Thursday, January 28, 2016

30 years since Challenger

It forever changed the way we look at space exploration.

It was also what they call a "you remember where you were" moment. When the space shuttle Challenger was lost 30 years ago on this day, I was a young lad in school. Word got around between teachers and students but it wouldn't be until I got home that I'd see the footage on TV. And we all saw it. Over and over again. That image of the central fireball and the aimless solid rocket boosters forking away from it is indelible. It looked like fireworks but I knew it was people dying. Any insouciant attitudes we had towards space were gone or at least seriously eroded.

Sadly, the news only got worse. Most everyone thought that the seven member crew of Challenger were killed instantly in the explosion. Turns out they were likely alive for the whole two minute fall to the ocean. There was also talk that NASA continued to receive open audio transmissions from the crew compartment during that time. I believe that NASA did in fact eventually acknowledge that this was so, but wisely refused to release any record of those final godawful minutes out of respect for the families. I remember reading a supposed transcript of those transmissions a few months later, but it appeared in something tabloid-y and therefore I didn't place much stock in it, even as a kid.

Perhaps even more stomach-churning was later learning that the disaster was utterly preventable. It was, at its core, a human failure. The engineering team had warned against launching on such a cold day. Heedless, the bureaucracy and a sick culture at NASA pushed the launch when it wasn't safe. Seven people died because of it. Here's a video clip of the noble physicist Richard Feynman in a press conference, forcing the agency to come clean about what happened.

I've also been watching this clip from CNN covering the launch and subsequently the disaster live:

That silence is eerie. Haunting. As is the flat, passionless commentary from Mission Control following it. I don't mean that as any criticism for what else was the announcer going to say or how else was he going to say it? It just added to the surreal qualities of the moment.

All these years later it certainly sticks with you. Nothing routine about traveling into space.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Liquid lakes on Mars

So we all know that salt water in liquid form was found on Mars.

Could it pool in liquid lakes? For any extended period of time? That's another matter altogether. Of course billions of years ago, a warmer Mars might have had water all over the place. But then the planet's atmosphere was lost into space and we have the Mars that we have now: a dusty red form that is both cold and dry. Freezing temperatures and a low-pressure atmosphere would make any kind of substantial "pooling" difficult but if the source of the water was a Mars aquifer, then the water might stand for a year or so. That's what they're saying at the Planetary Space Institute.

Jules Godspiel of that said same institute ran a simulation model to determine if such a thing would be possible. Turns out that you could get standing pools of water...but just for a little while. From the article:

"Recent research suggested that if a significant amount of water flowed from a source such as an aquifer, it could stay liquid on the surface for a while, forming the puzzling features known as recurring slope lineae (RSL) that appear on some Red Planet slopes during warm months. RSL could form if a landslide or some other event exposed a source of water at the surface. Eventually, the water would begin to freeze and replug the source, cutting off the flow, researchers have said."

In other words, a lake of water could form on Mars under the present conditions and if it had enough depth, it might last a year before freezing over.

The topic of liquid water on Mars is somewhat loaded. It can bring about all manner of discussion from professional and pugnacious amateur astronomers. Just see the comments section of the linked article (that is if you can stomach the comments section of any online publication. I've all but sworn them off for the most part, but as you can see sometimes I lose out to temptation.) Despite that, the growing consensus seems to be that there are significant bodies of water beneath the surface of Mars. This new possibility, however theoretical, is a promising indicator that there may be more exciting discoveries on the way.

If they do find a lake, it needs to be named after Bowie.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

UFOs and the muddy middle

There is something that has begun to unsettle me with all things UFO.

Actually there are several things, but I'm focusing on one in particular for the moment. That is that the mode of discourse appears to border on the wholly unproductive. What do I mean?

Well, take Roswell for example. Whether for better or worse, the name of that town is cemented with UFOs in the public consciousness. As such, I sometimes get asked about my opinion on the case. Did a UFO crash there in 1947 and did we recover the wreckage of the craft and the bodies of the crew? My brief response is that I'm in the muddy middle. I'm more willing to argue that something of human origin happened at Roswell. By the same token, I don't think that any of the official explanations we've been given, such as Project Mogul, really make any sense. Whatever happened there, we've never been told the full truth about it.

If past experience is any indication, I would get a fair amount of heat for saying that. It would probably come from both ends of the spectrum.

First, the "space people" True Believers wouldn't be very happy with me. I would likely get the usual accusation of "you just haven't done enough research" and then get a link to an obscure website from the dark corners of the Internet. In terms of Roswell, it might be an interview with a "new witness," who usually turns out to be a friend or a relation of someone who claimed to have been there but is no longer living. If it's another case then I'll typically get a blog where someone has done their own analysis on a photo or some such. So I'll tell them that if the information is really solid evidence, it should have no trouble getting through scientific peer-review. "You're so naive," I've been told in response. "You have no idea how much the government controls that process. In fact, the mere fact you suggest that makes me think that you're a government disinformation agent."

Now that would be a cool job. If that's what I'm doing then I sure hope somebody pays me for it. Like, soon.

The other side of the argument isn't always pleasant either. Ardent skeptics can be condescending, snarky, and as unwilling to engage in productive discourse as their counterparts. You can explain anything, even if you have to refract light from Venus through swamp gas to do it. More importantly, be dismissive as you explain and keep crying "Condon Report." Don't believe the Project Mogul explanation? Then off with you, ignorant cur.
I once read a post from Seth Shostak where he bemoaned the vituperative responses he gets almost daily from UFO proponents. I'm certain he does have quite the full inbox and the ad hominem attacks do little to benefit the reputation of Ufology. But I have also seen Shostak be caustic and derisive towards people in interviews. What you toss out there is what you can expect in return.

It's a perpetual feedback loop. It's polarizing. It's each side growing more entrenched in its own esoteric myopia and we end up getting nowhere. In many ways, it reminds me of the current political climate of the United States.

I can guess what a few of you might be saying. "Is this seriously news to you? Welcome to the Internet, Jon. That's everything these days."

That may be. But that doesn't make it right. If your true intent is to persuade, then you'll be more successful with a softer tone and a willingness to consider another opinion, no matter how much you may disagree with it. This makes me think of the Roman rhetorician, Cicero. He was an amazing writer and speaker. He also was known for his invective nature, which contributed to his ultimate fate, being nailed to a post with his hands and tongue cut off.

So here I am in the muddy middle. I fall on neither of the two polarized sides and therefore earn the enmity of both. As the "big cases" I was once sold on, such as Rendelsham and Barney and Betty Hill, get more knocks in their hulls and just keep sinking, a nimiety of the cases begin to look explainable without any need for extraterrestrials being involved. That being said, I'm still convinced that something beyond our current understanding is going on. What exactly that is I don't know. That is my most honest and forthright answer: I don't know.

But I'm starting to identify more and more with thinkers such as Vallee, Keel, and Tonnies.

I will await the inevitable "They're not credible!!" comment.

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Monday, January 25, 2016


Technology makes our lives.

What would we do without it? How would you keep on top of your fantasy football teams? Or get sports scores in general? How else will you get live tweets about fashion on the red carpet for Oscar night? Without technology you can forget all about posting all those pictures of your cat or your lunch.

Obviously I'm being snarky, but every once in a while I read about an invention that has a higher purpose, a sense of selflessness, or at the very least mitigated cupidity, makes our end uses for technology seem vain and shallow. I speak of  GravityLight. I don't even remember quite how I came across the light, but I'm rather taken by it. What is it? Allow me...

Understand that well over 20% of the world's population does not have access to electrical power. That sounds astounding to those of us in the land of plenty, but for the developing world and the poorest of nations, it is a fact of everyday life. In order for people see in the dark in those areas, the common solution is a kerosene lamp. Besides being a non-renewable energy source and a pollutant, an open kerosene flame is downright dangerous. The GravityLight negates this danger and does so without need of power lines, batteries, or even solar panels. It uses gravity.

A 12kg weight is lifted up a zip line and begins a very slow descent, about 1mm per second. Then "this movement powers a drive sprocket, which rotates very slowly with high torque (force). A polymer geartrain running through the product turns this input into a high speed, low torque output that drives a DC generator at thousands of rotations per minute." This generates electrical power which is then sent to an LED. The light produced by the LED is five times greater than that emitted by a kerosene lamp. About 20 minutes of light can be produced before the light reaches the bottom. Once that happens, one simply raises the weight back to the top and  the process starts over.

As you know, I'm constantly writing about what technology is doing or will do for us. Rarely though do I encounter something that can have such an immediate effect, such a true benefit for so many in the world and with such simplicity. Please visit the GravityLight page and if you can, support it.

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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Containers. The future of architecture

When I think architecture, steel containers aren't usually what come to mind.

But the concept is working. This article from The Guardian enlightened me as to a location called The Wenckehof in Amsterdam. It is a building for student housing made out of 1,000 recycled, rectangular shipping containers. You can probably imagine the resistance to such an idea. "Where do you live?" "I live in the shipping containers." There is a natural...not to mention understandable... reluctance for the modern human to agree to live in a steel box. The dwellings turned out just fine, however, and the residents are comfortable. As many communities grapple with the tandem problems of overcrowding and housing costs, both architects and housing organizations are starting to consider this approach.

What are the advantages of domiciles constructed from stacks of containers? Well for one thing, it's not like there aren't already a lot of shipping containers around. That makes them cheap in comparison to many other building materials. Obviously they're also portable and adaptable, making them ideal for urban locations. The shipping containers are given insulated panels and radiators for heat. There are bathrooms of course and even balconies if fecund pots of dirt are necessities for you. Windows, as depicted in the pic above, are also a given. Among the possible downsides are that such living arrangements are fine for single people, but multiple person families are probably another matter.

Yet while my current situation continues to tumult and flux, I could see myself moving into one of these container homes. Mock it all you want, but I happen to prefer it to what might otherwise be valued. The container homes are a small area to keep clean and there is enough room for just me and all that I value, meaning books. Indeed these container units appear ideal for those of us who find attraction to the monastic existence, simple accommodations and few distractions for all of my reading and writing. 

And of course a robust Internet connection is a must. Wouldn't want you all to go without your daily ESE.  

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The next disease

So what's the next disease?

That is the question facing the World Health Organization (WHO). While such a thing is always pertinent for that organization to consider, it is doubly so in the aftermath of what is considered a somewhat lackluster response to last year's Ebola outbreak. This article in Wired made me realize just how mishandled the reaction was. It also made me realize how much the quality of writing at Wired has deteriorated, but that's an entirely different can of tuna.

The Ebola outbreak of 2015 killed over 11,000 people before it was contained. "Contained" might even be stretching it as Liberia saw three new cases this past week after a veritable "all clear" had been given on the virus. To better respond in the future, WHO will have an emergency center dedicated solely to outbreak response. The agency will also be accountable to an independent auditor. Perhaps more critically, there is call for scientists to more easily share data. It is through the comparison of sequences of Ebola viruses from the various victims in different cities that scientists can track the spread of the outbreak. In the case of last year, information on virus sequences was not made available for three months.

But this is the most pertinent quote that I took away from the article:

“It’s about the next pandemic. It’s how we get ready for the virus we haven’t discovered yet,” says Ashisha Jha, director of Harvard Global Health Institute

The next pandemic. I've mused about such things in previous posts. Now I'm doing it once again. What will the next pandemic be like? What will be the properties of this yet undiscovered virus? Here's where I get to be creative. I'm thinking about a contagious neurological disorder, something that directly affects the brain and cognitive abilities. Given my own behaviors and flawed thinking as of late, I think I have an idea.

A certainty virus.

It infests your brain. Then it congeals your thinking. Your thought process? No need for one. Because you're right. Further thinking and consideration is no longer required. Are you sure? More than sure. You're certain.

This begins to transfer from individual to individual. You thought the zombie apocalypse was bad? Just wait until you confront a horde of otherwise functional people besiege you. They don't want to eat your brain. They only wish to bludgeon you with their vision. Question them and they will respond but then angrily break off in aposiopesis. It's a hideous sight to see, folks. Trust me.

I've looked in the mirror.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Education: the overlooked issue in 2016

"Education in America isn't broken. It's doing exactly what it was intended to do."

I heard that from someone at a dinner party about four months back. This guest I sat across from was a twentysomething high school English teacher. I asked him what he meant by that statement. He said something to the following, paraphrased effect:

"Government and corporations don't want people who can think. They want people who know just enough to get by but not enough to question and to form our own ideas. They want people who will be good consumers."

This teacher was a self-confessed Libertarian and I was therefore a bit skeptical. I don't exactly see eye-to-eye with Libertarian political thought, but what he said made too much sense for me to ignore. My own experiences teaching college freshmen were brought to the fore. In the first few classes of each semester, I have these students read a text and then I ask "What do you think about it?" Invariably, at least a few of them freeze. Someone then offers a variation on "I don't know what the right answer to that is." "There is no 'right' answer," I respond. "I just want to know what you think."

In other words they are quite good at filling in the circles on standardized tests. Formulating a thought, however, is quite a different mental exercise than memorizing information and spitting it back down. As I scraped at the fruit tart dessert, I told the English teacher that I certainly did not blame the beleaguered public school teachers of our nation. Rather, I fault George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act. "It goes back further than that," the teacher replied. He then went into Horace Mann and his adoption of the Prussian model of education, a pedagogy that this teacher argued was designed to create soldiers, not thinkers.

"Read John Taylor Gatto's The Underground History of American Education," the high school teacher said to me at the end of the night.

I am not finished with that book, but I am now constantly mulling the state of education in our nation. True progress requires an educated and engage populace. As No Child Left Behind has at last been repealed, what is the future? What does our leadership see as the next step? I began to seek the positions the 2016 candidates on the issue of education. Morbid curiosity got the better of me and I went to Donald Trump's website first. Perhaps not surprisingly, his section labeled "Positions" bears no mention of education. I was therefore forced to expand my search and was directed to a nonprofit site called OnTheIssues. While my vetting of the site was not extensive, I did notice that the bulk of its staff hold advanced degrees in political science from respected institutions such as Harvard and Columbia University. The site provides a breakdown of all the current candidates' stances on major issues. Education is one such issue listed. Space precludes a close examination of every candidate (Roseanne Barr is running for President??) If you have a particular favorite, I suggest clicking the link and seeking out their stance. Instead, here are statements regarding education from the two current front-runners of each party:

Donald Trump--Well, he really doesn't like Common Core. In fact, out of five different listed statements Trump made on education in 2015, four were against Common Core. He is also in favor of eliminating the Department of Education. Curiously, neither OnTheIssues nor Trump's own site list just what Trump would replace that curriculum with. Keep in mind that over ten years ago Trump founded Trump University, dedicated to teaching the art of deal-making. The results of said institution have been mixed, controversial, and more than a few would say fraudulent.

Ted Cruz--Like Trump, Cruz wants to end the Department of Education and he really dislikes Common Core. He does however propose an alternative to that curriculum, saying that decisions regarding education are best left to the local level. All right, so passing the buck might not qualify as great vision, but he at least has something as opposed to Trump's mere bluster.

Hillary Clinton--The former senator and Secretary of State has a massive CV when it comes to education going all the way back to the 1960s when she taught reading in Boston inner city schools. She worked towards education reform while in Arkansas and has a voting record in the Senate that is quite teacher-friendly. What are her latest propositions? In the past year, Clinton has supported calls for free community college, but not free four-year college for all. She wants to refinance college debt and "get back to schools where kids are socialized."

Bernie Sanders--Over the past year, Sanders' proposals for education reform have only gotten more grandiose. January of 2015 saw him call for affordable college for everyone. This evolved into a call for $70 billion to make public colleges and universities free for everyone, pointing out that a college degree is now the equivalent to what a high school diploma was in the 1950s.

The upshot? It seems that the two leading Republican candidates have a strategy of slashing and burning programs while Democrats want expansion, meaning higher education for everyone that is free or at least readily affordable. Only one of those could truly be called a progressive vision.

And yet I feel uneasy. I am not reading about how education is going to be implemented. Do we have a national vision for pedagogy or are we taking the Ted Cruz approach and kicking it to the state and local levels? In doing so, are we going to in effect sponsoring local school districts who have banned "obscene" academic texts and thereby contributing to a growing anti-intellectualism and an increasing disdain for scholarship in America? Do we want people who can take information and reason with it critically or do we want the products of a standardized testing system that forces someone to memorize information and then spit it back? Do we as a nation want citizens who are well-versed in a variety of subjects and adaptable in changing times or do we, as John Taylor Gatto argues, want to produce students who are indifferent towards what they study and are emotionally and intellectually dependent on approval from authority? I'm losing confidence that I will hear these questions addressed in the 2016 campaign, but they have haunted my thoughts since that dinner party.

That must have been one heck of a fruit tart.

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Monday, January 18, 2016

Enter the art of the "meat tent"

"Art is not supposed to be safe."

That is a Rob Zombie quote relayed to me by Armando. In truth, I take the quote as a rationalization used to excuse all manner of low brow violence porn. If not that, then to shock simply for shock's sake. That, to me, is not art. But if art is indeed "not supposed to be safe" then the evidence may be found in the "meat tent" (pictured above).

The work is called "Matriarch" and it is by artist Andrea Hasler. It is meant to commemorate a 1981 anti-nuclear protest where 30,000 women camped outside a British airbase. As quoted at that link, Hasler explains that "Matriarch" is meant to take “the notion of the tents which were on site during the women’s peace camp as the container for emotions and [humanizes] these elements to create emotional surfaces.” I'm not really sure what art movement this would fit within but it is that car wreck, disgusting kind of way.

Upon a bit further investigation, this might be indicative of a movement in and of itself. Cao Hui is a Chinese artist with a series called "Visual Temperature" that portrays everyday objects as being made of flesh and fat. Once more these is hyperrealistic tend to provoke a visceral, stomach-churning response. No doubt that is the intent in that aeonian motivation to shock.

While I haven't the formal training to be a proper art critic, I can't help but wonder if this is a sign that it all indeed has been done. If you want to communicate a message through art, the only medium left is through bodily artifacts, whether those be flesh or fluid. I am not calling either of these artists or their work "bad," I'm just wondering about the motivation.

Shock just seems so...small.

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Thursday, January 14, 2016

Revisiting the Battle of Los Angeles

A while back, my friend Danny posted a question to a Facebook UFO page.

I don't remember the exact wording of the question, but the paraphrased gist was: "Is there a famous UFO case that has been mostly or totally discredited but you still can't help but like it?" There are probably more than a few cases that fit that mold for me, but one that immediately jumped into my mind is the "Battle of Los Angeles."

I remember when I first came across the story. I was reading Above Top Secret by Timothy Good and there it was in the photo inserts: a black and white picture from the 1940s of searchlights shooting up over the skies of Los Angeles. The beams of light all converged on a single aerial object, an object with a distinct saucer-like outline. Doesn't get much better than that. Or so I thought.

Here is a YouTube upload of a CBS radio report from the time of the incident but the summary goes something like this: On the night of February 25th, 1942, radar detected an unknown object entering the airspace over Los Angeles, California. Bear in mind that this was less than three brief months after Pearl Harbor. Fears were high that California was next on the list for a Japanese sneak attack. Indeed just two days before this incident, a Japanese submarine had shelled an oil refinery near Santa Barbara causing light damage. It's not difficult to see how this was a situation ripe for mass hysteria.

Searchlights scoured the skies for this craft. Eventually, the anti-aircraft batteries opened up, sending fire into the air. What exactly were they shooting at? That's where witness testimony varies. There were those who said they saw a whole squadron of bombers in the air. Others just saw lights. Others said they saw a sphere. Then there were those who claimed to have seen a saucer-shaped UFO in the sky. The AA shells exploded against the bottom of the craft, causing no apparent damage. What's more, there are even reports that this craft had smaller vehicles moving around and above it.

That last bit is tantalizing, especially given what that photograph seems to depict. To my disappointment, it is the nature of that very photograph that is part of the downfall of any UFO aspect to this incident. A recent edition of UFOs Declassified on the Smithsonian Channel went to the UCLA archives of the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper in which the photograph first appeared, to examine the picture. Turns out that the image that ran in the paper had been heavily retouched. So much so that the unmodified image shows no real shape to whatever is in the convergence of the spotlights. Inspection of the photo's negative would reveal more, however it had been lost.

Enter a conspiracy theory here if you so choose.

Dr. Robert Wood certainly has. He is a former aerospace engineer who purports that five "leaked" documents confirm that the object had been shot down, wreckage was recovered, and said wreckage was found to be of "interplanetary origin." This, according to Wood, was the beginning of the government's secret reverse engineering program. The rub with this story, however, is that no original documents have been produced to verify this claim. That makes such arguments suspect at best.

So if not a UFO, what exactly happened over Los Angeles in February of 1942? I mean, it is a verifiable fact that thousands of AA shells were expended at a target. That is to say, at what someone thought was a target. Radar then was primitive by today's standards, tracking was difficult, and the targets in this case were probably merely perceived and not confirmed. The witness reports of "lights" can easily be attributed to flashes of tracer fire. One officially proposed explanation guessed it...a stray weather balloon. This is somewhat substantiated by that fact that the AA artillery units were "officially chastised" for wasting ammunition on a target that was moving far too slowly to be any military aircraft of that time. My only question is if it was indeed a balloon, wouldn't it have been shredded by all that AA shrapnel and frag? Wouldn't parts of the balloon be recovered on the ground? Maybe not, I guess.

There are just too many other reasonable explanations for what happened on the night of February 25th, 1942 that render the likelihood of genuine UFO involvement to be quite slim. Am I disappointed? I must admit, I sort of am. Ever since I saw that photo in Good's book, I had a positive feeling about this case. That saucer shape gleaming in the spotlights really took my breath away when I first saw it, making me think that it was solid, almost undeniable evidence. That, plus my being weened on "alien invasion" fiction where our military squares off against malevolent attackers from all just hits me in a soft spot.

But facts, as they say, are facts and there's no sense denying them. We must instead allow these facts to lead us to reasonable...even if not very exciting...conclusions. This one is easily explainable.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Long read: On Bowie and science fiction

I assure you that I will eventually stop dwelling on the loss of David Bowie.

It probably won't be this week, though.

At the link above, I write briefly about Bowie's relationship with science fiction. The connections are obvious to most anybody. "Space Oddity," "Starman," "Life on Mars," and all the way up to his last, "Blackstar." But an article at Motherboard re-emphasized to me just how ingrained the genre was in him. As Brian Merchant writes, "Bowie lived, breathed, and died science fiction." He was the first true science fiction rock star. Given how much I care about science fiction and devote so much of my blog to it, I felt that this aspect of his life deserved closer examination.

Ziggy Stardust is a fine place to start as a bellwether of its time. The record arrived in the 1970s right after Star Trek and the landmark 2001 and just before my favorite movie unwittingly rendered most popular science fiction epics into action movies in space. I knew that Bowie's Ziggy was a space opera in its own right, a Martian who comes to Earth and becomes a rock star only to self-destruct in rock 'n roll suicide. What isn't readily apparent is how much deeper generic themes soak into each of the tracks of that record. A 1974 issue of Rolling Stone has William Burroughs interviewing David Bowie (Hey-Zeus Marimba, to be a fly on that wall!!) about the rich mythology behind Ziggy:

Burroughs: Could you explain this Ziggy Stardust image of yours? From what I can see it has to do with the world being on the eve of destruction within five years.

Bowie: The time is five years to go before the end of the earth. It has been announced that the world will end because of lack of natural resources. Ziggy is in a position where all the kids have access to things that they thought they wanted. The older people have lost all touch with reality and the kids are left on their own to plunder anything. Ziggy was in a rock-and-roll band and the kids no longer want rock-and-roll. There's no electricity to play it. Ziggy's adviser tells him to collect news and sing it, 'cause there is no news. So Ziggy does this and there is terrible news. 'All the young dudes' is a song about this news. It is no hymn to the youth as people thought. It is completely the opposite.

Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five-year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.

Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I've made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole on stage.
...As soon as Ziggy dies on stage the infinites take his elements and make themselves visible. It is a science fiction fantasy of today and this is what literally blew my head off when I read Nova Express, which was written in 1961. Maybe we are the Rodgers and Hammerstein of the seventies, Bill!

Though that tantalizing last line leaves me crying out for what could have been, just take a look at everything else Bowie presented in that summary. A dystopian Earth is on the precipice of the apocalypse, there are alien anti-matter beings, "black hole jumpers," and godlike entities from beyond called "infinities." This goes beyond merely infusing space travel, a subject very much on the public's mind at the time of Space Oddity, into your music. There are so many other facets present whether they were intended or not. You can see hints of Jack Kirby's Eternals and New Gods, von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods, and all manner of delicious weirdness from across the superspectrum.

Eventually Bowie got sick of being Ziggy but he by no means abandoned science fiction. He was still enamored with the concept of dystopia, due in part no doubt to one of his favorite books, 1984. He planned to do a musical stage production of it, but sadly he could not get the rights to the text. That did not stop him. Instead, Bowie worked up his own stage environment called "Hunger City" where a totalitarian regime oppressed the proletariat. A roving gang called "The Diamond Dogs" are led by a character named Halloween Jack, drawing heavily upon A Clockwork Orange for inspiration.

Of course there is also The Man Who Fell to Earth. In that film about a Starman who comes to our world but grows corrupt from its vices, Bowie may have rendered the greatest portrayal of an alien in all of fiction. No, there is no Stan Winston make up or any of the other trappings that stereotypes of the genre might suggest. Instead there is an alien in the purest sense of the word. He's not from here. Not one of us. He looks like us but he is better than us, smarter than us, and yet so far removed. He is the ultimate outsider.

Was that not David Bowie himself? Is that not what caused all manner of other outsiders such as myself to gravitate to him? One of my favorite quotes from him is "I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human." Just watching him, listening to him, I can genuinely say that I think he may have achieved that long ago. Starman indeed...

Now we have Blackstar, Bowie's farewell. Only we didn't know it at the time the title track's video was released. I certainly didn't. You might recall that I wrote a cheeky blog post, capriciously comparing the video for "Blackstar" to a cheesy 1980s cartoon of the same name. Little did I know that "black star" is medical slang for a cancer lesion. So when Bowie sings "I'm a blackstar," well...

As I admitted on Facebook, I am mortified. To say that I now feel like a complete idiot for that post would be an understatement. Sure, I didn't know but in the current context, it just comes off as incredibly poor taste. In retrospect, the signs were all over the video. The jewel-encrusted skull of the dead astronaut in the spacesuit as what remains of Major Tom, Bowie himself levitates above a hospital bed, and mutant scarecrows writhe along with girls who have pointed tails. Once more using the discourse of science fiction, Bowie let us know that the end was coming.

Science fiction is the literature of possibilities. Meaning, possibilities both good and bad. The visions keep changing as do the sounds that come with them. I suspect that David Bowie knew this better than anyone. As he said, "Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming." And he always could. Science fiction was a medium through which he could express that fact and then wait for the rest of us to catch up. But when we did it would always be too late.

Like a Time Lord, Bowie would already be on to the next transformation.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Transhumanism: not eugenics but super babies

I read a most erudite blog post on transhumanism today.

No, I didn't write it.

It comes from a source called...of all things...Illegally downloaded blog. What it says about topics such as genetic engineering and so-called "eugenics" is both sensible and necessary if we are to cut through the thick fog of misconceptions and rhetorical wordplay, terms and phrases sent out on peripatetic journeys through the discourse, only to come back with godawful new meanings hanging leech-like from them.

As the post points out, many transhumanists support genetic engineering as a subset of self-modification just as cybernetics is. Recall Kurzweil's proposal of "GNR"--Genetic engineering, Nanotechnology, and Robotics. Unfortunately, the subject of genetic therapy is too often slapped together with "eugenics." That latter term conjures all manner of insidious memories and justifiably so, but this conflation gives rise to the false connection of fascism to transhumanism.  

Granted, there are concerns and I've never been shy about voicing them. Class inequality is certainly a pitfall to be mindful of. Notice what I said. "Mindful." "Concern." Having a concern over a facet of an issue does not automatically mean throwing the baby out with the pun intended. Instead, it is a challenge to be wary of and overcome.

"Eugenics," whether correctly or not, is a troublesome term. It brings with it images of blonde hair, blue eyes, and black jackboots. "Super babies" may entail many facets. Yes, that may include hair and eye color but more importantly it can mean screening for hereditary diseases. It can mean finally getting access to our "sourcecode" and taking control of our own bodies. This can lead to cures for disease and the means for significant life extension. As someone struggling to cope with the death of David Bowie, that certainly sounds appealing.

I don't mind someone criticizing transhumanism and its subset components such as genetic engineering on technical grounds. Can we actually make these modifications? If we do, will the outcome be what we wanted? These are valid questions revealing distinct challenges that must be examined head-on.

But if your objections stem from fears of, as the blog post eloquently says, the "re-emergence of a fascist pseudoscience" or worse: a belief that humans are precious fucking snowflakes, perfect exactly as we are and shouldn't be "tampered with," then there's no discussion to be had.

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Monday, January 11, 2016

For David Bowie

I don't know how to handle this loss.

I awoke in the middle of the night with the TV left on CNN. The screen was the only light in the room, casting strobe effects about the walls. I could only sit and stare at it, gazing but not believing.

"David Bowie dies at age 69."

Ozone or whatever crackled ever so slightly around the screen from the device having been left on for so long. Other than that there was silence. Save for the screams in my head, shrieking one word.


I don't even know where to start this post. By now you should know that I'm quite a big fan of David Bowie, so today's news comes as a roundhouse blow to my gut. What do I do? How do I even begin this digital wake for one of my artistic heroes?

Deep breath in. Here goes...

My introduction to Bowie came from Duran Duran. I thought Duran was doing something marvelous, something never seen before, but in fact they were borrowing liberally from Bowie's book. That is by no means detrimental to my favorite band. For Bowie sampled and copied as well to create his "pudding" as I heard him call it on NPR today, that amalgamation of so many different influences that once mixed together, becomes something new and unique. Bowie was a genius that way and without him there never would have been a Duran Duran and without them...well, I just don't want to consider that kind of a universe. Things are bad enough as they are right now.

Sorry. I'm all over the place. No coherent thoughts...and that kills me because he deserves only the highest tribute. But maybe in a way I am paying fitting homage with this random, rambling, stream of consciousness post. He collaborated often with William Burroughs, composing songs through the cut-up method. At the "David Bowie Is" exhibit last year, I even saw Bowie's 1990s computer with a cut-up generator/program.

Really not keeping this together. The morning has gone by and I've for all intents and purposes been in a numb state of shock. Then "Heroes" came on the radio while I was in the car. I had to pull over for a period of unrestrained weeping.

What is it? What? It's a question that grates on me. "Why do you like this [band, writer, artist, et. al.]?" Like I owe anyone a justification or there needs to be a reason. In this case, however, I believe the question has allowed me to isolate just what it is that makes Bowie so great in my eyes. As day now gives way to night, I think I'm close to an answer.

Ever been around a little kid who tells you he or she wants to be an astronaut? Then the next day they tell you they want to be a fireman. By the third day they're on to marine biology. Most adults roll their eyes and get a laugh out of it. "Oh those unfocused kids. They'll grow out of it. Eventually they'll see that you absolutely must pick one thing and stick with it. Society...and the bills you must pay...demand it."

I think Bowie was that kid. Was he a fireman? An astronaut? A marine biologist?

Answer: Yes.

Like the kid, he was all of those things at different times. The difference being, he would not allow society to break his spirit or instill him with such fear that he would not pursue all things no matter how disparate. Was he a man? A woman? Something else? Was he Ziggy? Aladdin Sane? The Thin White Duke?

Answer: Yes.

I mean, he was all of them.

That was his brilliance. He was fearless. In a society that nearly has conniption fits when it cannot safely categorize you, Bowie refused to be categorized. He was going to be whatever he wanted and what he wanted was going to constantly change. It might be lipstick and eyeliner. It might be alien skin. It could also be an elegant, stylish, suit and tie. Bowie himself could never figure out how to be categorized so no one else knew what we were going to get.

"I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human."

As I said, that drove many people nuts...while it fascinated and enthralled many others, myself certainly inveigled over time. I believe that schism is what allowed David Bowie to play the role of the "outsider" so supremely. He didn't feel that he quite fit in any one niche because he was truly so many niches at once. If you can't fit in any one place, then where do you belong? Nowhere. And everywhere at once. Truly "alien" in every sense of the word.

It's no surprise then how at home Bowie always seemed to be in the science fiction milieu. Whether it was Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, or The Man Who Fell to Earth, he came across as more of a genuine alien than anything ILM ever churned out. This sense of displacement, of rejecting the common consensus of reality and eventually paying the consequences as the outsider...that really resonates with me.

"Don't hold your breath
But the pretty things are going to hell."

Obviously it does with millions of other people as well. I think that happened for many reasons. Yes, the songs were exquisitely composed and David Bowie was an artist who left as much of a visual impression as sonic, but there's something else. I think that we envy the outsider...even as we dread his station. We want the freedom to be whatever we want. We wish we could change whatever that is to suit ourselves at any particular time, shrugging off old skins, adopting new personas, and reinventing ourselves as we wish.

That is why I love David Bowie. Not simply for the amazing songs and striking, indelible visuals permanently affixed to my pupils, but for the kinship I feel with him. I certainly do not mean that I'm on the same artistic level as he was. Not by the longest shot. I do, however, strongly identify with his desire to be so many things at once, to let the creative spirit take me wherever it wants to go for it surely won't be boring like the rest of the world is.

"I can't tell you where I'm going. But I promise you it won't be boring."

"It's an odd feeling, like something else is guiding you, although forcing your hand is more like it."

He was my friend.

I'm aware of just how utterly outlandish that sounds. I never even met the man. He was utterly unaware of my existence. Despite that fact, I still felt as though I knew him. I so strongly identified with his thousands of different interests and inspirations (including his more than a passing fascination with UFOs), that I harbored these crazy visions of the two of us sitting in a bookshop together, exchanging wry and witty observations about the world. At least his would be, I know. Not so sure about my own.

But now he is gone...and there is a black hole on Earth where a star once shone.

Tonight though, I know that the Starman is back among the stars. He is free of the confines of this petty planet. He has returned to Mars to ride the Spiders amid the pyramids and crumbling monuments and ruins of times past.

Me? I'm still here on Earth with everyone else. But I'll be leaving, too. At least for the moment.

Because crying uncontrollably in full view of my blog readers cannot be all that becoming.

"Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now" may not be proud. For "we can be heroes, just for one day."

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Friday, January 1, 2016

The robots of 2015

It seems to have been quite a year in robotics.

Robots of greater and greater sophistication appear to arrive on a monthly basis, greeted by people with a predictable mixture of fascination and "Oh my God! SkyNet!" Here is a list of ten such robots from the past year and my own picks for the most interesting:

First off, there are Kurata and Mk II. They're built for an all-out robot duke-a-roo in a tournament similar to the old silly show, Robot Wars. Therefore the resemblance to Gundam and other Japanese mecha is not coincidental.

Pepper (above) has limited artificial intelligence and the ability to recognize emotion on human faces. Apparently they're selling well.

Geminoid, a robot with its own IMDb page. A film director had this robot play a full, speaking role. Think about it. The robot won't get tired during multiple takes. Doesn't need to be paid scale, either.

ATLAS, blogged plenty about this one. Nuff said.

DARPA/MIT Cheetah, the robot whose structure and AI are designed to mimic the fastest mammal in the animal kingdom. At one point it was unable to make its way up stairs or sloped ground.
That defect has been eliminated.

hitchBOT. Read about what happened to it and then try arguing to me that humans aren't scum.