Thursday, May 28, 2015

Checking into the Hotel Dulce

Beware. Random thoughts ahead...

I am headed to Dulce. If you have a kind heart and want to "help a brother out," I've got a Fundrazr for it.

You know about the project, right? I've written about it before. The tiny town in New Mexico that supposedly has a highly sophisticated base hidden deep inside a nearby mesa? Allegedly, this base houses both humans and aliens as they conduct nefarious experiments, augmenting and twisting human bodies in all manner of grotesque and unnatural ways. What's more, fighting is said to have once broken out between the aliens and the clandestine, shadowy members of our government at the base. This resulted in a firefight as we sent special ops in to retake the base in what the UFO conspiracy sects of the internet often refer to as the "Dulce Wars." It is this supposed conflict that I wish to build my book of literary nonfiction upon.

Did it really happen? I don't know. That's why I'm going there in July as well as immersing myself in numerous tomes on the subject that land both on the sensational and highly skeptical ends of the spectrum. What is known for certain is that the region around Dulce did at one point have an extraordinary amount of cattle mutilations and UFO sightings. Although in terms of the latter, the National UFO Reporting Center lists their last report from Dulce as being all the way back in 2009. Nevertheless, I am obligated to due diligence if I am to write a book on the subject and must therefore visit the town. But it might not be UFO activity that holds the real promise for me. Maybe that's inside the "base."

So let's just say for the sake of argument that I somehow (and it's a big "somehow") manage to get inside the Dulce Base. Naturally that presupposes that it even exists to begin with but play along with this hypothetical for a moment, do you mind? Anyway, maybe I can weasel my way into the lab. Or one of them at any rate. There are apparently many labs in this facility that is said to reach seven or eight levels deep into the ground. I'm wondering if I could create a virtual simulation of the installation, maybe in Second Life where people could take a tour of the place as they read. You know, "exit through the virtual gift shop where you can buy a copy of Nichols' latest book." But I digress...

Once in a lab, perhaps I can come up with a way to cajole, bamboozle, or otherwise smooth talk one of the humans or aliens (I don't really care which) into finally making me fully transhuman. I go there as Professor Jon Nichols. I return as...JonDroid!

Can you see it? Me, dealing with the UFO occupants?

"Yeah, a cyborg. No, none of those crazy things I've heard of you doing like grafting ears to my back or crossbreeding me with a kangaroo. I'm talking total body prosthesis. Upload my consciousness into a body of chrome, steel, and carbon fiber. What do you get? I dunno. Want my shoe? Or wait, you can have my meat body since I won't need it anymore. Hey, what are you doing with that butt probe?"

So I'll might not work out. I'll have Bernard with me. Maybe he'll have better ideas when it comes to bartering.

Then again, the whole thing might be disappointing on a number of levels. Gregs Bishop and Valdez have each written books on Dulce that offer explanations both middling and prosaic. I hate to say it but they seem by far the most likely ones as opposed to the "Dulce Wars" accounts that appear lifted straight from pulp novels. And not good ones at that. But wait! There's still hope! Another possibility is a variation on the die-hard skeptic's retort of "it's all in your head."

What if the occurrences at Dulce are happening at the subconscious level? Researchers and experiencers of the abduction phenomenon, such as John Mack and Whitley Strieber, have often posited that we may be dealing with extradimensional beings and not aliens...or at least not aliens in the popular Hollywood sense. These may be incorporeal entities that assume the described forms and conceits in order to relate to us. Why? That's a bigger question. Perhaps I will not encounter physical remnants of a firefight between aliens and the military, but rather an ethereal, almost hallucinatory experience. That would be a compelling story in and of itself.

But it still wouldn't get me a cybernetic body.

"We are part of a symbiotic relationship with something which disguises itself as an extraterrestrial invasion so as not to alarm us." --Terence McKenna

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Spike in bee die-off

Time now again for Science Friday.

Extinction just seems to keep marching closer for bees.

An annual report released two weeks ago noted that there was a sharp increase in honeybee deaths in the past year. It was, in fact, the second highest drop in the population since 2010. What the study found especially shocking was the fact that there were more bee deaths during the summer than the winter. That's a first.

There has yet to be a conclusive, definitive answer as to why this phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder is occurring. Current leading culprits include malnutrition. Thousands of acres of land that once contained clover and wildflowers have been plowed under to create greater farmland, thus taking advantage of higher crop prices and feeding a rising population. Pesticides are not helping, either. A class of pesticide known as neonicotinoids is widely used in the U.S. Europe, on the other hand, has already banned several variations of these chemicals for use on flowering plants, citing concern for the bee population.

Another more ghoulish factor is a parasite known as varroa destructor. This is a mite that attacks honeybees directly within the colonies. As parasites are known to do, the varroa suck the "blood" from adult bees while laying their eggs on bee larva. Infestations of this sort have already been found as the cause of colony collapses in Ontario, Canada and in Hawaii. As the New York Times article reports, this is most likely to be a problem in backyard beekeeping.

Why should we care about bees? Well, a couple of reasons, several of which I believe I have addressed before right on these very pages. First off, we need bees. The industry of agriculture depends upon bees to pollinate plants and help produce yield. In short, the bees help feed us and many other species.

I also view this as symbolic, as indicative of a larger problem stemming from our own behavior. The New York Times article states that "bees are not in danger of extinction" but I am not so sure. What in our world is not in danger of extinction if we keep behaving the way that we do? If we have little to no regard for our environment, when exactly will that catch up with us?

The answer is probably "sooner than any of us would like."

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

No really. We were actually going to do it.

Pic from Popular Science. Link provided below.

I recently finished reading a compelling book about manned space exploration.

Or Mrs. ESE and I listened to it on audiobook, anyway (narrated by Bronson Pinchot. Balki!) That counts, right?

It is called Fashioning Apollo by Nicholas de Monchaux. It's about development of the spacesuits worn by NASA astronauts of the 1960s. Believe it or not, the true story actually has a few significant ties to transhumanism.

You see, dressing astronauts in suits was not the only option for protecting them against the wretched conditions of space. At least not initially. Another idea on the table was modifying these men into cyborgs. Mathematician and computer expert Manfred Clines worked with psychopharmacologist Nathan Kline (both pictured above on the right) to propose an approach that was steeped very much in the concepts of cybernetics. The idea was that it was quite cumbersome and impractical to have men carry their livable habitat with them into space. It would be far more efficient to modify humans through technology in order to adapt it to space travel.

The logic is dead on correct. The practical implementation of the project, however, proved problematic after deep study. Gainsays within the NASA system forced the project's inevitable abandonment in 1966.

It seems to me though that science fiction later covered this ground. It's been a long time since I read the book in question, but io9 recently reminded me of it. Frederik Pohl wrote the novel Man Plus in which astronauts absolutely must "get their asses to Mars" to quote Total Recall. Only as we all know, Mars is quite inhospitable to humans otherwise we would have colonized it already (or perhaps not. It's all a question of gumption.) Anyway, the astronaut of the titular Man Plus project is completely remade through transhuman means. The majority of his internal organs are removed and replaced with cybernetics, his mushy human eyes are replaced with stimuli receptors, and his brain is augmented with a computer to process all of the enhanced data said receptors will bring it.

Sure, all that is great, but how would all of these onboard systems be powered? Well, solar is the obvious choice but the necessary panels would have to be big. I mean big. So they graft two giant panels to his back that grant the appearance of giving him wings. When I read the book, I imagined him as winged but entirely cyborg in appearance. Apparently, the cover artist for one of the earlier editions didn't share my interpretation.

Sort of looks like Man-Bat, doesn't he? Yes, I took that description from the io9 article but it's spot-on.

Though it's all engaging, I realize that it is quite speculative. Still, I wonder if prolonged occupation of space will require cybernetic measures. I mean, humans were never meant to be out there, at least not biologically. To completely obviate that fact, we may need to one day drastically change a great many things.

Including us.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Green, wooden, and made by robots

There have been a few stories in the past weeks that show promise, converging the disciplines of technology and architecture with an emphasis on bettering our environment.

Imagine asking an architect this question: what hot new material do you we will build skyscrapers out of in the coming years? "Wood" is probably not the answer that you would expect.

But that's exactly what Vancouver architect Michael Green proposes. Green said recently:

“We grow trees in British Columbia that are 35 stories tall, so why do our building codes restrict timber buildings to only five stories?”

To demonstrate his thesis, Green has not only written a book titled Tall Wood, demonstrating the benefits of designing and building tall buildings out of wood, but also helped establish the Wood Innovation and Design Center at the University of North British Columbia which, at 29.25 meters (effectively eight stories), is currently lauded as the tallest modern timber building in North America. There are aims to build higher timber structures than that, however. Just one example being a fourteen story apartment building was just completed in Bergen, Norway. How is this happening with timber?

As outlined on the previous link at Discover, 2009 was the year that thoughts really began to change. That year marked the development of cross-laminated solid wood panels. This allowed for far higher structural integrity but also the ability to lock in carbon dioxide. Which leads us to the benefits for the environment. The use of concrete is already accounts for 5% of the world's CO2 emissions. Providing building materials that serve as an alternative to concrete would certainly go a long way to help. I wonder though if this type of building could be teamed with another development.

A technology has been manufactured in South Korea that can turn discarded cigarette butts into electrical storage. If you've ever smoked...or just looked down at the asphalt outside a bar, strip club, fast food joint, hell any city sidewalk...then you know that cigarette butts are filters made out of densely packed fibers. These fibers can be quite useful to supercapacitors. When burned in nitrogen-rich chambers, pores form on the surfaces of the filters, thus increasing the filters' surface areas. Tests have shown that these pores can store far more energy than other materials previously used in supercapacitors, You know me, I'm always a quidnunc  for new technology but I must admit I did not see this coming. So imagine an eco-friendly, wooden building that is powered by one of the most disgusting forms of trash there is?

But wait! There's more!

What if the whole building were built by robots?

I came across this article about robots repairing gas pipelines beneath the city of Edinburgh, Scotland. Don't scoff. Read the link. It's not the craziest thing you've read about with robots lately. At least if you're a regular at ESE. But I digress...

Remote-controlled robots moved to pre-programmed locations along the piping and inject sealants into the cracks and fissures. As one member of the robot project said:

“The use of robotics technology will enable us to complete our work more quickly than ever before with less traffic disruption. The robot refurbishes the gas mains from inside the pipe. The use of robotic repairs means that we can substantially reduce the amount of time we’re working in the road."

Granted that's not the same thing as construction but is it really all that far of a leap to make?

So put all that together. A building. Brought about from an innovative design. Powered by a new technology. All of it eco-friendly...and built by robots. Does it get any cooler? ESE endorses.

In all honesty, the innovation is cool but it's the environmentally-friendly aspects of this kind of building that really get me sitting up to take notice.  As news about climate change keeps getting all the more dire, our course of action grows clearer.

Unless we just plain don't care, that is.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Manual of Evasion

So imagine a trippy cyberpunk/transhuman film that features Terrence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Rudy Rucker.

Well imagine it no more as I've got it for you right here:

It's called "Manual of Evasion." It was made in 1994 by Portuguese filmmaker, Edgar Pera. Rudy Rucker, who plays Lord Chaos in the film, wrote a piece for it on his site. It's a somewhat melancholy reflection as both McKenna and Wilson have of course passed on, leaving Rucker the only one left. He calls the video a "dadaistic movie."

Me? I just wish I could have been a fly on the wall while the film was made. Those three deep thinkers in one place? Bouncing and riffing ideas off of one another? Extraordinary. I'll wager that whatever didn't make the cut was just as fascinating as what remained.

McKenna offers us his musings on time over hypnotic pulses. Wilson calls for caution and awareness over the insidious "Time Flies." "They're the worst," he says. They eat the arrow of time. The only way to evade the time flies is to "remain in a state of continuous attention and astonishment."

Different species will emerge from between the cracks in realities.

Wow. Watching this makes we want to reread my Rudy Rucker books. I'll admit, his cyberpunk takes on these matters were a bit off-putting to me at first, but sure did grow on me.

I won't pretend to understand everything I heard while watching this film. I just let it wash over me and suggest that you do the same. Let flow over you. Listen to what Robert Anton Wilson says about the distortion of time and especially to what McKenna says about consciousness and controlling the rhythm of time. He really was trying to get the world to evolve to a higher state of consciousness and we would quite probably have been so much the better had we listened.

Sorry. I'm babbling on this post. But I'm just trying to sort out everything I just saw.

"You are the cutting edge of a thirteen billion year old process of defining novelty. Your acts matter. Your thoughts matter. Your purpose? To add to the complexity. Your enemy? Disorder, entropy, stupidity, and tastelessness.”

- Terence McKenna

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What is the source of synesthesia?

Mrs. ESE once had an experience with the neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia.

Granted it was when she was rather young and it was due to an experiment with a mild altering substance, but the concept was relatively the same. She claimed she could "taste yellow." Many other people have similar experiences without drugs of any kid. It just kind of happens. The schism between senses evaporates and they cross. Synesthetes claim to "see" smells or "hear" numbers. Or they may "see" music as in the case of artist Melissa McCraken. She "sees" songs as colors and textures and then paints what she sees. Here's a gallery of her impressive synthesetic work, but of course I'm going to single out her image for "Life on Mars":

I've written about synesthesia before, citing my own small bit of it. Up until recently, I saw the days of the week as fuzzy, gauzy gradations of black to gray. David countered that I likely just saw a calendar of one sort or another as a small child and that somehow established this visualization of a "week" in my head. I wish that I could accurately describe how I visualize days because it's unlike any calendar I can ever remember seeing. Still, David's cynical skeptical viewpoint is not unique. In fact, it appears to be the stance that at least a few neuroscientists take.

In fact, a recently published study calls synesthesia a brain disorder. As the study says:

"We did not find any clear evidence of structural brain alterations in synesthetes, either local differences or differences in connectivity, at least when considering the data with no a priori…"

This conclusion came from the comparison of MRIs of 19 synesthetes against control. The authors suggest more prosaic origins for condition, somewhat along the lines of David's argument. For example, if you associate colors with letters, that may simply be due to blocks you saw as a kid. While that may surely be the source of a many cases, I'm not so sure about others.

I just know that I would love to experience synesthesia and the creative boost that often appears to accompany it. Here's to hoping that there might one day be a transhuman solution. Perhaps, as Kurzweil posits in The Singularity is Near, implants or nanotech in the brain's synapses well help make the virtual into concrete, at least in the brain's experience. This might allow me to one day "smell" a letter or "taste" a color. For right now, however, I'm going to categorize synesthesia as a "brain disorder I wish I had."

Can I swap depression for it?

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Transhumanism goes back to campus

Their reaction was one of shock mixed with an apprehension for the years ahead of them. Certainly not my intent and I was fortunately able to bring the discourse back around to one of balance and even, dare I say, optimism. These students were, however, first semester freshmen. While they were indeed a generation of digital natives, they were also doe-eyed and tatterdemalion in the face of that daunting experience that is the first few months of college. It was a gamble that they had any sleep the night before and could remember what building the lecture hall was. And there I was talking to them about concepts like cybernetics.

Surely, I thought, I would not have the same reception teaching my semester-long course on transhumanism to second semester seniors. These would be seasoned veterans after all. Tempered and forged in four (three and one half, anyway) years of critical thinking, they would at least be aware of how technology is changing the human experience, if not humanity itself. They would be able to entertain a concept while disagreeing with it. Certainly they would receive the notion of the Singularity with an at least measured response.

No, it was pretty much the same...only with a bit less crying.

I exaggerate. A little. Let me back up a bit.

The class started last January. It did indeed cover the technical aspects of transhumanism but the focal point of the entire course was ethics. Should we or shouldn’t we be doing these things? What are the benefits? What are the consequences? What do you think?

The text for the class was Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. In order to foster critical thinking, I encouraged the class to disagree with Kurzweil’s writings if they chose to. “Goodness knows a great many people already do,” I told them. We held discussions over the reading and peppered them with what’s been happening since the publication of Kurzweil’s book, such as Watson’s victory on Jeopardy! and the warnings from Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk over artificial intelligence. The students then wrote a 20 page capstone paper on an ethical question of their choosing and presented that paper to the class. 

When we met for the last time two weeks ago, I asked the class for a few final thoughts on transhumanism. These were their responses with names changed to protect privacy.

“I never even knew any of this stuff existed,” said Alyssa, a 22 year-old majoring in athletic training.

I expressed shocked. They’ve never known a world without an Internet and they have only the dimmest of memories of life without mobile devices. Why is something like artificial intelligence such a fear leap?

“But computers that can think for themselves? That’s different,” she responded. “And I never even knew what nanotechnology was before taking this class.”

“There were so many times where I left this class having an existential crisis,” said Veronica, a soon-to-be school social worker. “Where are things like artificial intelligence taking us? What does it even mean to be human anymore?”

As is the case with many people, not simply college students, it is sometimes easiest to express things in pop culture terms. Lance, a graduating senior who had just accepted a position with a marketing firm, put his change of thoughts this way:

“When I would hear about robots or ‘machines that can think,’ R2-D2 and C-3PO were the first things that would come to my mind,” he said. “I never considered that there might one day be an Ultron.”

“There are no strings on me...” I answered, doing my best James Spader and getting a collective shudder from the class.

“Who needs the meatbags?” Lance responded through a laugh, imitating Bender from Futurama.

“I don’t know. I feel hopeful.”

That came from Jessica. She’s a psychology student on her way to grad school.

“If I...god forbid...get in a car wreck sometime in the future and lose a limb or something, there may be cybernetics that can help me still live the life that I want to,” she said. “If I get cancer, there may be nanotech that will help me get better.”

“At first, my reaction was to reject all of this and say it’s wrong. But this is happening,” said Kate, a major in mass communications. “We’re going to have devices that are autonomous and self-aware. We need to deal with it.”

My interest piqued, I asked Kate just what she was proposing.

“Education,” she answered simply. “People need to know about things like AI. And as we develop super AI, we need to do so with our own sense of ethics in mind. We need to give it a moral compass.”

One student named Matt reminded us of a discussion in the months previous. Rev. Christopher Benek, a Presbyterian pastor, wrote an op/ed piece about AI. Benek asserted that AI could “participate in Christ’s redemptive purposes” and “help to make the world a better place.”

“But I don’t believe in god and neither do a lot of other folks,” Veronica said. “So I have to place my faith in people. And I don’t know if we can make the right decisions with this stuff.”

“Then we will need education in ethics just as much as our devices will,” Kate said. “None of the technology that we’ve talked about is really good or bad. It’s all going to be in what we decide to do with it.”

Kate stole my closing line. She really did. While there were undoubtedly students from the class who 
will be just fine if they never hear the terms “nanotechnology” or “genetic engineering” again, Kate got the takeaway if there indeed was any single one. Whether transhumanism results in a utopia, a dystopia, or the more likely muddy middle, it will not be due to the technology itself but rather it will result from our choices as a species.

After seeing the work of my students, I am left with a bit of hope those choices will be good ones.

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Monday, May 18, 2015

Brave New World comes to TV

I enjoy many aspects of being a professor. Getting to occasionally teach science fiction is one of them.

Among the science fiction texts in the curriculum is Brave New World. The reasons I enjoy this book by Aldous Huxley number in the thousands but I presume many of said reasons are those shared by bibliophiles everywhere. It describes a utopia that is actually quite a dystopia beneath the surface. It's a cautionary tale.

It's a story about our current world...even though it was written in the 1930s.

In Brave New World, humans are created in labs called "hatcheries." They are then psychologically conditioned as to how to live in society, engaging in a veritable paradise of pleasure. People have constant sex and go shopping to buy products that they don't really need. If emotions such as fear, sadness, or doubt ever creep into their existence, they take a drug called "soma" and everything is right once more. Beyond any of that, people gorge themselves on TV and movies, staying as far away as they can from books.

That last point is the most resonant with me. I could turn this post into a diatribe about how my students "just don't read these days" but that really is the low hanging fruit here. What really gets me is when I see close friends revere TV and movies as sacrosanct. The viewing of this mostly empty drivel becomes something of an act of communion with their families and there's just something wrong with you if you don't share that set of values or have the modicum of self respect to set aside time for your dear sweet TV. My view of the world sinks just a bit more every time I get a request of "Hey! Wanna come over and watch (title of drivel goes here)?"

Which is why I find supreme irony in the fact that Brave New World is about to become a TV miniseries in the SyFy network. 

That's right. This book, one consistently ranked among the top ten novels of the English language, one that warned of a future where everyone would watch movies and stop reading, is coming to TV. And headed up by Steven Spielberg no less. If nothing else, that lends the production a rather impressive pedigree and lessens the chances of added "splodey action scenes" as Bay basically did to Brave New World with his abominable The Island.

Now here's the kicker: after bemoaning television, will I watch this miniseries? Will I become like the central character of Bernard in the book? Will return from the reservation (I am going to New Mexico this summer) and then bathe deeply amid all with which I once held with contempt? Then again, social media may allow me to rubberneck my way around the show, sniffing about to determine if I will ultimately give it a watch.

Until it airs, you can download for free an audiobook version of Brave New World that is read by Huxley himself. Can't beat that.

I mean, unless you wanted to do something really crazy like read the book.

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Friday, May 15, 2015

Background signals may solve space mystery

Time now again for Science Friday.

It is one of the biggest mysteries in the study of space.

Why did regular matter...material such as hydrogen gas, metals, and all the other "stuff" that makes up stars like our Sun...come to compose the universe rather than anti-matter? It is heavily postulated that at one point after the Big Bang, our cosmos was fairly evenly split in composition between matter and ant-matter. But somehow, matter won out for dominance. Why? Believe it or not, no one's really been able to come up with an answer. Now, according to a recent post at, an answer may have been found.

Findings from the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope have determined that a magnetic field came into existence only split seconds after the Big Bang. This determination comes via the fact that there is a "twisting" effect in gamma rays with a left-hand orientation. This means a vast production of matter in the early universe as a right-handed signal would have produced more anti-matter. So in a way, the universe is left-handed.

Bad joke. Sorry. I digress...

It is still early to conclusively determine whether it was this universal magnetic field that helped give matter the edge over anti-matter. The numbers are still being verified through new data on the gamma ray signals becoming available through the Fermi telescope. Bereft of conclusive data, I will now engage in one of my favorite pastimes: wild speculation.

While modern astronomy learns more every day, we still don't know much. We're finding constant surprises when it comes to celestial objects like black holes and supervoids. So what captivates me about the early duel between matter and anti-matter is connected to the ideas of a multiverse and a "clockwork" universe. Or at least that's what I'm calling it.

In the case of the latter, there are those, mostly deists of various forms, who say that the universe works too perfectly for it not to have been intelligently designed. Indeed, if anything were off just a few degrees one way or another, we would not even be here. It could not have been up to chance. If, on the other hand, we exist in a multiverse of numerous universes, it might make more sense. There may be plenty of universes where things didn't work out for whatever reason and they are filled with mostly empty space or dead forms. Why? Just shook out that way. Same reason we came into existence.

So, maybe there are universes composed entirely or mostly of anti-matter. In fact, maybe that primordial magnetic field managed to shunt the majority of the anti-matter of our universe into another one with all due sturm and scroop.

Like I said...speculation.

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Teddy Ruxpin Kevorkian

Robots may soon be aiding you in end-of-life decisions.

The Japanese have long been experimenting with robots as companions for the elderly. Now, as both the size of Japan's senior population and its suicide rate are on the rise, engineers in robotics have developed what is certainly a cynosure for Western eyes, the SeppuKuma. The translation for that phrase is "Suicide Bear." (see above) And from what I've read at the link, the device really is something of a marvel of engineering.

"Suicide Bear" is designed to carry up to 80kb. It has advanced actuators and its base platform can raise and lower to pick someone up out of bed. It can also condense its profile to maneuver itself in and around tight spaces. All in a cute package. Impressive as all that is to robotics devotees and aficionados such as myself, I know what you're all here for.

You want to know how RoboBear will kill people. After all, it does have a sort of "Care Bear meets Terminator" look to it.

Turns out that SeppuKuma will be programmed with 23 different options from which someone may select to die. Among these are "pillow kisses," which is suffocation with a pillow, "Everlasting Sleep," which is lethal injection, favorite..."Sleepytime Hug," where the bear strangles the patient until the patient's pulse stops for a full fifteen minutes.

All joking aside, this is really a compassionate endeavor. In fact, it somewhat gets at Kurzweil's notion of the "Age of Spiritual Machines" where thinking devices become our partners and not overlords. When we consider many of the uses that robots are currently designated towards, this is an effort meant out of benevolence, not malevolence. I realize it may not seem that way to American eyes, as in this land we seem to want to prolong life beyond all thresholds of suffering and dignity. But in many parts of the world, the Right to Die is gathering momentum. Why shouldn't someone be able to make the decision for her or himself if they have had enough of life? If said decision is made with a clear mind and sound judgment, then why not have the final task be carried out by a friendly, smiling bear?

I'm just surprised there isn't a Hello Kitty version.

Quick note: I'm on a summer time schedule now and there may be lapses in posting or posts that are somewhat anemic in nature. I mean, now that I have time to do crazy stuff like, you know, write, spend time with family, so forth.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Climate change: it would be more fun if it were terraforming

Charlie Sheen first tackled climate change back in 1996.

That's long before the phrase was even close to being a household word. I refer, of course, to his film The Arrival of that same year. It really is far better than you might think and it has actually earned an entry on my long list of favorites. But more on that in a moment.

Climate change isn't going anywhere. In fact, the news just seems to get more dire every day. There are now record levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, it will only take an overall temperature rise of about 2-degrees Celsius for things to get Earth-changingly bad, and while all this is happening, Republican members of the House voted to slash $300 million from NASA's Earth sciences budget. You know, that wing of the agency that studies occurrences like climate change? As is accurately summed up by the headline at that last link for Discover, the GOP mandate on the issue appears to be: "Put on this blindfold and just keep marching."

There are many things one can make of all this and few of them are good. To my way of thinking, one of the reasons we're in this collective pickle has to do with a mentality expressed in an interview with Nick Bostrom a few years back: humanity tends to grossly underestimate its chances of extinction. 

It may be hubris. Humanity is the greatest thing going in the universe. We can do pretty much anything. We can cross the oceans, build great cities, harness nuclear power, map our own genome, and take fledgling steps into space. Come at us, bro.

It may be denial. It's too big of a problem or we can't really face the fact that it is happening, so turn the TV on or the music up louder. Maybe it will all just go away. That seems to be Florida's plan.

Humanity could go extinct for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with us. Far more likely, however, is the risk of us doing ourselves in. Destroying our environment through climate change is exactly that. Which brings me back around somehow to Charlie Sheen.

The Arrival is about aliens surreptitiously terraforming our planet. Climate change really isn't our fault. Instead, it is caused by these aliens who are altering the environment to make the Earth more hospitable to their own species while wiping out humanity in the process. You know what? I'd be down with that. Because that way, it wouldn't be our fault.

Environmental ruin would not be because of political stupidity, of a refusal to believe in scientific data, or because of a tag-team duo of greed and ignorance. It would not be a case of worldwide suicide. No, it's evil aliens that are to blame. We've been terraformed against our will and the new alien residents will be moving in momentarily. We're off the hook.

Oh look! There's hope! I shouldn't be surprised, but "alien terraforming" has already been making the rounds for quite a while now on alien and conspiracy-related sites. It might all have to do with chemtrails and an alien race with a need for aluminum. There's still a chance we're not as stupid as I think we are. Then again, perhaps it's the aliens, the NWO, and greedy corporations all in syzygy. Curses.

Just remember folks: nowhere is it written that humanity must survive. We're one good Tunguska-level event from going out.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Roswell slides go bust

Remember my post about "the Roswell Slides" a little while back? The one where there was supposed to be a big reveal in Mexico City on May 5th that was going to change the world of UFO investigation forever?

Well, it turned out pretty much the way everyone thought it would.

You can read the alleged background of the slides at the link above, but the upshot is this: a Kodak slide was said to have been discovered in an attic. On the slide was photographic evidence of an alien body recovered from the 1947 crash at Roswell. The photograph (pictured above) revealed on May 5th is said to be that slide.

Despite cries to the contrary, the photo is most unambiguously that of a child mummy in a museum or freak show menagerie somewhere. The body even comes with its own little placard...a very odd way for U.S. government officials to store an alien corpse. No, not that I've ever been involved with such a process, but I'm just using logic. Nick Redfern at Mysterious Universe does a bang up job of analyzing the whole affair. In his article, Nick provides a handy dandy link to a quick, cursory Google image search that demonstrates that nearly every child mummy has the same alien-like quality to it. As I just alluded to, Nick invites the reader to examine the total context of the photo. Look behind the body:

"You’ll see yet another head, which looks very much like a wolf head angled downwards, and where you can see hair, the eye, muzzle, and even teeth below the muzzle. And, you can see the back of the small placard that sits in front of it, too, and which presumably explains what it shows: the preserved head of an animal. With that in mind, it’s obvious now that we are looking at some sort of museum, or menagerie, or circus type thing for entertainment purposes.
What we are not looking at is a secret lab where aliens (dead or alive) are held." 

The Black Vault has a similar interpretation, adding that this photo might not be part of an insidious hoax but rather a simple misidentification. Oh surely we've never seen that before in Ufology. Discovery News also argues for the child mummy interpretation. However, that article does mention remarks from UFO researcher Richard Dolan and they may have been taken somewhat out of context. As I understand it from statements Dolan has made on Facebook, his words at the May 5th gala event, something to the effect that the mummy theory had been considered and then discounted by unnamed experts, was not a profession of his own beliefs but a citing of those of the event's organizers. That may be and Dolan has long been a level-headed voice in the field. That said, his hands on this matter are not entirely clean due to his association with the event.

Outcry against this May 5th event and the slides themselves has been swift from many quarters such as UFO Chronicles, decrying the whole debacle as a genuine black eye for UFO research, an endeavor already replete with hoaxes, forgeries, charlatans, and publicity stunts. Towards the end of his above-linked piece, Nick Redfern expresses fear that the shenanigans over the slides have damaged investigation into the events of Roswell to a "100 percent, irreversible degree." I hope that isn't true, but I suspect somehow that real, quality investigations will press onward.

These types of ridiculous claims have always been among us, just as hoaxes have been. They always will be, too. It does indeed detract from credible claims and it's frustrating as all hell, but it's a reality. What's more, claims such as the slides are not always perpetuated by the nefarious motive of greed, but by "true believers"; I'm sure you know them, the type that latches on to any UFO-related claim and avows them as gospel despite any evidence to the contrary. After all, anyone who presents said evidence to the contrary must be part of the disinformation wing of the global conspiracy, right? I've found so much of this by reading further into the Dulce matter.

How do we combat it? Well, I can say that my modest contributions will be based on evidence and run through the filter of my own Ufological bibliomania. And I promise not to have any gala events announcing that I've found alien corpses.

Well, that is unless I actually find an alien body and that it is in fact not a child mummy.

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Friday, May 8, 2015

NOAA: CO2 reaches benchmark level

Time now again for Science Friday.

Yet another sobering announcement in regard to climate change.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released findings that in March of 2015, the monthly global average concentration of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million for the first time. Representatives of the agency are calling this a "significant milestone."

“This marks the fact that humans burning fossil fuels have caused global carbon dioxide concentrations to rise more than 120 parts per million since pre-industrial times,” said Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network. “Half of that rise has occurred since 1980.”

In other words, there has never been a greater concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere since measurements began.

Now and then, a common question that comes in response to this is "how do they know?" Normally I support such skepticism, but there is an undertone that typically accompanies the query, one that implies that climate scientists are in a room somewhere making these things up on a ouija board. While that might be fun to watch, the true method is actually far more interesting to me. NOAA collects air samples from the decks of cargo ships, beaches of remote islands, and other locations around the world. The samples get collected from these places due to the fact that our atmosphere actually tends to average out greenhouse gas concentrations (due to both natural and human causes) on its own. The remote locations mentioned give a truer global average.

The release for the study gives even more cause for concern and perhaps even dulls the slight glint of optimism I offered on Earth Day. To halt the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we would need to cut fossil fuel emissions by 80% worldwide. I think we all know that's not going to happen. Besides even if we committed such a herculean feat, it would still take a considerable amount of time for the excess CO2 to be reabsorbed by the Earth. Yes, contrary to what denialists would have you think, that CO2 "which is good for plants" can't be soaked back in at a rate even close to how fast our burning of fossil fuels spits it into the atmosphere. It could always go into the ocean, I us a whole new set of problems, namely the change in acidity of the seas.

Temperatures will continue to rise. Extreme weather events will continue. Nothing is going to happen until we decide to make a change in how we consume fuels and what type of fuels we consume. I realize, yes, that I beat you all about on this topic until we're logy to the point of ridiculousness.

But you know what? It's kinda important.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Return to the Planet of the Apes

I have said it before and I'll say it again: YouTube is a treasure trove for science fiction fans.

It has reunited me with an animated series that just two days ago was a hazy, fuzzy memory. Now, thanks to binge watching on YouTube, I have plucked it from my kindergarten days of the 1970s and revisited it in the entirety...all as I graded papers, of course.

I'm talking about Return to the Planet of the Apes.

The pilot episode of the cartoon series is basically a reboot/retelling of the original Planet of the Apes film. It starts out with a really trippy, psychedelic intro. Despite cartoons being almost solely meant for children back then, the creators must have felt there needed to be an acid flashback in order to keep with the times. Anyway, three astronauts going by Judy, Bill, and Jeff, travel through space in what looks like an old Gemini capsule. Just like in the movie, they crash on Earth.

Or at least they thought it was Earth. What they find is a desert wasteland. In the course of traversing it, Judy is separated from her fellow marooned astronauts by a geological whosiwhatsis. The two men venture on and find what looks like Mount Rushmore...only all the faces are apes. After that, Bill and Jeff come across a settlement of primitive humans. There they meet a woman named Nova. Yes, the same character played by Linda Harrison in the first two movies, only not as hot. She is wearing military-issued dog tags. The name on the tags reads "Ronald, Brent." Astute viewers will recall that Brent Ronald was the name of the astronaut from Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The tags also say that he was born in 2079.

But the astronauts left Earth in 1976.


What's happened to them? Well I think we all know the answer. It isn't long until the humans meet up with apes like Dr. Zaius (get the song out of your head), General Urko (also in a glowing orange outfit), and Cornelius and Zira, just as in the film. But there's one critical difference when it comes to the animated series: Ape City is as modern as any 20th Century civilization. For example, the gorilla army drives jeeps, trucks, and tanks (in fact, it all looks strikingly similar to any of the solid green, plastic "army men" sets you could get in the dimestore during the 1970s.) Given that it's a cartoon, this show can do all kinds of cool things with the apes that would have been cost prohibitive in film.

To give further example, the post-apocalyptic Earth that the apes inhabit is far more exotic and exciting than its big screen counterparts. There's an enormous, prehistoric-like flying lizard along with a many tentacled monster. There's a gigantic gorilla similar to King Kong named Kigor, worshiped in a Buddhist-esque temple. See what they did there? They took the ape factor and cranked it up to 11. Dope.

Speaking of worship, the nuclear missile-worshiping mutants who dwelt under the remains of New York City in Beneath the Planet of the Apes are back. This time they're called "the Underdwellers" and they live in a volcano and shoot lasers from their eyes. They also augment their mind control abilities with technological devices since the budget now allows for it.

Let's see, what else? Politics continues among the apes as Urko suffers demotions and verbal defenestrations and de-pantsings as he loses control of the military. There are continual calls by Zaius and Urko to wipe the humans while Cornelius and Zira fight to buy time for them and the astronauts. There's an ape general who looks just like Fidel Castro and we get to hear an ape country music tune called, "I'm Going Humanoid Over You." We also get to see a platoon of gorilla ski troopers in arctic gear. What else could you want except for Charlton Heston?

I've embedded the first episode below for your viewing pleasure. Just one more service that ESE provides.

You're welcome, America!

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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

UFOs: Mass sightings

Not long ago, I was watching one of those UFO shows on an obscure channel.

You know the kind of show I'm talking about, right? Has really sinister sounding music bed? An ominous narrator warns of "global conspiracy" and the "alien threat among us?" Interviews done with Ufologists spouting bafflegab without evidence in what looks like a cable access studio? Yeah, those are the ones.  In this case, however, my interest was piqued.

It was a show on mass UFO sightings with the thesis being, "eventually there's going to be one so big and witnessed by so many people that The Powers That Be will no longer be able to hold their conspiracy together." What exactly is meant by "mass sighting?" Well the phrase is rather self-explanatory and I've posted about them before, but I think it's best defined by case examples:

The Phoenix Lights- This case garnered enormous national TV attention in March, 1997. I was excited to hear about it as well as eager to see the video one of the witnesses caught. My pal Armando had already seen it and cautioned me. "If it really is a spacecraft, then it's one the size of the motherships from Independence Day." As I watched the arc of bright orbs appear in the night skies over Phoenix, I had to admit that was exactly what it looked like. Turns out it was flares dropped by Air Force A-10s.
Too bad that doesn't cover the case. Hundreds of witnesses, including current and former Air Force personnel and the then-governor of Arizona, reported seeing not the lights in the sky but a diamond-shaped, craft that was black in color and boomerang in shape with five lights under the fuselage.

Belgian Triangle Wave- During 1990, a black, triangular craft was seen by numerous witnesses in the sky over Belgium. Witnesses included police officers, political officials, and military pilots. In the case of the latter, a pair of Belgian F-16s were scrambled to intercept the triangle and treat it as hostile. The triangle then disappeared at a speed in excess of MACH 8. Belgian authorities publicly acknowledged the flap in a press conference and played gun camera footage from the F-16. They also stated that they had no clue what it was but consider it to be a hostile intrusion into their sovereign airspace.

Saucers over the Capitol- in a wave of successive nights in July of 1952, saucer-shaped UFOs appeared over Washington D.C. Once more, there were many witnesses, including one who snapped the above picture. There is radar confirmation of the objects and again jet fighters are sent after the UFOs and again to no avail. President Truman went on national television to announce that he took the matter "seriously." It is thought that this helped instigate Project Stork.

I suppose one might argue for another definition of "mass sighting,"one that doesn't require the number of witnesses to be in the hundreds. An example of such a case might be say, an entire airliner full of people. Case files released by the British Ministry of Defense are said to detail such close encounters between UFOs and commercial passenger planes. Of course in regard to the MoD files, final release of all the documents has been delayed, eliciting cries of "cover up!" from the conspiracy crowd.

What exactly does a mass sighting tell us? Aside from the fact that it's nice to have numerous witnesses as opposed to a couple people in the middle of nowhere claiming "I saw something"? In light of these cases, I have two thoughts.

First, they are most likely tests of highly classified aircraft. They appeared over highly populated areas either by mistake or by design. In the case of Belgium, I am suspicious that the triangle was an American aircraft running through its capabilities in a field test over a modestly armed ally. That last bit is important for if anything goes wrong, you're not suddenly sending special ops to go rescue your pilots. Phoenix has all the earmarks of a military screw up. The top secret aircraft is in the wrong place and a dog-and-pony show of flares is arranged to create a distraction and a plausible explanation. For all we know, the UFOs over D.C. were military as well.

If these were not experimental planes and if evidence is not available for more prosaic explanations, then we are left with genuine UFOs. Are they aliens? Well, I can't get over a problem with the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) and these cases are good illustrations for why.

It's as if UFOs want to be seen. If aliens were really here and really wanted to do-whatever-it-is-they-do and to do so without notice or contact, they easily could. These on the other hand were high profile sightings. Even with our current gear we could get what we wanted and still not exactly make our presence known. It's almost like the phenomenon is popping onto the scene, waving while shouting "Hey! Look at me!" and then disappearing once more into the ether. A popular jab by skeptics is "Why don't UFOs just land on the White House lawn?" Well in the D.C. case of 1952, they almost did. But why?

To me, this indicates entities other than aliens, other intelligences. They are attempting to interact with us in bizarre ways but perhaps in the only ways that they can. But why, I have no idea.

Will there ever be a sighting so big that the reality of UFOs can no longer be denied? Perhaps. Even so, I wouldn't anticipate any kind of earth-shaking "disclosure."

I suspect that our government is basically as much in the dark as the rest of us.

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Monday, May 4, 2015

The Art of Arcadia

A big special thanks to my friend Maya Garcia who helped me out with this post. Also, of course, to my friend Jason Hyde who provided the inspiration.

On the whole, we seldom want art in our entertainment.

We want it even less when it's pretentious art. Meaning, it's not meant to especially evoke beauty and it's not exactly making a point, rather it exists because simply because someone could. I was reminded of the American disdain for pure art when my good friend and geek brother Jason sent me this article reminding me of an anniversary. This fall will mark 30 years since the release of Arcadia's So Red the Rose. But who is Arcadia, you might ask?

Well I suppose I don't blame you, considering. I shall briefly explain.

Cast your mind back to the summer of 1985. Duran Duran, my favorite band, was the biggest musical act on the planet. Unfortunately, there were fissures and cracks all throughout the band. Their somewhat, err...lackluster performance at Live Aid helped widen that division even more so. The band split into two distinct camps to work on their own side projects. John Taylor and Andy Taylor, the talents mostly responsible for the single "Wild Boys," co-founded Power Station with Robert Palmer and ex Chic drummer, Tony Thompson. Not to be outdone, the other three band members created their own project.

Simon Le Bon and Nick Rhodes, the minds who gave the band artful, deep cuts such as "The Chauffeur," began to work together. They brought Roger Taylor along for drums. It is from Nick Rhodes, however, that the entire concept of this splinter group would arise. I have long considered Nick to be the creative soul of the band and with good reason. Let's face it: he's arty. At the time of Arcadia's founding, he lived in a Victorian townhouse which he had decorated in Art Deco style and adorned with his private collection of Warhols and Picassos. In December 1984 he had his own exhibit of Polaroids and had just published his own book of photography, Interference. It should therefore be no shock that the project's name would come from a painting.

"Et In Arcadia Ego" was a 1638 painting by Poussin. It was based on the work the poet Virgil and was referenced by many writers such as Goethe and Nietzsche. It also is somewhat steeped in occult and conspiracy lore if you're interested in such things (an aside: So Red the Rose was recorded in Paris, relatively far from Rennes-le-Chateau, location mysterious location connected to the Poussin painting. Read up on it here.) So Rhodes and Le Bon lifted the name for the band, decided to title the forthcoming album, So Red the Rose, and the artyness just increases exponentially from that point.

First, there's the lead track on the record: "Election Day." The majority of the lyrics for Duran Duran's catalog were written by Simon Le Bon. His writing style, especially in the 1980s, was greatly inspired by the Romantic poets of the early 19th Century. Consequently, the words don't always have a logic to them and nor are they meant to. A few years back, I saw a tongue-in-cheek blog post called "Duran Duran lyrics that make no damn sense." Most were single lines from single songs. When it came to "Election Day," the blogger simply said, "ALL OF IT."

That's right. Whatever drugs Simon was on when he wrote this, give me three of them. Indeed, the song sounds as if it were composed from a giant Boggle bubble of phrases. Rather than that, I choose to believe it was written through the cut-up method of composition as made popular by William S. Burroughs and adopted by musicians such as David Bowie. Adding evidence to my theory is the fact that Burroughs makes a cameo appearance in the video for "Election Day."

Ah, yes. The video. What can I say about it? You thought the lyrics were nonsensical and the project pretentious? Just check this out (in long form, no less):

Yeah, there's really painful choreography going on in that one.

This video is beyond esoteric...and I'm writing a blog with that word in the title. Simon and Nick stated that the imagery was drawn from La Belle Et La BĂȘte by Jean Cocteau. I really wish I had read more Cocteau so that I might comment upon that but whaddya gonna do? Just sit back and let all those visuals wash over you. Nick and Simon with their hair dyed jet black and wearing leather and vintage tuxes as they wholly shun the diurnal and descend into some gothic underworld where human chess pieces pop out of the floor and geometric shapes are pulled about as hot chicks further add to the ambiance. Grace Jones adds a dominatrix-like, spoken word bit. There's also supposed to a torrent of occult messages included, but as with a sky full of fluffy white clouds, you can make almost anything you want to out of it. It's all very Dadaist.

"Election Day" was a hit in the U.S. but that's all that managed to chart off of So Red the Rose. The trio fared better in Europe and it's not all that surprising. Much of the record is synth-art and Europeans are more accepting of that. "Lady Ice" is a borderline goth piece, all cool and moody. Yet the real gem on the record, to my way of thinking, is the somber, beautifully ethereal "Missing," based upon the poem "On a Dead Child" by Richard Middleton. Check it out. You'll never forget it:

It's also quite a video, directed by the same artist who would go on to create the video for Duran Duran's 1989 hit, "All She Wants Is."

Another striking feature of So Red the Rose is the interior art. Simon, Nick, and Roger all had large portraits done by fashion illustrator, Tony Viramontes. All black and white with splashes of red, they seemed quite goth inspired. If memory serves, Viramontes even painted over the MTV studios in November of 1985 when Simon and Nick played guest VJs. Wow, if I ever had the money...and was ever pretentious enough...I always said I would commission a painting of myself just like the Viramontes portraits. They're exquisite.

Pretentious. We say it as if it's a bad thing, but in reality, it's another reason why I continue to be irked by the labeling and branding of Duran Duran...and tangentially "teen pop idols." However nonsensical, could mere "teen pop idols" produce anything as artful and deep as So Red the Rose? Does Justin Beiber or any of his contemporaries have anywhere near the wherewithal to produce anything of this kind? My answer is a resounding and most vehement "NO!" So I say why not to pretentious.

As Nick Rhodes himself said when the question was put to him:

"Pretentious?" smiled Nick Rhodes when challenged on it. "I should jolly well think so."

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