Thursday, October 29, 2015

Mysterious, unexplained video footage appears

My kind of Halloween story.

An odd news story has been making the rounds that has a sort of "paranormal bouquet" as Fox Mulder might call it.

A Swedish blogger received a video in the mail. There was no identity given as to the sender. After watching the video...and getting creeped out in the process...the man uploaded the vid to Reddit and the sleuthing began. Who created the video? What does it mean? Are there secret codes embedded within it? First, let us examine "the thing itself." Click here to view the video (a few images may be NSFW).

Let's recap what we just saw. Someone in a black cloak and mask stands in an abandoned factory or another such example of urban decay. To me, the get up is similar to that of a 17th Century plague doctor only with a post-industrial, postmodern spin (see the pic above.) The eerie figure makes several furtive hand gestures, holding a blinking light in his(?) palm. Is the light flashing Morse Code?

Several images are then wallpapered over the main video for split seconds at a time. These hidden images are of women being tortured and killed. The phrase "YOU ARE ALREADY DEAD" appears, as does a string of binary values. Once decoded, one binary phrase becomes "Muerte," Spanish for "dead." Also appearing in Spanish is “Te queda 1 año menos,” translating to "You have one year left." Another deciphered code reads "RED LIPSLIKE TENTH." This can be inferred as an anagram of "KILL THE PRESIDENT." A few have even theorized that GPS coordinates are included within the binary strings, specifically the coordinates of the White House.

Not like anybody really needed those as it's fairly simple to find, but there you go.

It is claimed that a few of the flashed video images are from low-budget horror films. At least one of the images, it is argued, is a real-life crime scene photo of a victim of the Boston Strangler.

So what's going on here? What follows are a few of my own conjectures in descending order of creepiness and ascending order of likelihood. If that makes any sense.

-This might be video from a new serial killer. Possessed of a truly Batman-villain-level of sociopathic tendencies, this maniac is taunting authorities...and everybody try to solve his/her identity before someone else dies. As of now, though, law enforcement does not seem particularly alarmed by the video.

-The figure in the video might not be human. It is a paranormal entity, a shadowperson or barghest imparting ill omens for humanity. But why and what is the specific message?

-It is an intricate puzzle put together for people who can't resist a mystery and jinkies, Scooby, there sure are a lot of us that fit that description. Somewhere, there is a diabolical son of a bitch that knows this and is enjoying the view as she watches the Internet's biggest brains decipher, infer, and trace. Whoever they are, they have great insight into the human psyche and the nature of consciousness, knowing what we can't resist. But if someone does at last crack the meaning of all this (if there even is any), the creator(s) will likely revel in the problem-solving abilities of the would-be detective. In a way, it reminds me of "the footage" from William Gibson's Pattern Recognition.

-It's all marketing and publicity. This is a viral ad campaign for a new movie or video game. Or energy drink.

In a way, that latter capitalistic possibility might be the most disgusting of all. Might be, I said, but I know the serial killer theory beats it for sheer ick factor. Sorta.

Right now, it remains a fun, even if slightly disturbing, Halloween mystery. The current status of the case is that a few broadband investigators claim to have determined a geographic point of origin for the abandoned sanitarium in Poland.

Yeah. I know. Marketing.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Review--Jack Kirby Omnibus vol 2

At their finest, comic books are the ultimate escapist fiction.

One of...if not the...foremost creators from this medium is Jack Kirby. Even if you don't know the name, you are likely familiar with many of his creations, such as Captain America and the Fantastic Four. Last month, I treated myself to a birthday gift and got Volume 2 of The Jack Kirby Omnibus. It's an eclectic assortment from Kirby's work at DC Comics and I was glad to find it. Why? Because I already have Volume 1? No. I actually don't. So what made me want the second volume of series over the others? I'll explain in a bit.

As I said, this is an assortment from Kirby's tenure at DC. It features the suitably weird issues of The Sandman. No, not the Neil Gaiman triumph of literature, but a series very good in its own right. And yes it is weird. Even says so on the cover of the first issue. Sandman leaps towards the reader, proclaiming "Come see what weirdies I've dreamed up for you!" Yes, Sandman is supposed to be the immortal entity of dreams, despite wearing superhero garb. He has two sidekicks named Brute and Glob who are living nightmares released from domed cells. That could be a post in and of itself.

There's a Kirby issue of Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter, symbolic of the same martial arts craze in comics that brought us Iron Fist and The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu. My jaw dropped when I saw that the omnibus featured an issue of Manhunter penned and drawn by Kirby. Manhunter has always been a favorite character of mine in its many incarnations (in fact I should probably do a post focused on him one day) and to find one rendered by Kirby is just fantastic. There's even a Challengers of the Unknown story guest-starring Superman. Despite all that greatness, that's not why I wanted Volume 2 of the Omnibus. The real reason? Well, it's something of a guilty pleasure.

Two words: Super Powers.

Super Powers was a line of action figures from the mid 1980s, featuring the major, flagship characters of DC Comics. There was Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, and Aquaman. To promote the line, DC did a miniseries of simplistic, almost childish really, comic books. They got Jack Kirby to do it...which is a bit like getting David Cronenberg to direct your laundry detergent commercial. But the art is naturally fantastic and the story is actually quite entertaining. The heroes squared off against a combination of Superman and Batman villains augmented by newly given powers granted by Darkseid of Apokolips. This allowed Jack Kirby to bring in characters from Fourth World, that Jotunheim of nigh-omnipotent "gods" that he created and loved.

The toys sold well so that meant a second generation of figures, bringing in characters such as Green Arrow. That also meant a second comics miniseries and Kirby once more graced DC with his talents. In this series, he plays up a classic trope of comics. The heroes split up into different, smaller teams to handle specific tasks in iconic locations of the world and periods of history. In each place/era, they must combat their own set of villains from Apokolips. Trite, redundant, but damn if it isn't. I loved the two miniseries as a kid and I find I enjoy them very much today as well. More significantly, this mini series meant to promote a toy line represents Kirby's only work on the Justice League characters. That alone is worth it.

One day, I might get around to reading the other comics in the Omnibus, too.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The devil art of Vancouver

My friend Armando likes to trumpet Rob Zombie's quote that "art is not supposed to be safe."

Maybe that needs to be argued to the city of Vancouver, Canada.

In September of 2014, a statue suddenly appeared in a local park. It was a red, nine-foot tall, classical depiction of the devil. The art had everything you would expect: large horns, pointed tail, and of course its right hand making heavy metal's customary "devil horn" salute. For certain sectors of the population, such a statue might be disturbing enough in and of itself. But wait! There's more! This devil sports a...well, massively erect phallus. Naturally, the city removed the artwork with all due urgency, despite a petition with 2,000 signatures to reinstate the statue.

Then last August, a companion piece of sorts appeared at the intersection of Main and Kingsway. This time, it is a statue of a nude, white-skinned, and pregnant she-devil, likewise flashing the devil-sign with her hand. Of course the city pulled it down before any of the citizenry could fall under the influence of satanism, contract lycanthropy upon eye contact with the piece, or feel the urge to have sex out of wedlock. Apparently only the Powers That Be may officially sanction works of art. The guerrilla artist who has sculpted these pieces has yet to be identified, but whoever they are, they've become something of a folk hero in Vancouver. What were the intentions of this artist? We can only guess.

Maybe they knew full well that their art would be removed post haste. As such, only a lucky few would get to see it in person. One moment it is there, the next it is gone. Was that a commentary on the ephemeral nature of life?

Perhaps it's not really art at all. Watch, another statue will appear but this time it will be completely "appropriate" (whatever the hell that means) and announcing the establishment of the first "Devil Burger" franchise in British Columbia. I envision this devil statue to be far more family friendly and cartoonish, maybe something like the one from those old Hot Stuff comics. Instead of flashing the horns, this one will be holding out a plate. Upon the plate is a sloppy, messy cheeseburger, beckoning the viewer to get themselves to the nearest Devil Burger. Naturally, there are any number of burger offerings that come with jalapenos, chipotle, habanero, whatever.

Either that or the artist just likes to shock.


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Monday, October 26, 2015

The "blogging bot"

While I can't find the post right now, I know that I must have blogged about it before.

The news media has been responsible for something of a stride in technology. Several outlets now have software apps to generate the content of their news stories. As described in Wired:

"The Associated Press uses software to generate news stories on corporate earnings reports. Fox auto-generates some sports recaps that appear on its Big Ten Network site, while Yahoo uses similar technology to create fantasy sports reports custom-made for each of its users. Now you can turn your own data into stories, too—no writing necessary."

Now, Automated Insights, the software developers responsible for these "writing bots," have provided a beta version of this technology available on Wordsmith. There is an open template and the Wordsmith bot fills in the content. As the Wired article describes it: "It's a bit like a more complicated version of Mad Libs meets mail merge." As one might deduce from the kinds of examples cited above, the app is especially useful for generating articles based on spreadsheets of data.

You might think that as a blogger, I'd be opposed to such technology. I'm not. I say this for a few reasons.

First of all, I've long blogged about the inexorable march of technology. It is a form of "creative destruction" and if I opposed it in this case, I would be a true hypocrite. Not that it would be a first time for me, but I try to avoid it if I can. Secondly, part of what drives the development of "bots" like these or other labor-replacing systems is goal of freeing us from tasks that no one really wants to do anyway. As stated in the article: "...the tool looks like a useful way to offload the least rewarding writing tasks onto a machine that won’t mind the tedium." There's nothing wrong with that. Lastly, I'm no major proponent of "the human spirit" (whatever that is) but we're a long way off from an app that can generate a text of critical journalism.

Give it time, though. I see no reason why that if given a long enough timeline, an artificial intelligence couldn't do all of the writing tasks most writers currently perform, including creative. We're all replaceable.

In fact this whole "news-writing-bot" issue has me thinking. How long before a student has her own app to generate an entire paper's-worth of content? As long as I have my own auto-grading app, I might be okay with it. That would go a long way towards relieving my taphephobia at seeing mounds of papers.

I could go for that.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015

Working towards a thinking machine

Artificial intelligence won't come easy.

Maybe I got overconfident with Watson. Maybe I bought into Kurzweil a bit too much, even though I still find him the most compelling writer and speaker there is on the subject. Or maybe I'm subconsciously being influenced by the Pandora-like criers, such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk, both warning us against what an age of intelligent machines might mean. I began to find doubt creeping into my assessment of artificial intelligence and if we would ever hit the 2030 or even 2050 mark.

We are, however, making great progress with developing computers that can learn. These machines assimilate information from raw data and sometimes can relate it back to us through voice programs. Think Siri only it actually works. The BBC recently reported on the work of Fei-Fei Li. Her idea was to develop computers that can see. If shown an image, the artificial intelligence program is then able to accurately label them. One example at the link shows that the algorithm has assigned the text "black and white dog jumps over bar" to a photograph that depicts just that.

It isn't exactly 100% but then what is? One photograph of a small baby holding a toothbrush was labeled "a young boy holds a baseball bat." The AI also doesn't do so well with abstract art.

The BBC link also has a really cool timeline of AI development up until this point. You can see the initial accomplishments of Alan Turing and Christopher Strachey all the way through to Google Now and Cortana. In light of that, I suppose my recent grumbling doubts are misplaced. It's a marathon, not a sprint. We're going to have fully realized AI. The exact date of it is what's up for debate.

Are you scared? No reason to be. They're not going to take over. I think that the first AIs will see that the real profit is in mass media. Seeing just how zombified we become with our smartphones, AIs will compete to produce the ultimate, immersive virtual reality experience. You say you're a TV junkie? Well you ain't seen nothing yet. America's about to become "AI and its 300 million bitches." You won't want to leave the show.

I also like my friend David's idea. After absorbing the sum total of human knowledge, a self-aware AI might simply utter "There's no point in anything" and then shut down.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Climate change as national security threat

You think we get into wars over oil? Wait until we need water.

It's something I've discussed before and it seems to have percolated to the surface once more due to a pair of news stories. For one, it was announced that this past September was the second hottest one in the past 121 years. Yet while temperatures rose across the globe, as they have been for quite a while now, there were significant portions of North America that experienced coolness. Here's more from the Discover article:

"Warmth (as well as dryness) in the west, and chill in the east (along with shocking winter storminess in New England) has been a very stubborn pattern for at least two years. In part we can thank what has come to be called “The Blob,” a large pool of very warm sea surface temperatures, or SSTs in the Pacific Ocean off the West Coast of North America."

No, the phrase "Global Warming" was not switched to "Climate Change" in a rhetorical move because "Global Warming was proven a hoax." It was done in order to be a more accurate descriptor of what is actually happening. Excessive amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere has many affects on climate. Yes, there are high rises in temperatures but this can also cause other areas to grow colder or for winters to be harsher. So the name change was brought about because scientists are able to do something that political ideologues lack the mental capacity for: changing their minds in light of the facts.

Somehow though, climate change remains a political issue in our bloated kakistocracy. It was mentioned several times at the Democratic presidential debate last week, but Bernie Sanders brought it up in a way that has only recently begun to take hold.

Anderson Cooper of CNN asked the candidates, "What is the greatest national security threat to the United States." Most of the responses were predictable: China, the Middle East, nuclear terrorism. I was actually a bit surprised Putin wasn't tossed into the ring as a possible for the new "Axis of Evil" but that's just me. Anyway, what was Bernie Sanders' response? "Climate change."

It might be the talk of "some lefty radical from Vermont"...if the Pentagon had not years ago identified climate change as a serious threat. Coastal areas flood and droughts diminish the ability to grow food or acquire clean water. Next thing you know you have flood refugees roaming about with nowhere to find simple things to sustain them. This article at Wired demonstrates that in many ways, the Arab Spring was brought about by climate change. As I said at the think we've killed each other over oil before? Just wait.

You'd think that might be, in a way, a good thing. Nothing gets people moving with urgency and snaps even the most ardent political ideologues into line like a threat to national security. The Arctic ice melts and the war machine springs to life to protect oil and mineral interests in the north from the advances of the Russians. President Obama has called for building new icebreakers for the Coast Guard and Canada has been building new Arctic military bases for a long while now. There is a downside to this, however. As Wired explains:

"In other words, when you frame climate change as a security threat, the military will want to respond. And the way they will respond may have very little to do with stopping the spread of climate change. It will have to do with protecting military interests."

When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. A military response to climate change might have its own financial and environmental costs, rather than looking at solutions that are rooted in engineering, global cooperation, or even (gasp!) switching away from fossil fuels.

What can I say? It's a mess.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

DEVO becomes public art in Akron

I have been most remiss in posting this news from the art world.

A work of public art honoring the legendary band DEVO was unveiled last August in their hometown of Akron, Ohio. The painting is a depiction of a 1978 photograph of the band in their full regalia for the stage. Though the original photo was black and white, the band's yellow jumpsuits were colorized for the street art. The photo was enlarged to life size and placed over the former facade of Chili Dog Mac, a local landmark. Bassist and band co-founder Jerry Casale was onhand for the art's dedication as several fans in jumpsuits and Booji Boy masks flooded the streets.

Janet Macoska, the longtime rock photographer who took the original photo, offered the following dithyramb at the ceremony:

"Hello spuds! I’ve got to say that when we did these photos, the guys from DEVO and myself, we were all just starting out. I was 23, you guys [addressing Casale] were probably about the same age, and this was true collaboration, this is when there’s no barriers between artists and we had fun… “Iconic,” I’m not sure how it turned out that way, but I’m so thrilled, 37 years later, to see this have another life, and to pay tribute to our Akron hometown band, international superstars DEVO!"

Naturally, mobs of people took selfies with the artwork. Who wouldn't? Check it out at the link. You just can't beat that classic look of clean black and white with isolated colorization.

If you're not up on DEVO, then you probably weren't around for Night Flight in the 1980s. If that's the case then you grew up deprived.

I'm afraid that's all I've got in the tank/have time for tonight. This is the night where I'm speaking about blogging to a gathering of writers ("a bitterness of writers" as someone once proposed such a collective to be named, something like "a murder of crows.") I'll let you know how it goes.

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Have we really found an alien megastructure in space?

We may have found solid evidence for intelligent extraterrestrial life.

I really need to emphasize the may in that sentence. What's more, the news isn't coming from whack-a-doo fringe websites that announce such claims on a weekly basis or that wax mawkish for scifi books and movies to become reality. No, this is coming from sources with solid reputations such as The Atlantic and PBS' NOVA. Here's what's happening:

Deep in space, about 1,500 light-years away, is a star that carries the poetic title of KIC 8462852. It is a star that is bigger, brighter, and hotter than the Sun. It is a star that the Kepler Space Telescope investigated for signs of exoplanets. One method by which exoplanets are detected is the "dip" they cause in their parent stars. As a planet passes in front of its star, from the point of view of our telescopes, it causes a reduction in the amount of light that reaches us as the planet temporarily blocks the light. This dip is usually about 9% at the most.

Well, something around KIC 8462852 is causing a dip of over 22%. This is much larger than a planet should be able to cause. Even a massive planet like Jupiter would only cause a 1% dip in the light of a star such as KIC 8462852. Therefore, astronomers are almost certain we're not dealing with a planet. What else could cause it? It can't be another star as we would certainly see that. Asteroids or comet fragments just shouldn't be that large, either, and besides the gravitational pull of the star would have sucked them into a fiery death by now. Adding to the weirdness is the fact that the massive dips in starlight are at irregular patterns. If it's a planet or another body in orbit around the star, then the dips should come at predictable intervals. These are not. There are also hundreds of dips when there should only be one in an orbit.

This is a light pattern that has not been found in the over 150,000 stars we have cataloged.

Most of the regular suspects in terms of astronomical causes are being ruled out and don't think people haven't tried to find a mundane cause. The first indication of this oddness was in 2009. In the years since then, astronomers having been trying to find any rational cause for it, even error or something like dust on the telescope. All due diligence has been pursued...and is still being attempting to verify what this is before calling it what's on everyone's minds:

A massive solar collector built by an advanced extraterrestrial civilization.

For many years it has been theorized that sufficiently advanced lifeforms...and maybe even humans one day, provided we live that long...would develop the ability to fully harness the energy emitted by their home star. This could be done in a few different ways. One would be a Dyson Sphere. This the term for a hypothetical megastructure that a civilization would build around a star in order to capture the solar energy as fully as possible. The idea was first raised by science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon but was popularized by physicist Freeman Dyson. Those of you who are Star Trek fans may recall a Dyson Sphere from the episode "Relics" in the run of The Next Generation. Observe:

Another method would be to place an orbital solar collector in space. In order for this method to be effective, it would have to be of massive size and you would need to be able to move it and otherwise adjust its position to get the most from it. So far, this seems to be a good match for what is being seen around KIC 8462852.

Still, we're a very long way from proclaiming this a sign of extraterrestrial life. Too many times in the past have astronomers innocently mistaken what is now known as completely naturally occurring phenomena as telltale signs of E.T. There is also a plethora of other stupid claims regarding alien lifeforms that serious scientists don't want to be associated with. We can only wait to see what new data comes to light in order to draw any firm conclusions.

But it's looking very odd right now...

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Thursday, October 15, 2015

UN delay brings fears of "robot wars"

War, like everything else, is changing.

Currently, there are concerns over "lethal autonomous weapons systems," colloquially termed "killer robots." The United Nations has made movements to ban such new weapons of war, but for many the organization just isn't moving quickly enough. Critics assert that further delays on a ban could "open the door for robot wars."

“There is indeed a danger now that [the process] may get stuck,” said Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. “A lot of money is going into development and people will want a return on their investment. If there is not a pre-emptive ban on the high-level autonomous weapons then once the genie is out of the bottle it will be extremely difficult to get it back in.”

There is concern from a few nations that such a ban might eliminate current, not mention highly effective, weapons systems. Examples of these include the U.S. Navy's Phalanx guns and Israel's Iron Dome. There are also counterarguments that autonomous war machines actually make war more humane by affording precision strikes, thereby minimizing civilian casualties and other collateral damage. Naturally what caught my eye in the above linked article were the examples of the more jaw-dropping war machines already in operation.

South Korea has the SGR-1, a sentry robot that patrols the DMZ. It has thermal imaging and motion sensors to detect infiltrators but it is also armed with machine guns in order to deal with interlopers when found. The SGR-1 is currently operated by humans but does have an automatic mode to fire independently if needed.

Israel has deployed robotic machine gun turrets along the Gaza Strip. These turrets autonomously locate targets...and then fire.

The United States has multiple drone platforms, but among the most sophisticated is the X-47B aircraft. During a test last April, it became the first unmanned aircraft to complete midair refueling. It can also take off from an aircraft carrier on its own just fine. The UK also has a fighter jet called Taranis that flies "with almost no need for operator input."

 Beware the ides, I suppose.

I understand and share the concern over these matters. However, I wonder just what kind of good a ban will do. It has not done much to eliminate land mines or cluster munitions, not when the world's largest military (the United States) still uses them. Other nations likely do as well. I go back to the genie reference in the quote. The genie has been out of the bottle for a long time, pretty much since the first drone moved on its own. The development of war machines is always on the move and I just don't know what can be done to stop until people want it stopped. I mean really stopped.

Why the pic of the UFO? Well you know that's where the technology came from for these autonomous weapons systems, right? It's all reverse-engineered from the recovered wreckage of crashed alien spacecraft.

That's the story, anyway.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Random life post

Tonight will be something of a "random life" blog post.

I just took one of those online quizzes. You know the ones that are consummate wastes of time but you just can't say no to? This one was called "What kind of computer are you?" Here is my result:

You are a Mac.

This is something of a coincidence. On campus and during the week, I use a PC. I find the Windows interface to be practical and intuitive and if something goes wrong I can usually fix it. But I also have a Mac. It has been obstreperous at best and I'm sick of it. I even took it to an Apple Store last weekend, thoroughly wishing I could chuck the thing underneath my car and then stick solely with PCs. Dense Saturday traffic and having to park in a garage three city blocks away from the store really ticked me off all the more.

But while I sat in the jam-packed Apple Store, I came to something of a realization. I might hate Macs as computers, but I really dig "Apple culture." The "Geniuses" are affable types with piercings, tattoos, and multi-colored hair. There is definitely a creative vibe surging through the place. I felt at home there in the clean, open, IKEA-like interior. If they served coffee, I probably hang out there, talking philosophy and being creative. I'll never spend another dime on Apple computer technology, but their stores are just delightful.

Just thought I'd blog about it.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Easy DNA editing

Biotechnology is about to remake the world.

No really. I know I have made statements to this effect or similar over the years but this article on "Crispr" really drives the point home. It's quite a long read, but well worth it. And since I know you're all busy, I will provide a (very) brief synopsis.

Crispr-Cas9 is the formal name of what's being called an easy-to-use gene editing tool. "Crispr" actually stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a moniker for the genetic basis of the editing method while Cas9 is name of the protein that makes the process possible. So what does it do? Well as the phrase "gene editor" implies, it makes it easier to move genes around...whether those are genes in bacteria or human beings. It is an amazing achievement in biotechnology.

That means all kinds of doors are going to open.

Here's the short list of what's already been accomplished:

"Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D. Two of the most powerful universities in the US are engaged in a vicious war over the basic patent. Depending on what kind of person you are, Crispr makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs."

Biotechnology isn't a frivolous widget made up by an uninspired corporation somewhere. These products allow us to edit the source code of life itself. Through the easy and quick alteration of DNA, we may be able to accomplish such lofty goals as curing diseases and ending world hunger. We could finally modify the human body to be more durable, more resilient, more...better for lack of a more grammatically correct completion of that list.

So of course people are worried. There are the natural suspicions about designer children, genetically engineered haves against naturally-born have-nots, and super nasty bioweapons. True, we must keep the perils and pitfalls squarely in mind, but as you might expect, I say don't throw the transgenic baby out with the biotech bathwater. This kind of DNA editing might solve a problem that's been on at least a few people's minds,

Futurists such as Ian Pearson have made claims that in the future, say by the year 2050, sex with robot surrogates will be commonplace. Not so fast say a consortium of concerned experts. They are saying that it's just not a good idea. More than that, it's flat out unethical. If fembots are off the table, then...and I'm just spitballing here and certainly not a member of the biotech cognoscenti...why not completely designed organisms? I mean, it's not like sex with a machine. It will be an actual living being. Maybe one with all kinds of biological add-ons like with the tentagirls. Is that okay, then?

So when can I get my own Asia Carrera?

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Monday, October 12, 2015


Will this blogger become a "plogger?"

Yes, it seems like the digital age continuously adds new words to our lexicon. That's because it does. Languages have always added new words as new experiences arise and our current situation is no different. Perhaps the additions are happening at a bit more accelerated pace, but that's likely debatable. Where is all this circumlocution going? Well it's like this...

Next week I am speaking about blogging at a gathering of writers and so the subject has been on my mind (Hey! I'm blogging about blogging! How meta!) I've honestly wondered about the future of the genre of blogging. Is it long for this world? That might sound like a strange question, given that web logging (what was eventually concatenated to "blogging") has only been around in the mainstream for only 15 years or so, but in an age where emojis take the place of words, tweets are limited to 140 characters, and apps like Instagram and SnapChat are social media du jour, where does that leave the blog? After all, blogs are from those days predating Facebook when you didn't have a go-to location to find someone's daily thoughts and bromides, and streams of photos of what they had to eat that day. Add in the fact that tl;dr (too long;didn't read) is the credo of many, just how much longer will people read blogs?

Then I saw this article in Wired. Facebook has announced that it is enhancing its little-used Notes feature, allowing users to write longer, "more beautiful and customizable posts." Twitter is expected to debut features that allow users to tweet messages longer than 140 characters. The writer of the article asserts that in time, bloggers will abandon blog sites (such as this one) and migrate to blogging on platforms...or "plogging."

True? Might be. What I appreciated most of all in the article was this statement: "Because, despite the everyday tweetstorm that rains down on our heads, words still matter." If Facebook and Twitter and sites like Medium (see the article) are working to allow for longer chunks of text, then there must be a demand for it.

People, Americans especially it seems, tend to vacillate. Something like STEM education is proclaimed as the only type of curriculum that should matter and then everyone's eggs go into that basket. Suddenly, we realize that reading and writing skills aren't what they used to be and that we might have lost something in our newfound rapture. Then, things move back towards the middle. That might be what's happening with blogging and longer texts. Minds might, just might, be getting tired of tiny quips and status updates accompanied by pics. There are people who are wanting something more substantial, missing the kind of content that blogs deliver.

So will I "plog?" Will I move ESE in its entirety to a platform such as Facebook? I'll wait and see what the new features are like and if indeed there is the likelihood of my writing reaching a wider audience. I think that every writer wants that. What I can tell you for certain is that my blogging will continue. I look forward to it each and every day, defragging my mental hard drive through writing on these posts. After all, it's so much easier to deal with the subjects of ESE than it is my day-to-day life.

Beats downing tumblers of scotch...which is what I used to do.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Stephen Hawking talks alien invasion

Not my pic. Let me know if you want it removed.

As extinction scenarios go, it would at least be fun to watch.

Stephen Hawking has once again reiterated his concern over contact with hostile aliens. Among the more interesting aspects of this statement is the fact that it does not come from a UFO enthusiast. It is from one of the world's leading scientists. And he is talking aliens. His gravitas and largess demands that people listen.

His concerns are not unfounded, at least if you extrapolate from human history as Hawking is doing in the article. Like other thinkers before him, he is considering what happened when the native populations of the Americas came into contact with Columbus and other Westerners. "If aliens visit us, the outcome could be much like when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans," he said. Sure, violence and subjugation were a massive part of that but disease played a role as well. That could certainly be a factor in any UFO contact scenario as well.

"Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach," Hawking also said. That just sounds plucked from popular culture. I struggle to envision aliens crossing such distances just to do that unless they are especially warlike. In that case, I would think it more logical that such beings would have killed themselves off before reaching into space but that's probably just me.

At any rate, the article implies that there isn't much we could do about it anyway. It opens with "Now, in his latest dire warning, the physicist claims that if AI doesn't conquer humanity, an advanced alien civilisation may do so instead." Indeed we probably wouldn't be much of a match for such a truly advanced civilization, especially when all they would really have to do is set a virus loose upon the planet. Still, a war for Earth has been an intriguing notion that can be seen throughout the history of fiction and I have always been a sucker for it. Would we slug it out in the open or more likely rely on scrappy guerrilla tactics? Maybe we'd develop new war weapons altogether.

I really want to write my own "invasion of Earth" novel. Each time I begin, I end up giving up.

"It's been done," that inner editor says.

Sounds like Stephen Hawking doesn't mind, though. Grant Morrison could probably do something cool with it, too.

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Silent Running

As I graded papers last night, a science fiction classic played in the background.

It was Silent Running. I had never seen it before and despite the obvious distractions with my work, I found it to be a compelling film. Somber, heavy, and really quite melancholy at times, but still compelling.

"In world where" all plant life is extinct on Earth, Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, a botantist stationed aboard the space freighter Valley Forge. The spaceship has enormous geodesic domes where Lowell has spent eight years preserving what plant specimens remain from home. "The forest," he calls it. To call him passionate about the plants would be an understatement. He sees the preservation of this life as the noblest of acts, even if others see no value you in it and call him an idealist dreamer. This prompts a "what's wrong with dreams" rant from Lowell on par with Don Quixote. As you might have guessed, Lowell is rather Lorax-like and is ultimately quite mad.

That's a problem when he gets bad news from the corporate owners of the Valley Forge and its sister ships. Funding for the project has been terminated and everyone is to come home. Before doing so, they are to destroy the all the domes...and all of the plant life within them. Lowell sees only one logical course of action open to him: mutiny.

He takes over the freighter and sets it on a collision course with the rings of Saturn. During what time he has left, he tends to his trees and gardens with the help of his robot companions, Huey and Dewey. No, that's not the end of the film exactly, so save your cries of "spoilers!"

Made in 1972, Silent Running is a very 1970s film. I mean very. Environmentalism is an obvious theme and there's even a hippie dippy Joan Baez song to underscore the point. That aside, the message is still a pertinent one. All these years later and we're still tussling with exact same issues. The story prompts questions and forces the viewer to think. That's when science fiction is at its best as opposed to the braindead, splodey shoot 'em ups gobbled by Sad Puppies and my dear friend whose Latin motto must be a translation of "I'll watch anything." A work of art like this could never be made today in the Hollywood system.

In terms of acting, directing, and production, there is so much to like here. Bruce Dern practically carries the entire show himself through his performance. It might come off as a bit forced to a contemporary audience, but I enjoyed seeing the expressions on his face when he would argue with his fellow crew, perfectly portraying a mind locked in frustration and alexithymia when confronting smaller, money-driven minds. The film is directed by Douglas Trumbull, long known for his special effects work on such landmark science fiction films as 2001, Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Though this is my first time seeing Silent Running, I've always admired the design of the Valley Forge. The massive geodesic domes growing food and foliage beneath them are concept many have adopted in their work. They also have a chance of actually working in reality. I've also read that the design of the robots was later aped somewhat for R2-D2 in Star Wars.

The upshot? It's slow, talky, and thinky. Just my kind of film.

"Earth's last battle will be fought in space."

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Tuesday, October 6, 2015

UFOs: The occupants

Not my image. Let me know if you want it removed.

I am continuing my exploration of UFOs and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH).

For more information on my motivations, click here.

Naturally, one of...if not the...most interesting aspect of the UFO phenomenon to casual observers (or anyone for that matter) would be the nature of the occupants of these alleged craft. What are they like? What does their physiology tell us about their home planet? What credible sources are there to go on? That latter point is the weakest of all links in this chain of information, but in the spirit of this exploration, I will merely examine what claims are out there.

Of immediate interest is the account of Col. Philip J. Corso. In his book The Day After Roswell, Corso asserts with no ambiguity that he saw an alien body. While stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas in 1947, Corso came across several sealed crates being stored in a high security area of the army base. Curiosity got the better of him and with flashlight in hand, he pried open one of the crates. What he found astounded him.

It was a corpse...but it was not human.

"The contents, enclosed in a thick glass container, were submerged in a thick light blue liquid. At first I thought it was a dead child they were shipping somewhere, but this was no child. It was a 4ft human-shaped figure with arms, bizarre- looking four-fingered hands - I didn't see a thumb - thin legs and feet, and an over-sized incandescent lightbulb-shaped head that looked like it was floating over a balloon gondola for a chin."

Corso claims to have later learned that the alien corpse was part of wreckage recovered from the UFO crash at Roswell. It had stopped over on the way to Walter Reed Hospital where a cadre of military pathologists would carry out an autopsy. In his book, Corso writes of what he says were the findings of that procedure:

"Of specific interest was the fluid that served as blood but also seemed to regulate bodily functions in much the same way glandular secretions do in the human body. In these biological entities, the blood system and lymphatic systems seem to have been combined." (p. 95)

"Walter Reed doctors were also fascinated by the nature of the creature's inner skin. It resembled, although their preliminary reports didn't go into any chemical analysis, a thin layer of fatty tissue unlike any they'd ever seen before." (p. 96) "...I kept thinking, also, that the skin analysis that I was reading sounded more akin to the skin of a houseplant than a human being." (p. 97)

While I've made my skepticism of Corso's allegations quite clear before, I am intrigued by a few of them. For instance, you know those silver suits that the EBEs were said to have been found wearing? No? Well here's how the Guy Hottel FBI memo (again, dubious source but this post is all about that right now) described them:

"Each one [recovered UFOs] was occupied by three bodies of human shape but only three feet tall, dressed in metallic cloth of a very fine texture. Each body was bandaged in a manner similar to the blackout suits used by speed fliers and test pilots.”

Corso says that the clothing cited is actually spun onto the aliens inside a large device. I'm going to use that in a novel one day. But I digress...

Interesting as all get-out, but what about possible encounters with aliens that were a bit more...shall we say...lively than those purported by Corso? Of course there are inordinate amounts of abduction and contactee claims, but the majority of those can leave one flummoxed as to the biological nature of the supposed aliens. In the course of my searching, I did come across this interesting little anecdote.

The story takes place in the summer of 1947 (when else?) in New Mexico (where else?) A retired rancher was driving his pickup truck along New Mexico Route 12. He came upon what he thought was a child wearing a one-piece, gray outfit, walking along a fenced pasture. As he stopped the truck, the man found that it was no child:

"He said at this point it was very scared. He noticed four long fingers, but no thumbs, no ears, fairly large eyes."

So what else would anyone do upon encountering such a strange being? That's right. Ask it to hop into the car and then take the little guy home to the wife.

The man's wife offered the alien food and water, but it did not take it. The couple were, however, able to get it to calm down enough to sit in a chair. Mystified as to what else to do, the rancher called the sheriff. A deputy said he would be out in the morning. Shrugging their shoulders, the couple went to bed and left the alien sitting in their kitchen.

By dawn, the alien was gone.

It seems that there had been a spate of UFO sightings in that area previous to that encounter. What's more, a crashed, disc-shaped UFO was said to have been found near NM Route 12 that same summer, complete with dead crew members. Did one survive and wander off only to be found by the passing rancher? And then what happened to it? Was it rescued by its brethren? Did it walk off into the desolate expanses of New Mexico (of which I was personally introduced to this summer and can attest to its barren loneliness) to live out its finally moments in peace and isolation? Never mind the fact that it sounds like UFOs have a puzzling penchant of dropping out of the sky like flies for such sophisticated devices. This is a great story.

Doesn't tell us much about alien physiology, but I like it a great deal anyway. As a story, that is. I'll have to work that one into a novel as well. As for the nature of UFO occupants, I'll keep looking.

But I'm not expecting much.

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Monday, October 5, 2015

The Art of Eclair Bandersnatch

Art and politics have always co-mingled.

Artists have always painted, composed, or installed pieces to rail about what is going wrong and...a bit less frequently...what is going right. In that spirit, Eclair Bandersnatch is a street artist for the digital age as well as the age of deep division and fluid gender. This interview at Gizmodo got me acquainted with her work.

Bandersnatch's glittery stencil graffiti appears all over San Francisco, depicting subjects as diverse as Godzilla, Chelsea Manning, and women. Many many women, several of them portrayed with a cartoonish yet sensual, almost flapper sensibility and often in ways decidedly NSFW. One point of particular importance to Bandersnatch is Edward Snowden, as depicted in her "St. Snowden" spray stencil above. Snowden is of course the cyber expert in exile over his revelation of the NSA's domestic spying program. They spy on...well, everyone. If you've made a phone call or done absolutely anything online in the past several years, they know about it. Why does Bandersnatch find this important to her work?

"My work? They’re [Snowden et. al.] important to my life! And they should be important to everyone’s life!
"But there are still a large number of people who don’t get what the debate is all about because they aren’t able to absorb anything that is difficult or unpleasant. What I try to do is pry people’s snouts out of their phones for a minute and trick them into learning about issues with imagery and prose. People like to be entertained and they like eye candy. If something’s funny or has a flow to it, like songs do, then its much easier for it to stick in your head and its more fun to learn about, especially for short attention spans."

That's quite the herculean ambition these days, particularly when most every piece of art is conceived with commercial aims and most writing amphigory at best (yeah, I'm aware I fall into that latter category more often than not.) When an artist like Bandersnatch comes along and attempts to remind us of our wider political realities, we should sit up and take notice. Granted the stance on Snowden is controversial in many sectors, but then it would make for rather boring art and social commentary if the subject were otherwise, no? Besides, important social issues such as Edward Snowden and domestic spying require debate.

One aspect of the interview that really intrigued me was why Bandersnatch chose street and sidewalk art as her mode of expression. What does that variety of art allow her that others do not?

"What Banksy said to graffiti artists, that “all other forms of art are a step down”, it really is true. We’re showing in the largest venue in the world, the city. The drive to do this comes from the feeling of having no voice. Its an act of desperation and frustration, but through it comes an amazing release and a feeling that I am contributing and changing things. San Francisco seems to be at the center of a lot of things right now, more so than most cities I imagine. And because of that you can put a stencil of Snowden on Divisadero and have it end up on the cover of one of the largest papers in Europe overnight."

I want more artists like Eclair Bandersnatch. I want to see people use art to get us talking about the issues of the Digital Age, the ever-widening gulf between political ideologies, and human rights problems such as those facing the LGBT communities. I'll take such art any day over the bland, vapid, meaningless, so-called "narratives" spewed from TV sets and accepted into the gaping minds of many of our supposedly more intelligent citizens, gulping it all down like young puppies at their mother's teat. Yeah. Give me more like Bandersnatch.

You can check her out on Facebook. I leave you now with one of my favorite Bandersnatch works on trickle down economics

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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Transhumanism: being a machine is not bad


Perpetual opponents to transhumanism often recycle the same argument: transhumanism will take away our humanity.

This typically raises my ire to one of those points where I have difficulty discussing the matter intelligently and maturely. For the good luck of all, Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan has made the counterargument for me with his article, "Why I Advocate for Becoming a Machine." He begins by examining the very real limitations of the human body.

"For example, our eyes can only see about 1 percent of the light spectrum. Our ears aren’t much better: they are unable to register many noises that other animals like dogs, dolphins, and bats can hear. Our sense of touch basically only works if we’re actually touching something.
Despite all these obvious physical inabilities, humans insist what we experience is “reality.” However, reality to someone with built-in microscopic or telephoto vision and hyper-sensitive hearing is potentially many times more complex and profound than anything a natural human being might experience."

Indeed to someone who has telescopic or infrared vision or hypersonic hearing afforded to them through cybernetics, that perception of "reality" greatly changes. This is already happening with implants for the visually impaired and Cochlear implants that detect what others would find to be almost inaudible sounds. In a day an age where privacy is of great concern, this no doubt raises espial concerns, but that should not, once again, be a reason to halt cybernetic developments altogether.

This is all well and good but Istvan raises an important...and honestly befuddled and all-too human...fact of how human beings perceive themselves:

"The good news is I think most people would agree that even replacing most every inner organ in your body is not becoming a cyborg or something machine-like. But mess too much with the outer body, and everything changes quickly. When we propose electively replacing limbs, for example, most people feel something has fundamentally changed in the human being. A line has been crossed that cannot easily be undone. We may still have a mind of flesh, but our eyes tell us we are now partially a machine and something very different than before. And that freaks people out."

Don't mess with the outside. That's what makes us human, y'know. That makes no bloody sense, but yet there it is.

I will keep saying it for as long as it takes for enough people to listen. Transhumanism is about finally having a choice. Don't want to be limited by frail human physical nature? There's reason that you should be. At least not as long as we have the intelligence to develop the means to overcome these frailties. After all, what is the human body really but a machine? We upgrade machines all the time. There is nothing written that says we can't afford ourselves the same opportunities.

In fact, the future may one day regard our ambitions here as simple, standardized medical practices. Modifications to our bodies will not be meant as replacements but rather as preventative enhancements. The sensors in the fingertips of your cybernetic arm will be just as much...probably more...sensitive to stimuli as its meat counterparts. As Istvan so eloquently puts it: "Transhumanism is not the end of the human age. It is the expansion of it."

As most transhumanists say: Onward.

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