Monday, February 29, 2016

How anti-intellectualism is killing America

"Relax. There's no way Trump is going to be elected."

That was a popular refrain within my social circles last summer shortly after Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. Fast forward to March, 2016. Even after making all manner of startling assertions about Hispanics and women, Trump holds 82 of the delegates in the GOP primary. This total puts him far out front of anyone else in the race. How? Why?

Listening to "The Takeaway" on NPR this morning, a few random Trump supporters claimed it is because "he tells it like it is, no political correctness." Is that it or is Trump's success indicative of much larger and systemic problem in the nation? Consider the most recent round of political sparring between Trump and rival candidate, Marco Rubio:

Donald Trump on Marco Rubio: "I go back and I see him with makeup. And it's like he's putting it on with a trowel."

Rubio on Trump: "And you know what they say about guys with small hands."

This is not mere eschewing of political correctness. This is utter disintegration of political discourse between adults.

And many in the electorate are lapping it up, preparing to premiate Trump with the presidency. I argue, gentle reader, that these turn of events are indicative of something larger and far more insidious at work. It has been going on for quite a while now, just simmering beneath the surface of our socio-political fabric. We've joked about it in pretty much the same way anyone does when confronted with a problem they don't quite know handle. Now, there can no longer be any denying it.

America reveres stupidity.

I alluded to that argument a bit in my last article on education. John Taylor Gatto, educator and author of The Underground History of American Education and Dumbing Us Down, has long warned of this situation. A stupid populace is ideal for anyone in power in a politically corrupt government. They also make optimal consumers for corporations. Critical thinkers, on the other hand, just cause problems for the powerful. As evidence, I have collated a brief smattering of claims that have been floating about in the ether over the past several years:

Obama is a Muslim.
Social Security is no different than welfare.
The government is going to take away your guns.
The President is pushing a homosexual agenda onto America by supporting same-sex marriage.

I simply cannot convince myself that these falsehoods would have had any longevity in an educated society. But that's just it, isn't it? We don't like smart people. We don't like education. Think about it. One of the most popular targets for a politician is a teacher. Look at Scott Walker's incessant jihad against teacher's unions in Wisconsin and Rick Santorum's bizarre claim that colleges are a left-wing indoctrination camps, causing "62 percent of children who enter college with a faith conviction leave without it." Where he got that statistic is anybody's guess. Of course we dare not forget GOP candidate Marco Rubio's wail for more welders and "less philosophers." [sic]

Because if we actually had people educated to think and reason critically, why...that would just be bad for all involved, wouldn't it?

Part of the problem of American anti-intellectualism is that the problem itself cannot be addressed without serious backlash. To suggest that America isn't...well, just isn't smart anymore is bound to run against hyper-nationalism, itself a form of anti-intellectualism. In fact, I reconsidered several times if I should even write this for fear of at best being accosted by a deluge of "Hey! America is number one!" comments or at worst being accused of treason. David Niose penned an article for Psychology Today about this very issue. 

"What Americans rarely acknowledge," Niose writes, "Is that many of their social problems are rooted in the rejection of critical thinking or, conversely, the glorification of the emotional and irrational."

Indeed, by example he shows that the very assertion of "America is the greatest country" in the world falls apart under scrutiny. Niose goes on to cite:

"International quality of life rankings place America far from the top, at sixteenth. America’s rates of murder and other violent crime dwarf most of the rest of the developed world, as does its incarceration rate, while its rates of education and scientific literacy are embarrassingly low. American schools, claiming to uphold “traditional values,” avoid fact-based sex education, and thus we have the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world."

But America does still lead the world in military spending. So we got that going for us.

I don't know what else to think. We just don't like smart people. Intelligent, capable voices are regularly derided by the Right Wing for having "Ivy League educations" while former President George W. Bush brags "C students--you too can be president." In fact, if the aforementioned conditions of the 2016 presidential race are any indication, a quality education might be to a leader's detriment, not an asset.

Anti-intellectualism in America is of course a far-reaching subject with a wide variety of consequences. That's why this will likely be the first in series of installments.

After all, I've got to get them in before a potential President Trump makes thinking illegal.

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

50 years of art and computers

Deep Face by Douglas Couplan.

At its base, art is communication.

It transmits a reaction, it conveys an emotion (or two or three), it makes a statement or reflection (or both) about the times in which we live. Towards that latter purpose, there have been no shortage of art galleries and installations that attempt to describe our relationship with computers. An article from Wired last week looked at this connection between art and software programming and algorithms.  From the article:

"Right now, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, Laura Poitras’s Astro Noise exhibits uses film footage and document to reveal her life under surveillance. The New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, Surround Audience, focused exclusively on how the digital world permeates art. At last year’s Future of Storytelling show at the Museum of the Moving Image, VR headsets were everywhere—and that’s a mere fraction of this genre."

Of immediate interest to me are accounts in the article of artists composing via material they've found online. The virtual collides with the actual and new expressions are created and discovered. An example cited in the article is a series of screenprints based on random pattern generations. Deep Face, featured above by Douglas Couplan, is meant to be an introspective piece, prodding the viewer to contemplate what facial-recognition software will mean to our day-to-day life.

Integrated thinkers have been among the more interesting people I have ever known. Stereotypes lock us into terribly binary views. Programmers are quiet, numbers-oriented, capable only of thinking in logic and not in the abstract. Artists are incoherent, inhabiting only sylvan environs, and unable to operate the actual intricacies of technology. While stereotypes do have elements of truth to them, they neglect the wider middle of the truth.

Art pieces and exhibits such as the ones described are examples of this middle ground. While they are more of the fine arts, museum pieces end of things, I am also thinking of more practical applications. Computer graphics? Animation? Without integrated thinkers would we have whole industries such as video games and special effects, facets of our entertainment that we today take for granted?

There is a place for art in everything.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

To Mars, but not too far beyond it

Space travel can be frustrating.

All those pesky rules of physics we're confined by and the incessant needs of the soft, squishy human body. It's difficult to surmount. That's why our minds will travel on without us.

At least that's part of what is argued in Human Spaceflight From Mars to the Stars by Louis Friedman, Director Emeritus of The Planetary Society. In his book, Friedman appears to take a fairly realistic approach to human expansion into space. The upshot of his thesis being, "Mars, but not too far beyond that." Once Mars has been colonized, we could continue our exploration of space through robot probes. These probes, Friedman contends, may make human space exploration unnecessary as we can experience space through them. In working to understand what he means, I realized that Friedman might be something of a transhumanist. From the linked article:

"Human exploration and colonization of Mars will keep us busy for hundreds, even thousands, of years. During that time, there will be advances in nanotechnology, space sailing, robotics, biomolecular engineering, and artificial intelligence. These advances are occurring even now, affecting our outlook about what it means to be human and engage in human activity. Those technologies will not merely allow us to stay home on Earth and Mars, but our minds will extend our presence throughout the universe so that we will not need or want to extend our bodies there – even if we could, which I think is doubtful."

Yes, I keyed in on that part of his statement: "our minds will extend our presence throughout the universe so that we will not need or want to extend our bodies there – even if we could, which I think is doubtful." Virtual reality, or even direct data link from the brain to a space probe, making our physical presence in the void cumbersome, expensive by comparison, and unneeded. Remote exploration would seem a decent compromise between the starry-eyed and the supercilious detractors. What of the human yen for exploration? Would our spirit of adventure and our need for a "quest" take us to the outer planets and beyond? Friedman likens such endeavors to today's "extreme sports." They might be cool to watch but few of us actually want to do it. Humans in deep space might happen, but there won't be many, so his thinking goes.

Of course I also wonder about asteroid mining and how far out people might be willing to go to make a buck or two.

Friedman does have nifty ideas for settling on Mars, including terraforming. By all means let's go to it. Maybe we can at last put to rest these matters of faces and of "banyan trees."

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

DC Comics may have lost its mind

Remember when I said I no longer read comic books?

Or at least currently published comics? DC Comics has now given me even more reason to continue with this divorce.

For in just the past week, DC has announced that its shared universe of characters will go through a publication event called "Rebirth." After that point, DC Comics will be "all-new," "all-different."

Just like the last time.

And the time before that.

And the time before that.

In truth, they've been building up to this for a while. DC published a miniseries called Green Lantern Rebirth. This restored Hal Jordan as the one true Green Lantern while bringing back other characters such as Sinestro and the Green Lantern Corps.

I never knew they were gone, showing how much I actually pay attention anymore.

Following that was another mini called Flash Rebirth. This brought Barry Allen back as The Flash, ensconced within an origin story remarkably close to that of the TV series of the same name. I honestly don't know which one is the chicken or the egg there, again showing how much I pay attention.

Now, Rebirth itself will bring something big back to the DC Universe. What that is we don't know, but Dan Didio and Geoff Johns are saying it's about going back to who and what the DCU really is and with the characters everybody loves. A noble sentiment. 

I have five problems with it, however.

1. How many times are we going to do this?
How many "Crisis"-like events are there going to be? I understand and support the need to shake things up and keep the stories from growing stagnant or dated, but wasn't there a "final crisis" at one point? Oh, I get it. This is the final final crisis. So after this one, when is the next major conflagration scheduled? So we can once more say "Oh that character? That incident? Not in continuity anymore." My point being, it keeps happening and seems to keep underscoring that French axiom of "the more things change, the more they stay the same." 

2. This doesn't exactly engender faith in product brand.
If Johns et. al. want to go "back to basics," which as I said is a noble sentiment, then the logical question becomes "why did you ever change?" New Coke comes to mind. This repetitious cycle of crossovers and promises of shocking "All-new! All-different!" content borders on cliche. Borders? No. DC is looking at the border of cliche somewhere about ten miles back in the rear view mirror. What are we to think of any business that goes through that many overhauls, promising "No wait! We've got it right this time! Or wait...maybe this time! Yeah! Yeah, that's it!" It's like someone who has at best repeatedly let you down or at worst told a series of lies. Why should we have faith in DC?

3. "All-new! All-different!" probably won't include diversity.
I don't mean that in the sense of gender and ethnicity of characters or creators, but that's no doubt going to be a genuine factor as well. What I mean is the diversity of storytelling and genre. I loves my Superman and Batman, but DC has a rich heritage of non-superhero characters and titles that will likely never again see the light of day. Where are Jonah Hex, Sgt. Rock, Blackhawk, Warlord, Unknown Soldier, and the House of Mystery? Don't hold your breath. Why? Well that's related to my next point.

4. This is all about the Benjamins.
This isn't a change meant to reinvigorate the DC Universe or its "brand." In truth, they probably don't even care about the stories they tell. Why should they? Geek Nation is full of people who will buy a title simply because they have every appearance of Batman since 1963 and cannot abide gaps in their collection. Quality of narrative is not a factor. Now that might be an extreme example, but this lure of "All-New! All-Different!" seldom disappoints as a marketing gimmick. Remember Death of Superman? Electric Blue Superman? Yeah, you get the idea. Along those lines...

5. Dan Didio promises that Rebirth will feature "the single most controversial scene in DC Comics."
Great. Because that's why I read comics. The controversy. What, Dan-o. Is Sue Dibny going to get raped again? Shock+controversy=marketing. 

While I've stopped reading first-run comics, this is a little rough for me. Between 1992 and 1999, all I read were DC Comics. They were of better narrative quality than Marvel and they didn't have a mutant on every other page. I left Marvel completely in the era of Bendis and Millar, never looking back. I just had no interest in packing my slim window of entertainment time with "Edgy McEdgerson." Then DC seems to have had over ten years of identity crisis (a parapraxis!), seeming rather unsure of just who they were or what they wanted to be.

So, startled as I am to say this, I really am done reading comics. That time of my life has come to an end. Aside from old trade collections, cool independents, and the odd trip through the dollar or fifty cent bin, I'm certainly divorced from the Big Two.  

Not really losing any sleep over it, either.

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Monday, February 22, 2016

Elegance from Brutalism

Chances are I've seen plenty of examples of Brutalism in architecture. I was just ignorant of the term.

An article in Wired drew my attention to the style. Unfortunately the article is from last November and a few aspects of it are dated. It ended up in my "to blog" folder and didn't see the light of day until just now. Other stories to cover, other things getting in the way, and so on. But it's interesting enough that I could not let it simply turn to digital space dust. It deserved a post.

As stated in the article, Brutalism involves "muscular massing, structural gymnastics, and rough slabs of raw concrete" in building design. Apparently, the city of Boston has something of a concentration of the style, but it is Los Angeles that has exhibited it as art. Woodbury University's WUHO Gallery in LA held an exhibition last November titled Matter, Light, and Form, featuring the Brutalism collection of architectural photographer, Wayne Thom.

The art exhibition includes photographs of famous buildings in the Brutalist style, including San Francisco's Transamerica Pyramid and the Denver Art Museum. From the article:

"Brutalist architects could levitate concrete like it was weightless and twist stone like clay. Other late-modern masters bent and waved mirrored glass and invented new typologies from steel and aluminum. “It was truly the merger of art and science,” Thom says of the genre’s best work. In all, Thom worked for more than 50 years, documenting upward of 2,800 projects. His archives were recently acquired by USC. “I wanted to share the architects’ skill and audacity, and stir curiosity,” he says. He likes to compare his photography to writing sentences, with elements like lighting, camera angle, color, texture, and material acting as adjectives describing a building."

Another interesting aspect of the photographs from the exhibit: Thom never manipulated his images in Photoshop. He also didn't use artificial lighting. Instead, Thom wanted to capture the buildings in a "truth of the moment" sense, not as an artificial scene. The Wired article relates a wonderful anecdote where Wayne Thom dashed all the way from Catalina Island to the CNA Building in a storm, all so that he could capture the red skies in the mirrored glass of the exterior, a sort of apatetic architecture. He even made a work crew stop installing a railing so he could get the perfect, unblemished shot. What an artist!

Go to the link and sift through the gallery of images. Conceptually, I can understand why the buildings are called "brutal," but that is art in its own right. We may simply be travelers on this world, but we can create habitats upon it that are both elegant and striking. My next excursion to downtown Chicago will include at least a peripheral search for Brutalism. Walking up and down State Street and Michigan Avenue, calling out "Brutalism! Brutalism!"

Okay maybe not that but you get the idea.

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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Who "owns" outer space?

This does have something to do with space. Honest.

Just give me a moment here. I have been teaching a series of classes that are steeped in history. This has included talk of colonization, ownership, revolution, and property rights. Those have been complicated enough matters here on Earth, but I began wondering what would happen in terms of law and property in space? That was a question asked in an article at NOVA.

As the race to the Moon accelerated, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty handled several matters in terms of the "law of nations" in space. You can't take nuclear weapons up there, planting a flag on something doesn't make it yours, and so forth. None of that allows for private business. What happens when a corporation mines an asteroid? There doesn't seem to be consensus yet on who can do that and profit from it. From the article:

"As it currently stands, two private companies operating in space couldn’t even sue each other without the prior approval of their governments, says Michael Listner, an attorney and the principal of Space Law and Policy Solutions, a legal think tank."

You can wade through the legalese aspects of that article. I once fancied myself a legal autodidact but more often than not now I find my eyes glazing over with such things. The basic question still lingers with me. Can a private entity own an asteroid? More than that, if private enterprise makes it to Mars first, and there's plenty of indication that may be the case, does the corporation own the section of Mars they land on?

Colonies tend to revolt or at the very least break away. Would the denizens of corporate-owned Mars colony do the same? Would present it's own unique set of sticking points, I would think. The very material you live inside would be the property of someone else. What happens then? Can you, private citizen, leave your employers and stake your own claim on Mars? Assuming you had the means, of course.

Just things to ponder. Maybe the beginnings of a book or short story.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Mars may get rings

More space news, although not with the gravity of last night's post (awful pun intended).

This time it concerns Mars. Mars may eventually gain rings of a kind similar to Saturn's. In but a few million years, Mars may crush its moon, Phobos. Data shows that Phobos is growing susceptible to Mars' gravity well, drawing it nearer to the planet with increasing celerity. It was originally thought that this might cause a collision. The new line of thinking is that Phobos wouldn't last long enough for that to happen. Instead it would be ripped apart, leaving a disc of rocky debris that would orbit in rings around Mars. This is all based on research being done at UC Berkley which in turn is based on a study of geological properties of meteorites found here on Earth.

But would the rings be a permanent fixture? From the article:

"The rubble would continue to move inward, toward the planet, though at a slower pace than the larger moon is traveling, they said. Over the span of 1 million to 100 million years, the particles would rain down on the equatorial region of Mars."

Rings formed around Saturn and the other gas giants much the same way. Even though at least a portion of those rings probably came from other rocky debris pulled into the orbit via the enormous gravitational forces of those massive planets, moons were likely crushed at one point or another. What would such a thing look like around Mars? Well, you can see an artist's depiction at the link. I think it's fun to imagine alternate or future realities, whether it's here or on Mars, so the picture did capture my imagination for a time.

Could it happen to us with our Moon? Not likely. Phobos is one of the only inwardly evolving moons in the solar system and thus we have an opportunity to observe something unique...even if it will take many millions of years and no one reading (or writing) this will be around to ultimately see it happen (barring the Singularity, that is. C'mon Kurzweil!)

Even so, we have plenty to be concerned about. Asteroid threats aren't going anywhere.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016

We found gravity waves and yeah it's a big deal

Last week, an astounding finding was announced in space science.

It's not just any finding. It is something that confirms aspects of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Gravity waves have finally been detected through the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Turns out a signal was detected from two black holes located 1.3 billion light years from Earth.

These black holes, one 36 and the other 29 solar masses, collided after orbiting one another at speeds of thousands of times per second. This had the effect of sending 5,000 supernovas worth of energy out into the cosmos as gravity waves. Such waves are literally distortions in space-time, the very fabric of the universe. Einstein predicted such ripples were possible but now the scientific community has confirmation.

It took a while. First, the technology had to be developed to detect gravity waves in the first place. Then something big has to happen in space. I mean big, like a large supernova or certainly two black holes colliding qualifies.

Right about now, I'm thinking at least a few readers may be asking the same question my students often do with a variety of subject matter: "Why should I care?" The urge to ask such a question might be doubly so given that what has been described is out in space.

Why care? Well, first of all it gives us a greater understanding of everything in the universe. That includes us in case you didn't notice. All matter and space is actually vibrating at extremely small rates. Unnoticeable to us, but it's happening and major shockwaves such as those frm the black hole collision allow us to see that. This discovery also allows us to get a better understanding of the force of gravity, something that affects us all the time. There's still a fair amount we don't know about how gravity works, especially in relation to super-massive and dense objects or objects that move at high speeds. Really, anything that opens up any greater understanding of the universe, again the place we all inhabit, is ultimately beneficial to my thinking.

Come on, we just found out space and time can warp. Isn't that cool enough?

We might, I stress might, even eventually learn how to manipulate gravity waves. Of course there are all kinds of speculations bouncing about in that regard or maybe that has more to do with my Internet circles. Does this mean time travel is possible? Could aliens use gravity waves to communicate with us? Or vice versa? Is this just part of a long line of "discoveries" meant to desensitize us for disclosure? Here's how that line of thinking goes:

1. Space and time can be warped so that might lead to practical interstellar travel. A wormhole, maybe! Yes, for all you Matthew McConaughey fans out there, that's a nod.

2. There's bacteria found on Mars or somewhere nearby.

3. Actually, there's intelligent life out there. We just found a signal. But they're far away.

4. Well, maybe they're not that far away.

5. Ok, you remember point 1? Well, they could probably get here.

I'm not agreeing with such things, but it is fun to think about. The discovery of gravity waves is sufficiently significant in its own right without having to graft anything else fantastic atop it.

Gaining a greater understanding of the cosmos is no small accomplishment.

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Monday, February 15, 2016

Cloaking buildings

Every once in a while I find a reason to be optimistic.

I saw this article on PBS' NOVA site that describes a new method of architecture that could protect buildings from earthquake and tsunami waves by "cloaking." Of course people have been trying to adapt architecture to factors of our environment since time immemorial. The article mentions Pliny the Elder and his description of Greek temples. A layer of sheepskin would be placed across the temple's foundation, allowing for the ground to move and sway without bringing damage to the building above it. Our current mechanical systems operate much the same way, giving a building the ability to move or absorb the shockwaves through springs (see Cheyenne Mountain/NORAD). There may be another way of doing it, though. From the article:

"Now, simple rows of boreholes like those drilled in the field could make all of that obsolete. They appear to work as a “seismic cloak” that could hide a building—or perhaps an entire city—from an earthquake’s deadly waves. “If we drill holes around the building, forget about all your earthquake protections inside the building. We don’t need them anymore,” says S├ębastien Guenneau, the originator of the idea and a physicist at the Fresnel Institute in Marseille, France."

Guenneau accompanies this description with a nifty metaphor to help our understanding. We've all seen heat mirages in the summertime. Air rises from hot asphalt in front of you. The low density of the heated air causes the light to bend and get wavy near the ground. A similar effect happens to seismic waves as they pass through soil with holes drilled in it. The less dense ground distorts and thereby lessens the waves.

A similar approach could be taken at sea with tsunamis. Instead of holes drilled in the ground, there would be a rectangular "carpet" of rods jutting up from out of the ocean. Preliminary studies have shown these rows of rods reflecting waves rather than washing over them. Guenneau states in the article that he would like to place these protective "carpets" near a high-value test subject, such as a nuclear power plant.

Brilliant, eh? I am all set to write an encomium to these researchers but there is a cynical voice that arises in the back of my head, one born of society's main concern: money. As people driven by consumerism before all else, I can already hear the objections of "how much is all this going to cost?" To that, Guenneau replies:

“The cost would remain quite affordable compared to the cost of a nuclear plant which is destroyed or a city which is devastated. You prefer to have a carpet which costs perhaps 10 or 20 million euros than have 50,000 human beings wiped from the surface of the earth.”

Makes sense to many of us, but there will be plenty of others who will undoubtedly say that the materials involved in building such a "carpet" will still be too expensive.

I'm sure there are many ground-breaking concepts just waiting out there, new approaches that could help us adapt to a changing environment or to protect us from environmental dangers we have always faced. Then again, there are all manner of things we could do to prepare for a post-carbon world, but progress on that front appears slow.

All of it comes down to choices we as a society are willing to make and how we define "expensive."

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Thursday, February 11, 2016

Could evolution produce a "perfect" being?

Would evolution ever render the "perfect organism?"

It's such a tempting notion to entertain. If you look at human origins, we've certainly (perhaps arguably) come a long way from our primordial state into what we are now. Instead of going through artificial means, is there an "endgame" for evolution where humans will reach a state of perfection all on our own? In theory, yes. But the sad news is, probably not. Evolutionary perfection is just a myth in general.

So say researchers at Michigan State University. The team of scientists have conducted the longest running experiment on evolving organisms in a fixed environment. They have watched 60,000 generations of E. Coli bacteria, the human equivalent of 1.8 million years. In the interstitial moments between generations, mutations occurred. Thousands of them. From the article:

"If bacterial growth follows a power law model as the researchers assume, this implies that while increases in fitness slow over time, there is no upper limit. Their newest findings, published Wednesday in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, bear out this hypothesis, showing that the line of best fit for bacterial evolution matches much more closely to, and even exceeds, a power law model. There is no end game for evolution."

The leader of the study, however, makes clear in no uncertain terms that the lack of an "endgame" is only theoretical. There likely is indeed a limit as to how far humans, or any other organism, can develop, but as explained in the report we are so far from that point that "it's not even relevant." One other important caveat the researchers point out is that their experiment is quite different from the way things work in "the wild." The study was carried out in a fixed environment. Fluctuations and changes are going on all the time due to natural and human-caused events:

"Faced with an unsteady future, most species, including humans, are struggling to catch up. While evolving past climate change entirely is likely impossible, some species have already begun to change. Tawny owl feather colors, for example, are changing to match a snowless landscape, and pink salmon in Alaska are migrating earlier in response to warmer water temperatures."

Will humans reach the "upper limit" of evolution? Perfection? Theoretically, yes. Likely, no. Besides, perfection is a relative term.

Sure would be nice though. Something, whether evolution or alien intervention, needs to speed our physical development along so we can adapt to all we have done.

Otherwise there may not be anyone left to evolve.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

What is that on the Moon?

There is something strange on the Moon.

Or at least there seemed to be. A few months back, Discover magazine ran this story about an image taken during Apollo 12 in November of 1969. The photograph shows the Apollo lunar module orbiting the Moon. There is also something definitely strange depicted. At the link, notice the left side of the pictured area of the Moon and the almost artificially straight line etched in its surface. What is that?

Space abounds with anomalies, whether real or from us "just seeing what we want to see." Nowhere else in our experience thus far this more abundant than on the surface of Mars. Seems like at least every week there is a new claim of spotting something that shouldn't be there in a Mars photograph. Fossils, humanoids, bunnies, bottles, footprints, cannons, I've lost track of all the various strange things that are supposedly there. Of course there is also the infamous Face on Mars.

I remember the first time I saw that particular "anomaly"...and forgive me if I've gone on about this before (and I probably have). I was sitting in Neutron Frog's room sometime in high school, flipping through an issue of Omni. They printed pictures of the "face" as well as rock structures resembling pyramids in the Cydonia region. There must have been a civilization there at one time, he and I said, one at least on par with the ancient Egyptians. What happened to them? Well, they died of drought when all the water evacuated to the poles and froze.

We were kids. What do you want?

All these are fun to play with. Up to a point, anyway. There are, of course, plenty of explanations for odd formations on Mars and the Moon. Eventually, NASA came through with the true origins of the mystery photograph Discover ran. The raw, unprocessed version of the photo shows no such white line. Said line was probably accidentally added during the digital processing of the photo or when the negative was copied. Naturally that kind of an explanation inadvertently gives fuel to anomaly proponents. "We never see the raw images! NASA and the ESA airbrush and whitewash everything!"

Personally, I like the response from Jeffery Kluger. He is an Editor-at-Large at Time magazine is the co-author of Lost Moon with Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 fame. In a response to a query about the image, Kluger said:

"It could, of course, simply be dolly tracks from the film crews that faked the moon landings. How they ever had time to do that, invent autism-inducing vaccines and come up with the climate change hoax, I’ll never know."

How indeed, Jeffery Kluger. How indeed.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Brain-to-machine interface possible without surgery

Think transhumanism is naught but folly? Tell that to DARPA.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has found a way around one of the biggest objections against transhumanism. In fact, it was one Dr. Rich tossed at me about three years ago. Paraphrasing: "That kind of thing requires major surgery on the brain. People aren't going to want to do that."

So much for all that. It's been announced that DARPA has found what they call a "minimally invasive way" to have the human brain communicate with machines. The technique uses what's called a "stentrode."

Wow. It even sounds like it belongs on a cyborg. But I digress...

It's a stent "about the size of a paperclip"covered in electrodes. Rather than carving someone's skull open, a catheter is inserted in someone's neck and the stentrode goes in, worming its way through the bloodstream. Once in, the brain-machine interface (BMI) allows someone to communicate with machines using only their mind. What sorts of machines? Of immediate interest would be interfaces with cybernetics such as prosthetic limbs. Those types of interfaces have been growing in sophistication but the stentrode would allow for the next big leap.

Tests have been conducted thus far by implanting the stentrode in the motor cortexes of sheep. By next year those tests are expected to move to humans.

Like I seem to always say in a post like this one, it's another step forward. If I was someone in need of an efficient prosthetic limb, or if I were someone paralyzed from neurological disorder, I'd see this as a hopeful sign that something could be done to ameliorate whatever was keeping the electrical signals in my body from working properly. Of course I'm thinking of other advancements this vicissitude can lead to with cybernetics.

Because as much as I begrudge the fact, Dr. Rich does have something of a point. Getting a flap of your skull pried off so that someone can dig into your brain and stick in the implants has its drawbacks. It's off-putting to say the least. Yet I also knew that less invasive techniques, such as the stentrode, would inevitably come along.

Now to see if it works in humans.

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Monday, February 8, 2016

100 years of Dada and Cabaret Voltaire

By Source, Fair use,

Last Friday marked a landmark anniversary in art.

One hundred years ago, Cabaret Voltaire opened in Zurich, Switzerland. This gathering place for artists would eventually give birth to the Dada movement, an avant-garde movement formed as a response to many things, among them war and capitalism. The article at the link describes Switzerland of that time as "a birdcage surrounded by roaring lions." War raged all around Europe and in but a few short decades it would again. Many artists saw the logic and cold rationality of capitalism as what led people to war. As such, they rejected logic and coherence.

This led to an art movement founded on new, chaotic juxtapositions, of a rejection of logic and a deliberate breaking of all present conventions and traditions of aesthetics. It could be seen, as critics would later call it, "anti-art." Hugo Ball, one of the movement's progenitors, said, "For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in."

Dada prized nonsense. Found materials would become the movement's raw fuel and the commonplace could become art as exemplified by the two pieces I've included in this post. For further examples of Dada, I'd suggest seeking out the work of the movement's other luminaries, such as Ball, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray.

While the movement itself might have been short lived, its influence was far reaching. Dada gave rise to Surrealism, without which we would not have the exquisite work of David Lynch.  We would not have the photomontage. The literary, poetic side of Dada gave us the cut-up technique, which would later be sagaciously acquired and implemented by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Really, anything that seeks art and creativity for creativity's sake, giving no pause or worry to "what's this supposed to be?", owes a debt to Dada. In simpler terms, Dada freed us, freed us to do...whatever.

Given its political origins, it's probably not a stretch to say we would not have punk without Dada.

So here's to those folks who opened Cabaret Voltaire 100 years ago. Your progeny lives on.

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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I have purposefully waited almost two months.

A new installment of the science fiction epic that got me to love science fiction in the first place has been in theaters for a quite a while now, but there's been nary a peep about it on ESE. I waited because I wanted to let the furor die down, to let the multitudinous appraisals explode then wither, and I suppose I wanted to diminish my chances of publishing spoilers. Even though I'm pretty sure that everyone who wanted to see this film has probably seen it by now, I know that everyone's situation is different and I will therefore allow at least a bit of spoiler space. Please scroll below.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens begins 30 years after the last Death Star was destroyed over Endor. We thought the Empire had fallen at the end of Return of the Jedi, but they seem to have simply re-branded themselves as "The First Order," complete with stormtroopers, TIE fighters, and everything. On the wasteland planet of Jakku, a young scavenger named Rey comes across a lone droid called BB-8. This droid is the custodian of a map that tells the location of Luke Skywalker, who has been missing for the better part of the past 30 years. Rey teams with Finn, a former stormtrooper who left that life, to get the map back into the hands of the Resistance...which is now apparently the re-branded Rebellion. It won't be easy as the Sith lord named Kylo Ren will be leading the entire First Order after our new heroes.

No sir. I didn't like it.

However, this film was not without its positives. In the spirit of fairness, let's first take a look at what Star Wars VII got right.

-The look. I was not opposed to the computer-generated world that George Lucas gave us with the prequels, but it wasn't until seeing The Force Awakens that I realized just how overdone it all was. Physical models and techniques similar to those first used in A New Hope reminded me of what gave the first trilogy their unique appearance. You just can't beat it.

-The new characters. Finn, Poe, and especially Rey are great additions. You quickly get a sense of who the are and develop something of an establishment something of an attachment to them. And no, Rey is not a Mary Sue.

-Getting the band back together. No matter the circumstances, it really was great fun to see familiar characters and vehicles again on the big screen.

Unfortunately, those positives were outweighed by what I didn't like. Such as:

-The look. I know, I know. I just said that I liked the look. I did. In terms of the special effects, that is. The film itself just looks like one big streak of gray. That's it. I know that everyone lambastes director JJ Abrams for his lens flare, but I'm starting to see "gray" as his true trademark.

-No background. A New Hope didn't slow down too terribly much but we still found out what we needed to know. Politically, we knew enough about the Empire and the Rebellion to understand what was happening. You get none of that here. Why are they called "The First Order?" Why is there a "Resistance?" Didn't they finish all this at the Battle of Endor? What exactly is happening? Damn if I know, but I'm guessing JJ wants us to keep coming back to the movies to find out. For me, it's just frustrating.

-Recycling. The whole plot is a refurbishing of Episode IV. I think that so much derision was hurled at the prequels, for just and unjust reasons, that JJ Abrams thought the only way to escape all that was to copy what worked exactly. They did it right down to the massive planet killer that must be flown into and blown up but first its defense shield must be brought down. Placate the desiderata of the masses and you'll never go wrong. Well I'd rather see something new. The Force Awakens merely reuses the old as pre-fab plot.

-The Force. I guess it's supposed to "awaken" in this movie. Awaken from what, though? We don't find out but it's presence is startlingly nil. There is no spiritual connection as in Episodes IV-VI or even that of I-III. The most we get is Golden Girls reject, Maz Kanata. What gives? Along those lines...

-Lame, clumsy lightsaber fights. I know that the opponents in these duels were not supposed to be experts yet, but if you can't show someone doing it right...

-Kylo Ren. Any criticisms of Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker are now nullified. Kylo Ren is the ultimate "whiney emo kid with issues." I was not menaced by him. I felt no "shock and awe" from his presence as I did with his grandfather, Darth Vader. In fact, I wanted Kylo to keep his Sith mask on so I could try to forget that we have a Sith villain who looks like a member of One Direction. If this is the new trilogy's main antagonist, prepare for boredom.

-Luke. I want to change the title of this film from The Force Awakens to Waiting for Luke. Only I think Beckett would have had more patience than me. I wait all through the movie for one minute of Luke? I know JJ wants that to tantalize me into seeing Episode VIII, but forget it.

-Han dies. Whatever enjoyment I was getting from the movie up until that point died with him. I know Harrison Ford likely wanted to exit that way, but I have a problem with that. He originally wanted Han to die at the end of Return of the Jedi. I'm paraphrasing, but I recall an interview where Ford said he told George Lucas, "he [Han] has got no mama, no papa, let's give some weight to this thing." Meaning, have Han sacrifice himself and die a hero's death. Lucas said no. JJ must have said yes but that didn't happen here. Han died an empty and meaningless death that leaves poor Chewie a tortured soul. I guess that must be in keeping with what is thought to be the postmodern, "Edgy McEdgerson" film goer, but I despised it.

-"It was just like the first time! The magic is back!" That was the gist of many of the early reviews. I simply did not get that impression. Episode IV had a mythic and optimistic feel to it. As Lucas said, "It's an optimistic film in a cynical world." I did not get the same feeling from The Force Awakens. Now that might be unfair as I am no longer five and there is therefore no way I could have the same reaction to a Star Wars movie as I did the first time. Still, this one came off as bleak, unrelenting, and somewhat hopeless.

I may not have liked the movie but you won't catch me ranting against it or its successors. This new trilogy of Star Wars is clearly not being made for me and that's okay. Things are meant to be reinvented and new, younger audiences need things to speak to them in their own generational ways. Me? I have my old DVDs and my Star Wars Marvel Comics (Jaxxon! What up!) so I'll be sitting this new crop out.

Unless curiosity about what happened to Luke gets the better of me.

And dammit, it just might.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Millions of moms threatened by an idea

Sound the alarm.

There is a new television series on Fox called Lucifer starring Tom Ellis (above) that portrays the Prince of Darkness as just one of us, albeit one of us who can easily finagle his way out of speeding tickets and is irresistible to women.

Lucifer is based on a comic book published by the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics. The comic itself was spun out of another series, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, which is where I first became acquainted with this incarnation of the Devil. In that latter comic book, the evil one simply realizes how bored and unhappy he is with ruling Hell. So he leaves. He comes to our world in human form and in search of new things to satisfy his yearnings. Does that make for an interesting narrative premise?

The organization One Million Moms sure doesn't think so. This group is opposed to what they call a "spiritually dangerous" program and they have called for a boycott of the show's sponsors as a means of financially driving the series from the air. Businesses on this list include Olive Garden and Kay Jewelers. The OMM collective has the right to do this, just as many of us would boycott businesses whose practices we find disagreeable.

So why am I writing about this? Well, I suppose the actions of OMM bother me on two levels.

First, if their concerns are truly about the "spiritual," and with their site providing links to Christian organizations such as American Family Association it would suggest so, then one would presume that OMM should have greater worries. There are any number of social injustices that should concern a "spiritual" person. Love, as described in several different spiritual texts, could go a long way towards making a difference with social, gender, and economic inequalities. That doesn't seem to be what they're interested in though. Instead, they appear more preoccupied with opposing what GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz calls "New York values." Cruz has even credited that opposition with his recent Iowa caucus win, saying that "Judeo-Christian values" are why his campaign is "resonating."

For the life of me I cannot see what he means by these "values" other than pledging to stop legal and safe abortions and calling for holier-than-thou discrimination against homosexuals.

Perhaps my larger qualm comes from the text of OMM's boycott call. The statement includes a line of dialogue from the show: "'Do you think I'm the devil because I'm inherently evil or just because dear old Dad decided I was?' The question is meant to make people rethink assumptions about good and evil, including about God and Satan." I have zeroed in on their phrase, "The question is meant to make people rethink assumptions about good and evil."

How dare the show's creators do that? Why should assumptions ever be challenged? Why should anyone be made to think? I am not calling Lucifer a "TV show for thinking people," not by any stretch. More to the point, I am unsettled by OMM declaring that there are ideas that should remain free from the scrutiny of the human mind or that there cannot be multiple interpretations of a single idea. If there is anything greater than discussing, challenging, and examining the many possible meanings of good and evil, I don't know what it is.

But wait. Maybe they are arguing that it's not so much about the presence of the content as it is that children might see it. After all, OMM has led previous boycott campaigns against gay characters in comic books and the new "adult" version of The Muppets on ABC with each of these campaigns finding a startling lack of success. You don't want your child to view this material? Fair enough. Fortunately there is a simple solution.

Don't let them see it.

To attempt to nullify works that challenge your beliefs is to threaten an informed democracy. To do so in the name of "somebody think of the children!" is a logical fallacy. When this kind of thinking becomes a mode of political thinking, then I begin to get truly afraid.

And despite it all, I somehow think that Olive Garden and the Fox Network will survive.

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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

How Black Triangles brought me back to Ufology

By 1990, I tried to stay away from everything UFO.

The cultural zeitgeist at the time said that all things geek-related were decidedly not cool and I realized no girls were going to talk to me if I had a copy of Communion stowed somewhere. So I played a part. Then I saw it.

I was sitting in a friend's dorm room. His copy of The Wall Street Journal sat on his trunk by the couch. A headline caught my eye. It was something to the effect: "Belgians taking triangular UFO seriously." I lifted up the newspaper and read the article. The text was predictably dismissive but it related a few things I had never seen before in a UFO case.

The article spoke of just how many witnesses in Belgium between 1989 and 1990 had seen a black, triangular craft with white lights at each of the points and a red light in the center. Among these witnesses were police officers who pursued the craft by car. These triangles could apparently hover in silence and then soar away at incredible speeds, making breakneck maneuvers that would kill most human pilots. At one point, F-16 fighters scrambled to pursue the UFO. The object was tracked on the planes' radar and recorded, including the triangle's trademark exit at a speed well beyond that of sound.

Here's the kicker: Belgian defense authorities held a press conference to confirm this had all happened. They played video recordings of the cockpit instrumentation. Additionally, they said that they were treating the UFO presence as an incursion into their sovereign airspace and therefore it was a matter of national security. This was serious. A few months later I saw the notorious (perhaps now infamous) photograph of the Belgian Triangle (above). You could almost feel the electrical sizzle in the air from looking at the picture, conjecturing that the fuzziness of the lights might be due to an antigravity engine. It was one of the clearest photographs of a UFO I had ever seen.

Decades wore on and like many of my favorite cases, holes began to form in the narrative of the Belgian UFO Wave. Turns out even sophisticated radar systems such as those on the F-16 can get glitchy (it should also be remembered that the fighter pilots never actually saw the object. They were too far away.) In 2011 there were allegations that the above photo was actually a hoax.  In one tantalizing revelation, the television program UFOs Declassified on the Smithsonian Channel had an avionics expert at the University of Toronto examine the recordings from the Belgian F-16 of 1990. The man didn't seem too keen on a UFO explanation for the readings, but he did suspect electronic countermeasures were at work. In other words, there was something out there that was deliberately sending out signals to spoof the F-16s' instruments. As I said, that in and of itself is tantalizing.

Let me be clear: I am not calling the entire Belgian Black Triangle Wave a hoax or a mis-identification. But there are clearly other points to consider.

Upon further reflection, there are two aspects that keep me personally interested in this case. For one, it's where I see the idea of "black triangles" as entering vogue. It was a sort of aeromancy for the UFO climate forecast. After 1990, triangles seemed to become a common shape for sightings. Yeah, yeah, I'm sure plenty out there will say "It happened long before then!! I've got a triangle sighting from 1949!!" You probably do. I'm merely talking about popular public consciousness. You can almost track a progression. First airships, then saucers, then cigars, and then triangles. When I interviewed witnesses in Dulce last summer, I spoke with as many people who saw triangles as those who reported saucers. Granted, the roughly triangular shape of stealth aircraft might account for many of these latter day sightings, but purported performance of many of the triangles would seem to rule that out in at least a few cases.

The other reason I have an affinity for the triangles is, as I said, they brought me back to Ufology. When I saw that article in the WSJ, a spark reignited in me. I could no longer hold back, regardless of what anyone thought of me. I read more books, watched more documentaries, and took to what was then the fledgling Internet (remember Gopher anyone?) to seek out new sources of UFO information. I'm glad that I did.

Whatever the truth is behind this phenomenon...and I confess I certainly don't know what it is and seem to grow foggier about it as time wears's something I enjoy. Researching a sighting or a reported abduction, whatever the truth might yield, is infinitely more enjoyable to me than worrying about the stack of papers I still need to grade or wondering how I'm going to pay down the credit card bill. It holds the possibility, the possibility that there just might be fantastic things out there beyond the mundane.

Probably the most I've ever gotten out of the Wall Street Journal.  

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Monday, February 1, 2016

Bionic cats and rats

You should know by now that I love animals.

That's why I'm glad that advancements we make in medicine can be shared with them as well. As the dad of two dogs, I've never been more glad of that than I am tonight. You see, one of my dogs ate a copious amount of chocolate. Thank all that is that he has been checked out by the vet is doing fine, several vomits later. This isn't his first rodeo, of course. Over the span of his ten years, he has blown out the ACL of both of his rear knees. Fortunately, surgical vets were there for us, repairing those knees with plates and screws.

If indeed he can feel when the weather is about to change, he has never told us.

But what can be done for more severe and not to mention tragic situations? Well, I've been reading about a few innovative techniques. One involves a cat named Vincent. He's a cat who was born three years ago without rear tibias. Then 3D modeling and printing stepped up to help. Vincent got two new titanium legs inserted directly into his rear leg bones. The bones can then grow around the metal and the metal legs modified as he grows older.

Does that mean Vincent is "postfeline"? Are my dogs "postcanine?"

This bit from George Dvorsky describes how soft neural implants have been able to restore the ability to walk in paralyzed rats. The rubbery implant goes straight onto their little spinal cords and the electrical components stimulate the cord's damaged areas. "A fluidic microchannel allows for the delivery of pharmacological substances, namely neurotransmitters that "reanimate" the nerve cells beneath the injured tissue. Fascinatingly, the system can monitor electrical impulses from the brain, allowing the scientists to see the rats' motor intentions before it's translated into movement."

Of course clinical trials in humans are an endgame for many of these aforementioned techniques. I'm all for that. Still, unless your heart is entirely ice-encrusted, I see no reason for the end to obviate our ability to help our beloved pets in the nonce or later.

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