Friday, December 28, 2018

Space is but a big black canvas for art.

Or at least that's the way it's looking. There are currently several artistic endeavors underway...or already accomplished...that are intended to end up in space. Why, you might ask? One artist explains the motivation at this BBC article: 

"The artist known as Nahum resists the idea that space is ours to conquer. He argues that artists must be included in the conversation about how we explore space or else humanity – namely rich countries with well-funded aerospace programs – risk making the same mistakes the colonising empires made in the past. Who owns the surface of the Moon or a comet and has the right to exploit minerals or precious metals there? Fundamental aspects of our culture such as land ownership and borders are called into question as soon as we leave Earth, says the artist. “If [artists] have different skills and ways of understanding the world, we can only enrich the conversation,” he tells BBC Culture."

Recently, Nahum created an interactive sculpture that was launched on a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station. From an Earth installation, art lovers may interact with the sculpture while it's in orbit. It's not alone.

Artist Trevor Paglen launched what he calls an "Orbital Reflector" into orbit via yet another SpaceX rocket. The piece looks like it might be an orbiter used for research or communications or the like, but it has no function apart from being a shiny light in the sky. A few astronomers have cried foul, claiming that the art piece obstructs the ability to conduct astronomical research. Whether that is true or not, it begs the question that has long been building of "just who gets to decide what goes into orbit?"

If Paglen's work has drawn ire, then astronomers must have loved Peter Beck. He put a "disco ball" in orbit back in January. It was called "Humanity Star" and Beck, CEO of Rocket Lab in New Zealand, said it was meant to be a "shared experience" for the people of Earth, something for us to look up at and remind us of our place in the cosmos. I didn't get to see it, but apparently it was only visible before dawn and it fell out of orbit sometime last June.

Back in 2017, artist Makoto Azuma attached a bouquet of flowers to four enormous balloons and sent the arrangement beyond the atmosphere.


Well, I'm sure many are asking that. Indeed, it must be quite difficult for several people of a certain mindset to get their heads around. These actions have no real practical outcome or "fair market value." They are inherently born of the creative spirit of humanity. If we are to expand outward into the solar system and indeed into the galaxy (I know, really stretching on that one), then should not the human impulse to create art come with us? Let's look at it another way.

The BBC article linked at the top of the post makes reference to the "golden records" placed on both of the Voyager probes. Electronically encoded on those records are several images from Earth that were selected by a committee chaired by astronomer Carl Sagan. A few of these images were works of human art. They were included because they communicate something about us. Why do humans create art?

Because we can. There is something intrinsic which drives us to do it.

In a way, these launched bouquets and orbiting disco balls are indeed something of a "shared experience." They communicate a message. Space is not relegated solely to those with the skill sets of technicians and engineers. It is a fundamentally human experience to set forth and explore and if humanity is to have a future in space, it should therefore include all varieties of human mentality. Yes, even writers. Preferably ones who can have their own berth on the ISS, blogging of their experience from orbit. Not too long, though. Being away from family is not as exciting of a prospect as it once was to a young, adventuring writer. 

Anyway, I say why not gussy up space with a few disco balls?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Christmas Ghosts

“There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago..."

That is, of course, a line from the famous Christmas song, "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" by Andy Williams.

The song might not immediately come to mind, but as soon as you hear it on your car radio, your holiday Spotify stream, or...if you're one of those intrepid souls who still does this kind of thing...while shopping in a brick and mortar store, you'll recognize it. That lyric mentioning ghost stories might seem oddly out of place, more befitting for Halloween than Christmas. But my friend Jason posted this article on his Facebook wall that nicely sums up just how pivotal ghost stories once were to the Christmas season...and still are in British tradition. In case you don't want to read it (but I really wish you would), I'll render the gist...

Hate to break it to you, but Christmas does not have Christian origins. Its genesis is in the pagan observations of Winter Solstice and Yule festivals of the British Isles. As the sunlight failed and the temperature dropped, pagans would bring evergreens inside their dwellings as a means of holding on to life while all else went dormant and dead. Therefore, the traditional Christmas tree has absolutely nothing to do with Christ. Additionally, December is the darkest time of the year. This naturally lent itself to people gathering around fires and telling stories of spirits, goblins, and hauntings. These narratives, composed both textually and orally, in time grew woven into the overall fabric of Christmas.

Case in point: A Christmas Carol written by Charles Dickens. It is likely the most famous example of a Christmas ghost story and is retold every year during the season. There have been innumerable incarnations of this book, including one with an amazing performance by George C. Scott as Ebeneezer Scrooge, and one version where John Taylor of Duran Duran plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, but I still think A Muppet Christmas Carol remains my favorite rendition. As I said, this is but the most famous version of the "Christmas ghosts" literary subgenre.

M.R. James was a British academic, a medievalist, and at one time the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. He also loved writing ghost stories, something that might be snobbishly shunned by a contemporary academic as being "beneath them." James, on the other hand, would write a new haunting to read to his fellow faculty members every year at Christmastime. I highly recommend his collection of ghost stories, Casting the Runes, and somewhere I've heard tell of a BBC (I think) production where Christopher Lee just sits in a candlelit room at King's College and reads James' hauntings. Could it get any better? Point being, while we on this side of the pond have confined our mainstream consumption of spooky tales to Halloween, ghost stories remain a staple for a British Christmas.

And yet...

And yet...

I wonder if contemporary Americans aren't haunted by Christmas ghosts in other ways, beyond the literal. There is another rhetorical interpretation.

Christmas is one of my favorite holidays and I'm always glad to see it come around each year. However, each successive one fails to live up to my happiest memories. There's this shift, a palpable shift I can almost pinpoint in my early adolescence where I said to myself, "this just isn't as cool as it used to be." To be clear, it had nothing to do with presents. Our family Christmas tree that once looked tall and awe-inspiring to my little self, eventually became something I could probably twirl around in my hands.

My favorite Christmas memories all involve staying at my grandparents' farmhouse, one of the most special places in the world to me. Just being around them and feeling that joyance and warmth, plus the buzz of magical excitement on Christmas Eve and the anticipation of the following morning, that time when I first got my Shogun Warrior or my Space:1999 Eagle, it wanders into cliche but I must say it was magical.

Both of my grandparents are dead now. Their wonderful house now belongs to someone I don't even know. I will never go back there again and I will never have those Christmas experiences again.

That doesn't mean all future yuletide seasons will be dour. Not at all. They just won't seem the same, and that will haunt specters of a lost land I can never return to.

I know something about that. In several ways. Last Christmas was especially tough after losing SJC. This year I have much to be thankful for, very much indeed. Just the same, it will be very difficult in its own right, for reasons I'd rather not get into. All of it does make me wonder about the connection between Christmas and "home," however we may define the latter. We are pulled towards home at this time of the year with the gravitational force of a dead star.

There's a song for that. It's called "Christmas at Sea" and it's by Sting from his album, If Upon a Winter's Night (go give it a listen for it's fantastic stuff.) In it, a sailor fights the elements on Christmas Day, trying to get back to "the house above the coast guard" for it is, as he says, "the house where I was born." He will brave wave and wind and "haul frozen rope" just to get back.

We all just want to be back home. Sometimes we can't be. Sometimes it's a place that now only exists in our memories, even if it's merely deceptively simpler times. We can see it, we can feel it, we can smell it, we can almost reach out and touch it...but we just can't seem to get there. And it haunts us. In our current times, that may be the American version of writing the Christmas ghost story. Maybe it's more universal than just our shores.

Again, I have much to be thankful for. So many have it so much worse than I do. The Christmas song "Do They Know It's Christmas?" reminds me of that as Bono belts out a plaintive "Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you" (he didn't much like that line and I can certainly understand why, but it sure did shake up 13 year-old Jonny and make him at least start to think about what Ethiopian famine and true want and need must be like.)

Yet even the best of us are sometimes haunted.

For more on British Christmas ghost stories, The Guardian (hey, I once wrote for them!) published a good one last year. Be on the look out for another this Christmas. Also, Jason tells me that Sax Rohmer, creator of the pulpy villain, Fu Manchu, has a collection of Christmas ghost stories as well.

Plenty to choose from if you're lucky enough to have a fire to sit round this season and feel haunted.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

InSight lander arrives on Mars

Photo from NASA.

We have a new robot on Mars.

After a multi-month voyage through space, NASA's InSight lander arrived safely on the Red Planet on Monday afternoon, Chicago time. There was the customary and nail-biting span of silence as the lander dropped through the thin atmosphere, but all turned out just fine. Soon after landing, InSight transmitted its first photo from Mars, showing a shot through a lens speckled with dust from the landing. This prompted someone online to cry, "See? Life on Mars! Flies!"

Heh. He was kidding. I think.

Not much more than a day later, we got far clearer photos. The one posted above is example of such.

InSight, short for "Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport," will eventually drill 16 feet into the surface of Mars. Over a two year period, it will complete the first 3D scan of the planet's interior. That, to me, is fascinating. Why, do you ask? Well, there are several reasons.

-If nothing else, appreciate the achievement of engineering that this is. Many smart people worked hard, used their minds to solve problems creatively, and made an astounding technical triumph. This, I believe, is an example of humanity at its best.

-Don't care about Mars or space science? Well, I might not be able to understand you, but I respect the opinion. Rest assured however, the efforts undertaken and the lessons learned in the InSight achievement will in time filter down to you, the consumer. It inevitably does with space technology,

-The more we understand Mars, the more we have to work with in terms of colonization. Yes, yes, I am aware of the difficulties and the innumerable naysayers. That's cool. I'm used to naysayers. I still believe that technological progress will one day allow for us to establish settlements on Mars. Knowledge gleaned from the InSight mission may help us better understand how to use the natural resources already available on the planet to create a sustainable community.

Hey. Elon Musk is hellbent on it.

-I'm curious what, if any, findings there may be as to large bodies of water beneath the surface of Mars. And life? Maybe? Would they tell us if they found it?

Ahhh were I a younger, free-wheelin' man, I might wonder if they'd like a writer on Mars.

Oh who am I kidding? I'd be in wonder for about ten minutes, and then writerly bitterness would no doubt settle back in.

A guy sitting in a cardigan with a laptop in one hand and a martini in the other probably wouldn't be of much help in the colony. Might even inspire a little resentment. 

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, November 23, 2018

Why UFOs? Part 5: The mystery airships

This is Part 5 in a 6-Part series wherein I examine my fascination with UFO Phenomena through the lens of narrative and rhetoric. Much of the information found in this post comes from Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery by Michael Busby and "Close Encounters of the Earliest Kind."

As I wrote of my childhood in Part 1, science fiction was my gateway drug to ufology. The idea that actual aliens could be visiting Earth in flying saucers was just too enticing to resist.

Imagine my surprise when I learned UFO sightings were nothing new. In fact, these unknown aerial phenomena have been seen for a very long time. I'm not even talking about the "ancient aliens" crowd. No, I mean something far less known, at least in pop culture circles.

I'm talking about the Great Airship Mystery of the late 1800s.

During the waning years of the 19th century, particularly between 1896 and 1897, a "flap" of sightings occurred of propeller-driven airships. While dirigibles were nothing new at the time and indeed were used during the Civil War, these airships were bigger, faster, and more advanced than anything else in the air at the time. These sightings stretched from the midsection of the United States to the West Coast. San Francisco and Sacramento, California had particularly significant sightings of these craft with multiple witnesses quoted in newspaper accounts. These balloon/propeller craft even had lights stationed about them, much as with their contemporary counterparts.

There were even accounts of these craft landing and witnesses meeting the occupants. Rather than the alien beings described in previous posts, witnesses reported these occupants as being fully human in appearance, wearing brown leather jackets, scarves, and goggles. Friendly and jocular, they often asked witnesses to perform menial favors, such as mailing letters. When asked who they were or where they came from, the crewmen responded that they worked for a genius inventor who was not yet ready to take his advanced airships public. This later fueled speculation that Nikola Tesla was behind the airships, but then what advanced development wasn't he supposedly responsible for? 

In researching Dulce and UFO occurrences in New Mexico, I found that New Mexico had its own Mystery Airship sighting in 1880. This sighting was of a "fish-shaped" balloon, propelled and directed by fan. Occupants could be heard singing and speaking in a foreign language. That combined with the artistic design of the airship led many to speculate it came from Asia.

"Moreover, allegedly, people on board the balloon’s car tossed out stuff that was picked up by the alleged witnesses. Apparently, the stuff was a beautiful flower with some silk-like paper with characters which reminded the witnesses of designs they had seen on Japanese tea chests."

When I read these accounts now, several thoughts strike me:

-While they come off as "old timey", they hold true to the discourse and genre constraints of a UFO narrative. The craft are spectacular and unbelievable...but not incomprehensible. They could outfly anything in the sky at that time, but the idea of an airship was far from radical.

-The rhetorical tone, just as mentioned in previous posts, matches the science fiction of the time. These airships could have flown straight out of Jules Verne, who had been publishing books and short stories for decades before the time of the sightings.

-Related, the rhetorical stance, or the argument presented by the occupants, is waggish, one of wonder...almost whimsy. These "mystery men in their flying machines" are said to work for a brilliant inventor, but they can't say any more than that. Who is this inventor? What is his plan for his magnificent machines? Whatever it is, there appears to be no malice involved. The airship crewmen only want to mail letters.

Looking at these narratives from a modern perspective, they appear simple and quaint. That's not meant as an insult. In fact, I could go for simple and quaint right about now. What fun it would be to meet jolly adventurers riding about in a steampunk contraption, ready to whisk you away to a land that resembles something out of Sgt. Pepper's. Still, the incidences are recognizable as following the UFO paradigm, as if staying true to a writer's template or outline. This tends to make me believe that UFOs are quite human in origin. Or perhaps, "just perhaps" as Robert Stack would say, it is something responding to our own expectations and perceptions. If that is so, just how weird could it get?

More on that in a future post. 

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Why UFOs? Part 4: They Know That We Know That They Know

This is Part 4 of a series of blog posts called "Why UFOs?" intended to examine through the combined lens of narrative and rhetoric, just why I've always been fascinated with the UFO phenomenon despite any conclusive evidence.

"They're here! And they love strawberry ice cream!"

So Brad told me early on a Saturday morning in 1988. We were boarding a school bus to head for a marching band contest. The night before, NBC aired a...unique documentary. For reasons likely related to our house only having one TV, I had to tape (on a VCR!!) the program, but Brad caught it live.

It was called UFO Cover Up-Live! The "documentary" was a live panel discussion of UFO witnesses and investigators, discussing sighting flaps such as the (at the time) recent Gulf Breeze encounters, as well as the abduction phenomenon (both of which you may read more about in Part 3). The whole thing was hosted by Mike Farrell. Yes, that guy from M*A*S*H. In fact, his emcee demeanor was most reminiscent of his dry-witted signature role, B.J. Hunnicutt.

That alone is remarkable (I can just imagine Farrell's agent pitching this thing to him. "Look, things have been dry since M*A*S*H and this has been the best gig in a while.") What is most germane to this series though, is that it marked yet another change in my perception of the UFO narrative. Note the "cover up" in UFO Cover Up-Live!

Blacked out in silhouette and voices altered electronically, two men appeared via remote on the program. They were referred to only by the code-names, "Falcon" and "Condor." They were purported to be operatives deep with the intelligence community. And they dropped a whole lot of plot twists for me in the UFO narrative. Such as:

-For (what I believe, anyway) the first time, I learned that just after World War II, a UFO was said to have crashed outside a town named Roswell in New Mexico. The U.S. military recovered the wreckage of this spacecraft as well as aliens, both living and dead.

-In the wake of this incident, President Truman convened an intra-governmental group that would make policy regarding extraterrestrials. It would be called Majestic-12 and be headquartered out of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Image from:

-Project Blue Book, discussed in the first post in this series, was basically a PR effort by the Air Force, meant to dismiss UFO activity. Any truly interesting sightings were filtered to Majestic-12.

-Eventually, the aliens met with representatives of Majestic-12 and brokered a deal in four parts: 1) We won't interfere with anything the aliens do on Earth. 2) The aliens won't interfere with how our society runs. 3) The aliens may abduct people. 4) In return, the aliens must give us technology.

-Alien operations on Earth are based out of a secret location called Area 51 in the Nevada desert.

-Our military sometimes test flies alien craft for our own purposes. Sometimes that goes wrong, such as with the Cash-Landrum Incident.

-Three alien beings have been guests of the U.S. government over time. In 1988, "Condor" stated that one being was visiting.

-We have learned much about these aliens. They come from a planet in the Zeta Reticulai star system. While their minds are beyond ours, their bodies are much simpler. They are vegetarians and enjoy strawberry ice cream as a snack. Their favorite music is ancient Tibetan chant.

-The alien visiting in 1988 had a crystal. Through this crystal, the being could show images not only of its home planet, but of various eras of Earth history. There was an artist's rendition of this alien standing with this crystal in what (kinda) looked the White House. The alien was wearing a suit and tie (!)

-Not only were aliens guests of our government, but a few of our own people went to Zeta Reticulai as part of an exchange program. 

Wow. There is just so much going on here. Not only did this single, and admittedly quite cheesy, live program change how I saw the UFO narrative, it included so much of what are now considered fixtures of UFO lore in popular culture. Most of those points named by "Falcon" and "Condor" found their way into The X-Files and any number of other media. Brad and I also decided that the program provided an evaluation tool for one determine whether or not they are being abducted by aliens. Just by a carton of Neapolitan ice cream. Check the freezer. If one morning you find the strawberry section has been scooped out, you may be in trouble.

In all seriousness, this (at the time) newfound dimension to the alien narrative just added another layer of mystery. By "mystery", I mean more in the "spy thriller" sense. As the story goes, our government is fully aware of all the extraterrestrial goings on. All that fear I felt at the prospect of an alien abduction? Yeah, our government, our ostensible guardians, knows all about these occurrences and just doesn't care. Worse than that perhaps, they're profiting off of it.

A rhetorical tone that had already turned dark just got a few shades darker. Who can one trust? As one of my favorite shows would say five years after 1988: "Trust No One."

Scholars have been studying conspiracy theory for quite a while now. I noticed that while working on research for my Dulce book, which I will eventually get to after my Saint Joe book is done (believe me, after reliving the trauma of my college closing, getting back to fake alien conspiracies will be most welcome.) What these researchers have learned is that despite the hyperbolic rhetoric from conspiracy proponents, calling them "crazy" is both insulting and inaccurate. In truth, these are people who feel socially and politically marginalized. They have been made to feel, through various experiences, that they don't matter. A conspiracy, formulated and maintained by a shadowy and powerful group of individuals, is easier to get one's head around than the complete randomness of life if you're looking for reasons why things aren't working out for you. That's where notions such as "the Federal Reserve is keeping you poor" and other, more dangerous rhetoric comes from.

Thinking back, I am also struck by the heuristic element of this alteration in UFO rhetoric. Earlier, I used the phrase "spy thriller." The introduction of the conspiracy changes the exigency of the UFO "text." It's no longer a mystery of "what are they?" It is an urgency of "they are all in it against us." Always check your back. Keep your tinfoil hat on tight. Only through "awareness" will we defeat the conspiracy against us. Yes, so much of that still, sadly, present today.

Is it any wonder that 1988 and onward sees a change in the shape UFOs sighted? In 1988, the government announces it had been clandestinely testing black, batwing-shaped aircraft that would be invisible to radar. Conspiracy theorists had conjectured about these aircraft for years and lo and behold, there they were. Later, the "black triangles" become common in Ufology. Observations of more secret aircraft or a shit in perception?

Image from:

Obviously, there isn't a shred of truly verifiable evidence for anything "Condor" or "Falcon" said on the documentary. In fact, I believe Falcon was later identified as Richard Doty, an operative for Air Force Office of Special Investigations. Doty has a long history of spreading UFO disinformation and even destroying a life (see Greg Bishop's Project Beta.) Then again, a conspiracy theory need not have truth in order to flourish...or rather, it needs just enough truth. That, at the time, made UFOs all the more fascinating...and me.

Next time, we'll take a look at when I realized that the notion of "UFO" has been around for a very very long time...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Why UFOs? Part 3: It gets scary

This is Part 3 in a series where I examine my lifelong interest, despite all reason, in UFOs. Here are links to Part 1 and to Part 2.

It was late September in 1988.

I was at my friend Brad's house and we were watching Unsolved Mysteries. Delightful! That night, Robert Stack led viewers in an examination of what would later be called The Gulf Breeze Sightings. This was a spate of UFO sightings in, as the name implies, Gulf Breeze, Florida. Not only were there sightings, but there were also a series of spectacular photographs. Many of those photos came from a man named Ed Walters. Here's one of them:

It was taken from inside an automobile and you can see the reflection of the UFO in the glass of the windshield. Brad and I were quite convinced. Later, as I understand it, plenty came to light that strongly suggested most of these photographs were hoaxes. I invite the reader to look into that and decide. Regardless, even if I knew the photos were fakes on that night in 1988, it wouldn't have helped me.

You see, Brad lived a fair ways out in the country. To get back home, I would have to drive along a two-lane state highway through nothing but lonely cornfields after dark. And let me tell you, it does get dark in rural Indiana. The sky is filled with stars. Sometimes one of those stars moves and proves itself to be a plane. Maybe.

Chilling. Why was I so afraid? Was I scared to see a UFO? Not really. I was more scared of what would happen if one saw me.

That's because just one year before, I had read a book called Communion by Whitley Strieber.

As I might have mentioned, I am in a terminal degree program for nonfiction writing. Every once in a while, I am asked what my favorite nonfiction book is. I don't know about favorite, but if I were to answer what nonfiction book had the most profound effect on me, I would have to be honest and say Communion, for it made me sleep with all the lights on for at least a few weeks afterwards, and fueled my nightmares for years.

Communion is Whitley Strieber's account of his alleged numerous alien abductions. At this point in my ufological experience, we're talking mid-high school, I had already known of at least a few cases of people claiming to have been brought aboard UFOs, sometimes not by choice. Travis Walton would be an example of such cases. Communion was different. While Strieber was not the first to make claims of this kind, nor was he the last, he was, I would argue, one of the primary forces that thrust what would be known as "the abduction narrative" into public consciousness. Here's how that template narrative goes:

Someone wakes up in the middle of the night. They find themselves unable to move or speak. Strange beings appear at the foot of the bed. These beings are typically between three and four feet tall, with large, bulbous heads, pale skin, spindly forms, and their trademark feature: the black, almond-shaped eyes. A depiction of one is at the top of this post (it also happens to be the art that adorns the cover of Communion.) Through various methods, often levitation, the hapless, paralyzed victim is brought aboard a saucer-shaped UFO.

Image from CrystalLinks.

Once onboard the craft, the abductee is subjected to a series of medical tests, and most of them aren't much fun. They are said to be invasive, painful, and all the more traumatizing as the abductee is rendered immobile, save for responding to the telepathic commands of the, we presume, aliens. Later, the abductee is returned to their bed. The abductee awakes with no memory of what happened...for the time being. Bits and pieces come back in traumatic flashes. They may even have scars that they cannot explain or bouts of "missing time," where hours elapse which they cannot account for.

There are variations on this narrative template. Sometimes, as I feared would happen to me that night in 1988, the aliens may take someone on an isolated rural road. Other accounts speak of broad daylight abductions, or abductions involve multiple parties such as the Allagash Incident. As I said, however, the template for the narrative and the genre constraints are more or less standard, despite the occasional and inevitable outliers.

The uniformity of abduction narratives is actually one of the arguments against it as a real phenomenon. This template enters the public consciousness and it becomes a part of the subconscious, thus perhaps creating vivid dreams or hypnagogic dreams/hallucinations. There is also the criticism that abductees often recall their alleged experiences only under hypnosis, which is an imperfect practice at best. Additionally, more than a few abductees have been found to have sexual abuse somewhere in their past. Alien abduction might be how the brain masks such awful events, making it easier to deal with rather than facing the reality of a family member or someone else being responsible. Ultimately, aside from a few scars, there is precious little concrete evidence for this as a legitimate phenomenon, despite 3% of Americans claiming it has happened to them.

And yet...

And yet...

Even if my teenage self knew that in 1988, it would have done no good. It still would have scared me. To be honest, it still scares me today. Logically, I understand all of the valid counterarguments. Sometimes when I'm home alone, though, or sometimes when I'm walking my dogs under dark skies and a light moves in the sky...I shiver. Is this the time when they come for me?

That's because when I read Communion and encountered the abduction narrative as a whole, the entire narrative arc of UFOs changed for me. The aliens no longer looked like us. They resembled us, but those ominous eyes convey no warmth, rather they are expressionless and calculating. The rhetorical stance of the visitors shifts from "space brothers" to at worst hostility to at best indifference. They could take anyone from their bed, or anywhere else, against the person's will and perform invasive tests and experiments. There would be nothing you could do to stop them. In fact, one abductee is said to have been able to ask the aliens why they were doing this. The alien telepathically responded with a deadpan:

"You do it to lesser evolved species, don't you?"

Fair point.

Whitley Strieber's book conveys all of this experience in striking literary fashion. In certain regards, I am of the same rhetorical stance as I was upon reading it at age 17. I remain convinced something happened to him...I just don't know that it was aliens doing it. Could it happen to me? Therein is how the UFO phenomenon came to be something that caused me genuine fear.

In fact, abduction narratives, as I see them, are ghost stories of old, updated in brand new drag. Human folklore is replete with stories of people being taken in this night by strange creatures and later returned (maybe). What's more, many abductees report having sperm extracted or embryos implanted, thus creating alien/human hybrids. This is closely related to ancient myths of incubi and succubi. Skeptics would say that this is further evidence that abductions are linked far more with human psychology and mythology (Derrida's "ever-expanding archives") than with space people. Proponents would say that the folklore means this has been happening for a very long time.

Either way, this new dimension to the narrative changed my view of Ufology forever and not really for the friendlier. Still, like a good horror story, I could not help but remain fascinated, regardless of just how scared I was. One of the ways I dealt with this fear was by constructing snarky, mocking abduction stories with Brad. We were teenage boys and when you're that gender and age, that's kind of your super power. One of the experiments many abductees report having is an anal probe. You can just imagine what we did with that. Trondant!

Raunchy and scatalogical rhetoric? Sure. But laughing at it, shifting the stance thrown at me as invasive to ridiculous and absurd in a Camus-like way, helped me sleep at night. I can't speak for Brad, but I was genuinely scared. As I said, still sort of am.

Just one month later in 1988, NBC would air a prime-time special called UFO Cover Up Live. It featured UFO sightings, including Gulf Breeze. It covered abduction. It also introduced me to a whole other dimension of the narrative.

They know, and they can't let us know what they know, otherwise we would know that they knew.

More of that next time...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, October 19, 2018

Why UFOs? Part 2: Space brothers

This is Part 2 of a reflection on why, despite all reasons not to, the UFO phenomenon fascinates me to this day.

As I blogged in Part 1, the UFO bug bit me at around age seven after pulling a book from a shelf in my local library. Yet another unsolicited testimonial as to how libraries corrupt the young. I kid, I kid.

I mentioned in that post that one of the library books published a photo of a saucer-shaped UFO, all in black and white and typically fuzzy and grainy. It was the caption that got me, though: "The witness of this UFO also claims to have met the occupants of the craft." It was exciting enough for my young mind to drink in narratives of flying saucers, but to add in actual face-to-face encounters with aliens? How do I get in on that sweet action?

One of the books even had a photo taken by a police officer of a purported bipedal alien in a spacesuit.

Imagine my disappointment years later to learn that it was a guy covered in aluminum foil. 

Many other early encounters I read about sounded positively heartwarming. A bit unnerving, perhaps, just from fear of the unknown, but all in all a positive experience that someone could really get behind. The aliens weren't at all like the malignant types I saw in any of the various iterations of "invade the Earth" scenarios I saw in my science fiction shows. Instead, they were completely human-like in appearance. Perhaps more human than human.

They were tall, well over six feet. Their hair was blonde and their skin was described as being perfect. They came with a message for humanity: peace. As I kept reading, I found that there was a man who had been having interactions with these aliens for years. He even got a ride on one of the UFOs, the lucky schmuck. His name was George Adamski.

That's George, pictured with an artistic rendition of one the aliens.

Starting in 1946, Adamski claimed to have seen dozens and dozens of UFOs. On November 20th, 1952, he brought of group of friends to a remote spot in California, where they saw a massive, cigar-shaped object. Adamski claimed that the ship was looking for him, and ran off from his group of friends to attempt contact with the craft. After returning a while later, Adamski claimed that he met a being named "Orthon" who was reportedly from Venus. Orthon was described as being of average height, with tan skin and long, blonde hair. "His trousers were night like mine," Adamski added.

"The presence of this inhabitant of Venus was like the warm embrace of great love and understanding wisdom," Adamski said. Orthon professed concern about humanity's warlike tendencies, particularly our willingness to use nuclear weapons. Likewise disturbing was our mistreatment of our environment. As I mentioned earlier, Adamski claimed to have a longstanding, friendly relationship with these Venusians. He claims they even took him to the Moon, where saw cities and flourishing forests. What's more, Adamski published books about his interplanetary friendships in effort to let the world know that the "Space Brothers," as he called them, are looking out for humanity and have valuable lessons to impart if we will only listen. A whole movement began to build around Adamski, as more and more witnesses claimed to have met "the Space Brothers."

Young Jon ate these stories up. Why wouldn't he? Adamski even had convincing photos of the UFOs he witnessed and they are far clearer than their contemporary counterparts. Sadly, there wasn't much evidence for Adamski's accounts and as you might have guessed, Venus was determined to be uninhabitable and the Moon was found lacking any trees or buildings. The UFO photos Adamski published were found to be faked using a surgical lamp in a few cases and the top of an air conditioner in others. It wasn't long before people were using words and phrases like "hoax" and even "con man."

I get it though. The rhetorical stance of the "aliens" in the narrative at this point is one of benignity in the extreme. They are single-hearted and want only to help us after we have lost our way. The threat of nuclear war is a scary thing. Anyone who lived through the Cold War will tell you that. The 1950s and 1960s also saw a burgeoning sense that our environment was feeling the pressure and strain from fossil fuels and massive consumption. Now, we're looking at the whole world falling apart from it, but not many seem to want to even consider the notion. Indeed, many would rather burn more coal.

Maybe if aliens said something we'd listen.

You can see that them at work in the films of the 1950s, especially The Day the Earth Stood Still. The message Klaatu, the quite human-looking alien from the film, has is a stern, paternal, "Get it together, humans. Or we'll do it for you and you won't like it." The message of the Space Brothers is similar, but expressed with far more peace and love.

It intrigues me how much this area of the narrative matches religious beliefs. Allow me to explain.

I have made no attempts to hide just how difficult the past year and a half have been for me. If I am to be fully honest, I could palpably sense a small child inside me at times, silently crying, "Mom, Dad, fix this. Because I can't." I believe reports of these "Space Brothers" are born out the same need. War is a horrible thing, and it can feel like whether it starts or not is out of the hands of the average person. I made a snide remark earlier about no one wanting to face climate change, but really, who does? How do we tackle something so large and looming, and face an effort so herculean?

If only there were a higher power that loved us, looked out for us, and could fix things when they break, while we can only sit immobilized on the floor, tears streaming down our cheeks.   

For a few brief years in elementary school, I thought the Space Brothers might do that for us. Who wouldn't be comforted by such a story? I mean, read once more the description of these aliens. Tell me there aren't deep similarities between them and Christian depictions of angels. I also must wonder what this narrative says about us when the savior aliens are said to be more Caucasian than most Caucasians. Not sure I like where that might lead.

Despite the wide discrediting of George Adamski, "contactees" to this day still claim to encounter the "Space Brothers," only now these aliens are called "Nordics" and they are said to be from the Pleiades star cluster. Guess that's because Venus didn't pan out. I'm not surprised the sightings continue. Our problems remain massive and our solutions are few. Humans still cry for someone to save us and the composed narratives reflect that yearning. Perhaps these stories are generated by our collective subconscious, arguing to us what we already know deep down: Things aren't right. Fix them.

I mentioned last time that the UFO narrative also held a strong strand of fear to it. After reading about these benevolent, Nordic-looking aliens, you might wonder where any fear would come from. Don't worry. It gets creepy next time.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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 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" 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?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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 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'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...

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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, 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.

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