Thursday, February 26, 2015

Animal Stories

Animals and the paranormal. Two of my favorite subjects.

What brings this to mind? Well, I suppose it's due to my feeling a bit nostalgic this February for whatever reason. I grew up listening to WLS AM radio out of Chicago. One of the iconic personalities on that station...if not all of radio...was Larry Lujack. "Uncle Lar" and his sidekick, Little Tommy (aka "Snot-nose" Tommy) would provide a fixture of morning and then afternoon radio: Animal Stories.

As Lujack explains, this featurette was an outgrowth of a "dippy" farm report on at 5:30am in the morning. There were farm magazines in the studio and Lujack began to compile stories of bizarre incidents where farm animals would kill people in mishaps. This eventually turned into Animal Stories, a brief program where Lujack reads legit news stories involving animals...and a great deal of sex and violence, naturally. Whether through their inherent goofiness or Lujack's delivery, these stories were hilarious more often than not. And that's even despite my current unease with hearing about harm coming to animals.

How funny? Well, click the initial link I provided. You'll hear about how the United States military evaluates dogs for tasks such as guard duty and bomb sniffing. If a male dog squats while he urinates, that's a sign of immaturity and therefore disqualification. "I'd hate to be the soldier who has the job to check that," Tommy says, putting it all in perspective. Funnier even than that is the account of a chain-reaction series of mishaps in England that can all be traced back to a horse drooling on a biker.

It's probably no surprise, but the Animal Stories segments most memorable to me had to do with the paranormal. One narrative detailed a woman with two dogs and the spirits said to inhabit her house. The dogs, she said, would bark and growl at the dark basement. Yet there seemed to be nothing there. On at least one occasion, however, this woman heard the disembodied voice of a young girl coming up through the floor vents. Then there was Bigfoot...

I distinctly remember Uncle Lar and Little Tommy reading two pieces about the search for sasquatch-like creatures in other nations. One involved the Alma of Eurasia. A wilderness hermit was located who was said to have killed an Alma. Where was the body? Well, he ate it.

All of it?

Yes. All of it.

"Must've needed a big hot dog bun," quipped Tommy.

The other, a case involving the Yowie of Australia, told of a married couple living in the Outback. The husband was a prospector (I think?) and was gone for days at a time, leaving his wife alone and isolated. She struck up a sexual relationship with a Yowie. The husband found out and subsequently began to search the surrounding canyons for the manbeast and revenge.

"Yes it was the Yowie...who made her go 'wowie,'" commented Lujack.

Immature? Inutile?

Oh you bet. But funny?

Yes. That was sort of the point.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Transhumanism and "meaning"

I must admit that one early indoctrination I had into transhumanism was the film Total Recall.

The original, that is.

In it, a man is given the opportunity to upload "false" memories into his mind. False or not, these memories would feel like legit, "really happened" experiences to this man. This prompted a protracted...and honestly fairly deep for 19 year-olds...discussion with a friend about the underlying principles of the film. Was the story we saw portrayed real? Did it happen to the character or was it all an implanted memory? What is "real"? And if the memories were not real, are they any less meaningful to the holder?

This question of meaning arose for me once more as I read an article at Singularity Weblog. Written by Matt Frohlich, the thinkpiece was entitled "Transhumanism Needs to Establish a Meaning to Life."  It's a meditative piece that is quite heavy on philosophical reasoning. So much so that I still find myself mulling over its full ramifications. It's a somewhat Pickwickian take on the mode of thought with which transhumanism is approached. Maybe that's why I'm still thinking about it.

Frohlich wastes no time stating his thesis in the first sentence: "It is important that the transhumanist movement establish a consensus on the meaning of life. Failure to do so will result in conflict, the extent of which is difficult to predict." Like many schools of thought, transhumanism is indeed a loose confederation. As such, "consensus" can be an elusive devil. Frohlich also asserts that there are three motivations for transhumanism: utilitarianism, freedom, and meaning. He further contends, and not without a large degree of merit, that these motivations can be conflicting and at times contradictory.

As to the latter point, I think that the majority of "movements" have contradictory aspects to them. That should not be seen as unusual. The issue of "meaning" is much trickier. Matt Frohlich cites numerous examples from the book Brave New World, warning of an existence where suffering is all but banished. The people of BNW are profoundly happy, but their lives are ultimately meaningless. No argument there. Then again, by what yardstick are we measuring "meaning?" How many of us would meet the bar these days? I'm not entirely sure that I would. Then again, this may be the exact sort of thing that the author is arguing for transhumanists to button down.

Without consciously intending to stray from the arguments addressed in the piece, wandering off on a tangent is exactly what my mind did. In fact I got downright self-centered. How do I define "meaning" in my life? How will transhumanism help me to achieve it? First question first.

You might say I've been on a lifelong search for meaning. Many of us are, I suppose. I find meaning in achievement. By that I mean working with my mind to produce writing and thought that can help us consider and understand our world, and if I might be so grandiose, to act for the world's betterment. Failing that, then maybe the betterment of the individual lives of my students.

Yeah, I've just never been able to see any meaning in a life that makes and sells widgets for somebody.

How does transhumanism come in? My shirttail response is: it will help me to optimally pursue said meaning. Through transhumanism, I may be able to assume control of my biology and thereby nimbly avoid disease and ward off aging. I will have the blessing of more time, more time to pursue that which I value and that which gives my life meaning. Taking it further, transhumanism may allow me to enhance my mental abilities, giving me the means to accomplish even more and to set even higher goals. If taken to an extreme point, one where I would not require food or shelter, I would not be dependent on an income to "make my living." That's a rather pie-in-the-sky scenario, but it is one that would allow me to full-on pursue what is meaningful to me without any regard to finances.

What about this riff on Total Recall: I get uploaded and become disembodied intellect and consciousness. What then? Am I, like the memories from that film, not "real"? That said, those memories were real to the ones remembering them. Does that not suggest a meaning? At least on one level? "Meaning" may need to be redefined as we enter more virtual states of being.

Yeah, it's all something of a mind-bender but I can't help but think about it.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Linda Cortile UFO case

I wanted to take a moment to consider a UFO abduction case from 1989. It is alleged to have been significant due to its location and the number of...not to mention the nature of...actual witnesses involved.

At 3:00am on  November 30th, 1989, a woman named Linda Cortile (an alias) claims she was levitated out the window of her 12th story apartment in Manhattan and brought aboard a hovering UFO. As is often the case with purported abductions, this was not the first such time that Cortile had been taken by Grays. What made this time unique was that there were said to be at least three witnesses to the event...a rarity to say the least when dealing with the subject of alien abduction.

What's more, the three witnesses were a United Nations dignitary and his two bodyguards, moving by car on the street below the building. Using aliases, the two bodyguards in the case contacted famed alien abduction investigator, Budd Hopkins about what they had seen. Further allegations assert that the UN official was none other than Javier Perez du Cuellar, Secretary-General of the UN at the time, although he denied being any such witness. Likewise, no one has been able to ascertain the true identity of these guards in question. In fact, no one seems to have determined whether or not they even existed in the first place. Hopkins himself admitted that he never interviewed these men face-to-face.

Another problem with this case is the location. It's New York City. In fact, the location was well within view of the Brooklyn Bridge. Even at 3:00am, there should have been many witnesses to the UFO. Where are these witnesses? Well, Budd Hopkins asserted that one such witness from the bridge contacted him:

"The woman, a widow of about sixty, claimed to have been driving on the Brooklyn Bridge at 3:16 a.m., November 30, 1989.  She reported that her car stopped and the lights went out.  She too saw a large, brightly lit object over a building; in fact, the light was so bright that she was forced to shield her eyes, though she was over a quarter mile away.  Nevertheless, she claimed to have observed four figures in fetal positions emerge from a window.  The figures simultaneously uncurled and then moved up into the craft.  Ms. Kimble was quite frightened by the event, and people in cars behind her were 'running all around their cars with theirs (sic) hands on their heads, screaming from horror and disbelief.' "

So where are all these people? As a mass sighting, this would be quite a significant case and a cover-up would seem all but impossible. Why didn't this make news? Could the government have somehow coerced all of the drivers involved on the Bridge that night? Doubtful. Hopkins theorized that the aliens (or entities of undetermined nature) have technology that could make themselves selectively invisible or switch off the aspects of the consciousness of the witnesses involved.

I can almost buy that premise.

Consider if the "aliens" in question are not interplanetary aliens at all. Rather, they are interdimensional. Other dimensions and universes are moving beyond theoretical playthings and becoming seriously considered. As more data is crunched from experiments at the LHC, the evidence for such realities may surface. We may inhabit one of many universes or realities all under one umbrella. If UFOs and their occupants are beings from other dimensions, universes, or realities, that may explain certain inconsistencies in cases like these. If they are such, UFO craft and beings may seem to "blink" in and out of existence. There one minute. Gone the next. Leaving little if any evidence behind of their presence. This is due to the fact that they are moving between dimensions.

Could it be that abductees are not going into spacecraft as they report from their perspective, but are actually being shunted into another dimension or another state of existence? Perhaps even another state of consciousness? This opens up wider considerations for cases of abduction while avoiding the problems of distance and physics that accompany the extraterrestrial hypothesis (although I still hold out hope for Einstein-Rosen Bridges.)

Unfortunately for the case of Linda Cortile, such waxing theoretical does not supply hard evidence.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, February 20, 2015

FFF: Control


Last December, a fellow professor asked our freshmen class whether or not they felt they had complete control over their lives. Said question was prompted by an editorial on the subject of "Agency" by David Brooks at the New York Times.

How did the freshmen respond? A substantial, not to mention insouciant, majority claimed that they were in total control.

A few of us older folks chuckled. "Wait," we said. "There's a storm coming. It's called adulthood. It has the power and ability to knock you into places you never imagined being. Much of this can be due to happenstance...all largely out of your control."

To quote Yoda, responding to Luke Skywalker maintaining he was not afraid: "You will will be..."

Yes, yes, yes.

You can extol the platitude of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" when things get tough. And with good reason. There is at least a bit of truth to it. How we face adversity in large part is due to how much responsibility we take for ourselves. And yet...and yet...

"The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless."
--Alan Moore

At the beginning of this month, I was reminded of just how little control we can have sometimes. It was a Saturday and I had big plans. I was to do an improv show on campus with old college friends of mine and then drive back to Chicago to see my family. Not to mention watch the Super Bowl with them. A massive winter storm was due to hit that night and completely wreck those plans.

There was nothing I could do about the storm. I could watch it, track it, get the best guesses on what it would yield and when exactly it would hit. I was in control of what plans I would make and what adaptations I would enact in the face of the storm, but the weather itself? Not a damn thing I could do about it. That is aside from watching what I wanted to do get covered by a blizzard of snow and ice.

I had no control over that.

I think about all the times my success or failure was in someone else's hands. Sure, I could dot every i and cross every t, basically do every single thing I was supposed to do to the utmost of my ability, but in the end success might just come down to what mood someone was in that day. For me, it would be the most important moment of my life. For them, it was Tuesday.

I had no control over that ultimate decision.

"You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there's still going to be somebody who hates peaches."
--Dita von Teese.

How people in sales do it is beyond me.

But would we ever want complete control?

Would that make things boring? Too much? A great weight ever on our shoulders? For if we always had control, would not every outcome be our responsibility? Where does the philosophical if not actual obligation then lie?

On second thought, despite all of my manic tendencies, I can do without a portion of control.

"I am always with myself and it is I who am my tormentor."
--Leo Tolstoy

I think I'll just make this my theme song for every FFF.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 19, 2015

My time as a comic book superhero

For at least a little while there, I lived in a comic book.

My friend Dorkland runs a blog centered around tabletop role play gaming (RPG). Yes, things like Dungeons & Dragons. To the uninitiated, that's the only game of the sort. While it is indeed the biggest and perhaps the most popular, it's far from the only one. There are a multitude of games in a multitude of genres, including science fiction and superheroes.

My most treasured times playing such games fall in that latter category in undergrad. Recently, Dorkland uploaded a blog post on those days as he was involved in them both as player and referee. His post has prompted me to reflect on that effulgent era.

I took to the game quickly, given that the majority of my formative years were spent reading both Marvel and DC Comics, not to mention that DC's "Death in the Family" publicity stunt managed to suck me back into the art form just as I started college. Combine that with the pre-requisite early geek years of playing D&D and I already had at least my feet wet in the RPG pool. So when my good friends asked me to play, I embraced it without looking back.

We were a team of superheroes set in the universe of Marvel Comics. We called ourselves "Murphy's Law" after the axiom of "Whatever can go wrong, will." Seemed to fit us in many ways. In our eyes we were on par with the mighty Avengers. In reality, we were more like the Giffen/DeMatteis run on Justice League America.

Here is the roster as I remember it:

Real American: He was the requisite "strong guy." Super-strength and utter invulnerability. He was ultra-conservative, based I am told in part on the character of Golden Boy from the Wildcards series of novels. Funny thing about that? Armando played the character and he is far from a conservative. For him, it was just fun to play someone the total opposite of his real life personality.

Vixen: She was a cyborg from the future. I think. She didn't show up in too many of the comic book issues (meaning game sessions) that I appeared in, so I didn't really get to know the character that well. She was played by Dorkland (I think) and she married Real American.

Ace: She was a young, mutant girl. Her only real power was the ability to fly. Dorkland played her as well.

Anarchy: Played by Ahab Pope, this guy was a punk in a bowler hat. He could also summon and project illusions from his own mind that were worse than any acid trip could manage.

Cicero: He was a former mercenary turned cyborg who looked and talked exactly like the actor Michael Ironsides. Bernard played him and gave the character a great deal of depth and history, not to mention an extensive rogue's we will soon see.

Chelnov: This guy was the brainchild of Dr. Rich. Chelnov was a Russian exposed to extreme radiation (perhaps at Chernobyl, I don't remember.) This gave him the ability to run at extreme speeds. He could also throw radioactive boomerangs. Personality-wise, Chelnov was probably the closest to his real-life counterpart of all of us. There was also a pinch of Guy Gardener tossed in there, too.
If I'm incorrect on any of this, I will no doubt get a pedantic response.

Grey Mist: That was me. It was a character I inherited from another player who had transferred off campus but I'd to think I made Grey Mist my own. The character was an outgrowth of the Suicide Squad comic book, a thief and assassin from the Kali Cult that Ravan belonged to in that series. I took him more in the direction of a Storm Shadow homage ninja.

Along with that I added a secret identity, that of a global financier modeled somewhat on Richard Gere circa Pretty Woman. That last bit may be due to the fact we played the game in Armando's dorm room most of the time. He had a poster for said movie up on his wall.

As you might expect, our team of superheroes had many landscape-leveling fights with bad guys. These included a terrorist group known as Jihad (another spinoff from Suicide Squad) and our arch-nemesis, an omni-powerful plant being known as The Kale Man. Yeah he doesn't sound very threatening, but when Bernard rolled him up as one of Cicero's rogues gallery, the dice had other ideas. It sucked.

So did the ninja eggplant. But I digress...

Yes, there were many battles. But amid the mound of empty Coke cans and the swearing at my bad dice rolls, a few pretty incredible things happened.

We created characters with fully-formed personalities and breathed real life into them. They became extensions of ourselves, even if they were our diametric opposites as in the case of Real American. We became attached to them. I remember Armando being incensed when Bernard allowed his character Cicero to die so that he might play a new (and far less appeal IMHO) character. We felt as if we'd lost a friend.

Our adventures were legendary, even if only in our own minds. We still refer to happenings in those games as if they were real events we were a part of. In an existential sense, they were real.

More than anything, lifelong friendships were formed. Not bad for a game with dice.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Podesta asks for UFO files, but just what would they say?

I will assert that the government knows more about the UFO phenomena than it is telling us.

How much more is subject to speculation...and often exaggeration.

Such speculation got kicked up a bit more in the past few days due to a tweet from John Podesta, former White House Chief of Staff to President Clinton and a senior adviser to President Obama. The tweet stated as follows:

"Finally, my biggest failure of 2014: Once again not securing the #disclosure of the UFO files. #thetruthisstilloutthere."

That statement from such a high-ranking Washington insider has brought great din from the UFO camp, arguing that this is more evidence a government cover-up. While it's almost a foregone conclusion that the powers-that-be of the nation and the world know more about UFOs than they are letting on, I question the exact magnitude of their knowledge.

The federal government and the United States military have had a longstanding interest in UFO sightings. This dates back to, among other things, Project Sign. This was an official research study conducted by the U.S. government in 1948 into the nature of UFO phenomena. While the study was inconclusive as to just what UFOs are, the report asserted that the phenomenon is real and that the craft sighted are most likely of extraterrestrial origin. This hypothesis was, of course, rejected. But Project Sign did make one important contribution that seems to have stuck in official policy and that is the recommendation that strict control should be kept over the investigation of sightings.

Much later came the Condon Report. It was a report from the University of Colorado under the direction of physicist Edward Condon and funded by the Air Force. The upshot of the report stated that serious study of UFOs was unlikely to yield anything of scientific value. There was consternation surrounding the report due to a memo written by Robert Low, a member of the committee. The memo was to academics at the University of Colorado and its intent was to assure them that the study would conclude that UFOs had no basis in reality. This irked many in the UFO committee and Condon would later argue that the memo demonstrated Low's ignorance of the project. But the memo, once again, did contribute something that seemed to stick.

Low wrote that the Condon report would emphasize "the sociology and psychology" of those who report UFO sightings. In other words, focus attention on the witnesses, not the phenomenon itself. To me, this suggests the beginning of a modus operandi for an official line on UFO sightings. Namely, that one should always discredit discredit discredit. This m.o. seemed to already be in full force before the report at the time of the Betty and Barney Hill case.

The Hills were the first thoroughly documented abduction case. Among the more ludicrous and limp-wristed attempts at explaining their encounter? That the experience was a hallucination brought on by the stress of being an interracial couple in the 1960s. I am all for finding terrestrial, even mundane explanations for events deemed Ufological, but there are times when skepticism turns into the mental gymnastics of "denial at all costs." While I don't exactly throw my support behind the alien hypothesis for the Hill case, I have yet to read a worthwhile debunking.

Discredit discredit discredit.

So what exactly is the government hiding and why are they hiding it? If you ask the more paranoid corners of the Internet about the latter, its denizens might allege that it all has to do with Project Blue Beam. This is an alleged plot involving UFOs where the New World Order would fake an alien invasion to bring about a totalitarian, one-world state. Click the link and you'll see how there's a nifty tie-in to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Crazy? Probably. Still, when that weird spiral appeared over Norway in 2009, I had to wonder if it was hologram and the beginning of the Blue Beam scenario.

Of course it wasn't.

Once more I circle back to the question. What is our government hiding? To my thinking, I don't believe they know that much. They are concretely aware that UFOs, at least in a few cases, are real and represent something weird and perhaps outside of human comprehension. They don't know much more beyond that. There is no thaumaturge or cabal of shadowy minds that know all about what's in our skies or what to do about it should action be needed.

That, more than anything, is probably why they keep it under wraps.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Strange plumes over Mars

Astronomers and followers of space science are once more mystified by the planet Mars.

Enormous, vaporous plumes were spotted rising over the Red Planet back in 2012. They reached to a height of 155 miles (very near the edge of space) and grew to hundreds of miles in width. The plumes reflect sunlight, suggesting they could be made of water ice, carbon dioxide, or dust. Growing clouds of that matter is problematic, however, given the current model of the Martian atmosphere.

Reading further into the article from, it sees this phenomena is not exactly new. I guess these plumes have been seen off and on for the past 20 years or so. But rarely have they reached this height and width. So what are they?

Right now, nobody knows. Here are a few theories...

One is that of "Martian Auroras." These are similar to the auroras here on Earth where high-energy particles interact with the planet's magnetic field. When I first read that explanation, I was perplexed. I thought that Mars had no magnetic field, hence why its landscape is what it is? Turns out auroras have been observed in different areas on Mars, likely precipitated by large deposits of iron in the crust. So that's a thought.

Online commenters seem to favor the asteroid explanation. Big space rocks hit Mars and send up the plumes. While we can't track every asteroid hit on Mars, it just seems like that would be something we would notice.

Could it be volcanic or other geologic activity? Is the planet still active and the plumes a sign of it struggling for ballast? I was under the impression that Mars was not all that active geologically, but that thought of mine may be in need of revision. If the composition of the plumes should indeed be water or carbon dioxide, then that's yet more presence of organic compounds on Mars. Is it indicative that life is or was present on that planet? Too soon to say, but the evidence does seem to be piling up.

Could also be smoke rising from an apocalyptic battle. I'm not betting on that one, though.

Speaking of fiction, those who have heard recordings of the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938 will tell you that the first signs of the impending invasion from Mars were plumes of smoke rising from the planet's surface as the Martians launched their machines Earthward.

We can expect the first cylinder to land at Grover's Mill any moment now.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, February 13, 2015

On Valentine's Day

Looks like I picked the wrong day to try to get over triskaidekaphobia.

But seriously, folks...

So I guess society dictates that I wish everyone a Happy Valentine's Day.


What am I doing for the night? Well, Mrs. ESE is spending the night at a Barry Manilow concert (yes, you read that correctly), so that means the dogs and I have the night to ourselves. We'll play fetch. Maybe this time I'll have them throw the toy and I'll sit there looking disaffected. Seriously, I have no shortage of things to do with my time. Papers to grade, books to read, and so on.

I am wondering however if we should not take time on this day to consider the less fortunate. I mean, we do that at other holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, why not do so on Valentine's Day? I'm not talking about just the heartbroken and alone, either (although having been there more than my share of times, I'm certainly sympathetic.) Consider the members of our society unable to express their love.

While we are making progress, there are still 13 states where it is illegal for homosexuals to get married. There are even problems in states where it is legal as the fundies of said states refuse to go gentle into that good night. A minister in Alabama (of course) was arrested last Wednesday for disorderly conduct as she refused to marry a gay couple. Despite a federal court ruling, there are still county courthouses in that state that are refusing to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. I have never had to apologize or be shamed for who I love. Tough to believe that in our current age there are still people who must go through such things.

Just so I'm not accused of "America bashing," we're not the only place with similar difficulties. Sects of Islam apparently have a problem with Valentine's Day itself. This story from last year tells of Salafists in Gaza City directing bitter streams of bile towards shops selling the traditional flowers and balloons for the holiday.

"Valentine's Day is haram [sinful]," said a youth on the scene. Addressing those around him, he added, "Love your mother and your father. Do you have to flirt with a girl to know the meaning of love?"

"God called upon us to love, so how can celebrating love be considered haram?" countered another bystander.

While I've certainly never been accused of being a hippie, I'm no opponent of love in any form. With the world so full of negative forces, I can't see how removing the positive force of love will benefit us. Perhaps the extremists of both religions could ponder that for a time.

Who am I kidding? It wouldn't change anything even if they did.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Guest Post--Returning to Terry Gilliam and "Twelve Monkeys"

Today features a guest post from Beth Kelly. In it, Beth examines one of my favorite films, Twelve Monkeys.

Returning to Terry Gilliam and “Twelve Monkeys”

Terry Gilliam's legacy is a strange and beautiful one. His reputation as one of the most prolific members of the absurdist comedy collective “Monty Python's Flying Circus” and his career history as one of the most notable surrealist animators of all time almost turn into a footnote against the influence he has had over modern cinema. Within his almost half-century of directorship over deeply weird and strikingly beautiful films, he has achieved mainstream recognition without sacrificing his artistic ideals, giving the world a glimpse into his bizarre imagination.

Terry Gilliam's early career focused on animation and cartoons, and several of his earliest animations featured other Pythons that he would go on to work extensively with. His flair for animation and all things cartoonish can be felt in all of his films, even his slightly more realistic endeavors like Twelve Monkeys (1995). Outlandish set designs, unusual camera angles and larger than life characters give his feature films the same whimsical and surreal element that breathes life into his cartoons. His hyperbolic approach to everything from basic dialog to cinematography can take his scenes from breathtakingly lovely to painfully claustrophobic within seconds. His films pack an emotional sucker punch underneath their dream-like layers, and his dark sense of humor smacks of Roadrunner and Coyote-ish nihilism. The result is a mood that’s both cartoonishly comic and deeply dramatic.

This strange juxtaposition of gleeful imaginative comedy and dark foreboding drama is particularly effective in Gilliam's famous sci-fi thriller, Twelve Monkeys. Underneath the dizzying time travel conceit and blackly slapstick humor of this film is a Hitchcockian drama about a man losing his grip on reality and watching it slowly and inexorably drift away from him. Gilliam tells this pathos-laden story with plenty of his signature flair, sharing a message that, while not exactly hopeful, celebrates beauty within chaos.

In contrast to the high fantasy motif in some of his other films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) or The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen (1988), Twelve Monkeys takes place in one of the highly dystopic future worlds that sealed his reputation as the godfather of dystopian cinema. This film's visuals are no less lush for its urban setting, and Gilliam's favorite trick of juxtaposing the very large with the very tiny through architecture, set design and shot composition adds to the fatalistic struggle of the plot, relating us to the main character's plight and wondering with him if he really has gone insane.

While the final scenes of this film weigh heavy on the viewer’s subconscious, the story allows for moments of comedy, beauty, and genuine human emotion to shine through the chaos of time travel and terrorism. The plot and characters of this film iterate many times that the final outcome of events cannot be changed and there is no escape out of time.
But even on their way towards certain doom in the final moments of the film, the characters experience a moment of stunning, absurd and incomprehensible beauty in the form of a mob of freed zoo animals running wild through the streets of the city. This moment, existing somewhere outside time, is a powerful symbol of the theme of Twelve Monkeys and a core part of Gilliam's cinematic language; although we may not be able to change our futures, we can appreciate the strange and wonderful places the journey takes us, even as we hurtle towards our ultimate fate.

This past year, the Syfy channel went ahead with a television adaptation of the film, following Cole’s journey into the present past. He is now tracking down Dr. Goines with the intent to kill him, and prevent the plague from infecting future humans. The TV program also establishes Dr. Railly as a more impactful character, and the Twelve Monkeys gang as an actual threat. With episodes from this season streaming on both DTV and Hulu, there’s no need to travel back in time in order to get caught up on the plot.

In the present, Terry Gilliam shows no signs of slowing his creative output. He continues to write, direct and produce comedic and dramatic endeavors set in the gilded past and the dystopian future, occasionally exploring both at the same time. His next film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is slated for 2016 and promises to be another creative foray into the furthest reaches of the human imagination with a master storyteller at the helm.

You can contact Beth Kelly at Twitter:  @bkelly_88

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why Mitt Romney loves "Battlefield Earth"

You can learn a lot about someone by looking at their favorite book.

Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney loves the Bible (natch) and...Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard.

How did I not know this? This story came out in 2007, right around Mitt's first presidential run. How did I miss it? I suppose 2007 predates ESE (est. 2010, at least in its initial incarnation) so I wasn't yet collecting such news items, but still...

Or maybe I caught it and mentally threw it back? Lost to the attrition of memory. But I digress...

Battlefield Earth is the story of our world in the year 3000 as it is under the control of evil aliens called the Psychlos. They have enslaved humanity and are stripping the Earth of all of its natural resources. Those few humans not serving as thralls must eke out a tribal living in the wastelands. A young man named Jonnie Goodboy Tyler grows disaffected with his life in such a tribe and straps on laser guns to go overthrow the Psychlos. To do so, he must first face down Terl, the head of Psychlo security. Jonnie's biggest advantage? The Psychlos' breath explodes upon contact with radioactive material.

Also opposing Jonnie is a race of interstellar bankers who are bent on repossessing the Earth due to unpaid debts. Really folks, I couldn't make this stuff up. L. Ron Hubbard, however, could. Hey the man wasn't dumb. He invented an entire religion and got people to fork over millions. That's nothing warranting sternutation. But I digress...

In full disclosure, I have never read Battlefield Earth. I mean, I tried once in 8th grade but the book is a massive 1,050 pages in length. My reading chops were not quite up for that at the time. That and I think even my 14 year-old self recognized how stupid it was and that's saying something considering I never missed an episode of the G.I. Joe cartoon. I have, however, seen the movie based off of the book. Starring John Travolta and Barry Pepper (I really had higher hopes for Pepper after Saving Private Ryan), it ranks as one of the worst films that I've ever seen. I know I should never judge a book by its film adaptation but...I dunno...I feel sort of safe doing that in this case. I mean, here is a line from the first page of the book as gleaned from the article at Slate:

"Terl could not have produced a more profound effect had he thrown a meat-girl naked into the middle of the room."

Folks, there's pulp, and then there's pulp.

So what can we learn about Mitt from his choice in reading? Could he be funnin' us? Unlikely, given his sense of humor. Does he just enjoy a mindless read? Okay, I can buy that...for more reasons than one...but it's Battlefield Earth. Nobody just picks that book. Plus, it's just not what you'd expect from a fiscal and social conservative.

Maybe he's a closet Scientologist? Or at least harbors deep empathy for their cause? I know it's not accurate to say this, but it feels like it would just sort with Mormonism. Maybe Mitt is secretly waiting for the spaceship to come and pick him up or however it is that Scientologists view their particular rapture. Add this Battlefield Earth log to the fire of reasons why I'm glad he's not running again.

Go ahead. Call me a progressive. A literary snob. Both are probably true.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

"The Roswell slides"

Add another bizarre twist to the Roswell UFO incident.

There is quite a bit of controversy over a set of images that have colloquially come to be known as "the Roswell slides." Said slides were allegedly found in an attic belonging to Bernard Ray, a geologist who once lived in the Roswell area, and his wife, a lawyer named Hilda. The slides in the envelope are from the 1940s and are pretty much what you might expect. Travel shots, vacation spots, family, etc. right on up until a few jarring slides jump out at you.

First, there are rather close and candid shots of then President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Hilda Ray was supposedly good friends with the general/president. Then there are the final two slides in the group...

These depict a small body, stretched out on either a slab or a gurney. It has a spindly form and an enlarged head. You guessed it. It's supposed to be the corpse of an alien recovered from the Roswell crash in 1947. A so-called "smoking gun" according to several UFO sites.

There is going to be a big reveal of all the evidence on May 5th in Mexico City. That will also mark, shocker, the release of a documentary about the slides called Kodachrome. Here's the trailer:

Researcher Anthony Bragalia seems pretty convinced:

"What is depicted is really there, accurately reflected in the emulsion as an actual moment in time in 1947. Science has weighed in and has determined that these are real slides that are really from 1947. The Only Conclusion: This humanoid is not a deformed person, mummy, dummy, simian or dead serviceman."

Other Roswell investigators seem on board with it as well, namely researchers such as Don Schmitt and Kevin Randle.

Me? Well, I fall squarely in the camp of Paul Kimball at The Other Side of Truth.

First of all, there is no real evidence here, just a few images on slides. How did Bernard and Hilda Ray come into possession of such highly classified material? Well the prevailing explanation seems to be: "They were buddies with Ike, so of course they got copies of the top secret" Not only is this flawed reasoning, Paul Kimball points out that there has been yet any evidence produced that establishes any kind of relationship between Eisenhower and the Rays. True, there is one slide that purports to be of Bernard Ray with President Eisenhower, but that has yet to be authenticated. Is there any written record such as correspondence or appointment book dates to corroborate these slides? Or was it a quick snap at a campaign stop with a couple hundred other people? Are there any other photographs that of a more exclusive nature? A meeting with just them? Perhaps being commensal? Or anything? As Kimball says, it's bad history.

Like so many other claims ufological, there just isn't any good evidence here. Not yet, anyway. Maybe that will change after "the big reveal" on May 5th. Somehow I doubt it. In the meantime, allow me to rip off even more from Paul Kimball and pose the following four possibilities for what we see in the slides:

1.) A complete hoax.
2.) A human body with a deformity.
3.) An actual alien from the Roswell crash.
4.) Something else.

If you vote "4" then please leave your idea in the comments section. Otherwise, I'm betting heavy on "1." And should that be the answer...and I can see few reasons why it wouldn't be...the field of ufology will have taken yet another slash in credibility.

Just what it needs.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, February 6, 2015

Space: 1999

On the heels of my rediscovery of Jason of Star Command, I have been revisiting yet another science fiction classic.

Its television run was short lived on this side of the pond, but what followers it does retain are highly devout. I am speaking of the show, Space: 1999, created by Gerry Anderson.

The series debuted in 1975 and ran until 1977, totaling 48 episodes in all. As I was a very young child at the time (yes, I was), I have but the dimmest recollections of the show. My memories of Space: 1999 are more...tangible in nature, but more on that in a moment. As such, I decided to seek out actual episodes of the series on YouTube to experience it with fully developed faculties (or as good as they're going to get with me.)

I'm certainly not disappointed. The show has proven to be unique and thoughtful.

Our story concerns the crew of Moonbase Alpha, a center of scientific research on the Moon. It is under the command of John Koenig, played by Martin Landau. In a nice touch, Moonbase Alpha is also the dumping ground for a considerable amount of Earth's nuclear waste. I'd like to think of that as a political statement. "You scientists are up there, sucking up all our tax money. Might as well make you good for something by having you run a landfill." As you might imagine, you can only pile so many highly volatile substances together before something terrible happens.

Indeed something does. There's a terrible mishap related to radiation. The waste achieves critical mass and there is a giant nuclear detonation. The Moon cracks apart and the segment upon which Moonbase Alpha sits goes hurtling out into space. Making matters worse, the hunk of Moon goes through a black hole (such was our limited understanding at the time), sending it further into the uncharted reaches. The Alphans (as the base crew takes to calling themselves) are forced to face the tenebrific fact that they will likely never find their way back to Earth. Therefore, they must find a new planet to settle upon and start their lives anew.

This leads to all manner of shenanigans with aliens and really, really, weird psychedelic stuff (it was the 1970s after all). But the undisputed star of the show were the spaceships of Moonbase Alpha: the Eagles. You can see one in the picture above.

I mentioned earlier that most of my Space: 1999 experience was "tangible." That's because when I as a kid, I had this massive, deluxe rendition of the Eagle spaceship.  Behold.

It was one solid piece of work. As testament to that fact, my nephews still play with the surviving husk of the ship. Sure, many of its pieces are missing due to the numerous planetary crashes I subjected the Eagle to in my back yard, but you wouldn't get even close to 40 years of integrity out of a toy these days. It also came with three figures of the cast members in orange spacesuits, each one with little grappling ropes, laser guns, and other accessories. You could sit them in the cockpit, in the main cabin area, or have them work the crane over the bottom hatch in the ship. The nose module and the engines could detach and you could create a sort of recon ship out of them (see picture above). I tell you, folks. Little Jonny played the hell out of this toy. Between the Eagle and my Shogun Warrior, the universe was my playground. The Millennium Falcon pretty much has the title of "Coolest Spaceship Ever" locked up, but in terms of toy renditions of such things, no product comes close to the Eagle.

Wish I had one now while I watch the show. Oh well. Here's a Moon Buggy.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, February 5, 2015

10 reasons to fear the Singularity

Transhumanism. It might not be just shiny cybernetics after all.

I've always maintained that there are risks to the concept. The students in the class I'm teaching on ethics, transhumanism, and Singularity (I know it's an ambiguous and dubious term) technology are certainly skeptical of the outcome, and that's after having read Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near. And why shouldn't they question it? After all, great thinkers such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Bill Gates have been quite vocal in their fears over artificial intelligence. So I say let's get the potential downsides and the ethical questions all out in the open. If we know the challenges and we can see the pitfalls, then we will be in a position to plan for them. Not all of them ( see "availability heuristic"), but at least a few.

Fortunately for me, Nikola Danaylov (Socrates) over at Singularity Weblog has already compiled a list of 10 reasons to fear the Singularity. You can read them in depth at the link plus see a nifty infographic on them if that's more your speed. Let's get after it, shall we? Armageddon awaits...

1. Extinction. Well yeah, that's a big one, I suppose. Robopocalypse, artificial intelligence that no longer has any use for us, nanotechnology gone all "gray goo," those are just a few ways that demonstrate that "the future does not need us."

2. Slavery. Super smart AI's might not want to kill us. They might use us for free forced labor. I doubt it, but it's worth considering.

3. World War III: the Giga War. We've long feared a third, major world conflict. This one could be fought weapons of mass destruction that surpass any of our imaginations, such as genetically engineered virus. It might not even be humans who start it. See concerns about super smart AI.

4. Economic collapse. Too many robots, not enough jobs left for humans. Sure, products manufactured cheaply and efficiently by robots make great economic sense...until there is no one with money to by the products. Not sure how viable of a concern this is. We've had eliminations of jobs before and we've adjusted.

5. Big Brother AI. We're still under the control of an ultra-sophisticated AI, but it's just trying to do what's best for us. It might be the end of our lives as we know them, but we won't mind. It's a version of The Matrix that we can all get behind.

6. Loss of our "humanity." By merging with machines, we lose the human "soul," our ability to give succorance, or grow bereft of that which makes us "us." Yawn.

7. Environmental collapse. As it says at the link, our destruction of the environment tends to be in proportion to technological advance. If we've sufficiently merged with cybernetic technology, would we care? What does a god need with the environment? Scary to consider, especially if you espouse the view that we are co-residents of this world and not its masters.

8. Loss of history and spatial knowledge. I've watched our youth care less and less about things that happened ten years ago, let alone 100. And if you don't read books...

9. Computronium and Matrioshka brains. A Matrioshka brain is a computational device of immense capacity. We're talking the size of our solar system, the matter dismantled and uploaded to serve the AI, even dust. Soon, there would be nothing left but the Matrioshka.

10. Fear of change. Humans don't usually like change of this magnitude. There are those among us who might get panicky in the face of this transformation and do something monumentally stupid. That I believe.

So leave a comment and tell me...are you afraid?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Alien at the Pentagon: the story of Valiant Thor

Coast to Coast AM had an especially eyebrow-arching UFO program recently.

I had heard bits and pieces of the "Valiant Thor" story before but this is the first time I have looked into it with any kind of depth. The weird tale was the subject of a 1967 book by Frank Stranges called Stranger at the Pentagon, a text considered a UFO classic in certain circles. As the C2C program detailed, that book has now been made into a short film of the same name, directed by "Emmy-nominated casting director" Craig Campobasso. The story goes something like this...

In March of 1957, two police officers in Alexandria, Virginia picked up a man 14 miles south on Pentagon Blvd. Although he outwardly appeared to be quite normal, this man had no palm prints and claimed to be an alien named Valiant Thor. He claimed to be a visitor from the planet Venus. His mission here was a "divine" one, to eliminate poverty and disease and to grant humanity life extension technologies. I can pretty much get behind all of that. Anyway, Val Thor was taken to meet then-President Eisenhower (who has been said to have met more than his share of aliens), who then set up Thor with a living arrangement at the Pentagon. As the book and film argue, Thor remained in residence there from March 16th, 1957 to March 16th, 1960 (I guess there was something about the 16th of March with Venusians.)

In his book, Stranges claims to have met Thor through a contact at the Pentagon. He also produced photographs of the being, taken at the house of Howard Menger, a self-proclaimed alien contactee. There were also other beings, associates of Thor's who all looked human. It is also said that Thor kept (keeps?) his spacecraft "Victor One" (pictured at the top of the post) at Lake Mead.

You can watch a promo documentary for Stranger at the Pentagon here. It opens up with great excitement about the evidence uncovered for this alien visitation. The voiceover says there is "photographic proof" and a testimonial statement from a Navy officer who worked on Project Blue Book, the Air Force's official investigation into UFOs. That officer is Harley Byrd, the nephew of Admiral Byrd.

To recap, the "evidence" is someone's statement and a black and white photograph of some guy (remember, Thor looks like us.)

I'm no lawyer, but I'm not sure that holds up...and it is difficult to winnow anything else substantial from it. I'm also wondering just why we still have poverty and disease if Val was here to help us out. Plus, there are other cracks in the pavement of this case.

First of all, Valiant Thor claimed to be from Venus. This was a popular claim during the "space brothers" era of UFO phenomena. Such claims seemed to evaporate the more science learned that it would really suck to live on Venus.

Speaking of "space brothers," that's really what this story is all about: an advanced and benevolent being brings us tidings of great joy. He has technologies that will take away many of the most serious woes we are laden with (an interesting comparison can be made with the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, released in 1951, just six years before Thor's alleged arrival) in a UFO version of the Rapture. Notice how many times in the text and video for Stranger at the Pentagon that Valiant Thor or his mission is referred to as "divine." He is even called "an angel" at the outset of the clip. So he is of heavenly origin? Or an alien? Or is it both? Perhaps it's further indication that UFOs, "angel" sightings, and other paranormal phenomena are all one in the same. I don't know.

That might be the best way of putting it. I can't say for certain that there never was a Valiant Thor from Venus. I just don't think the evidence is in its favor. Then again, perhaps there was and he and his cohorts never really were from Venus. That was a ruse for the benefit of our own mental health. As Terence McKenna said:

"We have a symbiotic relationship with something which has disguised itself as an alien invasion so as not to alarm us."

If Valiant Thor was indeed genuine, that might be the best explanation.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

2014: The year of "I can't breathe" and #blacklivesmatter

Words are sort of "my thing."

Comes with being a writer and a professor of writing. As such, I'm always fascinated with the political power of words. Like ions or subatomic particles, words carry charged energy with them and they help create our reality. They also have an intriguing tendency to instill, remove, and regulate power. I was never more aware of this than at the end of last year.

Two decisions were announced by linguistic authorities in recent months. These choices are indicators of a shift in public conscience.

The first decision came in December, 2014 from Fred Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. One phrase stood out above all others in 2014 for Shapiro: "I can't breathe." These were of course the last words of Eric Garner, repeated 11 times as he was locked in a hold by New York City police officer, Daniel Pantaleo. This hold resulted in Garner's death as he choked to death. In the wake of a decision not to indict Pantaleo on charges of any kind, the phrase "I can't breathe" became a protest chant. This came in addition to unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and greater scrutiny over police practices as related to human rights. "Hands up, don't shoot" along with the seemingly perennial "No justice, no peace" had strong appearances in the protest lexicon.

But Ben Zimmer writing for Wired argues that "I can't breathe" is a far more powerful phrase than the other two of the aforementioned ones and I agree with him. First of all, it includes the word "breathe." To breathe is one of the most essential necessities of human existence. If someone is being denied that ability, that is a strong indication that a fundamental right is being violated. Perhaps more importantly, the phrase starts with the pronoun "I." When someone repeats the phrase, it is not only a statement of solidarity with Garner and his family, it is a cry. It is a cry of someone who perhaps politically, socially, or economically...or a combination of all three or more...cannot breathe. When thousands chant these words together, this represents a problem for society of Brobdingagian proportons. More critically, the "I" in the phrase becomes a "we" when repeated by crowds. This means power.

There is great power in the "word of the year" for 2014 as chosen by the American Dialect Association. There was also controversy and consternation among linguistic purists as the "word" was not really a word. It was a clause. As an even greater sign of the times, the phrase comes with a hashtag before it.

It is #blacklivesmatter.

This is another protest phrase but, as the hashtag indicates, it was one for the social media age. It was spawned of the same incidents of death involving police and African American men. There are, however, a few unique aspects to it. As mentioned previously, it is a tag in social media. It spread across Twitter from its point of origin in the U.S. to being applied to similar incidents overseas (you can see examples of the tweets at the link.) It no longer solely signifies injustice in America, but across the world. Also, #blacklivesmatter tends to stop being a clause and become a noun when used, signifying an entire political movement.

All of the above is enough to make these quotes/phrases/clauses/words/whatever you wish to call them significant, but there is one additional attribute that they both share that really seals their importance for me.

There is very little ambiguity in either one of them.

There is no political play room. Look at what politicians, specifically Republicans it seems, have done with the phrase "entitlement program." The phrase often gets applied to government programs such as Social Security. Labeling such programs "entitlements" is not inaccurate. You are entitled to them because you helped pay for them. Despite this fact, by hammering on the moniker of "entitlement" over and over until it sticks, politicians change the tenor of words. When it is said that someone feels "entitled" to something, there is often an unsaid implication that the individual in question did not earn whatever it is. It's a twist of meaning in the case of "entitlement program" but it seems to have worked. Thank goodness we can't say the same for their other horribly misguided phrase, "legitimate rape."

Fortunately, you can't really mitigate the meaning of "I can't breathe." Likewise, it's tough to dilute #blacklivesmatter. This is significant. It is further indication of a movement, of an open statement of what people will no longer tolerate and for changes to be made.

Let's hope for words indicating positive change in 2015.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets