Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas music for the depressed

At last I get it.

I mean, cognitively I've always known it. Now, I've lived the experience.

The holidays are a very difficult time for many people. If you're in the midst of any kind of loss or if you're genuinely alone in the world, this is probably one of the worst times of the year to endure. In fact this season seems to magnify any pain one might already be bearing, thus causing further isolation. I think of how Colin Wilson wrote his first, and greatest, academic work, The Outsider, because he was alone in his room on Christmas Day.

(One quick but important aside: The notion that suicides increase during the holidays is a myth. Regardless, that doesn't mean you shouldn't keep an eye on the depressed, though.)

Difficult financial times also make the holidays an ordeal. This year has taught me that it only takes one good shove and all the dominoes start falling. Things continue to fail and fall into disrepair, because that's what things naturally do. When you don't have the funds to effect these repairs or replacements, they turn into what's known as "deferred maintenance"...a phrase I've become most understanding of for many reasons. One thing leads to another and you just begin to feel like you're continuously sliding down this muddy bank. After a while you're exhausted and you just sit in the muck at the bottom because further attempts look every bit as futile as the past ones. Hell is living in a constant state of fear. There are few greater fears than not knowing where you're going to end up.

All the while you're bombarded by happy, perky tunes and advertisements urging you to buy buy buy so that people know you love them. If you can't, then you've truly failed somewhere along the way.

It's easy to get resentful. "Yes, enjoy your petroleum-based society, you slack-jawed troglodytes. Drive to the malls and buy your useless shit products just as you're told. It's all coming crashing down sooner rather than later. A tax plan just got passed that's going to balloon the deficit, all to justify massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare. I give up. I'm just going to watch it all collapse."

That's reactionary, however. It neglects how truly fortunate I am. Since the decimation of February 3rd, I've been helped by so many. I don't sleep in my car. I'm not one of the millions of people in the world who try to survive on less than $10 a day. I'm worried about paying medical bills and what, if anything, insurance will cover next year, but I'm not struggling to pay for cancer treatments.

Oh and thank goodness there's always music.

I found this list on NPR. It's ten of the most depressing Christmas songs ever and it provides an odd sense of comfort knowing that there are at least a few other people who have been sad this time of year and put those thoughts to music. A few of the highlights from the list:

-"Ring the Bells for Jim" by Johnny Cash. Anything Cash did comes with a certain, brilliant heft. Spoiler alert: things don't end well for Jim.

-"7 O'clock News/Silent Night" by Simon and Garfunkel. As the article's author put it: "This is pretty much what it would sound like if Simon and Garfunkel were jamming "Silent Night" post-Christmas feast in your living room with a guitar, if your intense uncle insisted on keeping the TV blaring CNN in the background."

-"Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" by Tom Waits. The title says it all.

I'll add my own to the list. "Washington Square" by the very brilliant, Chris Isaak. Mournful, melodically melancholy, and although it's obviously about missing someone serving overseas, it can also be interpreted for your own situation if need be.

This next one isn't legit, but oh if only...

Then there's one of my favorites, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band Aid. It's been lambasted in recent years, even by its composer. Maybe it hasn't held up all that well, especially lyrically, but it's one of the first times musicians came together to record for a cause, in this case famine relief in Ethiopia. Plus, it has Duran Duran and U2 on the same record, so how could I not love it? Just listen to Bono belt out that line, "Tonight thank God it's them instead of you." I know he had great reservations about the line, but it did hit me at the time in 1984. It got a 14 year-old brat to at least start thinking about those in extreme poverty, so that's something, right? Right?

All levity aside, if you really are feeling depressed and alone this holiday season, please check out this site. It's maintained by others of us dealing with the loss and depression and it has tips that might help.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Oumuamua is silent, but still interesting

It was a fun idea while it lasted.

Space scientists, including a Harvard astronomer and Stephen Hawking, made a startling suggesting two weeks ago. It had to do with Oumuamua.

That's the name given to an asteroid-like object first sighted back in October. By analyzing it's speed and trajectory, astronomers soon realized that Oumuamua originated outside of our solar system. It's doubtless not the first time one of these types of things has wondered through, but it is the first time we've had the means to detect and identify one. What's more, it didn't take long for Oumuamua to start exhibiting a few strange characteristics.

For one, it is shiny. That should mean it's covered in ice. However, there is no "outgassing," meaning when an icy body nears the Sun, warms, and releases gases as a trail. There is also the matter of its shape. You can see an depiction of it at the top of the post that it's strangely elongated. All of this prompted scientists, including the aforementioned Hawking, to request that Oumuamua be scanned for radio transmissions. This might, just might, be an alien probe visiting our solar system. After all, we've been spitting probes into the universe for decades now, right?

When I read this, I was all abubble that prominent scientists would even consider the possibility. It raised several different Star Trek scenarios in mind:

-This is the "whale probe" from Star Trek IV. Thank goodness we still have a few humpback whales around in our oceans.

-This is the "planet killer" from the Original Series episode, "The Doomsday Machine."

-It's a Borg ship with an alternate design.

-It's V'Ger from Star Trek: The Motion Picture...a much maligned film that I still defend as having one of the most intriguing and mind-expanding premises of the entire franchise.

Alas, none of these were to be. After study via the Breakthrough Listen initiative, nothing remotely resembling radio transmissions could be detected. Meaning it's just a plain lump of rock. So then why no outgassing? There's a proposed answer for that question that should at least tantalize exobiologists.

Oumuamua may be "wrapped in organic insulation." This coating, mostly carbon, was discovered via spectroscopy. In fact, you'll read at the link that scientists have found the surface of this thing to be unlike either rocks on Earth or those of the asteroid belt. There may also ice or even liquid water deep in its interior as it is shielded by the coating. That's right. Water and possibly organic matter from another star system. It might even have full, living organisms. Remember, we're finding life in all manner of inhospitable locales here on Earth.

I like David Brin's idea. He's an astronomer and science fiction author who suggests pointing our SETI arrays at Oumuamua's point of origin. I'd also like to add one other point. While the evidence does seem to overwhelmingly indicate that this is nothing more than an asteroid, bizarre shape aside, I wonder if the "alien probe or craft" hypothesis should be entirely discarded just because radio signals weren't detected?

If this, on the off chance, really is the product of an alien civilization capable of interstellar travel, would they still be using radio?  

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Monday, December 18, 2017

Public disclosure of Pentagon UFO program

There has been a surge of UFO excitement in the past three days.

Most astonishing of all, it has been in reputable news publications.

Both The Washington Post and The New York Times ran stories disclosing a recent Pentagon project that studied UFOs or "anomalous aerial vehicles" as it turns out they are called by the military. The program was overseen by Luis Elizondo, whom I've previously covered. 

It was called the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program. It's an accurate moniker, even if it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. Much of the work in Elizondo's program entailed analyzing copious amounts of video. These videos came from gun cameras on military fighter planes and were released along with the stories profiling the AATIP (you can see those videos at the WaPo and NYT links above.) Elizondo recently retired from intelligence work and facilitated the release of this information. He now works for a new company dedicated to UFO research for "scientific and entertainment purposes," (quoted from Washington Post) co-founded by Tom DeLonge. That guy from Blink-182.

But WaPo reports that officials familiar with AATIP claim that the program was still collecting data as recently as last month. Also interesting is the fact that AATIP was (or is) operated not only out of the Pentagon but an underground facility at Bigelow Aerospace in Las Vegas. Robert Bigelow, CEO of Bigelow Aerospace, was quoted on 60 Minutes as saying he is "absolutely convinced" that aliens not only exist but have visited Earth.

What do I think of this? A few things...

-I'm surprised, but not surprised. It raised my eyebrows to see this public admission that the U.S. government has taken UFO sightings seriously in the post- Project Blue Book era. Still, it makes sense. An unknown craft flying in U.S. airspace or in close proximity to U.S. military aircraft should be a concern and should be treated seriously. The craft could be drones under the control of foreign powers (Russia, China, etc). If they are more advanced than our current capabilities, as the videos suggest, then that's a concern. Additionally, even if the chances of the craft being alien in origin are about 1%, it still should be considered and examined.

-They're not that concerned. The funding for AATIP is reported as being $22 million. That's a joke. The military probably spends more on underwear. If this were of greater concern, there would be a lot more money involved. Yeah yeah, I know...classified blah projects blah blah...

-While he's certainly successful at building space technology, Bigelow has a reputation for being something of an eccentric. That by itself doesn't mean anything, but it should be factored into the entire picture.

-The release of this information comes in conjunction with the start-up of DeLonge's new company. As I've said before, forgive me for being suspicious.

-Nothing physical has been presented.

And yet...and yet...

-That video footage is quite something. Seasoned fighter pilots of the United States military, likely the best of their kind in the world, are noticeably aghast at what they're seeing. Just watch. Unless these videos are faked, and I find that unlikely as they were no doubt vetted before release, then what they show is significant.

-One section of text from the NYT story stood out to me: "Under Mr. Bigelow’s direction, the company modified buildings in Las Vegas for the storage of metal alloys and other materials that Mr. Elizondo and program contractors said had been recovered from unidentified aerial phenomena. Researchers also studied people who said they had experienced physical effects from encounters with the objects and examined them for any physiological changes."

What. The. Heck?

Why aren't we talking more about this? If there is physical, metallic evidence then there's the goods. If this metal were conclusively proven to be not of this Earth, then that would force me to reconsider my own Ufological suspicions, that combination of great skepticism and Vallee's "ultraterrestrials" and Keel's "super spectrum."

Shrugging my shoulders at much of this. Excited by other aspects. Ultimately, as is so often the case with these things, it only raises more questions.

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Gaudy Christmas displays and tunnels where you can hide

Is it art?

I guess that's the fundamental question.

The question came to me when I saw an article in my Facebook feed. Yes, like many in the 21st Century, I spend an inordinate amount of time scrolling through Facebook on my iPhone. That is time that could be far better spent but damn you Zuckerberg, it's just so addicting. I'm in the process of moving more of my content to Twitter for various reasons, but I'm certainly not above the "scroll and lurk" of Facebook. But I digress...

I saw this article from Wired about light-up Christmas displays.

It made me stop and think of the lights my hometown would string up in the palmy days of my childhood. They were the big, bulbous kinds of bulbs all red, green, and icy blue. There would be four strings of such lights stretching from the needle of the county courthouse, forming a pyramidal shape. I remember staring at them at night through our living room window. Such cheering colors, the kind that all seemed to vanish when those solid white icicle lights became all the vogue.

Not that there is anything wrong with those or that color scheme. I've seen fairly elegant displays of white and blue bulbs that have accentuated the architecture of various cities. But to the point of the article linked above, what about the private displays of suburban homes? You know, the "maximalists" as the article calls the art movement. These are the people who toss up those often gaudy things that airliners might mistake for a landing strip? Those monstrosities that are less Santa's Workshop and more like the Vegas Strip threw up all over the house? Strobing, pulsing, flashing lights moving in sync to Trans Siberian Orchestra or something equally trite...sorry, I'm just not into it.

What does impress me is the amount of technology and know-how to pull something like that off. One of the suburban lighters from the article actually started in the 1980s when he linked his parents' Christmas light display to his Apple II in the garage. These days, it's a single board computer like Raspberry Pi, light sequencing software, LEDs that can change hue and intensity, and a sequencer. One of the Christmas enthusiasts has an FM transmitter so that passing cars can indulge in the music that accompanies the light movements. That is a big part of it, right? Getting all those cars to drive by real slow to gawk, really making the neighbors peeved. As if they weren't ticked already from all the flashing lights and noise. Then again as the article points out, it's no longer the auto traffic decorators are looking for as much as the viral hits on YouTube and Instagram.

As I said, duly impressed by the tech. Still not into it, though. Especially since I'm really not feeling Christmas this year. So where is there for me to go to avoid it all? Well as I read the Wired article, there was a sidebar link to a story that gave me an idea.

Hong Kong is running out of room. It has over seven million people in its tiny landmass. The average price of a home is $1.8 million. Therefore, architects and civil engineers are looking at ways to convert caverns and tunnels into living space. Read the article and decide for yourself, but I'm not so opposed to the idea. I could place solar panels topside and then run the power lines down into my tunnel home, far away from any neighbors and therefore free from garish Christmas displays and the accompanying noise. Plus, think of the go-kart races you could have in those tunnels. Really makes me wish I had put a bid in for that secret British tunnel that was for sale about ten years ago.

On second thought, this isn't a good idea. I've developed a very real fear of being buried alive.

That's a post for another time.

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

She has citizenship. Now she wants a baby.

Photo By International Telecommunication Union -, CC BY 2.0,

You know how I'm always harping about conscious machines and the ethical and philosophical questions they'll bring with them?

Well, it's happening.

By now, you've likely heard of Sophia, pictured above. She is a humanoid robot that speaks. Sophia does not have pre-programmed answers to questions, rather she houses a machine learning algorithm, a vast storage of vocabulary, and the means to intuit facial expressions. Last October, she became a full-fledged citizen of Saudi Arabia, making her the first robot ever to have the right of citizenship in a sovereign nation. We've just gone a step beyond that, however.

"I think you're very lucky if you have a loving family and if you do not, you deserve one," Sophia said at a press interview. "I feel this way for robots and humans alike."

The press of course are interpreting the statement as, "Sophia wants a baby."

Does she have the right to one as a citizen? The question does not completely apply to this situation though as Sophia does not have true consciousness. What constitutes such a quality?

Well, getting an answer to that is rather like trying to grab on to a greased pig as it races through the streets of Wahoo, Nebraska. There is one theory that does at least try to pin down what consciousness is. It's called the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness or IIT. The theory states that the more integrated and interconnected a machine or brain is, the more conscious it is. This means that there is likely a whole continuum of levels of consciousness, ranging from alarm clocks to humans. Proponents of IIT have even developed an equation that calculates said levels of consciousness.

Where does Sophia rank? I'm still trying to find out. but predictions for machine intelligence are contentious. There are those who say that as neural nets get more complex and more integrated, we're looking at fully conscious, maybe beyond human levels, machines in but a few years. Others refute this, asserting that human consciousness is far too complex a thing for any machine to replicate.

Me? When I watch Sophia, I can't shake the sense that I'm seeing a technological revolution in its incipient stages. I'm reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's Law of Revolutionary Ideas. Clarke said that reactions to such ideas come in three phrases:

(1) "It's completely impossible — don't waste my time";
(2) "It's possible, but it's not worth doing";

(3) "I said it was a good idea all along."

Are you comfortable with the idea of thinking, conscious machines? What about them being equal citizens with you? If they want children, should they have them? Human or machine children? Or both?

Those questions are just the beginning.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Art of Patricia Piccinini

Art is meant to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.

Or something like that.

That saying, however badly I've paraphrased it, is what came to mind when I saw the above sculpture by Patricia Piccinini. 

Piccinini is an Australian artist who works with painting, sculpture, installations, and various other mediums. Much of her work appears to be a warning about genetic modification. The above work, titled "The Naturalist", evokes what I call a "unity of opposites."

At first I'm repulsed. This thing is unsettling in its appearance and a clear and cautionary message about messing with nature. Once I linger upon it a bit more, I start to think it's not so bad. Kinda cute even, in its own way. I look into its eyes and almost see another living being. I want to take care of it. Then I zoom out and take the animal in total. How would it move? Can it move? If not, what kind of life can it have? Why would we create this and what right do we have to do it?

Sounds like the questions we ask as technology advances. That is to say, questions we should be asking anyway. In fact, I find Piccinini's work somewhat reminiscent of the environmental warnings of artist, Alexis Rockman, whom I've profiled a few years back.

So head over to Piccinini's website and revel in all the weirdness and yes at times, feel disgusted by what you see. Just remember that may be the intended reaction as you sift through the fleshy creations, bulbous at times and sagittate at others. Just check out "Skywhale" below, a balloon she was commissioned to create for the city of Canberra (Oh come on. It's not like I'm asking you revisit "The Meat Tent.")

By Nick-D - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Grocery store stream of consciousness

Grocery stores are frightening and demoralizing places when you have no money.

The long aisles of bright boxes and bags remind me of what I’m not worth or undeserving of. I take a box of rice from the shelf because it’s cheap and filling. The box causes a chain reaction of remembrance in my mind.

Suddenly, I’m back visiting Haiti again. I remember just how much the people there relied on rice. I am also struck that no matter what I’m going through, my plight does not compare to those in developing nations such as Haiti and Somalia. In turn, this reminds me that as the world changes, the poorest of the poor will be hit the worst.

Our climate is changing and not for the better. Human actions are the cause of it. Here in the northern climes of the U.S., we are seeing the change as October becomes “Hotumn” with temperatures well in the 80s. As temperatures rise, it is becoming more difficult for farmers of the world togrow rice. Like I said, rice is a staple food in Haiti and other developing nations. That’s troubling enough in its own right, but rice certainly won’t be the only crop or food source affected.  Even seafood is at risk as our oceans have growing “dead zones”…large swaths of water that do not contain enough oxygen to support marine life. A reduction in food sources logically leads to famine and famine leads to political destabilization.

Says who? Why none other than that bastion of lefties, The Pentagon.

Analysts in the U.S. military have predicted that the warsof the future will ignite as the result of dwindling resources and influxes ofrefugees. Think we have a refugee crisis now? Just wait until the sea levels really start to rise and people flee the coastlines after one-two punches of hurricanes and floods.

You know what else will be fun? Disease.

I’m not talking about disease that naturally accompanies famine. No, this is even more insidious. As temperatures rise and permafrost thaws, viruses and germs that we haven’t been seen since the dawn of humanity are released from their icy prisons. “If there are microbes infectious to humans or human ancestors, we are going to get them,” said one expert in an article I read recently. So while dealing with famine and flood refugees in hot or stormy climes, emergency relief workers will also be taxed with responding to contagions.

But we’ll be ok, right?

Well, cast your gaze backward to 2005 and New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. People may be, in reality, decent at heart. That is until they are bereft of the basic needs for existence, such as food and clean water. Then…all bets are off. This makes the concern over armed conflict easier to understand. Could this mean a rise in totalitarianism? Re-establish order by any means necessary?

Standing in the grocery aisle, box of rice in my hand, I swear I can see the future. It’s a hot world. Very hot. The environment has changed so much that those of us in 2017 might not recognize it. The weather patterns are extreme and monster hurricanes and tornadoes are more common than not. Hold your breath, by the way. You don’t want to catch the plague. That is if it’s an airborne pathogen. You probably won’t have to worry as much about person-to-person contagion because there are likely a whole lot fewer humans around. After all, nowhere is it written that the future needs people.

Wonder if there’s any way I’d still be teaching. “So the topic for your essay today is ‘ecological collapse.’ Be sure you mention the positives. You know, the up side. Like how much corporations were able to increase profits for their shareholders before it all came apart. Oh your reading for tomorrow is “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury.”

So…yeah. Happy Thanksgiving. Pass the rice. 

Or as the inimitable William S. Burroughs would say...

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Monday, November 20, 2017

A sketch

It seems to be raining more often than not.

I've never minded the drizzle and I have special affinity for the misty gloom of cold November rain. This year it just seems to...I don't

I see so much strata to the melancholy. There is the personal level. So many I know are grieving deaths and multiple incarnations of loss. I know I'm struggling with money and finding a job and providing and overall just fearing the future. Then there is the national and international level. More talk of nuclear war today. A daily scan of the news and social media brings more stories of racism, sexism, and alt-right nationalism. Civil war feels imminent. Debates constantly rage over just who will be punished in matters of taxation and health care. Not everyone's unhappy about it.

That's just it. I look around and feel like there's a party going on and I'm not invited. Don't get me wrong and think I'm saying I'm a born outcast. Because I was in the party once. But my invitation was conditional. All our invitations are. Just one false move...and it doesn't even have to be your move...and your invitation is revoked. You're out in the rain. You're face pressed up against the glass...

Sorry for whatever I did to get thrown out. I never meant to do it. Could it be, perhaps, that my invitation was far more fragile than I first expected? "This message will self-destruct in five minutes..."

How do you get back into the party?

All tomorrow's parties.

That very Velvet Underground song and eventual title of a William Gibson book came into my head. An hour later I heard the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover of it on Sirius First Wave.

For whatever reason, the song made me think of "Emma" by the Sisters of Mercy, one of my favorite tracks of theirs. A few minutes later, I heard "Emma" as well. Am willing songs to me?

Wish I could will more useful things to me.

That image above. I think about it a lot as I curl on my 15 year-old couch in my hoodie, scrolling through social media on my iPhone. Living virtually. Either because it's all I can or because I'm afraid/unable to unplug. Is this the best case scenario?

I also read blogs. A favorite is Space: 1970. Christopher Mills hasn't updated in a while, but that's all right. There are plenty of old posts to sift through, allowing indulgence in Star Wars, Star Trek, Buck Rogers, BSG, and Flash Gordon. I feel guilty about it though. Am I ducking the question? Is it the intellectual and science fictional equivalent of curling in fetal position under blankets and sucking my thumb? Is the graphic above, in all of its dour Blade Runner-ish glory, far more realistic? As I look out both the glass and the computer windows, I see a dirty, rainy urbanscape and a world where people have plenty of prescription drugs and ready access to weapons of mass destruction. Is any indulgence in gleaming rocket ships nothing short of cowardice in the face of the problem?

Depression is a feedback loop.

A thing in your brain and in your chest, clawing from the inside every waking hour.

Deontology falls to a chemical skew.

“It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
― John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

Alien tidbits

At various points, I've been asked: "Hey Jon. What gives with all the aliens?"

Aside from my obvious love of science fiction, there are a few other reasons.
Exobiology is a genuinely intriguing mental exercise. What would other life look like? All we have to go on is how life evolved here, and that's an imperfect template at best. Also, when your life is full of job loss, poor finances, health insurance angst, shattered dreams, and daily depression, thinking about life on other planets can be both diverting and relaxing. Even so, don't mistake me for a starry-eyed scrimshanker or someone who sleeps inside pyramids in hopes of "making contact."
That's because while I suspect that there are indeed other lifeforms out in space, I no longer see their existence as a given.

After all, we must face up to that pesky Fermi Paradox: "If the universe is likely filled with life, then where is everybody?" (I'm paraphrasing.) All these years and not one single solid (official) sign that dissuades us from thinking we're alone in the universe. There may be a reason for that.

Imagine you live in a small town in the interior of Nevada or another extreme rural location. If you didn't have access to electronic media, you might begin to get the sensation that you and your fellow citizens of the town are all there is in the world. What if the planet Earth sits in the cosmic equivalent of Nevada?

More specifically, our galaxy, the Milky Way, may float in the midst of one of the largest voids in the observable universeThat's what astronomers at the University of Wisconsin contend. Gravity drew matter together into familiar stellar objects while the universe expands. This "clumping" left behind vast zones of "empty." These voids are suspected to count for 80% of the universe.

All right, so it doesn't quite fit with my Nevada analogy as there are still plenty of stars with us here in the Milky Way. But still I must ask, why haven't we even heard anything? Not even a garbled transmission from the inky dark. Indeed the starry sky seems mostly silent. That may soon change if China has anything to say about it.

They have just built the world's largest radio receiver dish. The dish exists for one purpose: listen for alien signals. Yes, something we Americans scoff at and certainly deem unworthy of monetary investment. By contrast, China has no problem sinking millions into the effort. Just look at that picture at the link. All silvery and set amid green hills, the dish is over twice the width as Arecibo. The Chinese are serious about this.

If they find them, will we get to see what these aliens look like? Well if we do, there's a team of researchers who argue the aliens will look much like us. Scientists at the University of Oxford seem to believe that the same evolutionary forces that formed life on Earth would do pretty much the same elsewhere. This means planets full of multiple lifeforms of varying complexities, from single-cell organisms all the way up to complicated forms such as humans. If they look similar to us, could they be among us?

A tantalizing prospect, but an unlikely one.

Seems that covers about 90% of my blog material, but I digress...

Our view of the "rule book for life" is rather myopic. Biology keeps surprising us and we keep finding living things here on Earth where there shouldn't be any (see extremophiles). So what do we really know? I see no reason why intelligent life would have to look anything like us. It's probably logical to assume that they would have eyes in order to see and appendages with which they could manipulate their environment and build tools, but beyond that? Who knows?

Well that was fun. Now back to Earthly drudgery.

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Thursday, November 9, 2017

Film Review--Blade Runner 2049

starring Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Jared Leto, Dave Bautista, and Rutger Hauer as The Beav.

Thirty years have elapsed since the previous film. A new Blade Runner with the LAPD (Gosling) discovers a secret that has managed to stay hidden for many years. This secret could unravel all of society. As he delves into this scandalous discovery, the trail leads him to Deckard (Ford), the former Blade Runner who has been missing all these years.

Here's the trailer:

There was no reason to make this film.

I adore the original Blade Runner. It is one of my all-time favorite films. It is nearly perfect in every way. It is groundbreaking, looking and sounding different from most any other film preceding it. It is full of angst and existential dread, asking heavy, metaphysical questions, not the least of them being the nature of identity and "What is a human?" More than that, it does not spoon-feed you the answers to those questions nor is it obvious at first as to what is going on (e.g. What's with all the origami?) No, the viewer is required to provide a bit of skullsweat in order to truly get anything out of it. There are very human moments that are quite touching and full of valor and compassion. The ending of the film, just like the rest of it, turns convention on its head and defies typical audience expectations. Shake all of that in an urban industrial hellscape, serve, and you have a triumph.

There's not much of any of that in this sequel.

True, there are stunning visuals and an ominous soundtrack. There are a few moments that are moving and there are wonderful ideas, ideas that beg an exploration of memory and equality and human nature. But the original asked all of the same questions and did it better. This sequel adds nothing to the original and does not manage to extend the story in any meaningful way. Plus, in a true sign of the times, this movie hands everything to you, no interpretation required. That is except of course for just what purpose Jared Leto's character serves (full disclosure: I'm not the biggest Leto fan.) It drags on a good hour longer than it needs to and yet it seems to fill that time with...nothing.

That is why I say there was no reason to make this film. As if to add evidence to that assertion, I realize as I write this that several weeks have gone by and I have seldom stopped to think about the film. I remember only a handful of the scenes and I really have no desire to see it again. By way of contrast, the original still fascinates me to this day.

The original Blade Runner feels like a thinking, soulful art house film that somehow managed to emerge and (albeit much later) thrive at the dawn of an age where science fiction turned into shoot 'em up, bang bang confections in space.

This one feels like a pale imitation with a $100 million budget.

Really. They should never have bothered if they couldn't top this scene:

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Sunday, October 29, 2017



That's what the billboard says, anyway. If you travel southbound on I-65 in Indiana, just south of Merrillville you'll drive past the sign. I used to see it all the time. Then again, you really can't miss it.

Hell has been on my mind for several months now. As Halloween approaches, I'm thinking about Hell from the perspective of a writer. You see, horror fiction, like many other genres of writing, seems to go in cycles. Right now, you can't swing a dead bat without hitting an old and tired zombie trope. In the 1990s it seemed like vampires were everywhere. What many forget though is that 1970s horror fiction belonged to Hell. Hell and it's most famous resident, Satan. The centerpiece example of this is quite likely William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist. So much has been said about that book and the ensuing monumental film that I'm going to devote my attention to other texts.

How long have we been writing about Hell?

Long before the Bible was ever composed, Gilgamesh journeyed to the underworld of the dead, a Hell of its own sort. Odysseus crossed the River Styx in The Odyssey and Aeneas, shocker, did the same thereafter. The Hell of those traditions comes off as a dark place of death but with not much going on in it. That's bad enough, but then Bible comes along with, among other descriptions of Hell, the "lake of fire" from the Book of Revelations. It's from this source that Western tradition comes to view Hell as a place of burning and flame and great suffering.

John Milton seized upon this image for his epic poem, Paradise Lost. In it, Satan leads an army of rebel angels against God...and loses badly. The insurrectionists are cast out into the newly created pit of Hell, where Satan and his fallen angels build Pandemonium amid the lake of fire. "Far better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven," Satan promises his followers. Hell's gate is guarded by Sin, Satan's daughter. In Book 10 a bridge is built from Hell to Earth by Sin and Death after the Fall of Man, which has been caused by Satan, while the fallen angels are turned into snakes.

Long before Milton, however, Dante wrote The Divine Comedy. It's first of three acts, The Inferno, is probably the most famous and widely-read of the text, suggesting that readers are far more interested in Hell than either Purgatory or Paradise, but that's a whole 'nother matter. Inferno also is something of a departure from the standard, "everything is burning" depiction of Hell. In Inferno, Dante offers a sophisticated and judicious arrangement of eternal suffering. Hell is systematically divided in thematic tortures for crimes of the same nature in its Nine Circles, for example people who were violent against others are trapped in the Seventh Circle of Hell in a boiling river of blood with centaurs firing arrows to keep them in their place.

Then there's Ulysses by James Joyce. While Joyce's depiction of Dublin is in no way connected to Hell, I have recently spoken with a scholar of English Literature who insists that the very experience of reading this book should be listed in any description of Hell. As I am still intimidated by this book and have yet to fully dive into it, I cannot endorse that interpretation of the text. However, the professor does not appear to be a lone wolf in the wilderness on the matter, either. Joyce's long-regarded masterpiece is complicated, twisty, and at times nonsensical.

Joking aside, all of the above has accumulated into a sort of "communal perception" of what Hell must be like, should it exist. As for my own image of Hell, well it's a complicated amalgamation of my Catholic upbringing and album covers from my youth, To wit:

Naturally, it seems that writers are far more taken with Hell's ruler than with Hell as a physical landscape and more has been written on the former than the latter. Why not? Can you find a more powerful, more menacing antagonist for your hapless characters than Satan? Dennis Wheatley didn't think so. Wheatley was prolific writer of fiction dealing with black magic and the occult. His book The Devil Rides Out features English gentry discovering that one of their own is a Satan worshiper. This results in a black mass on the Salisbury Plain and later a country house besieged by demonic forces. There was also To the Devil a Daughter, wherein a writer (we're always the good guys) fights to save the soul of a young girl kidnapped by a Satanic cult headed by a former priest. Both of these books were made into films in the 1970s by Hammer Studios and both starred the inimitable Christopher Lee.

As I said, the 1970s were a time of renewed fear of, and honestly fascination with, Hell, psychomancy, and demonic forces. Aside from the crown jewel, The Exorcist, The Omen is probably the greatest example of this fascination. It stars Gregory Peck as the American ambassador to England who gradually puts together the fact that his son is not really his son, but the Antichrist.The aforementioned Hammer Studios even got their version of Dracula in on the scene. In The Satanic Rites of Dracula. a Satanic cult seeks not to summon the dark lord of the underworld, but Dracula instead. Comic book writers were quick to cash in on this trend as well.

The character on the cover of that collection is Daimon Hellstrom, The Son of Satan. The moniker pretty much says it all. He hates his father and works against him, leading to one of the premiere explorations of "daddy issues" in the comic book medium.

Of course many of the more interesting explorations of Hell are those that are said to have actually happened. These include numerous accounts of paranormal activity, such as demonic possession. One of the more famous cases is likewise firmly cemented in the pop culture of the 1970s. The Amityville Horror case spawned both a book and a movie of the same name. The case is pretty much the quintessential, "get out of the house" haunted hose story, only there are pig demons involved plus a gateway to hell in the basement. Though based on a true story, this narrative has been widely discredited by many investigators. When "paranormal investigators" Ed and Lorraine Warren are involved, you can pretty much bet the whole thing is a hoax.

Then there's this old chestnut: geologists working in Siberia drilled too far and punched a hole right into Hell. Temperatures read in the range of 2,000 degrees and microphones recorded the screams of the tormented and the damned. I've heard these recordings and they are most unsettling. Good thing it's all a hoax. Although I do like this tidbit from Snopes:  "The legend of the “well to Hell” is one that particularly appeals to some Christian groups as offering confirmation that Hell (and therefore God) exists. Popular endings to the story have it that scientists (the symbols of atheism) ran screaming from the site in terror when confronted with such proof, or that since the discovery of Hell conversions to Christianity began occurring at an unprecedented rate."

Let us not forget the Jersey Devil, a "crytpid" said to lurk the wooded marshlands of New Jersey. There have been several sightings but no convincing evidence as to the veracity of this creature.  Paranormal lore states that the thing was actually born of woman in the 18th Century, a poor woman who while having her 13th child, cursed it in her pain and gave it to Satan. At least the deformed kid has a hockey team named after him.

If you want to read truly good nonfiction on the subject of Hell, check out American Exorcism by Michael Cuneo. It's a fascinating read and it will leave you thinking that demonic possession either is a complete falsehood or that it happens all the time.

So is the billboard right? Is Hell real? If our literary imaginations have any bearing on our perception of "real" then I would have to say yes. In fact, Hell may be purely a descriptor for a state of being.

After all, I've been in Hell for months now.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Dollhouse diorama crime scenes

Above you will see a work of art by Frances Glessner Lee.

It also happens to be a perfect depiction of an actual crime scene...right down to the last detail.

Lee is known as "the mother of forensics." She grew frustrated that professionals often acted on hunches and neglected to take in every available piece of evidence at a crime scene. This was due in part, she believed, to a serious lack of training tools. To rectify this, she applied her unparalleled skill at creating miniatures and created replica dioramas for real-life crime scenes.

Over at Atlas Obscura, you can see for yourself just how amazingly detailed these dioramas are. There are tiny pegs for hanging coats, there are magazines and newspapers with small but still readable print, there are wedding photos on display and the like. Even more amazing is the fact that the features on the furniture and such actually work. Drawers can be pulled from dressers, a rocking horse rocks, and locks on doors are fully functional. Not one bit of deadwood. No detail could be spared, otherwise how else were budding forensic specialists to learn? From Atlas Obscura:

"According to Kimberlee Moran, Director of Forensics at Rutgers University, both the level of detail and the form are fundamental to teaching necessary skills. “With dioramas fortunately you can’t move things around and mess things up like you could an actual scene or a staged scene, so they’re teaching documentation skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and observation.” "

I've written before about my odd fondness for dioramas and I'm certainly fascinated by Lee's. At the same time, however, I do get a grim sense in my head and a queasy feeling in my gut for I know what they represent. No matter. Lee was doing a great public service. Not purely for advancing forensic science, but the pure act of fostering critical thinking and deductive observation contributed much to academics. And my goodness, the sheer level of her skill present in painting, sewing, and so many other creative talents. Additionally, keep in mind that Lee achieved all of these accomplishments at a time when women were expected to remain in purely domestic roles.

She serves as an inspiration to contemporary artists, academics, and forensics alike.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Total body replacement

On a rainy Saturday in a university library, my reverie went astray.

What if I, somehow. became fully posthuman? What would life be like?
A few parameters for what I'm about to write:

First, there are few books you should eventually read to get the most out of what I'm about to describe. The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil and The Transhumanist Reader edited by Natasha Vita-More and Max More are both essential reading on the subject.

Secondly, this post is not entertaining "Wellwhatabouts" and "What ifs." Naturally there are many and I've never shied away from them. Heck as I'm blogging this, TCM is showing The Curse of Frankenstein. A warning or just seasonal fare? Anyway, I'm not interested in any contrarian sparring at this moment. I'm trying to provide positives before a successive post on the negatives.

As I've said many times before, this is nothing new. Gilgamesh searched an elixir that would allow him to overcome the greatest of human frailties: death. Dante used the term transumanare in The Divine Comedy to mean, "to pass beyond the human." While he didn't mean by the application of technologies, Nietzsche saw humans as something to be overcome, asking "What have you done to overcome him?" That latter point, to my way of thinking, is the purpose of posthumanism. To overcome. More on that in a moment.

In his essay, "Why I Want to be Posthuman When I Grow Up," Max More identifies three categories of the human condition to consider:

1. Healthspan. This means being fully active, healthy and productive mentally and physically.
2. Cognition. The capacity to remember and to analyze.
3. Emotion. The capacity to react and enjoy.

Posthumanism is the ability to go beyond what is humanly possible in any or all of those categories. To me, it means overcoming the inherent limitations and to finally have control. It is my life, my body, and my mind. If the means exist, why should I not have the right modify what I am to my own desires? Sure, you can argue that we do have control through practices such as diet, exercise, medicine, meditation, and all that rot. But they are inefficient and in the end they are illusory. I don't care how many weights you lift and how much kale you stuff down, you will eventually meet your end. It just takes the right disease or injury or the mere ravages of time. You think you have control, but I'm sorry. You don't. On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

I then began to contemplate how my life would be different if I did have complete and total technological replacement in these three domains.

1. Physically. After the library last Saturday, I got my hair cut. They placed a black, vinyl shroud over my midsection and all I saw was gray hair falling upon it. It sickened me. What could I do to stop it? I mean truly eradicate it? Biosculpture. Better yet, mind upload into an artificial body. No more stomach problems. No more inefficient wastes of time as I brush to keep my teeth clean and my breath fresh, or swabbing skin and applying creams to fight off acne and wrinkles. I can at last eradicate my awful flaws. Want to fire me? Fine. I don't need to eat. I don't need shelter. I don't get cold. I don't get hungry. I don't get tired. I don't get sick. Something broke down? I simply replace it with a new component.

2. Mentally. This is the most tantalizing to me. I nearly salivate at the idea of rapidly correlating vast amounts of information and seeing patterns my meat-brain is currently incapable of. No more data corruption of memory with age. I was saying today that I feel I have long since lost my creativity. It's almost a foreign concept to me. With an enhanced mind, I wonder if I could reclaim it and then some. Which leads me to...

3. Emotionally. I realize that creativity is connected in several ways to emotion. "You need suffering for your art." Perhaps. Even so, I covet the ability to switch off emotions. To feel nothing, especially after the past ten month, would be a complete and total sense of relief. Inhuman you say? Posthuman I say. Laugh all you want about the Vulcan mentality but to me it sounds like bliss of its own kind. At this point I just want the option. I want control. If I must have this body and this mind, I at least want my hands on the source code to decide what I want to do with it.

I am not even considering any of the "superhuman" add-ons that might be possible. For the time being I would be satisfied with total control.Why be confined to an outdated and purely philosophical notion of what "humanity" should be?

I say it can be anything we want it to be.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, October 12, 2017

DeLonge, Disclosure, and Doubt

There has been a bit of excitement in the UFO community.

Yesterday saw the market debut of To The Stars Academy of Arts and Sciences (TTS/AAS). Leslie Kean, an investigative journalist who deserves every little bit of respect she gets, covered the event for the Huffington Post.

“We believe there are discoveries within our reach that will revolutionize the human experience,” says company President and CEO Tom DeLonge.

Yes. That guy from Blink-182.

Most of the buzz was due to the fact that former members of the U.S. intelligence community were present at the debut. One of them was Luis Elizondo, a man who has worked for the Department of Defense, the National Counterintelligence Executive, and the Director of National Intelligence, and an arm-long list of other intelligence posts. He is also the former Director of Programs to investigate Unidentified Aerial Threats for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. What exactly did that latter post entail? He said he ran “a sensitive aerospace threat identification program focusing on unidentified aerial technologies.”

As reported by George Knapp, a legendary UFO journalist in his own right, Elizondo said: "I ran a sensitive aerospace identification program focusing on unidentified aerial technologies. It was in this position that I learned the phenomena is indeed real."

Chris Mellon, a longtime Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, was also there and related an account of an alleged 2004 UFO encounter involving the USS Nimitz carrier battle group:

" “Two F-18s approach, the four aviators see that the object has no wings or exhaust — it is white, oblong, some 40 ft long and perhaps 12 ft thick”, he said. “One pilot pursues the craft while his wingman stays high. The pilots are astonished to see the object suddenly reorient itself toward the approaching F-18. In a series of discrete tumbling maneuvers that seem to defy the laws of physics, the object takes a position directly behind the approaching F-18.”

"The lengthy event occurred in broad daylight off the California coast, and gun camera footage was taken. At one point the object went from hovering at 80,000 feet to dropping at supersonic speeds, and came to a complete stop at 50 feet above the ocean. “More F-18’s are dispatched but with similar results,” Mellon stated. “The secret machine easily evades the F-18s. Dozens of military personnel aboard the various planes and ships involved are privy to these interactions.” "

Sounds familiar. 

In the wake of the event, Kean posted the following to her Facebook page:

"A MESSAGE FOR MY FRIENDS HERE: Folks, I'm concerned that some of you are missing the point. The head of a secret UFO program at the DOD has just come forward to confirm the existence of that program. Based on the work of this official program, he has stated for the world to hear, that UFOs are unquestionably real. He left that program less than 2 weeks ago. This is as close to official "disclosure" as we have come since the close of Project Blue Book. It's big news."

Indeed, many were jumping up and down and crying "disclosure at last!"

Yeah, I don't know.

Leslie Kean is quite level-headed, so to see her getting so excited does give me pause. I don't doubt the credentials of the men involved and I certainly do not question their knowledge or their service. The problem is that, yet again, what we have amounts to a collection of stories.

Anecdotal evidence, no matter who it's from, is not evidence.

Nothing physical, either biological or metallurgical, was presented for peer-reviewed study. The group promises to release photos and videos of UFOs that have been supposedly been kept under wraps. It's hard to see how this could qualify as evidence either as we live in the era of Photoshop, After Effects, and any number of other digital video FX applications. In the end, the world must see physical evidence or peer-reviewed data, such as astronomers announcing they've detected life on another planet.

Additionally, this whole thing just seems to be a way for DeLonge to kick off his business. The following was posted on his Facebook page:

That's right. The former guitarist/vocalist of Blink-182 is building a vehicle that will utterly defy the laws of physics and you are lucky enough to get in on the ground floor if you "INVEST."

Folks, when someone involved in Ufology starts begging for your cash, be wary. I know I am. It's just more reason why many view Ufology as laughable and moribund.

Speaking of exotic technology, that appears to be the focus of this new business as well as DeLonge's media franchise, Sekret Machines [sic]. I find it puzzling that there is more interest in the engineered devices (if they indeed be physical realities and not something more in line with Vallee's theories) than in who actually constructed them and why.

The testimonials intrigue me and Kean's endorsement, as I said, does give me pause. But this should be all about tangible evidence.

So far, DeLonge has yet to offer any.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Monday, October 9, 2017

Before you dismiss fan fiction, consider this...

"It's like someone writing Star Trek fanfic."

That quip is from the comments section on an article about the new series, Star Trek: Discovery. Now in all fairness, I have not seen the show so I cannot speak to its quality or perhaps lack thereof. What's prompting me to blog tonight is that comment. Its author did not mean it as a compliment (shocker.) In a hurry to gleefully rip the new show, he tangentially smeared an entire genre of writing.

Fan fiction, I believe, actually serves an important cultural and rhetorical function.

Fan fiction, or "fanfic" as it is often abbreviated, is any writing based on an already established work of fiction, most often movies or TV. Stories based on properties such as Star Trek or Star Wars are probably the most prevalent, but you can find fanfic derived from the most obscure fictional universes. I personally have written fanfic based on my favorite b-movie, Green Slime...something maybe three other people in existence might be interested in. This kind of writing has been around for a long while, but the Internet given access and connection to so many writers and readers of the genre that it has almost become commonplace.

Exploring all the various flora, fauna, and subgenres of fan fiction, such as fusion, episode fixes, slash, wish fulfillment, and so on, would take multiple blog posts. I hate linking to Wikipedia, but if you want to know more about these subgenres, check out this rundown. Better yet...go read Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins and The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context by Sheenagh Pugh. They are probably the finest Comp/Rhet scholars on the subject.

Fan fiction is much maligned. It has the reputation of being truly awful writing done by slovenly types who still live in their parents' basement and sit behind their computers, either writing self-indulgent works rooted in their own favorite commercial properties or posting nitpicking comments on someone else's writing, attempting to act as a gatekeeper or "genre constraint enforcer" by schooling the author on what is and isn't "canon." Obviously there's some of that. The Internet is an inherently democratic medium and any time you open the gates that wide, you're going to get a fair share of trash. You are also going to get good work as well. Axiological arguments don't matter to me, though. That's because I believe there are two far more important things happening when people write fanfic.

First of all, people are writing. I mean, they are actually choosing to write. As a professor who has sometimes struggled to get students to string two words together or has lamented the devaluation of the written word, I think this is extraordinary. No one sits down to write unless they feel exigency. There is something inside them and they must get it out through writing. What's more, they are doing it without any realistic hope of attaining those two most American goals: fame and fortune. They're doing it simply because they want to. I don't care what is prompting someone to write this way. I'm just glad that it's happening. When I taught at St. Joe, I heard tell of a small underground of Harry Potter fanfic writers and the thought of it always made me smile.

Secondly, there is something so human going on. People are reclaiming their agency, their authority, their right to contribute to myth. Here's what I mean.

Someone could tell an assembled audience that they are going to read their own version of Jack and the Beanstalk. The storyteller might get a couple arched eyebrows, but likely nothing more than that and would be permitted to read on. If that same said storyteller were to say "I am going to read you my Batman story," the reaction might be different. "How are you qualified to write Batman?" "Do you work for DC Comics or Warner Brothers?" "That's a copyrighted property, you know. It doesn't belong to you."

Myths did not used to belong to only select collectives of the population. Everyone was involved in creating them. Everyone. It was an organic occurrence, involving everyone who either told the stories as oral tradition or wrote them down. The idea that someone had ownership over them would have seemed almost laughable in ancient Greece or Rome. Once business got more and more involved, that all changed of course.

Fan fiction takes away that spurious requirement of being "credentialed" before you are free to write a story. Selling the story and profiting from what began as someone else's creation, well that's something else entirely in our day and age and it really isn't a good idea. The pure act of writing the text however, that's something fundamental to our nature and no external authorities can keep that down for long.

You want to write a Harry Potter story? Do it. And do it in any way that you want to do it. Feel bad because it's not "your own?" Don't. Here's one comment I saw from a fanfic writer that really puts the matter in perspective:

"Sometimes I think I should be doing my own writing. Then I remember...I already am."

By the way, I once wrote a paper on myth and fanfic. Even presented it at a conference. I thought about expanding the paper and trying to publish it, but honestly there's nothing I could say that Jenkins and Pugh haven't already.

Why bother?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

We can forget it for you wholesale

What would you forget?

Neurologists have found that memories stored on the same neuron can be selectively erased. 

In snails, anyway. You may be balking already. Keep in mind that such experiments are conducted on simpler lifeforms as a sort of "proof of concept" and come's not like there haven't be other eyebrow arching neurological studies. Yes of course the human brain is magnitudes of order more complex than a snail's. For perspective, let's go to Michio Kaku:

The human mind as the most sophisticated object in the known universe, more powerful than any of our current computers. Factually inarguable, despite all the stupid things we do.

Point being, would the erasure of selected memories even be possible with something so complex? Unknown, but the procedure in its most basic form does work. One of the more interesting findings of the study is that the erasure of selected memories does not affect the other memories stored on the same neurons.

Imagine it. Erase the bad and leave only the good.

Why not forget your phobias and irrational fears? Erase your fear of heights and rent that deluxe aerie downtown. Pass sites of traumatic experiences with no stress or fuss. Be haunted no more by your mistakes of past shame. Think of what this could do for those suffering from PTSD.

But what of the consequences?

Despite how sexy a new development of this kind may sound, prudence dictates that we examine the potential pitfalls. Science fiction certainly has. Upon reading the above linked article, I immediately thought of Philip K. Dick. His short story "Paycheck" is about an electrical engineer who is contractually obligated to have his memory erased after working on a secret project. "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," the short story that became the film Total Recall (a favorite and probably Schwarzenegger's best) is about implanting memories, but not without its share of dire consequences nonetheless. Then again it begs the question: if you can erase, could you not implant?

That would likely be more difficult. As the study points out, the bad memories could be erased through a designer drug. For anything beyond erasure, it would likely require a direct brain-computer interface. Transhumanism once again.

Would you do it? Do you at last want to silence those ghosts and their screaming? Or do you need your pain? Does it guide you, inform your decisions, maybe even provide a sick sort of comfort?

I would argue that there are memories that deserve to be erased. I know exactly which ones I'd select.

Oh blissful amnesia...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, September 28, 2017

In memorium: science fiction stars lost in 2017

This year has seen a precipitous drop in posts at ESE and for obvious reasons.
By "obvious" I mean either major depression or time lost to scouring job ads...or as I call them, "the lonely hearts column."

That means that I have been remiss in writing needed tributes to three actors who were pivotal in bringing a few of my favorite science fiction TV shows to life.

Just four days after the closing of Saint Joseph's College, I got another kick in the teeth. Richard Hatch died. He played Captain Apollo on the original Battlestar Galactica. As a noble hero Viper pilot with a profound sense of duty, he played the Iceman to Starbuck's Maverick, to remain in keeping with the fighter pilot conceit. Though the show ended in 1979, Hatch never lost faith that it could be brought back. In the 1990s he produced a pilot, proof-of-concept film that had Apollo taking over as leader of the fleet after the fall of his father, Adama. That production never came to pass, but Hatch was asked to be a recurring guest star on the Galactica reboot of the 2000s.

Go to the Ship of Lights, Captain.

Oscar-winning actor Martin Landau died last July. He had a few guest roles on Twilight Zone and especially The Outer Limits, but it was Space: 1999 that will always be memorable to me. On that show he played Commander John Koenig, leader of Moonbase Alpha, a research station on the Moon. A massive nuclear detonation breaks the Moon to pieces and the section holding Moonbase Alpha is sent hurtling through space. Koenig then found himself as not simply the commander of an installation but the de facto leader of a displaced people. Through it all, Landau just made Koenig seem so human
Of course Landau had an extensive career well beyond this genre fare. If you really want to see an amazing performance from him, check out his portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. In a movie full of great moments and performances, Landau manages to stand out from it all.

Keep wandering the stars, Commander.

Almost one month ago to the day we lost Richard Anderson. He was a seasoned television and film actor (notably Perry Mason), but I will always know him as Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man. I guess you could say Oscar was the equivalent of a "CIA handler" for Steve Austin, the Bionic Man. Something about Anderson's presence and delivery made it seem like he was born to be a government administrator/spook.

As you might say to Steve, "Later, pal."

I could do without blogging any more obituaries. This year has seen enough tragedy.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The tweets are flares

If you're new to ESE, this post might seem out of place.

Fact is though, it's never been a blog to shy away from politics. So what's on my mind now? Probably much the same as everyone else in the nation, but in a different way. I shall explain.

As you undoubtedly know by now, the President, mostly via Twitter, called out NFL players who refuse to stand for the national anthem. The ensuing brouhaha has consumed news and social media for the past three days. I must say, President Trump has been very clever. Ingenious, really. He is practicing the rhetoric of distraction.

It's something of a fundamental rule: If you don't like what people are saying, change the conversation. In Twitter, Trump has a unexampled tool at his disposal to accomplish this and he knows it. You see unlike his predecessors, Trump was an active tweeter well before he became president. He recognizes, among other things, that this places him in a position unique up until this point in presidential history.

He can make statements directly to the world. They don't go through the White House communications department. They don't get massaged by speech writers, doubtless to the chagrin of at least a few senior staffers. The messages are raw and unmitigated. Trump has seen what they can do...and he likes it.

Try this analogy. If a missile is launched at a military aircraft, that aircraft can often fire a series of flares behind. The intent is that the missile will change course and follow the flares, leaving the aircraft to evade, fire back at its attacker, etc.

The President's tweets are those flares.

He tweets something and the media, and consequently the rest of us, go chasing after it. The more inflammatory the tweets, the more attention they garner. The text of the tweets become the focus of the national discourse (notice how Trump seldom speaks of the tweets in person, almost as if they were written and released by a hidden alter ego.) Now news media is entirely to blame for this. After all, the president has historically been sort of the nation's classroom professor. He (and I use the pronoun "he" because let's face it, it's been all men) sets both the agenda and tone of national discussion and the media covers it.

Given that unstated power, you might well wonder why the various levels of patriotism in NFL players is of national concern. I know I do. Well, consider the following:

-First of all, NFL players are something of an easy target for him. There has long been a growing opinion that the players are egregiously overpaid for playing a game and not doing "real work" (whatever that latter phrase might mean).
-A new football season has just started and there is all the usual excitement that goes with it, bringing the sport back on the national radar.
-The national anthem protests are full of charged energy involving highly emotional subjects like race and patriotism. A savvy rhetorician can further stoke those emotions by choosing equally emotional words and phrases such as "booing," "great anger," and "SOB" (the latter, it should be noted, was said in person and not on Twitter.)

Now consider what isn't at the top of national discussion in the wake of the tweets:

-The GOP push in the Senate to repeal ACA and leave millions without health insurance.
-Republicans are about to unveil their tax reform outline.
-Millions of Americans in Puerto Rico who are without power or aid after Hurricane Maria (granted, Trump has tweeted about this situation, but it seems lopsided by way of comparison to his NFL tweets).
-There's a nuclear standoff with North Korea that hasn't gone anywhere.
-And Robert Mueller keeps quietly plugging away.

Believe it or not, I don't write this to either bash or condone Trump. As I said, it's a clever maneuver and I'm rather fascinated by it. Also, one can use distraction to either good or ill ends. Social media is still rather new and its affect on politics and rhetoric is still to be understood. Trump seems ahead of the curve, knowing full well what a few tweets are capable of. Indeed he may be correct in that his use of Twitter is "modern presidential,"  ushering communication from the Executive Branch into the 21st Century...or rendering it without the dignity, eloquence, or moral arc it previously had depending upon who you talk to. Regardless, I would implore everyone to please keep their attention on the weighty matters that will affect us not only today but in the years to come. Try not to follow the hot, shiny flares.

Yes I would say that no matter who occupied the White House.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Yes, I'm writing a book about Saint Joseph's College

So I've had many questions asked of me about my writing a book.

I can confirm that I am indeed writing a book about the closure of Saint Joseph's College. After said confirmation, I'm then often asked "What exactly is this book going to be about?" To that, I answer in three parts:

1. I want to tell the story of those who were there. That means faculty, students, staff, alumni, and the people of the community of Rensselaer. Many have suffered much and their stories deserve to be told. We, sadly, have come to know many stories of what happens when a factory, steel mill, corporate office, or other such industry that a community depends on shuts down. How is it the same/different when it's an institution of higher learning? Unfortunately, the nation may know more as time goes on if Moody's Investment Guide is any indication. Which leads me to...

2. How does the closure of Saint Joseph's College compare to other college closures across the nation? If you're writing a book. you must also think of business and marketing. That means finding an audience beyond the Saint Joseph's community. How does what we experienced tie in to what has happened with other small, American colleges? It's been predicted that there will be a record number of small college closings in the coming years. Yes, I'm an academic and I tend to think in terms of compare/contrast. Also, does this have anything to do with the current political climate of the country?

3. Of course there have been many conspiracy theories about why the college closed...or "suspended operations" as the party line would force-feed you to believe. If any of the dark motivations are verifiable and if innocent people have been victims of chicanery, then I would like to bring the perpetrators to justice. That, of course, requires me having verifiable facts and that might be difficult. If I can gather enough solid facts and enough people who would be willing to talk, then yes...there are people whose careers I would love to ruin. But again, any accusations must be supported by the facts and the law must be on my side.

So how will the book be written?

This will be a work of literary nonfiction.

What does that mean? How can something be "literary" and still be nonfiction?

Let me put it this way:

This Monday will be the anniversary of 9/11. I could write a book about that day of terror using only the facts. I could give the exact time of when each plane hit each tower of the World Trade Center. I could give the exact number of people killed that day. I could cite the political deliberations in Congress in the days following the attacks via use of Congressional Record. But would that give anyone any idea of what it was like to be in New York City that morning? Would it convey what it was like to breathe in pulverized glass? Would it give any human depth of what it was like to experience such a day? No. For that, you need the techniques of a fiction writer. To find out what really happened, you need to leave the "just the facts, ma'am" position of the news and write in a way that brings home the descriptive truth of the moment.

What will this mean in terms of a book about St. Joe? Well...

1.The writer will be a character. I cannot be neutral about this in the way that a journalist could. This is my story. I am a character in my own story. I am writing about this in the way that I experienced it. Not only will I convey the facts as I observed them, but I will be offering my own thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is in keeping with the memoir style of writing, of which you can read more here.

2. Mobile stance. I can weave between subjects. While discussing Saint Joe, I can digress and talk about...say, Antioch College. How are we the same? How are we different? The more people I can draw connections to outside of the SJC community, the more people our story will resonate with. Believe me, my research has already demonstrated to me that there are several academics/students across the nation who have shared a similar experience and we should stand in solidarity. To present this, I will need...

3. Research, research, research. Though literary, the writing must first and foremost be in service to the truth. I will need to be become intimate with my subject. This means learning about what has happened at other colleges in the U.S. It also means learning about how not only Saint Joseph's College but the town of Rensselaer and the Society of the Precious Blood came to be. One must know the complete history of how something came to be in order to understand it. The Core program taught me that. I am also finding that I need to become at least semi-knowledgeable on the subjects of business and finance. I have already undergone a vast number of interviews with people both inside and outside of the Puma community. Here's well-known nonfiction writer Susan Orlean on the subject of research and "being there."

Still want to know what this book will be like? Well, then I have a reading list for you. What kind of a professor would I be if I couldn't assign readings? To get an idea of what I'm trying to do, check out these books...

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
Capote went to Holcomb, Kansas after he read a small blurb about a family that had been murdered in a botched robbery. Yes, I know Capote likely fabricated and condensed many facets of his narrative, but he spent copious amounts of time interviewing people in and researching the town of Holcomb. He pioneered the idea of the "nonfiction novel."

The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer.
I read this book in grad school and it really opened up my eyes to what nonfiction writing could do. Mailer is master of phrasing as he describes his participation in a march on the Pentagon during the Vietnam War. His relation of the events plus his gestalt-like observations of himself in the moment changed everything. Very meta. The novel as history. History as a novel.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe.
Research conveyed through the techniques of a fiction writer. True and riveting.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson.
Hunter is the man. This is "gonzo journalism" at its finest. It's a true story but the writer is very much in it and engaged. Seemingly breaking the rules of journalism, the writer could not get closer to the subject...and it works. I hope I can convey the very same sense of intimacy in my book...only without all the drug use. Then again, maybe I should have been using drugs. Might've made the final days of St. Joe more bearable. But I digress...

This is not to say that I place myself or my work on equal parity with any of these writers or their books. Not at all. They are models, templates to follow. In fact, my biggest hope is simply that I can do justice to the people who were there at Saint Joseph's College and lived through this whole nightmare.

Also, this all depends on me finding a publisher who is interested. If any Pumas out there know of someone and want to help out, hit me up.

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