy writing fiction and...I don't know if I'd call it art...creating works and watching how they fair in the zeitgeist.  That's why I'm a proponent of STEAM over STEM (with that additional "A" standing for "art" in a cheeky and pretentious move I picked up from elsewhere...can't remember exactly where.)

I get the feeling that Jenny Kendler parks her car in a similar garage.  Her art is strategically crafted to not only evoke an aesthetic charm, but to force the viewer to consider what we are doing to our world.  Case in point is her installation "Natural Camouflage Wallpaper" posted above.  It's a spiky field of blue, indigo, and purple with explosions of red that will eventually be placed against the urban backdrop of Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood.  You can't not see it.  Paintings of flowers might be criticized as one of the more basic or twee subjects for an artist, but here they are a bright reminder that this area of the world was once covered by prairie wildflowers.  Before anyone gets any ideas, I don't derive the notion that Jenny Kendler advocates for us to shuck our modern conveniences and return to a pastoral lifestyle per se.

What is being said, I believe, is that we need to be aware.  We need to know that as we spread out over more land and absorb more resources, we take away things such as followers and habitat for bees colonies...organisms that help distribute pollen which helps grow the food we eat and thereby helps us live.  It matters.  In a way, Jenny Kendler's art is a slightly less in-your-face version of the art of Chris Jordan, whom I like a lot as well.

I like where Ms. Kendell is going with her installations.  I've said before that problems regarding our environment are the defining matters of our time.  They are scientific in nature.  The solutions to said problems, however, will require creativity to conjure.

For that, we need artists.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The future of blogging

The headline about blogging caught my attention right away.

"Court determines that bloggers are journalists, then screws them over.

It would seem that a ruling was handed down in New Zealand.   It stated that bloggers are essentially journalists and entitled to rights as such.  In the case in question specifically, a blogger does not have to turn over the identity of their anonymous sources.  However, the complication comes from another aspect of the ruling which states that a judge (in New Zealand, anyway) can determine that in a particular case, such a "shield law" may not apply.  In other words, a blogger may claim the right of shield but it can be taken away from them at any time.

Doesn't make much sense.

I also know that there are those among us who chafe at the notion that a blogger is a journalist.  Likewise, I'm not certain I would call myself such a thing.  I try to at least loosely follow rules of journalism in terms of citing where I get things and having responsibility for what I write, but that's about it.  If anything, I'd have to call myself a literary journalist.

When did bloggers start referring to themselves as journalists?  I'm not sure as I've yet to encounter one who does so.  The first time I remember the word even being applied to the blogosphere was during Rathergate in 2004.  Dan Rather and 60 Minutes featured documents that were critical of then-President George W. Bush's service in the military.  Bloggers wasted no time calling into question the authenticity of the documents.  Two blogs in particular, Little Green Footballs and Power Line, were especially critical of the published memos and were instrumental in uncovering the eventual truth of the documents: they were forgeries.  Mainstream TV news had copious amounts of egg on its face, labeled as corporate stooges while bloggers were heralded as true independents and the future of news media.

Even though I was a blogger at that time (though nowhere as serious about it as I am now), a few things didn't sit right with me about that line of thinking.  Blogging has come a long way since that time and a blog can be a full-force professional creature.  The fact remains, however, that anyone can have a blog.  While that egalitarian facet is wonderful, it doesn't do much for the veracity of what you read.  Who is fact checking the guy writing from his basement?  What is to keep them from conducting attacks on others for purely personal purposes and doing so with anonymity?  I'm talking everything from parody chansonettes to Photoshopped pics.  Additionally, as we're coming to find out, a blogger can be on the payroll for a corporation or a lobbyist every bit as much as a corporate news source can.  Should this enjoy the same "shield law" as a journalist?  I'm not so sure that it should.

Of course that brings up other questions for the future of blogging.  "Slippery slope" and whatnot, even though that typically ends up as a logical fallacy.  Ideally, all those who write for blogs would be treated equally under law.  By the same token, everyone should also share protection from malicious and vindictive attacks.

I hope someone wiser than me comes up with a solution to this quagmire.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

You're a jackass, Jimmy Carter

NOTE: The following is a work of satire.  My tongue is very much in my cheek.

I normally enjoy my visits to The Happening Book.

The Tumblr site is run by a man my age, looking back on fun and geeky moments of his youth.  Typically the memories are warm and fuzzy ones.  This time, The Happening Book brought out recollections that must have worked hard to block away behind adamantium doors.  Once returned, the memories burned and seared...just like a recurring case of herpes.

It was September 17th, 1978.  A just-turned-eight Jonny Nichols finished Sunday dinner and nidificated himself among the pillows on the floor in front of the TV, eagerly awaiting the two-hour premiere of a new series on ABC.  I had been on a Star Wars high since my initial viewing of the film the previous year and it showed no signs of abating.  In fact, it never did.  The previews of this new TV show seemed like it might deliver all the goods just as George Lucas did.

The program was to be called Battlestar Galactica.  It would be an epic tale of "a rag-tag fugitive fleet" of the last remaining humans, fleeing utter annihilation at the hands of their enemies, the Cylons.  The ultimate destination of the humans?  A mythical locale. "A shining planet known as...Earth."  The title referred to the lone surviving warship of their star sector, the Galactica.  It was a carrier of sorts, launching space fighters called Vipers (which bore at least a superficial resemblance to the X-Wing) to combat the Cylon's saucer-like ships.  The Cylons themselves looked pretty kickass, looking all metallic like Star Wars stormtroopers.  Only later would I learn they were robots and that just made things all the cooler.

Yes, there were more than a few commonalities with Star Wars besides the timing and George Lucas did try suing unsuccessfully.  For this geek, Galactica stands on its own.  Hell, my eight year-old self certainly ate it all up.

Until it happened.

Without warning...and a full two-thirds into the movie... ABC interrupted the Sunday night broadcast to announce that the Camp David Accords had been signed at the White House.  So what did I get to see for a full hour?  Not Richard Hatch as Apollo.  Not Dirk Benedict as Starbuck.  Not even that brat kid as Boxey.  I was treated to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and the smiling face of Jimmy Carter.

I was most displeased.

Granted, ABC returned to Battlestar Galactica at the point where the news broke in, but I was in second grade, dammit!  I had a bedtime!  Thankfully I also had warm and giving parents who let me stay up to finish out the show.  Either that or they just got sick of my begging and crying.  Is that any reason to forgive Jimmy Carter?

I say no.  The knob gobbler.

History will no doubt be kind to him.  The Camp David Accords were a crowning achievement in his presidency, demonstrating a triumph of diplomacy and lasting peace...and a Nobel Peace Prize for Carter.  Carter will also be remember as the "I've been saying that for a long time, people" guy.  As our climate continues to change due to our ever-increasing binges on fossil fuels, as people move away from coastal areas and try to find somewhere with an even remotely moderate climate, Jimmy Carter told us all about it back in the 1970s.  He said turn down our thermostats, put on sweaters, and unplug any electric appliances we weren't using.

Republicans will always view his administration as a pox upon American history.  There was rampant inflation, gas shortages, and this little thing called "The Iran Hostage Crisis." During that latter debacle, eight American servicemen lost their lives in Operation Eagle Claw, a horrendously flawed attempt to rescue those hostages that must have been planned by the Three Stooges (only I'm not sure any of them were still alive at that point.)

I ask you though, gentle ESE reader, do any of those missteps come anywhere near the egregious transgression that is INTERRUPTING THE PILOT EPISODE OF BATTLESTAR FUCKING GALACTICA?????

I say no.  In fact, wasn't Anwar Sadat assassinated just a few years after signing those accords in the middle of Battlestar Galactica?  Was an incensed Battlestar Galactica fan involved?  Coincidence?  I think not.

No, I had nothing to do with it.  That would've made me quite the lethal little eight year-old.

Great.  Now I'm going to have to go find my copy of the original two-hour Battlestar Galactica.  Wait, just like my Apes it's on VHS.

Carter...you bastard.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, September 22, 2014

Grand Unified Theory of the Paranormal

I am not the first to put forth this theory of paranormal phenomena.  Nor will I be the last.

What I hope to be, however, is strategically placed within the discourse so that I may contribute ideas.  For many years, an undercurrent of thought has been percolating among those who research, both as professionals and as "armchairs," the various phenomena encompassed by the vague term "paranormal."  Jacques Vallee, John Keel, and Mac Tonnies are just three of the thinkers and hegemony who have attempted to shift thinking away from pat answers to what the truth really is...whatever it may be.  First, let me clear up what I mean.

I hate to make pop culture analogies, but something struck me this weekend as I watched Doctor Who.  As The Doctor, Peter Capaldi opened the episode with a monologue that took hold of me and wouldn't let go.  I crudely paraphrase:  "Nature has perfect predators.  It has also produced organisms with almost perfect defenses.  Why then could it not produce living things who have perfected hiding?  There is an evolutionary reason for nearly every attribute and behavior.  Ever wonder why we talk to ourselves when we're alone?

"Is it because we know that we're not?"

Hmmm.  They hide among us?

As I continue to read multiple texts on the subject, it becomes increasingly suspect to me that matters such as UFO incidents, alien abductions, ghosts, cryptids, strange beings, and the like are all interrelated.  They all stem from the same source.  In essence, they might even be termed the same thing.  Exactly which one of those experiences a witness has may be dependent upon the nature of the witness themselves as well as their knowledge base.

Jacques Vallee surveyed "object in the sky" phenomena over the centuries.  UFO sightings are not a new thing.  They've been happening for thousands of years and likely have nothing to do with "ancient aliens" (then again, it may depend upon your definition of "alien.")  Vallee paid special attention to cases where a witness claimed to have met the occupants of a craft or had a "visitation" from an unknown being.  In years Before Common Era, witnesses wrote that they met creatures who were half human, half animal.  Once Christianity forced its way into collective consciousness, people saw angels.  After that, the unearthly visitors were uncannily humanlike in appearance (e.g. George Adamski's purported experiences), especially those of the 1950s and early 1960s where the "space brothers" came to us in peace.  From there on out it, Close Encounters of the Third Kind were dominated by diminutive, black-eyed Grays.  Only now are encounter cases involving "reptoids" coming to the fore.  Rarer cases of fairies, gnomes, and "little people" from history should not be excluded, either.

Trace the cultural zeitgeist in that arc.  Mythology, religion, social movements, and finally science fiction as broadcast by mass media.  For decades now, we have attributed a science fiction explanation to UFOs, complete with spaceships.  But as Vallee points out (I quote here through Mac Tonnies), the intelligence behind UFOs, while quite real, manifests itself in order to ensure we conform to an explicable ideal--but the "spacecraft,"regardless of physical evidence, are ultimately illusions.

Is there an intelligence...or population of intelligent beings...that remain otherwise hidden but adapt themselves based upon what we expect to see?  And only when they want to be seen?

Vallee called them "ultraterrestrials."  John Keel had his theory of beings that reside on the "superspectrum."  Our position on that continuum represents only a small fraction of what constitutes "reality." What we are able to perceive is but a sliver of what is.  This might be tied in with the concept of other dimensions, other universes, or human consciousness itself.  Such a theory might help explain the scarcity of tangible evidence for Fortean phenomena.  It may be that you cannot reproduce the phenomena in a laboratory.  I'm aware that sounds like a cop-out but what if that's exactly how it is?

If this is a reality, what are the motivations of these cryptoterrestrials (as Mac Tonnies theoretically called them)?  Are they content to watch us and listen?  If so, why appear to us at all, then?  Perhaps they choose to be observed by those among us that society would find least believable, namely the very young, the aged, or those with mental illness or disturbed backgrounds.  Why do they want to be seen in the first place?  That is in fact what it looks like as any advanced race should be able to fully mask their presence from us but somehow we keep having encounters.  Are they trying to establish a relationship?  Are they attempting to manipulate us towards their own ends?

As with so many theories in this realm of study, the idea just brings up more questions.  It makes me long for simplistic, mass media solutions that state "ghosts are spirits of the dead, UFOs are craft for aliens from other planets." The reality (whatever the hell that word means) is likely much messier, uncertain, and weird.  So consider that the next time you're talking to yourself in your home and your car, why speak out loud when you're alone?

Maybe deep down, you know you're not.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ahead of their time: "UFO" and "The Invaders"

By nature, good science fiction is meant to be "ahead of its time."

For television, Star Trek often touts itself as such.  The show predicted cellphones, virtual reality, and maybe even Spotify to hear them say it.  But just recently, I came across two online articles that eruditely explained why two science fiction series from the 1960s truly deserve that phrase "ahead of its time" as a moniker.  They are The Invaders and UFO.

The Invaders was a Quinn-Martin production that starred Roy Thinnes as an ordinary guy who finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy.  An advance guard of aliens have arrived on Earth.  They come from a dying planet and seek to take over our world for their own.  To do so, they're going with the "attack from within" trope.  Their advanced technology allows them to look as human as anyone else on Earth, allowing them to get in on the inside.  Since they look like everyone else, nobody believes poor Roy Thinnes.  Thus, drama ensues.

Nick Redfern examined The Invaders over at Mysterious Universe.  He pointed out that one of the show's spin-off novels had "a distinct zombie theme" where said zombies are really normal humans under mind control, thralls to their alien masters.  Given that, for better or worse, zombies are more popular than ever (I even give writing assignments over it), The Invaders may have anticipated the craze in lesser respects.  That fear of losing your identity to a control system is a big one for us meatspace creatures.  No wonder this show was such an influence on writers of The X-Files and even me.  My very visual definition of "UFO" comes from owning a model of the saucer used in the show (seen above).

Speaking of UFO, a show by Gerry Anderson of that very name was featured on io9.  It referenced how the cool gear and vehicles of the show seems to have predicted the military hardware of our day.

UFO is about a secret organization called SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) that defended the Earth against hostile aliens.  The war is clandestine and kept out of the public eye as much as can be but the skirmishes surface in the news from time to time as UFO sightings.  While the plot and characters were often intricate, it was the cool vehicles most of us watched for.  The enemy aliens would be met with Interceptor fighters launched from a Moonbase and even from a submarine.  There were also tank-like ground vehicles that were sick as hell.  In fact, the show had to have been a direct inspiration for X-COM: UFO Defense.

Today, the Marine Corps travels in their kickass V-22 Osprey.  Though airing in the late 1960s, UFO already had civilians travelling in such tiltrotor aircraft.  The previously mentioned interceptors bear something of a physical resemblance to the trouble-plagued F-35.  Plus, both the real and fictional fighters had VTOL capability...seemed to be a big selling point in Anderson's vision of the future.  Sadly, we cannot yet do anything as cool as launch a fighter from a submarine, but given the fact that most future tactical combat aircraft will be drones, such a launching platform may be more likely.

I'm sure it's in the black ops budget somewhere.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thin White Doc

Due to my prolonged sabbatical, I missed giving you my thoughts on the premiere of a new season of Doctor Who.

I quite like Peter Capaldi as The Doctor.  Several fans balked at his age, what with him weighing in at a spry 55 years old.  At one time I might well have done the same.  But as I advance in years, I see that age is really only as much of a limit as you make it.  Peter Capaldi doesn't even let it enter into the equation.

There is a viciousness in the way he plays The Doctor and there's something almost sinister about him.  I don't mean that in a bad or malicious way.  Both David Tennant and especially Christopher Eccleston portrayed the Doctor as having a bit of an edge, that edge becoming most pronounced when an adversary such as the Daleks pushed things over the line of "No More Mr. Nice Guy."  This incarnation also, it seems to me at least, appears somewhat troubled by shadowy parts of his past.  He knows the moments are there; he's just uncertain what they mean. He also knows he might not like the answer once he hears it.  Note this exchange between The Doctor and his companion, Clara (played by the ever-so-gorgeous Jenna Coleman):

THE DOCTOR: Clara, be my pal and tell me--am I a good man?
CLARA: I don't know.

Tense.  Even better, I read in Express UK that Capaldi took much of his inspiration for this generation of The Doctor from David Bowie.  Does that make me like him more?


As a youth, Capaldi was a fan of the Ziggy Stardust era of Bowie and saw Bowie three out of four nights in Glasgow...missing the fourth only because he couldn't afford it.  Capaldi reports modeling his Doctor's visual style on David Bowie's Thin White Duke persona as seen on the cover of Station to Station and the film The Man Who Fell to Earth (see it if you haven't.)  As such, this Doctor sports a white button-down shirt and a black waistcoat with red lining.

“He’s woven the future from the cloth of the past. Simple, stark, and back to basics. No frills, no scarf, no messing, just 100 per cent Rebel Time Lord," says Capaldi.

Awesome.  Add in the fact that one Doctor Who episode featured a Mars colony named Bowie Base One (if you don't get the connection, you're hopeless and I don't want to know you) and my reverence for the show only grows.  It'd be nice if David Bowie music could be added into the soundtrack (I'll take "Moonage Daydream" or "Look Back in Anger") but the corporate world of licensing and royalties gets in the way, I'm sure.

Coincidentally, one might say that we are entering an apex of sorts for both The Doctor and Bowie as there are currently great things going on for both of them.  Not only is the new season of Doctor Who underway but Titan Comics has a new Doctor Who line on the stands, both virtual and meatspace, that feature the tenth and eleventh Doctors.

Additionally, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has declared Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014 as "David Bowie Day" in Chicago.

Politics schmoliticks.  Emanuel is now officially the coolest mayor in the universe.

The proclamation comes as the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art will open its David Bowie Is... art exhibit on the same day.  The show will be a retrospective of artwork, photography, costumes, and handwritten lyrics from "an undisputed icon" who has "bridged cultures and faiths while both transcending and fortifying the music, art, fashion, design and theatrical canons."

Why the heck haven't I gotten my tickets yet?

WAIT!  I've got it!  David Bowie as The Doctor!

How perfect would that be?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

10 controversial future technologies

Our future will be a technological one.

That's obvious, I know.  Even a plow is a form of technology.  But futurist George Dvorsky at io9 has put together a superlist of "10 Horrifying Technologies That Should Never Be Allowed to Exist."

As I scrolled through the list, I had one of my usual reactions to this sort of cautionary cry but after reading further in the text, I saw that Dvorsky couched his list with the same thought and that made me feel better.  The idea is this: several of these technologies are not innately "horrifying" and could be of tremendous benefit to the world.  Once operational, they could help bring an end to hunger, clean the environment we've managed to ruin, and...my favorite...modify the human body and eliminate our defects (please, somebody do something about depression.)

I have always cautioned, however much I've harped about the future, that there are pitfalls and we need to be aware of them.  There is also the Law of Unintended Consequences.  More than anything, the end result of these technologies will be determined by human nature...which I have even less faith in than I do the Big Invisible Sky Daddy.  Anyway, without further ado, let's take a look at the list.

-Weaponized nanotech.  I'll admit it.  This does scare me.  Swarms of micro-scale robots that can self-replicate and devour.  It's a scenario that doesn't stop with "grey goo." The nanobots would be organized and systematic in their attack while humans would be all higgleddy-piggleddy the face of it as nearly everything we depend on for life would be broken down.  Ultimately it would lead to human extinction.  The article features a clip from Animatrix to accentuate this point.

-Conscious machines.  This is different than artificial intelligence.  This would a device that as the name indicates, is conscious of itself and its situation.  Many philosophers have argued it would be unethical and torturous to have such a conscious imprisoned for its existence in a box like a computer.

-Super artificial intelligence.  Despite what Stephen Hawking says, I don't believe that AI is the harbinger of our doom.  There are many benefits to AI and since it already exists in at least a rudimentary form, it is naive to think that it won't advance as the technological genii is now fully out of the bottle.  What needs to happen is regulation to prevent an AI from seeing itself as our superior and therefore our master.  I don't know how you do that and I'm not sure anyone else really does either.

-Time travel.  Won't happen.  Not going to concern myself.

-Mind reading devices.  Orwell would've loved these things.  I, on the other hand, could do without them.  To quote Prince: "If a man is considered guilty for what goes on in his mind, make me an electric chair for all my future crimes."

-Brain hacking devices.  As I've mentioned in regard to depression and boosting intelligence, I'd love to hack my brain with implants.  Dvorsky cautions against his, smartly pointing to the example of Ghost in the Shell when a malevolent intelligence was able to enter human brains through the network and actually modify their memories and desires.

-Autonomous robots designed to kill humans.  We already have trouble with drones and collateral damage.  The potential for even bloodier shenanigans becomes all the scarier with the idea that the armed drones could think for themselves.  "Please put down your weapon.  You have thirty seconds to comply..."

-Virtual prisons.  Your body is dead but your mind and your consciousness exist forever, imprisoned for all eternity within a computer system.  Makes the Phantom Zone from Superman (cited in the article) look like a low-security spa for Wall Street insider traders.

-Hell engineering.  I had not heard of this concept before reading the article.  Futurists usually think about ways to create utopia-like existences where the majority of our ills will be erased.  But the universe seems to have a tendency to balance itself out.  Having a good year?  Be prepared for the eventual downslide and vice versa.  If you can create heaven, then hell might be a natural byproduct.

-Weaponized pathogens.  I reordered this item to the end of the list because it genuinely terrifies me.  In 2005, there was much controversy over the publishing of genomes of deadly viruses.  Such a thing could be seen as a cookbook for bioterrorists.   A virus could be engineered to be highly contagious and guaranteed lethal.  Frighteningly enough, it seems that ISIS already has this in mind.

I certainly would never advocate to block progress.  You can, however, still progress while doing so with caution.  That's what we need to do.  Perhaps even more chilling is the idea that it's not enough to ban these ten technologies.  Instead, we should be looking at ways to respond and contain them when they inevitably arise from unscrupulous minds.

Sleep well, everybody!

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Enhanced intelligence: it works in mice


I just know that you read that word with a deep exclamation and a Thomas Dolby voice.

Sometimes scientific research can be amazing but its practical application can seem murky at best.  That may be the case with the following experiment but bear in mind, much eventually comes from original research.

Mice have been genetically modified to carry the human gene, Foxp2.  This is the gene thought to be responsible for the human abilities of speech and learning.  So the mice could talk and read T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland?

Of course not.  Don't be ridiculous.

They were, however, able to navigate a maze and nab a reward much faster than those in the unmodified control group.  As the Discover article reports:

"When placed in a maze where mice could use both landmarks and floor texture, mice with the human gene performed far better than normal mice. They learned the route in 7 days rather than the 11 days it took normal mice. However, when mice could only use one cue — landmarks or texture — there was no significant performance difference."

Great, you might say.  So what are we to take from all of this?

For one thing, this experiment grants further evidence of the importance of Foxp2 in the development of the human mind.  It is what allows a learned skill to become an unconscious behavior.  How much do you think about reading?  If you're reading and comprehending this post now, you likely don't give the actual act of reading much thought.  That's what we're talking about.

Knowing this may open up new doors in gene therapy.  If someone has a cognitive disorder, alterations that involve Foxp2 may be the ticket.  I'm sure you've already guessed that I'm thinking of the other applications.  As technology advances, could the same techniques be employed to enhance an already healthy and functional human brain beyond its inherent capabilities?  It only seems far-fetched right now.

The other notion is that now that this procedure is known, an unscrupulous individual may conduct the same experiments on other animals.  Like say, chimpanzees?  I will try to ablacate from a Planet of the Apes scenario, regardless of how much it excites me.

That's it.  I'm building my army of super-intelligent apes and mice.  That way I have stealth and strength.


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Monday, September 15, 2014

The respect barrier

She is lucky to be alive.

On August 8th, adult film actress Christy Mack (above) was brutally beaten in her own home, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend, War Machine (yes, that is is his legal name having changed it from Jonathan Koppenhaver.)  War Machine, a mixed martial arts fighter, is said to have found Mack in bed with a male friend.  This allegedly resulted in the choking, beating, and sexual assault of Mack.  Mack suffered ten broken bones, a broken nose, a fractured limb, several broken and missing teeth, and a severely ruptured liver as the result of being kicked in the side.  War Machine fled for a time but was apprehended by police shortly thereafter.

On his Twitter account, Mr. Machine has made tweets in months prior to the assault where he proudly claims to have raped Mack.  He also wears a t-shirt that reads "I do alpha male shit" in his profile pic.
Apparently, such "alpha male" activities include bludgeoning women half his size and strength.  Perhaps the same "alpha male" logic can be applied to several posters in the comments section of sites carrying this particular news story.  Weighing in on the subject, these armchair pundits suggested that Mack somehow attracted or deserves her injuries given the nature of her profession.

The most polite word I can conjure for such thinking is "flapdoodle."

All of this bobbles in the thick of already turbulent waters.  Ray Rice and several other players in the NFL have been accused of committing domestic violence (as Vice President Joe Biden says, however, we really should just start calling it "violence."  There is nothing "domesticated" about it.)  Thinking individuals are left wondering how violence against women could ever be seen as a viable option in an industrialized nation of the 21st Century and how offenders can often evade proportionate penalties.  Without question there are numerous sociological factors that contribute to the presence of domestic violence, but here I am going to argue that our political leaders  and the news media that covers politics are contributing factors.  Not only do women remain an underrepresented population in our government, many of their male counterparts as well as commentators in the media create and reinforce attitudes that at best paint women as second class citizens and at worst...targets.
Let's take a look at a few politicians and their views on the crime of sexual assault:

Granted, it would be safe to say these views are extreme and that most leaders would not advocate such things for their female constituents.  But like pollutants in the atmosphere, these statements remain in the air, wafting about on the currents of the zeitgeist and feeding into attitudes and perceptions.  Additionally, what happens when women enter the political arena in an effort to lead and participate in the process?   How are they perceived and treated by their peers?  Perhaps more importantly, how are they covered and represented in political news media?

For her film Miss Representation, documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom created a montage of TV news clips where pundits and hosts made commentary on female political leaders.  Among the more noxious points in the film:

-One commentator called Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House, "Wicked Witch of the West."
-Another said of Pelosi: "If you waterboarded Nancy Pelosi, she wouldn't admit to [having] plastic surgery."
-A headline on a news site labeled Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin as "The bitch and the ditz" respectively.
-Greta Van Susteren of Fox News asked Sarah Palin, "Breast implants.  Did you have them?"
-Bill O'Reilly, again of Fox News, asked a guest what the "down side" of having a female president might be.  "Besides the mood swings and PMS?" his guest responded.

If you can stomach it, take a look at those statements and scan them for subtext.  Once the infantile insults are removed, the true focus of what our media culture seems to want from female leaders is revealed.  Are they being asked about their stance on immigration reform?  On climate change?  Hell, even the budget?  Do we want to know about their stance on issues?  At other times, perhaps.  As the documentary shows, however, the discourse invariably comes back to questions of how a woman looks.  We're asking about breast implants, about plastic surgery, or why Angela Merkel won't buy a new outfit.  Yes, that's a foreign example but the principle remains the same and it's still our media in the reporting.  

Given this kind of treatment, is it any wonder that more women don't seek office or that when they do they aren't given serious and fair consideration?  Should we really be that perplexed that only 17% of Congress is composed of women and that fact places the U.S. in 90th place in the world in terms of women in legislatures?  The absence of basic respect can be quite the dissuading force...and it would be naive to presume that the disrespectful attitudes cited from the mouths of our own leaders and media in Miss Representation don't help mold every day social norms.

To prevent more incidents like Christy Mack or abused NFL wives/girlfriends, effective and comprehensive strategies and policies are needed.  This can't happen without more women involved in the process, having a say over the societal and legal mechanisms that affect their very health and safety.  When that population is excluded from the room when the decisions get made, it's hard to see how a fair and reasonable outcome can result.

Seriously, why is this shit even still a thing?

"Men are afraid women will laugh at them.  Women are afraid men will kill them." --Margaret Atwood

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Another year on Earth

Today is my birthday.

I have lived out yet another year.  Humans seem to think that is something worth "celebrating" for whatever reason.

What will I do for this occasion?  Nothing.

Yes.  I'm okay with that.  I'm also at peace with being my age.  After all, I've got all the inner angst and loathing of a 16 year-old so it feels...I dunno...youthful.  There are still no shortage of things that piss off Jonny Nichols: Angry Youth.

I checked to see if anything significant happened on this day in history.  The answer to that is "a whole lot of nothing." Guess I shouldn't have expected anything less.  Well, it was the date of the final mission of NASA's Gemini series.  I guess that's significant.  Listed for my actual birth date is the destruction of three airliners hijacked by Palestinians.  Figures I'd share the day with a tragedy (and narrowly missed 9/11 occurring on "my day.")

Who else was born on this date?  Science fiction author Stanislaw Lem for one.  I'm hoping that bodes for a positive trajectory that combines myself with science fiction.

You didn't know it was my birthday?  You didn't get me anything?  That's okay.  It can be late.  I don't mind.  Wondering what to get me?  This Zaxxon stand-up arcade machine will do.  There's room for it in my office.  Really.  I measured.

But if you're really serious about a gift, please give to the World Wildlife Fund and "adopt" an endangered animal.

What do I have planned for the year ahead?  I have at least two books I want to complete writing.  I thought writing them in a contiguous manner would keep me from getting bored but as the old saying goes, "in trying to catch two hares I ended up catching neither." Or however it goes.  Once finished, the books will likely be released independently and with the assistance of a literary "kickstarter" such as Pubslush.  I would also like to see a few other areas of the world.  Towards that purpose, I am deadly serious about an expedition to New Mexico next summer in order to complete my research for In Green Blood.  I am also serious about taking applications for research assistants (I already know Bernard is down for it.)

If I can accomplish those things as well as keep perpetuating my forward momentum in academics, I'll consider myself a success.

"I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday
I've come to wish you an unhappy birthday
'Cause you're evil
And you lie
And if you should die
I may feel slightly sad
(But I won't cry) "

--The Smiths

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Berwyn Mountains UFO incident

As I went through my mental convalescence from depression, I read many UFO books.

Most were geared towards my research on the story of (the alleged) Dulce Base but a few were of a more general nature.  One of them mentioned a UFO incident unknown to me previously.  As by happenstance, two researchers recently appeared on Coast-to-Coast AM and discussed the very case.  British UFO researcher Steven Lumley has written a book on the event and joined another UK UFO investigator named Russ Kellett (himself a professed abductee) on the program.

It is called the Berwyn Mountains UFO incident.  It is purported to have happened in January of 1974.  On C2C, Lumley claimed that the chain of events actually began in the Irish Sea as ships of the Royal Navy came down the Scottish coast in pursuit of "something below the surface of the water." Ships popped off photoflash bombs in an effort to expose their quarry.  While this was all underway, numerous fighter jets from the RAF dropped flash bombs into the area, working to box their targets into a corner, Kellett reckons.

Kellett's research alleges that three saucer-shaped UFOs then shot out of the ocean and attempted to flee the area.  One of these UFOs hid in a lake in the Berwyn Mountains of Wales and another exploded nearby.  This latter event may or may not have been the result of combat with the RAF aircraft.  It's the case of the third craft where things really get interesting.

This UFO is said to have landed on a road near a town in the mountains.  Kellett cites five witnesses who claim that several entities disembarked from this saucer with two of their number appearing "distressed" (how so was never made clear.)  Heavily armed units of the British military arrived on the scene and shooed away the witnesses.  Before they could be fully chased off the scene, witnesses told Kellet they that observed the aliens being taken to a vehicle and then driven away.  The UFO was lifted onto a flatbed truck and whisked away from the scene as well.  With no small amount of precision and expediency, the affected area was entirely cleansed of anything unusual ever having happened.

It is a rather lorn case in Ufology it seems and I am admittedly still trying to learn the facts of it all, but it does have several standard earmarks of the "mythos" as it were.  First of all, Unidentified Submarine Objects or USOs are nothing new.  There has been considerable UFO activity within and around the world's oceans.  In his book Invisible Residents (one of the ones I read and will soon review), Ivan T. Sanderson proposes that there is an entire intelligent and even advanced race living beneath the sea.  Additionally, there is the trope of downed saucers and the government showing up to scoop up any evidence.  This site called Bubble News (and name like that just cries out "journalistic integrity") even alleges that witnesses from the area villages were visited and intimidated by Men In Black.

What do Lumley and Kellett cite for evidence?  Well there are the witnesses plus calls to local police about the strange doings of the night in question.  There are also a few documents Kellett was able to obtain.

Not everyone, however, is keen on that evidence.  The content writers of Xpose UFO Truth sure aren't happy with Kellett and Lumley.  "Berwyn Mountains UFO Myth Dismantled" and "hoax" are phrases prominently shown on that site.  They also allege that the government documents Kellett cites are fraudulent and that no such incident "could ever have happened."

There is always competing research in these matters and things can rapidly devolve into pissing contests.  What is the truth?  Well it would seem that the burden of proof is on Kellett and Lumley so their evidence would need to be convincing.  The only way to know for sure is to do the reading and the research.

I invite you to do so and make up your own mind because I know I certainly will.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Been thinking about Wild Cards

Yes, George R. R. Martin has written other books besides Game of Thrones.

Martin was editor of a science fiction anthology called Wild Cards.  It is one of my favorite science fiction franchises and that is perhaps due to the collection's superhero angle.

Wild Cards was initially the product of a group of writers who all played the Superworld role-playing game.  Together they created a shared universe not unlike the kind inhabited by DC or Marvel superheroes.  Multiple writers wrote short stories set within this common milieu, creating a sort of mosaic novel.  Among the talent that has visited this series are Roger Zelazny, Lewis Shiner, Walter Jon Williams, and Pat Cadigan.

But just what is the story of Wild Cards?  Glad you asked.

Just after World War II, an alien named Dr. Tachyon arrived on Earth from the planet Takis.  Tachyon was a geneticist who had helped his people create a virus that human doctors came to call Xenovirus Takis-A.  Known as "the Enhancer" to Takisians, the virus was intended to amplify the aliens' natural telepathic abilities.  Would it work?  Only one prudent way to find out.  Just as we would do to chimps, the Takisians decided to test the virus on a species with DNA similar to their own.  Namely the humans of Earth.

The spaceship that carried the virus to this planet was downed.  It was in this wreckage that a scar-faced, Nazi-sympathizing, mad scientist named Dr. Tod found the pressurized canister of the virus and rightly presumed it to be a bioweapon.  In "Thirty Seconds Over Broadway," one of the introductory stories of the series, Dr. Tod placed the virus inside a blimp and hovered it over New York City.  He announced by radio that if he did not receive 20 million dollars (remember, a lot of money back in the 1940s), he would detonate the blimp and send the virus sprinkling to the populace below.  Oh the bastardous scaramouch!

All-American hero Jetboy is then called in to deal with the matter.  Jetboy was an orphan who fell into the possession of an experimental, prototype jet fighter called the JB-1 after its designer, Professor Silverberg, was gunned down by Nazis.  Jetboy went on to become a flying ace in the war, earning numerous victories.  He was not so lucky over Broadway.

Jetboy crashed the JB-1 into the blimp's gondola and confronted Dr. Tod.  Both men reached for the bomb's detonator...

Jetboy's final words were: "I can't die yet, I haven't seen The Jolson Story."

The virus was released after all.

What would happen to the infected was, as the Wild Card name would imply, a luck of the draw.  The vast majority of people died from illness, drawing "The Black Queen." A very small percentage of people, however, might draw a Joker.  That means that they would mutate into an unattractive form.  You might grow a tail or scaly, lizard-like skin might form over your body.  You might even exude a hideous odor from every pore of your body as in the hapless case of Snotman.  An even smaller number might draw an Ace, meaning they would develop super powers.  These can include the traditional superhero fare such as flight, telepathy, or super intelligence or perhaps animal based like Spider-Man.  An Ace might also draw a Deuce, meaning their superpower is utterly useless...like being to grow body hair at will.

Like the virus itself, what you got from the stories depended very much on who was writing them.  The story might take a pulpy form as it did with Jetboy, it might be more traditional in the comic book way, or it might be otherwise realistic science fiction with graphic sex, accurate violence, and societal problems.  Something for everyone.

While published in 1987, Wild Cards remains one of the freshest takes on the "mass pandemic" subgenre of fiction.  Instead of a dreadful illness or the trite redundancy of the "zombie apocalypse," why not include the possibility of something extraordinary happening?

The slim chance of acquiring powers would almost make me want to take the Wild Card risk.


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