Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Boehner resigns...and that's not a good thing

"Usually the only orange empty head that is tossed out at the end of October is a jack-o'-lantern."

So quipped a friend of mine. He was, of course, referring to the resignation of John Boehner as Speaker of the House, effective at the end of October. It brought jubilation from each end of the political spectrum. It is misplaced, I believe. Grievously misplaced.

I have not been Speaker Boehner's biggest fan. I've sharply disagreed with him on most issues, found him reminiscent of an arrogant high school quarterback, and often referred to him as the "Hell no you can't!" to Obama's "Yes we can." Despite our differences, this resignation is really not a good thing for anyone who shares in the ideology that brought us the Affordable Care Act and measured, reasoned foreign policy. Why is that? I can best sum it up with one comment I saw online:

"Liberals everywhere mourn his fall from power, he was their kind of 'conservative.' "

Comma splice aside, the subtext of the comment is of course that John Boehner was no true conservative. Let's parse that for a moment. Boehner is someone who allowed 60 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Since Boehner took over the Speaker's role in 2010, House Republicans have threatened to shut down the federal government 12 times. Speaker Boehner has a voting record that is historically anti-environment, anti-education, and anti-choice to name just a few.

This is a man not considered conservative enough by many factions of the GOP.

In truth this schism in the Republican Party has been at least 15 years in the making. George W. Bush rode to power in 2000 by (among other things) following Karl Rove's plan of engaging the long untapped demographic of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians in the United States. Since Bush's departure from office, many of these said same voters have adopted the Tea Party as their political home. This has created a considerable shift in the flavor of the Republican Party as David Brooks pointed out on NPR last Friday.

Brooks called Boehner a "country club Republican." It's a stereotype of course, the affluent and WASPy character you might greatly disagree with but at least they know enough about politics to recognize that compromise is an accepted necessity. The Tea Party has brought a new breed of Republican to the fore, one Brooks called the "Duck Dynasty Republican." A quick Google search will show you any number of controversial statements made by the cast members of that aforementioned television show. These are the types of comments that appeal to the baser members of the population, those who only react and refuse to compromise. How can you compromise when your ideology is rooted in fundamentalism? These are the same forces behind both Ted Cruz in the past and Donald Trump today.

Boehner knew this. He said as much in an interview this week, calling other unnamed conservatives "false prophets" who are "spreading noise" rather than actually achieving anything concrete. This refusal to compromise is actually far more threatening than mere noise, though. As Greg Sargent points out in The Washington Post, the Tea Party "failed to block Obama’s transformation of the country; that must be because they didn’t even try, so they must be complicit. But this failure, too, is structural. Republicans don’t have the votes to surmount Dem filibusters or Obama vetoes." Yet the far right wing believes that this can be overcome by pure will to power and any Republican leadership that thinks otherwise is treasonous...yet more indication of compromise as anathema.

Blood's already in the water. The successor as Speaker will either signify a continuance of conventional conservatism or the rise of the Tea Party to control of the House. In the case of the former, that means more GOP in-fighting and a hamstrung Speaker. In the case of the latter, that means gridlock and senseless opposition on a level we have seldom seen before.

And that should scare you.

The current heir apparent is House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. He is already taking hits from the far right. Conservative pundit Erick Erickson posted this at Red State:

“McCarthy is not very conservative...If House Republicans wish to not find common ground with the conservatives who make up their base, McCarthy is a fine pick. But if they want to get everyone together as we head into November and then into 2016, they should consider someone else. McCarthy is a non-starter for conservatives and the bad blood will continue.”

Conservative talk show host Mark Levin simply called him "dimwitted."

To me it seems clear. There is more gridlock and turmoil on the horizon and a widening of the already deep divide in our nation.

I never thought I would actually miss John Boehner.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Star architect wants to build steam ring generator

Bjarke Ingels is a young architect with quite a pedigree.

He and his firm BIG have already been behind such high profile buildings as 2 World Trade Center and an underground soccer field in Denmark. Now he wants to crowdfund the world's first steam ring generator in Copenhagen.

It would be "the cleanest waste-to-energy plant in the world" according to the promo video. It will incinerate trash to produce steam. Every time one ton of CO2 has been released, the plant also releases a giant ring of excess steam into the air. This allows every in the city a visual and intuitive means to track and verify the plant's pledged emissions. The linked video also gives a schematic of the generator itself, but my anomia for such things coupled with time constraints this evening prevent me from getting into the details. Check it out for yourself, please.

The building itself is designed as an upward slope  of crisscrossed metal, resembling something of a chain link fence. Its slanted design will also allow the building to be used as a functional ski slope, complete with trees and halfpipes. All that and fighting climate change, too.

A Kickstarter goal of $15,000 has been set. This is to build a larger scale prototype before going for the real thing. Crowfunding is necessary as investors have been reluctant to get involved. This is due to the "art installation" aspects of the design, the steam ring and the ski slope. While these might not be essential parts of any power plant, their greater significance is obvious even if difficult to translate into capitalistic gain. Additionally, success of this initiative may create new opportunities for architects to get their ideas in front of people. Too often, they are among the last to be consulted in the design of "cities of the future."

Now if only I could get the hang of crowdfunding...

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, September 28, 2015

The waters of Mars

I was having a discussion about space a little while back.

Someone was telling me that aliens were coming here for our water. I responded that water is actually rather plentiful throughout space, especially in the form of ice. "But not salt water," the person responded. Actually, I mused, the elements of salt water would have to be more plentiful than what we would term "fresh water" here on Earth, making our planet not necessarily all that attractive for the wayworn space traveler.

Now we know that said same salt water exists on Mars. In liquid form, no less.

Just today, NASA announced findings that liquid water still flows on Mars. This was determined by looking at dark streaks in the Martian landscape and higher elevations. Astronomers noticed that these streaks were seasonal. By testing the wavelengths of sunlight returned from the dark areas, it was found that these areas absorb specific wavelengths associated with chemicals in water. The water in question is, as mentioned earlier, quite salty. It needs to be in order to stay in liquid form within Mars' icy surface temperatures.

Where exactly the water is coming from is the still the subject of much conjecture. It may be from melting ice...especially likely if the water flows are seasonal and recurring...and maybe even from underground aquifers. Of course there is another natural question that is drawing even more conjecture: is there life on Mars? The pat equation for us humans has always been "where there is water, there is life." Not so fast. We're along way from verifying anything like that. But there is hope.

"The existence of liquid water, even if it is super salty briny water, gives the possibility that if there's life on Mars, that we have a way to describe how it might survive," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA.

While this has been suspected for a long time, it's still a big deal to find solid evidence confirming those suspicions. In fact, it's been a real bonanza of space science in the past two days. Last night was, of course, the supermoon/eclipse/bloodmoon-palooza. Yes, just as in the song by U2, the "Moon turned red over One Tree Hill." I assume it did, anyway. The Moon was red all over the world, of course. This is due to sunlight filtering through the Earth's atmosphere before it hits the surface of the Moon. It was quite a thing to behold and I wish I could have gotten decent pics of it. A marvel, really. In a coincidental fashion, the Moon even resembled the planet Mars in hue there for a very brief time. I understood how ancient peoples would have freaked out over it.

Actually, I was sort of hoping a wide swath of Christian fundamentalists would have taken it as a sign of Armageddon and just stayed in their churches. And stayed. And stayed.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Heider and Simmel video

Sometimes real life hands me a blog post.

Don't worry. I'm not going to into another one of my frank, a-bit-too-revealing accounts of my struggles with depression or troubles at home. From now on, I'm going to try to keep those to a bare minimum. No, when I say "real life," I mean something I've personally encountered in the course of the day that isn't from an online article. I am currently teaching a course on the Ancient Greeks and Romans. We are reading The Odyssey, that scorbutic sea tale of danger, obstacles, tribulations, and revenge. A lecturer showed us this video in an effort to illustrate how storytelling is hardwired into human beings, as demonstrated by the early Greeks as well as others.

It's called the Heider and Simmel animation. What did you see in it? Besides geometric shapes? Did you think the shapes were doing something to one another? Bullying? Being mean? Another interpretation altogether, perhaps? The purpose of the animation was to demonstrate that in order to understand something, we humans will create a narrative. More than likely, you've attached story to what you've just seen. That is, in part, how we communicate and how we learn.

Filing out of the auditorium in a sea full of college sophomores in their uniform of flip flops and sweatpants, I somehow felt better about myself as a writer. That video...and the lecturer...reminded me that I am actively engaged in a noble undertaking. It's perhaps older than we realize and is one of the more fundamental attributes of being human.

One of the very few I would like to keep.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Did Homo naledi bury their dead?

I am continuing my recently-found interest in human origins.

All the more reason I was glad to find this article at PBS' NOVA. It detailed how 1,550 bones from the early humans known as Homo naledi were found in a remote cave in South Africa. The beginning of the text starts out like an adventure novel, speaking of voyaging through "nauseatingly narrow passages" and traversing a "40-foot vertical drop" that was only eight inches wide in a few places.
It's not just the geography of the location that makes this find interesting. There are a few other peculiar facts as well.

For one thing, the bones are exclusively from Homo naledi. The bones do not show signs of teeth marks or other such telltale signs that they were carried there by predators. If the cave were the bottom of a once open pit that they all fell into then the bones should be shattered and scattered at the point of impact. There should also be bones of other animals present. No, the skeletons are in many cases complete and "lying more or less in the position they last had in life." The conclusion one must come preliminary stages that these Homo naledi went through the claustrophobic constraints to bury their dead.

It's curious then to speculate just how far back hominids had a concept of death. Contemporary apes have demonstrated an unambiguous understanding that death is irreversible when one of their group dies. Chimpanzees and other primates exhibit mourning behaviors of watching over a corpse in silence or grooming it. They may sometimes stop eating out of grief. In other cases, members of the groups have filed past corpses to say goodbye, almost in a manner like a human wake. Unlike humans, however, the apes do not bury their dead.

Is this what happened in the cave in South Africa? Sure looks that way, even though it can't be said for certain. The mass pile of dead might be from one catastrophe or another. But it just looks so ritualistic. This cave, one so difficult to get into, was designated as a sacred space for the dead by our distant ancestors. At the very least, it might have been a practical matter. It was a convenient repository to store corpses so the dead weren't laying around and decomposing, stinking up and contaminating everyone else. There's just an uncomfortable amount of guesswork sometimes in these matters as one paleontologist points out in the article.

“Mortuary ‘rituals’ wherein pinheads [the nickname given to the Homo naledi due to their small craniums] regularly dispose of corpses makes a better headline than ‘we don’t yet have a clue,’ ” William Jungers, a paleontologist at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, told National Geographic.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Would you feel inspired in a weird workplace?

If society demands we must work, then why not make it weird?

That sounds good to me. Seems to sound good to the folks at the BBC as well. I saw this article over there about how workplaces are changing up the mix and being creative as to where their staff spend their days (and let's face it, sometimes nights.) Anything beats cubicles or sharing an office so let's take a look at a few of the "out there" options that are out there. I leave it to your judgment if they indeed sound weird.

-TREExOFFICE in London. It's an urban treehouse built on stilts around a tree. It has eight workstations with WiFi. Up until now, the only the guys at Keebler could brag that they "work in a treehouse." Or a "hollow tree," at any rate.

-A New York City attorney turned his yacht into an office. He conducts all of his work at sea, via WiFi of course. Nice arrangement if you can afford it.

-If you can't work in a treehouse, then why not work in a train? London's got this one, too. There's a disused train sitting atop a warehouse that houses an art collective. The train has had its mechanical parts removed in order to create more room to work. There's also no insulation. Tends to make things a bit on the cool and crisp side during the chillier months of the year. On the other hand...
"There's no big management in place, no hierarchy, and I think the space has affected that," says one of the workers in the collective.

This has inspired me to seek out other "weird office spaces." I found this list. While there are a few that are somewhat "steps to the left," I see two big winners for my money. One is the Longaberger Basket Company from Ohio. Their headquarters is a seven story office building that looks exactly like a basket. Also in the good ol' U.S. of A. is the Casket Arts Building in Minneapolis. It manufactured all manner of funerary gear up until 2005. Now the floors of the building house artists (I'm noticing a pattern here.) There's also The Engine Group in London (man, London gets cooler by the second for me.) It has a meeting room with spinning waltzers and an elevator with an interior covered in Jaffa Cakes. Nice.

Keep in mind that while your environs might help, much of your workplace mood is dependent upon those you work with. Here's to hoping that settings such as these would cut down on the likelihood of working with conservative fundies who harbor almost sexual love of debate and evangelizing or manipulative types who leave you penitent without exactly knowing why.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, September 21, 2015

Duran Duran--Paper Gods

For me, there is no joy, no sin, no rapture so exquisite as removing a brand new Duran Duran record from the wrapper.

It's ritualistic. It's ethereal. It's any other adjective you can come up with to sufficiently weird you out even more over my total fandom for Duran Duran. Their 14th album release, Paper Gods, came to me on my birthday. I've spent the past week giving it multiple listens, allowing it to digest properly. That's necessary for me to gain a full understanding with their music as the band has never made the same record twice. While that's a mark in the positive column for them, I'm a bit apprehensive as the previous record, All You Need Is Now was just so damn good with them going back to their roots. Part of me would almost like them to record AYNIN part II, but I can't imagine how boring that would be for them as artists. So I've listened to Paper Gods more than a few times by now and I'm able to provide you with what I feel is a fair, track-by-track analysis:

1. "Paper Gods"--The title track opens with an acapella chorus, evoking a gospel spiritual. This, suffice it to say, is a new sound for Duran. I was blown away by it, seemingly by design as it is the first sound you hear on the record. In its own way, this is reminiscent of the camera sounds at the start of "Girls On Film" on the band's very first album. It jars you. It forces you to sit up and listen to what's coming next. The song then takes you on and up and down journey until finishing out in a low-key breathy fashion. Reminded me of Nine Inch Nails from Year Zero or the Ghosts sessions....and I obviously mean that as the highest compliment possible. Of course the words are wonderful. They're really taking a materialistic, capitalistic society to task.

2. "Last Night in the City"--OK, obviously they wanted to make a dance record. Duran Duran is a band that has always kept themselves musically relevant and EDM is the sound du jour of the clubs and such. While this is quite catchy and I normally enjoy such electronically-driven pieces, EDM just makes me picture a dance floor full of "bros" pumping their fists. It's also reminiscent of 2007's Red Carpet Massacre, which I sadly was not a fan of. Still, I can't praise my favorite band on one hand for never making the same record twice and on the other hand complain when it doesn't go my way musically. They always want to branch out so I say let 'em.
UPDATE: This one is really starting to grow on me.

3. "Kill Me with Silence"--Now THIS is the stuff! Just listen to those creepy opening notes, taking me all the way back to "The Chauffeur" (a Duran masterpiece as any devoted fan will tell you.) This is Nick Rhodes at his finest, It's haunting, much in the same way as "Is There Anyone Out There" is. Best of all, it contains an allusion, one I've confirmed with Katy Krassner of Ask Katy fame. There is a line that goes "drive another lad insane." The first time I heard that lyric, I thought it was "Aladdin Sane." I thought it might be an allusion to Bowie, given the band's history with him. Sure enough it is. Oh and that line "couldn't be much worse in hell" really got to me.

4. "Pressure Off"--This one had to grow on me. I like Nile Rodgers, one of the producers on the record and a long time collaborator with the band. I am not, however, not big on "Duran funk." To get an idea of what I mean by that, take a listen to most any track off of 1986's Notorious (a good album, just not one of my favorites from the band.) But as wise philosophers from Miami once said, "rhythm's gonna get you." I can no longer keep myself from tapping my toes, bobbing my head, and singing along with the chorus. You got me, Nile. You got me.
Oh and I'm sure JT is going rock the house live with this song's bass track.

5, "Face for Today"--Again, this one's just too EDM-dancey for my tastes. And yet...and yet...that chorus. That chorus just pulls me right in and says "Dude, you're not going anywhere." Musically, you can tell on this track just how much Duran can keep a synth sound fresh, keeping up with and stacking up against anything being played in dance clubs right now. This track also has plenty of Simon harmonizing with himself, something he is uniquely adept at among singers.

6. "Dancephobia"--'Tis a silly thing. No thanks.

7. "What Are the Chances?"--Unbelievable. Utterly amazing. The harmonics. The layered sounds. The interwoven shreds of guitar. This is a "slow jam" of sheer beauty and rendered in way that only Duran Duran can deliver. I'm fully ready to put this song on the same level as "Ordinary World" and that's saying something.
I think I just listened to it for the 100th time in the past week. Please play this one live, guys. "A diamond explodes..." Oh man, those strings at the end! I'm gushing! I'm gushing! Fanboy alert!

8. "Sunset Garage"--This one shocked the bejeezus out of me. I suddenly found myself transported to an episode of Mad Men, complete with Don Draper driving along the California coast in a convertible. Seriously, it sounds like something The Supremes would have done. Lively. Peppy. Motown-y. I shouldn't like it as I'm a hardcore fan of the New Wave sound (still have All You Need Is Now playing on a weekly basis.) but you know what? I love this song. There. I said it. It's a happy tune and can't we all use more happy? Kudos to the band for still knowing how to surprise all these years later. Who knows what else is in their toolbox.

9. "Change the Skyline"--It's okay. Another dance track. Not bad. Worth checking out, but tends to be one I skip over as I replay the album.

10. "Butterfly Girl"--This is my jam! Reminds me of the kind of hard-edged funk that Prince would kick out. There's also a wonderful use of female vocals of the kind the band is known for with songs like "The Reflex," "Election Day" (yes, I know that's Arcadia), and "The Man Who Stole a Leopard." Could turn me into a dancer...or at least it will if they play it live. Can't wait.

11. "Only in Dreams"--There are real moments of brilliance in this song. It opens with slow strings that epitomize just how wonderful electronic music can be. Then come along a few just plain strange sounds that enervate the song overall for me. On the plus side, John really rocks it out on this one.

12. "The Universe Alone"--A true spiritual quality pervades this track. It is somber, it is haunting, and it is just quite moving in general. It brings to mind "Midnight Sun" from Medazzaland (a favorite song of mine from my favorite Duran album) but more upbeat and evocative of a space voyage...something I'm sure you know by now I'm unopposed to. It is placed brilliantly as a bookend to the opening chorus of "Paper Gods," closing out with a choir briefly coupled with an industrial rumble worthy of NIN. So good.


13. "Planet Roaring"--WOW!! How the hell was this a bonus track? It should be front in center. It is a jam. I mean a jam. Just can't stop playing it. Oh yeah it also features Steve Jones on guitar from The Sex Pistols. This is the best song on the album. PLEASE play this live!

14. "Valentine Stones"--Somewhat catchy chorus but it just falls flat for me. If played live, that's probably when I'll go get a drink. Then be unable to get back to my seat for a gem like "Reflex" or "Wild Boys." Nah, forget the drink.

15. "Northern Lights"--Ominous at the onset, but mellowing out into a smooth, Beatles-like chorus. It truly does have a polar quality to it as the title suggests, bringing with it a sense of cold air. I know that sounds weird, but it's the best way I have to describe it.

The upshot? It's just not quite as good as All You Need Is Now, but that might just be my own tastes. I think you can tell there are still plenty of amazing songs on here and I certainly wouldn't be without this record. Apparently, plenty of others agree with me as Paper Gods debuted at the number 10 slot on the Billboard 100. Takes me back to those heady times in the early 1980s when "Is There Something I Should Know?" debuted at #1 in Britain. Duran Duran have done it again. They are musical gods, true, but they are hardly paper.

All bow.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, September 18, 2015

Climate change: "God's will"

Time now again for Science Friday.

Or rather pseudoscience once more. I'm not even sure how this came across my feed. It was a letter to the editor for a news site (if you can call it that) of one form or another or something like that. The subject of the letter was, among other things, climate change. Here's an excerpt:

"Scientists and others are worried about climate change. I believe they are deceived because of unbelief of the almighty God. There have been floods and droughts, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes from the beginning of mankind 6,000 years ago. These could cause climate change but only if God allows it."

Hoo-boy, where to start?

First of all, I am not going to mock this man's belief in God. My own spiritual views are perplexed to say the least and someone else's views on deity are none of my business. Provided, that is, that they keep it away from me and the public sphere. Second of all, the writer of the letter should not be singled out as I don't believe his opinion is a unique one necessarily.

That should disturb us.

It should disturb us because of what it means. "God is in control of the climate, so it doesn't matter what we do." If you were God, would you not be at least a bit insulted by that? It sounds like a total shirking of responsibility. No matter how reckless we get with our environment, it doesn't matter because He's going to call the shots anyway. What if we expand that view to other behaviors? Scary and I'm willing to bet not entirely representative of most religions.

There is also no way to engage someone like this with facts. It doesn't matter that this past summer was the hottest one on record. It doesn't matter that arctic ice is melting. This is God's will so why would we do anything about it? Let the climate change and just accept it as the larger plan of the almighty. See how it still gets us off the hook? That's where, as I mentioned earlier, the danger comes in when religious thinking of this kind overrides scientific fact in regard to policy-making in the public sphere. Then there's this...

There are many different cogs and facets in the machinations of "the denial industry" (yes, I'm aware that's a very old link.) All manner of "research" has been conducted via funding from oil companies and fake "citizen groups" that essentially props up fraudulent "science," claiming that the verdict on climate change is inconclusive. They were successful in setting back action on climate change by at least ten years. It's still a powerful force, more powerful than I'd like it to be, but it's getting harder for it to make headway when 97% of peer-reviewed, published papers on the subject of climate say that climate change is happening and humans are the cause. In light of this, is there another avenue corporate interests could take in order to hold fast to their profits? There is. It also happens to one with a built-in shield of sorts against argument as it is rooted in faith (therefore untestable), not fact.

It's called religion.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Download the NASA art and style manual

Ever wonder about the artists who design symbols for the government?

Probably not, but I do. Take the famous radiation symbol for example. What went into it? In terms of design, I mean. I'm too tired and lazy to go looking for the link right now, but I read an interesting story behind the process. The government was concerned about the long half lives inherent with radioactive elements. Planners thought that nuclear waste could still be "hot" well into an era where we have ceased to speak English. Or speak any kind of recognizable language for that matter. How would you design a symbol to convey the dangers of radioactive waste to the unsuspecting denizen of centuries to come who happens across a buried canister or whatever?  The radioactive symbol is what we got.

One good thing about many government projects is that their products are often free to the public. We paid for them, after all. That's why NASA just released their style manual as free for download. The manual details the guidelines for the agency's immediately recognizable "worm logo."

"We have adopted a new system of graphics-the visual communications system by which we are known to those who read our publications, see our vehicle markings and signboards and the logotype that unmistakably brands them as NASA's," says NASA Administrator Richard Tully in the 1976 introduction to the manual.

Geez, even then they were talking about "branding."

I'm imagining what the design meetings must have been like during that era. Was it a cultural collision? I see NASA geeks involved, the guys who design robotic space probes and who would really rather be back doing that than in meeting about art. Were there ad execs like in Mad Men? Was Don Draper strolling around the conference room, cigarette between his index and middle fingers, saying, "What is this logo going to say to us? It's taking us on a journey. It's saying though the line curves it keeps moving forward...into the future."

Then again look at the era. There might also have been artists...and I mean really arty on the project. People in berets or those old African-inspired tunics. "This is my vision," one of them announces to the administrators at the pitch meeting. He unveils the easel. Then another one of his brood has an artistic meltdown.  "We are not using a Helvetica font! It's too-too!" Then he storms out and goes looking for Don so he can bum a cigarette.

At least that's how it plays out in the theater of my mind.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mars: yes, it's all in your head

Officials at NASA have finally reached critical mass over the claims of strange things seen on Mars.

And it's about time, I say. You know the claims I speak of. There was a near endless stream of them over the past year it seems. Here's but a soupcon of things "researchers" claim to have seen on Mars:

-A casket.
-A crab.
-An iguana.
-A "facehugger" from Alien.
-Spaceships of various kinds, like the Star Destroyer from Star Wars.

This is all in addition to the original claims of "faces" on Mars and the pyramids of the Cydonia region. While I'm sure the people who pore over photographs from Mars are having a good time, they're not doing much more than making shapes out of clouds. We've all done it. You look up at the clouds and say "that one looks like a duck" or "that one looks like a Buick" or "that looks just like a profile portrait of Truman Capote."

Okay, maybe I'm the only one who's offered that latter observation but you get the idea.

It all has to do with neurology. Our brains look for familiar patterns and shapes. Sometimes our brains will recognize similarities to those patterns, even if the objects aren't even there to begin with. This is called pareidolia and it's the same reason people see Jesus in their sandwiches or the Virgin Mary in a tree. While this mechanism of the brain has helped us to survive and to perform functions such as recognizing faces in crowds, it can fool us as well. In this case, people are just doing the same thing they would on Earth with rocks on Mars.

No, there's nothing inherently wrong with anybody voicing what they "see" in rocks on Mars. In truth, it's kinda fun. My issue is with how these outrageous claims distract from the real objective of searching for life elsewhere. The pool of public opinion is now in many ways tainted. If evidence of life is found, the easy temptation would be to say "you're seeing things in rocks just like everyone else." That is unless its a find backed up by crackerjack research and firm evidence, something found by one of the rovers, let's say. But it pretty much closes the door on anything an intrepid user of Google Mars might come across and not without good reason.

If you need additional help sorting the wheat from the chaff in Mars claims, Corey Powell posted a BS detector guide for implausible claims at Discover. It's quite similar to what I tell students in terms of how to vet a source.

Nah, I take it all back. I might just be crotchety but I think passing off rocks as proof of alien life is pretty dumb and I'm tired of hearing about it. Do us a favor, armchair Mars researchers. Next time you think you "see" a waffle iron or something equally stupid on Mars, keep it to yourself.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Missing 411

Something weird has been happening in our national parks.

I don't know if it's paranormal exactly, but something doesn't make sense. Writer David Paulides was on Coast-to-Coast AM a couple months ago to talk about this subject. A veteran of law enforcement, Paulides has written a series of books about the disproportionate amount of unsolved disappearances that have taken place in these areas. Yes, yes, it might at first appear to be an obvious connection. National parks are wilderness areas and as such, people do often disappear for many reasons. However, they, or what's left of them, are also often found. Eventually. These 1,600 or so unexplained disappearances have yet to be explained.

Oftentimes, according to Paulides, the disappeared are small children. In cases where bodies of these children have been recovered, many times they are in boulder fields or between rocks or atop steep areas that would have been almost impossible for a two or three year-old to access. There are also strange cases where missing adults have been found dead, but without the majority of their clothes. Their bodies also do not have sunburns or insect bites, even after having been missing for a week or more.

In further research, Paulides has found that these patterns of disappearances are not limited to national parks or forests. He has also discovered a number of strange disappearances of young men in urban areas, men who were smart, athletic, and professional. They have no history of alcoholism or other drug use. Nor do they have criminal records. There are also no witnesses, cell phone records, or video surveillance available from the moments leading up to their disappearances. On the occasions where bodies have been recovered, they have been found in water. Paulides argues that despite coroner rulings of drowning, he believes the evidence he has seen shows that the individuals died elsewhere and were then dumped in the water. The bodies were also found to have high amounts of alcohol present...even if the individual was not known to be a drinker.

Paulides provided the following case study:

"One such case was that of Fordham student Patrick McNeil, who disappeared after leaving a Manhattan bar in February of 1997. Fifty five days later, McNeil's body was discovered in the East River, twelve miles from where he was last seen. A medical examination of the body indicated that he died on land, but the coroner, nonetheless, listed the cause of death as drowning.  Paulides also recounted the strange case of Steven Kubacki, who disappeared for fifteen months and reemerged with no discernible knowledge of his whereabouts over that time, as well as Elisa Lam, a Canadian student who disappeared from a Los Angeles hotel and was later inexplicably found dead in a water tank on the hotel roof."

Is this all explainable coincidence? Tommyrot and tomfoolery to rake in cash from people who dig strange things (like me)? Or is there something actually paranormal going on? It's very hard for me to say. I would need to see more evidence and it sounds like David Paulides is trying for just that through his Kickstarter for a documentary film on this subject, The Missing 411.

At first blush, I would say that there is a genuine mystery to what's happening with these disappearances. Just what the answer is, well...that's where things might end up being more mundane than we realize.

Or not. If I go missing any time soon, please keep all of this in mind.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Space: 1999 on Power Records

YouTube has led me to yet another bonanza of science fiction.

If you were a small child during the 1970s, you might remember Power Records. They were basically radio dramas that came on records, accompanied by a comic book where you could read the story as you listened. There would be the customary "ding!" tone to prompt you to turn the page. Best of all, they told continuing stories of just about every genre hero and science fiction franchise of the time. I had Batman, Superman, and The Six Million Dollar Man and must have played each one of them...well, it's difficult to quantify from that far back, but it might very well be a number in the triple digits.

Anyway, a blessed soul has uploaded many of these Power Records to YouTube. Not only do you have the sound, there is video of the comic books so that you can read along, complete with pages turned at designated tone. I've sifted through a few of them, but I decided to concentrate on the records that I did not have. Chief among that crowd is Space: 1999. I thought it fitting to blog about that franchise as September 13th, 1999 is the date given in the show for when the explosion occurred, hurling Moonbase Alpha into the far reaches of space. One of the records is basically a recapitulation of the pilot episode of this series. The one I listened to was...well...

Let's just say it was the oddest choice for a plot since Star Trek V.

It opens with Commander John Koenig and the rest of the Moonbase Alpha crew battening down the hatches against a "space storm" that looks remarkably like an Earth hurricane. They even say so. Anyway, they pass through the storm. Professor Victor Bergman, the base Science Adviser, theorizes that the Moon had passed through a black hole. "But wouldn't that mean we would have been incinerated by a dying star?" asks Commander Koenig.

Let's not get caught up in the science right now, okay?

A planet appears on the viewscreens. It's a dead ringer for Earth. Sensor scans only underscore the similarities. The big difference, however, is that there are no indications of communication signals or even technology of any kind. Ordering up an Eagle, Koenig takes Bergman and Dr. Helena Russell from the medical section down to the planet to investigate. When they land, the parallels to Earth only grow...except that it's Earth from the time of the Old Testament.

"We're going down to the land of Canaan!" Koenig says.

With that, the crew from Moonbase Alpha leave their Eagle and walk down a hill to a village. There, they find people engaged in all manner of revelries and inequities. A man named Noah rails against the decadence, telling people to fear the Lord for there is a storm coming. A call from Alan Carter in the Eagle confirms this assertion. Sensors indicate an earthquake and a massive storm that will unleash a flood across the entirety of the planet. Koenig also tries to warn the people of the coming deluge, saying that unlike Noah, he has scientific data to back up his claims. Nobody cares.

Indeed the flood occurs and the away team from Moonbase Alpha get back to their Eagle just in time to blast off and escape. Back at the base, they determine that they time traveled to the the days of Noah but have since somehow returned to their own timeline. In a sick twist, the castaways did indeed return to their home, just not in the right time.

I have no idea what possessed someone to tell this as a Space: 1999 story. It certainly did not go the way of any mundane science fiction plot, but I don't know what motivated a biblical tale. It's just such an odd choice. Then again I'm looking at this through a contemporary lens. The Bible was mainstream story material for a long time. It's also quirky timing that I should find this on YouTube. I'm teaching a course on Western Civilization and we just finished the Hebrews. Had I known of this record's plot earlier, I might have played it for the class.

Yeah. That really would have puzzled people.

Expect more posts on Power Records as I play through them all.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Kim Davis, you are no Parks or MLK

There are times when it is difficult for me to discuss political matters without getting heated.

I want to appear mature, intelligent, and if I'm lucky, maybe even seem like I know what I'm talking about. But then there are times when my buttons just get pushed. One such time this past week was when Kim Davis was compared to both Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks.

In April, the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that same sex couples have the right to get married. Kim Davis, Clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, didn't much like that decision. It meant that she, a professed Christian, would have to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She refused to do so, was thrown in jail, and was released just yesterday. Matthew Staver, Davis' attorney, compared her to Dr. Martin Luther King, quoting from Letters from a Birmingham Jail and saying that Davis was willing to be jailed as a consequence of not betraying her conscience. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has also rushed to Davis' defense, Huckabee himself once calling for MLK-like resistance to gay marriage. On Twitter, Republican Congressman Steve King said, "Kim Davis for Rosa Parks Award."

Geez. Where to start?

First of all, there is no shame in following one's conscience and certainly one's religious beliefs. If we see something occurring that we believe is wrong, it is our duty to act in a non-violent manner or to at least say something. We even have the right to oppose and disobey laws that we believe are morally unjust, provided we are willing to face the consequences of that opposition. Kim Davis has done just that by refusing to do her job.

It's after that where the King and Parks comparisons really fall apart.

When Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks took action, they did so in an effort of inclusion. African Americans were not being treated as equal parts of American society. They were not even being afforded basic rights or dignity. King's acts of non-violent, civil disobedience were carried out to defy immoral "separate but equal" policies and to have African Americans included as full members of the societal fabric. Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, thus sending a message that anyone should have the right to sit in any open seat they prefer.

But Kim Davis is not Rosa Parks. She's more like the bus driver who refused to drive until Parks changed seats.

What Kim Davis did was an effort of exclusion. Regardless of how much her convictions are steeped in religious belief, she wanted to deny a basic right to people, a right that was ruled by the Supreme Court as being "the law of the land," not at all unlike their civil rights rulings of the 1950s-60s.  Her actions intimate that homosexuals do not share the same rights as everyone else, in effect denigrating them as less than human. How else can one interpret that? If you do not have the same rights as everyone else, then you really must not be a person.

This whole Kim Davis matter of comparison reminds me of the 1988 Vice-Presidential debates. Senator Dan Quayle stated that he had the same level of experience in the Senate as John Kennedy. His opponent, Senator Lloyd Bentsen, calmly replied, "You, Senator, are no Jack Kennedy."

You, Ms. Davis, are no Rosa Parks. You are no Martin Luther King. I'm not even sure if you're any Jimmy Swaggert. Aside from the fact that Parks and King were also bipedal, I run out of similarities. No, you have not made these comparisons yourself, but your supporters have. You have not exactly jumped up and eschewed the comparisons, either.

The truth is, Davis and her supporters are in trouble. As an elected official, she has a job to do and she has refused to do it. This has placed her in contempt of court. Her own lawyer refuses to answer basic questions as to what the legal limits are to Davis' conscience, were fair accommodations made, and just where the funding is coming from for her defense. Huckabee can't answer simple questions about the Bible and marriage. The American public is not on Davis' side as the majority support gay marriage. History is not on her side. She will not be remembered as a King or a Parks. Instead, it is likely that Davis, Huckabee, and the rest of the brood will be looked upon more as the Southern Segrationists that once served in Congress.

I am left wondering how deep these convictions run or if they are all Fata Morgana for "stuff I don't like." How would Davis and her supporters would apply their Christian beliefs in other situations? One online comment really encapsulated the conundrum of arguing from a biblical perspective: How would Republicans react if a Customs Agent gave food, water, and clothing to an illegal immigrant? What if, when pressed, said agent explained her/his actions by stating, "I am Christian. I am obligated to love my neighbor and welcome strangers to my land. Have you read the parable of the Good Samaritan?"

Yes. What would they say indeed.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Transhumanism and the Dawn of the Singularity

As fewer and fewer people actually read, infographics are taking over.

Now there's one for transhumanism. In all likelihood there's probably been one or more than a few, even, knocking around the Interwebs for a while, but this is a recent one I've come across from I must admit, it's handy. I know that's coming on the heels of an opening sentence that bemoans infographics as yet another nail in literacy's coffin, but in a way, it works.

I often find myself having to convince others of the massive leaps transhuman technology is taking and how close we are to utterly transformative developments. I'm talking about innovations that will completely change our lives for the better. The predictions on the inforgraphic are all taken from Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, the same text I use for my class on transhumanism. As Kurzweil points out in that book, exponential growth can be a deceptive thing. When you stand at the base of a cliff, you can't always see just how high the top is from you. So it is with revolutionary technologies. This infographic allows me to present someone with a trajectory for the future in an at-a-glance format.

Here are few predictions for the years ahead:

-The digital world makes paper books and documents almost entirely obsolete.
-Computers are embedded in just about every piece of our environment (walls, furniture, etc.)
-Manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation are almost entirely automated/run by robots.

-VR eyeglasses and headphones are replaced with brain implants.
-Artificial intelligence claims to be conscious, self-aware.
-Cybernetic replacements are available for most every part of the human body.

-Nanotech is inserted directly into the brain, allowing for the control of incoming and outgoing signals.
-Similarly, nanobots in the brain can elicit emotional responses.

-The Singularity occurs.

-Artificial food is assembled by nanomachines.
-The line between reality and virtual reality is blurred due to the innovation of "foglets," tiny, self-assembled robots.

-There are humans around at the time of this writing who are still alive and well in 2099.
-Artificial intelligence creates supercomputers the size of planets.
-Organic human beings are a very small minority of the intelligent life on Earth.

As to that latter point, my snarky self might say that's how things already are, but I'll refrain from being a curmudgeon.

While I'm still not crazy about the use of the term "Singularity" and I would like to see more of Kurweil's predictions for genetic engineering, that does not negate the other useful information present in the graphic. After all, the meat of it comes from Kurzweil...and he's chief engineer at Google! Before anyone accuses me of Appeal to Authority, that was tongue in cheek. Still, it is unlikely that Kurzweil would have been given such a position at such a powerful outfit if at least a few smart people didn't think he was on to something. The years ahead may not develop exactly as he predicts, but then what does? If transhumanism develops even halfway as Kurzweil describes, we are in for very interesting times.

This is happening, people. Get used to it.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, September 3, 2015

FFF: Monks, the Universe, and Everything

A collective of Buddhist monks visited our campus last week.

They came to us from the Drepung Gomang monastery in India and spent much of their time in the student ballroom. The monks let us sit in on meditations, where I was able to hear chanting and throat singing for the first time. I had heard recordings of this sound before, but never in person. I must say, my body shook from hearing it. There is indeed something spiritual about it. It carries a tone to it that seems to come from the earliest moments of the universe, the very instant of creation. It's almost ominous. I don't mean that in a bad way (yes, I know how that sounds.) Rather, I mean there is a deep power in it that almost seems like something humans weren't meant to hear. I read somewhere that analysts determined that the human voice should not be able to perform that deep throat singing.

But obviously it can.  Here's an example (start it at the three minute mark):

The monks also spent the week creating a mandala. It's an amazing work of art composed with tinted sand. Vibrant colors and intricate designs take form out of what was piles of said sand. The one created by these monks is a statement, a prayer in its own way perhaps or at the very least a stated intention, for all religions to be in harmony.

Then, after days of intense work, meticulous attention to detail, compulsively neat placement of sand, release of creativity and artistic endeavor, the mandala is swept away. All of the sand is swirled together into one single pile.

"Then all the colors will bleed into one...bleed into one..."

Small bags of sand are distributed to all, passing on the positive energy.

The remainder of the sand is then carried to a river and released into the water. The entire pageant of the mandala, from the first placement of a grain of sand to the moment it all merges with the river's current, is symbolic of the impermanence of things. It was once here. Now it is not. So it will be with everything.

Ain't that the truth.

"Nothing is permanent. Everything is subject to change. Existence is always becoming."

I was impressed and heartened by the positive response from students. Then again, Eastern spirituality is something of a curiosity for many of us reared in America. I remember my own first attraction to the philosophy upon reading Siddhartha by Herman Hesse in college. It is an appealing idea indeed. Shed the dogma, shrug off the incessant weight of our world, and instead aim to achieve higher consciousness. Care not for the comments from "decent church-going women with pinched, mean, bitter, evil faces," to quote William Burroughs.

Change what you are. Evolve.

A thought came to me, coincident perhaps that it was on my mind earlier in the day from reading I'd been doing. While watching the monks, I couldn't help but think about a sensation often reported by astronauts. A few of them have described a feeling they had in space, one of euphoria, transcended consciousness, and a "oneness" with the universe. This sounds rather like what Buddhist monks are pursuing through meditation. If we finally get our act together and get out there, will the experience of such a sensation become a common occurrence? Is this experience described by astronauts a sign, a little voice saying, "Yes, this is it. You're doing exactly what you're supposed to do. Move out of your tiny pen. This is the frightening change required for growth." Will the very act of exploring and colonizing space fundamentally change us to a point where there is no going back?

I think that would be a great thing...and something scary to all the right people.

Space is the place.

It's reminiscent of transhumanism. Nothing stays the same. Nothing is permanent. Why should we ever assume that our weak, meaty forms cannot change? Through transhuman technologies, we can be in charge of our own evolution. What that says for consciousness or the human condition, I'm not too sure. Once consciousness is say, disembodied by uploading into computers, is it free then? Free to expand? Free for us to become whatever we want, no longer bound to limited bodies?

I have no idea.

No one does.

"Every morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most."

Don't be afraid to change who you are. Life is too short to be one person.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Mexican town repaints itself

Thanks to Night Flight, I came across this story about how art can legitimately change people's lives for the better.

It involves the Palmitas neighborhood of Pachuca, Mexico and an art collective that calls themselves the German Crew. Working together with residents, the artists repainted the exteriors of the homes in the area to turn the neighborhood into Mexico's largest mural. With over 5,000 liters of paint, the cooperative turned otherwise drab facades into swirling patterns of bright lavender, lime green, and incandescent orange. It's even more impressive than that, however. This act of painting had an additional effect.

As the article puts it, "Las Palmitas" had a reputation as a crime-riddled area, the kind of place you wouldn't want to be after dark. People, including a few gang members, worked together on the art and in doing so, interacted with one another. They got to know each other and even worked on the painting into the night. This has worked so well that a neighboring community wants its own paint job, too.

It just doesn't get more "street art" than this.

There is just so much here that people can take a lesson from. Art is all about what it means to be human. We see this writ large in the Palmitas example. So the argued addition of Art into the STEM rigmarole is obvious. While there's not exactly data to support it, it seems that art in this case does indeed change people's mindsets and attitudes. Hopefully the same can be said for attitudes towards street art, murals, and "constructive graffiti" for lack of a better phrase. Gee, think this art stuff might have a valuable place in the educational system and the world overall?

Face it. Art is a valuable part of life.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

UFOs and anti-gravity

Pic from the website of Paul E. Potter.

I am continuing my speculation on the ETH (ExtraTerrestrial Hypothesis) as an answer for UFO phenomena.

If you recall my initial entry in this exercise, I played "what if" as to the types of metal a UFO might be made of in order to travel through space (by the by, I keep using "what if" and "speculation" because I'm not a big fan of the ETH, but I must admit I'm enjoying the intellectual exercise.) A blog reader contacted me to say that the metal wouldn't matter if the craft could project a sort of "force field" around itself, shielding it from the harshness of the void. This may well-nigh be related to the propulsion system of this theoretical craft. The leading contender for said engine has been anti-gravity.

At least that's what Bob Lazar alleges, describing the confiscated UFO he worked on at Area 51. He's not the only one. Ben Rich is said to have made assertions along similar lines. Rich was the director of Lockheed's famous Skunk Works, a secret sector of the corporation that has developed just about every ultra-sophisticated aircraft in the US arsenal for the past 50 years. Rumors have circulated along with quotes attributed to him, quotes that intimate the government has alien technology in its possession, that anti-gravity drives allow for (comparatively) expedient travel to the stars, and it all is driven by ESP. While that latter point is intriguing, I'm going to stick with the anti-gravity/force field theme.

Anti-gravity is indeed one of the most viable explanations for UFO propulsion. That is if observational data is anything to go on. Numerous cases involve accounts of UFOs hovering, zigging and zagging with extreme agility, and then streaking out of sight with little or no "ramp up" of acceleration...and all of it done in utter silence. Just one of many examples of cases featuring these flight characteristics is Rendlesham Forest. The principle witnesses of that incident claimed to have witnessed a great deal of aerial acrobatics...among other things.

One aspect of anti-gravity drive would be the field it generates around the hypothetical craft. It might be that such a field could be extended to act as a protective shield or "bubble"around the UFO. Are there any cases that might indicate this? Well, I came across one involving a train hauling coal in a remote part of Kentucky. On January 14th, 2002, this train hauled 16,000 tons of coal and freight until it came upon a cluster of lights hovering over the tracks. As the train drew closer, the crew saw that the lights were affixed to silvery, metallic craft that were windowless and roughly disk-shaped. The train attempted to stop but lost power. Emergency braking kicked in, but not soon enough. The lead engine of the train struck one of the objects. This shaved a piece off the engine, knocked the object back into the second engine and then the first two cars, until ultimately ascending into the sky and darting off with the other UFOs, apparently unscathed.

The train crew were ordered to limp this badly damaged train to the rail yard in Paintsville, Kentucky. At that point, they were ordered from the train and questioned by unnamed authorities (Men In Black?)

This alleged incident contains a few possible clues towards anti-gravity. First, the power systems on the train failed. This is a common theme in UFO sightings. Electronic devices, meaning everything from car batteries to cameras, have been said to fail in the presence of these unknown craft. It may be the nature of an anti-gravity drive to suck the power from nearby sources or perhaps more accurately, the field generated by the drives interferes with electronic devices, causing the failures. Additionally, a massive train was damaged while the UFO it collided with flew off none the worse for the wear (or so it appears). Was the craft shielded? This may account for how these craft are said to move effortlessly from air to beneath the sea without leaving a wake or hole on the water's surface (see USOs).

So is it anti-gravity? If it is and our government does indeed have UFOs in its possession, it's a no-brainer that they'd be interested in adapting these drives toward their own ends. Clean, silent, extraordinarily powerful propulsion...oh what you could do with that. In fact, the allegations continue that with or without alien technology, secret, "black" projects are underway to make anti-gravity a reality. That might even account for strange occurrences such as the multiple-witness crash in Needles, California of 2008. Of course such an engine would have to be kept in select hands. Can't very well have something threatening the oil companies, now can we?

Like I said. Speculation.

Like ESE on Facebook

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets