Friday, October 31, 2014

The concept art that burst out of a chest and formed "Alien"

Today is Halloween.

That doesn't mean altogether that much to me. I mean, I never did get that laser I wanted last year to beam trick or treaters as they approach the house. What's left? Well I thought I would discuss a pivotal moment in cinematic history when the "scary movie" intersected with science fiction yielding classic results.

I am talking about Alien.

Wired magazine recently published never-before-seen sketches for Alien. Several of the drawings naturally come from H.R. Giger but there is other conceptual art in there as well. It's sometimes difficult to recall that the "xenomorph" from the film, so iconic and indelible of an image in the mind of any science fiction fan or movie buff for that matter, did not materialize fully formed. Rather, it seems to have been a case similar to so many other products of a creative mind: the design was cobbled together through many different points of inspiration. For example, one sketch shows that the face and head of the alien came from what was originally intended to be a skull-shaped Harkonnen Castle for the film adaptation of Dune. Giger kept the teeth and the elongated skull but ditched the eyes.

He also had an alternate design for the "facehugger" stage of the xenomorph that was even creepier than the one we ended up with. It was hand-shaped and had an eye in the knuckle regions. It also had a dual mouth, giving it the obvious Freudian overtones that the article points out.

There is also concept art for that ill-fated spaceship, The Nostromo. This depiction has it towing an asteroid with a mining station perched atop it. Additionally, there is an alternate version of how the interior of the derelict ship would appear. It seemed more industrial and bright, like a steel smelting plant with the brilliant light of a furnace fire. That's a far cry from what resulted in Alien and eventually in Prometheus (shudder).

You can also find concept art for Alien 3 at the link, but that's a film that I like to pretend doesn't exist and I find I can do that with a certain degree of plausibility.

Ultimately, it is the design of the xenomorph itself that endures. Eyeless. Essentially faceless save for teeth and jaws. Its elongated, phallic-shaped head serving as the connotation of the fine line between terror and eroticism. Yes, that's one of the truly odd things about the design, isn't it? It's an organism that lives only to kill, it would kill you or anyone in a horrific manner and without any thought, yet there is something sexy about it. In the way it looks, in the way it moves, in the way it even stands or runs after someone down the corridors of The Nostromo. It's not overt and it certainly isn't the central theme of the alien, but it is there, lurking beneath all the teeth, slime, and ick.

Anyway, Happy Halloween. Go carve a virtual pumpkin.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, October 30, 2014

UFO stops the soccer

I guess I should call it "football" when in a European context.

Whatever the case, this story involves UFOs. I found out about it via the BBC...which is odd since you don't usually see them covering UFO matters.  But I digress...

It all happened on October 27th, 1954. Ten thousand sports fans turned out in Tuscany, Italy to watch Fiorentina take on Pistoiese in football. No. Fuck it. It's definitely not football. It's that commie plot called "soccer." But I digress...and I kid...

Play came to an abrupt stop as both fans and players gave their attention exclusively to the sky above the soccer (yeah, I said it) stadium. An object moved in said sky. It was described by one of the players from that day thusly:

"It was something that looked like an egg that was moving slowly, slowly, slowly. Everyone was looking up and also there was some glitter coming down from the sky, silver glitter."

Other witness accounts vary slightly in terms of the UFO. There are those who call the object more "cigar shaped" while others claim the classic saucer form. Before any skeptic can use this discrepancy to claim "mass hysteria" over "they saw it from a different angle," it must be noted that aside from the 10,000 or so witnesses in the stands, there were several sightings across the Italian countryside at that time. We can, however, chalk that up to the waves of UFO sightings that occurred after the initial stadium incident. Or at least a few of the sightings, I would imagine, but perhaps not all. There may be wheat hidden amongst the chaff.

What I am most interested in is the physical evidence that the UFO left behind, the "silver glitter" that the soccer player referred to earlier. It earned the nickname "angel hair," due not only to its color and luster but also I am presuming due to its similar consistency to the eponymous pasta There's a picture at the BBC link.) Witnesses report seeing "angel hair" fall from the UFO and cover roofs, trees, and telephone and electrical wire. To the touch it was said to be sticky like cotton candy.

Sadly not much of the substance was saved as it was said to evaporate like snow after only an hour. What little of the physical evidence that was tested was found to be composed of the chemical elements boron, silicon, calcium, and magnesium. Unfortunately, that does nothing for identification purposes.

Skeptics claim that the angel hair samples were in fact spider webs. Falling from aerial migrating spiders.

I'll let you consider for a moment what sounds dumber: UFO or aerial migrating spiders.

This is not to say that the latter does not exist. Spiders do indeed spin webs into "sails" of sorts and drift on wind currents, sometimes for very long distances. Such a theory does not however account for the UFO itself. It would also mean that there would have had to have been a lot of spiders in the air to leave behind that much angel hair. Plus there were no proteins or organic compounds found in the substance. If it had been spider webs, that would not have been the case.

This case has yet to be explained. That doesn't mean "aliens" or even anything all that offbeat. It simply means that the truth has yet to be found. Jokes abound, as they always do. "Aliens are not baleful creatures out for our destruction. They just want to watch soccer and probe our butts." Then what was the purpose or the source of the angel hair? This all reinforces a line of thinking I've been examining for a while now.

The UFO, whatever it was, wanted to be seen.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

"And the worms ate into his brain..."

That's it.

I'm seeing a neurologist tomorrow.

Or at least I would like to. This old article from Discover magazine has convinced me that it would be in my best interests. For you see there is a silent epidemic among us, one that manifests itself in the form of paralysis, blindness, impaired speech or eyesight, epileptic seizure, or even coma. The reason.

Tapeworms. Inside the brain.

Tapeworms are usually known as these elongated, ribbon-like parasites that can inhabit the intestinal region of the body. They start out small, though, in a larval stage as cysts and that's when they can end up in the brain. This condition is known as "neurocysticercosis."

Worms in the brain. Think about it.

Perhaps most insidious of all is the fact that there's no telling how many people have this as the outward symptoms can masquerade as neuro-conditions such as epilepsy. That's why an MRI is required to locate the blobbish, white cysts inside the brain. A blood test for antibodies that are produced against tapeworms is needed for additional evidence.

How does this happen to someone? Same way tapeworms find their way into anyone: consumption of undercooked pork. Larvae of the tapeworm get into the muscle tissue of a pig and are then carried into a human when the pork product is not sufficiently heated. These larvae sometimes "lose their way," as the article says, and flow through the bloodstream and into the brain. The article goes into all manner of ghoulish and chthonian description as to what exactly happens when the worm larvae end up in the cerebrum. So if you want to know more I'd suggest clicking the link. One especially gruesome anecdote depicts a man who had a tapeworm wrapped his brain stem. After the worm eventually died, the ensuing swelling of the brain sent the man into a coma.

If you think you have tapeworms in your brain, there are treatments such as a drug called praziquantel, but that brings problems of its own. Prevention, as always, is a better course of action. There are efforts underway to vaccinate pigs from ever getting tapeworm to begin with and...better yet...we can all take action and choose to reduce our consumption of meat. Wow am I more glad than ever that I decided to do that. I'll probably toss bacon out of my diet altogether.

I also want that MRI just to be sure.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

One day it will all end

We certainly seem to have no shortage of crises.

What, when you consider Ebola, ISIS, ecological disaster, and the potential for economic collapse, human extinction can almost seem at times to be a given. If that's not enough of a cheery thought for you, the fine folks over at io9 put an even sharper point on it. There are likely more crises coming up "around the hood ornament" so to speak that carry the capability to wipe out all of humanity. What's more, they will all be our own doing.

Yet we don't seem that concerned. As the article states: 

"Yet, these risks remain understudied. There is a sense of powerlessness and fatalism about them. People have been talking apocalypses for millennia, but few have tried to prevent them. Humans are also bad at doing anything about problems that have not occurred yet (partially because of the availability heuristic – the tendency to overestimate the probability of events we know examples of, and underestimate events we cannot readily recall)."

So what does the author consider to be the five biggest culprits for extinction on the horizon? Let's take a look at them. I will be treating them in ascending order of "what scares me the most."

-Nanotechnology. Face it. Robots on the molecular or even atomic scale scare people. It's that threat of the unseen, of tiny mechanisms that can enter your body while you are none the wiser. A maniacal mind could use such micro-sized devices to poison or perhaps control someone or even just driving them crazy by making them think they have a poltergeist in the house. This is to say nothing of the "grey goo" scenario where self-replicating nanobots get out of control and devour everything in sight, thus sending humanity into extinction.

Then again, this technology could aid us in getting climate change under control or defending our nation. Stop thinking about what could go wrong and consider what could go right.

-Superintelligence. This covers everything from enhanced human cognition to artificial intelligence. The concern stems from the fact that high intelligence does not always come with a high sense of ethics. A highly intelligent person...or a position of authority or control might see a situation in terms of pure logic and not be sensitive to side consequences of a decision.

While I can share a bit of concern over this possibility, I again see this as another case of "rise of the machines" Luddite reactionary fatalism. See above.

-Human created pandemic. Now I'm getting scared. While pandemics such as Ebola have killed many, they generally aren't favored by nature as extinction tools as wiping out their hosts is problematic to their own survival. Someone eventually demonstrates resistance to the pathogen. Human ingenuity can overcome that defect, however. We can make diseases more contagious and more robust against resistance. A study on bird flu demonstrated that the contagious quality of that virus could be deliberately boosted. Bioweapons. If we can turn nature into a weapon, we will.

-Unknown unknowns. You might wonder why I place this Donald Rumsefield-esque entry second to last and not the first as the article lists it. Well again, as the writer states, I suppose I fall to the "availability heuristic." It's hard for me to be afraid of something I don't know about. That being said, I know that the law of averages and probability states that humans can only face so many catastrophes before our number is up.

-Nuclear war. I've written about it on here so many times that it isn't even funny, but this Cold War child is still scared to death of it (thank you, John Chancellor.) While a full-tilt nuclear exchange between the armed nations seems unlikely at this time, it still isn't far from our minds. Putin is sending nuclear-armed bombers and submarines closer and closer to the United States as a means of waving his genitalia about. There is always the threat that a terrorist organization such as ISIS will get their hands on a nuclear device left roaming about after the fall of the Soviet Union. Even a regional exchange between say, India and Pakistan would have drastic global consequences. We're certainly good at finding ways of killing ourselves.

In the end, that might be the factor that belongs at the top of this list. Human beings carry such a streak of avarice, selfishness, and short-sightedness.

That may be the biggest threat of all.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, October 27, 2014

Music videos pt 2

Video killed the radio star.

And I'm ok with it, too.

Sure, MTV had numerous drawbacks, collateral intellectual damage, and unintended consequences, but think of what it brought us. Before video, music was often a guy in a bushy beard sitting on stool and strumming an acoustic guitar while incense and bongo beats wafted in the background. Once in a while he might even look out at the audience.

Blessedly, music video did for that kind what Nirvana did to hair metal in the early 1990s.

I have given a great deal of thought to music video after a recent conversation I had on Facebook with the lovely Talia of I'm Having a Moment. It has led me to reflect on a few videos...both recent and eldritch...that I did not include in my previous post on the subject.

First up, Radiohead with "Paranoid Android." It's an animated short that showcases all manner of insanity. At the same time, I find it to be a rather accurate depiction of real life.

"When I am king you will be first against the wall."

Speaking of animation, behold Daft Punk with "Harder Better Faster Stronger." Push aside the "corporate ad" nature of the song's title and drink in the video. I'm aware that it's not a "video" in the strictest sense as it's a clip from the anime film, Interstella 555, but I'm including it anyway. The anime has no dialogue and the audio track is composed entirely of recorded for the most part by Daft Punk (I think Barry Manilow might enter the mix as well since he's a big fan of techno. I'm serious.) Plus, even though the story takes place in a star system far far away, it would make a great theme song for the transhumanist movement.

Portishead made a short film called "To Kill a Dead Man." It's based around a political assassination but rapidly morphs into a fast series of weird, black and white existential visuals. Ingmar Bergman would be proud. Taking the short film approach, Portishead took video back to the artform it was intended to be.

"More Than This" is pure cheese from Roxy Music but I like it anyway.

You want more cheese? Check out "Space is the Place" by Sun Ra. Sun Ra was something of a jazz musician who professed that he was not from Earth but from Saturn. He wanted to lead enlightened people away from Earth and towards space which was "the place." Just watch this video unfold of him in a bizarre landscape with odontoid plantlife and mirror-faced beings.

David Bowie was always a video innovator. During the 1990s he teamed up with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails (can you say, dream team for Jonny?) on a few songs, a tour, and this video. In it, Trent plays a deranged cab driver named "Jonny." That's right! Jonny. I couldn't have been happier when I saw it. Plus, just like David Bowie, "I'm Afraid of Americans."

If you're interested in reading any more of my thoughts regarding music video, check out my breakdown of the M83 trilogy.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, October 24, 2014

Moon of Saturn may have water

Time now again for Science Friday, ESE style.

It has been jokingly referred to as "The Death Star."

Mimas, one of Saturn's smaller moons, has an enormous impact crater, granting it an appearance similar to that of the giant space station from Star Wars (the big crater looks like the dish-shaped opening for the planet-killing laser get the idea.) Aside from that, space scientists have found Mimas to be rather unremarkable.

Now the thinking is that Mimas may have water. Mimas wobbles significantly as it orbits Saturn. So much so that data obtained by the Cassini space probe suggests that there must something in the moon's core to cause such a wobble. It is strongly suspected that this "something" is an ocean of liquid water cloistered within Mimas' center.

In a previous post, I blogged about a study that found that over 50% of Earth's water actually came from space, suggesting that water itself is likely more plentiful in the universe than we might have originally suspected. The oceanic core of Mimas, though not conclusively proven yet, would be a moon-sized glop of evidence heaped onto that line of thinking.

Of course whenever we talk about water in space, there is a certain accompanying level of excitement. Our myopic tendencies bring us to the axiom "where there is water, there is life." I could go on to explain how that's a narrow means of thinking, but that would take away from a post on Mimas. Suffice to say that the chances of life in the center of that Saturn moon are very slim, but this finding is significant in and of itself.

And it would further demonstrate how little we know about our own solar system as well as tantalize us with the prospects of further discoveries in the vast cosmos.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Captain Marvel

I have been reading a lot of Captain Marvel comic books lately.

Whenever you say that to a comic book geek, you typically need to clarify just which character you mean. DC Comics has a Captain Marvel known colloquially even if erroneously as "Shazam." Marvel Comics has several characters with said name. Me? Well, there's only one in my eyes.

It was 1977 and I was in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Spent the summer there as my Dad was at an academic conference. That was where I saw Star Wars for the first time. It was also where I had my first Slurpee at a 7-11. At the time, such frozen concoctions were being sold in superhero collector cups. The cup I selected was one featuring a comic book hero that I had actually never seen before. He was clad in red and blue, which seems to be a standard superhero color scheme, had a frock of blond hair, and was flying through space. Clearly, this Captain Marvel was a science fiction superhero.

And he looked really cool.

In time I would learn his history. His real identity was Mar-Vell, a military officer of the alien Kree Empire. Loyal ESE readers who suffered through my long dissection of the Kree-Skrull War know this already and no doubt it comes with a pang of misery. Think it was rough for you to read? Imagine blogging it. But I digress...

Mar-Vell came to Earth as part of a Kree detachment. His task was to infiltrate human society and evaluate whether or not Earth is a threat to the Kree Empire. What better place to do this than Cape Kennedy? As he carries out his mission, however, Mar-Vell begins to admire humanity (for reasons that pass understanding) and he gradually comes to believe that it is the Kree who are in the wrong. This earns him the branding of "traitor" and lifelong animosity from his own people. So Captain Marvel makes the best of it on Earth. He wears his original green and white, 1950s-style "space cadet" outfit and uses his enhanced strength and endurance as well as sophisticated technology to defend all of humanity from supervillainous threats.

He eventually gets the costume pictured above and I actually think that's an improvement. The issues I've been going through have him teaming up with Drax the Destroyer (name should ring a bell if you saw Guardians of the Galaxy this past summer) and fighting Kree sentries and super criminals such as The Living Laser. It was one particular battle though that made Captain Marvel rather unique in all of comic books.

In taking on a super criminal named Nitro, Captain Marvel needed to disarm a bomb before it went off and dispersed a nerve gas called "Compound 13" across a populated area. He is successful in doing so but in the process comes into contact with Compound 13. An antidote is administered and Marvel suffers only exiguous effects.

Or so he thinks.

Captain Marvel eventually learns that the Compound 13 gave him cancer. Even for a superhero, there would be no stopping the disease. You see, Marvel wears bracelets called "nega-bands" which are a source of his power. They slow the cancer from spreading but they also cause him to resist all treatments. Damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. Even the advanced technology on Saturn's moon of Titan is of no help. Therefore, across the span of a year or so of comic book time, Captain Marvel slowly faces death the same way as any mortal would and finally succumbs to it. All this is brilliantly depicted by Jim Starlin in The Death of Captain Marvel.

Perhaps this is Captain Marvel's ultimate appeal for me. Despite his heroic nature and the fact that yes, he looked cool and could do cool things, he was just as vulnerable as the rest of us. How often have you heard, "What did that superhero die from? Oh, lost a long, drawn-out battle with cancer. So sad." And so real. There's more than a touch of humanity to Captain Marvel and that's saying something given that he's a Kree. In the end none of his powers mattered. He still faced the same sort of death that the rest of us do.

Face it he did. With grace, with calm, and with dignity.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Great Martian War

I forget when exactly it aired (last spring?) but I remembered my mixed reaction when I saw it.

It was a two-hour BBC program called The Great Martian War. It was all shot "mockumentary" style with actors portraying historians and survivors of a conflict called "The Martian Invasion of 1913." So you guessed it. It was a mash-up of World War I and War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

The 1913 portrayed in the mock-documentary is much the same as that of our actual historical reality. All of Europe is itchy and twitchy as it appears Germany is girding itself for war. So when a massive explosion booms out from the Black Forest, the world naturally assumes that Bismarck has tested a superweapon. That line of thought all changes when the German government sends out a telegram begging for help, stating that a "cylinder" full of alien war machines is laying waste to the nation.

And things just begin to deteriorate from there. The Martians (as they are somehow determined to be) have ominous technology at their disposal. There are the "Herons," towering tripod war machines much like the kind Wells described in his novel. There are the "Spiders," which are smaller versions of the Herons and act rather as the foot soldiers to the Herons battlefield commanders (more on that in a moment.) Perhaps most insidious of all are the "Lice."

After the armies of Germany, France, and Britain engage the alien enemy, they find themselves losing. After all, infantry and cavalry are no real match for what geeks might recognize as essentially "battle mechs." It's a slaughter. Perhaps even more disturbing than the carnage is the fact that the morning after a large-scale engagement, the battlefield is utterly barren. There is no wreckage. There is no debris. Creepiest of all, there are no bodies. Survivors tell the camera that they at first speculated that Martians took the bodies during the night for nefarious purposes. In a way, yes.

The Lice, stubby, crawly robots, move across the battlefield and devour whatever is in their path. They take what is useful to the Martians, namely things made of metal or composed of crude electrical components, and then discard the rest. "The rest" in this case being the corpses of humans and horses. They were ground up and dispersed back into the soil. The inorganic material became raw resources for the Martian military to resupply itself. With this kind of self-sustaining supply line added to advanced technology and firepower, the area under Martian control grew to extend as far north as Denmark, as far south as Italy, and westward into France.

The seas are no picnic, either. Just like in the real World War I, the United States and Canada encounter deadly lurkers in the deep as the two nations attempt to move men and supplies across the Atlantic. Instead of U-Boats, this time it's Martian robots "running silent, running deep."

Eventually, things start going right for the humans. Once a Heron steps on a landmine and is destroyed, the Spiders deactivate. Taking the hint, the Allies target the Herons as command and control figures. Additionally, a riff on the original Wells ending becomes the main reason that humans are able to turn things around. A Heron comes to an impotent stop in London. Inside it is a dead Martian who is found to have no resistance to the bacteria and viruses of Earth. Once again taking a hint, the Allies inflict the horse virus glanders upon the Martians. Sick and dying, the Martian advance utterly halts and the war is over.

A cool twist for history buffs is that this type of biological warfare forms a parallel to the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 where people begin to contract the virus and not just the Martians.  Instead of Wells' humility of humans being saved by the smallest of creation, however, we see a pavonine strutting of "oh humans are so strong" that left a bad taste in my mouth.

I'm left wondering just what the motivation was for this mock-documentary. It's a unique concept, yes, but where were the producers going with it? It's a quality production. I mean, you're not going to get anything less than that from the BBC, but it's just odd. It's almost as if it's too small in scope to be a feature event and not fully-developed enough to become a series. There is a springboard for a series (what that would look like I have no idea) in the sense that the recovered Martian technology called "victicite" has made it into the contemporary electronics of the world of the documentary. There is an insinuation that victicite might actually be biotech with a sense of sentience. Is it trying to make us into Martians?

Who the hell knows. They don't tell us.

This is not to say that The Great Martian War isn't worth a look online or the next time you see it listed on BBC. If you like history or if you like science fiction or if you're like me and you like both, this is one to see. Just don't expect much more than entertainment.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mars is a work of art

People often ask why I am so fascinated with Mars.

These are often woodsy, earthbound types who either can't consider anything outside of this world to be of interest or they hear the word "astronomy" and instantly think "data and scholarly articles." The conventions of realpolitik often keep me from telling them to snork off, but if I feel I absolutely must answer the question, I have many reasons to give. Now, I can thankfully refer such inquisitors to this article at io9.

In one composite image you can see the strange landscape of Mars in all of its diverse, geological splendor. There are the remains of avalanches, carvings made in rock by floods (water on Mars!) and marks in the rusty-copper soil from fierce winds. Speaking of winds, you can see dunes shaped by them as well. You can also see craters, scars from where meteorites made it in past Mars' atmosphere. Together they create a mosaic effect worthy of the canvas of any landscape artist.

The images come from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Obviously many of the photographs are not the actual color of the Red Planet. For a detailed technical explanation of just why this is, click on the above link. As one particularly geeky reader of io9 (is there any other kind?) pointed out, the multicolor image gives the impression of a "patchwork planet," not unlike the Genesis planet from the original Star Trek film series.

Snow and sub-tropical vegetation in the same sector. Indeed.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, October 20, 2014

Film Review--Fire in the Sky

starring D.B. Sweeney, Robert Patrick, Henry Thomas, James Garner, Peter Berg, Craig Sheffer, and

Travis Walton (Sweeney) works to cut trees and clear brush in the town of Snowflake, Arizona. His crew of coworkers returns to town one day without Travis. They claim that they saw Travis taken aboard a UFO. Immediately the men are suspected of murder and a search begins for Travis' body. Travis, however, returns five days later...with a harrowing tale of alien abduction.

I saw this film when it first came out in 1993. At the time I greatly disliked it as the actual account of Travis Walton was egregiously "Hollywood-ized," as if dipped in a tub of H.R. Geiger and not allowed to dry (coming complete with abduction victims placed in slimy, membranous pods.) Seeing it with fresh eyes over the weekend, I began to find things that intrigued me, whether the filmmakers intended them to or not. For one thing, there is a scene where the bodies of what appear to be Gray aliens are dangling from cables. Walton, loose inside the UFO at this point, discovers they are not bodies at all. "Spacesuits," he gasps as he inspects them. This is somewhat reminiscent of the alien masks and armor depicted in Communion.

Outside of their suits, the aliens are shriveled and mummy-like. In fact, the entire spaceship is grimy and in a seeming state of perpetual corrosion. Combined with their own decrepit physique, the aliens just look like they've fallen on really hard times. They don't even seem to know why exactly they are taking people and performing torturous examinations upon them (you can watch that grisly moment in the abduction here.) Instead their victims are left terrified and bewildered...not at all unlike they are in real life I'm given to understand. While this all flies in the face of the "mythos narrative" of the abduction say nothing of what Travis Walton claimed actually brings up a few interesting points.

Must an alien race conform to our notions of "advanced?" True, they would by definition need to be "advanced" in order to traverse the mind-blowing distance, but might they not also be utterly pragmatic? No "clean rooms," no "cathedrals of light," just muddy, grimy reality? Or could this get back to the idea that they are not "Grays" or "aliens" at all in the conventional sense but rather metaphysical things? After all, what is originally thought to be a "Gray" turns out to be a facade, a hollow outer shell. Is the visage of the Gary a mask in and of itself? Or are these beings in the film ourselves from the future, humanity having been reduced to jaundiced and shriveled forms by our misapplication of science? Could it even be weirder, something along the lines of a hidden race eking out an existence while symbiotically needing our biological matter? Something along the lines of Mac Tonnies' "cryptoterrestrials?"

Of course, as I already pointed out, I highly doubt that the producers of this film intended any such speculation. They didn't even intend to accurately depict the Walton incident with any kind of real accuracy. So as a movie, the rest of it is serviceable at best. The acting is pretty much what you'd expect but James Garner is particularly good. Then again he was good in just about anything he did. In a quirky twist, Henry Thomas...Elliot from E.T. ...has a role, showing up once again in a movie about aliens.

That brings up an interesting question. Just where should one place Fire in the Sky on the cline of UFO-themed movies?  To be honest, I'm not exactly sure. While I'm still not a fan of it as a film per se, it still has me thinking days...even years...later.

There are movies I've thoroughly enjoyed that don't do that.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, October 17, 2014

Painting and "mommy groups:" findings on early humans

Time again for Science Friday.

Since I recently posted a...shall we say, contentious...theory of human origins, I thought that I would take a look at actual verified advancements in the field.

Like most kids, prehistoric life fascinated me during my formative years. This primarily means dinosaurs but I also enjoyed the Hollywood "lost world" milieu as seen on Skull Island in King Kong and the underground world of At the Earth's Core.  One glaring scientific inaccuracy (among many) that these settings featured was a duple depiction of Earth eras.  There were "cavemen" or loose-knit tribes of primitive humans that lived alongside the dinosaurs in a Flintstone's-like existence. Unless you're a fundy, you know that such cohabitations never happened and that any depictions thereof are for the purposes of pulpy entertainment only (granted the native islanders of King Kong were not "cavemen" but the ethno-insensitivity of the times made them transparent stand-ins, I would argue.) Fortunately, the realities of what early hominids were like are far more interesting and multi-faceted than their cheesy Hollywood reflections.

It is now speculated that mothers among early hominids raised their young collectively. "Momma groups," so to speak. Examining already existing research, a team consisting of academics from Harvard, the University of Utah, and the University of California have found that mothers of those species began to give birth to larger babies. These children were also more dependent. It is therefore thought that they could not have been raised alone and "care networks" of sorts formed between mothers.

Doesn't surprise me. We're constantly told (especially by corporate leaders and conservatives it would seem) that our natural, Darwinian state is one of survival of the fittest and kill or be killed. Yes, there is truth to that both with humans and elsewhere in nature. However we neglect the numerous examples where organisms cooperate in order to survive. Not only survive but to prosper as a matter of fact. This is yet another case of that and the fact that it was women who were the pioneers likewise does not surprise me. It would seem that they would naturally see the strength and advantage in collectivism. I'll just drop it here before someone gets bent out of shape about "It takes a village..."

Elsewhere, what are thought to be the world's oldest examples of human art have been found. The insides of a cave of Indonesia showcases a montage of water buffalo, warthogs, and even handprints rendered in ochre, a reddish natural pigment. At least a few of these are thought to be 40,000 years old. Stylistically, the depictions are similar to those found in Europe, the previous crown-holder for the oldest-known human art. Primal humans were painting what they saw, namely wild animals. As they no doubt were sources of sustenance, they loomed large in human existence. I am also intrigued by the handprints. To me, they suggest a search for identity. "I am aware I exist and I'm trying to figure out why. In the meantime, I mark my place here." Just my thoughts.

In a similar vein, I'm wondering if we are about to find that humanity, in one form or another, has been around much longer they we've ever suspected. Discoveries such as this those in the caves keeps overturning the previous paradigm. How sophisticated were we? Well...I don't think I'm ready to say that there were advanced civilizations lost to us by flood or something (e.g. Atlantis), but you have to wonder.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Big advancements in nuclear fusion

We need alternative energy sources.

Right now our world is hopelessly dependent upon energy resources that are finite, that don't burn clean, thus polluting our world and leaving far-reaching consequences. Wouldn't it be great if we had a resource that burned clean and was nearly limitless? Good news: we might be closer to that than we think. Bad news: right now it's being developed for military use. Well that's not really bad as it does help us and the energy source should eventually filter out for civilian use, but you know what I mean.

Lockheed Martin announced it has made great progress towards nuclear fusion. Fusion is the process that fuels the stars. Atoms are smashed together at high temperatures, thus producing new particles and tremendous amounts of energy. Many a science fiction spaceship has been powered by a fusion reactor, but the idea Lockheed is after is to have Navy ships, submarines, and drones be able to operate for a nigh unlimited amount of time before conking out and doing so on a very tiny amount of fuel.

One of the obstacles to fusion reactors, aside from the high temperatures required to have a sustained reaction, has been magnetic confinement. When atoms break apart into separate particles inside the high temperatures of the reactor, high-energy plasma is released and it would need to be kept away from the metal edges of the reactor. It is this very magnetic field generator that Lockheed claims to have developed. An important point in this story is not that a sustained, controlled fusion reaction has been achieved, but rather that we now have the magnetic gear for containing the plasma once we get the reaction business sorted.

But it wouldn't have been the first time somebody claimed a fusion reaction. In 1989, the team of Drs. Pons and Fleischmann announced that they had developed "cold fusion," a fusion reaction at temperatures far lower than what was thought to be needed. Too bad it turned out not to be true. Not that the men hoaxed it or perpetrated a fraud. Certainly not. They were simply mistaken.

Fusion claims still persist. Coast to Coast AM recently featured Sterling Allan of Pure Energy Systems. On C2C, Allan talked about a cold fusion reactor that has run for 32 consecutive days, producing 3.5 times more energy than what was put into the system. He speculates we could make "refrigerator-sized" cold fusion reactors available to power houses in the next five to ten years. Wouldn't that be nice?

If that's the case, then both Lockheed Martin and DARPA are seriously wasting their time. After all, if fusion power is just sitting around and about to be marketed for personal use, then why continue their research? Guess we'll have to see.

Because that's the dream, right? Enough energy to leave my computer, my smartphone, and multiple gaming platforms plugged in and active at all times without worrying about the electric bill? Or the guilt over the environment? Might even get me to actually hang outdoor Christmas lights.

Here's to hoping.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Guy claims "Humans are not from Earth"

It seems that we keep discovering more and more exoplanets each year.

One of these days, humanity may even find the planet we originally came from.

At least that's what Dr. Ellis Silver claims. In the ecologist's aptly titled book, Humans Are Not From Earth, Silver points to what he sees as being illogical developments in human evolution that suggest we are not from around here. Let's start out with sunburns.

Yes, according to Silver, sunburns are a sign that our race hails from elsewhere. Where, he basically wonders, is the logic in living on a planet where you can't be exposed to the sun for too long? Personally I think it might have much more to do with the fact that many humans migrated out of Africa and lost our protective pigment against UV rays, but let's try to stay with Silver a bit longer on this. Another sign of our extraterrestrial origins is the fact that so many people suffer with back pain. This is due, he postulates, to the fact that humans likely emerged on a planet with lower gravity. What's more, the fact that childbirth causes so much pain is evidence to Dr. Silver that we're not from around here. The fact that a baby's head is so large and difficult to get through the birth canal is downright illogical in his theory.

He has a point, but I just seem to think that anything of any real size trying to get through that tiny opening is going to cause some degree of pain. Am I right, ladies? Plus, I don't see how this quirk of human anatomy translates to "aliens."

Anyway, when does Dr. Silver think we were first dropped off here? Well the linked article says perhaps as recently as 10,000 years ago, but I didn't find a justification for that figure other than Silver saying that the afflictions he cites are "modern conditions." Think this all sounds kooky to you? It gets better. All of these maladies we suffer may be due to the fact that Earth was intended to be a prison planet. Silver points to humanity's violent nature and seeming inability to get along with one another. This suggest that we might be the cosmic equivalent of Australia, at least in terms of origins. Our species might actually be kids in a time-out.

A really big time out.

"Mankind is supposedly the most highly developed species on the planet, yet is surprisingly unsuited and ill-equipped for Earth's environment: harmed by sunlight, a strong dislike for naturally occurring foods, ridiculously high rates of chronic disease, and more," he told Yahoo.

So in other words, we were put here to suffer. Guess that would explain a great many things. In terms of exobiology, that might even explain why people claim to see bipedal aliens when all statistical probability should be against it. There are still versions of and variations upon ourselves out there in space. This might make for a good book or short story. But I digress...

Your natural tendency (and who am I kidding, mine as well) might be to see Dr. Silver as quite the mythomane. I am going to argue that he is correct...from a certain point of view. This is where I insert the quote, "a great many of the truths we cling to depend upon our point of view."

Humans do come from space. Every element in our body, everything that goes into what makes us physically who we are, has its origin in the core of stars. We came from out there.

Just probably not in the way that Silver asserts.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

At Earth's Core!

Over the weekend, I was reintroduced to a science fiction film from my juvenescent days.

It's called At Earth's Core. It was loosely based on a science fiction book by Edgar Rice Burroughs and starred the ominous Peter Cushing, the hottie Caroline Munro, and leading-man-guy Doug McClure (no, not Troy). As you might have deduced from the fact that it's an ERB book, the whole thing takes place in the late 19th Century Britain, giving the film a sort of steampunk appeal.

A British scientist (Cushing) backed by an American financier (McClure) has brought about a marvelous technological advancement. Called the Iron Mole, it's an enormous drilling machine that was intended to revolutionize the mining industry. They decide to test it out and drill a gigantic hole in the Welsh countryside. What they end up doing is tunneling into a strange, underground world that is populated by dinosaurs and cavemen. Please note that I abhor using the word "cavemen" but in Hollywood terms, that's exactly what they were.

Living in prehistoric times would be anything but salubrious. For these underground dwellers, however, things are made far more complicated by beings called the Mahars. These are giant flying reptiles with telepathic abilities. Many of the primitive humans are being kept as slaves and thralls by the Mahars via mind control. Unfortunately, the crew of the Iron Mole are taken prisoner by the Mahars and brought to the capitol city.

There, Doug McClure's character meets the beautiful Princess Dia (Munro) and falls in love. But oh despair! Dia has been selected by the Mahars to be a human sacrifice! Can the visitors from the topside world gather the enslaved humans and inspire them to revolt?

As a kid, I was pretty much a sucker for any movie that included dinosaurs. At Earth's Core was no exception. Making it even more appealing was the fact that it featured a race of intelligent, telepathic pterodactyls, reminding me of Sauron from Marvel Comics. Viewing the movie through my contemporary eyes, I can't help but think about the Hollow Earth theory.

This is a paranormal speculation that asserts that the Earth is something of a hollow sphere wherein an entire underground civilization flourishes (and you thought it was just lava beneath the ground.) The so-called Shaver Mysteries are an account of one man's paranormal experiences after exploring caves and encountering denizens of this civilization. No, no Mahars but he allegedly came across beings called "Deros." It is also speculated that underground dwellers may account for the origins of "little people" folklore such as gnomes and leprechauns.

While few today would place any scientific credence in such a theory, it was once widely entertained and by brilliant minds no less. The notion of a hollow Earth anyway, if not the "hidden civilization" aspect.  Astronomer Edmond Halley, the discoverer of the famed Halley's Comet, once postulated that unpredictable fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field must be due to the fact that our world has a hollow center. He also thought that life "undoubtedly" flourished in the deep down there.

If you're looking for an entertaining book on the subject, might I recommend The Hollow Earth by Rudy Rucker? Once you've read the original Shaver Mysteries that is. It's a book that the cheeky Rudy the Elder claims is based off of an original Edgar Allen Poe manuscript found tucked away since antiquity. It tells a story similar to that of Poe's novella, The Narrative of Gordon Arthur Pym (which you should also read) where Poe accompanies an explorer named Jeremiah Reynolds to Antarctica. There beneath the ice, both men stumble upon an underground civilization full of life and humans. It's a "mirror Earth" where a "mirror Poe" writes all the surface world's Poe stories...and cashes in on them. Writerly jealously ensues. Awesome stuff.

Then again, since I know reading is becoming quite the arcane activity in America, you might just watch At Earth's Core. Quite entertaining but nowhere near as satisfying as any of the books I've just mentioned.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, October 13, 2014

"10 mile long spacecraft" on Moon

Special thanks to David Paquette for the heads-up on this story.

In preparation for our November unit on space, I told my science students they needed to spend the next four weeks observing the Moon.

They groaned at the news.

Perhaps they will perk up a bit when I show them that the Moon has a 10 mile long spacecraft parked on it.

That's what Michael Salla, guru of "exopolitics," is considering, anyway. His article for Examiner features photographs of the Moon taken in 1968 by the probe Lunar Orbiter III. Resting inside Crater Manilus is where the article asserts that you can see a spacecraft approximately 10 miles in length. To his credit, Salla does point out the very real possibility (in fact I'll go so far as to say probability), that the shape is in fact an optical illusion. Another likely explanation would be a "rock that's just shaped that way" as so many right here at home are, but I digress.

Salla dismisses the illusion theory, claiming that the "contours of the object as it meets the shadow cast by the sun from the crater’s rim, however, appears to rule out such an explanation." He goes on to point out that the images have been studied and discussed at length on "online forums" such as UFO Sightings Daily blogspot. and that users have concluded that the most likely explanation for the photos is that there is an alien presence on the Moon. Well, that cinches it, I guess.

What's more, the alleged spacecraft is not the only oddity to have been photographed on the lunar surface. There is what appears to be (to certain sectors of the online public at-large, anyway) a "60 mile long highway" that shows up in another photo. The "road" is rather straight to be a natural formation and it covers the entire width of the photograph. I'd like to point out that at least a few other unmanned probes went to the Moon before 1968 and that at least a few of them were rovers. Might it not be more plausible that the "road" is really a set of tracks from one of these autonomous devices? Sure, it's not as sexy as the "60 mile road" theory and I know I've just sent a frigid mistral into the collective, throbbing crotches of alien devotees, but it just seems to be the more practical explanation.

I am actually intrigued by the idea of searching for alien artifacts within our own solar system. Perhaps our most conclusive evidence for the reality of alien civilizations will not come from deep space but will be found much nearer to home. There are any number of anomalies on nearby planetary bodies that deserve investigation (like what is with this perfectly spherical rock on Mars?) but I just don't see these Moon photographs as being among them.

That's not as exciting to consider as the idea that Lunar Orbiter III was really sent to study this alien spacecraft ahead of the Apollo landings or that when Apollo 11 did arrive, Armstrong and Aldrin both encountered two enormous alien spacecraft.

Yet I'm going to put a five on it and say the photographs actually depict fairly boring things.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Drone Brother is Watching You

The above graphic is from DeviantArt.

They are watching, you know.


"They." The ones that conspiracy theorists always point towards. "They" killed Kennedy. "They" conceal the truth about the UFO crash at Roswell. "They" are putting Fleetwood Mac back on tour. You can feel "they" out there, right? Watching you?

Now they're watching you with drones. Yeah, those small, unmanned, robotic aircraft carrying cameras. The ostensible purpose for the fleets of these things that already exist in places like Miami is "safety." The drones can carry out tasks such as monitoring traffic, serving as "eyes in the sky" in the event of a disaster, and monitoring for crimes. Not everyone is happy about this development, arguing that this is adding to an overreach of "the powers that be." After all, many cities in Britain and the United States already have Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras positioned in strategic locations. These cameras that feed in to a (or several) central monitoring station(s) at the police department watch for, again, criminal acts or even mere infractions such as the running of red lights.

While justification for this sense of paranoia has its varying degrees of merit, I saw something in personal technology that made me think about this issue in a new light. A tiny drone named Nixie has been developed.  It weighs less than a tenth of a pound and sits on a strap on your wrist. Flick it into the air and it deploys into a quadcopter aircraft that is equipped with a camera. The idea, I guess, is to have the drone capture HD images and send them to your smartphone while you can be active doing something else. I suppose one could get the ultimate selfie this way.

So my line of thinking is this: if this technology already exists for the consumer market, what do law enforcement and intelligence gathering agencies have at their disposal? I do not say that out of any kind of paranoia (well maybe just a little) but rather a fascinated speculation. Just how "tiny" can drone technology go? Senator Dianne Feinstein said that she encountered a drone "inches from her face" outside the window of her home. This should give us pause for perhaps a few reasons.

The drone in question was obviously large enough to be seen. What about those such as Nixie that wouldn't necessarily be readily observable? Also, if a high-ranking government official is being monitored, what's happening to the rest of us? In the case of Feinstein, the drone originated from protest kids outside her house. Or were they?? Okay, okay, enough of the conspiracy talk.

There have been "voices of reason" amid all the frisson and chatter that drones will soon cloud our skies, watching our every movement or just delivering my order from Amazon. Several obstacles exist that would need amelioration before we'd ever see that. Among those barriers are FAA regulations for what is already crowded airspace. That and as mentioned previously, many are against drones by nature and have even fired shots at them (I'm waiting for the first conspiracy nut to take one out with a homemade rocket launcher.)

That said, a drone of Nixie's miniature size would not have those problems. They might well be in the air right now and we would not necessarily be any the wiser.

For me, my immediate interest in the matter has to do with UFO investigation. To the public at-large, many will see a drone and be convinced they're encountering a UFO, thus instigating more wild goose chases. One such sighting was recently posted to The Black Vault. While the verdict is still out on that case, I can't shake my gut feeling that it's just a drone. A previously not-known-to-the-public drone, but a drone nonetheless. A sighting of a UFO over protesters in Hong Kong has also garnered a bit of attention. Video and photographic experts are tending towards "drone" in that case as well. Between drones and video editing software, it's going to get even more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to UFO sightings and that has me quite concerned. Far more so than I am with all of this piddly "civil liberties" business, anyway.

I kid.

Sort of.

It is true that surveillance drones are something that not even George Orwell imagined. At the same time, I think that Orwell might've gotten a perverse sort of enjoyment out of the idea of an autonomous device only slightly larger than your wrist that can fly and send live video of you back to the high muckymucks. It's almost perfect.

I still think I want a Nixie. Mostly because flinging my own autonomous camera drone into the air to seek out its target would pretty much be the closest I'll ever get to being Batman.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The 1994 Zimbabwe UFO case

Here is one UFO incident that I'm surprised I haven't gotten to yet.

I find it compelling due to the demographic of the witnesses involved: schoolchildren.  Specifically, pre and elementary school-aged children of assorted ethnicity in Zimbabwe who, presumably, had limited exposure to the pop culture of the Western world.

The incident occurred on September 16th, 1994 at Ariel School in the town of Ruwa. Others in the town would later tell investigators that UFOs had been sighted in the skies over the area for up to two days before the occurrence, but it was what happened at the school that was of the greatest significance. On the day in question, the teachers and administrators at the school were all in a staff meeting and the children were left relatively unattended on the playground. These children reported that the incident began with them seeing three classic, saucer-shaped UFOs in the sky over the school. One of these craft descended and either landed or hovered just above the ground in an overgrown area about 100 meters from where the children stood.

It was then that a "little man" emerged from the UFO. It was described as having "a scrawny neck, long black hair, and huge eyes." Naturally, the children grew agitated upon seeing this and several started screaming with fear. The being then noticed the students and vanished. At that point, the object rose and flew away at great speed. The students then ran back inside, seeking help and comfort from the adults.

Cynthia Hind, a UFO investigator who had done extensive work on the continent of Africa, visited Ariel School the day after the incident. Each student told Hind a nearly identical story. "I swear by every hair on my head and the whole Bible that I am telling the truth," one child allegedly said. Hind had the students make crayon drawings of what they saw and she got 35 depictions of the same thing. The graphic above is one such drawing by a witness. If you'd like to see more, click here (I will warn you however that I find the writer's voice on that page to be appalling.)

Later, Dr. John Mack, Harvard psychologist and author of the pivotal book Abduction, visited the school and conducted his own investigation. A few of the older students told Dr. Mack that the being they witnessed actually communicated with them. Thoughts came to them "from the man's eyes." What were these thoughts? Essentially they were warnings, informing us that if we didn't stop polluting our world and destroying our environment we would be in for a hell of a time of it.

Here's what I like about this case: a lot of witnesses with no motivation to lie. Even if a few of them were just seeking attention, it would be next to impossible to get 35 kids ages 5-12 to all stick to the same story. Let alone to do so convincingly. Indeed, several of them were outright terrified by what they witnessed. Many of them believed the "alien" to be a "tokoloshi," a mythical demon that eats children. Additionally, neither the kids nor the school seemed to profit much from this if it were indeed a ploy of sorts. In short, these scared children had no impetus to make any of this up. Even if they had, it's nearly a miracle that they kept their story so consistent. Seems like at least one weisenheimer would louse it up.

This is not to say that there aren't at least a few inconsistencies. For one, the description of "long black hair" is incongruous with typical reports of the Greys. I say that only because the descriptions given otherwise match a typical case of that variety. Also, the addition of the alleged telepathic communication after the fact and the warning about the environment is a bit eyebrow raising. As an undercover expose found, Mack did at times lead his witnesses to say the least and he was also an environmentalist. I would say, however, that this casts suspicion on only this facet of the case and not the entirety as Mack only became involved much later.

Another facet I've keyed in on is that this is yet another case where the UFO phenomena seemed to want to be seen. Stealth is not being taken into consideration if you're landing on a school playground full of children in broad daylight. The occupants of the craft wanted to make contact. What is the motivation for what really amounts to grandstanding? Was it really to give us a warning? Was there a significance to selecting school children? Was it because they were more likely to believe? Was the phenomena responding to human thoughts?

Another thing I like about the nature of the witnesses is that I'm willing to guess they had little exposure to the close encounter mythos up until that day. If this had happened in the U.S., Canada, or another Western nation, I would be more inclined to say that they were following the cookie cutter, sci-fi pattern for a UFO encounter as is replete in our media. Such, I believe anyway, is not the case in Zimbabwe.

What is known is that there were 35 witnesses. All describing and depicting the same thing.

I would call that significant.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

It's official: drastically cutting meat intake

I have reached a tipping point in my life.

We have been reading Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation in one of the classes that I'm teaching.  In the book, Schlosser foremost describes how the fast food industry transformed American culture as well as how it treats its employees as "cogs in a machine." But another major chapter of the text is entitled "What's in the Meat."

Now there are several ethical and health-related reasons for someone to be a vegetarian.  If those reasons don't persuade you, simply flip to the previously mentioned chapter in the book and just a few pages into said chapter, Schlosser will bluntly declare just why we should all change our diets:

"There's shit in the meat."

The entire meatpacking system, from the raising of cattle to their slaughter and ultimate processing, is an absolutely ideal breeding ground for E. coli. Ground beef constitutes the remains of not one but up to approximately 100 cows, certain among them likely to be quite ill, along with cow manure and ammonia. What? You don't see ammonia listed on the packaging of your beef? That's because by law it doesn't have to be listed. It's not an ingredient. It's a "processing agent." Things aren't that much better for chicken and I doubt highly it's any different (perhaps worse) for pork processing.

Seriously. There are so many toxins in the food we end up with it's not even funny. Add to that the inhumane conditions for the workers of slaughterhouses and meatpacking centers and my appetite wanes. This is to say nothing of the atrocious treatment of the animals themselves (please read "animals" as "living, thinking, feeling creatures.")  Look at the face below and tell me that beef cattle have good lives.

So I have decided that I am making a change. I intend to drastically reduce the amount of meat that I eat.

I know, I know. After everything I have just described, "reduce"sounds like a cop-out and it is. I just know myself. When it comes to certain foods, I am an addict. While I can reduce the quantities that I consume, I know that I will never be able to exorcise them completely. I like cheeseburgers. I also like bacon. Fried chicken is pretty damn good and I just can't go without my wife's chili. My efforts will be focused towards diminishing the amount of times I consume all of these foods. I will wait until I absolutely can't stand it anymore, then indulge. But I won't get used to it.

I also know my life. There will be times when I'm running out of time and fast food is the only convenient or even available option. Then I'm left working with what I've got. Again, isolate such cases. Same goes if I am a guest in someone's house. If they have prepared a meal for me, then I have been raised with manners that dictate you eat what you're given and you don't get picky. Once more,  those cases should be rather few and far between, especially if I make it known I'm trying to reduce meat intake.

Made my first steps forward with the plan today. Lunch in the college cafeteria was a large salad, french fries, and a sliver of cheese pizza. The journey has begun and I'm not turning back.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Ebola "conspiracy"

Ebola is loose and conspiracy theorists are having quite a time with it.

Not that it takes much to set them off, but you know what I mean.

Well where to start? First off, I've read a theory that Ebola has actually been turned into a bioweapon. Agents of the United States government, long ago so the theory posits, took a vial of blood from an Ebola patient and set about manufacturing a weapon from it. That's just for starters.

Epoch Times reports other theories from conservative "thinker" (as he is called on the site) Allen West, a guy named Dave Mihalovic who writes at a site called Prevent Disease, and then even conspiracy whackjob theorist, Alex Jones weighs in on the matter. West urges the American citizenry to call for the President to investigate any potential link between Ebola and the scores of immigrant children who appeared on our southern border this past summer. “We need to analyze and assess if there is a connection between this respiratory illness — and ensuing paralysis — with the recent dispersion of illegal alien children to the area,” he writes.

Funny thing though, Al. If you are infected with Ebola, you don't do a whole lot of walking around once you're showing symptoms. All of the children of which you speak walked here. If you recall, those patients infected with Ebola who did show up here in the United States got here by plane. Add to that the fact that there are no cases of the virus in Mexico and Central America...points of origin for the refugee children in question...and it becomes highly unlikely that they had anything to do with the outbreak. Moving on.

Mihalovic casts a skeptical eye on the fact that an Ebola vaccine has been produced so quickly. "It typically takes several years from the point of initial vaccine development to human clinical trials, a process which the manufacturers claim is being done in weeks and months. The only way it would have been possible was through years of planning and procurement," he says. While I don't have a problem with drug companies coming up with an azoth so quickly (in fact, it's essentially a good thing), the motive of profit doesn't let me dismiss Mihalovic so quickly. With the media frenzy around the outbreak and such poorly informed people (shades of the early days of HIV), I can see a big push for people to "get their vaccinations...for a small fee of course."

The aforementioned Alex Jones sees the outbreak as...what else?...a "false flag operation" that is a prelude to martial law. Of course. The government's been planning it for years. Let's take a look.

I'm just going to let that settle in with you for a moment.

Others still wonder about the timing of this whole outbreak and its arrival, albeit in a limited form, on our shores. A man just recently broke into the White House and penetrated further into the building than he had should have. Come to think of it, he wasn't supposed to get past the fence. This has caused members of the African American community to call into question just how carefully the first black president of the U.S. is being guarded.  The U.S. is currently engaged in military operations against ISIS, a ruthless terrorist organization that was kicked out of al Qaeda for being "too extreme." Now, a man has returned from Liberia infected with Ebola, somehow getting through all health screening protocols at the airport.

Were one of the paranoid variety, you might think that we are being tested. Probed for the weaknesses in our security apparati. "How far can you get into the White House before they stop you? Can an infected individual make it into the United States through airport security and become a walking bioweapon?" Perhaps.

Yet most conspiracy theories seldom make it past the test of Occam's Razor. What is more deadly, to my way of thinking at any rate, is ignorance. We are already beginning to see borderline panic and irrational assertions. One GOP member tweeted something to the effect that once an individual is diagnosed with Ebola, the action should be "humane execution" and immediate sterilization of the affected area. "That will save lives" he says.

Yes. Very reminiscent of the nascent days of HIV.

Have you handled the saliva, blood, feces, mucus, or any other bodily fluid of someone with Ebola? Then no. You don't have Ebola.

Thankfully, conspiracy theories are just that. In the meantime, the United States and especially Africa have far more serious...and deadly...matters to deal with.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, October 3, 2014

Water on Earth is older than the Sun

If NPR can have Science Friday, then why can't ESE?

For the science class I teach, we had a lecture on water and our need to conserve it as a resource.  The professor giving the talk, a fellow fan of Iron Maiden, opened his presentation with Maiden's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." In song, it basically recapitulates the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem of the same name, including the famous line:

"Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

Turns out that's truer than we knew.

This bit from Discover really got my attention: Earth's water is older than the Sun.

That might seem counter-intuitive.  After all, what in our solar system could be older than the Sun?  As it turns out, over half of the water on Earth was brought here in the form of interstellar ice.  This ice floated about in the void before our Sun formed.  This means that water didn't form after Earth did but rather was drawn in during the proto-planetary stages.  By extension, it confirms a belief that water is actually fairly common in the universe, even if just in the form of ice.

As I usually get, someone invariably greets information like this with "But how do they know?"  I guess it's not such an unreasonable query.  The "how" of things, as described in the linked article, is via deuterium.  Deuterium, often called "heavy hydrogen" as it carries an extra neutron, has a higher ratio to hydrogen in frozen water found in space.  This was determined by examining ice found on asteroids and comets.  As the article states:

"But, confounding the matter, deuterium levels in the solar system’s water have also been rising ever since the sun formed. So to determine if the sun alone could produce today’s levels of the isotope, researchers built a computer model that essentially wound back the clock to the beginning of the solar system and assumed no inherited deuterium.
However, the model system was incapable of producing deuterium to hydrogen ratios that were as high as those found in our solar system. Therefore, researchers estimate, 30 to 50 percent of our solar system’s water was already a part of the ancient molecular cloud that spawned the Sun and planets. They published their findings today in the journal Science."

Assuming that the formation of our solar system is a typical model of what happens elsewhere, it might be extrapolated that the drawing in of interstellar ice is typical of the process as well.  Granted, that's an assumption and there could be any number of variations, but that's how it goes.  Sort of like further assumptions we make regarding water.  "Where there's water, there's life" is how science sees it.  Therefore if water is common, life should be as well. Yet I'd speculate that life could form without the need for water as there is just so much we don't know.

Just face it.  There's intelligent life elsewhere.

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Transhumanism will create a "different species" of human by 2050


It's a one-word slogan you'll find transhumanists (myself included) stating to urge people towards taking the next logical step in human evolution.  That's what Cadell Last says, too.

Last is a researcher at the Global Brain Institute and he claims that due to radical advances in technology, humanity is on the threshold of a "major evolutionary transition." One, in fact, on the level of the past jump from ape to human.  I came across this article on Last's work in the UK's Daily Mail.  I understand that the publication is something of a tabloid, but I found the contents of the article worth pondering.

How does Cadell Last see humanity by 2050?  Well for one thing, many of us will be living longer.  People in the 80-100 age bracket will be far more common and more to the point, they will be living more "youthful" lives than their past counterparts.  One example of this is that people who choose to have children could soon do so later in life.  "The biological clock isn't going to be around forever," says Last.

The most interesting aspects of the piece, to my thinking anyway, is how cybernetic technology and body enhancement/augmentation will alter our lives.  A graphic included with the Cadell Last article includes mods such as:

-Implanted ear devices to eliminate the need for unwieldy Bluetooth gear.

-Chip implants in your fingers that can handle tasks from the mundane, such as turning on lights to serving as your personal password/ID for security protocols.

-Enlarge the brain with hardware.  This would enhance memory and thinking.  Over time, you could update the software in the brain as you would any other system.

One quote I took notice of in the article, and this was not attributed to Last but is still engaging, is this one: "Those who take risks and innovate with their own bodies will be the biggest earners by 2040."

As with most other matters of progress, you either adapt and survive...or don't.  Accept transhuman technology or live out an exilic existence.  This is already becoming a visible issue in the arena of sports.  Today, CNN ran a story on the "rise of cyberathletes," competitors with cybernetic components who are changing the nature of sports.  As the writer points out, we're going far beyond Oscar Pistorius, whose legs are outdated technology by now anyway.  We're talking about prosthetics that can outdo any limb that nature produces.  What's the upshot?  In 2016 there will be an Olympics for these athletes if that gives you any indication.

But back to Cadell Last.

He also lists other external changes to the human experience by 2050.  Robots and artificial intelligence, he asserts, will take over the menial jobs in our lives.  This will shift occupations towards the more intellectual end of the spectrum.  We will also, projects Last, spend a great deal of time in virtual reality.  Why not?  It's got to beat real reality.

At first blush, such predictions might paint a picture of a transhuman humanity as lazy or "a bit too leisurely" as Prince might say.  As someone raised with what I believe to be a strong work ethic, I can see that.  Consider something else though.

When human workload lessens, we get time.  In this time, many begin to wonder and speculate.  While it doesn't always seem like it (especially if you live in America), humans are naturally curious creatures.  We wonder about the universe around us and how it works.  We create art based on our perceptions and experiences.  More time on our hands may cause revolutions in science, in art, and in thinking in general.  We saw it happen when humans took to agriculture and no longer spent the majority of their time hunting and foraging to survive.

While I think that Last is essentially correct in where transhuman technology is going, I'm somewhat skeptical as to the rosy picture he paints.  There are always pitfalls, both seen and unseen (the "known knowns" and the "unknown unknowns" as Donald Rumsfield might put it.)  I also am skeptical as to just who will have access to these augmentations and advancements.  All of us?  Even someone in an impoverished area in Africa?  We're only going to get the era that Last forecasts if we all get it.  Something tells me that will all come down to class and money.

I hope that I'm wrong.

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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Climate Change has altered gravity

I have been immersed of late in the subject of climate change.

I'm teaching a science course called Humanity in the Universe.  The central idea is to educate college students as to what our place in the natural world is, how the natural world affects us, and how our actions in turn affect it.  There is no greater example of all of that than the phenomena of climate change.  As if to underscore this fact, a new finding has been announced.

Rising temperatures have caused ice to melt in Antarctica.  Billions of tons of ice every year, as a matter of fact.  So much mass has now been lost that there has been a measurable change in the Earth's gravity.  Not an especially significant change or one that you would even notice, but that's not the point.  What is pertinent here is that there is yet another piece of concrete evidence that climate change is real and its alterations are especially visible on the Antarctic continent.  After all, this news comes on the heels of findings that West Antarctic glaciers are in utter collapse and that all of this will inevitably lead to a rise in sea levels.

But wait, gentle ESE reader.  You protest?  Gravity is a constant, you say?  Well, yeah.  Thing is though, gravity is inextricably tied to mass.  When something loses mass, that affects gravity.  In fact, there are slight variations in gravity across the Earth depending upon the thickness of the rock where you're standing.  Or in the case of Antarctica, the ice.

Just add one more log of evidence onto the climate change bonfire (how's that for a metaphor?)  If I have anything positive to say, it's that the kids get it.  For the most part, my students see climate change as a very real and even self-evident occurrence.  Sure, there are few holdouts, self-identified conservatives who don't believe humans are the cause of sea level rise or hotter summers.  Others still don't think things to come will be anywhere near as dreadful as what we climate change "alarmists" are saying.  For the most part, however, the kids get it.  As for the others, who knows?  Maybe they see Antarctic ice melt as a real estate opportunity.  Yes, it's an open window for the young venture capitalist who wants to hold new lands in demesne.

Just like in my novella, Nothing Left But the Cockroaches.  But I digress...

I'm fully aware that such a minuscule (yet appreciable) change in gravity is not going to alter your lives all that much.

Then again, you may want to look out for that iceberg.

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