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?  

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets