Thursday, April 28, 2016

In memorium: Prince

Once again we've lost a music legend and I just don't know where to start.

A week has gone by and I still don't know how to adequately write about what Prince meant to me. Guess I'll just take it from the beginning.

It was somewhere towards the end of middle school. My eventual Prince fandom was something of a nuclear event. His hits just kept piling up until they reached critical mass with me and it all blew up. I had been on his periphery for a while as R&B wasn't quite my thing, but I started to see that the guy could also rock. I mean just shred the guitar. I think that's what ultimately hooked me in and got me to buy his music. Purple Rain was actually the fourth record I ever bought and I did so based on the title track. Only after listening to it at home did I realize just how much of a disservice the radio edit was and I found myself screaming at DJs "No! You need to play the whole thing! All seven minutes! The entire guitar wail!"

In retrospect I suppose it was a natural fit. After all, my love for Duran Duran was already in full swing. How could I not follow an artist who combined guitar with synthesizer and embraced gender fluidity with long coats, frilly shirts, and heels? It just fit. Pretty soon, I was scrawling "Prince and the Revolution" (in the same stylized font as the record cover, naturally) next to Duran symbols on folders and school desks.

I stopped following him for a while after "Kiss" was released. After all, I was going metal or at least that's what I wanted myself and the rest of the world to think. That didn't last long and found myself returning to my alternative (whatever that means) roots with Nine Inch Nails in the early 1990s. One day I was reading the liner notes to Pretty Hate Machine and saw that Trent Reznor mentioned Prince as an inspiration. Why would that be? I read around a little more and found that like Reznor, Prince did almost everything himself in the studio. The composing, the arranging, and the playing of damn near every instrument. This inspired me to return to the Prince catalog with fresh ears and eyes, to look past the butt-less chaps, the controversy, and the hypersexual content and to really listen to the music. I began to discover how truly intricate it was and how it mashed up nearly every style there is. As someone who loves slamming seemingly disparate genres together, I began to appreciate the artist on a whole new level.

Then in 2004 I was fortunate enough to see him live. It remains as one of the greatest concerts I've ever seen. The consummate musicianship, the showmanship you just couldn't take your eyes off of, the little surprises like his version of "Nothing Compares 2 U," you just couldn't ask for more. But he gave it anyway. He stretched that night from his R&B funk off of Musicology to rocking out with "U Got the Look" and then crooning an equally powerful acoustic version of "Little Red Corvette."

I'll put it this way. When the second song in your set can be "Let's Go Crazy" and then not have a low moment after that, you know you're the dope. This man who was notoriously short and thin in physical stature held an arena full of people completely in the palm of his hand by his pure presence alone.

Then exited the stage in an equipment crate.

What did Prince mean to me? After mulling that over for the past few days, I'm continually noticing the parallels he held with Bowie. Like David Bowie, Prince was not only immeasurably talented and gifted with an artistic sensibility that places him well within the realm of genius, he was also genuinely fearless. He was going to do what he was going to do and he didn't seem to care what people thought of it. Eff your gender standards of what a man should be. Prince was going to embody the sexual personas of both genders at once and if your redneck mentality couldn't handle that, that was your problem.

"I'm not a woman
I'm not a man
I'm something you'll never understand"

As we find ourselves embroiled in ridiculous arguments over public washrooms and bigotry against people, Prince's artistic statements resonate stronger than ever.

In addition to amazing music, a spectacular concert, and his true if all that wasn't enough in and of itself...I think that's the main thing I will always remember about Prince. Fearlessness. I can only hope to be the same in my own creative endeavors. In fact, that might be the only way to get anything real and authentic done. Maybe that was part of his message to us.

I sure will miss him. I would have sprinkled YouTube clips of his songs throughout this post but...well, you know how it is.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

My time travel argument

It was around this time of year in 1989 when I got into a stupid fight about time travel.

Only I could do that, right?

It was in physics class. I brought up an argument that Stephen Hawking made right around then. Hawking said something to the effect of "Time travel is not possible. If it were, we would be talking to people from the future by now." My friend Brad said, "You're wrong on that point." Even though it wasn't really "my" point, I stupidly took umbrage with it. Brad said, "If someone told you they were from the future, would you believe them?"

What did I say? "Someone believed Marty McFly...and they even made a movie about it."

Like I said. Stupid. Especially now that I consider that Brad was rather more on target than Stephen Hawking. Would you believe them? Now admittedly, if the right hottie in a coffeeshop tells me she's a time traveler, I'll pretty much believe that...or anything else...she says. It does however beg a question. It would be tricky, but if the would-be time traveler were careful and savvy enough to avoid interactions that might negate his/her own future, why couldn't they be among us? In fact, keeping to themselves might not only be desirable but vital to the process.

Now that says nothing about how one might actually execute such travel. But even that is getting slightly less theoretical. Only slightly, but it's a start. If wormholes are possible, then all bets may be off. Besides, there's all manner of anachronisms that keep the evidence piling up, right?

See? Ancient Greece...and that's obviously a laptop. So, yeah case closed.

I kid, I kid. Seriously though, time travel might be a possible explanation for UFO activity or at least a portion of. That is Charles Penniston's rationale, for better or worse, for what he claims to have experienced in Rendlesham Forest. It would also explain why such incidents might be covered up as the government would not want us to know about time travelers than they would ETs.  

Time travel is not a subject I care for much, either in fiction or Fortean contemplation, other than the occasional one-off piece. The point of it all though?

Brad? If you're out there reading, know this: You can now brag about kicking Stephen Hawking's ass.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

More on Planet 9

I keep finding more articles that deal with the hypothetical "Planet 9."

This one is from PhysOrg. It recapitulates much of what I've said before in terms of how astronomers began to speculate its existence to begin with. These are factors that include the tug and pull on the movement of Kuiper Belt objects. There are, however, a few interesting new tidbits. Well, new and interesting to me, anyway.

One of the astronomers who is a proponent of Planet 9's existence is Mike Brown. He was actually one of the scientists who was instrumental in downgrading Pluto's status as a planet, in fact puckishly once declaring that "killing Pluto was fun." Now here he is buying into the idea that there is yet another planetary body out there. Nothing really wrong with that. It's just an interesting turn of events.

Another point that I failed to think of in my last post is why hasn't this planet been seen by our powerful telescopes? It should be big enough (ten times the size of Earth, about Neptune-size) and therefore bright enough to at least amount to a dot in the black. That's just it, though. First of all, we don't know exactly where to look. The evidence right now amounts to mathematics, the behaviors of other objects at the edge of the solar system. Without knowing where to look, it's hard to find the right bright spot...particularly in a universe that is full of them. Another factor could be that Planet 9 may be in an orbital plane that often brings it past something very bright, like the Milky Way in the background. It would be difficult to pick this spot out without an informed guess.

One last point I was glad to see was that astronomers are still trying to drive home the fact that Planet 9 is not going to kill us. There has long been this speculation, supposedly based on Sumerian myth, that another planet lurks out there and will one day eventually collide with us. Either that or it exerts another sort of occult force upon us...or something. Fun to think about, especially if the paranormal grabs you. But the truth is that if it exists, Planet 9 has been around for billions of years. It occupies an orbit far beyond that of Pluto and really has very little to do with us. It's not going to collide with us or even come towards us.

We don't even need to have that, though. This is just one indication of the many bizarre mysteries still awaiting us in the universe. I seemed to remember speculation about an object called "Santa" from sometime round ten years ago. What happened with that?

Maybe we'll know more about Planet 9 once Cassini data comes through.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, April 25, 2016

30 years since Chernobyl

Tomorrow will mark 30 years since the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

A piece in today's Chicago Tribune looks at what plans there are for the remaining husk of the reactor, but it was the gallery the paper ran yesterday (which I sadly cannot find a link to) that really got me. It was a showcase of the people who still live with disease.

That's right. Disease, birth defects, and other ailments directly attributed to massive amounts of radiation released in the disaster still plague Ukrainians 30 years on. As Nadiya Makyrevych, a Pripyat resident at the time of the reactor explosion, says in the article:

" "By the time we were evacuated, we had been exposed for 36 hours," Makyrevych said in an interview in Kiev last week, her speech interrupted by a hacking cough. "My entire family has been affected by this. We are all sick. My daughter, my son, my husband and me." "

I remember it all on the news at the time. The Western nations clearly knew something was wrong but the then Soviet Union was typically taciturn, denying all offers of help. Denying, that is, until only after enormous damage had already been done. I will admit to an ugly first reaction to it, what with it being the Cold War and my fear that the Soviets would one day be the ones to launch a first strike. "Ha! Serves the commies right!" my 14 year-old self likely said or some such obscene variation on repulsive jingoism. Looking now at the human toll, both those dealing with disease and those firemen and engineers who gave their lives trying to stop the thing, I'm even more disgusted with myself no matter the ignorance of youth.

Over the years, Pripyat itself has become something of a macabre fascination. The town in what is now the Ukraine is an example of a place left "frozen in time." This is due to the fact that the evacuation required people to drop everything and just leave. The abandoned and decayed buildings still have instances of feeling "lived in." Among the more chilling examples of this that I have seen are children's toys left on a floor as if waiting for their owners to return and pick things up where they left off. Everything remains as it was due to the fact that the area had to be cordoned off for obvious reasons, demarcating the region as an "exclusion zone," or alternatively a "zone of alienation."

I think I like that latter term better. Listen to it: "Zone of Alienation." It sounds like something Camus or Sartre would have thought of. Better yet, it could be the title of book or short story, likely written in the style of William S. Burroughs. Don't leave this creative endeavor to me. I'll probably go the vapid path and just use it as a band name. But I digress...

Despite the levels of radiation, nature has ultimately reclaimed the Pripyat. Trees and shrubs are sprouting and growing through roads and buildings. The Trib link has a whole gallery of mammalian life such as deer and boars that have not only survived there but thrived. Biologists are still crunching the data, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if there might actually be new forms of life there on the microbial level. Maybe not. I don't know.

Soon, the temporary "sarcophagus" around the infamous ill-fated reactor will at last be sealed within walls resembling a massive hangar. Robots will then go inside and disassemble what's left of the reactor and dispose of the sludge-like waste that is filled with uranium. While the wreckage is removed, the scars remain. So will the lessons, I hope.

Chernobyl needs to be a lesson. It pertains directly to our infrastructure and how it is managed. It speaks volumes as to how both cities and nations should generate the power they need. More than ever we need to invest in power sources that are clean, renewable, and safe. Safe-r, anyway, as I do have the adult understanding that nothing is ever 100% safe.

If only it were.

A book I'll need to check out and I suggest you do the same: Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich. In that text she quotes a survivor:

"The nights are very long here in the winter, We'll sit, sometimes, and count: Who's died?"

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, April 22, 2016

I'm starting a cult! Want in?

Ah, religion.

Long ago in a section of California far away, Francis Ford Coppola was advising a young George Lucas after the latter's massive 1977 success. Coppola believed there was a gold mine in Star Wars yet to be tapped. No, not the merchandising. Lucas already had that locked up. It was the Force itself.

"Sure, movies make money," Coppola said. "But religion is power."

That's right. He thought Lucas should play up "the Force" as a legit religion. Probably would have worked too. George wasn't into it, but why not me? I could start a cult.

Stop laughing. It could work.

I'm thinking I'll start in the suburbs somewhere. Those are usually localities of conspicuous consumption and the residents are used to being marketed to. That materialism is also indicative of insecurity and a void in life so that's a "foot in the door"for my cult. At least that's what this article says. According to it, I also need to provide a stepladder of sorts for my converts. Opportunity for advancement. You start here now, but in a few years, you could help run the joint. Again, the very lingo and existence of the suburban middle management/sales force crowd.

There's obviously a good deal of conformity that has to go on as well. And self-justification. And magical thinking. Well, we're all about those things, aren't we? I listen to people all the time, performing all manner of verbal and mental gymnastics to justify why they are the way they are and why they do what they do. I do it myself. It really is amazing how human beings will, even after being confronted with sizable evidence, go through all manner of intellectual prestidigitation to keep from negating one or more of their cherished beliefs.

As it did for Jim Jones, as did for Rev. Moon, and frankly as it did for Jesus, so might it do for me. If all else fails, I'll distribute mushrooms and biota of strange, far off places.

This could catch on, folks.

So what would my cult believe in?

In light of the template above, I think the better question is: does it even matter?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On "political correctness"...

I helped a student with a paper last night.

He was writing about affirmative action and how he saw it as a failed and unethical policy. He wrote one sentence to the effect that such legislation "is against people like me." I asked him what he meant by that he said that such policies were only around to hurt white men "like him." I advised him to rewrite the sentence to read that the political policy is "unfair for everyone," thus mitigating the charged nature of his initial language and hopefully getting more people to listen to his argument with a fair and open mind.

It was in that moment that I'm certain someone would have accused me of engaging in "political correctness." That's the conservative phrase, isn't it? Used to dismiss a social concern or to cry out about the "liberalization" in higher education or the "censoring of thoughts?" Or more likely, the phrase employed when someone is bemoaning that they can no longer say something offensive with impunity. So-called "politically correct" terms came about simply as a manner of showing someone or a group of someones respect. It was an effort to help put an end to harassment, bullying, racism, and misogyny. It's just about treating people better.

As I worked with that paper, however, I began to wonder if conservative pundits, for all their loudmouth bluster and whining about being termed "haters," might have something of a point. Many policies, however well-intentioned, can end up having unforeseen consequences. Could one of these unintended consequences for "PC" be that it shuts down conversation? Here's what I mean.

The student I was working with was objecting to affirmative action on the grounds of it being an unfair and failed policy. He supported his case with data that claimed to demonstrate that the policy isn't even really helping the people it's intended to. I don't really agree with him, but that's not the point. What matters is that I could envision situations wherein this student would be immediately shut down even for suggesting this. He might even be called racist, even though there was no textual evidence on which to base that claim. Is it reduced to such a binary state that if you are against affirmative action you must therefore be racist?

I then began to wonder what other issues foster the same response. For example, I might instinctively be revolted if someone tells me they are against same sex marriage. "They must be homophobic," I'd think, even though as Ricky Gervais says, there's no phobia involved there. They're just being assholes. Do I know that's the case though if I haven't heard them out? Perhaps they have concerns beyond the biblical. I won't know unless discussion is engaged. All this then caused me to recall a fracas on my campus when a professor read slave narratives in their original language and inflection and was called racist for doing it.

How are we to move forward if we cannot have an honest look at the past nor have open discussion about where we're headed?

It should go without saying that use of any language that is racist, misogynistic, or certainly belligerent towards someone or a group of someones, that should be shut down. Immediately. Period. There is no longer a place for it in society and it must be eradicated. Cry free speech all that you want. That simply means that the government will not prosecute you, not that the rest of us won't ostracize you, isolate you, and fiscally starve you.

On the other hand, the discussion of concepts and policies as a part of the "free marketplace of ideas" is critical. I said yesterday that philosophy is still a much needed discipline as the concepts of justice and morality are always central to discussion. In much the same way, open and respectful discussion about the issues of our time and our future is essential. What do I mean by "future?" Well what about hate crimes against cyborgs for one. No I'm not kidding. Read the link.

In other words we do need to treat each other better and we do need to end hate speech. But in our passion to protect, we must not squelch debate.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

"Hey philosophers! I got your Large Hadron right here!" -Hawking

Geez, it's been tough times for philosophers lately.

It wasn't so long ago that failed presidential candidate Marco Rubio once ridiculed the academic discipline as unworthy for the noble hoi polloi, favoring the occupation of welding instead. Then astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson jumped in on the act, saying something to the effect that philosophy is useless when science has it all figured out and besides we don't need philosophy when we're trying to blow up the asteroids that threaten us. As the son of one PhD philosopher and the brother of another, that kind of talk had me concerned for more than a few reasons.

Now Stephen Hawking has weighed in on the matter. At the Google Zeitgeist Conference, he declared that "philosophy is dead." "Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics," he said. He posited that data derived from efforts such as the Large Hadron Collider could answer questions such as "why are we here?" and "where did we come from?" Let's break that down for a bit.

There are indeed amazing things going on at the LHC, things that promise to utterly revolutionize our understanding of physics. The LHC began its second phase of operations with an energy almost double of the first run. This TED Talk suggests that findings from LHC operations could locate signs of new particles or micro black holes and maybe even ultimately answer the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?" If you really want to get speculative, might we even find evidence of other dimensions?

This means a great deal for physics and our understanding of the universe. Yet I think that the new findings could use a bit of philosophy. Tyson and Hawking are obviously bright people in their own right, but I believe that their understanding of the discipline is woefully narrow. Yes, "why are we here?" is something of a philosophical question that could and probably will be eventually answered by LHC-type discoveries. Maybe. At the same time, that answer does nothing for the other layer of the "why" question and that has to do with purpose. Do we have a purpose? What is it? Is it up to the individual? Or do we take a neutral, scientific stance and say "you simply are."

More to the point, philosophy is crucial in terms of what to do with new discoveries. Much more than the questions mentioned by Hawking and Tyson, philosophy is concerned with the nature of right and wrong. What is and is not ethical. Those are questions that are not so easily answered and science divorced from this kind of thinking could lead to terrible things. Just because we can do something doesn't mean that we should. Anyone who doesn't get that needs to reread Frankenstein.

I am reminded of Robert Oppenheimer speaking about the development of the atomic bomb. "When you see something that is technically sweet," he said. "You go ahead and do it and argue about what to do with it only after you've had your success. That's the way it was with the atomic bomb." This coming from a man who as he witnessed the test of his creation quoted Hindu scripture: "I have become death. The destroyer of worlds." One can argue the finer historical and political points of the bomb's development, but the fact remains: Oppenheimer was haunted by what he'd done and the world has lived in terror of it ever since.

Just because we can, doesn't mean we should.

That's why we have philosophers. Those are the types of big questions that our world so desperately needs answered. If they can be answered, but the attempt must at least be made. If we had more education in philosophy, maybe we wouldn't have as many of the problems that we have today.

I wonder if Hawking, Tyson, Rubio, et. al. know that?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, April 18, 2016

Ever want to live in a closed, sustainable building? No?

Self-sustaining habitats are staples of science fiction, even if their inner workings aren't much dwelt upon.

They're also a big challenge for architecture. This article from Wired certainly made me at least consider the notion in a new light. Such sealed clusters of buildings mean new approaches for what most of us take for granted. From the article:

"Mundane tasks like shaving, peeing, pooping, eating, and cleaning themselves [the inhabitants] became linked to the viability of the system."

Such architecture may be viewed as "performative devices." If you think that sounds artistic in nature, you're not alone. A whole gallery of these habitat prototypes went on display at Storefront for Art and Architecture. The impetus of these designs was of course to find ways that human beings could survive for extended periods of time...if not environs we're not suited for. Naturally this includes space, but I also thought about undersea settlements. I imagine there is nothing more serene than sitting and meditating beneath the dome of such a "city beneath the sea" and watching the peaceful and tranquil surroundings of the undersea world.

That is if I could get the worries out of my head. Was this thing adequately designed to withstand the enormous pressure of all that water? Jacques Cousteau thought it could be. He designed oceanic research stations that would sit 300 meters beneath the surface. Those designs are part of the exhibit.

One interesting point I learned from this article was how investigation into closed living systems eventually evolved from asking how people could live in hostile environments to just trying to find sustainable ways to live in our everyday ones. It spoke of how a man named Graham Caine designed a house in the 1970s that had solar panels and used "his own natural biological systems" to produce food and energy. The downside was that he almost never left the house. His body was needed to constantly maintain the domicile. In a way, this is reminiscent of the constraints found in the Biosphere project (parodied in the godawful movie Biodome). The actual design of the building you inhabit begins to regulate you and I don't know anybody who would be down for that.

Such practical and pecuniary issues have led to a limited number of such habitats actually coming into existence. But as it often is with such things, it's not the end product so much as the ideas that come from them that help us out. The designs demanded someone think about sustainability. How many acres of farmable land does it take to support a population of people? How can you efficiently and effectively recycle waste? What are the different ways you can scrub carbon? Could we reuse or upcycle things we already have in abundance, something like containers? Those are good questions to ask as we face an uncertain future and especially as we observe Earth Week.

That and I guess we need to ask "how do we defend it from a terrorist attack?"

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, April 14, 2016


I am wondering about the concept of "traveling for work."

I am in Atlanta for an academic conference on core texts, presenting a paper on incorporating social media in student composition. Here is what my day has been like thus far:

-Drive two hours to the airport, find a place to park.
-Wait for bus to take me into the actual airport.
-Ride shuttle bus.
-Wait to get on plane.
-Get on plane, sit in cramped middle seat , smell strange smells.
-Fly to Atlanta.
-Wait for train.
-Take train to hotel. Listen to vagrant preach about Jesus nonstop.

Now I'm in a hotel/business center that is far away from...well, anything. Nothing in walking distance, anyway. It's ask for a shuttle bus or pay up to a cab. So I'm sitting in the hotel room, flipping channels, waiting for the inevitable club sandwich in my future.

I can understand how people who continuously do this for work can eventually feel...detached.

"If you woke up somewhere else, could you be someone else?"

My "view."

Damn! Duran Duran are playing here in Atlanta tomorrow night! And I just can't get a ticket or get away to the show even if I could. A paranormal occurrence for sure.

Just went down to the book tables. Rather anemic. No science fiction, either. Not that I expected any.

I read an interview with David Mamet about writing. He says there's tension in most any everyday situation. Who wants what and what happens when they don't get it? After today, I'm sold on that concept. I really need to notice more.

There are all these trees around here. Wasn't expecting that from a large city. Not used to it. It's actually sorta woodsy.

Academics are certainly a contentious and pretentious bunch. I so despise meatspace social climbing and "networking."

But I have to do it.

Maybe I'll post more tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Cauliflower of Mars

Exobiologists are excitedly revisiting a 2008 photograph from the Spirit rover.

The photo shows a strange, "cauliflower-like" formation of silica in the soil of Mars. I suppose that's better than saying it looks "warty." Anyway, the silica formations strongly resemble patterns created by microbes around geysers on Earth. While everything is still needs to be examined and vetted, it may prove to be yet more evidence for microscopic life on Mars.

Maybe not especially exciting in the sci-fi sense, but it would be life in space. As in the article:

"If the logic holds, the silica cauliflower could go down in history as arguably the biggest discovery ever in astronomy. But biology is hard to prove, especially from millions of miles away, and Ruff and Farmer [of Arizona State University] aren’t claiming victory yet. All they’re saying is that maybe these enigmatic growths are mineral greetings from ancient aliens, and someone should investigate."

And there are at least a few places right here that can approximate conditions on Mars. Mostly deserts, these regions are exceedingly dry and at high elevations, making the soil susceptible to scorching levels of UV radiation similar to that of Mars. Many forms of animal life aren't adept for survival in such conditions. Microbes, on the other hand, can thrive. It stands to reason that there is at least the chance that alien life once existed on Mars in microscopic form, especially when it was wetter.

One point of the article resonated personally with me and that was the reference to Yellowstone National Park. I have seen there firsthand in the geysers and near the prismatic pools (geez, I can still smell the sulfur as I write this) the very formations referenced. Tiny things can and do live in such high temperatures and amid chemical compositions that humans would find either intolerable or downright poisonous (see "extremophiles"). All the more intriguing to me then is the fact that areas of Yellowstone might serve as analogs for conditions on early Mars. If only I had known at the time, then I might have been more interested in what I was seeing.

Scientists are of course cautioning that these kinds of structures found in soil are not always biological in origin. Many will recall that back in the mid-1990s, a meteorite fragment from Mars was thought to display signs of fossilized microbial life. It was later demonstrated that such "bacteria-shaped structures" could have formed with no life present. That's just the cold water of reality in the groin.

So I hope something gets determined soon. I know it's so difficult to do that without the possibility of direct observation, but still. Once can grow fatigued by the constant vacillation between "we've got something" and "you know, it really isn't conclusive." It's enough that I sometimes can see the cynical view that Earth is the only location in the universe with any kind of life. Why? Well, it was pretty much a fluke. I don't agree with that, no, but it's easy for me to see why someone might come to that supposition as we are still absent evidence.

In other news, a flower blooms in space.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Six tiny robots pull a car

We get almost daily reminders of just how far robotics is advancing.

Last month, there was a story about a team of six tiny robots that were able to move a 2-ton car. As an avid consumer of fiction, I've seen any number of depictions of robots lifting cars and tossing them. I have also seen similar portrayals of what robot swarms might theoretically do. But this is the real deal. What's additionally fascinating to me is that not only are these robots tiny, they aren't exactly acting in a "swarm" either. There are only six of them, but their strength is drawn from a few nifty facets of bio-mimicry.

The team at Stanford University that designed these robots were initially inspired by the sticky feet of geckos. A synthetic replication of this adhesive gives the bots considerable tugging and towing power through a force process similar to friction. To wit:

"...each robot can apply 14 lbs. (62 Newtons) of shear force when operating at peak. By contrast, a rubber friction base would provide 500 times less force."

There is also the advantage of a team of them working together. Just as is seen in nature with ants and other insects, nature designs tiny things to cooperate and lift objects many times their size. The same principle applies here, although the actual design didn't come about overnight. The development group experimented with fast-moving robots. As it turned out, this speed meant a sacrifice of teamwork. Slowing down the devices allowed for synchronous movement, teamwork, and thereby a full tugging capacity.

As one ossified by the pragmatic might ask, what are the real-life applications of these things? They don't fly like drones and they don't tell jokes. No, but they can tug, crawl, and likely get into hard to reach places. That would make them ideal for rescue work in the aftermath of a disaster. If you are ever to have the misfortune of finding yourself beneath the rubble of such an event, you might one day be quite thankful to see these little robots.

If you're unimpressed by that, there's always the RoboRoach.

Monday, April 11, 2016

"Never Trump." But why?

It was, by all accounts, an unusual week for "The Donald."

Political pundits and news media in general noticed that Donald Trump has been lying low in the past week. If it weren't for his typically ubiquitous presence on news programs, it might almost be understandable. Trump's campaign suffered a PR black eye when his former campaign manager was charged with simple battery and then a second roundhouse blow hit his camp when Ted Cruz won a major victory in the Wisconsin primary, acquiring much needed political capital, indeed enough for many to speculate that Cruz could at least gain enough delegates to deny Trump a majority in the GOP convention. This would lead to a brokered convention, the kind involving wheeling and dealing in fuliginous backrooms rather than the foregone conclusion that most party conventions have been in the past.

But Trump has been the presumptive nominee for quite a time now. What happened? Well, at least part of this is due to a massive "Never Trump" campaign. This has played out on conservative talk radio as hosts have lambasted Trump, charging that he is not a true conservative. David Brooks at The New York Times has been an open critic of Trump almost since The Donald announced his candidacy nigh on one year ago. Brooks wrote a piece just recently wherein he argues for a "Lincoln Caucus" at the GOP convention. Such a caucus would "would not be an explicitly anti-Trump caucus or an anti-Cruz caucus. It would just be a caucus made up of delegates who are not happy with the choices currently before them." In other words, bring the party back closer to center and more in line with the conservatism espoused by Abraham Lincoln, in Brooks' thinking, anyway.

Regardless, I must ask why. Why is there a surge in "Never Trump?" Why is the Republican Party so against him? A quick look at his campaign platform shows him pretty much in line with past Republican thinking. He wants a wall built along our southern border and to force Mexico to pay for it. He wants to deport illegal immigrants and he wants to repeal ACA while ensuring Americans have the right to keep and bear arms. He wants better care for our veterans and he wants to destroy ISIS. Granted that leaves a great many other critical facets of governmental policy un-examined, such as education, but I can't help but think that if I were a conservative, the Trump platform would be the equivalent of a double scoop chocolate sundae with whip cream and sprinkles. Gimme a spoon.

And yet it isn't. If it were, there would be no effective Never Trump campaign. What could it be? To begin to determine an answer, maybe we should first examine why Trump had any support in the first place. When I've asked people this question, I've had many different responses, ranging from support of his business acumen to his charisma (such as it is, but there is no accounting for taste), but there is one answer more frequent than all the others: "He's just saying what's on everybody's mind."

Donald Trump has made many statements that could be construed as either racist, sexist, or both. This has led to the perception that your average Trump supporter is the personification of a stereotypical "redneck" with a mullet, a trucker ballcap, and three teeth in his mouth. Therefore, not representative of the Republican electorate as a whole. The data shows that this perception is not true. In six state polls, Trump was the most popular candidate among college-educated voters. It may then be possible that these Trump supporters might not like their chosen candidate's seeming inability to conduct civil discourse, but they are willing to overlook it in order to support his proposed policies. At the same time, other Republicans closer to the Never Trump camp might be opposed to him because of that very same grandstanding bluster.

There is yet another possibility.

I have taught the book Frankenstein enough to at least get an idea of what someone looks like when they recognize that the results of their ill-considered labors have just blown up in their face. It could be argued that in their own way, the Republicans have exploited an undercurrent of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia in the electorate much in the same way they started courting evangelical Christians in earnest back in 2000. If Trump is indeed "just saying what's on everybody's mind," then could it be inferred that he is merely bringing these unsavory aspects of the Republican base into the light? If so, then party leadership is understandably vexed and more than a little panicked at the sight.

This has been building, burgeoning for years. This monster has a dark and ugly underbelly. They have subtly, covertly ridden on its back for years now but someone has just come along and knocked the thing over on its side, exposing it to the sun for all to see. It then returns to its feet and runs about, completely out of control. Now the GOP villagers have the pitchforks and torches out, attempting to corral the culmination of their monstrous creation in the proverbial windmill.

Yes, I know that part isn't in the book version of Frankenstein but I'm making a metaphor here.

Is that it? I suppose I could outright make the accusation and then safely mitigate it all by adding one of Trump's "I don't know!" 's at the end.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Shock and panic in India: strange beings on the loose

If you're looking for somewhere with both UFO activity and sightings of strange beings, you could do worse than India.

Residents in the village of Boliyar are reporting encounters with a small, child-sized being with a human face that has been seen running on all fours. One of the first encounters is said to have involved a woman walking alone at night, sensing there was something following behind her. It was the child-sized creature, who then chased her back to her home all while screaming in an "unknown language" before running into a dense, nearby forest. Something of a panic has risen up in the wake of these sightings. Police are investigating and the locals have taken to patrolling the woods.

There are those of course who have taken to calling the being "alien." I suspect this is due in part to such a thing being a blanket explanation for strangeness these days, but also because India has become something of a UFO hot spot. While the report about the human-faced thing is already a few months old by now, I just today saw an article about the Indian Air Force being called upon to confront a UFO over an airport. This, apparently, is not the first time this has happened in India in recent times, either. Yet another case from last October has sparked even more speculation of connection between UFOs and the strange being sightings.

In that aforementioned case, witnesses in the small village of Kanagal claimed to have watched a red UFO land and humanoid figures emerge from the craft. The humanoids, dressed in what looked like orange uniforms, appeared to take photographs of the witnesses before returning to the craft and rising back into the sky "in showers of sparks and flashes."

Two interesting points about that latter case. One, most UFO reports involve silent craft that move in an elegant fashion and with no discharge of flame. Second, it is said that the witnesses interviewed in this village are wholly unaware of the concept of aliens, let alone versed in television images of them. Make of that what you will.

I intend to keep watching India. It seems poised to be the new Latin America in terms of bizarre new UFO phenomena and accompanying creatures, similar to what we saw with "flying humanoids" in Mexico early last decade. Obviously evidence in these cases is currently lacking. The fact that most of the sightings in the first case have taken place at night in an isolated area invites great likelihood of it being a case of distorted perception followed by human "groupthink." "I saw a strange alien being!" "Yeah? So did I!"

Nevertheless, I of course enjoy these types of stories. I don't take them all that seriously, but I truly get enjoyment out them just the same. While "Greys" seem to get all the attention, I like reading about the truly bizarre, offbeat beings that people have supposedly encountered. I am amazed by the wide variety of cases. This sheer diversity has made me further wonder about what Keel and Vallee postulated. Is there a broad "superspectrum" of these living entities, perhaps bleeding into our dimension from others? Do they change their shape in order to respond to our thoughts and perceptions or do our thoughts create them outright as ersatz half-human, half-creature gods from our most distant memories? This whole thing is probably a lot weirder than aliens.

As for the beings in India, I'm going to wait for more evidence. Who knows? Maybe Bollywood could churn us out there own fakey, trashy alien autopsy video.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Scandal! I like the old Battlestar Galactica better.

I am certain science fiction fans everywhere are ready to smack me around after that headline.

Let me make my case.

On YouTube, I came across a trailer for something called Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming. You can see it here:

From what I've been able to dig up, it was sort of a proof-of-concept video put together by Richard Hatch, Apollo from the 1978 series. The idea was that Second Coming would pick up pretty much where the series left off, mercifully denying any existence of Galactica: 1980. Anyway, the Battlestar Galactica is still leading a "ragtag, fugitive fleet" that is the remainder of humanity after the Cylons have destroyed the 12 colonies. Commander Adama has died and his son Apollo has now taken over that role. Colonel Tigh is now President of the Quorum of Twelve. John Calicos returns to play the treasonous Baltar. Conspicuously absent is the other tonsorial-ly challenged Warrior, Starbuck. Instead, Hatch created a new character as Starbuck's daughter, who is also a crack Viper pilot. There's even Count Iblis, although not played by Patrick Macnee. Looks like there's another alien race in addition to the Cylons as humanity's enemy, but the trailer isn't clear.

This sounds like a Galactica novelization called Armageddon that was written by Hatch and Christopher Golden. The cover even has the Warriors in the same red flight jackets as in the trailer. Anyway, Hatch's intent was to bring Battlestar Galactica back to TV. But he had powerful competition. The reboot eventually shown on SciFi in 2002 was already in production and eventually won out.

I couldn't help but feel sad, wishing that Second Coming had come into full being.

The 2002 SciFi series obviously became a big hit. Compared to the original, the reboot was better written and better acted. The cheese factor was dialed way down. It contemplated real human issues. It was a far more realistic (as much as something like this can be) production than its predecessor. It should be something that I rave about.

But I don't.

I could never get into the reboot. I appreciated it for its quality, but I just couldn't devote myself to it consistently. Never could figure out why. After watching Second Coming, I realize that subconsciously I had the answer to that question all along.

BSG is something I watch to get away from my problems, not meditate upon them. If I want to see people stab each other in the back and lose out to their baser instincts, I can just walk out the door any day or turn on the news. Because of this, I never once found myself caring about any of the reboot characters. The original Galactica wasn't that way for me. Despite being two-dimensional, the characters of the 1978 series faced their overwhelming odds with a sense of honor. They were heroes. Even though their home and much of their entire race had been wiped out, they somehow pressed on. They displayed an uncommon valor in doing so.

Is that kind of heroism cool? No. Is even realistic? No, but that's not what got this kid watching the original show, buying the toys to go with it, and reading the Marvel Comics series (which could be a blog post in its own right). Sometimes I don't want science fiction to show me an extrapolation of how things are. I want to see how they could be. I get enough realism during the day without having to add to it in my slim entertainment time. So make my Battlestar the one from 1978.

And I still want a Viper.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, April 4, 2016

Blame David Lynch for the robot apocalypse

David Lynch is creating art with robots.

Sort of. The legendary artist and filmmaker is involved with a project meant to enhance our understanding of human development. This is of course being undertaken with robots. No, seriously. The robots have an AI capacity imbued with curiosity. They want to learn about their surroundings and imitate what they see. David Lynch sculpted the faces for the bots. Here's how he anticipates someone's reaction to them:

"I think they will sense a personality coming from them. They'll want to be, you know, friends with the robots," Lynch says. "They're curious little beings."

Indeed they are. Weaving about what looks like sizable drops of red and orange paint sprouting...I don't know, hot dogs on springs. And for anyone who has seen David Lynch's Unstaged concert for Duran Duran, the hot dog reference makes perfect sense. As shown in the pic above, there are also little green balls rolling about the white cube environs. It is through this room that the devices with the sculpted faces operate.

"They're watching, they're thinking, they're trying to figure things out," Lynch says.

I'm sure there are those who find the faces creepy. They're somewhat skeletal or Scream-like ( I mean Munch, not the movie. Although that might have applications here too, it just isn't my artistic style.) There are also lights behind the faces. Red and green glow from within, giving them a rather ghostly appearance. Like many things David Lynch, you'll either find the work creatively genius or be entirely weirded out by it. While I have been unsettled or confounded by his work at times, I have never required anything to palliate it or render it other than what it is.

Oh and the robots are beginning to learn their own language and to interact with one another.

The more I think about this project, the more I like it. I mean if you're going to produce machines that may one day overtake the human race, why not do it with artistic style?

David Lynch presents The Terminator.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets