Thursday, March 31, 2016

Batman v. Superman


starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenburg, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Gal Gadot.

In the wake of the mass destruction witnessed in Man of Steel, Bruce Wayne aka Batman, decides that Superman is too dangerous to be left unchecked on this Earth. So Batman decides to do something about it.

Spoilers abound in this review so feel free to bail out now.

Like moths drawn to our own seering death by flame, my brother and I just had to see this film. Having done so, we both agree that we have no idea what anything on that screen meant.

Is Zack Snyder trying to outdo Michael Bay as the world's worst director? Were the writers trying to appease as many comic book fans as they could by sewing Dark Knight Returns, Death and Return of Superman, Legends, and even Superman: At Earth's End into one Frankensteinian monstrosity? The resulting mess meanders so much that it makes no sense. Still, I will try my best to address it point by point.

-Lex Luthor. Were the writers originally thinking the Joker as the antagonist and then told it had to be Luthor...but were too lazy to change the script? Because that's the characterization we got. Utterly abysmal.

-Doomsday is a big storyline. The death of Superman is a big storyline. You can't just cram it into twenty minutes.

-What the hell was with that convoluted plan to get Superman and Batman to fight? It made no sense. Couldn't the two characters simply square off as they are naturally at cross purposes? In the beginning, they certainly didn't trust each other. That should be enough. Ditto for the Africa sequence. Did that need to happen? 

-So what is it that ends this gotterdamerung between Titans? "Wait...your mother's name is Martha? So's mine. We can't fight!"

-Does everything these days have to be run through a postmodern filter to become Edgy McEdgerson? Is that the intransigent thinking of Zack Snyder? Well go ahead and slop everything in rainy wet, metallic gray. It won't make it artful. This film is utterly obsessed with grimness. Get this: we are soooo edgy, we killed Jimmy Olson. Take that.

-There is just so little of interest going on here. It's a non-stop video game car chase that is loud, shallow, vacuous, and kinetic. Pivotal characters such as Perry White and Lois Lane are utterly devoid of interest. In a biblical scene reminiscent of Christ being taken from the cross and placed with his mother in the pieta, so Superman was with Lois. 
And I felt nothing.

-Could they have packed in any more dream sequences? 

-Batman at times acts out of character. Those are, I assume, lethal missiles and rotary guns on his vehicles. The grunt, bad guy cannon fodder all fall before them. Batman does not kill. The fault with this contradiction lies with the writers and the director.

-What the hell? Was that supposed to be the Flash? Why the hell does Aquaman have tattoos? Oh yeah. That's right. Edgy McEdgerson. 

-Bagpipes at Clark Kent's funeral in Kansas? I thought they might shoot his body to the Genesis planet.

Is there anything positive? As a matter of fact, yes.

-I really liked Ben Affleck as Batman. I believe he has a true understanding of the character and he turns in a performance on par with Christian Bale and Michael Keaton. He is a true bright spot in this otherwise miserable experience and I'd watch him as Batman any day. That's this Batman fan's opinion anyway.

-Jeremy Irons is great as Alfred.

-Gal Gadot is great as Wonder Woman.

-The Batmobile looked cool.

-I'm glad they kept the Hans Zimmer score from Man of Steel. A stirring piece of music.

But that's just not enough. Please. Somebody stop Zack Snyder before he films again. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The UFO of Freiburg

It goes without saying that secret locations and UFO accounts are natural bedfellows.

As I slog away with Dulce research, that fact has never been more evident to me. Sometimes UFO lore grows up around a locale due to massive amounts of secrecy. Area 51 for example. Anything hidden from sight invites conjecture. Sometimes, as a few of my interviews have theorized about Dulce, the stories might be generated simply because a place is remote and isolated. Anyway, the connections, however mythical, fascinate me. In my research, I came across an alleged site that I didn't know much about before.

I still don't, but I'm going to continue.

It's called the Freiburg Tunnel. It's in the Black Forest region of Germany and it is said to have once housed a downed UFO.

Yes, I know that linked site is not exactly reputable. It's not like you're going to find stuff like this in the New Yorker, you know.

The basic claim is that a saucer crashed in the Black Forest region in 1936. The Nazis recovered it and stashed it inside the Freiburg Tunnel. They then allegedly became the first humans to work on reverse-engineering an alien craft. This accounts for all of the tremendous advancements of German science during World War II. What's more, the Thule and Vril societies were involved, attracting the saucer to the region through "psychic channeling." The UFO's power source was something called "Black Sun." It's "an infinite beam of light which – though invisible to the human eye – exists in anti-matter." The Vril were said to worship this power source.

It sounds crazy but as these things tend to go, there are kernels of truth to them. There were indeed secret underground installations in Nazi Germany. They housed research and development labs as well as weaponry. That just stands to reason. If you want your valuable assets to survive Allied bombing, bury them deep. Preferably somewhere like the Black Forest. The Nazis also actually did experiment with saucer-shaped aircraft. That much is known. These aircraft might have even had advanced or exotic propulsion plants, perhaps leading to the "foo fighter" sightings (no, not the band.)

But you'll have to pardon me if I'm quite skeptical about the rest of it. Much of it suffers from the same weaknesses as the ancient aliens allegations. "There were all of these scientific and technological advancements. They must have had help from somewhere else." Right. Because German scientists and engineers just weren't smart enough to come up with these things on their own.

This alleged account is also predicated upon yet another UFO crash. I've seen so many accounts of such things that I can't even begin to keep track of them all. Why do they seem to just keep dropping out of the sky? Regardless, the idea of a Nazi-acquired UFO stored in an underground bunker is just fun to play with. After all, who doesn't like Nazi flying saucers?

By the way, if the UFO was recovered, what did the Nazis do with the occupants?

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Dissolvable devices that monitor your brain

Transhumanism, one step at a time.

Way back in January, I saw this story about implanted cybernetic devices. In the brain, no less. But here's an interesting deviation: they are not permanent. The idea is that you implant a chip in the brain capable of getting accurate readings on brain temperature and pressure but is also durable. This durability however must come from a biodegradable that will ultimately dissolve and leave the body in a harmless manner.

Why dissolve? Well it's because of one the very arguments against transhumanism I've seen crop up from time to time. "It's too invasive," I've heard. "These chip implants or cybernetics require major surgery." Indeed when one is dealing with critical areas of the body, case in point the brain, you don't want to be carving in there to implant a device and then perhaps later doing the same thing again to remove it. Also, current implants run the risk of infection.

Dissolvables solve this problem. The team at the University of Illinois that developed this application spent years developing these sensors out of silicon-based material with soluble wires connected to an external data transmission device. All dissolvable. Proof of concept tests have already been done on rats.

This could be a game-changer. A device of this nature could allow for critical examination or delivery of medicine to affected areas, all while being temporary and non-invasive. Or at least not as invasive as other methods. Here's to hoping that they get past tests on rats and move to humans soon. For as I often say when blogging about these news stories, it's not so much what the devices are doing now as the steps they represent. What's the next extension?

I'm sure there's at least a few out there who have conspiratorial views based on the headline of this post. Might someone plant something in your head towards nefarious ends, only to have all of the evidence melt away once the deed is done? What exactly that might be, I don't know. I'm just riffing off the concept. I suppose it's possible, but let's not get lost in the weeds. John Rogers, the head of the project developing these implants has the right idea:

“I’m interested in ways to engineer electronics to solve problems of human health, You can think about that like advanced wearables, but also devices that implant inside the body.”

Like I said, I'm really interested in where this goes next.

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Monday, March 28, 2016

Strieber goes to campus

Ever wish academics would take the UFO subject seriously?

Well, one of them may be. Besides me, I mean. Not that "I'm all that" but, well...anyway.

It's a bit of old news, something I found stashed away in my "to blog" folder. I find it intriguing even if it's from two months ago. Whitley Strieber has partnered to write a book with Jeffrey Kripal, a professor of religion at Rice University. The title of the book is The Super Natural: New Visions of the Unexplained.

Strieber had an obvious influence on me as he did with so many others who have interest in unexplained phenomena. I read Communion shortly after it came out and then slept with the lights on for weeks. His vivid accounts earned him the cognomen, as the article says, "poster boy for alien abduction." I'm not convinced he has been experiencing contact with aliens in the science fiction sense, but I am convinced that something extraordinary has been happening to him. Don't ask me what it is because I don't know. And honestly Strieber hasn't been a proponent of the ETH, either, turning instead to alternative theories, ones dealing with consciousness and natural forces beyond our current level of understanding.

Jeffrey Kripal knows something about such ethereal things. As a scholar of religion, he is considering Strieber's encounters from the same perspective as one would accounts of religious experiences. Really, what is the difference between Strieber's claims and someone saying that a dead guy's tomb is empty and they have seen him walking about? Additional examples include, as the article offers, St. Paul's claimed conversion on the road to Damascus and just about all the communication Moses is said to have had with the almighty. Hell, we've had political leaders claim they've spoken with Jesus. Why isn't the media treating them with the same scathing ridicule as Strieber has experienced?

I really like this idea. For too long I have found the nuts-and-bolts "space people" paradigm simplistic and lacking. That hasn't stopped it from being the conventional explanation in popular media. So much so that the term "UFO" has become sadly synonymous with "ET." Strieber, whatever the truth may be about his purported experiences, has expressed similar discomfort with the ETH. There are other possible explanations. They may be unsettling due to their incomprehensible nature. I'm not sure I'm ready for it myself, but I'd rather know the truth...even if I don't understand it. A deeper exploration, of the sort described in the new book, may lead to even greater scrutiny over spiritual experiences as a whole. Yes, that includes religion and if you want to talk uncomfortable...

Let's hope this is the start of something.

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Thursday, March 24, 2016

Does virtual reality explain the eerie silence of the universe?

This claim regarding virtual reality came at the beginning of the year:

"2016 is the year when VR goes from virtual to reality."

It's an article from the BBC ( that argues, in part, that the involvement of tech heavyweights such as Facebook, Sony, and HTC means that we are approaching a virtual reality renaissance of sorts. Several examples of VR applications are given, including humanitarian ends, such as helping people overcome intense phobias by desensitizing them in safe, virtual environments or allowing students to tour art museums from a great distance and at next to no cost. Other endeavors are more vain, such as video game, space battle examples and climbing Mt. Everest only without all the effort. 

Commerce is of course a kenspeckle sector of human activity that is eyeing the  applications of virtual reality. VR may allow sales staff to interact with customers on the other side of the world, allowing these potential sales to test out products without physically interacting with them.

I am, of course, not interested in such things. I'm thinking about aliens and exobiology enthusiasts would do well to consider the VR matter in the same way. It might explain why the universe seems so silent.

Many say that there is a threshold, a critical point beyond which a species may not survive. This could be due to self-destruction through war or destroying your own ecosystem through hubris. It might also be due to natural disaster. At any rate, the idea is that civilization might have a short shelf life. But what about this:

It seems likely that advanced aliens would have gone through a Singularity much as we appear headed towards. Once this occurs, do you reach a dead-end rather than a new step in evolution? Is virtual reality so immersive and pleasurable that you would never want to leave? After all, why would you? Ungodly distance between stars is one good reason we may not have made confirmed contact with aliens, but could another be that they are all snug in their VR entertainment enclosures and they're not coming out? And we're headed down the same path?

I'm not saying that would be a bad thing.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The astonishing musical paranormal world of Paul Roland

My friend Jason turned me on to someone who is a musician, blogger, and writer on matters occult and paranormal. And in terms of a career, this guy has been around a very long time, long enough to be called "the male Kate Bush"by Robyn Hitchcock.

How this man has escaped my notice is beyond me. I'm kinda embarrassed.

His name is Paul Roland. As I mentioned, the man has an extensive discography. His work includes the song "Werewolf of London" which has far more to do with the film of the same title than Warren Zevon. In fact, Roland even has a song titled "Lon Chaney." He also has one I love for the title alone, "The Cars That Ate New York", plus a Siouxsie and the Banshees cover for good measure. Said Frank Zappa: "Paul Roland writes nice melodies and has a very particular personality but he is too intellectual for me!"

Given the song titles and their subject matter, Roland likely invites comparisons to Rob Zombie. However he obviously predates Rob Zombie, so any comparisons are just that. Additionally, Roland has none of the redneck atmosphere of Zombie, something that has always prevented me from embracing Zombie's music entirely. Sorry, just an aesthetic preference. He's also more literate than Zombie, selecting his inspirations from Poe, Verne, and Lovecraft rather than simply b-movies.

Speaking of literature, Roland is every bit as prolific a writer as he is a musician, publishing books since 1987. The majority of these texts have a paranormal sensibility to them, covering subjects such as the Kabbalah, ghosts, psychic phenomena, and links between the Nazis and the occult. Hell, he even has a forward from Colin Wilson in one of the texts. That's a ringing endorsement if I've ever seen one. I've simply got to track down a copy of Roland's 2000 Investigating the Unexplained. His most recent books are no less interesting, including The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft and a biographical work of Marc Bolan of T. Rex.

As if all of that weren't impressive enough, Paul Roland is credited with being the founder of the Steampunk movement and has written a book on the subject. He wrote songs about Edwardian airship raids and pre-Wright manned flight attempts long before anyone else was there.

I'm just so impressed with this man's brand of joie de vivre. I want to write a Dr. Strange-like character based upon him, but that presumes I'm going to get all my other 99 writing tasks done anytime soon.

More to the point, it appears I have yet more to pile on my to-read list and a bunch more songs to add to my Spotify library.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Implanted LED: for when tattoos get boring

For transhumanists, tattoos must seem rather trite and redundant.

If you really want to express yourself through body art, LED is the way to go. Just a few weeks ago, NPR ran a story about "body hackers" embedding LED lights just beneath the skin (you can can find even better visuals on the subject at Motherboard.) In concept anyway, it's not a new idea. People have been getting RFID and personal data chips implanted for a while now. Andreas Sjöström of Holland used a home xNT kit from Dangerous Things to implant his personal information on a microchip, allowing him to easily pass through airports. The xNT can also allow someone to open doors and unlock their home or phone with the wave of their hand. And in terms of art, well, Stelarc has been creating art with his own body via transhuman means for years and Hyung Koo Lee experimented with body distortion with his Objectuals. Not sure it's really something "new."

Maybe that's the idea. As one body hacker said in the NPR piece:

"I think once people realize, oh, it's OK that my grandma has a pacemaker, a magnet's much less invasive than that - people are going to start to accept this. You know, the era of transhumanism, I would say, is here. So let's accept that and then see where that logically takes us."

I have many people in my life with tattoos and piercings so I mean this with no rancor, but is implanting an LED beneath your skin any dumber than injecting ink or affixing a clump of metal to dangle? There is perhaps greater chance of infection, but isn't this just another form of body modification or enhancement? Of expression?

As more people turn to options that allow the mundane, such as starting your car with an implanted RFID tag, or the grandiose, such as "cyborg" eyes that allow zoom focus or infrared sight, the next natural question for the mind is "how can we use this creatively?" The more artistic among us may choose to augment themselves in ways that also express their personality. It's just going to take time for it to normalize. Just remember, there was an age where tattoos were erroneously thought crude and only for the "lower classes."

Funny how things change.

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Sophia, the human-like robot

Another leap forward in robotics.

Hanson Robotics announced the creation of Sophia, one of the most sophisticated androids to date. Her skin is not made of the usual latex but rather a silicon specially patented by Hanson. Sophia is capable of 62 different facial expressions while cameras in her eyes allow her to recognize faces and follow eye contact. There is also AI capability as Sophia can process speech while sophisticated algorithms allow her to learn as she interacts. From the article:

"Our goal is that she will be as conscious, creative and capable as any human," said Hanson. "We are designing these robots to serve in health care, therapy, education and customer service applications."

But will she pass the Turing Test? Or the Voight-Kampff Empathy Test?

Of course I can't read about Sophia and not think about my recent post on sexbots. Despite however pure Dr. Hanson's intentions, it seems unlikely that this robotic technology would not eventually be utilized to perfect a sexbot. I've mentioned before just how much sex has driven the development of technologies. After all, you're not going to go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator. The competitive nature of markets will naturally demand that after the first fully AI sexbot arrives, other moneymakers will fight to up the ante as it is the nature of capitalism to render your competitor to smithereens. "Our girls are more human than human," Blade Runner's Tyrell might say were he a pimp (that's probably a harsh term in this case. Broker?) Their AI will have to pass for real.

While there are of course problems associated with this, I don't entirely see it as a bad thing. This will force development of the technology and it will eventually spill over into other areas where everyone can benefit. By that I mean the very health-related occupations that Hanson mentioned in his quote as well as many other fields. As the CNBC article also relates, benefactors of these advancements could include the Geminoid work of Hiroshi Ishiguro. I've written about him before (where I don't know as I can't find the link, but I must have.) He has an android version of himself into which he intends to transfer his consciousness. For those of us who want nothing more than to shrug off our frail, sickly, meatspace husk, that's good news.

Yes, I'm aware there are many concerns here. One might even wonder just how well will these robots be able to interact and work with humans? For example, if an office wants to save money and invest in an android but nearly humanlike receptionist, will that receptionist be able to fully parse customer questions and direct them accordingly without seeming too artificial or maybe worse, inept like a menuing system? How will we be best be able to train these robots for work that requires human interaction?

Madeline Gannon might know something about that. I read about her recently and the work she is doing at Carnegie Mellon University. Granted her work is with industrial robots and not the Sophia variety, but its the concept that is integral. Gannon has developed a method that allows robots to observe human motions and then follow them. They see, they learn, and they follow. Gannon is nicknamed the "robot whisperer."

Will "robot whisperer" become a thriving new field? I'd say there's a strong chance.


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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Battle in the year 2000!

I know I previously opined that the quality of writing at Wired has deteriorated, but all is forgiven. Maybe.

Somehow I came across an article of theirs from 2008 that was a glorious mixture of art and retro-futurism. It was about a book called Battleground 2000. I remember finding these types of books in the library at my junior high. They all had two things in common: clean, spectacular visions of the future and lavish illustrations to thrill a young science fiction fan's heart.  You know, things like cities on the Moon or in orbit and factories that manufacture their products with near zero pollution.

All that stuff that never happened.

As you might have surmised from the title, the volume in question deals with how war would be fought in the year 2000, about 20 years after the book's publication date. War is an awful experience and no one should have to go through it, but darn it if Battleground 2000 didn't make it just look so cool. There are laser rays, hovercars, and even "robot missiles"...which actually aren't too far off from a few things we have now. What really didn't transpire was the rocket troop transport. BG2000 envisioned soldiers boarding a rocket that blasts a re-entry vehicle into space only to drop it back down in the middle of hostile territory, deploying troops deep behind enemy lines in about half an hour.

While the books may have missed much of the mark on futurism, they really made up for it as a showcase of vivid and wonderful art. I really do wish I could find these books again and just stare at their wonderful illustrations. Yes, they're pulpy and I'm sure they earn the dismissal of both art aficionados and literary critics who disdain and abhor "genre," but wow. Look at it. Not only could it likely fit in galleries of contemporary, pop, or at least retro-future art, it's just so much fun. Consider this piece of UFO art:

It's from right around the same era, perhaps earlier, but you get the idea. It's the kind of kitschy, pulpy art you can add your own dialogue to. I just hear the young man saying, "Aw man! And I borrowed my Dad's car, too!"

Fortunately, the good ol' interwebs are full galleries of just such magnificence. Trust me. I've wasted plenty of time on them.

Well, not wasted.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Sexbots. Yes, they will be a real thing.

Of course they remind me of Pris from Blade Runner.

Humanoid robots...yes, I'm more than aware that Pris wasn't a true "robot" but just hold on...that are "pleasure models." They are female in appearance and have lifelike human skin. More critically, their cranium houses an advanced artificial intelligence. It can recognize and understand speech and then respond to it. It can detect emotion. And if you can afford the high six figure price tag, you will have a girlfriend for life.

I've written about this before but I've been coming across more and more articles on the subject. Many of them mention the growing, organized opposition to the notion.

To be clear on the point, we aren't all that close to the type of sexbot I just described. The nearest approximation is the Real Doll. While it is possessed of realistic skin made from latex, it does not have robotic limbs to position itself. It can't even stand on its own and it certainly can't communicate either.

At least that's what I gather from all the articles. Honest.

A sexbot, in concept anyway, will be a far more sophisticated device, particularly if AI is incorporated. There may be a few questions on your mind.

For one, why are these robots automatically going to be female in appearance and physiology? Well, I have read that there are male versions in the works, but the driving market appears to be men just as it is with Real Doll. A survey study on sexbots (yes, there really was such a thing) found that two-thirds of the men recruited for the survey reported they would give sexbots a try. Conversely, two-thirds of the women recruited for the same survey reported they were not interested. From the article: "Such research has huge implications beyond whether humanity ends up using robots for sexual satisfaction—it can also reveal gender differences in how people view modern human relationships."

You might also ask "are sexbots really going to be a thing?" To that I would have to answer "yes." Sex tends to drive technology. The VCR, CD-ROM, and much of the Internet in general was fast-tracked in order to profit from offering adult services. It would be illogical to presume that robotics and artificial intelligence would not be adapted to serve the same market. There are even predictions that human-on-robot sex will be more common than the good ol' regular kind by 2050. Additionally, the potential for these devices is significant enough that people are organizing against them.

Kathleen Richardson is a robot ethics researcher at DeMontfort University. She has co-founded the Campaign Against Sex Robots. Richardson contends that the existence of sexbots will result in greater inequalities in society and will ultimately harm human relationships. She says:

"I'm looking at what we need as human beings. How much we need other human beings. How we learn about being human from other human beings," she said. When the human element disappears, she said, and we are essentially telling people that they can have their needs gratified through a machine. "First of all, that's not possible," she said. "That, in itself, will change humanity."

I'd be willing to see if I could go without human contact. Don't know how it would shake out but I still think it's worth a bash. While that aspect does not concern me as much, I am apprehensive about a few other points encompassed in this issue. If there are human relationships left in a post-sexbot world, and I reckon there would have to be a few, there could be negative spillover into "real" relationships. The sexbot would be property. Someone could engage in skulduggery, abuse, or otherwise be downright disgusting to that property. It's hard to see how someone with that mentality, who might get into a practiced routine with it, would stop with artificial things. I thought I might have been paranoid with this line of thinking, but then I read the comments sections on a few articles. Big mistake I know, but it did underscore a few points I was worried about. I read comments from men claiming that the sexbots would "give them a choice" and thereby end a woman's "control" over them.


There are other thorny ethical issues to tangle with as well. Many of them depend on just how advanced the AI is. If "she" can think, she can feel, does that give her rights? Is it ethical for her to be property even if she is not "human" in the biological sense? Will need to find an answer. Sooner rather than later.

Will you need the Voight-Kampf Test for your next relationship?

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Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Cameras on crows show animal technology use

Animals have often been observed using technology.

No, there thus far aren't any surface to air missiles carried by giraffes, so the high technology of war-making remains an entirely human province. Don't you still feel special?

But the fact remains that there are other animals that employ basic tools in their day to day living. This article at Discover considers crows:

"New Caledonian crows are some of the world’s most famous non-human tool users. The crows employ sticks, leaves, and even bits of wire in the lab to probe holes in branches or logs, fishing out tasty bugs. But scientists are usually stuck studying these behaviors in artificial environments. To get a better perspective on how these birds make and use tools in nature, researchers in the United Kingdom tried something new: they turned wild crows into documentary filmmakers."

The researchers captured 19 crows and attached tiny video cameras to the birds' bodies. The crows were then released back into the wild with the cameras switching on for a few minutes at a time to conserve battery power. Eventually the cameras would fall off the birds. RFID tags allowed the cameras to be found and their footage reviewed.

A total of eight different instances of tool use could be seen by four different crows on the footage. The birds used twigs to prod insects out of trees from underneath leaves. What was most intriguing was one crow fashioning rather complex tools, such as a hook. It trimmed down a twig and then stripped the bark down to a curved and pointed node. This is the first time such a phenomena has been observed in nature.

There are two ways to see these findings. One might be, "So what? Crows making fishing (insecting?) hooks. That's the best they can do?" Another would be to see this as reasoning at work. The animal, in this case a crow, is reasoning through what it needs and adapting its surroundings in accordance by building tools. Animals think. In fact, their inner thoughts might be more complex than we've ever previously imagined. Charles Darwin believed that humans and animals differed in intelligence only by degree, not kind. He came to this conclusion by observing moments of joy, grief, and love in birds, domestic dogs, primates, and even mice. While it's difficult to measure exactly, animals other than humans may indeed have rich inner thoughts and abilities to reason.

You may one day wish to welcome our new overlords. 

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Saturn, Cassini, and the search for Planet Nine

Is there a ninth planet beyond Neptune?

Yeah, yeah space purists from my generation and older still claim Pluto as a planet, but we are for now forced to accept the judgments of astronomers. Regardless, much speculation has been reignited as to the presence of another planet in our solar system, one ten times the size of Earth. Right now, the search for this Planet Nine, alternately called Planet X, is confined to telescopes and may or may not reveal something within five years. However, there might be another way. That being through math and measurements of Saturn gleaned from the Cassini probe.

Cassini has been studying the planet Saturn for quite a while now, sending back images of both the planet and its moons as well as data on Saturn's exact location at various times. These measurements may ultimately help provide indication of Planet Nine's existence...or nonexistence. We wouldn't feel it much on Earth, but the presence of a Planet Nine would affect the motion of the outer planets of the solar system. The massive bodies that are the outer planets exert force on one another. Their orbits are in part the consequence of this complex ballet of push, pull, and tug. It stands to reason that if there is indeed a Planet Nine, its presence should be evident in the motions of a planet such as Saturn. That's how Neptune was found in 1846.

Much of the same reasoning is currently being offered for Planet Nine. Two astronomers at Caltech say they have detected anomalous motions in objects of the Kuiper Belt. This is a zone at the far edge of the solar system that contains rocks, ice, and Pluto. A few different orbits for Planet Nine have been proposed, but it's all conjecture at this point. As it is with many things in science...or anywhere else these days it seems...the assertion is contentious. The poring over the data will likely take a few more years before anything definitive is yielded and even that might be stretching it.

What does the discovery of a ninth planet mean? To Joe Sixpack, not much. But then for him, what does make a difference aside from anything immediately affecting his kids, car, job, and house? Then again, he's not the "target audience" here, is he? To me, a Planet Nine would mean there are still discoveries awaiting us in the darkness of space. Big ones. It's a reminder that we don't have everything figured out just yet and it's unlikely that we ever will. After all, how could we have gone all this time and not detected it? It's a good hubris check. Of course I'm sure there are certain circles crying "Nibiru!"

As for Cassini, the probe will meet its demise in September of 2017. After a close flyby of the moon Titan it will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn.

Feel free to sing 1990's "Blaze of Glory" at any moment. I know you know the words.

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Friday, March 11, 2016

How about "keeping evolution in schools"?

First, please familiarize yourself with this article from PBS NOVA:

Just as it says in the article's intro, I too was shocked it still goes on. I mean I know it's unpreventable in certain remote areas and certainly in private schools, but I didn't realize how much of a hold religion has on public classrooms. The article cites a 2007 survey (I know, not exactly fresh data) of biology teachers and evolution. It found:

-13% endorse creationism in the classroom.
-21% call creationism a valid alternative to evolution. 
-22.4% spend at least an hour of class time on creationism.

Religion is of course something everyone is entitled to. But it is not scientific. Evolution, on the other hand, is fundamental to our understanding of how not just humans but all life came to be on this world. From the article:

"So we can conclude that somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million students will be presented with a favorable view of creationism/ID this year in their high school biology classes alone.
That's a lot of students being misled about biology's central organizing concept."

Do not be too hasty however to blame teachers. Many may be feeling pressure to "present both sides" as Americans supporting evolution-only classes are in the minority. Nearly 60% support teaching creationism alongside evolution.

The Catholic college I teach at has its own approach. We thoroughly teach evolution and of course the view that it is God's means of creation. This is much different from "creationism" which states an invisible man twinkled his eyes and all life came about in less than a week and the allied psittacisms of Sunday schools. One has evidence. The other does not.

Teaching evolution is not a matter of science versus God. Evolution does not obviate God nor can I imagine an almighty enraged by our study of the fossil record or seeing it as "devil's work."   

Do we really wonder why many Americans lack a basic understanding of scientific principles? I'll give you a hint as to why.

It's not because of teachers.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Stop saying humans aren't causing climate change

While I feel the quality of writing at Wired has really spiraled downwards, I was enthusiastic about this article on climate change:

Then I saw it was a reprint from the Guardian and that made more sense. Wherever it's from, the information is sobering. For instance:

-Of the 15 hottest years on record, 13 of them happened between 2000 and 2014.

-Last year smashed all earlier temperature records. Droughts and wildfires have been a consequence.

-The UN World Meteorological Organization announced that global climate is now one degree Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. That's huge.

-There is only a 0.01% chance that this is due to natural variations.

Also from the article:

 “While considerably greater than cited in some media reports, the odds are low enough to suggest that recent observed runs of record temperatures are extremely unlikely to have occurred in the absence of human-caused global warming.”

In layman terms, the climate has gone catawampus and we're the ones who caused it. For sure.

Not that I imagine this will make any kind of difference. Many have known about this for a long time now and basically shouted at deaf ears. Others with true isonomy have known and been unable to do much as those who hold the strings see change as "costing too much." I don't deny progress has been made and that there are people who have changed their practices and behaviors to do something about this as well as steps being taken worldwide to at least prevent things from getting worse than they are.

In light of the data, though, the question becomes "will it be enough?"

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The end of the world

It is Spring Break for me and I've already watched two movies about the end of the world.

The first was really a re-watching. The Day After Tomorrow is a film directed by Roland Emmerich and based on the book, The Coming Global Superstorm by Whitley Strieber and Art Bell. It's about a massive storm that crosses the world in various forms. New York City gets hit with a hurricane and is then flash frozen as a new Ice Age hits. Dennis Quaid plays a climatologist who must trek across the newly frozen wastes of North America to get to his son in NYC.

The son is played by Jake Gyllenhaal from another one of my favorites, Donnie Darko. If the film must have a "plucky kid" character, then at least he's played by an actor with chops. Such character tropes are to be expected in a disaster film and nobody delivers one of those like Emmerich. As I'm sure has been said, the guy is the Irwin Allen of our time, committing to film many of the most memorable scenes of wholesale destruction. I mean, Independence Day is  a completely stupid film, but I can't help but be hooked by it each and every time. The arrival of the massive alien saucers, the nuclear-esque devastation, it's all great entertainment.

Expect the same from The Day After Tomorrow. High-budget special effects, disaster befalling humanity, and the White House in ruins (Emmerich has quite the penchant for that) and more traipse across the screen in great fun. I actually took notes for a novel I'm going to write which will in part be an eco-disaster. Of course my storm will be sentient.

Then there's Deep Impact. I had never seen this one before, giving it guilt by association I suppose with the utterly moronic Armageddon. Both were released around the same time, but my judgment was an unjust maligning it turns out. Deep Impact has a...well...depth to it that the Michael Bay monstrosity utterly lacks.

Deep Impact concerns a comet hurtling on a collision course towards Earth. Can it be stopped? If it can't, how do we save at least a small portion of humanity? The next logical question: who do we decide to save? That latter consideration reminded me of Dr. Strangelove. Indeed, that quote from the eponymous character is pretty much what they end up doing. The human "pick of the litter" goes into deep bunkers and "our deepest mine shafts" to ride out the holocaust. Whether or not hot, young, nubile women are selected for breeding as Strangelove suggested is left to conjecture. 

Neither of these films are bad. I mean, I've seen much worse. They manage to disappoint in the same way. Spoiler, but with each of these films, there's something of a last minute save for humanity. Oh it's not like we don't get our hair mussed (another Strangelove quote), but we are still standing.

I'd like to see the people of this planet get what's coming to them. Call me sick, but I'd like to see us reap the whirlwind from decades of abusing the environment and denying it's a problem. I'd like to see our complacency smacked by a comet or an asteroid. "That kinda thing only happens to dinosaurs. Not us." That's the sentiment anyway. Then turn on a sitcom and pretend it's not an issue because the alternative is just too tough to think about.

I suppose we could once more open the debate as to whether or not humanity is too stupid to survive.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Atlas v.2.0

As with any other technology, robotics is in a constant state of development.

Robots are upgraded and enhanced with new capabilities or more efficient systems as new designs and techniques arise. That's what's happening with Atlas.

I've blogged about the Atlas robot numerous times. It was always impressive. It's new iteration is downright fascinating. Boston Dynamics released a video:

Atlas just walks out the door like nothin'. It goes on an unassisted hike across rugged, snowy terrain. It lifts boxes and stacks them on warehouse shelves. That last bit might not seem impressive but consider that it is a robot completing this task.

Difficult to watch is the latter part of the video. Men, whom I can only assume are part of the Boston Dynamics team, knock one of the boxes away from Atlas using a hockey stick. Atlas must then improvise. Then they use the hockey stick to knock Atlas around and eventually send him to the floor. With very human-like mechanics, Atlas picks himself up off the floor.

I say "difficult to watch" because I actually felt bad for Atlas. Its movements, its extemporaneous "thinking," its basic form, it really does appear human. I felt like I was watching a small person get bullied and abused. I'll even confess a small amount of anger towards those committing the acts, even though they by no means deserve it. I know, I know, Atlas feels nothing. It is pure machine and cannot conceive of abuse or hurt.


I believe, however, my reaction is indicative of an unseen aspect of just how advance Atlas is. Its mimicked human qualities render the possibility of a relationship. We can relate to Atlas in many of the same ways we do to other people. Sure, I know there are those who can have similar associations with their cars or motorcycles or what have you. This, I argue, is different. Atlas is more accessible to us than those other machines. To me, anyway.

I suspect this unique relationship will come more to the fore as robots become more advanced and complex. 

You better hope they don't remember being knocked around like they were in that video,

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Captain America as few remember him

Sometimes science fiction can hurt.

I had the vaguest memories of a Captain America made-for-TV movie from the late 1970s. Amidst the data corruption of a stress-oppressed brain, I saw a Cap in a satiny outfit and wearing a motorcycle helmet. In his hands a flimsy shield that appeared made of Plexiglas please see above pic). Even as a kid I didn't enjoy the telefilm. It just didn't look or feel right for this was my Captain America...

So with no small amount of plausibility, I began to just operate on the premise that the made-for-TV movie never existed. Then Dorkland found a DVD set of not just the 1979 Captain America, but its sequel, Captain America II: Death Too Soon. This shattered any further attempts at denial.

Of course I had to have it too.

I've watched both films. It's a total of almost four hours I will never have back, but somehow in the grand total of the wreckage of my life, that doesn't seem so bad. As my dim memories bore out, the TV movie had only the basics in common with its comic book namesake.

Reb Brown plays Steve Rogers, a young artist who gets into a life-threatening accident. Lucky for him, his father was a government agent, earning young Rogers the opportunity to be injected with a chemical called the FLAG formula, standing for Full Latent Ability Gain. Apparently "Super Soldier Serum" was deemed too obscure or "high concept" for a TV audience. Anyway, this formula gives Steve enhanced strength and agility. The federal government gives him a translucent, red-striped shield and he becomes their Captain America.

Vastly different from the comic book origin.

But wait! He gets a motorcycle too. This motorbike has jet boosters, a stealth mode, and a deployable hang glider.

As I said, they made a sequel. Now writers and directors of lesser vision (and in fairness, more funds), might have had Captain America go up against the Red Skull, Baron Zemo, or Armin Zola, but not these guys. They got the Christopher Lee to show up and play a deadly terrorist known only as "Miguel" (probably a play on Carlos the Jackal). Even Christopher Lee isn't enough to save the TV movie, though. It's only slightly better than its godawful predecessor.

Besides the bad acting and the dorky (even if enjoyable in a cheesy way) action, there's something else that I find irksome about the telefilms. This is probably due to the low budget allotted to them, but it seems that those in charge had no real interest in embracing Captain America's rich florilegium and his own menagerie of friends and villains. Instead, they decided to almost entirely pattern the shows after another TV success.

It was basically the Six Million Dollar Man in red, white, and blue satin. And a motorcycle.

Let's look at the parallels.

-Both characters are humans enhanced to superhuman levels through science. Steve Austin becomes the Bionic Man through cybernetics (transhumanism!). Steve Rogers becomes Captain America through biotech.

-Both become agents of the government with their own intelligence agency "handlers." Austin had Oscar Goldman and Cap had Simon Mills...who was nowhere near as cool as Oscar Goldman.

-Each had their own special sound effect to let the audience know when they were performing an act of super strength.

- Both are named Steve. Well, they are.

Both basically had the same action-centric plots. Granted, Captain America didn't have any of the cool things that Six Million Dollar Man had, such as a Bionic Bigfoot, a deadly Venus Probe, or a John Saxon robot. Maybe they would have had the Cap TV movies turned into a protracted series. But there was already a Bionic Man so why eschew the comic book heritage of the original Captain America for something that already existed? I know. Lack of budget and grabbing on to an already working business model.

Best way to produce the insipid.

There's also a fair amount of Evel Knievel going on with this Cap. The modified costume, the motorcycle, the van, the stunts. It was all big at the time...or was just about to pass its peak and this TV movie got there too late.

All that being said, these TV movies are not without there own kind of charm. There are the perfect brain drain after a godawful day.

And $5 is not too bad a price to pay for two DVD's of it.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Transhumanism "on the verge of creating a new lifeform"

Even Rolling Stone is getting in on the transhumanist act.

Jeff Godell wrote a long read on the subject of artificial intelligence for the magazine. And I do mean long (which is by no means a bad thing if you're a reader.) What's more, it's only part one. While titled "Inside the Artificial Intelligence Revolution," it is the subheading that caught my attention: "We may be on the verge of creating a new life form..."

Much of this part of the piece reads like a primer. It underscores how artificial intelligence isn't really an obscure, futuristic concept anymore. It's everywhere. It's in your smartphone, in cars (whether traditional or especially self-driving), in the Roomba vacuum cleaner, and it's growing only more prominent on Facebook. What's really making the difference, making the next quantum leap possible, is machine learning.

This comes about via algorithms that mimic the human mind's ability to learn. Through these algorithms we have developed IBM's Watson, famous for winning on Jeopardy, and Google's Deep Mind. That latter device taught itself to play the game Space Invaders and now plays it far better than any human. Doesn't sound like an impressive feat to you? Not on the surface, maybe. Video game skill doesn't exactly advance the human race.

Consider this, however. Deep Mind did not know the rules to Space Invaders. It taught itself through playing the game. Due to its advanced algorithms, Deep Mind found a way to utterly master it in a matter of hours. "It's like watching a fish evolve into a human in a matter of hours."

Research is underway to house the same machine learning patterns inside robots. Through this, worker robots are learning simple tasks such as tying knots and folding towels. Obviously there is a very long way to go before robots are doing anything truly sophisticated in terms of thought but Godell does justifiably ask us to take pause and consider this: a robot is learning to fold a towel.

It's not what these devices are doing presently that matters. Ultimately, it is the fact that they are demonstrating they can learn. As trends continue, we may reasonably expect a time when, as Kurzweil calls it, the Singularity arrives. This is when the thinking abilities of artificial intelligence exceeds that of human capacity (glad to see Kurzweil at least mentioned in the article, by the way.) Couple that with something like Atlas and just watch the fireworks.

Of course that's what people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are concerned about. If AI is to truly become this advanced, we had better do it through strict guidelines with our own safety. Valid concerns for sure, but I find this other cautionary statement more likely and...sadly...more in keeping with human nature:

"As Marcelo Rinesi, the chief technology officer at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, has put it, "The future isn't a robot boot stamping on a human face forever. It's a world where everything you see has a little telemarketer inside them, one that knows everything about you and never, ever stops selling things to you."

Yep. Ads. Nonstop. Always coming at you. I had a bit like that in my short story, "Nothing Left but the Cockroaches." Comment or email if you want a free (Free!) copy.

Like I said, this article was something a primer for the uninitiated, but it is well-written nonetheless. I am awaiting the next part where I believe (hopefully) the really interesting questions will be considered. As the article says, this is a technological revolution unlike any other. It will change things more than the wheel and the steam engine combined. We are, as it says, on the verge of creating a new life form. We are creating things that think. What happens when we combine that with cybernetics? What are the ethical considerations of having, really, other beings in our charge? Those are the questions that truly challenge my mind, even more so than "can we even do it?" I know that sounds like odd, reverse logic, but I tend to think in future terms.

I am hoping that Godell gets to those questions in part two. Please oh please do.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

UFO Disclosure: an essay

I am once more responding to a prompt from a friend in the Facebook group, UFO Updates.

He asked what we thought about Disclosure. I spelled that with a capital "D," yes. It is meant to arguably signify the moment when or the act of our government publicly admitting that UFOs are real and that the Earth is in contact with, at least on one level or another, one or more intelligent extraterrestrial species.

And The Powers That Be have been covering it up for a while now.

Thoughts on this vary widely. I've heard assertions that President Obama was going to be "the Disclosure President" who tells all and who knows, maybe he still will. He's got a little under a year left. Others say there will one day be a sighting so big that the UFO cover-up will no long be possible and Disclosure will happen by necessity. Others say it will never happen, that it's a paradigm simply too big to shift. Others still say that Disclosure will never come to pass because there is in fact nothing to disclose, meaning there was never any cover-up in the first place (the "ultimate skeptic" position).

When Danny (my friend) asked the question in UFO Updates, I felt close to it by way of Dulce. For the past year and a half I have been researching and conducting interviews for a book on the story of a secret complex sits inside Archuleta Mesa in Dulce, New Mexico. This complex is claimed to be run jointly by shadowy offices of our government...and aliens. Hideous experiments are said to be carried out on live humans in this base. At one point, operatives of U.S. special forces supposedly undertook an operation to retake the base and put an end to the experiments. This resulted in a brutal firefight with the aliens.

If you're expecting a "space people true believer" book from me on Dulce, don't hold your breath. There's not much there but I do find fascinating the different machinations that by either accident or design brought about the legend of "Dulce." Part of this is the fact that our government does indeed have secret installations such as Area 51 and Raven Rock. Not to be outdone, Australia has the Pine Gap complex, jointly run between the U.S. and Australian governments. They may not be secret in the hidden sense. Many of us know where the bases are and can drive you to their peripheries. What exactly goes on inside these locations is known only to a select few. Secrecy breeds speculation and speculation can grow more distorted with time.

Of course governments have secret locations. Governments also cover things up for good reasons and not-so-good reasons. Many might think that cover-ups are recent inventions of the post-Watergate era. Naturally, that isn't so. If want to talk about early accusations of "the government is covering up something fantastic," look to the Kincaid Expedition. In short, this conspiracy theory states that artifacts from a lost Egyptian colony (and maybe lizard people) were found inside the Grand Canyon. The Smithsonian, so the story goes, covered the whole thing up. I do not speak to the veracity of this tale (or lack thereof), rather I bring it up as a pre-Roswell example of "they know, they don't want us to know, and they're covering it up" story.

As one delves into the nature of secrecy and black projects, it's not at all difficult to see why so many believe the government is sitting on an undisclosed truth about UFOs. This is especially true when the secrecy of places like Area 51 and Pine Gap is due to the fact that experimental aircraft are being tested. I have devoured so much material on the subject of a UFO cover-up and at one point long ago, I believed almost all of it. Meaning: "The government knows we are being visited by aliens. They don't want us to know because we'd die of shock or panic. They don't want us to know because all our modern technology is the result of the reverse engineering of recovered alien craft (and just how else do you think we got the microwave?) More insidiously, they don't want us to know because they've brokered a deal with the aliens: human experiment subjects in exchange for high technology. That's why Disclosure is unlikely to happen."

Want an even more "out there" view on Disclosure? I came across one while reading Cryptoterrestrials by Mac Tonnies. On page 69, he cites Whitley Strieber. "If UFOs are attempting to breach our universe, our ingrained sense of disbelief might be preventing them in an arcane sense. Strieber has argued that official denial of the phenomenon is designed to thwart a potential invasion of nonhuman intelligence, in which case it seems an enduring stalemate has been reached."

So...the less we believe in these entities, the less power we give them? I'm sure there's a Santa Claus joke in there somewhere but it remains a fascinating concept.

Whether any of the above is truly the case I cannot say, but I know that it doesn't interest me that much anymore. Don't get me wrong. I would be thrilled beyond belief if something definitive could be issued where we would know once and for all that aliens from other planets are here. That would be utterly amazing. Maybe a bit scary too, but amazing nonetheless. You see, however, I've been meditating on another possibility. I'm not trying to be a rabble-rouser and I by no means assert that this is the correct theory, but I am captivated by the notion. It is a concept at once intriguing and more unsettling to me.

What if Disclosure never happens because there is nothing to disclose?

Meaning, government officials are as perplexed about what's happening as anyone else and have nothing new to add. They know that there is a phenomenon...a "visitation"...occurring, but who is doing it and why they are doing it is a complete mystery. What's more, even if The Powers That Be did know what these things are, they are powerless to do anything about it. There can be very little Disclosure if there is no real information to give.

So ask yourself what would sound worse: a government admitting that it has been lying due to shadowy, clandestine deals with aliens or lying because they did not want to look both inept and impotent, unable to protect us from these things even if they tried?

Disquieting? Sure. Foreboding? Oh you bet. Yet the idea of high-up government officials shrugging their shoulders and saying, "UFOs? Yeah, I gotta be honest. We don't know what the hell they are," somehow gives me a perverse joy. Even with gazillions of tax dollars and scientific resources, the answers elude even them.

That's just it. What if...just what if...the big secret is "nobody knows anything"?

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