Friday, January 30, 2015

Stelarc: the man with three ears

In case I had not mentioned it, I'm teaching a college class on transhumanism.

Well, it's transhumanism with an emphasis on ethics but the students are still being subjected to gleefully learning about stuff that I'm fascinated by, such as robotics, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering. In addition to ethics, I really am trying to get across the "human" half of that compound word, "transhuman." One avenue through which I've tried to approach this, at least with one student, is by dropping the name of Stelarc.

I've blogged about him before, but here is a video of Stelarc and his work. He is an artist who sees his body as a canvas and augments himself with technology in an effort to show not only where we are going but where we already are. Or as he is flippantly described at the previous link: "a Greek weirdo who lives in Australia and has been screwing with his body in the furtherance of art, technology, and cyborg rights."

I like this better: the term "cyberpunk" was invented for Stelarc.

Here is Stelarc delivering a manifesto of sorts from the video:

"We're in an age now where bodies are blurring. We can indefinitely preserve a corpse. We can sustain a comatose person on a technological life support system. Cryogenically-preserved bodies are awaiting re-animation. Blood that is circulating in my body now might be circulating in your body tomorrow. We can engineer new kinds of chimeric architectures in vitro, grow tissues and insert stem cells in vivo, so we're really at a time of the cadaver, the comatose, and the chimera."

As a performance artist, Stelarc takes his inspiration from numerous transhuman sources, chief among them being robotics, cybernetic augmentation, computer programming, and surgical enhancement. In 1993, he basically developed his own endoscopy device and titled the piece "Stomach Sculpture." He graduated from there to art pieces such as "Extended Arm" (pictured above) to "Robotic Exoskeleton" and all the way up until the pièce de résistance of his artistic portfolio: "The Third Ear." Through the wonders of biotechnology, Stelarc had a third ear implanted on his left arm.

Let me say that one more time. The guy got a third ear implanted on him. No foolin', no fakin', no posin'. This guy is cyberpunk.

Granted, it's only the relief of an ear right now, but it's cloned from his own tissues. The eventual plan according to Stelarc is to grow the ear out more and then remove it so that electronics can be attached. These will include a tiny microphone with a wireless receiver. The ear would be "internet-enabled" in any WiFi hot spot. Through that, we could all hear what Stelarc's ear is hearing from any point in the world. He understands the risks inherent with the surgeries and still proceeds with no intent to indemnify should all go wrong.

Confused as to why he's doing this? You're not alone. That much is obvious from the video as one art patron asks if the ear "is an erotic area."

Speaking of such things, Stelarc describes how he got together with his girlfriend, Nina. They met in a morgue while she was carrying a human arm. Badass. Of course with the whole ear thing, one wonders if he could grow other additional...organs.

More than anything, Stelarc asserts that he wants his art to make us question or at least re-examine what it means to be human. Are the concepts of the body and the mind really antiquated notions? Deep questions for certain and I'm glad he is asking them, but I'm intrigued about a more practical aspect of his work. Towards the end of the video, Stelarc is shown speaking with visitors to his exhibition. One of them was a tiny man in a wheelchair with a cane across his lap. What if this work that Stelarc is doing leads to a breakthrough in biotechnology that can help that man? Will the art still look weird and frivolous?

Weird? Sure. But frivolous? Ask the guy who can get up and walk out of the chair.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Art of the Mega Sprawl

Art can be mirror.

It shows us all of life's beauty and imperfections. It may also show us the exit we needed to take somewhere a mile or so behind us. In light of all this, we should find the work of Marcus Lyon to be at best thought-provoking and at worst distressing.

As profiled in Wired, Lyon's photographs are of inhumanly dense megacities and endlessly stretching highways and runways. The photograph above is actually Shanghai, China as seen from above. No, that's not entirely accurate. It is actually a composite of many photos, hundreds of images all affixed in sodality to one another, creating an oppressive effect. According to the article, Lyon actually spends years planning out these composite shots, minutely planning each detail.

After a single flight over an area, photographing as he goes, Lyon then digitally pieces together as many as 1,000 pics to form images of the above type. You can see a full portfolio of the photos at the article.

“Emotionally and environmentally these mass ideas, actions, movements of people, production processes, and the titans of political and consumer power that house them, are so huge that no single image can define their influence,” Lyon says of the work. “So I have endeavored to create new visual languages within which I can communicate a deeper truth.”

While almost all art is open to interpretation, the takeaway here seems pretty obvious: we just keep pushing it. I am a fan of city living, but it does not take any special divination to see what each building placed right next to a building, what each two car family, and each plane in the sky are doing to our world. It would also be difficult for the informed observer to not begin to imagine the social and economic pressures facing the citizenry, the tiny dots deep inside each of the collage images.

Before you say it, no, I do not advocate a return to a sort of agrarian or arcadian lifestyle. I am saying there needs to be accountability and responsibility along with our developments.

Interestingly, I am reminded of something of a bookend to Lyon's work. A few years back, I came across the lithographs of Hisaharu Motoda. Motoda's portfolio of Neon Ruins Tokyo features photographs of familiar Tokyo locations altered to give a post-apocalyptic effect. Here is Ginza for example:

Again, art is open to interpretation. I can imagine many calling Motoda's images "depressing" or "off-putting" in that they suggest a complex of humanity. For me, they're realism...even though they haven't happened. Yet. They are warning shots across our bow, similar to what Lyon is doing. This is where things are headed and I don't think that I want to go there...not even to wander about, pointing my finger and scoffing "I told you so."

In way, there's something very Vonnegut about both these works. I leave you to chew on what I mean by that in the comments section.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The coffee fountain

What I have for you today may seem weird.

I know, I know, you're shocked. But I think it's especially odd this time around as it's nothing more than a tangential thought, an oddity that wandered through my mind today. Here we go.

I am a devout coffee drinker. More of an addict, really. There is a demarcation point of quantity that I must not cross given my sour stomach, but I still need it. Given the innumerable memes on Facebook and elsewhere for caffeine addiction and the fact that coffee has long been one of the most valuable commodities in cabotage, I know that I'm not alone.

So it hit me today. Workplaces have water fountains. Why can't they have coffee fountains?

Yeah yeah, I know. Most have coffee makers in their break rooms or even kitchens so why do we need a fountain?

Because it would be cool. That's why.

Imagine yourself just walking down the hallway to a meeting my case,,,class and stopping for a quick hit of java. Just press the button and there it is. Fill your mug or sip it straight into your mouth. The water would have to be merely warm and not piping hot so as to avoid scalding. That might be a drawback but its the price you pay for a quick guzzle.

Of course someone would also have to change out the coffee filters in the fountains. It's tough enough to get someone to brew a new pot in the break room. Can't imagine what it would be like to mandate a collaborative rotation on that task. Could the janitorial handle it when they clean the coffee fountain along with the water fountains? I'd hate to put another chore on their list, though.

I'm just be waiting for Buzzfeed's "Top 5 Office Coffee Fountain Problems That We Can't Even..."

This concept must not be confined solely to my weird mind. When I did a Google out of curiosity, I came across the image above. I also found this tidbit.

That's right. Why bother with the coffee pot or even the coffee fountain when you can just absorb it through your skin? It's also supposed to give your epidermis a healthy glow.

Best of all possible worlds, right?

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Monday, January 26, 2015

The Shaitan Mazar UFO incident

"This incident can either be considered real or dismissed as a hoax."

Seems to me that could be said about a great many alleged UFO cases, but I'll  stick with it. I found a link to the story of the Shaitan Mazar incident on one of the many UFO pages I follow on Facebook. The source is called "Liplock" and I'm still making up my mind about it. Anyway, the case was a new one for me and I will readily admit to being sucked in by the accompanying graphic. It showed a saucer-shaped UFO stuck into deep snow atop a mountain. All kinds of tracked vehicles moved around it in a recovery effort, making me think of The Thing. But I digress...

The case occurred over what is now Turkmenistan in August of 1991, during the dying gasps of the Soviet Union. A UFO was detected on military radar late in the afternoon of the 28th. This incursion was especially sensitive due to its proximity to the aerodrome at Kapustin Yar (interestingly enough, location of yet another UFO case.) A total of four MiG-29s (a top-of-the-line fighter at that time) were sent airborne and intercepted the object over the Aral Sea.  The pilots, according to the story, were shocked with what they found.

It was a metallic, cylindrical object, shaped somewhat like a blimp but at an estimated length of 2,000 feet. The UFO did not respond to any of the pilots' request for identification. Military officials ordered the MiGs to fire warning shots at the UFO. That is when, similar to Tehran UFO incident of 1976, instrumentation in the fighter cockpits failed. The jets were forced to return to base. Red Air Force radar continued to track the object, watching it make spectacular zigzag maneuvers and accelerating to speeds of 4,200 mph (!). The UFO then disappeared. Later the following month, villagers in nearby Kyrgyzstan began talking that something had crashed in area of the Tien Shan mountains known as Shaitan Mazar. That phrase translates to "Devil's Graveyard."

Doesn't exactly do much for the story's credibility. After all, sort of sounds like an episode of G.I. Joe. But I digress...

An expedition went in search of this UFO crash (another one??) but was forced to turn back due to severe winter storm. The narrative furthers that the Soviet military attempted to hoist an object out of the mountain with a helicopter that November, but the result was a crash and the total loss of the crew. It may be speculated that the crash was due to similar instrumentation failure as to what the MiG 29s experienced.

But in June of 1992, a team of ufologists succeeded in reaching the mountaintop and finding wreckage of the downed UFO. The remains seemed to have both mechanical and physiological effects, preventing the team members from approaching the actual object (or what was left of it) and causing them to turn back once again. A few sketches were made by the team leader, including depictions of markings on the side of the craft. There were no bodies visible in the crash wreckage and it was conjectured that the Soviet military had removed them in their failed attempt to retrieve the UFO. It was not until 1998 that a return expedition reached the Shaitan Mazar location. By that time, the supposed UFO was gone.

Like I always ask, what to make of this?

Well, woulda been nice, huh? If the members of the expedition had been able to bring back just one scrap of material from the crash, we might finally have something tangible to go on. It's the grandaddy of all ufological prizes, right? Physical evidence of a UFO that cannot be refuted? Yes, woulda been nice, indeed. What we're left with instead, bereft of such evidence, is a set of stories and sketches on graph paper.

Might as well be fiddlesticks.

What evidence there is has little weight. There is one mitigating factor in this, however, and that is the political reality of those times. As this occurred within the Soviet Union, it's very difficult to corroborate things one way or the other. It was closed and secretive at that time and what accurate (not to mention public) record of the event there is would likely be sparse. Then there is the fact of the isolated geographic of the site.

I'm skeptical, but I cannot close the door on it completely.

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Two more planets for our solar system?

Time now again for Science Friday.

There is another planet out in space. Maybe two.

We're not talking about exoplanets, but rather two additional ones right here in our solar system.They may exist beyond the orbits of Pluto and may be larger (perhaps even ten times more massive) than Earth. Why this conjecture? Well, it has to do with analysis of what are termed "Extreme Trans-Neptunian ObjectS" (ETNOS). There are 13 ETNOS, including the dwarf planet, Sedna, that have been studied. The orbits of these bodies are different from as they should be according to mathematical projections.

"This excess of objects with unexpected orbital parameters makes us believe that some invisible forces are altering the distribution of the orbital elements of the ETNOs, and we consider that the most probable explanation is that other unknown planets exist beyond Neptune and Pluto," the astronomical study's lead author Carlos de la Fuente Marcos, of the Complutense University of Madrid, said in a statement.

"The exact number is uncertain, given that the data that we have is limited, but our calculations suggest that there are at least two planets, and probably more, within the confines of our solar system," he added.

This is quite a big deal for astronomy. Seriously, I'm actually kind of finding it mindblowing. I must admit that I never considered it likely that we would ever find more planets right here in our own solar system. Many of us grew up knowing there were nine planets. This changed a few years back as Pluto was demoted to "dwarf planet" status, relegating it to a classification similar to Ceres and Sedna. Now, shortly after kicking one out of the "planet" class, we may be welcoming two more back in. It certainly has played havoc with mnemonic devices we grew up with to memorize planet names (or at least those who weren't geeks and pored over junior science books.) Despite this promise of fantastic news, however, there is reason to be cautious.

The perturbations in ETNOs behavior might not be due to the presence of other large planetary bodies. Sedna and others might have been pushed out by the influence of other stars in the Sun's birth cluster. It's too soon to be definitive yet and further analysis is needed. The signs at this point, however, are at least intriguing.

So what will we name these new planets? Maybe just "Planet X" for one of them as an additional planet has long been theorized. I'll let Godzilla get all excited about that one.

Oh and I'm not even touching Nibiru.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

OnSight: Exploring Mars virtually

Explore space without ever leaving the office.

That's the basic idea behind OnSight, a new device that will enable scientists to work virtually on Mars using wearable technology called Microsoft HoloLens. 

"OnSight gives our rover scientists the ability to walk around and explore Mars right from their offices," said Dave Lavery, program executive for the Mars Science Laboratory mission at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It fundamentally changes our perception of Mars, and how we understand the Mars environment surrounding the rover."

This new device will take real information from the Curiosity rover to create a lifelike simulation of the Martian environment. This will allow for POV inspection of the rover's surroundings as opposed to an image on a screen. Scientists can then get a better idea as to the rover's relationship with the landscape and adjust the rover's mission from time to time.

All this happens by Curiosity team members wearing what's called a HoloLens device. This surrounds the wearer with images sent directly from the rover and overlays information across critical points in order to help inform decisions. The team members can then, as the JPL press release cites for example, stroll down a rocky surface or investigate a particularly interesting outcropping.

It is of course quite a leap from the usual NASA box of problem-solving tools. The technology involved is rather awe-inspiring in its own right. Normally that's the kind of thing that gets all my gray matter and pink parts tingly. So what's nagging me about this?

Irrationality, I'm thinking. When I see Mars-related announcements, I'm wanting to read about strides towards human missions. Yes, I know all about what Elon Musk is doing while I also understand that efforts such as OnSight are valuable, and likely rather cost-effective, tools that will help pave the way for such a thing. After all, it would hardly do to land a mission amidst a landscape that had not first been thoroughly surveyed.

Besides, I'll really be changing my tune if we can get an OnSight-capable probe on Phobos, Mars' moon. There's a monolith there, you know. And it might be hollow. Speculation also runs that it may be a spacecraft orbiting Mars, an alien "planetkiller" weapon, a previously mined asteroid (but by whom?), and all kinds of groovy babelism worthy of Richard Hoagland.

Seriously. Get OnSight to Phobos...or hell, to Cydonia...and let's see what's there. That will get all of these cover-up allegations out of the way.

Then again, would it perhaps stoke them or confirm them?

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Bees, the Bible, and the apocalypse

Loss of bees may lead to human extinction.

No really. I've been looking into the possibility. You can read all about it at End Times Headlines. While that might not be the most academic of sources for an argument, the idea is essentially correct. We need bees to pollinate crops that we grow for food. It is thought that pesticides may be the leading culprit for what's now being termed Colony Collapse. Also in the running are electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and the effects of climate change.

Yet there is another challenge that is increasing the threat to bee livelihood, at least in California. It's drought. Drought has crippled the amount of food sources bees can forage for. So much so that as this documentary at The Atlantic points out, it would now have to rain for an entire year before things returned to normal status. The beekeeper interviewed in the doc reports spending over $100,000 in the past year to feed bees artificial supplements in order to keep them alive. The beekeeper closes out the short film by stating that he will likely have to move his bees to a better environment such as Kansas or one of the Dakotas.

This is significant because California is such a large grower of our produce. If bees go extinct, we can forget about fruits and vegetables. We'll be stuck with corn and wheat. Oddly enough, we'll also have grapes as they self-pollinate and olives because they are pollinated by the wind and are not dependent on bees. I say "oddly enough" because this has...of all things...religious overtones.

As found in a much older article on Boing Boing, the exclusivity of grapes and olives is actually mentioned in The Book of Revelation. That part of the Bible predicts a plague that will spare both grapes and olives will precede the apocalypse. So more good news. I mean, what could be worse than human extinction? I'll tell you what: a bunch of fundies gloating that they predicted it. Then again you can pretty much make whatever you want out of the Book of Revelation, so I'm not going to worry about that part of things too much. I am, however, going to continue to be concerned about Colony Collapse.

Would I really be myself if I didn't have a circus of at least a few extinction scenarios whirling around in my head?

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Majestic 12

I seem to see UFO connections in innocuous things.

In culling together resources for an impending lecture on Isaac Newton, I pulled a book from the shelf that was simply titled Astronomy. Its author was Donald Menzel.

That is a name significant not only for contributions to that eponymous field of science but also because he was allegedly a member of Majestic 12. This was a cabal of experts said to have been brought together by President Harry Truman in 1947 to both study and conceal UFO phenomena. Given that I am concurrently researching a book on Dulce, I decided to revisit the idea of Majestic 12 and a governmental UFO conspiracy (for a primer, please check out my review of Stanton Friedman's book, Top Secret/MAJIC.)

While Majestic 12 is purported to have been formed in 1947, I have found assertions that the United States government knew about UFO activity long before then. A pivotal moment is thought to be the Battle of Los Angeles. This was a documented case that occurred in February of 1942. Just slightly over two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an object of unknown origin moved into the airspace over Los Angeles. With the nation already on a firm war-footing, this prompted a response of searchlights and numerous anti-aircraft shells. Nothing much officially emerged from this stour aside from it maybe being one of (if not the) first UFO incident where the explanation of "weather balloon" was given. Yet this object seemed to take multiple hits from heavy ordinance and keep moving. Kinda tough to manage for a balloon (click the link to see the object outlined in the spotlights.)

What I didn't know about was that there are those who claim that an actual craft was downed in this "battle." It crashed into the Pacific and was recovered by the U.S. military. This supposedly prompted the formation of the Interplanetary Phenomenon Unit. Of course if you read this post by Kevin Randle, you can see for yourself how the IPU was all disinformation and bunk. We shall press forward, though.

So in 1947, this thing called Roswell happens. It is arguably the most well-known UFO incident in history. There's far too much to get into for this post, but I'll try for the "long story short" treatment. At the beginning of July of that year, something crashed in the desert outside of Roswell, New Mexico. It is said that it was an alien spacecraft. The craft...and its occupants...were recovered by the U.S. military (as you can see, this is starting to become a theme of sorts, what with all these crashes.)  This is where conventional conspiracy theory marks the formation of Majestic 12. Shortly after this, Project Sign published an Estimate of the Situation, a top secret document that contained accounts of UFO sightings by pilots and scientists, as well as concrete evidence that supported Project Sign's conclusion that UFOs were likely extraterrestrial in origin.

One of the most intriguing, compelling, and yet disturbing connections to Majestic 12 is the sudden and shocking demise of James V. Forrestal. Forrestal was Secretary of the Navy during World War II and was the very first Secretary of Defense. He is also named in the supposed Majestic 12 documents as being one of the 12. In 1949 he was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital due to mental exhaustion. On May 22nd, 1949, Forrestal died from a fall from the window of his hospital bed. The incident was ruled a suicide. However, many have doubted that conclusion, believing that he was the victim of officially sanctioned assassination. Was he about to divulge the truth (whatever it is) about UFOs? His alleged involvement with Majestic 12 adds another strand to his death that is both more dramatic and sinister.

As for Majestic 12 itself, the documents that spawned their legend are dubious. Much criticism has arisen as to their authenticity. Still, if you read Stanton Friedman's work, you'll find that he at least presents a compelling argument for them. I don't know.

Sorry for my ufological brain farts. I obviously need sleep.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Star gets swallowed by warp in space

Time now again for Science Friday.

Space-time warps have long been theorized in space science. Now, we may have actually seen one.

A star has slipped out of view due to the space-time warp it creates as it orbits. While this is certainly a unique enough astronomical finding, it is made all the more interesting because the star is actually a pulsar and also one component of a binary star system. A pulsar is a neutron star (a very dense core of a star, the result of a star collapsing inward on itself) that rapidly rotates. As it rotates, it emits a beacon of electromagnetic radiation, similar in concept to the beam of light from a lighthouse. We can detect these pulses (hence the name) via radio telescopes.

Astronomers had been studying the binary star system known as J1906. Recently, radio waves from the pulsar in the star system could no longer be detected. According to Einstein's Theory of Relativity, objects of extreme mass, such as the pulsar's companion star, are able to warp space and time in the immediate area. The mass of the companion star makes the pulsar actually sink into a dip in space. This causes the axis of the pulsar to shift and the signals are no longer sent in the direction of Earth.

So perhaps "swallow" is the wrong verb here, but still to have evidence of the actual warping of space is pretty fabulous. I mean, an entire star has been more or less obscured from sight.

Day in and day out, I seem to get more fed up with arguing. I'm talking about "primate politics," such as worrying about the fiscal damages of partisan politics and bickering over the alleged shortcomings of the president. Findings like these, that space-time can in fact be warped, remind me that this is still an amazing universe, regardless of our penchant for focusing on the petty.

Here's another amazing thing, though: the pulsar is not gone forever (a "temporary swallowing?") as it is estimated that the pulsar will return in another 160 years.

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Thursday, January 15, 2015

Artist creates "ominous dioramas"

One of my favorite forms of art is the diorama.

I have no idea why. Many find such things to be dorky (like that's ever stopped me with anything else) but I just can't help but be fascinated by scale models of sweeping settings, such as cities or other locations. I could sit and stare for hours at the railroad model of the Midwest-Pacific in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. I love those miniature "Christmas towns" you see for sale in hardware stores during the holiday season. Maybe it's art, maybe it's exposure to Godzilla-style special effects at a young age, I don't know.

Artist Amy Bennett creates dioramas as both models and oil paintings. However, she typically adds one unsettling element to the tableau. This has the effect of spilling over into the overall perception of the piece, tainting the water, so to speak. But in a eerie and delightful way. Take for example the piece at the top of this post. It is ostensibly a neighborhood deep in winter, but the subtle presence of the white ambulance and the paramedics hints at something not entirely peaceful. In fact, the figures themselves suggest that they aren't moving all that fast. "No need to hurry." That's never a good sign with paramedics.

Bennett constructs her dioramas out of wood, foam, and paint, and then augments them with railroad models. In addition to lakeland landscapes, neighborhoods also seem to be a favorite of hers. Both have the addition of at least one disturbing element placed subtly into the mix, such as a single crashed car or distraught figure. Something "real" to mackle or break the suburban spell.

Maybe Bennett has stumbled upon something creepy that is inherent to all dioramas. They're just a little "off." They look real, but then they don't. They might be detailed and accurate, but their tiny size is just off-putting and not "right."  A whole living scene shouldn't be that small or so our minds tell us. Amy Bennett has captured this here, I believe.

OK, so I've always wanted to create a diorama. What should I make?
Leave your suggestions in the comments section.

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Monday, January 12, 2015

Robots make art but AI can't recognize it

Robots and computers cannot create works of art.

That's one distinction a few have made. It seems an effort to stake a claim, to hold on to something that is a uniquely human attribute in the face of ever-increasing change. But is it true?

Consider the following video:

Roboticists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology created the robot in that video. It receives images designed on a tablet and then recreates them in the sand. The robot moves on three wheels, dragging a rake behind it to create the artistic patterns. Its three-wheeler setup makes it more suited for long curves rather than sharp angles and corners. The idea is to turn the given beach into an artistic canvas, a digitally-controlled sketchbook.

To be sure, the designs are most impressive and the technical achievement is laudable. At the same time, we must ask, "is it the robot's art?" Is it really the art of whoever is on the iPad? One could make the distinction...and rightly so...that the robot itself is not creating the art. It is merely carving in the sand what's been told to create, not conceptualizing the design.

True, this robot does not have an artificial intelligence component. As it turns out, however, that might not be much help.

Artificial intelligence is getting eerily accurate at identifying what it is looking at...unless it happens to be looking at abstract art. This list from Wired (with an admittedly misleading headline) shows a number of images that an AI algorithm failed to identify and what it said they were instead.

All in all, not bad.

I mean, look at a few of them. The AI labeled one of the pictures "baseball." Not a bad assessment. Not a bad one at all given the "red stitching" pattern. Additionally, abstract art...or randomly generated art as the text calls something that many people have difficulty discerning. It is subjective by its very nature. That's why a frequent question at art galleries is "What do you see in it?" I find that to be one of my absolute favorite conversation topics. But I digress...

Should an AI be able to answer that question in the same manner that a human might while viewing art, well, that would be something. That kind of thinking requires special discernment, creative intuition, and an advanced form of pattern recognition. Mimicking those functions of the brain would be quite the AI achievement indeed. We're not there, yet. Actually, we're a fair ways off from it. Still, that would be quite a benchmark. If technology, be it robots, AI, or more likely a fusion of both, were to conceive and produce art of their own accord, that would force once more a radical re-conceptualization of what "human" means.

Here's to hoping we don't a get a glut of bad paintings from them first.

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Friday, January 9, 2015

FFF: Simplify

Not really sure where I'm going with this one.

But that's the nature of a Free Form Friday, isn't it? Just me, my ramblings, dashes of philosophy, quotes from authors, and music.

As 2014 slipped into 2015, "happiness" became a buzzword. "Happiness for the year ahead." Thing is though, "happiness" is defined differently by everyone. To judge by American standards, money and sex appear to be the key factors. Not everyone shares that, however. For me, achievement is a big deal.

On New Year's Eve, the BBC posted this list of Tolstoy's recommendations for a happy life. Many point towards Shakespeare as the writer who seemed to best understand human nature. But as the jury is still out as to just who and how many had a hand in writing Shakespeare's plays, the best single writer to cite on this subject would be, for my money, Tolstoy. Just read War and Peace or especially Anna Karenina and you'll see how well Tolstoy perceived what jealousy, lust, and toxic relationships can do to someone.

Maybe that's why one of his big tips is "simplify." Henry David Thoreau made a similar cry from Walden Pond. For Tolstoy, this meant rejecting all organized religion along with drinking and smoking. He became a vegetarian and lived self-sufficiently. I believe this can be extended to our social lives.

You don't have to attend every party you're invited to. And if you're anything like me (and I know I am), you attend as few of those things as possible. I saw a meme, however, that takes this a step further. "You don't have to attend every argument you are invited to."

There are people out there who are just plain toxic to you. It's not always through any fault of their own, either. They're just being who the are, sometimes. And that just doesn't work for you.

Bleach and ammonia, when mixed together, produce an awful odor. Anyone who has accidentally cleaned a litter box with a bleach-based cleanser (guilty) can tell you that. Is the bleach evil? No. Is the ammonia of the cat urine out to kill you? Not ostensibly, but then again it is from a cat so one never knows. They just don't mix together.

I believe that the same goes for people.

Much of it depends upon your tolerance of and threshold for members of your own species. There are people who swear by social contact and advocate for a wide circle of friends (Tolstoy himself argues for it at the link, contradicting my own argument. But he was a genius so I'll let it go.) These tend to be individuals who get lonely rather easily and need the interaction to help generate energy. Interosculating or death!

Then there's me. I'm just fine without it. Yes, yes, I know. That puts me at a disadvantage, especially as a writer, but we're back to my chemical analogy again.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah. Cutting people loose who just aren't good for you.

Sometimes you see all the signs and you just ignore them. After all, conflict itself can be just as draining as dealing with the toxic.

You might suspect that you once you pare things down to the fundamental levels, really have nothing in common with this person. It might even be something of a mystery as to how you became acquainted in the first place and certainly why you've remained in one another's lives for as long as you have.

Why? Well, it's not the most eloquent of philosophies, but it fits in this case: "Shit happens."

It just happens. People come into your life not for any grand lesson as certain schools of thought might have you think, but just...because.

They can leave just as easily. Most of the time, it's for the better.

Here's Right Said Fred.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Jason of Star Command

Another science fiction memory came to me at about 7am today.

The memory itself was hazy and dusty, but thanks to the Internets, I have been able to dig up pieces of it. I spent a good part of the day researching it and watching episodes from it. Under normal circumstances, one might call this "loafing" or "frittering away time" or even "wasting my life." It might still be, but in my defense today has been a snowy and windy day in metro Chicago with the temperature well below zero. What else could I do?

That's my rationalization. I'm sticking to it.

My memory is called Jason of Star Command. It was a live-action television show that aired on Saturday mornings in the 1970s amidst cartoons. Remember, it used to be that many of the best cartoons could only be seen on Saturday mornings. Jason of Star Command, in fact, started out as serial cliffhanger episodes included in Filmation's Tarzan and the Super Seven anthology on CBS.

The series was actually a spin-off from another live-action kids show with a Saturday morning time slot. Called Space Academy, I seem to have vague recollections of that show being more "educational" in nature...and therefore rather boring and bland to my seven-year old palette. Comes with the territory, I suppose. If it's live-action and shown on a major network smack in the middle of a ton of cartoons, you can't get too edgy with things. No one can get blasted by lasers and even fisticuffs are out of the question. Sort of like my parents arguing the edict that after school snacks had to be "wholesome" things with raisins and oatmeal and shit given that it was so close to dinner time (parse that one out for yourself.) But Jason was intended to be at least more action-oriented than its Space Academy predecessor.

"Jason" was played by Craig Littler (me either) and the character drew more than a little influence from Han Solo. Right down to a black vest as a matter of fact. He was a swashbuckling soldier working for Star Command. Just what that organization was supposed to be never quite seems defined, but it has all the trappings of something both military and clandestine. It operates out of the same asteroid base as the Space Academy, thereby perhaps giving the perfect civilian cover to a covert special ops unit. Although if that's what Star Command is, it doesn't seem particularly scary.  But I digress...

The commanding officer was played by none other than James Doohan, the legendary Scotty from Star Trek. Several other sci-fi tropes were present, namely hot alien women with psionic abilities, cute little robots for comedic effect, stop-motion monsters, and evil villains with capes.

Speaking of villains, the arch nemesis of Star Command was Dragos, a bearded and one-eyed tyrannical emperor who was hellbent on dominating the galaxy. As oft times comes with villainous territory, he also had a very cool looking spaceship for a base. Dragos was played by Sid Haig, a favorite of horror fans (which I am not). For an evil villain, Dragos must not be all that invested in his scheme of conquest for his fightercraft are only drones. But then there's another reason for that, right?

Yeah, it was Saturday morning. Nobody's getting hurt here. Just to underscore that point, Jason doesn't even carry a weapon. The aforementioned enemy fighters are clearly pointed out to be drones and therefore there are no hard feelings about blowing them into space dust. You don't even need the obligatory parachutes from G.I. Joe.  Sure, Jason of Star Command was supposed to be more action-adventure-oriented than Space Academy. Too bad most of that "action" is really running down corridors and jumping over things.

Here's the first serial episode available on YouTube. You get to see Jimmy Doohan get cloned! There's also a startling amount of unprotected exposure to the ravaging vacuum of space.

But I guess it's all good.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Transhuman/Posthuman: What's the difference?

I have no degree in cybernetics, therefore my work with transhumanism stems from my own disciplines: writing and language.

They are not disparate. Writing is the vehicle through which I have explored many many different ideas, occurrences, and phenomena. Language is something which connects all things. As such, the language we use becomes critical, despite however easy it may be to take the default option of laziness and whine, "it all means the same thing."

Which is why I'm glad I read this article by Kevin LaGrandeur. He is a faculty member at The New York Institute of Technology and is a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. The piece makes a concise and clear distinction between the terms "posthuman" and "transhuman" while mildly admonishing those who use the terms interchangeably, something I ashamedly have done at times. So what is the difference between them?

"Posthuman" describes a new state of being. It is a "mode" of sorts where humanity and intelligent technology become merged to greater and greater degrees. So much so that the definition of "human" is no longer constrained to the form and crude matter of the body, but it becomes defined by what you do. This means being self-aware, intelligent, and empathetic among many other aspects. As I have attempted to convey time and again to detractors, these attributes exist beyond the physical and should not be affected (but perhaps they can be enhanced) by changing the physical. This kind of flexible thinking is especially helpful when considering a person who has had their consciousness uploaded. By the posthuman definition, they are still human even if disembodied.

"Transhumanism" is the act of modifying the human body via emerging technologies. This goes beyond "hardware" such as implants and cybernetic limbs and extends further into things like genetic engineering and bioengineering. Again, during my clashes with the naysayers of transhumanism, I have argued that the simple act of taking a vitamin is a form of transhumanism. You have taken a product of technology into your body with the end goal of enhancing said body. The human body is nothing more than a system. A system can be altered. One example of a burgeoning transhumanist effort to modify the system would be anti-aging.  Extending human lifespan well beyond the natural can most certainly be seen as "modification."

LaGrandeur makes another important distinction between the two terms, posthuman and transhuman:

"Two significant differences between transhumanism and the posthuman is the posthuman’s focus on information and systems theories (cybernetics), and the posthuman’s consequent, primary relationship to digital technology; and also the posthuman’s emphasis on systems (such as humans) as distributed entities—that is, as systems comprised of, and entangled with, other systems.  Transhumanism does not emphasize either of these things."

And therein lies where I, evidently, have misapplied the terms at times.

As I typically close out posts on transhumanism (and I suppose posthumanism as well), I will try to bring this down to the personal level. No, I will not be talking about how depressed I am and how I hope cybernetics will one day help me to switch my emotions off. You've all suffered enough. But speaking of suffering, I have been watching someone I love go through continuous physical deterioration. Let me tell you, if you were going through this, the promise of transhumanism or even posthumanism would be a source of hope and would mute any petty philosophical objections that you might have. Let's take control of our biology...or perhaps even discard it altogether. The posthuman era can't come soon enough for me.

In the meantime, I will be undergoing great cogitation before deciding whether to write "posthuman" or "transhuman" in any given sentence.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Art of Vhils

There is street art and then there is street art.

You know, the kind you use explosives to create?

That's all right. I had not heard of the artistic method either until I saw Vhils featured on CNN's "Ones to Watch." Then I was captivated.

Vhils (real name Alexandre Farto, you can see his web site here) is a Portuguese artist who chisels new portraits out of old walls. The depictions are usually those of ordinary people he has met in the course of a day but there are also a few famous figures thrown into the mix as well. As previously mentioned, Vhils uses controlled blasts from explosive charges to carve the facial features out of the plaster and concrete. As he says

“I remember when I was growing up that you could see the development of the city like a bomb that had fallen… and I started to look at a wall as something that absorbs the history.”

To a certain degree, Vhils appears to be making efforts to free or release that history from the material via a method comparable to how Mount Rushmore was created. By destroying the building in part, it is recreated. Vhils does this, he says, to "expose the fragility of what we take for granted and regard as indestructible and unchangeable."

In his hands, the walls of derelict buildings are transformed. While the small explosions are certainly the most dramatic part of this artistic process, much time is also spent doing plain chiseling, scraping, and power drilling upon the concrete canvas. The revelation of darker spaces in contrast with the outer layer of the walls (which appear to most typically be white in the gallery pics I've seen) creates the effect of variant shading. Vhils' work with concrete is not always portraits, however, and sometimes carries a message such as the photo above and this one below from Russia:

Take that, Putin.

Vhils seems equally innovative in the studio as well. He is known for taking cast aside materials and repurposing them into works of art. For example, old styrofoam pieces were reworked into a cityscape that forms a face when viewed from above. He has also just completed a video of U2's single, "Raised by Wolves." I'm very disappointed in that recent record from one of my favorite bands, but I'll overlook that and keep an open mind for video art of Vhils. Maybe I'll watch it with the sound off (hey, it worked for me with Jessica Alba's Honey.)

What are my thoughts on the art? Embarrassingly, I have none that do not recapitulate what other fans and art critics have already said. My other notions are rendered to cliche. "Good art strips away the layers of a dirty surface to show us something wonderful that was always there." "You can't go home again," and all that.

After all, one may recreate an old building in an effort to hold on to the past. Don't tear down waste a beautiful old structure, repurpose it. But in doing so, you change it. It won't be the way that it once was, whether that be for the worse or the better (in the case of Vhils' touch, it's obviously the latter.) In fact it never will be again. But there it still stands.

Trying to hold on to the past may indeed be a zero sum game at best.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, January 5, 2015

Secret underground places

As I mentioned in my New Year's Resolutions/Predictions, 2015 is when I vigorously pursue researching and writing my UFO book about the Dulce Wars.

In case you've missed my previous posts on Dulce or have somehow not encountered it amongst other UFO literature, here's a (very) brief primer. It has been alleged that there is a top secret facility located underground near the town of Dulce, New Mexico. This base is under joint control by the United States military and aliens. In 1977, it is said that the aliens took control of the base and that US special forces went in to retake it. A firefight ensued and there were several casualties.

Although there has been a marked rallentando in the rate occurrences over recent years, the area of Dulce is no stranger to UFO sightings and cattle mutilations. In my research, however, I've found that the entire region, I'm talking New Mexico, Arizona, and the southern edge of Colorado, has been a hotbed of high strangeness going all the way back to the time of indigenous peoples. Tribes such as the Apache, the Zuni, and the Hopi all seem to have stories of visitors from the stars and strange creatures such as Ant Men who came to them from inside the Earth.

One of the most interesting stories from the region is that of the Kincaid Expedition. In 1909, a man named G.E. Kincaid is alleged to have, while in the employ of the Smithsonian Institute, made an extraordinary find in the Grand Canyon of Arizona. He is said to have located a veritable underground city with numerous artifacts that appeared Egyptian in nature. This is, as you'll find at the link above, including several mummies in alcoves. The Smithsonian did not share Kincaid's enthusiasm and had the underground area dynamited shut. To this day, the location of the find remains off limits to the public. This did not prevent articles about the find from being published in The Phoenix Gazette. What does this have to do with UFOs? Not much perhaps, but there are Hollow Earth believers and the like who suspect that what Kincaid found was an entryway to an underground civilization. Plus, it's just more tales of underground weirdness from the area.

Speaking of underground, Dulce and Area 51 are not the only secret locations with conspiracy lore attached to them (I suppose secret places by nature invite such things.) Nick Redfern details many of these in his book, Keep Out! One of these locations that I find especially interesting is that of Pine Gap near Alice Springs, Australia. I had first heard of this facility deep in the Australian outback as a listening post for the NSA to cover Asia and the Middle East as well as to act as a communication relay point for clandestine satellites. Others, however, assert that it is a base for the reverse engineering of recovered UFO technology. An intense spate of sightings of "white discs" in the area during 1991 have helped to reinforce this notion. Stories abound that are similar to that of Dulce, claiming that the base actually stretches a full five miles underground with aliens living and working there also.

Americans aren't even the first to get in on the "underground alien base" action, either. There are those who claim that a UFO crashed inside Nazi Germany in 1936. The recovered wreckage was taken to a number of underground facilities where it was reversed engineered to give the Germans a technological edge. While there were tremendous leaps in advancement with weapons systems such as the V2, I believe that all can more logically be attributed to human ingenuity, even if it were for nefarious purposes (come to think of it, that tends to be what often motivates us the most.) No UFOs required. Still, there remains a vast network of tunnels beneath Germany. Many of them date back to ancient times but others in Freiburg and also in Austria were built by the Nazis for weapons development. Or was it for something more?

This is all quite tantalizing and the UFO connection makes it all the more so. However, as I read and research more deeply into the matter, the UFO angle tends to deteriorate. As I said, there are several classified locations in the U.S. and around the world, such as Area 51 and many others that we in the mere hoi polloi no nothing about. This is due to how governments gather intelligence and develop weapons systems. The truth about these locations is simultaneously duller and more intriguing than anything having to do with UFOs.

But I'm saving more on that for the book.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Need a writer?

Building off of my New Year's resolutions/predictions, I intend for 2015 to be a year of publication.

As such, I am looking for freelance work with magazines, newspapers, and web sites. Those are just examples. I'm very open to many venues and I enjoy thinking creatively.

What do I write? Well, nose around this blog and you'll get an idea. I admittedly have a penchant for the odd, the weird, and the type of stories that are often marginalized by the mainstream but new media is fortunately beginning to cover them. In terms of the marketplace, I believe these stories stand out and are therefore valuable and marketable. What do I mean? Well, here are a few examples.

I write about discoveries in astronomy and space science. I like to link these findings to our lives "down here" and how this new knowledge helps us to understand humanity's place in the universe.

I write about technology. Not so much about consumer gadgets like you would find on CNET, but more about how technology is changing our society. I am especially interested in future technologies, such as cybernetics and modifying the human body.

I write about the paranormal, the unknown, and unexplained phenomena. Take a spin around the cable channels and look at what History, H2, NatGeo, and even Animal Planet are covering in terms of the bizarre and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about when I say "the unexplained." While my opinions on these subjects differ greatly from how they are presented on these channels, it will at least give you an idea of what I like to write.

These are just suggestions. My payment rates are also suggestions and negotiable. Please email me at if you would like to discuss these rates and my background, credentials, and previous publications. For now, a niveous substance has covered the landscape of greater Chicago.

Perfect day to stay inside and write.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, January 2, 2015

Exoplanets: the year in review

Time now again for Science Friday.

Space brought us a bevy of new exoplanets in the past year. Each of them has its own unique properties just as can be said of the planets of our own solar system. I like looking at just what each of these strange, new worlds brings and that's just what this article at does. You can read the full article at the link, but I'll give you a quick rundown here. Plus, you'll also get my thoughts on the subject and let's face it, who doesn't want that?

Kepler-186f was discovered by, as the name suggests, the Kepler space telescope. The planet is 490 light years from Earth and is only just slightly larger than our planet. It's not just size that we have in common with 186f but its location in its own solar system. The planet orbits its home star within what is termed "the habitable zone" for life as we understand it. It might even have liquid water but more evidence needs to be acquired before that claim may be solidified.

Gliese 832c is only 16 light years from Earth but is over five times our size. Opinions vary as to the planet's composition, including visions of a dense, greenhouse environment such as that of Venus or perhaps a habitable one such as our own.

Kepler-10c has been dubbed "the Godzilla of Earths." It has even warranted the creation of its own classification: mega-Earth. It is 17 times the size of our world and what is unusual about that is that such a massive planet would normally be a gas giant, such as Jupiter or Saturn. This one appears to be rocky. Then again it's 590 light years away so it's all anybody's guess.  On the other hand a terrestrial planet of this size shouldn't be all that shocking as gas planets have also been located in smaller statures.

We also have a lead on what looks like the first exomoon. Using the technique known as gravitational microlensing, which examines how a foreground object's gravity warps light from a star as it passes our line of sight, a team of astronomers noticed an object that could be one of two things: a free-moving exoplanet with a rocky exomoon or a small star that hosts a planet 18 times more massive than Earth. Sadly, such observances are random and solid confirmation of an exomoon remains elusive.

Kapetyn b is 13 light years from Earth and is estimated at being over 11.5 billion years old. By way of comparison, Earth is estimated at just under 4.6 billion years old (I don't care what the fundies say) and the universe is thought to be 13.8 billion years old (ditto). This is tantalizing for Kapetyn is in the habitable zone of its star. Therefore if life arose on that planet, it has had a very long time to evolve.

For those of us who always wanted to watch a dual sunset as Luke did on Tatooine, there is the planet OGLE-2013-BLG-0341LBb. Geez, they really have to start coming up with easier names for these things besides catalog entry numbers. Anyway, it orbits one star of a binary star system. It's probably too cold to support life as we know it, but any living thing that is there can get the sunset/sunrise of sci-fi dreams.

These discoveries are very telling. Given the sheer number of exoplanets we have found, it would seem to indicate that planet-less stars are the extreme rarity and not the norm. Just about every star observable in the night sky (save for the "stars" that are actually planets in our own solar system) should have at least one planet orbiting it. The means by which our solar system formed is likely a standard template for the rest of the universe, meaning the system is a rather common one. Well, unless you have a binary star or triple star or a cosmological event that altered the shape of things which could always happen.

Yesterday, I made several predictions for the New Year. I am going to toss another bold one onto the pile. In 2015, we will either find a new exoplanet that has...or determine one we've already discovered has...liquid water and an oxygen-rich atmosphere. Then all bets are off, ladies and gentlemen.

Here's to hoping for another remunerative year in exoplanet discovery.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, January 1, 2015

ESE predictions for 2015

It seems almost obligatory that a blogger makes predictions for the year ahead on New Year's Day.

Why should I buck the trend? So in the incunabula of 2015, I offer my predictions. Unless the predictions pertain directly to my personal life, I'm afraid I am not basing the assertions on much. A soupcon of knowledge perhaps, but nothing more promising than that. No divination, no clairvoyance, not even a Ouija board. Still, I'm willing to bet I'm no further off base than most self-proclaimed "psychics" when all is said and done.

Here goes.

-Writing. I intend to get serious about it this year. More so than I ever have before. This will include doing more promotion and not just on Facebook. I have already announced my intentions of publishing a novel entitled Stem by the end of the year and that will mean certain sacrifices. Among those may be blogging.
No, I'm not giving up one of my favorite pastimes and disappearing completely. But I probably won't be posting every Monday through Friday as I have been. Launching a real writing career is going to take a commitment. Hope that you all understand.

-MFA. I am determined to put the issue of "terminal degree" behind me and this is the year that I start to do it. I think my past -non-starters have been due to barking up all the wrong trees, sort of like continuing to go after girls that were all wrong for me but damn, I just couldn't see past their sexiness. There are more important things to consider. First, before anything, I am a writer. I need an advanced degree that fully reflects that. I am forming "an exploratory committee" to locate just the right online MFA program for me. More to come.

-Dulce. This is the year I'm going to finally do it. I am going to secure a grant and go to Dulce, New Mexico and get the hands-on research I need for my book, In Green Blood about the alleged Dulce Wars. If anybody wants to travel with me as a research assistant, hit me up. Seriously.

-Politics. It will become clear in the coming months that our 2016 choice for President will be between yet another Bush and yet another Clinton. While I'm supportive of one of those choices (bet you can't tell which one!) I'm also dismayed at the blatant evidence of hereditary power and class systems. Also, having a Republican-controlled Congress is really going to suck, especially if you have any concern whatsoever for our environment (see below).

-A new virus. I've said for a while now that outbreaks of hitherto unseen diseases are almost a foregone conclusion. I think we're going to see another SARS or Ebola (even though we already knew of it, it made big news.) Nothing too apocalyptic, though. I hope.

-Nanotechnology. I see this year promising big things for small devices. It may be the year that the word "nanotech" becomes household, much as "Internet" once did. It will become increasingly evident that "he who controls the most nanotech, controls the world economy." This is probably going to scare a lot of people.

-Artificial intelligence. I once hitched my star to the Kurzweil bandwagon. I still do in many ways but I'm also keenly aware of AI's limitations. This is has made me suddenly skeptical. We may begin to see more of these limitations come to the fore and realize that human-level AI might not be quite as possible as we once did.

-Global conflict. This is probably a no-brainer, but the U.S. is going to be involved in more small-scale skirmishes. It might take the form of bombings as they did with Libya or a more-involved role against ISIS. I don't see things getting any more severe than that, however. America is still far too war weary and support for a heavy conflict will never be there. That is unless the unthinkable happens.

-Amazon Fire Stick. I'm not getting one of these until at least March. That's a prediction based on solid fact from both Amazon and Best Buy.

-Hoverboards. Hey, it's the year of Back to the Future II, right? Isn't this when we get hoverboards, flying cars, and a Cubs World Series?  At least we already have hoverboards. Sort of.

-Life on Mars. More and more will continue to emerge that confirms what many of us have suspected: Mars harbored life at one point in its history. The news might even be released in a way that intimates that NASA has in fact known this for a while and needed time to "warm people up" to the idea. I'm not saying it was intelligent life, but maybe...

-The environment. We're just going to keep screwing it all up. That much is a given. Temperatures will continue to rise and polar ice will continue to melt. This is especially so if Republicans make good their threats to decimate and render ineffectual the EPA. Still, there are things to be optimistic about for the year ahead. Inhabitat has a great list of such things from green design experts. Such predictions include greater public pushback against the fossil fuel industry. The predictions from Peter Watts, science fiction author and marine biologist, are far more pessimistic and...sadly...also more realistic. Yeah. We're screwed.

-Human cloning. Ok, this is what NFL pundits would call a "bold prediction." Every set of prognostications has one where somebody goes way out on a limb and this one is mine. I am going to say that someone will set up an embryo lab on a ship or an oil rig in international waters and it will finally happen. We will have a human clone this year. Most everyone will be shocked, maybe even a little bored, with how much it looks just like any other normal baby. Fundies, however, will be out of their minds. That alone will be worth all the risk, in my opinion.

So that's it. I'm tossing up these predictions and let the chips fall where they may. In closing, I offer what UFO Casebook is calling The Best UFO Photographs of 2014.

Happy New Year.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets