Friday, October 12, 2018

Why UFOs? Part 1: The childhood years



Photograph of a purported UFO over Minnesota in 1979. Found here.

This is the first of a series that discusses writing, rhetoric, history, modern myth...and UFOs.


"It's not 'What are these things?' It's 'Why are there these things?'"

I don't remember where I read that or who said it, but it perfectly encapsulates my thinking at the moment.

Eight years ago, I started this blog for several reasons. It would serve as a mental distraction. I could plumb subjects that serve as real-life inspirations for my favorite literary genre, science fiction. Most of all, I saw myself as a sort of Art Bell-wannabe...the blog could be a Coast-to-Coast AM in my own, minuscule corner of the Internet. My primary subject matter would be UFOs.

Obviously the blog has evolved quite a bit over the years. I've come to cover...well, just about anything I want (it is mine, after all). But lately I've been considering what was once my primary subject matter and asking myself, "why?"

Why did I ever get interested in this subject? Why did it stick with me for so long? I'm a college professor, a reasonably educated person, and I have at least a foundational understanding of science. Why then would I devote any mental bandwidth to this cultural phenomenon, risking possible ridicule or even worse, professional detriment in the process?

When couched that way, why would anyone pursue it? For any reason?

Yet many do. Take a spin around your cable or satellite guide, and you'll find Ancient Aliens, The X-Files, or something of the ilk. Why? Over a series of blog posts, I want to give deep consideration as to why. For this first installment, I decided I must start with a reflective, autobiographical piece...

I was seven.

Every two or three weeks, the first grade class of St. Augustine Elementary School in Rensselaer, Indiana would walk to the Jasper County Public Library so that we could check out books to read just for fun. The idea was of course to encourage a love of reading, for if you read read read, you will likely learn learn learn. I got the reading part down, anyway.

First grade came right after I saw Star Wars and that movie became my whole life. I was an obsessed little six year-old, ravenous for anything even remotely like that film. On one of those visits to the children's section of the library, I pulled a book from the shelf. It was a hardcover in "that library kind of way" (hoping you know what I mean). It had a green cover, and a series of circular spaceships. It's title? Unidentified Flying Objects. I have googled and googled, but have been unable to find this exact book.

I flipped through the pages of what I thought would be a science fiction story. Instead I found photographs. They were fuzzy, black and white, and I thought the special effects looked nowhere near as good as Star Wars. That is until I read the text and learned that they were photos of things witnessed by other people. I took the book to my first grade teacher.

"Is this real?" I asked her.

"No," she said with vehemence. "It's cruddy garbage and you'd best not waste your time with it."

So what did I do?

I found and read every book I could on the subject. Here is one of them:




My mind drank in all the narratives of the sightings. As humans are predisposed to do, I began to discern patterns in the narratives. The sightings would most often take place at night and in rural areas. They would begin as a cluster of lights in the black. They might hover, or they might dart about with incredible speed, or just generally exhibit flight characteristics beyond anything anyone had seen...but no so weird as to be incomprehensible. If the lights drew closer to the witness, a structured craft, often saucer or cigar-shaped, might come into view.

And then it would be gone.

All of that was exciting enough for my little first grade self, but I wasn't ready for the tidbit that would really send me over the edge. One UFO book, the title lost to my aging memory, ran a photograph with the following caption: "The witness of this UFO also claims to have met the occupants of the craft."

Oh. My. GOD.

Real extraterrestrials? Visiting Earth? All of the science fiction I had been gorging on might be coming true somewhere? Was it anywhere near my house by any chance?

While I was a ravenous reader on the subject, it would be disingenuous of me not to take into consideration the influence of television.




Turning my TV dial one day (yes, I'm that old), I found the show In Search Of with "that guy from Star Trek." Nimoy's gravitas-laden voice paired with weird music that was probably made by some guy on a Moog...it was just classic stuff. The show drew me into the paranormal as a whole, but the UFO episodes naturally stuck with me. Right around this same time, NBC also aired a series called Project UFO.





It was produced by Jack Webb of Dragnet fame. I think I have his opening voiceover committed to memory:

"Ezekiel saw the wheel. This is the wheel he said he saw. These are unidentified flying objects that people say they are seeing now. Are they proof that we are being visited by civilizations from other stars? Or just what are they? The United States Air Force began an investigation of this high strangeness in a search for the truth. What you are about to see is part of that 20-year search."

Each show was (as the producers claim, anyway) based on a real case investigated by USAF's Project: Blue Book. I've re-watched a few of the episodes on YouTube and they're diverting, but void of any real substance. At the time, however, it was yet another enticing aspect of the phenomenon. There's such a chance that this might be real, that the government is investigating. Little did I know...

There was of course Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but I wouldn't end up seeing that until almost out of grade school. Rensselaer only had one movie theater, you know, and if I was going to beg my parents to take me to see something, it was going to be another showing of Star Wars.

Naturally, there were adult figures in my life who pumped the brakes from time to time on my enthusiasm for UFOs. As they should have. My father asked me to consider each case and its evidence...or lack thereof. In a form of the Socratic method suited for a lad my age, he would ask me questions about UFO cases and eventually force me to realize that I had not fully considered all possibilities and that the boomerang-shaped mothership from Zeta Retculai might have actually been geese flying in formation with light reflecting off their light-colored bellies. Other adults weren't so kind. Like so many before me, I learned that to have this interest is to subject one's self to ridicule.

Regardless, I would persist. Why?

Meditating upon the question, I've come up with the following, preliminary reasons:

1. Story. We all form our understanding of the world through narrative, but I feel like it has always held an especially important role in my life. Books, comics, TV, movies, all of it consumed my free time as a child. So enraptured was I by story, that I extended these narratives through play with my action figures and other toys, or even through my first fledgling attempts at writing. A UFO sighting, I subconsciously determined, held a narrative pattern and the elements of a great story. As we say in nonfiction studies, "You can't make this stuff up." Well, you can, but I think even when my younger self doubted a UFO account, I still liked reading it. Why? It was simply a helluva story. Often great stories contain an element of...

2. Mystery. It was an intriguing puzzle. Was it or wasn't it real? I believed it was at the time, but it would be an intellectual challenge to find the evidence and "solve the case," so to speak. Other people liked "Whodunits." I liked "how do we prove it?" As with most things mysterious, there was also...

3. Fear. My little self often wondered, "If these things are real, what would I do if I ever saw one? More to the point, what would they do to me?" These visitors from strange, alien worlds were obviously far beyond human capabilities. If malevolent, what could any of us possibly do to stop them? This x factor brings an excitement that is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Fear of the unknown...

4. But not too unknown. A UFO story was fantastic, but not so utterly bizarre as to be incomprehensible, disorienting, or weird in the traumatic way. I could understand the concept of a spacecraft and aliens. In other words, the narrative was relatable.

This marked the beginning of my lifelong but ever-changing journey with the UFO phenomenon. Many close readers may be looking at the above four points, asking, "Well, can't you give any examples to support yourself?" Yes.

Next post in the series...


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

We have 12 years to save the world from climate change







It's times like these I'm so glad climate change is a hoax.

The UN just dropped a significant report on climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report yesterday that asserts humanity will face "dire" consequences of climate change far sooner than expected. To avoid this, it will require changing the world in way that "has no historical precedent." This report paints a portrait of a future world that has "worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 — a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population."

Good news is, I suppose, that the report states that this can be avoided. It is still possible to keep the world's temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. To do this, however, we will need to cut the world's fossil fuel emissions in half in 12 years.

That means we'd have to really work for it. That means to me, in turn, that we will likely do nothing. As evidence, I point to the current administration's vehement pledge to keep spewing coal into the atmosphere.

Aside: I don't know if I've blogged this before, but I have a new perspective on coal mining since my College closed. Whole communities depend on coal mines for their livelihood. And what is a coal miner in his fifties to do if we take away his job? While the environment is indeed at risk, what will we do for these people?

What can writers do in the face of this news? I suppose a few more cautionary tales of "hellish visions of the future"...as I've once been accused of...couldn't hurt.

Last night I watched a Saints game, and I just couldn't shake the memory of the people who died in the Superdome back in 2005. They sought shelter from a superstorm. As I watched the game, yet another hurricane gathered force in the Gulf of Mexico. We are just now entering the age of the superstorm. What will it be like to live with them on the regular in the future? What will a world of pervasive drought be like? Yeah, don't just say "dry." Think about it.

Drought, heat, and severe weather often bring scarcity. Lack of access to food and water tend to destabilize things. Military control might be necessary. What would life be like in that world.

As warmer temperatures melt permafrost, a good ol' pandemic becomes more likely. Hope you liked the move Outbreak, because you may soon be LARPing it.

We have 12 years...

Might I recommend Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler be kept on everyone's nightstand?


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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

When it comes to horror, I keep it old school




October has finally arrived.

For many, it will be a month-long celebration of Halloween. For anyone who has spent time in goth culture or who loves the weird and the unexplained, they'll tell you "October 31st is for tourists."

One of the ways people will observe the holiday is by watching horror movies, and channels like TCM are serving up a full and tasty buffet. I know that my students, especially my current ones for whatever reason, certainly devour the contemporary products of the horror genre, but me? I keep it old school. It's Universal Monsters all the way. Here's why...

1. Literary heritage.
Given that the Universal films were written towards the early end of the 20th century, the reservoir of film inspiration that could be drawn from was nil. Instead, writers turned to folklore and literature for sources. In the realm of scary stuff, one could hardly do better than Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, with that latter text being the true masterpiece of the two. While the film adaptations may at first appear to have little in common with their literary progenitors, I enjoy watching the movies and finding the themes that remain, hiding just beneath the surface like a child under a sheet. In certain respects, the films mimic the synthesis and composition techniques of Stoker. He drew together history and folklore to create his magnum opus. Tod Browning, in directing Dracula, took the best of the stage play adaptations (namely Bela Lugosi) and added the touches of German expressionism as Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake plays in the background.
Stoker might have also had a little help from John Polidori and that perhaps mythical night that birthed Shelley's Frankenstein, but that is probably best left for another post.
The outlier in the "holy trinity" of Universal Monsters is The Wolf Man. It has no "origin text" and relies solely on myth and folklore.





2. Old ones work for it.
As with so many of today's mass market films, screenwriters in the horror genre seem to rely on bombast and jump scares. Everything is bigger and louder, while also being utterly disposable...as is the case with so much of consumer culture. Use once. Then destroy. Then there's the gore factor. "Torture porn" has never appealed to me, because...among other obvious reasons...it's just too easy.
Given the film standards of the time, Universal Monster films needed rely on creating an ambiance. You might not be especially scared watching Frankenstein or Dracula, but it's hard not to come away with getting a creepy vibe. Just take a look at the graveyard scene that opens that former film. Wow. A straight masterpiece. Black and white film only adds to the effect and directors like James Whale and Tod Browning sure knew what the hell they were doing. There is an artistry at work on the screen that looks good enough to eat. That is if your tastes tend towards the gothy and expressionistic.
It takes thought and a creative eye to bring about this milieu...far more work than "crazy guy with a chainsaw."





3. Shared Universe.
Yes, I hear tell that all the Conjuring films and spinoffs are linked together in a single story. Sequels, such as the bazillion Nightmare on Elm Streets and so forth, are one thing. It's quite another to take separate mythologies and weave them together in a way that makes sense. But that's exactly what Universal did. While a few of the entries (Bride of Frankenstein) are better than others (The Mummy's Hand), I appreciate and enjoy how the different stories get drawn together. 
It's a shame that a few of those films are more or less forgotten today. I'm thinking of Son of Frankenstein, which was the basis for the comedy Young Frankenstein. Not only does it feature a strong performance by the inimitable Basil Rathbone, it's meditation on how wrongdoing can taint an entire family, leaving its members unable to get out from under it.
As for my favorite, "everybody and the kitchen sink" Universal film? Probably House of Frankenstein.



4. Comfort.
It sounds completely antithetical, but I like watching the Universal Monsters precisely because they don't scare me. I've often said, "My real life is scary enough. I don't need to add terror to it." Current horror, with its predilection for serial killers and "ripped from today's headlines" storylines, likes to leave viewers with the thought, "This could happen to you." I can understand how this naturally heightens the terror for those who enjoy such a sensation.
I don't need that. Watching entries in the Universal Monsters mythos, I seldom if ever think the scenario could happen to me. Well, I'll admit that at around age 8, I did have the night sweats while wondering if I was adequately prepared to defend myself against an intruding vampire or werewolf, but that was a long time ago. These films let me enjoy the creep factor from quite a safe distance. So safe that they eventually become the cinematic equivalent of a comfort food like mac and cheese. It's no wonder I love watching Svengoolie every Saturday night.

I have a similar fondness for Hammer films, but that's probably best left for another post.

Happy Halloween.   





Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, September 28, 2018

California launching its own satellite to fight climate change







Pic is of a French satellite, found here.

California is taking action on climate change while others aren't.

Or as Governor Jerry Brown succinctly put it: "With science still under attack and the climate threat growing, we're launching our own damn satellite."

Both the state and its governor have been the butt of many jokes, and justifiably so in a few cases, however this move shows initiative and inspiration on more than one level.

Once in space, the satellite will be able to specifically identify and monitor sources of climate pollution. This would allow for targeted regulatory practices. Good thing too, as California has experienced many of the more severe effects of climate change firsthand, such as drought and wildfires.

This move also emboldens private space enterprises. Planet Labs, the outfit launching the satellite, was founded by former NASA engineers. Even if you're someone still holding on against all reason on the truth of climate change, perhaps you can at least be appreciative of the expansion of private space launches.

While a hopeful move, I believe it's important to remember that the satellite itself won't "fight" climate change. Not exactly. The data it will harness and send back will be invaluable, true. That alone is not enough. We must then act in order to stop the environmental process, or at least slow it down. I guess this is where the cynic in me thinks the satellite will ultimately allow us a bird's eye view of our own extinction.

Now there's a plot to write. It would be a series of log entries by a human in orbit, each entry recording the acceleration of climate change, remarking on the visible changes to the atmosphere and the planet itself (e.g. rising tides and swallowed coastlines, widening deserts.) What would the reactions of this last human be? Anger? Resignation? "I told you so?" Maybe this person chose orbit to live out their final days, having grown tired of talking to the brick walls of fellow people. Are there any final artifacts of the human race on that orbiting space station? Please tell me they're a case of beer and season one of Sanford & Son (catch the joke?) Anything of humanity stored in the station's computer?

"I must scream but who would listen?" HAL says...


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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Sarcastic robots: A rhetorical analysis





So there I was last weekend, watching Super Sci Fi Saturday Night like I always do.

I was also live tweeting along with my fellow fans, like I always do.

Sometime during Buck Rogers, amid all our usual MST3K-style jokes, someone tweeted a good question:

"Why are robots so often written as sarcastic wise-crackers?"

The tweet was in reference to Twiki, of course (pictured above). Voiced by Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny and myriad other cartoon characters), Twiki's lines are written to come across as the comic relief of the program, sounding either crotchety and warmly caustic (only way I have to describe it) or serving the purpose of groaner one-liners. Groan though we might, he's the only member of the cast to make the others laugh. Not even Buck can pull that off, even though he tries.

Twiki is not alone. In fact, there's another sarcastic robot right in the Super Sci Fi Saturday Night line up. The Robot, as a matter of fact, from Lost in Space.




More often than not, the Robot delivers lines a flat, serious tone. Sometimes the tenor mismatches the words of the statement and hilarity may ensue (numerous examples, go find them yourself). Towards the end of the series however, a dry sarcasm creeps into his dialogue, particularly as a means of dealing with the irascible, nigh insufferable, Dr. Smith.

Then of course there's R2-D2.





The running gag among Star Wars fans is that Artoo is actually the most sarcastic and foul-mouthed droid in the galaxy. We just can't hear what he's saying. The typically gnathonic C-3PO does, and has from time to time said, "You watch your language." In Empire Strikes Back, when Threepio is more or less in pieces, R2 beeps something at him.

"Of course I've looked better!" Threepio snipes back.

Seems logical to infer that R2-D2 said, most sarcastically, "You've never looked better."

Why do we do this? Why do writers in science fiction repeatedly instill a sarcastic, metallic tongue in the mouths of our 'bots? Not always, of course. There are plenty that aren't funny, but the trope does appear common. Why?

Comedic effect is the obvious answer. Somebody needs to bring cheap laughs and relieve the tension while the hero of the space opera fights the good fight. True as that may be, the tendency to instill wisecracking and sarcasm in our mechanical creations goes beyond the fictional into the real. Just like Siri for example, and the eye-rolling jokes she's programmed to kick out.

The rhetorical device may be there not simply to make us laugh, but to put us at ease. I would argue that it serves as a verbal, textual means to lead us out of the "uncanny valley."

The "uncanny valley" is a concept in robotics that deals with the robot's appearance. If a robot has the obvious appearance of a machine, such as the ones we've looked at thus far, we are not troubled by the device because it doesn't look at all human. If a construct is completely human in appearance, such as the Replicants of Blade Runner, we don't even know the difference.

Anything in between is just a little too strange and weirds us out. That's when we arrive in "the uncanny valley." A real-life example may be...




There may yet also be a bit of "uncanny valley" going on in the "cute" robots of shows and movies I mentioned as well. Twiki can fly a starfighter, R2 can work a computer and pick locks, and in general they are more than able perform many of the tasks once reserved for opposable-thumbed, higher-thinking humans. If so, what else can they do? What else will they be able to do? Will the robots take your job? Can the robot revolt be far away?

The rhetoric of sarcasm disarms such fears. It is present not solely for comedic effect, but to lead us out of the uncanny valley, or perhaps to prevent us from wandering down into it in the first place. "You have a sense of humor, and a feisty one at that. You must be like me. You must be on our side. You must be all right." 

I could be wrong. As the great scholar of rhetoric, Wayne Booth once wrote: "The problem is thus that in judging rhetoric, we cannot escape our own deepest convictions." While "convictions" might be a bit strong of a term, I certainly have an admitted affinity for these mechanical characters and despite their cheese factor, maybe I just want to see something more than entertainment at work, even if influencing the writing on a purely subconscious level.

Maybe the presence is part of the solution, too. True, we can help prevent the possibility of a "roboapocalypse" by teaching AI's philosophy and helping them to adopt high ideals and to mimic the best of human nature while eschewing the worst. A sarcastic sense of human might serve to further "humanize" our creations.

Or give them great one liners to kick out while they're mowing us down.

Bidi bidi bidi.



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Friday, September 21, 2018

Poetry: If Gibson can do it, so can I. Maybe.


I am taking a poetry class.

Yes, you read that correctly. I need another elective for my terminal degree and one of my only real options was Nature Writing. That subject matter is difficult enough for me, given that I am not at all woodsy (activities such as camping and canoeing must occupy certain circles of Dante's Inferno), but its even more problematic than that.

Unbeknownst to me when I registered, a key component of the class is the reading and writing of poetry...something I have never attempted to write.

Daunting to say the least. Aside from the epic narratives of the canon, a few literary poems (THE RAVEN!), and of course song lyrics, I've never been attracted to poems. I've certainly never felt a calling to write them. My mind has opened somewhat upon learning that one of my favorite writers, William Gibson, published a poem in 1992.

How the blazes did I not know this?

Called Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), it is a 300-line poem about nostalgia, memory, consciousness, and how viewing the past is always framed by the present and not the reality of that bygone time.

Of course with it being Gibson, there had to be a connection to technology. The poem came on a 3.5 floppy disk (it was 1992, after all) and after the user opened the file and read it, it would encrypt itself. Gone.

Ephemeral, get it?

I wonder if I could do something similar for class? It could be a mixed-media presentation, where I present a few lines about...I don't know...nuts, twigs, and berries, and piece by piece the words are overwritten with others such as "bandwidth," "assimilation," "upload," "chrome polymer," and "singularity." I'd need to find a coder to pull it off.

A bit much, I think.

The class has actually been good. If the brain is allowed to be flexible, one finds that "nature" encompasses a wide variety of interesting topics for writing.The readings are compelling and my fellow students have been great partners for banter.

As for poetry...guess I might not be too terrible at it.



Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

What one episode can do




Image from the Star Trek episode, "The Tholian Web," copyright Paramount Pictures.


"It's just a TV show."

I've heard that said in jest and I've said it myself, dripping with smugness and cruelty.

As I've written before, I regret those sentiments and the awful attitude that spawned them. Recently, I was reminded yet once more of just how wrong I was. It happened while watching the original Star Trek, specifically an episode called, "The Tholian Web." It sent me all the way back to the 1980s and my freshman year of high school.

While supposedly "the best years of your life," my high school experience was anything but. In fact, it was downright miserable and I hated damn near every day I had to go. I was the son of a college professor in a rural, agricultural community where football and basketball are viewed as sacred rites, somewhere above confession but just ever so slightly beneath communion, to use a Catholic comparison. Me? I was a scrawny, socially awkward kid who liked books and computers.

It caught on fast that I was no athlete and I had no desire to be. "That's fine, boy," school admins told me before rushing off to dandle their beloved players. "But don't you be inflicting your views on anyone else." I think I got that when I protested having to go to pep rallies rather than class. Why the hell should I be forced to sit in those bleachers or stands and cheer on very same people who beat me up? For no reason?

Yeah. I got your "Bomber pride" right here.

If it sounds like a cliche, well...it is. But these are the sorts of experiences that tend to give people a creative sensibility. So I got that going for me. Which is nice. But I digress...

Like I said, the episode took me back to a Saturday in early March during my freshman year. I was at a school function for one reason or another, hanging with Mel, one of the few friends I had at the time. A small mass of upperclassmen came over to us.

"Got a joke for you," one guy told Mel.
He cupped a hand to Mel's ear, leaned in and whispered. One of the other troglodytes turned to me with a smile I'll never forget and said, "It's a good joke."

After hearing it, Mel rolled his eyes while the others laughed and went away.

"Was that about me?" I asked Mel.
"Yes," he answered. "But when they do that, I stick up for you."

Just a joke. Didn't stop it from haunting me all the rest of the day. The fact that the incident happened at all drilled holes into me, slicing and cutting until years later, I would have no choice but to steel myself and fight back, taking it out on all the wrong people. But that's another story.

I just could not get past the fact that so many people disliked me. What was more, even if they knew what it did to me, it likely would make no difference. For if it would, they wouldn't be doing it in the first place. I must, for whatever reason, be worthy of all this animosity.

All of that tossed and roiled in my brain as I went home at the end of the day. There was nothing else I could do except what I did every Saturday at 4pm: watch Star Trek.

Yeah like I said, this could not be any more cliche.

The episode was called "The Tholian Web." In it, the Enterprise comes across the Defiant, a sister ship of the fleet. The latter ship is found drifting dead in space. The usual suspects of the Star Trek cast beam over and find that the crew of the Defiant is missing. This is due to the fact that the area of space is a border zone between dimensions and the Defiant is slowly slipping into it. The Enterprise folks decide to high tail it out of there, but Captain Kirk gets left behind, falling into the other dimension.

Spock is therefore in command, and he immediately begins efforts to get his friend and their Captain back. Things go from bad to worse as ships full of aliens called Tholians arrive, accusing the Enterprise of intruding in their territory. They begin to wrap the Enterprise in an energy web, imprisoning it. Spock can't catch a break because not only is the Captain missing in transdimensional space, not only are they under attack from hostile aliens, the crew is revolting against his his "all logic, no emotion" style of leadership in this crisis, particularly the hotheaded Dr. McCoy, who second-guesses all of Spock's orders.

While this episode does not rank high among fans as there is a good deal of cheese present (come on, which episode of ST:TOS is free of it?), I think it might actually be my all-time favorite one. Yes, it's sentimental for me, as the episode came at just the right time and acted as a balm, taking my mind from my present circumstances to someplace fantastic, ameliorating the slings and arrows from my thoughtless peers. It's more than that, however. In a weird, meta way, it felt like Judy Burns and Chet Richards wrote that episode just for me, just for that very moment in my life. One scene in particular gave me that impression.





Since Kirk was presumed dead, Spock and McCoy had to watch a video Kirk left behind for them in the event anything should anything happen to him. In it, Kirk tells them both to...essentially...cut one another some slack. He explains to McCoy that Spock is facing the most difficult decisions of his career and that he must be quietly straining and struggling beyond belief in that moment. Spock, on the other hand, should temper his logic with the human insight that McCoy could provide. Once the video ended, both men stood in silence for a time. Until...

McCoy: Spock...I'm sorry. It must be difficult.
Spock: What would you have me say, Doctor?

Later, I would remember this moment when a cooler head told me that much of what is taken as malice is actually born out of ignorance. That, and the fact that everyone is fighting a battle we know nothing about. Be kind. Advice I should have followed more often in my life. In that moment, however, I saw that scene written as holding the promise that two people in conflict could come to understanding if they just had the merest glimpse into one another's heads. Somewhere, there was hope.

That, and I did have at least one or two good friends like Mel, a wonderful guy that I should have spent a lot more time with when I could've. "I stick up for you." Those words of his still mean a great deal to me.

"Just a TV show"?

It comes from the written word...and few things can change you like the written word.

And it may come from the most surprising and unsuspecting of places.



Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, September 14, 2018

11 ways humanity could go extinct


What better way to kick off your weekend than considering human extinction?

I'm aware that it's been "kind of a thing" around this blog, but I just happened upon this article.

Yes, yes, it's a "listicle" and the title "11 Extremely Likely Ways Humans Will Go Extinct" is phrased in a most Trumpian manner, but the selected scenarios bear examination.

All the usual culprits are on the list: nuclear war, global pandemic, and asteroid impact, are perennial threats. Overpopulation is yet another serious factor to consider, while alien invasion is most unlikely. 

There are, however, two entries that don't get as much air time on ESE. One is the risk of supervolcano. One sits just underneath Yellowstone park, and when that caldera goes...you can imagine. Last decade, one volcanic eruption in Iceland wreaked havoc with airline travel over the Atlantic. The Yellowstone Caldera would cover the breadbasket of America in ash.

Then there are black holes. They were once thought to be stagnant, but it now seems that those monsters can roam about the universe, consuming whatever comes into their path. Fun, huh?

Who ever said the natural world was a friendly place? Who ever said humanity must last forever?

People always say "I don't want to talk/think about these things", but how much of our popular fiction centers on extinction? Maybe instead of extinction, I should say, "end of the world as we know it"? Writers love it, what with Walking Dead and the entire glut of zombie apocalypse variations of the past decade or more. My writer's mind is actually wandering more towards something like the film Oblivion. The world is over, but aliens use the leftover husk of our planet as a "Botany Bay" for their undesirables. Got a space pirate? Send them here.

Through the prison planet walks a space ninja....seeking enlightenment...

Yeah, I should probably kill any thoughts of writing that. The pure stupidity of such a tale could cause human extinction by sucking away our remaining brain cells. It's not like we have many left at this point.

Many years ago, I might've been all right with any of these extinction scenarios coming to pass. I certainly thought about them in the wake of SJC closing. But since those angsty twenty-something days, I've been lucky enough to fall in with people I love and things are going very well.

Let's see what we can do to put this off for a while, shall we?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Voynich Manuscript





I have something of a new fascination.

A year and a half ago, during the sad and loathsome days of a closing college, I taught an English class called Language, Grammar, and Society. We ended up creating our own language. It was incomprehensible to anyone but us. We wrote messages with it in"tapestries," including all manner of weird art.

I wish I would have known about the Voynich Manuscript during that class.

I found out about the manuscript while sifting through The New Yorker, finding this excellent article by Reed Johnson. Ever since, I've been hooked as the strange book seems to be this "perfect storm" of subjects that fascinate me.

It is a book written in a thus far indecipherable language, save for a paltry few words in Latin.





An exact date for the manuscript is difficult to ascertain, but the vellum has been carbon dated to the early 15th century, 1401-1438. It likely came from what is now Italy and the book gets its name from Wilfrid Voynich, a rare book dealer who bought the manuscript in 1912.

It gets weirder.

There are illustrations inserted through out the unreadable text. They depict bizarre plants and flowers found nowhere in nature. There are glyphs that resemble zodiac or occult symbols, there are diagrams of what appear to be constellations or positions of planets, and there are strange creatures, a few resembling dragons.




This thing makes both Yellow Submarine and Naked Lunch look lucid. Given my tastes, I hope you know, gentle ESE reader, that I mean no disrespect to those works of art by any means. I'm simply saying they are not the most...accessible of creations. Nevertheless, I ask myself the same questions after reading any text:

Who wrote this?
Why did they write it?
What is their primary message?

One possibility is it is a guide to herbs and herbal remedies. Another is that it is a late Renaissance grimoire, composed by someone who fancied him or herself a sorcerer, an alchemist, or another such variety of occultist. Looking over the pages, I can't shake a gut-level similarity I sense between this book and the Malleus Maleficarum, a guide for hunting witches (really it's a book designed to persecute and even execute women), a text I taught at my previous college. As fabricated as that book was, so too might the Voynich be a hoax, In fact, there are those who blame Voynich himself, saying he created the book Why write it in code? Perhaps so that the occult author's secret spells would remain known only to the author. One should also consider the very real threat such an author would faced at that time in Europe. If this writer were truly practicing a faith other than Catholicism, they would no doubt be called a witch and dealt with customarily. The book's meaning may be deliberately obfuscated out of self-preservation.




Note the cross in the left hand of the upper, naked woman. Lord only knows what's raining down on the second woman.

All the secrecy and danger, of course, begs the question: why write it down in the first place? Why would you want to take the chance of getting caught with something so heretical during such times?

Then again, perhaps it's not really "code." Is it possible that somehow this really is in a language hitherto un-encountered in human history? Even if it was read and written...maybe even spoken...among a small group of people, do we still consider a language? Several times there have been claims from someone who "cracked" the case, but each call of triumph seems to result in no soap. I guess even Alan Turing was unable to decipher its meaning. So many, many questions...

Seriously...why would someone write this book? It's one of those things that by all logic it should not exist, and yet there it is. I suppose that's one of the reasons that lends at least a few camps to believe it's likely a hoax, a sort of highbrow prank.

I'm surprised Dan Brown hasn't jumped on this one. Maybe that's his next mega-buck fluff in the pike.

Speaking of the conspiracy-minded, I've come across a few comments from those who, and you knew this was coming, believe the book to be of alien origin. Or at least inspired by otherworldly visitation. The plants look weird because they are, indeed, not of this Earth. They are from Mars. The language is unreadable to our eyes because it was not created by humans. It is Martian. This all plays nicely into the theory that, however misguided, states that humanity originated on Mars and migrated to Earth in the dimmest moments of the past.





All great stories...but that's about it.




As I said, I'm a newbie to the Voynich Manuscript. As such, I'm afraid I don't have much to offer that would be insightful. I can, however, assure you I will be reading more and posting more.

For the moment, I really like this theory from XKCD:





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Monday, September 3, 2018

Nanotechnology and religion



Even though I'm no longer teaching Core 10, I have found a way to work transhumanism into the coursework at my current institution.

This of course will include covering nanotechnology.

In English, we teach rhetorical analysis. This means taking a text and discerning what a writer is saying and what strategies and evidence are present in the text to support the writer's point. There are of course a diversity of opinions on a subject such as nanotechnology, which in addition to its timeliness, makes the subject fitting for such an exercise. It is yet undetermined whether it will happen in my present class, but several objections and otherwise cautionary claims in Core 10 came from the sector of religion.

I was reminded of this by an article in The Guardian (which I once wrote for, yes I'll keep plugging) called Nanotechnology and Religion: a complex relationship.

I'll say.

The article opens up by referencing a science fiction book that envisions a panel of Muslim scholars considering whether or not it would be right to eat a slice of bacon constructed by nanotechnology. After all, the bacon is not carved from that unclean animal, the pig. It has been built atom by atom by nanobots. Does that obviate the objection in dogma?

"The story may look like a joke, but it shows how the capacity of nanotechnology to manipulate atoms may change the material world in such a way to raise religious questions," says Chris Toumey, a cultural anthropologist at the University of South Carolina. He wrote the paper Seven Religious Reactions to Nanotechnology. I'm going to read it eventually. Honest. Just a little busy right now. But I digress...

Indeed, as much as someone of a more secular bent might be inclined to *eyeroll* at religious objections, the objections bring with them concrete concerns. Note that the bacon example entails a bacon slice assembled atom by atom. That advanced level of nanotechnology is the power of creation itself. If you can make and remake matter in any combination you choose, it's hard not to see that as God-like. What are the implications? Much as I might have longed for it, as I'm guessing so many of us have at one time or another, I am spiritually afraid of holding the power of God.

There are ramifications for ourselves in other regards. Transhumanists such as Kurzweil proclaim one of the benefits of nanotech to be longevity. A human body infused with nanotechnology may contribute to lifespans previously undreamed of. This may come about via nanotech-assisted cell regeneration or nanobots in the bloodstream destroying loathsome life such as cancer cells before they even fully form. That latter thought keeps me warm at night. And yet there are religious questions associated with immortality, or even prolonged lifespan.

That is among the many other questions.

From The Guardian article:

"Catholics relate the issue with classical bioethics problems: will new embryo diagnostics coming from nanotchnology lead to abortion? Will nanomedicine respect human dignity, even when health conditions deteriorate up to a point where euthanasia could be considered?

Non-Catholic Christians express their concerns about human hubris: for example, one author compares nanotechnology to alchemy, warning about the dangers of "total control over nature in the ability to transmute any substance into any other". Muslims take a very different path: rather than debating whether nanotechnology is right or wrong, they discuss who has the authority to make a decision. The question is casted in terms of ijtihad, the Islamic procedures for issuing legal rulings. Jewish writers frame the debate in the narrative of the Golem, This is a human-shaped creature assembled by men with religious or magic powers, whose behaviour can be beneficial or dangerous, in different stories: the baseline is that technology can improve creation, but this comes with a burden of responsibility for humans."

The Golem! Wow. I was thinking of Frankenstein's monster, but I suppose that's more of a secular metaphor.

What might atheists say? Does one need religion in order to see a need for weighty consideration before opening the floodgates on all things nanotech? Just see Robert Oppenheimer's quote about "going after something technically sweet and worrying about the consequences later" (paraphrased). I've been looking to see what Christopher Hitchens might have said on the subject, but have been unsuccessful at finding any writings or interviews that cover it. I didn't choose him because he spoke for all atheists, rather I just know he was a prolific writer and speaker, thus I might have stood a better chance at locating an essay. I wonder if nanotechnology might have allowed him to feel less powerless in the end. 

One might also be curious of the reaction from the more fundamentalist wings of the various major religions. Who can tell? The only certainty is that there will be one. Rhetorically, fundamentalism is a response to modernism. When life changes and technology advances, there will always be a subset of the population that views the changes with distrust and clings to black and white thinking.

This all bleeds with potential for thought, debate, and just general chewing over, far more than what this mere blog post allows, what we might call a "genre constraint" in comp/rhet studies. 

As I've always done, I'll let you know what the class says.



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Friday, August 31, 2018

Martin Rees: Earth in its Final Century?



Art found here at Phys.org.


I experienced a synchronicity of sorts this past week.

Then again, it's probably not that much of a synchronicity when you read the sort of stuff I do and have a penchant for synthesis.

I saw this article--maybe more of a blub--in Forbes: "It's Official: The Transhuman Era Has Begun." It describes what transhuman technologies will be available in the next decade, such as biohacking and technological augmentation. What took me aback somewhat is the timeline of ten years. That does not mean the arrival of Kurzweil's Singularity, per se, but it seems we will definitely see the line between human and machine get a whole lot blurrier.

Then I saw an old TED talk by Sir Martin Rees. I've written about him long ago. Rees is the author of books such as  Our Cosmic Habitat. In that book he asks if what we see as the laws of the cosmos are actually more like local ordinances. How common is life in space? How credible is the Big Bang Theory? I know I've had challengers of the theory in the now-closed comments section here on ESE. Speaking of comments section, I'm really somewhat embarrassed by my comments in that previous link. Hope I'm not that way anymore

Rees also wrote a book called, Our Final Hour. It forms the basis for his TED Talk: "Is Earth in Its Final Century?" Rees, like many others who follow transhumanism, assert that we have entered the first century where humans can not only alter the planet but truly alter ourselves. Change ultradian cycles, and maybe even change solar cycles while we're at it. Rees considers what might happen as a result of "technological misadventure." An example may be "gray goo" as an unintended consequence of nanotechnology. He also warns of a scenario when someone who has the kind of mentality to program computer viruses gets a hold of something like nanotech or biohacking.

Or if not a rapscallion looking to launch a devastating prank, there is also the chance terrorists might exploit these new developments. Like many others, Rees has been warning of biowarfare for years. He points to  Aum Shinrikyo, the cult who launched that sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway. Apparently, the cult tried getting an ebola sample, but failed. Now that sample could have been biohacked together in their lab on Mt. Fuji.

Well, what's the worst that could happen? Human extinction, says Rees. To either avoid or flee such a catastrophe, Rees posits that humanity will move out into space, colonizing nearby planets and beyond.

No shortage of writing on this subject, both fiction and nonfiction. One aspect of Rees' argument for space colonization troubles me and that is, simply, if we move out into space, we still take us with us. A few of our species may survive extinction, but human nature remains the same. Sure, we'd stay scared for a while, maybe even for years as we vow to "never let it happen again." Maybe it would stick. Somehow, I doubt it. That's probably just the cynic in me, but check out Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles sometime.

When I watch the news these days, it's a struggle for me not to see humanity as that very bioweapon Rees fears. Our moving outward into the universe would just be spreading that pathogen.

Here's the TED talk:




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Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Review--Black Panther




BLACK PANTHER
starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Sterling K. Brown, Martin Freeman, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, and Lyle Wagner as The Beav.

Wakanda is a highly advanced nation in the middle of Africa, hidden from the view of the rest of the world. T'Challa, the heir to the nation's throne, is also the superhero known as Black Panther. The aftermath of Captain America: Civil War still echoes in this film as T'Challa seeks to lead Wakanda and consider what...if any...role the nation will have on the world stage. But before anything can happen, he faces a challenger for the throne...someone with a past connected to Wakanda and a thirst for vengeance that cannot be slaked.




Just as I've been complaining about comic book movies, Black Panther comes along. This film may be the greatest achievement of the subgenre. It's more than just run together scenes of fighting, "cool technology", and characters tossing quips, although there is a modicum of all of those tropes. No, this is something that runs deeper and asks questions of all of us. Firstly, T'Challa is a character more apt to use his cunning and intelligence than his kung fu and gadgets, granting the character (just as he has on the written page) an air of nobility and maturity. More than that even, this film is a deep mediation on justice, facing truth, and moral imperatives. Most of this is achieved through the story's antagonist, Killmonger.




MANY SPOILERS AHEAD.

"Killmonger," as he is nicknamed, is actually the cousin of Black Panther. As such, he may challenge T'Challa for the throne of Wakanda (slight shades of Hamlet, perhaps). He is perhaps the most compelling of all the MCU enemies for the simple fact that though he plays the antagonist, many find themselves supporting him over Black Panther. Killmonger has been abandoned, denied, and cast out to fend for himself through no fault of his own. Also, he does have a strong philosophical argument. "If you hold the power to save someone, are you not obligated to do so?" Shouldn't Wakanda, resplendent with wealth and technology due to its access to the rare element Vibranium, serve to benefit the lives of all fellow African people?

Killmonger certainly thought so. In fact, the hashtag "#killmongerwasright" began trending soon after the film's release. So how is the audience kept from throwing down on Killmonger's side and not that the title character, the one they presumably paid money to see?

Through crafty writing.

Aside: That might be a marvelously experimental narrative. The title character and the assumption that he/she is the protagonist are all red herrings. The "bad guy" is really "the good guy" and goes on to be the focal point of the franchise. Now THAT would be a switcheroo. Might lose an audience with such narrative subterfuge, and I certainly doubt the suits in the business offices would ever go for it. Sure would be nifty as heck to experiment with it, though. But I digress...

Why do we stick with Black Panther? Well first of all, Killmonger is violent towards women. I'm not talking about his fight with the elite guards of Wakanda. That scene could be interpreted as trained warriors meeting on equal terms. No, there are times where Killmonger commits unprovoked or thoughtless acts of aggression against female characters. Does he even value women? The very question, plus his actions, renders his position untenable.

There is also the question of just how his intentions of "setting things right" have morphed. As he orders weapons and technology sent to people of African descent in many corners of the world, Killmonger says, "The sun will never set on the Wakandan empire." This clearly suggests that Killmonger no longer seeks justice. Instead, he wants control. This is somewhat natural in human nature. If you have been harmed and felt powerless, your broken spirit may yearn for the power to bring everything under your control, and make forever certain that no one could ever perpetrate such harm on you or anyone else ever again. We see this in the tragedy...however badly written and acted...of Anakin Skywalker. "Someday I will rule that none of this will ever happen again. To do that I must have complete control."

It is no longer justice at this point. It is merely another form of tyranny.

As is bound to happen in such a course of action, Killmonger is defeated, mortally wounded by Black Panther. In a scene drenched in pathos, we see Panther, aware of his people's role in Killmonger's suffering and remorseful for it, offers Killmonger mercy in the form of medical care and a life in Wakanda. Present in the character's interactions is their additional, shared experience of both men going through the loss of their fathers. Despite the offering, Killmonger smartly knows what Black Panther is really describing is life in a cage, and he chooses death, citing inspiration from captured Africans who threw themselves overboard from ships rather than become slaves. Better to face death on your terms than languish in someone else's vision.

But he remains a criminal.

Killmonger was right, but his methods were wrong. His anger and hatred were justified, but he allowed them to reach critical mass and take him beyond the scope of his original mission.

This film is truly an achievement. I'm glad I finally saw it.
  

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Your chance to live in a UFO




Photo is from The Guardian.


If ever there were an architectural style meant just for me, the Futuro would be it.

The Guardian, a publication I'm happy to say I've written for, published this article on the Futuro. I've seen this style before, and I always guessed it was something meant as kitsch or one-offs designed exclusively for UFO nuts. For example, famous actor and UFO devotee, Jackie Gleason, had a manor shaped like a flying saucer that he called "the mothership."

There is a story in UFO lore that after golfing with Nixon, the then-president asked Gleason if he wanted to come see alien bodies recovered from a UFO crash, being kept in cryogenics at Homestead AFB in Florida. Google it sometime. Great story, but probably no more than that. But I digress...

The pod-like Futuro homes were designed in the 1950s by Finnish architect, Matti Suuronen. He emphasized that the design came purely from the elegance and practicality of mathematics, but  I think one would be forgiven for suspecting other influences, caught inadvertently from the zeitgeist if nothing else. It was the time when flying saucers entered public consciousness in waves of sightings called "flaps." Atomic Horror b-movies, such as Forbidden Planet, featured such spaceships in spades. The one pictured above even has a deployed staircase for entry, just as if the house were a landed saucer.

Only 100 were ever built and even fewer still survive today. I thought I saw one when I visited Albuquerque, but while locals call it "the spaceship" or "the bug house," I found out it's not a true Futuro. I did, however, drive past one when I visited Chris from Dorkland in Tampa. That Futuro is now the VIP room at a strip club called 2001: A Nude Odyssey.

I really should have taken a picture of the exterior for the name alone.

This dwelling isn't a Futuro, either...at least I don't think so...but it follows the same spirit....





I'm trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a structure that was completely circular. Would it throw you off at all? It's strange, but I believe I've been psychologically conditioned to live in structures and rooms that are all square or slight variations on the square. Would living in a "saucer" stimulate the imagination? In addition to living in it, what would it like to have it as a writer's office?

I might just be influenced by glancing at the photo above, but I think I'd like a Futuro in the woods, up on stilt "landing gear" just as in these photos. Sort of like a fire tower, you know? I'm certainly not woodsy, but I'd like the isolation and the shape of the Futuro would seem to...I dunno...hold it at bay, more so even than the standard square. Purely psychological, I'm sure, but that's how I feel.

Then again, Whitley Strieber had many of his experiences in a cabin in an isolated, wooded region of upstate New York. Being in the wilds inside a saucer-shaped building might be tempting fate a bit too much for my tastes.

So look around. There might be a Futuro you could pick up cheap. I'll let you know if I find one, but I'm not thinking the family will want to move.


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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

If I rewrote Forbidden Planet




I have a writing exercise I sometimes play with.

I'll read a book or watch a film that's really awful, and I try to think about how you could rewrite it and improve it (at least that's how I intellectually justify my love of b-movies.) I also sometimes do the same with stories that might come off as dated to modern sensibilities. How would you rework them to appeal to a contemporary audience?

I recently did the latter as I watched Forbidden Planet.

The 1950s saw a flood of b-movie science fiction films, spawned by the dawn of the Atomic Age. Others have even gone so far as categorize the films as an entire subgenre called "Atomic Horror." A few of these films were works of great quality, such Them! and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Of course the other end of the spectrum was equally or more represented with such fare as Plan 9 From Outer Space. Fortunately, Forbidden Planet is quite a gem. It's visual effects are absolutely stunning, particularly for its time, and the story actually has depth and thought to it with obvious allusions to Shakespeare's The Tempest.

As such, I want to make clear that I think Forbidden Planet should remain just as is and should never be remade, or if it absolutely must be, I hope it is undertaken by someone smarter than I am. What I blog now is merely a mental exercise. It also has quite a few spoilers ahead, so be warned.

In the film, a colony on the planet Altair IV has gone quiet. A spaceship is sent to investigate. Here's the ship:




The ship and its crew are commanded by John J. Adams, played by Leslie Nielsen.




This might come as a shock to those who knew Nielsen for his numerous, not to mention brilliant, comedic roles, but he was at one time a stereotypical Hollywood "leading man."

When the expedition arrives on Altair IV, they discover there are only two survivors of the colony. One is Dr. Edward Morbius, a scientist.




The other is Morbius' daughter, Altaira.




A fetching young lady who has known no other man besides her father, Altaira is of course immediately fascinated by this entire ship-full of men that has suddenly landed by her home.

Here is where things would need to be adjusted for a modern audience. The crew of the ship is entirely male and entirely white. I would change this. I would do so not to be raffish or out of any servitude to political correctness or pandering to "SJWs." Rather, a diverse crew would simply be realistic. Look at the average workplace today. Finding one that is either all male or all white or both is increasingly rare. It would only make sense that the crew of the ship reflects this fact. It also sets up interesting possibilities for Altaira.

In the film, Altaira is played as this sort of "babe in the wilderness," naive but naturally enraptured by all of these newly arrived men. Even though the film was made in 1956 and the crew all come off as all-American boys-next-door, one still gets the creepy sense that at least a few of these men would not mind taking full advantage of Altaira's sheltered existence. Having female crew members might change this dynamic. How might conversations go between Altaira and other female characters? After all, she has never met another woman. Female spacefarers might counsel Altaira, showing her that she can generate her own interests and her own self-worth, rather than find it in the affections of a man.

Then I thought, why not go one better? What if we gender-flipped Morbius? What if Altaira had been raised by her mother? How might Altaira be different? Would she still view the men the same way? Possibly. We do have natural urges. Still, I wonder how having a strong maternal figure around might make a difference in Altaira's personality and interactions.

Earlier, I mentioned that the crew comes off something of a cross between a 1950s Ivy League football team and the boys from Archie comics. For the most part, they seem to all get along. This seems just as unrealistic to me as to the homogeneous ethnicity and gender of the crew. I certainly wouldn't want go all "Edgy McPostmodernism" have them all be grimy and misanthropic, but a touch more tension between them might serve the story well and make for a few interesting subplots.

But there are aspects of the film I would never change.

Arguably, the real star of the story is Robby the Robot, a robot that serves as Morbius' major domo. He is one of the very first robots in a film to exhibit a distinct personality and became something of a fixture in terms of what people would immediately think of when hearing the word, "robot."





Robby's appearance is of course dated, and no doubt the suits in a contemporary film studio would want to change it. I just couldn't do it. Perhaps removing the mechanical gears sound effects and make him a bit more digital, but that's it. Dammit...Robby is a classic. Leave him be. 

I also would not change the story's true antagonist. It's brilliant.

Upon settling on Altair IV, the colony found an abandoned city of sorts, once inhabited by a now extinct race called the Krell. This advanced race built a device that could create anything their minds envisioned. What they did not account for were the "monsters of the id." These include the subconscious thoughts we all have but seldom express, yet they are there. We may (hopefully) control their release, but we cannot eliminate their existence. Once manifested into reality, these monstrosities killed the Krell.

As Morbius experiments with the device, he unleashes his own id demon and wipes out the entire colony, save for himself and his daughter.




It's just such a great idea....and I'm convinced it must have inspired the Jonny Quest episode, "The Invisible Monster."

What of the Krell themselves? Ah yes. I can't decide. I'm of two minds. Part of me really wants to delve into that race, giving them a fully revealed backstory and most important of all, allowing us to see them at last. Morbius could come across a hologram or other suitable media during his research. It could roll out the whole history of the Krell in visual rather than oral form.

Then again, part of me really wants them to remain a mystery. It does add something to the mystique and the "going into the unknown" sensibility one gets as soon as the ship lands on the planet.

Oh but it would be so much fun to create the story of the Krell.

Decisions...decisions...

In summation, characters and their interactions would benefit from a change that represents our current reality and likely future. Everything else? Don't touch it.

Especially don't CGI it to death and overwhelm an otherwise thought-provoking story.


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Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Parker spacecraft launches for the Sun


It hurtles through space as we speak.

In the wee hours of last Sunday, NASA launched the Parker solar probe. There are several unique aspects to this mission.

First of all, it's quite a technical achievement. The probe is covered in a shielding that will all the machine to orbit continuously in close proximity to the Sun, all while keeping its sensors and inner "guts" at a cool room temperature. What's more, there is a "scoop" that will extend and take samples of the corona, the plasma that makes up the uppermost section of the Sun. Yes, Parker will actually be able to "touch" the Sun. As if all of that were not impressive enough in and of itself, Parker is officially the fastest object ever made by humans, moving at 435,000 mph. That beats the record of Voyager 1 and 2.

A major objective of the Parker probe will be to glean a greater understanding of solar wind, those charged particles the Sun occasionally likes to fling our way. They tend to cause pesky problems with vital facets of our lives, such as communication satellites or even entire power grids if the burst is sufficiently large enough. Knowing more about solar wind will allow us to better predict and prepare for these events so we may weather them with as little disruption as can be. Plus, by knowing more about the Sun, we may then know more about stars in general in terms of exactly how they form, how they operate, and how long they last. We might even get a semi-accurate date on when the Sun is supposed to go nova and destroy the solar system...even though it's several billion years away.

Which means I still need to have my classes prepped for next week.

As a writer, I also see a spiritual dimension to the study. It is no happenstance that several ancient cultures worshipped the Sun. It truly is a giver of life. Even people like me who detest heat and eschew the outdoors require at least a few rays of ultraviolet in order to keep mental equilibrium. All that existences on Earth and even the Earth itself owes its existence to the Sun.

So with that "scoop," might not Parker be touching the face of the creator? 


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Thursday, August 9, 2018

Empty buildings, empty hearts




United Methodist Church in Gary, Indiana. Image found here.

A decrepit structure is a dream deferred.

In recent years, I have developed a fascination with abandoned buildings. I surmise there have been several reasons for this interest. Sometimes the buildings are a glimpse into old architectural styles seldom seen anymore, eschewed for forms devoid of charm and humanity. Dilapidated structures amid urban or rural decay also conjure a sense of mystery and potential for stories for many writers. Heck, the buildings themselves are someone's or several someones' stories. Looking at the structures now, I can't help but wonder what those stories are.

This link dump of all things abandoned places has captivated me as of late. You can find guides here to almost any form of deserted, human-made structure you can think of. There is a guide to ghost towns, one for abandoned agoras and transportation centers such as airfields and train stations, a showcase of former Soviet cities with wonderfully wacky architecture, and...another one of my favorites...the guide to abandoned U.S. movie theaters. I've also been perusing yet another guide to abandoned buildings right here in my neck of the woods. In fact, the above photograph comes from that list.

Apparently, "urban spelunking" has become something of a pastime and one may Google any number of "how-to" instructions, covering both safety and legality. I can see why the fascination exists. I clearly (or perhaps not so clearly in a few cases and for various reasons) recall my college days when Drexel Hall was off limits. Sitting across the street from campus, it was one of the original structures of the 100+ year old campus and by my arrival at college, it was rotten beyond the point of safe entry for anyone. We went in anyway, playing ghost hunters long before reality TV made such activities passe. Those memories, in part, represent my recent shift in attitude towards abandoned buildings.

This weekend, I will be returning to Rensselaer for a meeting of the Saint Joseph's College Alumni Board. I have been invited on a tour of campus, marking what would be the first time I have stepped onto the property since leaving on May 12, 2017. Shortly after that date, Saint Joe was closed off with concrete barriers. The closed campus became something out of the TV series, Life without People.

Though I have not seen any of it personally, I am given to understand that grass in several areas has been allowed to grow tall. Feral cats have made a home in the student center. Walls are crumbling in one of the academic buildings and a section of ceiling above the theater has collapsed. A recent news story announced that my campus now sits on a list of "endangered landmarks" in Indiana.

I have declined the invitation to tour the place I once called home. There is nothing for me to see there anymore. Strike that. There is so much there I don't want to see. Which brings me to my point.

Where I once marveled at the entropy and decay of abandoned places, I am now overcome with sadness and a heartbroken empathy for my fellow humans. Abandoned buildings represent failure. I do not use the word "failure" in an accusatory manner. It is still possible to fail even though one gives his or her every effort. Something didn't work out with these buildings. People could no longer stay. They could no longer maintain them and thus, whether made of concrete, steel, or wood, the structures were left behind to rot from neglect.

Someone once cared about these buildings. The story of these people, even if on a minimal level, is woven in with the existence of these abandoned spaces. The architects cared enough to design them. People cared enough to keep them up, even if only for a time. The buildings are physical manifestations of someone's work and effort. Sometimes, they may represent entire careers, deep hopes, and lifelong dreams...now cast aside and fallen to ruin.

Where I once saw mystery and adventure, I now grieve for what someone lost somewhere along the way.

"You can tear a building down but you can't erase a memory."
-Living Colour





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