Friday, November 28, 2014

FFF--Seasonal reflections

I am supposed to give thanks.

Or I was, anyway. Yesterday.

Not a bad idea, really. Paraphrasing the eucharist of a few religions, "it is right to give thanks and praise."

Good things happen when you're thankful. Sending out that positive vibe, I guess. I am most thankful for my tremendous friends and family. In a close second are art and creativity. They give life meaning for me and make every day an adventure. It's a double-edged sword, of course. There's little stability in it, but I prefer it over shaking hands, boosting sales, and other entrepreneurial horsepucky.

I have much. As I ate yesterday, I could not help but think of those who do not. I thought about someone tiffining on a can of cat food. I thought about someone not poor in financial or culinary terms, but in spirit. What if you're somebody who has no one else to go to? Perhaps even more foreign to you, what if you're somebody who just does not agree with this holiday and you find yourself outside and looking in...a stranger in a strange land with nowhere to go? Well as Bono wailed out in "Do They Know It's Christmas," "tonight thank god it's them instead of you."

Interesting fact: Bono told Bob Geldof that he really didn't feel comfortable singing that line. Have to admit, it doesn't exactly send the right message in terms of the issue of global poverty (another issue to give one pause for reflection) does it? Then again, it does have a certain "I just knifed you in the gut" quality to it. But I digress...

Yes, America. It is possible that someone could disagree with Thanksgiving.

Someone could see it for what it is: an artifice. There never really was a "Thanksgiving dinner" where "Pilgrims and Indians" all sat down together for a chummy feast. Indeed I cannot imagine just what American Indians must think of this holiday. Must they be forced to mark the symbolic anniversary of the beginning of their exploitation and their eventual decimation? After all, November 29th, just two days after Thanksgiving this year, is the anniversary of the Sand Creek massacre where over 200 Arapaho women, children, and old men were slaughtered without cause by the military of the good ol' U.S. of A.

It might logically be a stark anniversary for the rest of us as well. "Thanks for the land, you ignorant savages. We'll take it now. Take it and tear it apart so we can build shopping malls and corporate headquarters. Can't get enough CO2 in the atmosphere for our tastes. And those buffalo (real term is bison) look real good for the killin'. Not to eat or wear, just to...well, because we can. Same goes for wolves and coyotes."

The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?
--Jeremy Bentham

"A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite. And to act so is immoral."
--Leo Tolstoy

Yes, I'm struggling to be a vegetarian.

I can't get over our treatment of animals. I have found few arguments that solidly support our slaughtering, eating, and turning into shit any creature we see. Even more unfathomable to me is our capturing, torturing, and killing for sport...or just because "we can." Today, hundreds of animals were tortured and killed as sacrifice in Nepal. We must truly have convinced ourselves that animals have no thoughts or emotions. Either that or the fundies hold to that idiotic passage in Genesis about us being "masters over all the earth."

Yeah. Bang up job we've done with the place.

"After one look at this planet any alien visitor would say, 'I want to see the manager.'"
--William S. Burroughs

How we treat animals is a reflection upon how we treat each other. That certainly seems to be what's operating behind the curtain. You can see it Ted Genoways' new book, The Chain, reviewed at the link by Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation. The book does plenty to expose the outright abuse of animals, but what you also see is the meatpacking industry's abuse of its own employees. It tells of workers at meat packing plants who get injured and are summarily bullied and threatened into quitting their jobs when they are unable to perform at speed. "I feel thrown away," said one worker. "Like a piece of trash."

Take heart, fellow citizen. This is not what Thanksgiving or the ensuing holiday season is about, anyway. What is it then, exactly?

Sales sales sales, my friend.

Get in that store at midnight. Is there someone else getting that flat screen TV for a slightly discounted price? Why, there aren't many of those left on the shelf. Better do something. Knock them down. Kick them. Trample them. Get a good "go to hell" look on your face, letting everyone else know you'll do the same to them if they try to take your discounted plastic shit from China. Dance for the companies, my friend. The companies and their congressional bodyslaves. Dance.

Have a happy whatever.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Regular posts resume tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Film Review--WORLD WAR Z

starring Brad Pitt and George Romero as "The Beav."

Gerry Lane, special agent (Pitt) for the United Nations, seems to have settled into retirement and family life quite nicely. That is until a bizarre plague spreads across the world that turns people into rabid zombies. As the pandemic grows, armies, governments, and even entire nations fall into chaos. In order for the government to keep his family sheltered from the fall of civilization, Lane is commanded to undertake a mission that spans the globe to find the source of...and hopefully the cure for...the zombie apocalypse.

In the interest of full disclosure, I need to make two things clear.

First of all, I find the whole thing with zombies to be trite and redundant by this point.
Secondly, I have never read the book World War Z by Max Brooks. I have, however, heard great things about it and from what I can gather, this is yet another case where the book surpasses the film.

Brooks wrote the book as a series of depositions, firsthand accounts from survivors of and combatants in the zombie apocalypse. I've read interviews where Brooks cites the literary organization and style of Studs Terkel's The Good War and Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead as scaffolds upon which to hang his own opus. What's more, Brooks did extensive research on international affairs and global economics and wove it into the text. That sets it above your typical "zombie apocalypse" tripe. Most of that is lost in this film from what I can see.  

Instead, you get a very Hollywood-ized version of all of that. You know, skim through the parts with depth and keep things moving with a lot of CGI? Online reviewers complained that numerous opportunities were missed to show the actual battles of this "World War" that the characters find themselves immersed in. I know, that would be expensive. I fully understand that a film version of such a book presents numerous problems (in fact it might be better suited as a limited TV series), but I can't help but think one could come up with something better than this.

Still, there are positives. For one thing, we actually don't see all that much of the zombies. They become shadowy shapes in the background for the most part (save for the whole sequence in Jerusalem, that is.) The film instead becomes something of a military thriller. For somebody who is sick of zombies, that suits me fine.

There is also the spectacle of apocalypse. If you're anything like me (and I know I am), the human race has given you plenty of reasons lately to believe it is too stupid, too greedy, and too arrogant to survive. As the products of human hubris and the temples of Mamon begin to come apart, especially in the tension-filled early scenes, you can taste the panic. You sense the karmic payback on a global scale. The direction and cinematography are at their best when depicting wide shots of the collapse. The acting is at its best when government and military officials are portrayed as impotent and befuddled.

It's that sensibility that may be what makes this a somewhat pertinent film. The zombies could be seen as that pandemic that we know is coming, that virulent virus we have yet to come across but we know is waiting for us. In fact, I saw re-watched this film when all of the "Ebola crisis" news was breaking. Eerie similarities indeed.

This is by no means pabulum for the discerning palate, but it is at least entertaining. Worth a look on Netflix. Fun bit of trivia: Peter Capaldi, the current incarnation of The Doctor on Doctor Who, plays a doctor in the World Health Organization. His listing in the credits? "W.H.O. Doctor."


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Just or not, what the Ferguson decision really shows us

As you no doubt know by now, I am a geek.

Among the geekier things I've done in my life, I once attended a convention in 1996 for fans of Godzilla movies and Japanese science fiction. While there I bumped into a guy at a dealer's table. He was trying to think of the name of an old Japanese TV series. I told him that from what I overheard, he was talking about Space Giants. He was relieved and thanked me. We got to talking about all the crazy stuff we watched and played as kids and I found that not only did he enjoy Godzilla, but Star Wars and comic books as well. Yet like many such random connections at public events, it was a fleeting and kinetic one. I never got his name. Nevertheless, I sure did enjoy talking to him.

Did I mention he was black?

I happened to be white, he happened to be black, and we both happened to share a love of Japanese geek culture. Should race matter in that story?

Sadly, it seems that it does. In retrospect, I wonder what might have happened if that conversation had taken place outside on a street. Would a police officer have stopped and asked "Is that man bothering you?" Statistics would indicate that it is at least a possibility. 

That hypothetical situation gives me a personal glimpse into what life must be like for an African American citizen of the United States. Yesterday's news has brought that to the forefront of nearly everyone's mind but not always with the same understanding.

A grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri decided that there was not enough evidence to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, on charges after he shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed African American youth, last August. A night of fierce rioting ensued upon the announcement that there would be no charges. This prompted the Right Wing to take to social media and display themselves at their vituperative best (or worst.) In fairness, they were not alone. Many Twitter and Facebook users decided to take social media as their personal platform to voice their racist beliefs. Wil Wheaton, yet another member of Geek Nation...heck, he might just be President of it, was the target of much of this abuse after he voiced his own opinion on Ferguson. He retweeted the responses in order to let the ugliness speak for itself, not mention the horrendous grammar of their authors. While racist epithets of this kind are ugly enough, it is the ignorance behind them that really gets to me and underscores every fear I have for society. The true ignorance, that is. Allow me to explain.

There is no way to morally justify the riots that have been unfolding in Ferguson. Violence, looting, and the destruction of property are very seldom the solution to any problem. As Dr. Martin Luther King himself put it: "The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility."
But that does not mean that we should not try to explain and to, more importantly, understand why the riots are happening. More to the point, look to the words of The Daily Show's Jon Stewart: "If racism is something you're tired of hearing about, imagine how exhausting it must be living it every day."

Being white, I have never been followed through a store. Admittedly, I have been pulled over by police a few times for speeding. Each time, I was treated with nothing but respect by the officer involved. Given the events of Ferguson and hard data on traffic stops (see first link), one can conclude that this respect is not enjoyed by all citizens, especially those of color.
Can you imagine that? Can you identify with going through life feeling as though a target is painted on your back? Not only that, but that the society in which you live is one of legal and duly legislated racism? 

Michelle Alexander makes the case for that latter and startling assertion in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. "We have not ended racial caste in America," Alexander argues. "We have merely redesigned it." By the systematic targeting and marginalization of communities of color, the criminal justice system acts as a formal mechanism by which to keep African Americans relegated to second-class status. It would appear that the operating axiom here is "If your hate is no longer socially acceptable, make it legally acceptable."

Ironically, voices of opposition are met with a number of appeals to this very system. "There is an order in things," it has been said. "We have a rule of law." "Trust the process." "If you want change, then it must be through voting and active participation in the process." All well and good and not without a good deal of truth.

Unless the system was designed to be against you.

How long could you take it? How long could you trust in a judicial system that just doesn't appear to be on your side? How long could you tolerate hearing "you and your voice don't matter?" In addition, imagine that you are African American and you're reading those previously linked comments from Ann Coulter, Ted Nugent, and Brit Hume of Fox News. How would you feel? They're talking about you and your family, after all. Wouldn't you begin to feel angry? Wouldn't you begin to feel left behind? After a while, this anger continues to pile inward on itself until like a nuclear reactor it reaches critical mass. Right, wrong, or indifferent, an explosion is the result.

Yes, I'm aware that the analogy is not entirely scientifically accurate, but I'm making a point here.

The riots in Ferguson are a very natural reaction. As a colleague of mine at the university said regarding the Ferguson situation as a whole: "It makes no sense and yet it was predictable." Just like a hurricane or a tornado, you could see the storm coming.

"But wait," you might say. "In our society of laws and political process, wasn't the grand jury verdict the correct one?"

Well, you might be on the side that says that there simply was not enough evidence and there were too many conflicting stories involved to indict Darren Wilson. Conversely, you might be on the side of Al Sharpton and the Brown family attorney who claim that a "first-year law student would have done a better job" than the prosecutor involved. It almost doesn't matter.

We will likely never see the full evidence that went to the grand jury. Similarly, we will very likely never get to hear the rationale of the jurors. Regardless of the legal correctness of the verdict, we still have a problem. The reaction to the verdict is the strongest possible indicator to our nation that people are feeling discriminated against and that there are numerous examples that underscore the problem of race. A segment of our nation feels at best marginalized and at worst targeted. The perception exists irrespective of the legality of the verdict and this conflict will not go away until it is faced head-on. 

Even more unsettling is the fact that African Americans are not the only ones feeling marginalized. Homosexuals experience similar degradation and marginalization where they are called "sinners" and where their marriages actually require votes and judicial action in order to happen. Similarly, women still face their own form of dehumanization. Yes, they do. One need only look to the recent GamerGate scandal to see this fact.

That latter point brings me back to Geek Nation.

My good friend Dorkland, himself an ambassador of sorts among geeks, puts it rather succinctly: "So many of us were brought up on a steady stream of comics, science fiction, movies and other media where the moralities were clear cut. We should know better than this, and we need to stop being silent. When someone says something hateful about the LGBT we need to shout them down. Not because of our friends who are LGBT, who can fight their own fights, but because it is the right thing to do. The same when people say hateful things about people of color."

Previously in the post, Dorkland describes his own geeky friend who happened to be African American. Like the man I kibitzed with at the Godzilla convention, Dorkland never really saw the guy as black. He simply saw another person interested in the same things that he was. When I think that my friend at the convention, however brief and momentary of a friend he was, may have faced his own experiences with profiling, his own legal barriers, and his own racial insults hurled at him, it fills me with a great sadness. From our short yet laugh-filled conversation, I could tell there was no difference between us.

Except, perhaps, in the eyes of established systems, entrenched after hundreds of years of hate.

Ferguson shows us many things. One of the primary among them is that the issue of race must be dealt with and we must be the ones to make the change. No longer can the default response be "the verdict was right and the rioters are now the ones breaking the law." However much veracity that statement may hold, it shows an utter ignorance of the underlying problem, namely the anger burning in people after years of not being heard.

Violence. Vandalism. Lawlessness. Oppression. Anger.

Say, didn't we see all that with another set of "criminals" back in the 18th Century? Maybe around Boston?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, November 24, 2014

So here's an idea...

War is heck.

It is made even more "heckish" by uncertainty. The United States, for the time being, can dominate a battlefield when it comes to robotic drones. We have the engineers to design and build them. We have the technology to make it possible. We have the facilities from which to fly and monitor them. Drones have radically changed America's ability to conduct war.

But what if all that changed? Video clips surfaced of a drone under the control of the terrorist group ISIS. The images depicted a Syrian military base. On August 7th, ISIS attacked the base and gained control of large sections of it. This ISIS drone is not as sophisticated as its American counterparts and it is not weaponized, yet it still became a useful tool for surveilling and gather intelligence on a target. Even more sobering to officials is that this drone technology will soon be ubiquitous, operating out of every major nation in about ten years' time.

Military secrets indeed appear to be the most fleeting of all. What is one to do? Well, I've got an idea.

Giant robots.

Sure, sure, the trend in modern warfare is to go smaller and smaller. Tanks and other armored vehicles may one day become things of the past as they are noisy and give off lots of heat, making them easy targets for missiles. Instead, drones the size of insects might seem the way to go...but how does that intimidate your opponent? We're the good ol' U.S. of A. and we've got to show them we gots teeth!

That's what I'm saying. Giant robots. No more messing around with those little robotic drones with propellor engines. Drop a robot that's the same height as a skyscraper on an enemy nation and let the 'bot's weapons run wild and free. Tell me the bad guys wouldn't be soiling themselves. Like many of the drones we already have, the giant robots wouldn't even need human pilots. A basic AI could run the show. We're already testing a missile that severs contact with human control upon launch. Once airborne, it determines its target. Why not pop something like that into my proposed giant robot system?

Yes, yes, I've seen Terminator many times. But what are the odds? Robots can be people too if we give them the chance. Come on, when have you ever known a weapons system to go wrong? We will not tolerate any attempts to gaslight the military-industrial drone complex! There are too damn many contracts and too damn much pork on the line!

I'm telling you the time is right. Giant robots are already big in pop culture (and I do mean big.) We've already seen like ten or twelve Transformers movies, the dawn of a Pacific Rim franchise, and a Voltron flick on the way. The picture I have included is from a proposed film that has languished in development hell since 2010. It's called Gaiking and is based on the successful comic book and toyline, Shogun Warriors. It was the heart-warming story of giant, semi-transformable robots fighting against alien invaders and big, rubbery monsters. The fact that the film was never released is a travesty. The way I figure it, giant combat robots would only heighten public interest in the movie. That way the producers could add the tag line: "Ripped from today's headlines!"

Yeah, sure, I know. Thousands of people will likely die at the alloyed hands of these things and there is the slim chance (hippie pipedream!) that the AI in one of these giant robots could go rogue, but I figure if it gets me my Shogun Warriors movie, it's all good. Right? Shut up and take my money, Hollywood!

So go ahead, ISIS. Have at it, Iran. Fly your cute little dinky things around the Middle East. See what you get when you piss off our versions of Gaiking, Raydeen, and Great Mazinga.

Yes, I'm being satirical.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Climate change worsens dead zones in seas

Time now again for Science Friday.

News on the climate change front just keeps getting better.

A research study published in the Journal of Global Change Biology by the Smithsonian Institution has found that climate change is playing a much larger role than previously thought in the presence of "dead zones" in the world's oceans and seas.

Dead zones happen when fertilizers are washed from farmer's fields and flow out into rivers and seas. Microbe populations then skyrocket due to the massive influx of nutrients. This leads to an almost utter depletion of oxygen in the area. Models show that in multiple ways--"biologically, chemically, and physically"--climate change worsens this oxygen loss.

As temperatures continue to increase on the whole, the rise in "dead zone" water temperatures is predicted at being four degrees Celsius. The largest increase will occur in the St. Lawrence seaway where temperatures will be a full seven degrees higher. Though not as dramatic of an increase as the aforementioned waterway, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is likewise expected to experience a temperature rise, thus intensifying the damage.

The past year is already destined to be the warmest one on record, despite the deep freeze many of us in America are experiencing. Now there is more evidence as to just what climate change is doing to the oceans of our world.

So why is the idea of climate change still a hard sell in the United States? In fact, only 40% of Americans believe that climate change is the result of human activity. This is despite the fact that 98% of studies published by climatologists state that this change is actually happening and that humans are causing it. So what gives?

Not surprisingly, one study finds that it boils down far more to political ideology than any basis in evidence. Also a lack of understanding of the science involved helps. The analogy that the previous link gives is an apt one. Bereft of an understanding of the mechanics involved, one is left basing their trust in personalities. If you were an "average Joe" at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, whose side would you take in the showdown between the Pope and Galileo? Probably the stronger, more persuasive personality. Or at least the one with the bigger pull. What's more, the side someone takes on the debate on climate change (which truly is a non-debate given the evidence) also identifies one's "tribe" in the "culture wars."

Meanwhile, the temperature keeps rising and so do the sea levels and the dead zones just get worse.

Just keep enjoying that curly slide to hell, folks. If we're lucky, we just might get another Kim Kardashian ass photo before it all really hits the fan.

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

It's a conspiracy!

I am uncertain just what bothers me more:

Blind acceptance of conspiracy theory or ignorance of basic science.

I saw someone on Facebook post this link. This person seemed to be posting it in all seriousness and with tremendous concern. What seemingly failed to realize is that the online publication, Huzlers, is a work of satire somewhat akin to The Onion.

The article claimed that authorities at NASA have announced that there will be six full days of darkness between the 16th and 22nd of December. This will be due to "a solar storm, which will cause dust and space debris to become plentiful and thus, block 90% sunlight [sic]."

The Facebook poster of this apocryphal text was citing it as yet another example of "NASA covering up the truth." Paraphrasing: "They've concealed the fact that there has been contact with alien races, that these aliens have at times alternatively shut down our nuclear arsenals or nearly started World War III. We're just a stone's throw away from armageddon and they will never tell us as it would start worldwide panic. It's a conspiracy, y'know. Shhh."

That latter business reminds me of that godawful movie, 2012. I mean it really is just as bad as the Mayans predicted. But I digress...

As I said from the outset, there's so much going on here. Then again, maybe I need to amend my previous thoughts. It's really not the "everything's a conspiracy" mindset or the lack of enough basic science knowledge to recognize that something as described in this satirical piece could never happen. I guess it's true. A lot of people just don't get satire when they read it.

No, what gets me is the complete absence of any critical thinking. I'm not sure what accounts for it, either. The speed of social media connectivity? "Hey! This looks like it fits with my views, so I'm going to post it without even reading it." Is it that? Maybe it's someone who does read such an article and honestly responds: "Yep, Looks legit." Which would lead me to commentary on our current educational system.

Don't even get me started on that.

Then again, maybe it stems from a doom and gloom mindset. While six days of darkness would not have immediate physical harm, purported news of it in this age of post-9/11, post Katrina, and current Ebola might just be greeted with "Great. Now this." I can understand that mentality. After all, I'm pretty sure we're fucked. It's just a question of when it's going to happen.

So six days of darkness? I'm fine with that. I stay inside most of the time and I have plenty of coffee to wait it out for the duration in my bunker.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Yet another "face" on Mars

Once again, people are seeing faces on Mars.

This time around the spotted "vision" comes from a researcher named Scott Waring. Waring has gone over photographs from NASA's Sojourner rover, first launched into space in 1996 and landing on Mars on July 5th, 1997. The image in question (seen above and enhanced by Waring) is claimed to depict a humanoid face, perhaps a carved statue fallen to the surface.

Just one month ago, another enthusiast pointed to an image from the Curiosity rover, believing the photo depicted something like a crocodile.

Of course there has been a long speculation of life on Mars, whether it be past or present. Recent discoveries indicating that the planet was quite wet at one time with flowing rivers and perhaps even seas has fueled yet more hopeful thinking that Mars once...even if in the distant past...harbored life, perhaps even a legitimate civilization. For more on the what constitute footprints of life or "biosignatures," click here. It's somewhat of a pessimistic view of the situation that I don't entirely agree with, but it's a factual breakdown nevertheless.

Sadly, the most likely explanation for any of these alleged "monuments" on Mars is something called "pareidolia."

Have you ever looked at clouds and derived images from them? Most of us know full well that we're not seeing a duck or the Bat Signal (unless you're me) actually made out of the clouds. Rather it is our mind trying to correlate what we're seeing with things we're already familiar with. What we're actually doing is inferring a connection amid a random set of data. Yet that connection does not exist. It's exactly this sort of thing that causes people to see Jesus in toast and the like. What's more, we can find many examples of such "faces in rocks" right here on Earth. Simple as that.

So why can't I let go of the idea of a former civilization on Mars? Maybe it really is the fact that it once had water. Maybe it's evidence piling up that there was at least microbial life at one point. Then there's the work of the late Mac Tonnies and his Cydonian Imperative. While wholly unscientific, all I can offer is a gut feeling. There might be something to this theory of an ancient civilization on Mars that once carved stone monuments just as we did and do and I'm not willing to entirely shut the door on this possibility.

That said, I think it's still safe to say no evidence for such a thing has been found in this current crop of stone faces and "crocodiles."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Reinventing college

Your objective in high school is to tidy your record so that you can gain acceptance to the college of your choice. That achieved, you must graduate after four years (if not sooner) and then move into your career in IT, medicine, or business management.

That's what society demands, right?

Well the Stanford Design School has a few things to say about that. More to the point, they are looking at ways to redesign the college experience for a new era and maybe slaughter a few sacred cows...both in academics and society itself...along the way. Being a college educator, I certainly took the time to sit and watch the video presentation (see it at the Wired link). I heard a few things I really liked:

-The entire admissions process needs reconsideration. Currently, students work for high grades not to gain knowledge but to get good transcripts. They often take part in activities and volunteerism not for fun or for altruism but for how it looks on a college application. In other words, these are minds trained to jump through hoops really well, not necessarily to think critically.

-The hoop jumping often does not go away once they are in college. Colleges and universities then tend to churn out graduates who have narrow concepts of success and little vision. Students are also taught since high school how to navigate highly structured systems. The problem with that is that they will inhabit a world that is more in flux than ever before. As stated in the video, it is a world with problems like Ebola and ISIS. It is a world where we must consider the ethics of NSA surveillance. And I would is a world of burgeoning transhumanism. This societal landscape will require flexible, creative thinkers.

- How about this: show up to college when you're ready. As it is now, our society looks down on those "slackers" who delay their transition from high school to college. I know that when I began grad school, my approach to my studies and my attitude towards assignments was in near diametric opposition to those (especially early) days of undergrad. I had a purpose. I had a vision. What if we could grant this for everyone?

-Here's another idea we need to get across: it's okay to not know what you want to do. It's so simple that I want to go across campuses and blast it with a bullhorn. Few things grate on me more than making an 18 or 19 year old kid exactly plan out the whole rest of their life. This doesn't allow for someone to grow and change. It also doesn't help with a society that has people not just frequently changing jobs but entire careers.

-To that end, Stanford came up with the idea of the Open Loop University. College would consist of six years, not just four. Better yet, you could take those years whenever you wanted to throughout life. A year here, a year there. Work with life, don't have it be an obstacle.

-Axis flip. This is something we're already doing at my campus and have been for a long while I am proud to say. Instead of filling someone with information, you develop sets of competencies in people and how to apply information outside of your chosen discipline to situations.

Naturally, it very much remains to be seen if these concepts can be practically implemented or if they are perhaps star-crossed ideas. Additionally, these thoughts do nothing to tackle one of the biggest problems in higher education and that is the egregious cost of tuition. To be fair, these ideas from Stanford weren't meant to address that issue, rather they were about pedagogy. The cynical side of me also wonders if American power systems would ever allow for any of these changes to happen. After all, hoop jumpers are ideal. They make great consumers. How else do you get people to mindlessly head to Starbuck's for coffee and to line up for the next iPhone?

It certainly has me thinking about my own pedagogy as well. Right now, I run my class like a workplace, figuring it prepares students for the world of employment. By that I mean you have to show up and if you don't and have no notification, you're in trouble. More than two unexcused absences results in a lowering of the final grade. But not everyone learns well by sitting in a chair and listening or even through discussion and activities.

Surely there is a place for them, too. Perhaps new approaches can help them achieve their rightful education as well.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, November 17, 2014

Dawn of the robot comedians

This robot is funnier than I am.

Or if it isn't now, it will be one day. I'm just going to face up to it.

Over the years, I've received more than a few compliments for my quick wit and intellectual humor. I'm not trying to sound conceited. I'm just trying to hold on to one of the few things I've got going for me that hasn't hit obsolescence yet (I'm a writer so those things grow fewer by the day.) Now, all of that is going to change.

Meet Data (see video above). He is the work of Heather Knight, a roboticist who runs her own robotics outfit called Marilyn Monrobot. Knight is currently working on a doctorate in robotics at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. There, she is focusing on developing "socially aware robots" and "sensor-based performance art." Data, for example, tells jokes.

I'm not talking about one of those cheesy plastic robots you'd get at toy stores during the 1970s or 80s. You know the ones. You press a button and they tell a prerecorded joke in a voice that sounds something like Stephen Hawking after a few beers? Yeah, that's it. Data is much different.

He is designed to deliver a stand-up routine in front of an actual audience. An algorithm creates jokes and the robot tells them. Cameras in the eyes scan the faces in the crowd and run them through an analysis program, gauging the reaction to the joke. Microphones determine the amount of laughter and locate where in the room the most laughter is coming from. If the joke bombs then Data creates a new one and sees what sticks.

Just as any other comedian would. One of the key differences, however, is that Data won't get discouraged.

One of the most fascinating things about this to me is how the robot is meant to pick up on what is actually subtle and nuanced human behavior. It's difficult for me sometimes to tell the difference between say, a joke and an insult. Others who land on various other locations on the "I just don't get people" spectrum can miss humor altogether. This isn't just novelty technology or "doing something to see if we can do it." These robots may lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves.

By the way, Heather Knight is also working on a female version (if these robots have true gender, that is) of Data named Ginger.

We've already landed robots on comets. What's left but stand-up? It's only a matter of time before one of these 'bots has your sides splitting and your face rendered rufescent. Right now it's all kinda cute, but what if we should take this technology through the "uncanny valley?" That's a concept in robotics describing a robot that isn't cute like Data or Ginger and at the same time it can't completely pass for a human. Instead, it occupies an in-between zone where the device is meant to look human but something is It doesn't look quite right. Click on the link for uncanny valley and try to imagine those 'bots doing stand up.

I like to imagine the algorithm breaking down and the result being eerie, cut-up phrases worthy of Burroughs coming out of its mouth. Yeah. That would freak people out nice n good. It would make a great scene or subplot for a David Cronenberg film (not sure it could carry the whole thing.)

Speaking of which, David Cronenberg is publishing a novel.  

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, November 14, 2014

Probe lands on comet

Time now again for Science Friday.

It's not often that developments in space make banner headlines in mainstream news. Well it sure happened this time.

A voyage of billions of miles paid off as the ESA's Rosetta space probe landed its Philae module on the nucleus of Comet 67P. You can see a (very) brief video simulation of the landing in the clip above.  The landing was a bit of a shaky operation there for a time as Philae's harpoon anchors failed to fire and the lander bounced on the surface of the comet but things seem stable for now...or at least until the battery runs out. Telemetry suggests that Philae is at rest perhaps a full kilometer from its intended landing site and is on the slope of a crater or perhaps even tipped over on its side. As mentioned regarding the battery, this may create problems in terms of enough light getting to the solar panels for a recharge. But for now the little guy is still doing its job.

Philae has already begun to send back measurement's of 67P's surface as well as photographs from the landing site. There is a problem with the lighting that is vexing many at the ESA but that may indeed be due to the angle and attitude of the lander. One idea being tossed around is using one of the probe's movable parts to cause Philae to sort of "hop" back into an upright position. This may be necessary in order to activate the probe's drill.

After all, that was one of the whole reasons to send the Rosetta mission to a comet. Philae was intended to drill into the rock of the comet and scoop material into its onboard labs for analysis. It has been oft theorized that comets brought many of the elements necessary for life to Earth. Scanning the substance of one directly will help make determinations on the theory of "panspermia."

Not crib the BBC article too much, but Rosetta and Philae already have a place assured in history. The technical achievement of humans landing a device on a comet is a triumph in and of itself and Rosetta continues to send data back that will help us learn more and more about comets and their role in the formation of the solar system and in overall cosmology.

Just one of the unique finds so far has been a "song" coming from the comet. Plasma sensors on Rosetta found that there are fluctuations in the comet's weak magnetic field causing oscillations at low frequencies. The preliminary thought is that this is due to gases venting into space from the comet's core. These jets contain neutral particles that are then ionized by high-energy particles in space and thus the sound fluctuations. You can hear this "song" slowed down for the human ear here.

While it's important to get as much information as possible about the comet and I certainly don't wish to slubber through the process, I find myself coming back to the technical aspects. We now have the capability to land a remotely operated spacecraft on a comet from billions of miles away. What we've learned from such a feat can then be applied to future missions to stellar bodies such as asteroids. So sounds like the plans to mine asteroids aren't so far fetched after all. In actuality, we've already learned quite a bit from Rosetta and Philae.

Not mention the fact that the pictures sent back prior to the landing are damn pretty.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, November 13, 2014

When Batman went transhuman

I have always been a fan of Batman: The Animated Series.

In the days of the early 1990s it "out Batman-ed" even the Tim Burton films for being true to the comic books. Recently, h+ Magazine brought back to mind a two part-episode that is probably my all-time favorite from the series.

The title was "Heart of Steel" and it had heavy science fiction elements. Specifically, they were transhuman in nature, hence the coverage in h+. The episodes borrowed heavily from Blade Runner (and of course I do not mean that in a derogatory way. Half of my writing borrows heavily from Blade Runner) in terms of plot aspects, visual aesthetics, and even the casting of William Sanderson as the voice of Dr. Karl Rossum (Sanderson played J.F. Sebastian in Blade Runner. He is probably better known to the world at-large as Larry on Newheart during the 1980s.) The plot went something like this.

A robot steals a component of particularly advanced technology from Wayne Enterprises. Naturally, Batman investigates. He finds his way to a supercomputer called HARDAC that was built by Dr. Karl Rossum (yes, named after the lead character in the seminal robot opus, R.U.R.) at Cybertron Industries (yes, "Cybertron" is the name of the planet where the Transformers come from for those of you keeping track of the allusions.) HARDAC, a sentient A.I., is intent upon replacing humans with android doubles that it calls "duplicants"(a clever play on "replicants.") Indeed, that is what happens to Batman.

After a fierce battle, the "duplicant" Batman gains access to the Batcave, all the while telling Alfred that Alfred will continue to serve as butler until his duplicant can be installed. Creepy. The duplicant removes a component from its skull and inserts it into a drive in the Batcomputer. In retrospect, it seems like it might have been a forerunner of a USB drive, at least in concept if nothing else. It is HARDAC's plan to use the extra power of the Batcomputer to gain control of defense networks worldwide, thus placing humanity under its full control (you can probably figure that allusion out without any guidance from me.) For the better, of course.

Batman shows up and round two begins with his duplicant usurper. They fight one another to a cliff's edge in the cave where the duplicant attempts to make an appeal to Batman, claiming that both Batman and HARDAC want the same things: an orderly society, the protection of the innocent, total control (even Batman wants that in his own way.) Of course Batman insists that he and the computer are nothing alike. But if HARDAC really did create a surrogate Batman, if even a part of Batman's consciousness was transferred to the android body, then the duplicant must have an aspect or two of his own personality. Therefore, the duplicant could never allow an innocent to come to harm. To see if this bears out, Batman jumps over the cliff.

Indeed this breech of inner code drives the duplicant mad. It crashes about, running over to the Batcomputer where it realizes that HARDAC's plan will no doubt cost millions of innocent lives. It destroys the computer before the upload is complete. The resultant explosion blasts the android backward into the Batmobile and the fires activate the sprinkler system. The water hits the already damaged duplicant and deactivates it permanently.

Of course Batman is all right. Alfred climbs down into the depths of the cave and finds him. It is here that the cartoon gets into a rather heady area. When Alfred tells Batman of the duplicant's final actions, Batman muses as to whether or not the machine had a soul. After all, it had Batman's personality imprinted within its programming and it was able to think, did it have what we might term a soul? “A soul of silicon," he said, "But a soul nonetheless.”


Such good stuff here. Like I said, many of my favorite tropes get mixed in with the milieu of one of my most favorite superheroes, and then there are the high questions of transhumanism thrown in for good measure. Plus, there's that eerie sight of seeing the duplicant Batman's face torn off to reveal the metal endoskeleton. You can't ask anything more from a popular television show, especially a cartoon. Sadly, I can't find the episodes available online anywhere. Which means I'll likely have to one day break down and buy the actual season on DVD.



Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Gibson does it again with Peripherals

Transhumanism is about, among many other things, convergence.

To wit, the convergence of humans and technology for the better. Sometimes convergence can occur through pure serendipity or in other cases via gossamer prescience. When speaking about William Gibson (read: The MAN) you'd be best advised to bet on the latter.

He has quite the reputation, what with revolutionizing an entire genre with Neuromancer and not only popularizing the term "cyberspace" but accurately describing what our relationship with that ethereal domain would be like. Now he has done it again with Peripherals.

In his new book of the same title, a "peripheral" is essentially an empty "meat sack" as wonderfully described on Singularity Hub. It is a flesh and blood body but is devoid of any personality or cognition. That is provided when someone transfers their own thoughts and intentions to the peripheral via a neuro-transmitter shaped like a headband. The user, with her/his rented peripheral, then vicariously lives out whatever intended desires through the surrogate. Just crazy transhumanist talk, right?

That's where convergence comes in.

Just as Peripherals was released, researchers at the University of Washington announced that they achieved a sort of "ESP" transference between two human subjects by use of a cybernetic connection. These two subjects played a video game. One person sat connected to an EEG machine that monitors neuro-electrical impulses. These pulses are sent as electrical signals over to a second subject who wears a transcranial magnetic coil...or as the Singularity Hub article calls it, a wired "swim cap." The first person decided what moves and actions to take in the video game while the second one actually carried the actions out.

Although on a very basic level, this still sounds not unlike Gibson's peripherals. You have actual human impulses being translated into machine code and then transferred to another mind. This opens up all manner of transhuman possibilities, not simply the notion of peripherals but it would least at the very preliminary bode well for uploading the entire mind one day, perhaps by the end of the 21st Century. Like anything else of this type, it comes with its share of dangers. I don't like the idea of my mind being open to someone else's control on any level. The threat of "mindhacks" have long been speculated in the transhumanist community and I must say the idea worries me. Then there are those who might decry the possibility that the human spirit (whatever the hell that is) could be degraded as we further disconnect ourselves from the "human experience." After all, people are already concerned with how much online interaction in cyberspace has taken the place of human-to-human contact. What happens when we can just have a peripheral take care of things for us?

When I met William Gibson back in 2010, just one of a mass of geeks at his feet like a clowder awaiting a bowl of milk, he gracefully eschewed any claim to being a prophet for the 21st Century. He mentioned all of things he got wrong in Neuromancer, such has a noticeable absence of smartphones. But when you have convergences such as cyberspace and the Sprawl Trilogy and then Peripherals and this latest development, it's hard not to see him as predictive of at least the big things.

That alone is an achievement.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The risks from last week's elections

All politics aside, the Republican takeover of the Senate after last week's election could have disastrous consequences.

You may be wondering just how I can make such a claim in conjunction with the phrase "politics aside." It's easy. Just look at the facts. By facts, I mean actual statements made by senators of the now majority party.

First off, there's Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma. Back in 2006, Inhofe compared the consensus of the scientific community that climate change is real to the Nazi's persecution of the Jews. To quote Inhofe: “It kind of reminds . . . I could use the Third Reich, the big lie." On other occasions he has carried his Nazi analogy even further and compared the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo. Not surprisingly, Inhofe claimed prior to making that statement that climate change is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Just two years ago, Inhofe published a book entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.

So what would be the logical role for such a person in the U.S. Senate? Naturally, you install him as the next chair of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. Bolstering him in this position of power will be the eventual Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who has blatantly stated that one of his foremost priorities in office will be to get the EPA "reined in" because he feels a "deep responsibility" to stop the agency from regulating carbon emissions from coal-fueled power plants. Indeed McConnell has been among several Republican politicians who have alleged there is a "war on coal" in America.

Then there is Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Last February, Cruz told CNN that "climate change is not supported by data." He went on to further his line of thinking by calling for the removal of EPA regulations he deems as "harmful," such as those that restrict oil drilling and hydraulic fracking.

After the Republican takeover of the Senate, Cruz is likely to become the next chair of the Subcommittee on Science and Space, which not only has influence on matters regarding the environment but also oversees the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

An argument could easily be made that climate change is one of if not the defining issue of our time. At the beginning of this month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its fourth and final volume of study on the issue of climate. The panel examined 30,000 studies and established with 95% certainty that the vast majority of warming since 1950 has been due to human activity. If left unabated, climate change will result in not only higher temperatures and more frequent heat waves but melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and higher levels of acidity in the world's oceans.

 "Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the report's launch in Copenhagen.

The action Ban Ki-moon refers to is stated in the report, namely that humans will likely have to eliminate fossil fuel use by the end of this century. While private citizens can take actions such as switching light bulbs, reducing electricity consumption, and driving less, the kind of change that the UN report calls for can only happen at the governmental level.

Given the ascendancy of McConnell, Inhofe, Cruz, and others of the Republican Party, this kind of action now appears highly unlikely. One need only look at their comments and their continued commitment to oil and especially coal to derive this thought. One might even argue that three of the people least likely to do anything to act on climate change are now in the positions of greatest power when it comes to making decisions on the environment.

Many political pundits are still performing a post mortem on just how the Republican power grab came about. Did Democrats lose because they backed away from President Obama?  Were people "voting scared" over issues such as ISIS and Ebola? The reasons almost doesn't matter. Almost.

I say that only because the result is the same. People who refuse to accept scientific consensus, either because they are unable to out of ignorance or unwilling to out of greed, have announced their intention to make very dangerous decisions.

And those decisions will have consequences for the whole world.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Art of "Careless Memories"

I would buy it for the art of black and white photography alone.

That is if I could afford the $1,588 US price tag. I'm still scratching my head over that one.

I am writing of Careless Memories, a limited edition book of the photography of Denis O'Reagan and his documentation of Duran Duran's 1984 World Tour. Let me tell you, even if I was not a devout fan (which I of course am) I would still consider this an important collection of art. It chronicles the birth of rock n roll's first truly multimedia band.

"But no!" you cry. "Their ascendancy to radio and MTV power absolutely destroyed the era of musicians miming against static backgrounds for their videos or playing 'concerts' where they sat on stools and strummed acoustic guitars while possibly looking up at the audience every so often."

You're right. They absolutely did. And I couldn't be happier.

It was time for a change. As the 21st Century drew nearer, there was finally a band that combined art, music, fashion, and video together onto an incredibly expansive canvas. All of this presented by artists who embraced androgyny, rendering Duran Duran a band for boys and for girls...and anyone else in between. This is an especially salient point that is often overlooked (among others) by the fact that the band had and continues to have such a devoted female following. This sonic and visual assault came across the Pond and was greeted by slinky young girls, awakening hoydens, and the odd male who just loved post-punk (such as yours truly). In many ways, burgeoning sexual identity was formed amid the spectacle.

The link at the top has an interview with keyboardist Nick Rhodes, the man I've always thought of as the band's artistic center. I've copy and pasted here a few of the points that really stuck with me;

Q: You genuinely embraced technology.

NR: Yes, we’ve always loved it. And ever since, we’ve tried to find innovative new technologies to use for our music, our visuals, our shows…it’s one of the things that really still excites us.

Q: What was most striking about that time?

NR: If you look at our contemporaries, The Cure, The Smiths, Depeche Mode, U2, Prince, Madonna…everybody sounded entirely unique. It was all about individuality. And to me now, it seems everybody sort of wants to be the same. Back then we would have been horrified if we’d seen someone wearing the same jacket as us…or even the same t-shirt.

The Denis O'Reagan book documents all of that happening during the halcyon days of that 1984 tour. It also shows the chaos, the joys, and yes, the excess, of a band on tour during that decade. But I have never seen such an occurrence documented in this way. I remember seeing several of these photographs from their paperback photography book, Sing Blue Silver, as a teenager in the 1980s and was amazed by it then. I still am now. Never before and never since have I seen a band's time on the road captured with such artistry. The lighting, the angles, the black and white noir-ish compositions, it's all unique.

Speaking of unique, the article also mentions the band's film from that time, Arena. That one's so whack-a-doo that it will take a post in and of itself to do it justice.

If you can afford the price tag, Careless Memories would look great on any coffee table.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, November 7, 2014

More dire warnings on Climate Change

Time again for Science Friday.

I wish I had better news on climate change. But I don't.

Neither does the UN. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change offered the fourth and final volume of its study on climate. The findings state that climate change is "almost certainly" the logical result of human activity. More dire than that is the fact that in order to have a modicum of a chance at stabilizing this change in temperatures, humanity will have to cut its carbon emissions to zero by the end of this century.

"Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the report's launch in Copenhagen.

This all comes on the heels of a NASA report that labeled the past calendar year as the warmest one on record.  Evidence in addition to rising temperatures includes loss of polar ice, a rise in the acidity of ocean water, along with rising sea levels.  In light of all of this, it is no wonder then that only the smallest percentage of scientists have any doubt that climate change is actually happening and that humans are the cause of it. You wouldn't know that by listening to right wing politicians or their media but there is only minor controversy over the matter in the scientific community. In fact, you could really say that there is none. The data on climate change is real.

Still don't believe it? Check out the work of photographer Camille Seaman. She has visually documented the results of rising temperatures in the Arctic and the consequences for the fishermen and villagers of the area. Sigh. To say nothing of the polar bears and other wildlife and their right to live.

There is hope according to the IPCC. Between the reduction of CO2 emissions, an investment in renewable energy, and new technology that (we hope) can suck greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, we might just be able to hit that end-of-the-century mark for turning things around. It is mostly a matter of what we use to generate power.

Big problems lurk with those solutions, however. Not the least of them is the all the finger pointing when it comes to climate. The industrialized world points to the developing world, citing the fuel sources burned. The developing world claims industrialized nations have "a historical responsibility" to help. There is a bit of truth to that. Wealthier nations have the means to take action while poorer, developing countries have fewer options available to them.

And everybody points there finger at China. Not without good reason, either.

Sadly, this all carries the reek of "Not my problem. Somebody else has to do it." It's going to take a solution on a global scale and it will require heavy involvement from national governments.

It's the developing world that will face the harshest consequences of climate change. Sounds like a good place to start.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Feminism, GamerGate, and Geek Nation

You can find a video statement from other geek girls such as the woman pictured above here.

On the subject of GamerGate, I just feel like I am repeating myself.

Or at least my general comments on society.

What is GamerGate? It's a mess is what it is. It involves hatred, misogyny, geeks, and "journalistic ethics" of all things. It all began when Zoe Quinn, an independent video game designer, began receiving hateful attacks regarding her personal life. She was forced to leave her home after receiving death threats. Right around the same time, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian uploaded a series of YouTube videos that criticized sexism and misogyny in video games. You don't have to look far to find ample evidence for such criticisms as many female game characters fit the mold of "the fighting fucktoy" (not my phrase, I'm borrowing it from the documentary Missrepresentation.) What was the response to Sarkeesian's argument?

Death threats mostly. That and other threats of physical harm, most of them from gamers feeling that Sarkeesian was trying to ruin video games for everyone. Authorities found at least a few of these threats to be verifiable and thus Sarkeesian was forced to flee her home. As you might imagine this got a lot of press and both game players and designers felt that they were being wrongfully labeled as misogynistic jackasses. They protested in the way the best know how: taking to the Internets to lodge their complaints. They even created the hashtag "#GamerGate" to call for ethics in journalism and fight back against what they call "SJWs" or "social justice warriors."

Since the initial brouhaha, Anita Sarkeesian was scheduled to speak at Utah State University on the subject of the depiction of women in video games. Someone threatened to "commit mass murder" at the event. Campus security and Utah State Police reported that they would be unable to effectively search the audience at the venue as Utah is an open carry state. Out of concern for everyone's safety, the lecture was cancelled. Also, Brianna Wu, another game developer, was forced to leave her home after being doxxed. Just click on that link and you see a sample of the types of threats tweeted and emailed to Brianna. I can't imagine that the ones sent to Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian were all that different.

What do I think about all this? Oh geez. Where to start?

First off, this is not about "journalistic ethics." Of course not all game developers and video game players are misogynistic, murderous, dehumanizing bastards. Very few of them are I'd say. Nevertheless, this happened. It's real. It's news. It needs to be reported. This type of behavior needs to be identified in Geek Nation and not tolerated. We do not tolerate hate or bullying in the workplace, in our schools, or in any other aspect of society. Why is it being tolerated in our hobbies? To paraphrase Zoe Quinn, why should these threats be rewarded, thus setting the example that this is how you get what you want?

Sorry, boys. This is not how intelligent discourse works in polite society. Venture out of your basements every once in a while and you may find that out. This only makes you and anyone else associated with geek culture look bad.

Second of all, these women and their views are not a threat to the gaming industry. The medium is here to stay and there is nothing wrong with someone calling for accountability and diversity in a hobby that they love...which ties in with a behavior that has been irking me for quite a while.

In many respects, the film Napoleon Dynamite is about my adolescence. The only issue is I cannot decide if I was Napoleon or Kip. I came of age when there was very little geek media in the mainstream. I was outright hated for my social awkwardness and my love of geek culture. So much so, that in the late teen years I hid my interests. For this reason, I somewhat identify with the the LGBT community and "staying in the closet." Subsequently, I was a very lonely guy. The very idea that I could ever meet a girl who loved Star Wars, Star Trek, or video games was utterly unfathomable to me.

Thankfully it's not that way now. Geek is chic. Geek Nation knows it is a veritable army and we rejoice in our strangeness. Just today I taught an English class where one girl wore a Batman t-shirt, another a Doctor Who t-shirt, and yet one more had an Avengers backpack. I quietly thought to myself, "Where the heck were you girls when I was in college?"

So why in the name of everything are we trying to exclude women from the culture? Why are we decrying what has come to be called the "fake geek girl?" I don't even know what that means but it takes me back to moronic discussion I've had over music. "I'm more metal than you" I would get told because somebody listened to Megadeth while I played an Iron Maiden record. Then yet another metalhead would claim he was "more metal" than either of us because he was devil-horned devoted to Cannibal Corpse. Alternative music fans were no better. "I listen only to obscure bands. I'm sure you've never heard of them. If someone has a video on MTV then they're just not fit for my delicate palate."

It takes everything I have not to want to bash these people with a baseball bat. What exactly does a woman have to do to be a "real" geek? Program code? I can't do that. Speak fluent Klingon? I'm out on that one too.

If you read comics, you're a comic book fan. If you play video games, you're a gamer. If you read or watch science fiction, you're a science fiction fan. Why the hell can't it be that easy? What sort of "purity" are people out to protect for Geek Nation? I remember all too painfully what it was like to be hated, bullied, and outright assaulted for what I love.

Therefore, I will not practice nor will I tolerate exclusion of anyone else from the culture. We need diversity.

That includes women.

I guess it really is true what Margaret Atwood says: "Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Creationists turn to guerrilla tactics

Once again, the fundies remind us that they believe in creationsim.

And only creationism.

Pope Francis, leader of one of the world's largest religions, announced that he believes the theories of evolution and the Big Bang to be real scientific fact. This isn't really news to most Catholics. I grew up and now teach at a Catholic college that is perfectly at ease teaching evolution along with theology. Not every person of faith feels this comfortable compatibility. 

Cue the fundies.

Ken Ham, director of the Creationism Museum or whatever the hell it's called, not only tackled Pope Francis for this statement but for a previous comment, namely, "God is not afraid of new things." Ham said:

"In this instance, Pope Francis, like so many other religious leaders, is putting man's word above God's Word. And not only that, he's also going so far as to say that only a magician with "a magic wand" could create the way that God said He created in Genesis! Frankly, this shows a lack of understanding of who Scripture claims God is."

Where was Ham when Pope John Paul II, one of the most revered figures in religion, made a similar comment? The Pope was quoted as saying, "Scientific discoveries are not a threat to god. Nor are they news to him."

Then there's some guy named Snyder. He wrote an article called "44 Reasons Why Evolution is a Fairy Tale for Adults." His comments are as follows, arguing that Francis is amending beliefs to make them more palatable to a modern market:

"And all of that "unscientific stuff" about God creating the world in six days and creating mankind out of the dust of the Earth? Well, all of that is just going to have to be thrown out. If all of this sounds vaguely familiar to you, that is because this is exactly what Pope Francis has been doing."

Right. The Pope is pandering. All of those pesky fossils put in the rocks by Satan to tempt us are the root cause. Come to think of it, might Pope Francis even be an agent of the devil as well? Sent here to lead us all astray? Would fit the reasoning of most fundies.

So if you are a fundy, what kind of action do you take in the face of such a statement from such an eminent religious leader? Well, you could hold a surprise "creation summit" at a major university. That's what's happening this week at Michigan State University. It appears that an Oklahoma-based creationist group hoodwinked their way into booking facilities on campus. Among their discussion topics: Why the Big Bang is a fake, how Evolution is not what we think it is, and the ramifications of Hitler believing in Evolution.

Oh awesome. I was hoping for a good ol' "comparison to Hitler" (reductio ad Hitlerum) logical fallacy. That's a sure sign you've lost the debate.

Sigh. It is very difficult for me to discuss this topic calmly, maturely, and intelligently. On the one hand, you have a population of enlightened individuals who believe in the weight of evidence and the scientific method. On the other, you have people mentally enslaved to a book written thousands of years ago by a group of guys. And these folks will swear every single word of it is true. Best of all, this line of thinking is so persuasive and so appealing that you actually have to ambush people with it and shout to get your points heard. Such pusillanimous tactics are always an intellectual means of persuasion.

I suppose I should be happy. By the fundy line of reasoning, Batman is real. Why not? I've got it right here, printed in a book. Hundreds of them as a matter of fact. With so many books about him, Batman must be real. It says so.

I would try to laugh. That is if these people weren't so dangerous. They're not looking for the truth, no matter how they try to couch it as such. They are perfectly willing to ignore evidence in order to further their dogma and belief system. If you can convince others to push aside scientific fact, what else can you get them to do? And it's all in the name of evangelism.

Hence why I have such a difficult time trusting so-called "people of faith."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

UFO controversy: the Bushman confession

If you cannot trust a dying man about UFO research, then just who can you trust?

Knowledge of logical fallacy tells us otherwise, eh? Even with the exigence of life coming to an end, verisimilitude must be determined at face value.

Boyd Bushman died on the 7th of last August. He was an engineer who during his 40 year career worked for Hughes Aircraft, Texas Instruments, and the venerable Lockheed. He was involved with such critical defense programs as the Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile.

He also claimed to have worked at Area 51. 

Adding on to that claim in his deathbed statement, Bushman reinforces pretty much every claim ever made about that (sorta) top secret facility since Bob Lazar first popped up on the UFO scene. Namely, there are indeed recovered UFOs being reverse engineered at the installation and that the government is possession of alien beings both living and dead. What's more, the living ones work alongside personnel at Area 51.

The aliens, according to Bushman, are from a planet called "Quintumnia." They are around five feet tall at the highest and have the features one would associate with a typical "Grey." They travel in classic, saucer-shaped craft that are around 38 feet in diameter. Bushman reports that the aliens he worked with directly at the base were amicable and communicated expressly through telepathy. He also reported that, "if they started floating while working, they were easy to grab because they were dressed in dungarees."

I have no idea what that means but I'm relishing the image of a Grey in dungarees.

Indeed most of the alien visitors are friendly according to Bushman. But there are not-so-nice ones as well. He describes it as being a situation of "wranglers" versus "rustlers." One might extrapolate from that analogy that humans are the cattle. Would make sense. Bushman also maintains that 19 people died defending themselves from the malevolent aliens. That sounds very much like the supposed Dulce Wars and I daresay that's indeed what he's referencing without naming it.

Anyone else seeing the problems here? For one thing, Bushman's account seems to be a hodgepodge of UFO lore and kickshaws going back to somewhere in the 1980s. Additionally, there's no real evidence for Bushman's claims. But wait! He has pictures! Pictures of a dead alien from Roswell being kept at Area 51. That ought to do it, right?

One problem. Check out this image from Coast to Coast AM:

As labeled, the image on the far left is the one provided by Bushman. The pic in the center is a doll owned by Dan Akroyd. The one on the right is a Halloween prop bought at K-Mart. I believe I've also seen the alien figure at Wal-Mart but I can't be certain. Another dimension to add to the claims is that no one has yet been able to firmly verify that any Boyd Bushman ever worked for Lockheed. At least we were able to validate Bob Lazar's credentials if not his story. No such luck in this case.

Perhaps I should not be so closed-minded but...yeah it's not looking good. In fact, Snopes is already calling the whole thing a hoax.

Alejandro Rojas of The Huffington Post and Open Minds is issuing a somewhat more mitigated verdict.

"The whole affair could easily be written off as the delusional ramblings of an old man. The only thing that causes one to pause is Bushman’s background. Why would a high level scientist begin making up such wild stories?"

Why indeed?

And why must the signal-to-noise ratio of UFO research continue to grow more cluttered with hoakum? I know there are many logical and realistic answers to that. I just wanted to utter a cry of exasperation from someone who cares.

Perhaps this is a good thing. It might sour researchers further on the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis and encourage them to explore other explanations for valid and unexplained UFO cases.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, November 3, 2014

Requiem for SpaceShipTwo

I wanted to write for a bit about the events of last Friday.

For whatever reason, the loss of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo has not garnered the attention lavished (and it was rightfully lavished) on such disasters as NASA's Challenger and Columbia. I will not attempt to speculate on just why this is the case because it is a tragedy nevertheless. A pilot named Michael Tyner Alsbury lost his life in the crash while another named Peter Siebold deals with serious injuries as I write. They did this in the name of something larger than themselves.

Space travel is an attractive subject...if you want dirt kicked in your eye. Politically, you get hit from both the right and the left. Lefties will bemoan the fact that space exploration is money not spent on their social welfare programs and while conservatives will decry that it is money spent period. Where NASA once inspired us and represented the best of America's qualities, it in time became a bloated and sick bureaucracy, a manifestation of everything someone could possibly point to and say "wasteful government spending." The Space Shuttle itself became a program that was cumbersome, problem-prone, and always with a clock ticking towards expiration and no clear replacement waiting in the wings. If humankind was going to explore space on any level, there needed to be a change.

When SpaceShipOne took its first flight, I took heart. You won't often hear me laud private sector businesses, but that was one moment when I saw private investors step up and provide leadership that was sorely needed. If the leadership of the United States is unable (or unwilling) to continue human expansion into space, then that by no means should prohibit others with the vision and the capital from doing so. My heart fluttered a bit when Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, announced that one aim of the Virgin Galactic endeavor would be to usher in a new era of "space tourism." While somewhere in the back of my mind a naysayer voice said "Ha, you'll never have the money," the spirit of the news remained the same.

I could go into space.

But I'm a writer and an academic. I'm not even close to being an astronaut. I'm just some guy.

That's the idea. Any one of us could go into space. Space can and should be a common future for humanity. This kind of enterprise has the potential to be a highlight in the oeuvre of space travel. Come on, it's one of the few things I feel positive about.

Sadly, the black crows of negativity have already swarmed in the wake of last Friday's tragic news. Many media reports have been full of inaccuracies...such as accounts of fuel tank explosions when there were people seem too much in a rush to fact check. After all, they need to get to their bigger narrative: "See? Told ya so. This is too dangerous, too expensive, and there's nothing to be gained by it. It's just selling joy rides to rich celebrities and Star Trek fans. We all need to stay here where we have real problems."

What if we took that attitude with everything in history? What if we said those very same things about sea travel 2,000 years ago? From purely practical terms, we wouldn't have any of the trade and commerce that we have today. How would you get your cheap plastic junk from China to Wal-Mart without cargo ships?

What if we said that about air travel? "It just ain't natural," I could just hear someone tell da Vinci or the Wright brothers. "If the Invisible Sky Daddy wanted people to fly, he would have given them wings." So no flying. Hope you like your vacations and business trips solely by car or train.

I'll go you one better.

What if we said the same about the automobile? Fear of crashes, injuries, and deaths should supersede any possible benefits that automotive conveyance could possibly have. Not only are your beloved "roadtrips" cancelled, but without trucking we are right back to the very same conundrum with your cheap plastic junk not making it to Wal-Mart.

Status quo. Stay where you are. Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.

We need to move forward. Just as in the case of sea, air, and land travel there are benefits as yet unknown in space. Admittedly there are risks as well. We've been painfully reminded of that fact. Still, the sad loss of SpaceShipTwo should be a motivator, not a barricade. While NASA is making its own efforts with tests on its Project Orion, I still believe that the true achievements in space travel will come from private sector leaders like Richard Branson and Elon Musk as they are free to act without hindrance from beholden congressional leaders and tunnel-visioned citizenry.

Many sacrifices have been made to bring humanity into space. Like several other heroes before him, Michael Alsbury sacrificed everything.

We dare not let those sacrifices be in vain.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets