Monday, November 30, 2015

Forget dialysis. Nanotech is the way to go.

Too many people suffer from kidney complications. Nanotechnology may be able to change that.

For a documentary on nanotech, check out this video. In all too brief terms, nanotechnology means machines on the nano scale. Basically that's super small and invisible to the naked eye. "Nanobots" and other such devices have all manner of potential to benefit humanity. Just one of those ways could be an artificial kidney as described in this article from Futurism.

The University of California, San Francisco and Vanderbilt University have developed prototype device that can fill in for the basic functions of a kidney. A silicon nanofilter can remove toxins, salts, water, and a few small molecules from the bloodstream. This nanotech does not require electricity to function, rather it operates on blood pressure. These filters, unlike the kind currently used in dialysis, will have uniform-sized pores.

Just think about that for a moment. The nano device is small enough to manipulate molecules. That has staggering implications for what we will be able to do in the not too distant future. When I read Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, I sat in wonder as he discussed nano machines that would be small enough to arrange atoms. Atoms. There's not that much of a gulf between the reorganization of matter and the manipulation of reality as a whole. Will we be able to do it? Kurzweil thinks so.

Looking at developments such as this filter, I can't immediately say he's wrong. Let's hope researchers at universities keep making breakthroughs like this one. Nice to know there are bibliotaphs and other smart-types out there who want to do more than watch TV.

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Friday, November 27, 2015

The Story of Stuff

Happy Consumerism Day!

That's what it is right? I mean let's be honest. Black Friday is a celebration of all things consumer.

Yep. Depression has struck me hard once again. So you're probably thinking this is going to be another anti-establishment post that's chock full o' snark.

You're right.

It's partly because I've finally watched the animated documentary called The Story of Stuff. It's about what unchecked consumerism does to us and the biosphere. What better way to start off the holiday shopping season? Check out the video here:

The thesis of the documentarian is both simple and logical: you cannot run an infinite system on a finite world indefinitely. "Stuff" gets extracted, produced, distributed, consumed, and then disposed of. All of that takes a toll on our environment. This cycle is enabled largely by greedy corporations who can manipulate governments into fewer regulations and by people driven to consume. This drive arises from corporate advertising and the whole cycle self-perpetuates.

This is all supported by sobering statements of data. Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations. Americans account for 5% of the world's population, but we consume over 30% of the world's environmental resources.

On the plus side, this documentary has been part of school curriculums for a few years now. Maybe it will give students a combined sense of exigency and possibility. I know my own students sometimes get depressed and hopeless over the state of the world today. Who can blame them? But the important thing is to remember there is always something you can do. Even if it's just blogging a post.

Hey here's a little holiday activity. Look up the meaning of "oniomania."

I'm such a Grinch.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

UFO from the basement

If you are anything like me, and I know I am, the basement scares you.

I don't mean that in any kind of eerie sense, but simply for the pure fact that it has become the family dumping ground. Don't know where we'll keep that? The answer is invariably the same: "Put it in the basement." As of now, the sheer volume of cardboard boxes, packing crates, and plastic bags stuffed full of who knows what truly terrifies me. What's in there? What do we do when we have to move? Wow, that's getting close to the furnace.

It all sort of looks like that warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

And after sifting through a bit of that old junk today, I found this:

I bought it back in 1994 at a Starlog store (anybody remember those?) My best friend, Armando was with me when I got it. The two of us where on a rather big UFO kick at the time (subject of a future post.) It was exciting! After all, Testor models somewhat accurately predicted the stealth fighter. Now here they were purporting that there was a UFO in military possession at Area 51. Most of these claims came based on testimony from Bob Lazar.

That's what the instructions say, anyway.

They come with a reprint of part of Lazar's infamous interview, wherein he explains various aspects of the UFO. As example, he describes the two modes of flight made possible by the cyndrilical gravity amplifiers. "Omicron" allows for travel in the short range and near a source of gravity. "Delta" configuration is used for traveling the vacuous depths of interstellar space. He also reiterates the claim that the "Greys" originate from the Zeta Reticuli star system.

So today I found the model again and actually started working on it. First here's what the insides of the box look like:

Wow. Not sure if my model-building skills are up to snuff enough to tackle this. But just look at that blue decal.

It's the "alien language" I've blogged about before.

Naturally, I started work on the EBEs first. Also started on one of the warp core cylinders or whatever they are.

Obviously my painting skills leave something to be desired. That or I need finer brushes to really make it work.

Well try to forgive me. In return I'll keep posting updates.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Is climate change good for cryptozoology?

We passed a climate change landmark on November 11th.

See here:

On that day, the CO2 content of the atmosphere reached 401.64 parts per million. That's the highest amount of CO2 we have had in a million years. You know CO2. It traps heat, raises temperatures, melts ice, acidifies the oceans, and screws up the weather. 

But there is a plus side! And not just for Republicans dedicated to wiping out entire species (oh have I exposed your deepest penetralia?) For example, as the ice of Antarctica has melted researchers have been able to catalog hundreds of hitherto unseen wildlife.

New species of shrimp, jellyfish, sea anemone, and all kinds of cool finds to excite the biologist in your life. I conjecture from this that there may be other parties excited for similar reasons: cryptozoologists.

As the climate changes and habitats are gradually erased, it may get harder for cryptids to hide. I mean, you would think that between deforestation and encroachment of civilization, we would have conclusively come upon Bigfoot by now. Doesn't bode well for cryptids. Then again, maybe drought will alter the Congo and we'll find the purported dinosaur, Mokele Membe.

I don't know what to tell you about sea monsters.

Unfortunately, the converse is probably true. We will find even less reason to believe in such creatures. The good news is that we might find whole new, exotic cryptids instead.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Transhuman predictions

Proponents of transhumanism et. al., I apologize.

My posts will be brief this week. True, I have the days off but there's no shortage of things to do. I'm also making my entries on the Blogger app. As such, I can't find a way to add hyperlinks. So you'll just get...well...links. Here's one:

It's a sort of primer article on transhumanism focused on Ray Kurzweil. Ray Kurzweil has made several bold predictions. They aren't exactly new. Many of them are covered in his books, The Singularity is Near and The Age of Spiritual Machines. Here are a few of those predictions.

-Nanobots will connect our brains directly to cloud computing. I love talking with my students about this concept. Nanobots adhered cybernetically to the nervous system, allowing us "complete and immersive access" to virtual reality. Why would anyone want to leave?

-Nanobots will be key in life extension. Bolster that immune system by swarming and killing invaders and irregular cell growth.

-We can 3D print anything. Lungs, rib cages, suspension bridges, and...all manner of stuff.

-We will recreate the deceased via AI. This is certainly one of Kurzweil's boldest...and most controversial...predictions. Through a DNA sample, Nanobots will extract memories and recreate the person as an artificial intelligence. Chew that one over for a little while.

-After the Singularity, we upload. Once fully merged with machines, human consciousness itself may be uploaded to brain-based computers but with a billion times the computing power of the human brain.

-Virtual bodies. I've often wondered about the mind/body conundrum when it comes to uploaded human consciousness. Our minds need a body because we are just wired that way after millions of years of evolution. Kurzweil's theory is that transhumanism will allow us to have virtual bodies that are completely customizable.

-The Singularity will make us funnier. Now that's an interesting assertion. How you might ask? To hear Kurzweil say it, Nanobot-enhanced intelligence will allow us to be more creative and even for different modes of expression. Splendeferous! Well, for me, anyway.

If you want to disagree with Kurzweil, that's fine. God knows many people do. Two things you may wish to consider however. One, Kurzweil bases his predictions on the Law of Accelerating Returns. Look it up. Two, transhumanism isn't really a new concept. There's evidence of prosthetic developments since ancient Egypt and the 16th Century:

Are Kurzweil's predictions merely logical extensions?

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Wild Palms

I remember Dorkland telling me about it, but I never watched it.

"It's cyberpunk," he told me.

Truth be told, I had forgotten all about it up until just recently when someone on Twitter referenced it. Looking into it more, Don't know why I never made a point to see it when it first ran. It's got all the hallmarks of a winner. Maybe it's because I had just graduated college, left my favorite place on Earth, and had absolutely no idea where I was going or what I would do.

That tends to distract you.

Anyway, Wild Palms was a miniseries that aired on ABC in 1993. It was produced by Oliver Stone and jam-packed with stars like Jim Belushi, Dana Delaney, and Bebe Neuwirth, and directors like Kathryn Bigelow and Phil Joanou (Rattle and Hum). The miniseries was based on a comic strip that ran in Details magazine, thus making it all the stranger that I didn't watch  as I used to read Details religiously.

The story itself was about what happens when the politically powerful can employ mass media technology, especially virtual reality, to manipulate the populace. What's scary is that this 1993 miniseries is set in the year 2007 and in more than a few ways it predicts the social realities of that year...and now. There are camps of far right-wingers calling themselves the "Fathers" who are opposed by Libertarian-types carrying the moniker of "Friends." The battleground is the mass media. Tossed into this mix are plots to become living holograms and a cult-like religion called Syntheiotics that is most unambiguously based on Scientology, promising empyreal dreams to the wealthy and gullible. Oh and vicious, sociopathic child TV stars.

Want to know what makes my missing it all the more mind-boggling? There's a cameo by William Gibson. Here it is:

"And they won't let me forget it."

Best of all is Belushi's line in reaction to Syntheiotics: "I don't dig bad science fiction."

I'm going through other YouTube clips of the miniseries as I can't seem to find Wild Palms on Netflix or anywhere else for that matter. There are scenes of Ben Savage giving a positively chilling performance as a psychotic child star. Indeed it seems that this owes more to works of David Lynch such as Twin Peaks than sci-fi proper. That's not a bad thing if the weirdness is delicious.

If somebody can locate me a full version of Wild Palms online, hit me up.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

UFO language

This is a continuation of my look at the ExtraTerrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) for UFO phenomenon (click here for more on my modus operandi for doing so.) In this post I ask: what is the written/spoken language for UFO occupants?

Language is sort of my thing. Not only as a writer, but as an educator in the discipline of composition. I also have a sizable interest in linguistics, in where language comes from and how it develops. That said, it's only natural for me to wonder what an alien language would be like. Or...would they even need one?

My first introduction to what alien writing might look like came while reading about the Roswell UFO crash. Among the debris Jesse Marcel allegedly handled was something that looked like an i-beam. On this beam were markings that can best be described as hieroglyphics. Marcel reproduced these markings from childhood memory. While I certainly have no true frame of reference from which to make a judgment, I could never quite bring myself to accept that I was looking at an alien language. It just looked too much like something we would do.

Then I came across this collection of symbols often seen on UFOs. There are a few similarities with what was said to have been found amidst the Roswell wreckage, but there are differences as well. Look at all of the angular lines, the triangle-based forms, and the squiggles. I'm particularly intrigued by the series of depictions of symbols seen on UFOs in Brazil, the US, and Spain in 1959, 1964, and 1967 respectively. They just look like what science fiction has indoctrinated us to expect when we hear the phrase "alien language." Your skepticism meter should therefore be swinging towards the red. Also on the same page is the arrow/inverted "V" symbol that police officer Lonnie Zamora saw on the side of a craft in his famous UFO sighting outside of Socorro, New Mexico. I can't help but notice the similarity between that symbol and insignia that have been floated around as allegedly being stenciled onto doors and vehicles at Dulce Base. My skepticism meter is moving even more towards the red but that's for whole other reasons that I don't have room to get into in this post.

Of course if we're talking skepticism, scroll all the way towards the bottom of that last link and you'll see a symbol that is remarkably similar to the one worn by comic book and TV hero, The Flash. But I digress...

Finally, there are those who claim that any form of written communication done by aliens is more or less for our own benefit. Aliens communicate telepathically. They don't need written or spoken language. Sometimes humans receive telepathic messages from aliens and then express those messages through crop circles or automatic writing. That is part of the contention of Nancy du Terte, a woman who calls herself a "skeptical psychic" and a researcher in the field of "exo-linguistics," attempting to put together a sort of Rosetta Stone for alien languages.

That just sounds like something I absolutely must get in on. But I digress.

Why study exo-linguistics? Besides it being a really cool name for a discipline? Nancy du Terte provides the following rationale on her website:

          1. Aliens are able to shut down and restart nuclear missile defense stations in the United States and Russia,  creating a threat to our international security.

          2. Aliens are able to violate our commercial and military airspace with impunity, and often avoid radar detection,  creating a threat to our civilian and military air travel.

          3. Aliens are able to abduct people from their beds and perform genetic experiments on them at will,  creating a threat to our public health and security.

          4. Aliens have demonstrated familiarity with advanced technologies and evolved mind control techniques far beyond our current scientific knowledge, which would be useful to know.


Her website features a gallery of "channeled communication" from aliens rendered in written form. Whether or not they are genuine does not detract from the fact that they are fascinating to look at.

Language often tends to head towards expediency. What is the quickest, most efficient way to say something? Much as I might detest it, that's exactly the effect that "textspeak" is having on our language. As we become more and more of a visually-oriented society (certainly frightening for myself as a writer), would something like a line of hieroglyphics make for maximum efficiency? If I weren't such a slugabed, I would race off right now to study the intricacies of such a language, but...

I just keep coming back to efficiency. It would seem to me that such an attribute would be a hallmark of any race capable of practical interstellar travel. The symbols I've been looking at however, seem to have far more of ourselves projected upon them.

That doesn't do much for my skepticism.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"Real cyborgs"

Today, I gave my annual lecture on transhumanism to the freshmen.

In addition to giving me the chance to extol William Gibson (as anyone rightly should), I peppered the presentation with examples of people who have already become "real cyborgs." I'm talking about Nigel Auckland, Johnny Methany, and the like who already have implants or full prosthetic devices, but what I neglected to find in time was this gallery posted at CNN of other people who have connected their bodies to technology. Among them are:

-Neil Harbisson had an antenna implanted at the top of his skull. To hear him describe it, the implanted device allows him to experience synesthesia. For example, he can "hear colors." Blue apparently sounds like a C sharp.

-"We are not the endpoint of evolution. We should enhance ourselves." Truer words were never spoken. They were said by Dr. Andrew Vladimirov. He is conducting experiments on consciousness and brainwaves by bombarding his prefrontal cortex with infrared lasers.

-I showed a slide of students and faculty at the University of Minnesota controlling a drone by thoughts. That's old news, really, and the technology involved has come a long way in a short time. The CNN gallery shows startup founder, Tiana Sinclair operating her own drone through bio-interface. The drone is "like a huge biosensor" or "EEG device" that senses alpha and beta brainwaves. "I'm kind of a big believer that the world is broken and we can solve its problems with technology," says Sinclair.

I know that I seem to forever be harping on what transhumanism is going to do for us. It gives me at least a bit of hope for the World of Tomorrow. Today after lecture however, I just felt sort of...I don't know...flat. Maybe it's the news, maybe it's other things I have going on, but I just can't help but feel that transhumanism is gradually being co-opted into the realms of the said same all-too human failings that we've been trying to overcome. The current zeitgeist of transhumanism is politically charged. "Who speaks for us?" "I don't like who's running for the Transhumanist Party." Human beings are political animals so I really shouldn't be surprised, but...somehow I was hoping we'd rise above it. Stop arguing! Go back to developing my AI personal assistant that speaks with a hot female voice! Better yet, those cybernetic replacements that will do away with all of my frailties.

Do I sound like a fundamentalist awaiting rapture? Probably. Maybe this is just reality and logic intruding on my formerly Panglossian thinking.

I'm also a bit soured on the nature of the discourse. Look at that CNN article again and the language it uses. "Human cyborg?" By definition, doesn't a cyborg have to be at least partly human? Redundant. I know it's a "lamestream" media source (geez, did I just write that?) but does no one consider what they're writing? Or was this done by a "techno-pundit" thinking they were helping CNN "surf ahead of the zeitgeist"?

Or maybe they just don't know what they're talking about.

Then again, it could be my recent reading habits. In order to set the spirit and "get the feel" of writing literary journalism/nonfiction for my Dulce book, I've been poring over Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson, and Norman Mailer. A lot of Norman Mailer. This is writing that is grounded deeply in reality and not speculation. I am hoping to bring that sensibility to the subject of Dulce Base. Through that effort, the same point of view may be bleeding over into my other interests.

I probably just need to eat. I'm thinking fish and chips.

Of course if I were transhuman, I would crave not such things.

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Monday, November 16, 2015

"Alien artifact" to pass Earth in 2017

Although this one isn't getting as much attention as the last one, there is an object in space that has aroused much curiosity.

It was first discovered in 1991 by an astronomer named James Scotti, who initially thought it to be just another asteroid of about 10 meters in width. But he soon found that the object, afterwards named 1991 VG, had several anomalies. It has a peculiar rate of rotation as well as fluctuations in speed and brightness. It was also in a heliocentric orbit similar to that of Earth. As soon as more data was gathered on 1991 VG, two things became clear: it had passed by the Earth once before in 1975 and would do so again in 2017.

A small asteroid passing by the Earth is by no means unusual, but they don't often make return trips. They get pulled in by the Earth and incinerated in the atmosphere, the Earth's gravity kicks them into a different trajectory, or they collide with another body in space. They don't usually keep coming back. That, combined with the other anomalous qualities of the object, had astronomers wondering if 1991 VG was a fragment of human-made space junk. Was it part of a rocket booster or something. There were possible candidates, but they were soon eliminated. Then in 1995, astronomer Duncan Steel made this astonishing assertion:

  “...none of the handful of man-made rocket bodies left in heliocentric orbits during the space age have purely gravitational orbits returning to the Earth [in November of 1991] might be argued that 1991 VG is a candidate as an alien probe observed in the vicinity of our planet.”

Turns out that Steel was raising this explanation only to debunk it, but he does think that we should  "take seriously the possibility that there are alien artefacts in the solar system, although I very much doubt that there are any, based on what we know so far." Despite this quite likely assessment, the phrase "alien probe" did garner attention from proponents of SETA...Search for ExtraTerrestrial Artifacts (a hortatory of which can be read here)

This is a notion that I've heard of, but had not looked into with any real amount of depth. I must say it's a fascinating concept. The idea is to not simply look for signals from or external indications of alien civilizations, but look for artifacts that they might have left behind in our own solar system. The argument for this approach is partly based on human activity. We send probes to collect data about our end of the universe, why wouldn't other civilizations do the same? It's a logical and expedient means of exploration. Another quite captivating notion is we might find archaeological fragments of other civilizations. Maybe they have already visited our solar system and left something behind? If a civilization has been destroyed or let its refuse out into space (much as we have in several ways), might the remains reach us one day? Imagine finding the alien equivalent of a Greek vase or a Roman statue floating in space,

As for the true nature of 1991 VG, we might get our answer in 2017.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

UFO interiors

I am continuing my examination of the ExtraTerrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) as explanation for UFO phenomena. As I've said before, it's more of a mental exercise than anything.

If the source of UFO activity is indeed "space people," then one point of immediate curiosity would be "what does the inside of an alien spacecraft look like?" At this time, the majority of the descriptions available come from alleged alien abductees.

One such case has come to be known as "The Allagash Abductions." What makes this case unique is that it is not simply one person taken in the middle of the night from their bedroom or what have you, but four men camping together in Maine. During the night, they observed a strange light in the sky over a lake. As the light drew nearer, they noticed that it was a structured craft. A high-powered beam of light came from the UFO and later under hypnosis, the men claimed that they were each taken inside the craft. They described the interior as sterile, white-walled, functional, and not unlike a medical examination room.

Then there is the now legendary incident of Barney and Betty Hill. "The interrupted journey." Their case was one of the first to really popularize the mythos and saporific tropes of an alien abduction. On a lonely road in New Hampshire, the Hills encountered a saucer-shaped UFO and were then brought aboard the craft by beings that were more or less the standard Grey archetype. Naturally, their were tests. One of the distinctive aspects of this case is that Betty Hill asserted that she was shown a book in an alien language. She was also shown star maps as the aliens attempted to convey to her where they were from. The map pointed to the double star system of Zeta Reticuli, thus cementing in pop culture that stretch of the universe as the home of the Greys. Why wouldn't an alien craft come with a library and maps?

 Let us not forget Travis Walton. As I've said many times before, his story is one that departs quite a bit from the abduction template. He was able to get loose from his Grey abductors and then wander about the inside of the UFO. Walton reports that he came across multiple rooms within the craft. One of the more dramatic and expansive ones had a domed ceiling and empty space, save for one control chair in the center. In fact, he described the chamber as having the setup of a planetarium. Naturally curious, he played with the controls on the chair and the walls and ceiling seemed to disappear, revealing a wide viewport of stars. Was this the navigational station for the craft? It would stand to reason that such a feature would be necessary. Walton also claimed to have entered a cavernous "hangar" that held smaller, disc-shaped UFOs. He likened this to what you might find on a human aircraft carrier. If so, this would lend credence to the popular notions of an alien "mothership" that waits in space. The "flying saucers" that people report are merely scout craft.

Glimpses into the interior of these purported craft are not limited solely to abductees. There have been a few sightings of UFOs, such as the one in Turkey, where the witnesses claim they could see windows on the sides of the craft, allowing them to see into a brightly-lit interior and even see the silhouettes of occupants (yeah, I know. That link has Roger Leir. Sorry.)

 I know that I wanted to examine all of this by presuming that aliens are the cause, yet in doing so, I find myself falling even more on the side of Jacques Vallee. In his studies, Vallee has looked at nigh innumerable UFO cases that stretch back to the beginning of recorded history. In each sighting and each encounter, the "aliens" are possessed of fantastic technology and ability, but it is not so far removed as to be unrecognizable. For example, the descriptions offered by Barney and Betty Hill and Travis Walton are extraordinary, but thanks to science fiction, they are not beyond our understanding. Our minds have certain "expectations" when it comes to what the inside of an alien spaceship should be like.

Maybe that should tell us something.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Astrobiologist has plan to find life on Mars

Finding life in the void of space...

Or at least on Mars. That's the goal anyway. This interview with astrobiologist Nathalie Cabrol takes a look at just how we're trying to achieve it. As she says:

“It’s been so difficult. Because we haven’t looked yet!”

Wait, we haven't looked? What about all the space probes and rovers we've sent to that planet? Shouldn't we have enough analysis in to determine if there is or ever was biological matter present? This is to say nothing of all of the Mars anomalies cataloged by Richard Hoagland at the Enterprise Mission!

Well, let's disregard that latter point for a moment. A healthy, lengthy moment, preferably.

The Viking missions were not designed knowing what we now know about Mars. That plus the technical limits of the 1970s placed confines on the search capabilities. We've learned more from the rovers, but at the end of the day, we still don't quite know what to look for or how to find it. If there ever was life on Mars, what traces would it leave?

 Dr. Cabrol has been searching out places on Earth that might lend information as to the plausibility of life on Mars, magnanimously enduring hardships so that we might learn more. These places or "analog sites" are areas where conditions might mimic those of early Mars. Among these is the high Andes where UV radiation from the Sun requires SPF 100. The point of such research is not entirely to see if organisms can still exist in such conditions, but to determine what UV radiation does to the record of life, the "biosignature." How does it change chemistry?

Like many others far more informed than I am, I'm almost positive there's no intelligent life on Mars. There probably isn't even any sizable exo-life. Hard for that to come about when solar winds stripped away your planet's magnetic field. In fact, Cabrol places a big, wet blanket of logic on any of those futile hopes by saying we're looking for something "microbial at best." When you think about it, even that would be an amazing find. Failing anything living, I'd settle for a really cool fossil find.

There are plans at NASA to send another rover to Mars in 2020. The primary goal of this mission will be to "seek out new life" if I may borrow a phrase. I'm disappointed that it appears the agency is making very few strides towards sending humans there, but I guess that's why we have the private sector.

Until then, play around with the Mars version of Google Earth and see what you can find.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Bee backpacks

If you are a regular reader of ESE, then you know I've sometimes blogged about the threat of bee extinction.

This threat of extinction has been given a name: Colony Collapse Disorder. No one is exactly sure why bees are dying off. One strong culprit is the proliferation of a parasite called "varroa" (the logophile in me really digs that word.) This small creature attaches itself to bees and actually sucks the bees' guts out. These mites have become resistant to pesticides. Other speculations include human-made causes such as other pesticides, habitat loss, GMO crops, lack of nutrition, and of course climate change. In an effort to find out just what is happening, Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Tasmania has come up with an innovative idea: bee backpacks.

Microscopic sensors will be glued to the backs of 10,000 wild bees. These sensors actually have batteries that are charged through vibration (cool!) These "backpacks" will allow for the bees to be tracked and their locations picked up be sensors at various nodal points, something like an IPASS or other such automated toll road system if you're familiar with such things. Researchers will be able to monitor what each bee is doing in the environment. It's a totally new approach, gathering real-time information on how the bees are interacting with their surroundings, hopefully providing the first clues as to what is going on.

"We just don't understand the combination of stressors that affect honey bees, and we don't know why bee numbers are declining around the world," CSIRO Science Leader Professor Paulo de Souza said. “They might go through extinction; we just don't know. It's happening so frequently that it's now a syndrome called colony collapse disorder, and no scientist working alone would be able to solve this."

Why should we care? It's simple. Bees pollinate. Without pollination we don't have produce like fruit and vegetables. In a world with a growing population and thereby a growing demand for food, this could reach emergency levels sooner than we would like. Here's to hoping data collected by CSIRO can help stave off this disaster.

Will update as results of the study are released.

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Monday, November 9, 2015

The Art of "Marwencol"

"Art heals" has never been truer than in this case.

I first heard about "Marwencol" last month on the NPR program, Snap Judgment. Naturally, I was driving when I heard the story and resolved to get to the NPR website and read more once I had parked. Chicago traffic, along with modern life, has a habit of distracting you and I forgot to look the story up until I ran across this article in Wired. So what is Marwencol?

It is the work of an artist named Mark Hogancamp. In 2000, Hogancamp was assaulted and brutally beaten by five men. Nine days later, he awoke in a hospital bed with severe brain damage. Social and economic factors kicked in and his life only got worse (for more information on his personal life, click the first link.) In an attempt to overcome lassitude, rebuild his cognitive and motor skills, and even have a place to escape to, he built "Marwencol."

Marwencol is 1:6 scale model of a Belgian town during World War II. It is populated by a combination of Barbie dolls and G.I. figurines, including "Hoagie," Hogancamp's G.I. Joe-ish alter ego. Hoagie was shot down by the Germans and came to live in this town of Marwencol. He inhabits it with Barbie dolls based on Hogancamp's neighbors, Wendy and Colleen (hence the portmanteau of "Marwencol") and G.I. characters who have roots in friends he met online at the Ultimate Soldier, a group for combat miniaturists. Others are completely fictitious, such as the mysterious Anna Romanov.

The town itself is built out of a true DIY sensibility with items that Hogancamp has scrounged from scrap or bought at secondhand stores. This means things like window frames, odd bits of wood, carpet swatches, wallpaper fragments, and paint. While obviously cognizant of the fact that Marwencol is his own creation, both the town and the dolls within it are very real to Hogancamp. When it is cold, he places coats on them. They need booze? He built a bar. Two characters are getting married? He built a church. People need something to do? He built a cultural center. He also has World War II, pulpy locations such as the Ruined Stocking Catfight Club mixed in with buildings from his own hometown of Kingston, New York. At any given time, the characters are posed to reflect what they would be doing that day.

Mark Hogancamp has been documenting his work with a series of photographs. This has led to art gallery exhibitions of his photos, then to a book (pictured above), and a 2010 documentary called simply Marwencol (making me wonder why I'm just now hearing about it.) I must see this documentary. No really, I must. Not just because it's a fascinating and inspiring story, but because I feel a sort of kinship with Hogancamp.

No, I've never suffered and then had to overcome such a terrible thing. I do, however, really like dioramas. I used to create my own with Legos and then record them both with photo and video, before such things were all the rage. I loved working in my Grandpa's basement, finding what scraps of old things could be repurposed into something new for the scene. I liked feeling creative when I would do something like drop a tiny bit of chocolate syrup into a Lego-size mug, making it look like someone was drinking coffee. I gradually stopped because I felt like I needed to keep buying more and more ridiculous things to make it look "cool."

Mark Hoagancamp created a whole world with none of that and under far more strenuous circumstances. He made an entire world out of just what he had.

Yeah. I feel inadequate.

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Thursday, November 5, 2015

"Don't get political"

"Don't get political."

That is a retort often heard when someone ventures an opinion or states a concern over how people are being treated. Apparently, that very response has now bled into one of my most valued aspects of life: science fiction.

I have been a fan of the genre since I was six, sitting in a theater watching Star Wars for the first time. That was certainly the hook and from there I read as many books from the genre of science fiction as I could. I even write it myself (no, I don't have anything in publication yet because I haven't written any science fiction that I'm really ready to "send out into the world." Such is the curse of being a perfectionist.) So you can imagine how sad and disappointment I became after reading an article in Wired about how my beloved genre is now something of a microcosm of the divisive "culture wars" in America.

Like, most literary genres, science fiction has plenty of awards for writers and books. Probably the most coveted of these awards is the Hugo Award. Recently, a collective of authors have decried the Hugos, saying they have been overrun by what conservatives term Social Justice Warriors. In the case of the Hugos, these are readers and writers who are accused of valuing politics over plot. One of the founders of this backlash is Larry Correia.

Correia is an accountant, a former gun store owner, and an NRA lobbyist who decided to try his hand at writing. His novel Warbound, about a private detective that battles interdimensional monsters, was nominated for a Hugo in 2014. It lost to Anne Leckie's Ancillary Justice, about a future galactic empire that does not see gender. One might think that the Correia's push against the Hugos was sour grapes over this loss, but he actually began the campaign three years ago with something called Sad Puppies.

The name was based off of the ASPCA ads by Sarah McLachlan showing images of abused dogs. “We did a joke based on that: that the leading cause of puppy-related sadness was boring message-fic winning awards.” The name stuck. Also sticking to the Sad Puppies was a reputation for being anti-woman, anti-gay, and overall just anti-diversity. Correia and his cohorts, such as sci-fi author Brad Torgersen, insist that such things are not true. “When people go on about how we’re anti-diversity, I’m like: No. All we’re saying is storytelling ought to come first,” says Torgersen. To the Sad Puppies, politics has caused a sort of identity crisis in science fiction where only the recondite is value and authors are rewarded for highbrow work that is in line with political correctness while punished for tales of exploring the unknown and rock 'em, sock 'em, splodey action.

While it may be guilt by association, it is somewhat difficult to accept this assertion. One of the Puppies is Theodore Beale who writes under the pen name Vox Day. He has been accused of being anti-feminist. In the Wired article, he clarifies that position. He is only opposed to women voting in representative democracies because “Women are very, very highly inclined to value security over liberty” and thus are “very, very easy to manipulate.” Additionally, the entire fracas over the Hugos “demon­strates the extent to which science fiction has been politicized and degraded by their ["Social Justice Warriors"] far left politics.”

Oh what to think?

First off, I am by no means opposed to entertainment. Escapism most certainly has its place and I have rotted my brain with it plenty throughout the course of a lifetime. It would be hypocritical for me to adopt a position that said "only highbrow science fiction is worthy." But while escapism is fun and really quite healthy, science fiction, when at its best, is a commentary on our present, not our future. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, considered by several scholars to be one of the first examples of the genre, is not just a gripping story of gothic horror. It is a warning about where science may take us and even a commentary on the place of women in 19th Century society.

What I'm trying to say is that it is tough for most socially aware writers to not write about these various subjects. If writers are churning out stories dealing with diversity, one need only take a look around at what's happening now to see why:

-Nearly one third of conservatives polled in Iowa want to criminalize Islam. 

-Multiple lies and distortions have been told by conservatives about Planned Parenthood.

-It takes an act of the Supreme Court for homosexuals to have the right to marry and even then there are conservative governmental officials who won't comply.

It's truly a hair-pulling time for those concerned about these issues. Why wouldn't someone write fiction about them? What's more, how is the act of doing so "degrading" science fiction?

Maybe it is the attitude of "there's no place for political argument in science fiction." I asked a colleague in the English Department about this and she had a personal experience to convey:

 "I got to see the psychology of this close-up when I taught a Science Fiction class.
A retired science professor from [redacted] audited the class and would not accept
Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness as good science fiction. He kept suggesting to me
that I teach other female authors instead, female authors who (essentially) do what Heinlein does.
I couldn't help but think that what was essentially going on with him was that he had a very
narrow definition of what SF is and should be and he wasn't prepared to let Le Guin in.
The Left Hand of Darkness is a profoundly moving, cerebral, masterfully-written consideration
 of what it means to live in the world and to try to know other people that also without
question fits any definition of SF."

These objections from the Puppies are reminiscent of that opening retort: "Don't get political." Well, that's impossible. As Aristotle observed, "Man is a political animal." There is an argument inherent in everything, even the most lowbrow of art. In fact, the very phrase "don't get political" is itself a political statement. Even still, the Sad Puppies may continue to believe that they are being unfairly blocked from Hugo Awards due to their pulpier, more commercially-minded writing. George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, wonders why the Puppies even care.

“The reward for popularity is popularity! It’s truckloads of money! Do you need the trophy, too?”
 he asks. “Can’t the trophy go to the guy who sells 5,000 copies but is doing something innovative?”

My problem is the divisive nature of it all. It is not contributing constructively to the problems we have in society and in its own way is making them worse. It is true that message should not be valued over plot, character, or other aspects of good literature first outline in Aristotle's Poetics. But there is something mean-spirited at work in what the Puppies are doing. In a way, they are advocating for what they claim to be fighting against: totalitarianism and exclusion. Their argument would be better served by stating "our work has a place, too" as opposed to hurling derisive epithets like "Social Justice Warrior" and intimations of "that other stuff really isn't science fiction because it doesn't have enough laser battles."

So that means you can only portray one political future in the genre? No thanks. It is rather telling of a mind that can't accept works of literature that encourage us to examine what is happening in our society and in our lives.

Maybe that's indicative of the greater problem for us all.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Damnation Alley

Oh did I ever experience a science fiction treat last night.

I had very vague memories of seeing Damnation Alley sometime in the early 1980s as a TV movie. I remember feeling a sense of despondency coming from it, really playing on my fears of nuclear war at the time. It seemed like a dark, ugly portrayal of humanity of the sort that would later be associated with the Mad Max movies. It was most unsettling. So last night as I graded papers, I at last saw it in its entirety.

And I couldn't stop laughing.

The film opens in an underground missile complex in California. George Peppard and Jan-Michael Vincent play Air Force officers. As Bernard would tell length no doubt...both of those actors went on to have fairly successful and cheesy TV roles in The A-Team and Airwolf respectively. Here, Peppard is the by-the-book leader (naturally) and Jan-Michael Vincent is the rebel (ditto). Also among the military crew is Paul Winfield, a journeyman actor that you'd no doubt recognize from several roles, most notably to me as Captain Terrell from Star Trek II.

Anyway, within the first ten minutes things deteriorate to the DEFCON-1 nightmare scenario and missiles start flying. The crewmen discharge their duty with precision as a monotone voice over an intercom announces targets that have been hit in the continental U.S. Despite the emotionless tone, you know that the announcements are of millions of deaths and unparalleled destruction. Yeah. Did wonders for a young Jonny.

Fast forward a few years. Being in an underground bunker, the crewmen have survived the apocalypse and are trying to make the best of living in a wasteland. Then a signal is detected from the other side of the United States. And where is this radio signal coming from? Albany. New York. Is there somebody else out there? Have other people survived? That's what our cast aims to find out. In order to do that, they introduce the true star of the picture.

The Landmaster. It is a 12-wheeled, custom-built, all-terrain, armored badass built to take these guys across "Damnation Alley"...the desolate wastes of middle the green pastures of Albany.

Hey. Wait. Albany is a state capitol. I happen to know that in a full-tilt nuclear exchange, those would have been primo targets. Albany should be as much of a lost cause as anyplace else. I mean, if they had said the radio signal came from Appleton, Wisconsin, maybe I could buy that. Well there I go, thinking again. And I digress...

They all set out in the Landmaster. They go through what's left of Las Vegas and play a few slots (I'm serious) at Circus Circus. Dear God, why? How could it have been the only casino to survive? Plus, why is Vegas there at all? It should have been leveled when the bomb hit Nellis. Again, I digress...

In the casino, the guys pick up token eye candy in the form of Dominique Sanda. They move on and the Landmaster faces challenges in the form of giant, mutated spiders, weird radioactive-tinged storms, and the requisite post-apocalyptic, coriaceous-skinned barbarians bent on murder, theft, and rape. Worst of all are the killer cockroaches. That last obstacle, however, does at least allow for George Peppard to utter one of the greatest lines in film history: "Tanner this is Denton! This whole town is infested with killer cockroaches. I repeat: KILLER COCKROACHES!"

How does it all end? Well, let's just say it's a deus ex machina that you'd need a lobotomy to accept.

Damnation Alley was released in October of 1977, right on the heels of Star Wars. That's pretty much where the comparisons between those movies ends, especially on the special effects front. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Roger Zelazny. I've never read that book, but those who have claim that this film is not exactly the best adaptation.

Somehow, I believe them.

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Why wouldn't you upgrade your brain?

"But it's just science fiction."

I am fully anticipating that phrase being bounced at me once more when I lecture to college freshman on transhumanism in just a few weeks. It is almost understandable. The sort of advancements transhumanism will offer do sound like something out of the pop culture morass. But they are very real...even telepathic control of technology.

That's just one of the possibilities in the offing. I was reminded of that, and other potentialities, through this article at Techemergence by Daniel Faggella. Faggella's main point seems to be that innovations often get re-purposed into new roles that no one ever quite foresaw. Cybernetic, brain-machine interfaces are likely no different. As he writes:

"Neurotechnology – I predict – will also enjoy a kind of flourishing use well outside it’s original purpose. From memory enhancement, to feeling happier, to adding entirely new senses, there are mammals and humans undergoing procedures that – in the future – might not just help to ameliorate disease, but might redefine “normal cognitive function” by enhancing our minds."

One of these "cognitive functions," as previously mentioned, could be telepathic control of technology. This is already happening to a certain degree. Experiments at Brown University have allowed paralyzed subjects to move a cursor around on a computer screen via a chip implanted in the motor cortex of the brain. Another patient has manipulated a robotic arm to lift a water bottle to her mouth by way of a similar cybernetic implant.

So let's extend this line of thinking with brain implants. Can we at last have the "pacemaker for the brain" that I've been harping about for so long? Such an implant, tucked under the collarbone in this case and with electrodes extending up into the brain (see pic above), would provide Deep Brain Stimulation through electrical impulses. This could be a possible "miracle cure" for depression. Somebody please make this widely available.

Why stop at treating depression, though? Why not get accessible control over all of your emotions? I'm down with that. From there, isn't it reasonable to extrapolate that we could eventually have mastery over our own memories? Either enhance our ability to remember or edit out memories we would really rather not have anymore? Perhaps best of all, why not enhance our ability to think?

"Halt, landloper of the technological frontier!" someone invariably says. "There are areas where humans are not meant to tread. Don't go messing with the brain." Faggella himself has the best response to this all-too familiar bleat:

"As technologies intended to fix the mind begin to allow for it’s enhancement, who’s to say where we should or should not tread?"

Who indeed.

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Monday, November 2, 2015

Transhumanism for aliens?

I am continuing my exploration of the ExtraTerrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) as explanation for UFO activity.

It's not my favored explanation, but I'm enjoying the mental exercise. I am particularly captivated by a notion I mentioned in my last post on the matter. The idea comes from a claim made by Philip Corso in his book, The Day After Roswell. Corso asserts that after the wreckage and bodies were collected from the Roswell crash, all the material was shipped east. The convoy made a stopover at an Army base in Kansas. Corso was stationed at this base and made his way past the guards to peak into the crates. He claims to have seen the alien bodies.

Corso would later learn that the Roswell bodies were taken to Walter Reed Hospital and autopsies were performed. In addition to finding the inner organs of the aliens to be fairly simple and efficient, a few other surprising findings were supposedly made. For one, the aliens' skin was more akin to that of a houseplant than a human being. For another, each alien wore a skintight, metallic-colored suit. It was theorized that the suits were actually spun around the beings in order to create such a tight fit. The eyes of the aliens also had lenses implanted upon them that allowed for night-vision (something Corso claims we would later appropriate.)

Obviously, the bodies of the aliens had been modified for, among other things, space travel. This makes sense to me. We are currently in the incipient stages of modifying our own bodies through transhumanism. One of the goals driving this movement (albeit a comparatively minor one) is that it may help facilitate space exploration. If we're doing it, it seems that an advanced race would already have done the same. So now I'm really curious. Exactly how would they modify themselves? Corso gives us one idea, but what are others?

Well, there was the case of the "Kinnula Humanoid" of 1971. That year, Finland experienced something of a UFO flap. It is said that a lumberjack witnessed one of these UFOs land and a three foot tall being emerge from it. The being is pictured above. As you can see, it appears to be wearing a suit of sorts, giving it the appearance of a deep sea diver or the Michelin Man or Grimace or something of that sort. But is it a suit? It does resemble the sort of spacesuit that human astronauts would wear but might it also be a modified body?

Here's another one. In 1955, a farmhouse near Hopkinsville, Kentucky purportedly came under siege by diminutive aliens with large eyes and bodies dressed in "silvery metal." This sounds a bit like what Corso describes. If so, the Hopkinsville incident may give us a few clues as to the properties of this "metal skin." The alarmed residents of the farmhouse opened fire on the entities with shotguns. The buckshot hit the creatures, creating the sound of "bullets hitting a metal bucket" or  "steel drums." Though hit and knocked over, the aliens got back up and scurried away. If there were any casualties, no bodies were ever found. Even though this "metallic fabric" is very thin, could it be a microfiber that is bulletproof?

Whitley Strieber alludes to something like this in Communion. After his initial abduction, Strieber vividly describes the state of paranoia he quickly descended into. He even bought a riot gun. As if to be prepared for this eventuality, the aliens next appeared wearing a sort of sheet-like armor.

Then again, what if we're not talking about augmentation or modification of a biological entity at all? Consider the UFO abduction case of Antonio La Rubia.

In Brazil in 1977, La Rubia, a bus driver, sighted a large, saucer-shaped UFO sitting in a field near his home in Paciencia. He attempted to get away from the disc, but was caught up in an intensely bright light and unable to move. Three "robot-like" beings then brought La Rubia into the craft where they performed medical experiments upon him. The appearance of these entities almost defies description but you can see sketches at the previous link. La Rubia remarked that throughout the whole ordeal, the entities were not only "robot-like" in appearance but also in movement and interaction. They were stiff and mechanical.

This somewhat echoes how other abductees have described the behavior of the Greys. They are cold, emotionless, almost going through a predetermined procedure without much deviation. So what if...

We know that the environs of space are harsh for any form of life as we know it. The rigors of space travel likewise take a toll on living tissue. We humans have opted thus far to send mechanical probes out into the full depths of the void to do our explorations for us. This has been more cost effective in numerous ways. Would the same logic occur to aliens? Would they send their own probes to Earth? Might they even be advanced enough to manufacture humanoid automations to go forth and interact with the flora and fauna on a one-to-one basis, procuring what they want or what they're curious about?

Pardon me. I'm headed into a desultory region. I am also aware that I am entering into nothing but speculation. Expect a future post the features my musings on how other races might have modified themselves...or replaced their biological forms altogether.

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