Thursday, April 30, 2015

Baltimore: it's the economy, stupid

As the city of Baltimore works to recover from a series of riots after an African American man died while in police custody, there is an inevitable pointing of fingers.

It is seen, among other things, as an indicator of continuing racial discrimination, a pattern of police brutality, and criminal actions on the sides of both authority and populace. However, there is a root matter that is coming to the fore that must be examined and addressed if the situation in Baltimore is to be ameliorated. What's more, this cancer in question is a matter not simply for the city of Baltimore to handle but a threat to the entire United States as well.

The real issue is economic inequality.

Nouriel Roubini, a noted New York University economist who predicted the housing bubble and the crash of 2008, points out this very fact in an interview with CNN.

"We've seen race riots in parts of the United States because lots of people are poor and angry and resentful," Roubini told CNNMoney's Cristina Alesci at the Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles. "The solution can't just be to send more police in the streets or the National Guard. People are desperate. We have to deal with this issue of poverty, of unemployment and economic opportunities."

Indeed, the unemployment rate in Baltimore is 1 in 5 and the median income is an astonishingly low $24,000, which is below the poverty line for a family of four.

This is far from the first time that the issue of economic inequality has been raised. In a landmark address, President Obama called it the "defining issue of our time." Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkley, has often noted that it is more difficult now than ever before to achieve social mobility between economic classes and thus there is a sense of powerlessness among workers. So what has the response been from political leadership?

Republicans for one keep pushing to cut taxes on the wealthy to the tune of about $269 billion. Said legislation would provide protection for the top 1% of families and the wealth that they inherit. This, in combination with other tax breaks for the rich and for corporations has helped contribute to the largest growth of wealth for the top 1% in 30 years. In turn, such accumulations of wealth provides the 1% richest the ability to exert control over the political process, in effect "rigging the game." This, in part, led political scientists at both Princeton and Northwestern universities to determine that the United States is far more of an oligarchy than a republic.  

Don't tell that to Senator Marc Rubio, though. In a statement in 2011, Mr. Rubio decried the notion that this economic inequality has led to a nation of haves and have-nots. “We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves, of people who have made it and people who will make it,” he asserted, sounding something of a personification of the John Steinbeck quote that the poor have been indoctrinated to see themselves as "not as an oppressed proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." Mustering a calm and intelligent response to Rubio's logically-challenged statement is difficult, but here goes.

What Rubio fails to understand is the plain fact that the majority of wealth in America is inherited. Your ability to succeed is due largely in fact to how well-off your parents are. The notion of the self-made rich is largely a myth, hence the Republican call for an end to inheritance tax. This line of thinking is useful, however, to perpetuate the adage that "if you just work harder, you will prosper. This has become known as "meritocracy." Such a mantra, given time, becomes systemic. If work equals wealth, then by that line of reasoning the poor are not working hard enough. Therefore, there must be something wrong with them and they personify the "lazy rabble" Mr. Potter warned of in It's a Wonderful Life.

This is especially useful in the case of Baltimore, where a popular accusation thrown at rioters was that they should "get a job"(please see the above unemployment figures from Baltimore.) The mantra likewise becomes something of a carrot to be waved in front of those unaware of the facts of the economic inequality. "Come on, you can do it," someone in the 1% might say, the green, leafy top of the root vegetable dangled between thumb and forefinger before moving back a few more steps. "Oh, you've gotta be quicker than that!" Not only that, but any critique of the mantra can then be met with Fox News allegations of "class warfare" or accusations of latent communism.

But wait. The "just work hard" mantra is on even shakier ground upon closer examination. Not only does wealth appear to be a matter of dumb luck in terms of who your parents happen to be, it also matters how much help you get. Author Malcolm Gladwell clearly describes this in his 2011 book, The Outliers. A case study examined in the book is that of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and one of the world's wealthiest people. Is Gates smart and talented? Of course he iss. Did he work hard to build his business? Of course he did. 

He also happened to be born in an affluent suburb and go to a school that had quality teachers and a computer club. In fact, parents in the community were able to fund the purchase of an exceptionally advanced computer upon which Gates cut his teeth. "I was very lucky," Gates said. Nobody does it on their own. Do the people of Baltimore have the same advantages? The data would seem to indicate otherwise.

To be clear, no rational thinker is calling for an end to hard work. No society can advance without work as nothing is free. Likewise, despite allegations to the contrary, few think that an outpouring of unmitigated aid, those diabolical "handouts" that conservatives shriek about, that would create a completely equal system. There will never be a society with complete and total equality. As Republicans seem quick to point out, "hey, life is not fair" (to which one may wonder why they rapidly cry "unfair!" at the idea of raising taxes on the wealthy.) It is the role of government, however, to help make things as fair as possible. As stated in the Declaration of Independence, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights. What many seem to overlook, particularly conservatives, is the phrase that follows the stating of those rights: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men." 

A city like Baltimore does not arrive at its current unemployment rate via a population that is lazy and simply wants to sit on the couch and eat bon-bons. We can no longer afford to berate those struggling economically as "not working hard enough" or utter the capricious piffle that they should simply "get a job." We can no longer cry "we can't afford that!" to prospective policies to empower the working class while simultaneously screaming "that's anti-American!" to proposals to tax the wealthy and corporations (click here to see where corporate welfare and "too big to fail" has gotten us.) Racial inequality and economic inequality are quite a potent cocktail. Just the right shove in just the right place and all the dominoes can start to fall.

Here's the scary part: If we don't change both policy and perspective, Baltimore might be just the beginning.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What is the "Black Knight" UFO?

Though I consider myself semi well-versed in UFO matters, I had not heard of the Black Knight previous to seeing this article.

It has many of the hallmarks of a tasty example of mythos: puzzled scientists, strange lights in the night sky, concealed NASA evidence, and even the intriguing addition of Nikola Tesla. I shall expound...

In 1899, Tesla reported that he received signal transmissions on his high-voltage receiver in Colorado. He believed that they originated in Earth orbit and were from a device that was intelligently controlled. Odd, to say the least, given that there were no artificial satellites in orbit at that time. The article goes on to assert that once satellites were launched in the form of Sputnik 1 and 2, the object that would be known as the Black Knight followed them.

Later in 1960, the US "Dark Fence" radar program is said to have detected the Black Knight in orbit but the object was not emitting any signals. Astronaut Gordon Cooper, who was long outspoken about his belief in UFOs, reported seeing a UFO similar in description to the Black Knight while in orbit in 1963. The page at the link even has a photo of this object near an orbiting space shuttle, although I would argue that pic is suspect to say the least. I don't know, maybe not. But I digress...

Google your way into the darker waters of the Internet and you will all manner of strange things proposed as to the Black Knight's nature and origin. I like the "ancient UFO" theory which alleges that it is around 13,000 years old (how they know that, I don't know.) Probably my favorite is that the Black Knight is actually VALIS, the subject of the Philip K. Dick book of the same name. There are those who argue that it was actually the Black Knight that shot the "pink beam of light" that Dick claims hit him in the forehead and inspired the book.

As is almost always the case, there are far more prosaic explanations for the Black Knight. My suspicion was that Tesla had actually detected pulsars and that the object in the photos was something like a jettisoned piece of heat shielding or the like. Turns out I'm a little less than half right. The truth is something of a cacophonous hodgepodge as explained here:

"Black Knight is a jumble of completely unrelated stories; reports of unusual science observations, authors promoting fringe ideas, classified spy satellites and people over-interpreting photos. These ingredients have chopped up, stirred together and stewed on the internet to one rambling and inconsistent dollop of myth. The Universe is big place, and astronomers are trying to find signs of other life, some have even  searched for alien probes near Earth; however the Black Knight satellite is not the answer and it never has been."

Ah Ufology. It keeps feeling like one step up and two steps back. Fortunately, there are still mysterious cases to keep me interested.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The future is made of robots and shiny spacesuits

This vintage view of the future posted at io9 caught my eye.

I suppose that is something of a contradiction in terms: vintage future. But that's exactly what it is. It is how people once viewed a coming "Space Age" just after World War II. The one at io9 is an initial cover for the short story collection, Space on My Hands by Fredric Brown, 1951. It features a family in shiny spacesuits. Even the dog is wearing one (which is pretty cool if you ask me.) A tag on the post cites a link to the site, Retro-Futurism, which has all sorts of other kitschy, vintage goodness.

These now-hokey views of the future hold something of a fascination for me. I view them in tandem with the show Mad Men and how our current age is seeing that bygone era with a critical eye, dispelling many of the myths that it was a "golden age" of any kind. One story arc of that aforementioned series has Don Draper dealing with Conrad Hilton, founder of the worldwide hotel chain. Hilton is perturbed when finds that the adwork for a new campaign does not include a Hilton on the Moon. "We're going to the Moon," he protests, feeling that hotels in space are the way of the future. Similarly, proposed adwork for Heinz beans shows a kid entering his domicile on the lunar surface, removing his space helmet in order to eat the plate of baked beans that mom just dished over to him.

It all seems maudlin now, along with much else from the 1950s and 60s. How could we have expected to expand into space when we had yet to confront the racism, sexism, and homophobia at home? Well, there's one interesting point I'm toying with along those lines. I'm not certain I'm on the right track but stick with me for a moment as I think out loud.

By the time the images at Retro-Futurism were created, the idea of enslaving another human being was pretty much anathema to the industrialized world. I mean, I suppose there were pockets deep in Mississippi and Alabama that were still down with it, but I'm not talking about that. Still, forward progress is predicated upon cheap labor. So...just look at all the robots in those pictures. They're vacuuming the floor and dusting furniture while a guy does push-ups. They're performing dull and dangerous duties while their human owners chill.

This fear of "robots are going to take our jobs" has been around for a loooonnnngggg time.

Of course the possibility of a downside is also present, notably as a robot pours water in its owner. Again, the burgeoning fears of a robopocalypse?

Despite reality, I can't help but admire this vintage optimism. It's a shiny future, not the dirty one that's full of problems and ambiguity. We would all be undertaking adventures in space with seemingly little difficulties and our robot sidekicks would forever be by our sides. Would have been nice.

Instead, all we got was this stupid dystopia.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

Biotech landmark: the first genetically modified human embryo

When talking transhumanism, I often neglect...and foolishly so...the role biotechnology plays.

I'm all about the hardware aspects of transhumanism it seems, but the fact is, much will result from modifying what we already have. In a world's first, major steps towards that end have occurred. Scientists in China have modified a human embryo.

And a lot of people are uncomfortable.

The results were first published last week in the journal, Protein&Cell. Researchers used a gene editor to replace the gene responsible for the fatal blood disorder known as beta-thalassaemia in a non-viable human embryo. Critics were quick to counter this as being any kind of advancement that benefits society.

“Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease gene," says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Others still have pointed out the less-than-optimal results of the procedure. The veridical outcome is that of the 86 embryos genetically edited, only a small fraction had the disease replaced with a healthy gene. Therefore, it's not the science per se that is problematic, it is the question of ethics. Should we be doing this? As several have objected, this experiment sets a "troubling precedent." In fact, a consortium of 170 research firms have called for a moratorium on any future genome editing in human embryos until we know more.

To which I wonder, how do we know more without more research?

Yes, I know. Whenever this subject pops up, people seem to render an autonomic response. "Ermygod! Genetically-engineered babies! People getting perfect kids! Clones everywhere!" I don't refute that concern. As the rich-poor divide widens by the second, would only the wealthy be able to perform these genetic edits and thereby create the very "perfect kids" the critics dread? I'd say there's a good chance.

Despite that, should that preclude someone's right to eliminate a disease if they have that option available? I would say no. In many respects, I would say that the entire discussion around genetic modification needs to be re-framed. How do we advance science? Are there ethical applications of these procedures that would act to humanity's betterment? Finally, just what exactly is wrong with wanting to modify one's self?

Yeah, I know what comes with that last question posed. I told a colleague last week about this first genetically modified human embryo. He smirked and said...

"What could go wrong?"

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Friday, April 24, 2015

When black holes meet and "the big empty"

Time now again for Science Friday.

Two very interesting stories on space and astronomy caught my attention this week. Yes, believe it or not, even if it has nothing to do with UFOs, space still interests me. Photos of galaxies and nebulae from the Hubble put me into a place of complete sang-froid. But I digress...

First was this bit on research that suggests we're about to see what happens when two black holes pair and perhaps merge. This will be the first time that astronomers have ever witnessed such a thing. The leading belief at this time is that both black holes have synchronized and are producing a quasar that cycles between bright and dim. Quasars are once mysterious space objects that are extraordinarily bright and are thought to be expressions of energy that occur as matter falls into a black hole.

In the course of study of this quasar, astronomers found it followed a bright/dim pattern of every 542 days. The most likely explanation for this is that two galaxies are merging and that each galaxy has a black hole. These black holes are now in such near proximity that they are orbiting as a binary system.

Wow. This really is new. Granted I'm not an astronomer, but if someone had asked me just yesterday whether I thought this could happen with black holes, I would have issued a definite "no." Guess it's a good thing that I stuck with English.

Speaking of holes, astronomers have found a big one. In fact, it is now the largest known structure in the universe.

It's being called "the supervoid." It is a spherical blog 1.8 billion light years across...and it is really really empty. At least in astronomical terms, anyway. Turns out its not perfectly empty, but has 20% less material in it than other sections of the universe.

This "big empty" as I prefer to call it, was first suspected ten years ago when it was noticed in an astronomical study as being suspiciously cold. Stands to reason as such an empty expanse would have to be colder than even the frigidness of regular space. Turns out this a bit of hitch in the Big Bang model of the universe. As stated at the linked article:

"Cosmological theory allows for a bit of patchiness in the background temperature, due to warmer and cooler spots of various sizes emerging in the infant universe, but areas as large and cold as the Cold Spot are unexpected."

An article over at Discover puts it in analogous terms:

"To understand the effect of a void, imagine the universe is like a Swiss cheese, with holes – voids – corresponding to empty spaces devoid of matter and gravitational pull. When a photon, a particle of light, from the CMB [Cosmic Microwave Background] encounters a void it will lose energy but regain it as it exits.

However, since we believe that the universe is constantly expanding, the photon will exit into a medium that is less dense than before it entered the void. Lower density means weaker gravitational pull on the emerging photon. This means that the photon cannot make up all the energy it lost and ends up with a little less energy – and hence lower temperature – than light from regions on the sky that did not pass through the void."

So 1.8 billion light years of the cosmological equivalent of nothing? Suddenly I don't feel so bad about myself.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Suicide Squad

Surprise surprise, there's another comic book movie in the works. This time, it's one of my absolute favorites.

It's called Suicide Squad. The series for DC Comics truly has its origins in a 1959 issue of The Brave and the Bold, but it was the 1987 re-launch by writer John Ostrander that really caught my attention. Well alright, I'll be honest. I didn't start reading it until about 1991, just a few issues shy of its cancellation in the fall of that year. Just like me to be late to the party, showing up just in time to watch the whole thing sale across the sky like a bolide before winking into non-existence. Anyway, what was it about Suicide Squad that drew me in? Well, four points in answer to that question:

First of all, there was the basic concept. The protagonists of the series were all supercriminals. It's a story about bad guys. While imprisoned, they were given the option to undertake high-risk special ops missions for the U.S. government, missions with a low probability of succeeding (hence the name, "Suicide Squad.") The government got "deniable assets." The supercriminals got commuted sentences.

Second, the series took lesser known villainous characters and gave them a home of their own where they could really develop. Sure, characters like Penguin and Captain Cold each had story arcs, but those were rare. Most stories focused on characters like the tormented and sociopathic Deadshot, the manically depressed Count Vertigo, the ninja-esque Thugee known as Ravan, and the laughably base Flash villain, Captain Boomerang. While on missions, the Squad is coordinated by their eyes and ears, Barbara Gordon, who has become the computer hacker Oracle since being shot by the Joker in The Killing Joke. Riding herd on all of these crooks was the gruff Amanda Waller of the NSA, a character I saw somewhat reflected in that of Nancy, the NSA director on The West Wing.

That reference to the genius of Aaron Sorkin brings me to my third point. Suicide Squad was something of rarity for comic books as it took its inspiration from real life political situations and news stories ("ripped from today's headlines.") There were terrorist cells from the Middle East, situations that pertained directly to the Cold War, and espionage activities that mirror what went on behind the scenes of the world stage, such as toppling dictatorships. From time to time, real world leaders such as Reagan and Gorbachev made appearances. Writer John Ostrander said that he had a friend who would ask where the Squad was going on their next mission so that he could avoid travel to that location.

Ostrander was of course the fourth point. His writing was of a depth and quality that one seldom finds in comics. A series of this nature gave him all manner of opportunity to explore moral gray areas. And not just with the criminals, mind you, but with the actions of our own government. By employing literary devices such as psychiatrists and chaplains at the prison, Ostrander was able to delve deep into these characters and drag up their pasts while illustrating their psychological make-up. During the late 80s and early 90s, DC was really at the top of their game when it came to writing. John Ostrander was a big reason why.

As I mentioned at the top, there is currently a Suicide Squad movie in the works. It seems heavy on the Batman villains and has Will Smith as Deadshot. Not sure I can see that working as I've only seen Smith in roles where he is a wise-cracker and not a badass, but he may yet surprise me. This is not the first live-action adaptation of the Squad, however. The TV series Arrow has had its own version and it has turned out all right, especially with its depiction of Deadshot. I mean, they toned down his past and made it a bit more noble (the comics Deadshot had a past similar to that of Don Draper from Mad Men but not as warm), but it is the CW after all and they've been playing fast and loose with Green Arrow for a little while now. I'm not saying that's bad, just saying. We'll see how it goes.

Given overall quality of DC's films, I'm not optimistic.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Climate and Earth Day 2015

So it's Earth Day and the climate is still changing.

That change will render "two degrees" to become perhaps the most significant number in human history. How? A series of videos at CNN in honor of the day actually do a decent job of explaining that fact. Let me put it to you in personalized terms.

My students just got done studying the Industrial Revolution. That occurrence brought us a lot of cool stuff and conveniences that most of us would rather not go without. But there's a downside. Exhaust from combustion, everything from factory smokestacks to cars, has sent a record level of carbon dioxide into the air. As one of the videos at the link points out, CO2 is at its highest level in almost one million years. In fact, nine of the hottest years on record have occurred since 2001.

Say it with me everyone: climate change.

Thus far, the surface of the world has seen an overall increase in average temperature of .85 degrees Celsius since 1880. That might not sound like much, but consider what is already happening. This rise in temperature has resulted in a melting of 150 billion tons of land ice from Antarctica. That means an inevitable rise in sea level. Far more ominous is the concept of "two degrees."

That's Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit for the rest of us in America who didn't make the switch over to Metric. If overall temperatures rise two more degrees, that's when start to see massive changes. That ice melt I mentioned? It accelerates. So with it does a rise in sea level and that means the flooding of coastal areas. On the flipside, we'll also experience massive droughts in many parts of the world, on par with or worse than what California has to deal with right now. All of this combined can lead to species extinction. Not necessarily of humanity (although that's not far fetched) but of other species that we actually depend upon for our lives as we know them.

Keeping that temperature rise beneath two degrees gives us a chance to stave off a few of the worst possible consequences of climate change. The question is whether or not we have collective will to do so. Hell, it's a question of values as well. Do we value a livable environment over business? I'm not sure America does and frankly I'm well past fed up with it.

Oh but then again why worry? Let the flora and fauna stir in the heat together in a mirepoix. Who believes climatologists? That would be like me believing an expert mechanic telling me I need new brakes. Better yet, it would be like 97% of the world's expert mechanics telling me that I need new brakes (97% of peer-reviewed articles on climate change agree that it's happening and humans are the cause.) They're probably all after my money anyway. It's a liberal conspiracy.

Most insidious of all, what if we make all of these efforts to reduce carbon emissions and climate change doesn't happen...but we make the world a healthier place anyway? GASP! Yeah I know. I'm probably going to get into more Facebook fights over this post.

I'm okay with that.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Healing minds with virtual reality

Virtual reality, more often than not, seems to aid more in preparing for war than healing its after effects.

That has changed.

An article on PBS' Nova website describes how the Red Sox Foundation at Massachusetts General Hospital is using virtual reality to simulate the sights, sounds, and smells of combat incidents for veterans. It might seem counter-intuitive for a vet with PTSD to relive their experiences, but that, as the article describes, is actually part of the healing process. Coming to terms with the reality of their experience helps them to move past it. Virtual reality helps get the details of the experience out more quickly.

“It brings back that muscle memory,” said one participant. “You get right back into that mode. You put on the headphones and start hearing that radio chatter and it just comes right back to you.”

A virtual reality headset provides the visuals while concomitant odors of rubber and cordite accompany the experience. As the veterans talk through their trauma while immersed in the virtual world, counselors can add virtual avatars or modify the pixelated environment, tailoring it to the patient's description.

Intriguingly, the article points out that PTSD is not the only malady that virtual reality is treating. There are also simulations for those afflicted with autism and schizophrenia. Even pedophiles are being studied through simulated conditions. Before the advent of such systems, it was difficult for psychologists to study exactly how and why pedophiles get aroused without placing a child in danger. Therefore, such research was not attempted. The downside of is that it makes it that much more difficult to ascertain what is going wrong in the mind of the offender and then treat...and hopefully prevent...such conditions. A virtual reality avatar does not incur danger. That has already allowed researchers to determine unique hand and eye patterns that are common to offenders.

To cop the atticism of the article, "virtual reality is not a panacea." It has its downsides. Not everyone responds to virtual reality treatment and there are no longitudinal studies that a) demonstrate how a patient does in the long run and b) how the treatments stack up in the real world. Additionally, VR technology is expensive. That latter point may be subject to change over time, however. Oculus Rift is an example of how VR tech is entering the consumer market and there is talk of a VR app available for smartphones that would run about $500. In terms of therapeutic value, more time will be needed to assess the efficacy of the virtual reality method.

While this is important for the afflicted (and our veterans who have suffered through so much certainly qualify), I can see a real benefit for their families, friends, and people in general. Traumas, psychic scars, and mental illnesses still carry stigma and are still difficult for many to understand. Through a virtual reality experience, maybe someone could learn just what it means to be forced to live with such things or perhaps to experience the moment that created them. If VR could lead to not only healing but greater empathy, that what be worth the cost alone.

Of course our entire living experience could be virtual reality, but that's a whole other story.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Does blogging make you smarter?

Tonight, I will be blogging about blogging.

How meta.

The road by which I arrived at this choice of posts is a bit twisty. Follow me if you can or will.

As someone with a mind oriented towards things like literature and art, I tend to avoid business like the plague. Sadly, complete avoidance is practically impossible for a writer in the 21st Century. Additionally, my interest in technology inevitably leads me into waters the color of money. That is how I came across this post that recommends that business executives keep a blog. Why should they do such a thing, you may ask? Well, there are actually a few good reasons listed in the article.

There are the typical talking points. Expand your social media network, increase brand visibility, procure your grubstake for new ventures (or at least that's how I'd put it), and the usual hollow jargon you come across on such texts. But one point really stood out to me.

Blogging, if done well, actually makes you smarter.

Yes, I've heard all the arguments to what it has done to language and composition. The Internet has opened the floodgates to the masses and to get at quality writing, you must first wade through a great deal of garbage. The same is true for music, filmmaking, basically any creative endeavor. Instead of all that, I'm talking about what blogging does for the individual writer. Here's a quote from the article:

"To keep my content fresh and interesting, I’ve been forced to research and learn about industry leaders, better ways to use social media, and new methods and strategies to help my clients better position themselves as good-fit candidates.

I’ve become smarter about executive job search, personal branding, online visibility, social media, networking, and so much more."

You know what? I agree. Even if I can't see eye-to-eye with the subject matter referenced, the heuristic mechanism is, I believe, a valid one. There is epistemology at work on good blog pages. In order to generate quality content, I scour several websites every day for news and bizarre goings on. Sometimes what I find ends up as a mere tweet. Other items, ones I feel a strong interest in/connection to or ones that I believe I can thoroughly expand upon, are what I deem as "blog-worthy." Contrary to a few criticisms I have received in the comments section, I really do try to track down and support what I'm writing about with links and resources. Hopefully said support is from quality sources more often than not, but sometimes it isn't and that is deliberate so as it's very much part of the fun.

So has blogging made me smarter? I really think that it has. It has forced me to read more, to expand my interests, and to investigate matters that I might not otherwise. Blogging is one of the things I look forward to at the end of the day. You wouldn't think it would be relaxing at the busy time of a semester, but it is.

Even if my brain feels like a hard drive about one year overdue for a defragging (see pic above). Seriously, I'm fried. I have an overworked inner child whining for comic books right about now.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

RIP Herb Trimpe

A great light has gone out in comic books.

Comic book artist Herb Trimpe has died. He was 75.
The name Herb Trimpe might not be as well known in the mainstream as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, or even Steve Ditko, but for many of us "of an age," he left an indelible mark on our childhoods. Trimpe had many accomplishments in the industry, but for me, he will always be the one who visually cemented G.I. Joe in my mind's eye (see above).

I've written before about just how big of a deal G.I. Joe was to me as a kid. Heck, it still is. With his keen artistic style, Trimpe laid the groundwork for all that would follow with his work on the iconic Marvel Comics series. This became a standard not just for the comics, but the animated series and even anything live action. So far, nothing has really come close to the bar he set, other than the possible exception of a few of IDW's works. Another Marvel property that Trimpe had a big hand in was The Shogun Warriors.

Likewise, I've also written about how much I loved Shogun Warriors. While not as big of an influence as G.I. Joe, the Shoguns were certainly among my very favorite toys and comic books. Still are. At the same time (or roundabout, anyway), Trimpe was also drawing the Marvel Godzilla series. While it had as much or more cheese as Shogun Warriors, it did give us a giant robot in its own right: Red Ronin. Good stuff and all certainly food for the soul of that gawky, awkward kid known as Jon Nichols.

Most of comicdom at-large will know Herb Trimpe for having an extraordinarily long run as the artist on The Incredible Hulk. That was a big deal for me too as the stretch of Hulk written by Bill Mantlo was especially endearing to me as a kid. Indeed during Trimpe's run as artist, most of the title's writers came to rely heavily on Trimpe for both plotting and character design. As a consequence, Trimpe ended up co-creating several very important figures in the Hulk mythos, including Doc Samson. What is likely the biggest happenstance for comic book and pop culture fans overall is that Trimpe was the very first artist ever to draw Wolverine.

There he was. Meant as a second or third-string, "guest appearance" character, and Wolverine goes on to become one of the most popular in Marvel history. Who knew?

Herb Trimpe was an outstanding artist at just about everything he put his pencil to. For me, however, I will always remember the way he drew gear. I'm talking machines. Whether it was the Shoguns, G.I. Joe, or even just equipment for SHIELD, Trimpe could draw vehicles and devices that somehow managed to look fantastical and plausible all at the same time. Plus, they looked just plain cool. You wanted to drive them, fly them, or shoot them. They really did bring out the little kid in you.

In the wake of Herb Trimpe's passing, writer Ron Marz made comments on Twitter that should give all fans of the medium pause:

"Comics as a whole is not very good at taking care of its veteran creators, those upon whose shoulders we stand.
"Hopefully with Herb Trimpe's premature passing we can give some thought to taking better care of those who came before us."

Herb Trimpe will be missed.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

When fashion, art, and transhumanism collide

It is easy for me to dismiss fashion.

I'm just not into clothes, I really could not care less about trends and the French argot of the couture, and don't even get me started on if the dress is brown or blue or whatever. But while much of fashion seems trivial or superficial, that attitude makes it too easy to toss the baby out with the bathwater.

It is also art. A creative art.

If that doesn't garner at least modest interest from me, then the occasions when the art of fashion overlaps with transhumanism should be enough to get me to stand up and take notice. That overlap is exactly what is going on in this CNN profile of the Unseen Emporium in London.

The artists at that creative house have created bejeweled headdresses that change color according to the wearer's neural activity. Hyper-conductive stones and heat-sensitive ink aid in the process. That's not all the Unseen has in the offering:

"The three sculptural leather jackets are infused with dye formulas that change color in response to different stimuli: friction, the temperature and humidity of the room, and intense heat. In its own room is a fragile ceramic dress called Eighthsense, covered with hand-painted pixels that reflect brain activity detected by an accompanying EEG headset."

This is but another example in a long line of efforts to combine tailoring and fashion with digital technology. I've even written about such things long, long ago with posts on the LED dress for example. Even longer ago than that there was this story about "transformer clothing." These were dresses and the like that zip and unzip themselves or raise or switch out vertical slats to make the outfit more revealing. This is all innovative and intriguing steps in an artform, but the work being done at Unseen has an extra-appealing dimension to it.

As I said, there is a transhuman aspect to it. The clothing, even if on the most minimal of levels, has a technological interface with the body. This even goes beyond "wearable technology," allowing you to not only hack your outfit but yourself. Just another sign of the impending merger that at least a few out there choose to call The Singularity.

Geez. Next thing you know I'll be blogging about shoes.

Wait. Another thought about those "transformer" clothes. If they could be hacked, could a nefarious or mischievous sort cause a sudden pantsing? Hmmm.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, April 13, 2015

Transhumanism for pets

Photo from Discover magazine

Transhumanism: it's not just for the human anymore.

A couple months back, I wrote about how transhumanism could be applied to our beloved dogs and cats. I now have a real-world example of such a thing that I came across in Discover magazine. Please take a look at the above photo.

That's Brutus. He is a two year-old Rottweiler from Colorado. As a puppy, some dumbass left him outside in below zero temps, resulting in severe frostbite. Brutus had all of his paws amputated. Now, thanks to experts at Colorado State University and funds from a GoFundMe campaign, the Rottweiler has four new prosthetic paws. These prosthetic attachments serve to protect, support, and align his legs to an equal length.

Naturally, Brutus has been undergoing extensive therapy to get him adjusted to walking on his new prosthetics. They are not cybernetic attachments. That means that they do not transmit signals to the dog's brain and therefore he does not feel the ground when he walks. It would take a while for a human to get used to this sensation, let alone a dog. Despite this, Brutus has proven himself to be fairly mobile on the new, artificial paws. He can get around pretty well, as demonstrated by the video at the link. Walking up stairs, getting across hardwood floors, and other actions once prohibitive are now open for the little guy. Soon, trainers will get him to take hikes and play with other dogs.

The repeated...and quite frankly tiresome...bleat I hear from anti-transhumanists is that transhumanism is taking away our "humanity" (whatever the hell that means.) I could not disagree more. Transhumanism is made possible by human intelligence. This allows for creative problem solving. Prosthetics, synthetics, cybernetics, and all such augmentations have one thing in common: improve the quality of life for their recipients. That is the fundamental focal point behind all manner of transhumanist achievements and derring-do. Additionally, it sometimes affords us the ability to undertake great acts of compassion for fellow living things that cannot otherwise help themselves.

If that is not an act of pure humanity then I don't know what is.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, April 10, 2015

FFF: Reality

Like most other things, it seemed so much simpler as a child.

"Reality" was something concrete. Tangible. Non-negotiable.
"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
--Philip K. Dick

Now that I'm so much older, I see that it is, in fact, something quite relative. It's pliable. It comes apart and reshapes when subject to enough force or sufficient will. One might see it as a blob of Play Doh.

It also depends on one's point of view. All manner of Law of Attraction/pop psychology will tell someone that. "You choose to be happy." "You choose your point of view." "Always look on the bright side of life." Philosophical relativism, I suppose.

"Nothing is more real than nothing."
--Samuel Beckett

That might be tough for a few of us. Depression, which I have discussed on these pages at length, has a habit of clouding your optical lens. You see the same things as everyone else, but imagine seeing them through a windshield splattered with mud. It clouds and distorts "reality." What is in actuality neutral is replaced by the hellish in an action of cognitive dysphemism.

If your disposition is such, then little setbacks can really ruin your day. I'm talking about even the little things that you shouldn't bother you, but do. Prowling around inside your haunted head. A Sisyphus-like incessant cycle of steps forward and then slight ones back.

I've yet to meet anyone who entirely understands the mysteries of reality or its ways of working. Why not then, a la existentialism, create your own? This is a big reason why I do not bemoan social media or mobile technology. Want to sit on your couch and have all manner of entertainments delivered to you via fiber optic cable or wireless device? Go for it. Why leave? If that's a safer or more beneficial reality for you, then do it. Contrary to the opinions of Luddites, I don't see that as any less "real" than what the naturalists argue for.

"Reality leaves a lot to the imagination."
--John Lennon

Ever been too worn out to think?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, April 9, 2015


"Starcrash 1979 film poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -

There have been many stunning achievements in science fiction.

Starcrash is not one of them. That does not, however, keep it from being a cheesy, fun ride.

Our story opens with a spaceship hurtling through the starry void, pursued by ships of the Imperial Police. The occupants of the renegade ship are a smuggler named Stella Star and her sidekick, Akton. In the process of evading capture, the rogues come across evil a'brewing. The nefarious Count Zarth Arn. Apparently, his evilness is developing a superweapon that could threaten the entire galaxy. This find ends up leading the smugglers into the employ of the Emperor of the Galaxy (played by the inimitable Christopher Plummer). But their mission is not just to stop the Count, it is also to find the Emperor's son who has gone missing.

And the son is played by David Hasselhoff.

No. Really.

As you've likely deduced by now, this Italian production has more cheese in it than the entire state of Wisconsin. The special effects look like they were pounded out in somebody's garage and plot holes that nobody seemed to stop to think about (Horses on alien planets? A robot that claims to have no feeling and operates on logic says "I'm worried"?) It's played straighter than Barbarella while at the same time realizing its not as cerebral as Star Trek...and doesn't even try to be. While we're making comparisons, there are many many parallels here to Star Wars and with Starcrash debuting in 1978, that's not exactly a coincidence. Yes, one of the characters basically wields a ligthsaber, the antagonist's first name is "Zarth," but Starcrash does at least try to turn the trope on its head.

Our lead character is a woman...and a sexy one at that. Caroline Munro plays the hot Stella Star in a barely-there leather get-up (see pic below). While I would not exactly tout her as a model female character, she is at least strong, a good pilot, and seems pretty handy with a laser gun. She isn't waiting for anyone to save her. On the contrary, it is the Emperor's son, the last survivor of a clandestine op against Zarth Arn, who needs the finding and the rescue. Best of all, that son is played by the Hoff!

Look folks, it's a movie. Let us lift the brume of any pretense to art and just call it what it is: entertainment. It's at least 90 minutes of spaceships, laser blasts, robots, armored and helmeted bad guys, a giant brain-shaped supercomputer in a scene reminiscent of the Star Trek episode "Return of the Archons" (I think that's the one, anyway), lines like "Look! Amazons on horseback!", a guy with superpowers, alien beings, and hot women like Caroline Munro. It's trite and redundant space opera, but it never slows down for a second. It's kitsch. It's FUN. It's completely ridiculous but in the best way possible. And it's exactly what I need after a long week of work.

Check it out in its entirety on YouTube while you still can.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Facebook Files

Over at Political Moll, I have started an ongoing series of posts called "The Facebook Files."

The idea is to convey actual political altercations I have encountered on social media, predominantly Facebook. My first edition in this series described the caustic brouhaha that erupted over "The Case for Reparations," my college lecture over Ta-Nehisi Coates' article of the same name. Since then, I've had yet another rollicking good time on the information superhighway with someone of opposing views.

As is wont to happen with Facebook, I was friended by an old college acquaintance. I'll call him Kirby. We did not develop any kind of deep relationship in college, but we did know each other well enough to say more than just "hi" to one another in the cafeteria. Thus, he is available to me as an"acquaintance." Kirby has more energy than most four year olds and talks in incessant streaks, seemingly without pausing for breath. This probably explains why he majored in Phys Ed and minored in communications. So when he sent the friend request, I didn't think much of it and accepted it. Like I said, this sort of thing happens all the time. It's an overall sterile and innocuous connection and little comes of it.

But nothing could have been further from the truth with Kirby.

I started to get invitations from Kirby to "like" pages. These included "Ted Cruz for President" and "Tea Party Patriots," Oh Kirby. You hardly know me. Nevertheless, such intrusions are mild at best in the digital world. I am free to ignore or delete altogether such invites. Would that the broadcasting of his views had stopped with invites.

Like many, I sometimes indulge in the narcissistic act of posting pics of what I'm about to eat. On a Tuesday night, I was particularly proud of a balsamic chicken I had grilled and paired with asparagus. I posted a picture. "I don't think Michelle Obama would approve of that," commented Kirby, an obvious sideways slam at the First Lady's attempts at fighting obesity in America. I responded: "You're right, Kirby. Too much asparagus. Now my urine smells funny. At least I'm covered by ACA and can see a doctor tomorrow." This prompted a private message from Kirby.

"Tell me you don't support ACA," Kirby pleaded.

I think at that point, it was the most Kirby and I had ever spoken to one another in 20 years...and the conversation was him basically evangelizing me to come to the right wing. Deciding that things weren't going to get any better, I thought I might as well let it all hang out. I wrote back to Kirby, letting him know that I voted for Obama twice, volunteered on his 2008 campaign, and now write for Political Moll. 

"So I suppose you want Hillary for president in 2016?" he said.

I told Kirby that Hillary Clinton would probably be a good choice for his side as well. After all, they could switch gears from blaming a black man for everything to blaming a woman without missing a step in rhetoric.
That didn't go over well with Kirby. He sent me links to rebuttals to ACA, a few right-wing news sites, and maybe even tossed in a couple Ted Nugent videos from YouTube. I can't be sure because to be honest, I had sort of tuned the messages out. That, however, was about to change.

I did a blog post on climate change. Regular readers of mine know that this is by no means an unusual occurrence for my blog. The post detailed new research that showed that February 2015 had been the warmest February on record. I then wrote on to give various likely scenarios of what climate change will do to us and our world. 

You can probably guess the unsolicited comments from Kirby.

"Can't you see that climate change is a hoax?" he whined. "It's just a conspiracy by the Dems to steal our hard-earned money! GOP in 2016! It's the only way to get our nation back on track! Amen!"

I'm not really sure where the whole "amen!" tag came from, other than perhaps a crib of Bobby Jindal. Then again, why should I be expecting sense from Kirby? Why indeed for he followed that comment with something of a non-sequitur: 

"By the way, classic blog on PM today. How much does the site really hate Republicans? We counter by exposing lies of the democrats and let the people decide who's right. That's what a Republic is all about. Amen!"


"Give me your email and I will send you counter arguments on cc," Kirby furthered.

Then it hit me. While scrolling across Kirby's FB wall, I noticed that he posted his own policy regarding comments: "No lib talking points!" Drawing inspiration from that, I stated that in the minuscule corner of the Internet that I had staked out for myself, I could correspondingly declare: "No tea bagger talking points!" 

"I am offended by the tea bagger comment!" Kirby retaliated. "Seriously! That's over the line. I never went that far. That was a rude and underhanded slap in the face."


Right. Because "lib" was not meant in a pejorative sense whatsoever. Still, being cursed with a sensitive and guilty conscience, I attempted to make amends.

"Kirby, I like and respect you," I offered. "But it's obviously not a good idea for us to discuss politics."

"Then that means you don't want to talk to me," he responded.

Well yeah, kinda. Kirby might be brighter than he sounds.

"Politics is my life," he continued. "If I had a dollar for every time a lib said 'I like you, but I don't want to talk politics with you,' I could retire. What that really says is that you don't want to learn. You don't want to hear anybody's side but your own. You have no interest in finding common ground. If we were in a debate, you would be walking off the stage right now. That says volumes about you and your side."


I made no response. Partly because I believe people sometimes only deserve silence. Also, I just couldn't see it going anywhere. If Kirby was unwilling to accept non-biased, peer-reviewed scientific data on climate change, I doubted any real interest on his part to see a side other than the Republican line. So I kept quiet.

Then it showed up. My last ever message from Kirby.

"I have a history of HBP in my family," it read. "I have therefore decided to end our FB relationship. No hard feelings."


I have been called many things and a few of them have not been altogether complimentary. This was the first time, however, that I have ever been accused of exacerbating someone's chronic health condition. I never knew I possessed such power.

Probably just as well that I lost that digital friend. His blood pressure would no doubt have spiked as I posted links to articles about taking political action against states that deny climate change and this just in: President Obama's recent statement that climate change will cause an increase in disease. 

Apparently, one of those diseases in question is high blood pressure. Guess that's what the truth can do to certain sects of our population.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Art of Bjork at MOMA

I have no intention to get into a semantic argument over art.

Anyway, here goes.

I suppose all musicians are artists in their own right, but there are those who add extra dimensions to their repertoire. It might be painting, video, or just an indelible visual style that comes to mind just upon hearing their name or names. The visuals the artists produce are every bit as important as the music and that...despite being something that rock music critics never seem to by no means detrimental to either aspect. I count David Bowie, Roxy Music, and Duran Duran as examples of the style I am referring to.

Bjork would be another. Now, Bjork has her own exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. I like Bjork, I love art, and my visit to MoMA was certainly exhilarating. As such, I thought it a natural fit for a blog post. Here is what I've found about the exhibit as per the MoMA website and The New York Times.

In concept, the Bjork exhibit seems similar to the "David Bowie Is..." exhibit I attended (and devoured) in Chicago. The music of Bjork is accentuated by displays of album art, looped music videos, a multimedia installation called "Black Lake" commissioned for the exhibit, and of course eye-popping fashion. In the case of the latter, visitors get to see the Alexander McQueen (designer responsible for many David Bowie and Duran Duran looks) "bell dress" (see above) and the famous (or perhaps infamous) "swan dress."

Editorial: Could everybody just lay off Bjork for the swan dress of 2001? Let's face it. It was original. It stood out and entertained. It is a look that was creative and has kept people talking for over a decade. Who else at the Oscars that night can claim such a thing? That's what I thought. Crickets. End rant.

Sadly, it seems that is where the comparisons with the Bowie exhibit must end. This may not be fair. Bowie has had a long and prolific careers, producing not just music but films and paintings. Bjork has not been in the game as long and doesn't aspire to the same things. From what I can gather, however, this lack of wide catalog is one of the reasons that the Bjork installation comes up as anemic. The Bowie show also benefited from the artist's badinage straight into your ears from headphones. Here's what the Times had to say:

"...the Björk exhibition stands as a glaring symbol of the museum’s urge to be all things to all people, its disdain for its core audience, its frequent curatorial slackness and its indifference to the handling of crowds and the needs of its visitors. To force this show, even in its current underdone state, into the atrium’s juggernaut of art, people and poor design is little short of hostile. It superficially promotes the Modern’s hipness while making the place even more unpleasant than usual. Given that the pavilion seems designed to comfortably hold around 300 to 350 people, those Björk fans are going to spend a great deal of time waiting in line or, worse, near the pavilion."


Maybe the show fairs better in The Economist:

"No one sounds like Bjork. With this show, several years in the making, MoMA could have set a new template for a multimedia museum experience, blending music and video, text and artefacts. This retrospective could have mapped out Bjork’s creative process, placing her prodigious talent in some kind of context. Oh, this show might have done so many things. Alas, the only thing it reliably does is waste people’s time."

Yeah okay, maybe not.

Despite all of that, I'd still go. Then again, I'm biased. A day at MoMA in New York City beats most anything else I can think of. Bjork is just added incentive. I'd sit and watch the video for "All is Full of Love" multiple times. Come on, just look at those robots. It's the most romantic thing I've ever seen.

"Army of Me" is no slouch, either.

Both are great songs and amazing achievements in video. No grunge clothes and sitting on stool while strumming the acoustic guitar for Miss Bjork.

So if anyone is interested in helping this blogger get a first-hand look at the art exhibit, hit me up with your donation.

Oh and in case anybody is wondering, my favorite Bjork album is Medulla. Seriously, listen to it. Nobody sounds like her.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, April 3, 2015

Mars rover completes "marathon"

Time now again for Science Friday.

The Opportunity rover has just completed a "marathon" on Mars, marking an achievement in space exploration.

Thus far, the determined little guy has racked up 26.219 miles in just over 11 years...which is just slightly faster than my estimated marathon finish. This does, however, break the previously held record set by Soviet spacecraft, Lunokhod on the Moon. So go ahead and give a few chants of " 'Merica," I suppose.

All in all, Opportunity's odyssey has been most informative. Chief among its discoveries is the pile of evidence that suggests there was once water on Mars. Not just water, but flowing water in the form of massive tidal waves as this study contends.

"This mission isn't about setting distance records, of course; it's about making scientific discoveries on Mars and inspiring future explorers to achieve even more," said Steve Squyres, Opportunity principal investigator at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "Still, running a marathon on Mars feels pretty cool."

Many of those in mundane walks of life might not get it, but this is a massive achievement. Humanity created a device that traveled through space to another planet and furthered our understanding of the universe. You know, because we kinda live there and all that. This goes beyond concerns fabular and into the practical. The job is not over yet and let's hope Opportunity keeps making discoveries, namely evidence leading to the conclusion that Mars could have once supported life.

Hey from the sound of things, there might be a better chance of that turning up than Mars One actually working.

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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

UFO "zones"

As I delve deeper into the matter of Dulce, I grow tangentially curious about what I'm terming "UFO zones."

I'm not talking about locations of major sightings or flaps. These "zones" are locus points where UFO sightings just seem to congregate, allowing for all manner of tall tales and lingering effects to grow up around the areas. It goes without saying that much of the time this is due to all too human reasons, but it's the phenomenon in and of itself that interests me. Allow me to explain through example:

There is the "M Triangle" in Russia. Located 600 miles east of Moscow, the region is said to have played host to luminous objects in the sky and intense military activity on the ground. As quoted at the link, researchers of the region assert they have often heard the sound of speeding traffic going by. The problem with that being that the nearest road to the area is 40 miles away. Others claim that there is something at play dealing with electromagnetism. It is said that this phenomena can induce waves of panic and fear in those visiting the area or even make them smarter than when they arrived. One under-employed man is said to have wandered into the triangle and two weeks later absorbed enough knowledge of aerospace engineering to become a cosmonaut.

The cynic in me just thinks this is a pathetic ploy by Russian tourism to get people to visit in hopes of bolstering their IQ or maybe even obtaining magical cures for their ails. And by blogging about it, I suppose I'm just giving them free advertising. In which case the joke is on me. Damn.

There's the "Zone of Silence" in Mexico. This is a desolate region where for reasons inexplicable, radios don't seem to work. This phenomena first entered public consciousness in 1970 when an Athena missile bizarrely went off course from White Sands Missile Range and crashed into zone. American military personnel who responded noticed that their portable radios no longer functioned. A high degree of electromagnetic interference...yet again...seemed to be at play. As you might imagine, the area has also seen a fair share of UFO activity. A cursory look across the interwebs shows sightings of "massive"craft and even nonhuman entities.

There's the San Luis Valley of Colorado. A quote at that link maintains that UFO sightings in that region go all the way back to the 1600s. Psychics claim the area to be a "vortex," connected to another dimension. This, they say, accounts for the numerous sightings of lights in the night sky, such as a particularly pronounced flap in 1993. Also adding to the area's weirdness factor were the cattle mutilations of 1967 as investigated by Linda Moulton Howe. A few locals have even added a "watchtower" where visitors can keep vigil and await their own UFO sightings. For a small fee, of course. Call it all malarkey if you want, but I'm taking note of how close the region is to Dulce.

Yes, I'm well aware I'm down the rabbit hole on this one. More to come...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets