Thursday, March 29, 2018

Long read: Where did the world go?

Don Draper from Mad Men.

I don't recognize the world anymore.

Before anyone hauls out the true but tired axiom of "the only constant is change," I know and I'll get to it later.

Much of this unease...and that's actually a mild adjective for it...originates in my personal world going through such upheaval in the past year. It goes beyond that however.

Recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education, a professor of English wrote an article called "Facing My Own Extinction." Her university is eliminating the English major. Others are following suit. For people like her and me, people who have devoted our professional lives to the study and teaching of writing, literature, history, and philosophy, these are dour times. Colleges and universities have been gradually becoming vo-tech trade schools for years now and we seem to be near a culmination point. As one historian I interviewed pointed out, this is strikingly similar to the old Soviet method of education. We'll churn out crowds of skilled laborers who know all about how but are unable to ask why.

Don't think for a minute that's an accident.

No use knowing how to write when no one reads. To my shock and dismay, everything I've been taught to value both in and out of school is now viewed as superfluous. The world has essentially looked at me and said, "You aren't needed." It's quite something to learn you no longer belong in the world and that you've been discarded. I don't recommend the experience to anyone.

In so-called "market-driven education", every school is a corporation.

If anyone is about to call me a Luddite, then this is obviously the first time you've ever read ESE. I'm a transhumanist, for God's sake. I advocate replacing and augmenting the human body through technology, but I fail to see how that translates to abandoning entire bodies of knowledge. Our creations are meant to compliment and boost our pursuit of knowledge, not define it.

Anti-intellectualism is nothing new, I suppose. It just seems to have hit its zenith in the Trump era.

Speaking of which, I no longer recognize my government. Every day there's something new and disturbing coming from the clown car that is the Trump White House and I ask myself, "How can people think this is all right?" A trillion dollar unfunded tax cut is about to send us into the economic equivalent of a Mad Max movie. Evidence is mounting that the Trump campaign was assisted by a foreign power. Read that again please, a foreign power. And if that is so and if Trump is indeed playing by the tyrant's playbook as described in Plato's Republic, he will soon need a war to solidify his position. With his appointment of John Bolton, a man proven to have a masturbatory zeal for the use of military force, to the position of National Security Adviser, Trump may very will get the distraction he wants.

Nuclear war. I'm used to worrying about that. It is, however, beyond the good ol' existential, world-ending threat of the Cold War. Russia is the only nation capable of ending us and nothing will come to pass with them. Instead it may very well be a limited exchange with North Korea. Unlike the ulcer-inducing days of my Cold War youth, it's not the nukes that scare me this time. It's biowarfare. As I said before, the North Korean doctrine is likely to be one of first use if struck. Even if they don't do it, another rogue state or a terrorist organization is bound to acquire their own biowarfare methods and it's next to impossible to put that genie back in the bottle once released. If you think it can't reach us here in the good ol' U.S. of A., think again.

You might also want to watch 28 Days Later to bone up for it.

Now that's something else, isn't it? I have never hid my tepid views of the zombie subgenre, again placing me in the position of "outsider looking in and with no small amount of puzzlement," but there is no denying the popularity of these stories. The Walking Dead, World War Z, and 28 Days Later have all been big hits. Why? Since few people think about biowarfare as much as I do, I doubt its collective unease and anxiety over such a threat. Maybe its a general dread of the idea that we may slide into a lawless, post-apocalyptic existence. More likely still, we might all deep down fear that we're zombies. Like mindless drones, we shuffle back and forth from our places of work in order to earn our existence. Trite, I know, but we may also be zombies in another way.

After reading what I just wrote about Trump, many in our nation would likely accuse me of being a "a Hillary supporter, whining because I lost." Such a charge would be born of ignorance because I actually have a fair amount of disdain for the Democratic Party as well. In our current climate, however, one can only be one or the other. A Pew Research poll found that people increasingly express their political party affiliation as core components of their identity. What's more, they view the other side with suspicion and contempt, even reporting they would oppose one of their family members if they chose to marry someone of the other party. This thinking, if you can call it that, leaves no room for nuance or complexity.

It's zombie thinking. In the not too distant future, we'll shamble up to one another and ask, "Democrat or Republican?", the answer determining how the rest of the encounter plays out. We seem to love putting people into neat little boxes more than ever before because that's the most thinking we can handle. My friend Suzi Parker wrote a very good blog post on this subject called, "Zombie Politics." 

When did it get this way?

"Change is the only constant," though. True, I suppose.
"Change is always good," I've also heard someone say. I'm sorry, but that strikes me as utterly ridiculous. Are we to hold hands while doing yoga and singing "Kumbaya" and simultaneously shrugging every catastrophe as "change is good"? Changes are on their way that you likely will not enjoy.

The world has passed a number of tipping points with climate change. One of just the most recent examples is how much warmer Alaska is getting. Imagine Alaska without a winter. Polar ice is melting. Sea levels are rising. To think, Waterworld was once just a bad Kevin Kostner movie. Not that we care or even notice. If we did, maybe we'd give more consideration to that patch of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean that's three times the size of France.  Before leaving us, Stephen Hawking gave it another thousand years before humanity goes extinct. Others, no less informed, have given us considerably less time, maybe even a mere 100 years.

If this is how things are going to go, I wouldn't mind an alien invasion. I keep hoping a massive shadow will fall over me, I'll look up, and I'll see one of the motherships from Independence Day hovering above the city. "Finally," I'd say. "Just end it."

It's easy for me to think I'm alone in feeling like this, being horrified in the face of this world I no longer recognize. I don't think that's true, though. I also suspect apathy is not the default reaction in most people. I think the changes and the sheer magnitude of the issues, are just too much to consider. It becomes so easy to see oneself as powerless in their shadows. Out of a sense of mental self preservation, the path of least resistance is to just switch off. When mass shootings happen on the regular, such a response is not only understandable, but enviable. It's no wonder so many turn to drugs. 

And before I'm accosted by another rando Facebook hag, I'm well aware that America does not have the market cornered on drug use. I do, however, see its presence in my life every day. Whenever I speak to health professionals about these feelings, the invariable response is "pills...pills...pills" ("Ask your doctor about...") At least three people close to me are on anti-anxiety drugs. One of them just told me, "I'm popping Xanax like Pez." When do we ask ourselves why?

In a way, we have already been asking it. Notice how many film references I've made in this post. I believe that is the writer at work in our contemporary situation. That I've cited more film examples than books, well...I'm embarrassed at what that says about me. But I digress...
Writers see these changes and speculate on the outcomes. Sometimes these outcomes are exaggerated (Waterworld) as a means of holding the issue at arm's length, as a gestalt to make it more fictional than fiction even and thereby a bit more palatable. The underlying questions remain, however.

To be sure, things in many regards are better than at any other point in history. Think of all the modern conveniences we have and the extension of life expectancy for the average American. Also, this is not the first era of history where people like myself have wondered what the hell is happening. I'm certain people asked it during World War II and as the Black Death swept across Europe. And before anyone points it out, I'm aware of my moments here on ESE where I have mocked beliefs in the "End Times."

And yet...

And yet...

I really do feel like this is different. I have no data to support that assertion, only intuition. That and the sense of how alienated I feel. I'm reminded of Colin Wilson writing The Outsider alone in his room on Christmas Day, cut off from the rest of the world for reasons of and not of his own choosing. I feel the added dimension of seeing what's coming and rendered a passive observer.

If you thrive on change, I think you're about to get it in spades. Hope you enjoy it. I'm not so sure many people will. Of the many things I've learned in this past, hellish year, one of them is that the future doesn't need me. It doesn't need you, either.

In fact, it doesn't need any of us. 

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Dude, where's my flying car?

Transportation has been on my mind lately.

Since I'm back to driving in the Chicago area on the regular, I'm once again becoming acquainted with its egregious traffic. What's especially fun is the amount of aggressive tailgating that seems to have developed in the past year or so. I'm talking about someone coming in from behind at high speed and nudging the nose of their vehicle within an uncomfortable distance of my tailpipe. And all this happening while I'm at a comfortable, but not unsafe, cushion above the speed limit. I take it in stride as yet another among many indicators that society is crumbling. It has me, however, dreaming of an alternative. Namely, what if I could just fly above it all?

Yes indeed...where is the flying car I was promised all those years ago?

My first recollection of the tantalizing concept of a flying car came from, I think, the James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun. In retrospect, it looks rather clunky.

Then came the "Spinners" of one of my favorite films, Blade Runner.

We have developed more and more of the dystopian aspects of Blade Runner every day. Am I asking that much to at least have the flying car to come along with it all?

I know, I know.

A Spinner probably wouldn't be any ease for my frustrations. A casual viewing of Blade Runner confirms that. Just take a look at the skies over future Los Angeles. The air lanes are as congested with flying cars as the the asphalt counterparts. I probably wouldn't win for losing. Plus if fiction tells us anything, it's that flying transportation will be as regulated as the ground-crawling variety.

Is there any hope for an actual flying car? Well, a few prototypes for one were unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show earlier this month. One of them is called "Pop Up Next." It's a modular construct, consisting of an electric car with a quadrotor copter assembly mounted on the roof. Another, the "Liberty Flying Car", seems more of the gyrocopter variety. No telling if these things will ever see the light of day in regard to mass production.

But wait! There's another development that might not only revolutionize transportation, but alternative energy as well.

A Canadian firm called Hempearth has created a plane made from and powered by hemp. Why? To hear the company's CEO say it, it's because hemp is sustainable both as a building material and a fuel. “This is the kind of future we all want here on Earth,” he says at the link. Might the same premise be applied to a flying car? I don't see why not.

Speaking of alternative energy, one way to benefit the environment is to get more cars off the road. That means, in part, mass transit. Maybe the "flying car" kind of thinking is just the ticket to make public transportation super cool for the masses. Would you mind riding the bus if it were flying? I didn't think so. The question I had to ask though is whether or not anything even remotely like that is in the offing. Here's what I got from a quick Google (apologies for the nature of the source).

As you can see, not exactly "flying" and thus a deceptive headline.

"And if a double-decker bus crashes into us..."
-The Smiths

Not tough to see why writers populated futuristic stories with flying cars. It seemed like a natural progression after all, didn't it? We had cars, we then had planes, and why wouldn't we want to put them together? Certainly it was a timeserver in the 1950s  and early 60s as we believed in progress and SCIENCE! (That last word to be shouted and punctuated in the manner of Thomas Dolby.) Alas, as I once heard William Gibson say, "We forget just how often science fiction gets it wrong."

Another pipe dream, perhaps. I am condemned to shuttle to and fro on cracked streets as frustrated and insecure men try to pretend they're on the NASCAR circuit in an effort to feel better. I swear it's a circle in Dante's Inferno.

If I do get that flying car, may I request this weaponized dieselpunk version designed by Jomar Machado?

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, March 22, 2018

In praise of vengeance

We are not supposed to covet vengeance.

We are taught that it's petty, unproductive, and not "virtuous" (whatever that means).

And yet, writers love it. In fact, it is one of the most common plots and character motivations in literature. I have been meditating for a while on just why that is. I believe part of it is living vicariously through books. Most of us, no matter how wronged we've been, will not retaliate, at least not to a level that would result in visits to hospitals, jails, or cemeteries. Enjoying a narrative free of real-life consequence gives the darker corners of our psyche an outlet, musing "ah, wouldn't it be nice."

I also believe that it prompts reflection. It forces one to consider just where that line is. How much do you allow to be taken away from you before you push back? How many Pearl Harbors and London Blitzes are permissible before responding with a Hiroshima or a Dresden? What would it take to get you to go that far?

Here is my own selection of a few texts I recommend for balancing the scales:

The Bible
It might sound counter-intuitive, but there are moments of great vengeance in the Bible. I really don't know what else to call the Angel of Death killing every first born in Egypt. "Blood is running red and strong down the Nile..."

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Abandoned and hated in a world he never asked to be in, the Creature meticulously and intelligently plans how to ruin his "father's" life and leave Victor Frankenstein with nothing. If you read this book and come away with any sympathy for Victor, well...I'd be interested in hearing how you'd justify it.
"If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear." Goosebumps every time I read that quote.

The Iliad by Homer
In this Greek epic, it's tough to find a character not after a bit of payback. Even the gods get petty with one another. Of course the ultimate moment of revenge is when Achilles hunts down Hector and avenges the killing of Patroclus. You've really got to hate someone to engage in Achilles' brand of vengeance.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Granted, this is novel is a warning of the dangers of seeking vengeance, but I cannot help but feel compassion for Ahab after losing both ship and leg, and to find his obsession for evening the score darkly compelling. I might be going down, but I'm taking you with me. "He tasks me...he heaps me..."
As one of my professors in grad school said, Moby Dick is also the greatest "I've got a really bad job", book.

First Blood by David Morrell
Before he became cartoonish in the late 1980s, Rambo was a Vietnam special ops veteran who came to a Kentucky town, just looking for a place to eat. Local police didn't like the looks of him and tossed him in a cell. This prompted flashbacks to his time as a POW. Rambo broke out of jail and headed into the wilds. A manhunt ensued. It did not go well at all for the pursuers.
After the cartoons and the toy line, Stallone brought the character back to its roots in 2008's, Rambo.
"You can't do it, Rambo."
"Yes I can, sir. They took first blood."

The Crow by James O'Barr
This graphic novel is heavy. I mean heavy.
A rape. Two murders. And a soul brought back from the other side of death to set all the wrong things right...namely by taking the guilty apart piece by piece. Born out of personal tragedy, this book is far darker and even more unrelenting than its film adaptation, yet also more beautiful.

Batman by various.
One night of murder and loss. An entire lifetime of seeking revenge.
As I once heard someone else say, "Batman is the ultimate story of someone who just never got over it."
Let's hear it for never getting over it.

"Let justice roll down like waters. And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
-the Book of Amos

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Life may hide beneath Enceladus

We may be closer to finding life in space.

As NASA's Cassini space probe passed Saturn's moon, Enceladus, it detected methane in the plume particles from geysers on the moon's south pole (pictured above). Exobiologists have determined that this methane could be caused by the presence of biological reactions from microorganisms, surviving even under the conditions present on Enceladus.

A few words of caution here. First, this study in no way affirms there is life on Enceladus. It just supports the idea that it's possible. Second, I know this is something of an old news story, but it went in my "blog file" and I'm just now getting to it. That's how it goes sometimes.

Life, if it exists on Enceladus, would have to inhabit the ocean that seems to sit beneath the moon's frozen surface. Scientists who took part in the study exposed a species of microbe called Methanothermococcus okinawensis to high pressure and temperatures of 150 degrees Fahrenheit, approximating hyrdothermal vents in the seas of Enceladus. Findings indicated that this variety of Earth microbe was well-suited for such conditions. Interestingly enough, the species of microbe, no, I'm not typing its name again, got its name from where it was found: living in a hydrothermal vent off Okinawa. Also interesting is that the species was probably around in the primordial goop of when life first emerged here on Earth. As we're learning, life can be found in all manner of bizarre, inhospitable places.

Other elements found in the geyser plume include silica particles and hydrogen. These are likely present due to reactions between rock and hot seawater. This indicates a sea that is warmed by geothermic activity, hence the geysers. As indicated previously, microbial life exists all over Earth in similar conditions, so it's not all that far-fetched that it might thrive on Enceladus, or Titan, or any of the moons of Saturn or Jupiter thought to have seas.

So perhaps it's not as exciting as finding an alien civilization, but it's still (maybe) life outside of Earth. Plus if you're going to populate your science fiction stories with extraterrestrial life, it's a good idea to know how that life might first come about on another planet. Likely, it would it start at the microbial level and...if allowed...evolve into higher lifeforms just as it did on Earth. 

Rather promising. For even though I'm rather certain there is life elsewhere in space, I no longer see any logical reason to assume it as a given.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Stephen Hawking: In memorium

We have lost one of the greatest minds in human history.

Stephen Hawking died yesterday. During his time on our planet, he established a reputation for himself as a theoretical physicist whose name could be justifiably mentioned in the same sentence with Einstein and Newton.

Like most other people, I came to know Hawking through his book, A Brief History of Time and his research on black holes, specifically the "event horizon," or a black hole's point of no return. He determined that this surface should slowly emit radiation, what in time became known as "Hawking radiation". In addition to possessing a keen mathematical mind, he was a gifted writer, making science accessible to audiences of all kinds. This brought him into the public eye in a way few scientists come to know. I watched as he gradually became a pop culture figure with guest appearances on television programs. Most notably of those for me was a bit on Star Trek: The Next Generation where he joined Lt. Data to play poker with Newton and Einstein.

In recent years, Hawking became something of an elder statesman, warning humanity of things to come if we do not change our ways. He held particular concern over climate change and that we may have already passed the tipping point for Earth. As such, he earnestly advocated for humanity to stretch out into the universe and colonize other planets or at the very least, the Moon and Mars. This is yet another reason I will always respect him.

But I didn't always agree with him. I know that places me on dangerous ground to break ranks with a genius. It's just that I don't fully share his dire warnings about AI and transhumanism. There was also his bunglesome thinking that UFOs could not be alien in origin, because they would have landed and announced themselves by now (not that I am any real proponent of the ETH). Then of course there was my time travel argument with my friend Brad back in 1989. Mem-ories...

One comes up with no shortage of reasons to admire Stephen Hawking. As someone who is utterly inept at math but also diligently attempted to learn physics, I regard Hawking as possessed of a kind of sorcery. The equations, the theories, I will never understand how they came about, but I will marvel at what the skill produces them. We always want what we can't have.

More than that, Hawking is one of the greatest studies in perseverance. Despite his unparalleled academic achievement and his celebrity, life dealt him one of the worst hands someone can get. If you don't know what living with ALS is like, read Tuesdays with Morrie.

And yet...and yet...

He pushed on. He transcended his circumstances. He still found ways to succeed despite obstacles that would seem insurmountable to so many. If Hawking did not fear his own challenges, why should I fear mine? I do not have his genius, but if I aspire to his perseverance, I may at last be ready to make my crossover into a new universe.

Godspeed, Dr. Hawking. As you pass through the event horizon, may the next dimension greet you warmly.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

War in Space

Military conflict in space is not exactly a new idea.

Writers have covered the subject since...well, probably since the most incipient stages of science fiction. I've covered the notion here on ESE in various forms, from the serious to the fanciful. But now we're being told that the idea is no longer so speculative.

Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfien recently predicted that there will be open war in space in "a matter of years." As such, the United States needs to make sure it's ahead of its most likely adversaries, China and Russia. This means the need for new technology and of course, more money. It was even proposed last November that the U.S. Department of Defense should add a sixth branch of the armed forces. Based on the Marine Corps, this new branch would be called The United States Space Corps.

The Air Force was none to happy about that. After all, it would mean funds that normally going to them would instead be given to this new entity. No thanks, USAF said. We'll handle this in-house.

What exactly are they expecting to handle, though? Well, it is logical to presume that should there be conflict between America and powerful nations such as China and Russia, the opening skirmishes would take place in orbit. Our militaries are utterly dependent on satellites for everything from intelligence to navigation and communication. The first move by an adversary would be to "blind" its opponent by taking out as many satellites as they can. This may be achieved through technological means such as jamming or even generating an EMP wave. There is, of course, also the brute force method of just blasting them.

There are a number of ways that might happen. Ten years ago, China tested a satellite killing missile that forced many in the military to sit up and take notice. The Russians have long worked on the idea of "killer satellites" that would move to the circumferential edge of another satellite's orbit and then detonate. China may have developed a slightly less violent, not to mention technically fascinating, approach. They appear to have a satellite with a robotic arm that can grab on to other orbiting objects and "kidnap" them. For our part, the U.S. has been experimenting with lasers. Ostensibly the point has been to develop lasers that can incinerate all the junk we have cluttering our immediate orbit, but such a beam could easily be weaponized to eliminate satellites.

Also, let us not forget the X-37B, a sort of "drone space shuttle". It's long been rumored that fighter craft capable of entering space would be "the next big thing" in air defense and I thought that the X-37B might at last be a step in that direction. Doesn't seem to be, but just let this military aviation/science fiction geek keep dreaming, huh?

Speaking of fiction and depictions of it-might-actually-happen war in space, might I recommend Payne Harrison's Storming Intrepid? Not exactly high literature, but Harrison takes the technothriller places that Tom Clancy never did. Of particular note is the idea of the Kestrel spaceplane.

Then again if you want really entertaining fiction, just poke around at conspiracy websites and they'll tell you these new military plans are all to defend us against aliens.

Oh boy is that great.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 9, 2018

"I will now take control of your computer"

Technology. It's great when it works.

As much as I obviously harp about the future, I also tend to harbor a desire to keep things simple. I don't need to have the latest, top of the line everything. I just need what I have to work.

Last December, I ended up buying this new Lenovo Ideabook when my other laptop crossed the rainbow bridge to where good computers go for rest and cleansing ("The stuff he put on me...the stuff...") The Lenovo was real cheap. It had to be because of my current situation. But that's all right. After all, what does a guy like me really need? I need Word and I need an internet connection to watch Duran Duran videos.

That last task became difficult when the sound no longer worked on the Ideabook. Granted that's not really an essential feature for a writer, but I love music and I write better if I can hear Arcade Fire's "Everything Now", Portishead's "Over", and Billy Ocean's "Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car" (did I say that last one out loud?) I was most vexed. I ran a diagnostic and checked a few online message boards and came to the conclusion that the sound card needed an updated driver. No problem. I'll just download and install.

Except that it didn't work. Nothing worked. For an Ideabook less than a month old, it was a problem I should not be having. What was worse, it became clear that I would not be able to solve the problem with my wits alone.

I was going to have to do it, wasn't I? I would have to venture into that gnarled krummholz filled with tepid responses, frustrating language barriers, and outcomes with questionable benefit. I swore I would gnaw my own leg off before doing it again, but Arcade Fire waits for no man.

So I made coffee, settled onto the couch...and called tech support.

I made my way through the menuing system and surprise! I got a live human fairly early on in the process. He told me his name was Mark, but due to his accent, I couldn't shake the suspicion that the name was a pseudonym given to him by corporate so as not to frustrate/alienate culturally illiterate Westerners with his given-name. Kinda felt bad for the guy.

Anyway, I gave my serial number and told Mark the problem. He then said "I am now going to take control of your computer."

Say what?

This was a new one for me. Was this for real? Did I call the right number? Was this tech support or some guy operating out of a storage unit as part of an identity theft ring? This could only happen to me.

"If at any point you feel uncomfortable in the process, there is a killswitch in the upper right corner of your screen," Mark told me. "Click it and the connection is terminated immediately."

Interesting. There are so many situations in life where I would like that same convenience.

It wasn't like I had any idea what to do and there was indeed the big, shiny, red, candy-like killswitch button should things go awry. I turned the controls over to Mark. I watched as the cursor went into Windows, clicked a few things, downloaded a file, and then rebooted.

"Try it now," Mark said.

It worked. The melodious strains of Salt-n-Peppa's "Push It" did indeed stream from my tiny speaker. I could almost see Mark dancing on the other end of the phone. I thanked him, promised to fill out the customer satisfaction survey, and hung up. I did, however, keep reflecting on the experience:

-The surrender of control of the computer was, as I said, new to me. I presume it happens for efficiency's sake. Having talked someone through a computer procedure on the phone, it can get frustrating. On one occasion, I likened it to one of those movies where someone in a control tower has to guide a non-pilot in landing a plane. The "remote control" way was much easier. didn't teach me anything. I'm no good at coding, but I'm decent with tech. If something goes wrong, I'd like to learn how to handle it so I can do it myself next time. Didn't get that in this case. Which leads me to...

-Is "just fix it for me" now the approach people have to tech support? Much of tech support is outsourced, hence the issues with language barriers...and hence another likely reason for remote control. I wonder though if it's more than that. We seem to want to outsource even our own participation in the troubleshooting.

-I have a sneaking suspicion a writer like Kurt Vonnegut would have found this whole occurrence quite amusing.

I'm still having problems with the Lenovo. The hard drive is so cheap and tiny, that MS Office and McAfee were enough to fill the whole damn thing. Now, Windows can't install updates (8 gig needed). What to do? At least I can still write. And listen to music.

Up next: Mojo Nixon. "Poontango."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The strange tube structures of Mars

More discoveries on Mars.

New photos from the Curiosity rover show tiny, tube-like structures in the rock of the Martian surface. This caught the eye of one scientist who believes they resemble Ordovician trace fossils here on Earth. Does that mean we have evidence of life...albeit fossilized...on Mars?

Of course no one is jumping to that conclusion just yet, though it remains a tantalizing possibility. Another possibility is that the structures in the photographs are "crystal molds" in the rock. Crystals that have dissolved away leave these molds behind. The same thing happens in rocks here on Earth. This is one of several potential explanations.

Another is what's called "bioturbation". This is what happens when organisms living in sediment disturb the sediment around them. A common example on Earth would be worm burrows. There is far from enough evidence to seriously entertain that notion, but its naturally an exciting possibility for it would not only mean the presence of life, but lifeforms that are beyond the microbial scale.

Life elsewhere in space has prompted writing since nearly time immemorial. Additionally, Mars has held a special fascination to the collective human psyche, one that I have always shared. In fact, I have had a story kicking around inside my brain for the past couple years that is in part set on Mars, but the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune have sent my writing efforts in other directions. Maybe I'll get to it one day. One other reason I've shunted it to the side is that I want to make sure I have something at least a little bit new to bring to the table. For as I said, people have been writing about Mars for an awful long time.

In fact, there is so much "fiction" about the Red Planet today that I'm perturbed.

The article about the "maybe fossils" was published at the beginning of January. It didn't make much news, but since I go through science and technology websites about once per week, I found it. What does seem to make news? All manner of cockamamie claims about "objects" spotted on Mars by armchair "researchers" who sit in their parents' basements, eating Hot Pockets and look over Mars rover photos while the equivalent of "What does that cloud look like to you?"

I'm normally not so caustic, but not only are these claims specious and of dubious sincerity, they distract from real research. The finding of what may be (a very cautious may be) fossilized life on Mars is extraordinary. This is a genuine mystery, whereas all the mystery of the other claims vanishes upon closer inspection.

And yet...and yet...despite better reason, I can't fully let go of Cydonia. 

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, March 2, 2018

A tribute to Svengoolie

This past year has not been a good one.

In fact, I'll go ahead and call it the worst I've ever endured. The loss of both my job and a place I called home,'s been a sort of drawn-out torture. Yet as I kept throwing myself into the demoralizing process of job searching, as I worried about money every waking (and non-waking) hour, and as I genuinely wondered if I could take any more, I told myself the same six words:

"Just make it to Saturday night."

That's when Svengoolie's on.

Chicago's own Svengoolie (pictured above) is a host for (mostly) b-grade horror and science fiction movies. I started watching him on Chicago's WFLD 32 when I was a kid back in...longer ago than I care to mention. It was through Sven's show that I first saw all the Universal Monster movies, developing a special affinity for Creature from the Black Lagoon. On a cold afternoon one February, I saw Hammer's The Horror of Dracula for the first time, my little self gasping at the climactic scene as Peter Cushing holds candlesticks as a cross and drives Christopher Lee into the sunlight. Of course, the giant monster movies were the biggest hits at our house. I remember playing along to Godzilla and The Deadly Mantis, using plastic army men and dinosaurs.

As fun as the movies are, they are only half the attraction. In fact, I watch Svengoolie regardless of the feature that week, so I suppose one might argue that a particularly fun movie is but an added benefit. No, I watch Sven for his host segments. These include corny jokes and genuinely informative background on the actors in the films and sometimes behind the scenes accounts of the film's writing and production. Oh, there's music too...

On the right, that's the show's "musical director", Doug Graves. Each episode, Doug accompanies Sven in a parody song. A few are funny, a few are groaners, but they never fail to be fun.

By the way, have you ever been to Berwyn?


Berwyn is a suburb of Chicago. When Sven mentions the town's name on the show, "BERWYN?" is groaned back to him. Why? Well, check this for the answer.

A derivative of the town name's also forms the moniker of Sven's rubber chicken pal, Kerwyn. He joins in for Sven's reading of fan letters and for general wise cracks.

In 2011, Sven started airing on MeTV on Saturday nights. More recently, MeTV arranged for Sven's show to be the centerpiece of a true cavalcade of delight. At least that's what I think. It's called "Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night" and when I tell friends and family that I'm walling off Saturday night to watch Sven, it really means I'm sitting in front of the TV from 6pm until...well, at least midnight or whenever I fall asleep. The Saturday night line up features several shows I've covered here on ESE:

-Wonder Woman.

-Star Trek.

-Battlestar Galactica.

I should also point out that the original Batman with Adam West is a pivotal component of the line up. Oh and if you can stay up long enough, you'll also see Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Lost in Space, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I usually can't these days, but thank God for DVRs.

So why exactly has this Saturday night line up become such a fixture in my life? Might sound weird, but I've decided to examine that question through the lens of my profession: professor of writing. In the course of doing so I have come to three conclusions:

1. My study of writing, both fiction and nonfiction, has mostly been relegated to texts deemed by academics as "worthy". That's my word for it. Another phrase might be "the canon." Sometimes in grad school I would get the false confidence to suggest there's a literary value to the types of films shown on Sven or the shows that are part of Super Sci-Fi Saturday Night, and I would inevitably get a haughty response from a few of my professors that suggested my taste in literature clearly peaked sometime around age 15. While they scratched the padded elbows of their tweedy jackets, I continued to ponder my response.
We write to communicate. We also write because humans tell stories. It's one of the traits that makes our species unique. One of the driving motivators ("exigencies") in telling stories is to entertain. That is what the movies on Sven aim to do and more often than not they succeed. In fact, one of my more common responses to a Sven film or one of the episodes of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica is, "That must have been so much fun to write." The writers of b-grade horror and science fiction weren't trying to be Joyce or Moliere. They were just trying to be fun. How freeing that must be.

2. There is something of a metatext involved here too. One of the big attractions for me with Super Sci Fi Saturday Night is the "live tweet" feature. Using Twitter and the hashtag #Svengoolie, we viewers can add our own jokes and commentary as we watch. There's also tweeting for Wonder Woman, Batman, and all the rest. Our narrative grows out of the shows and gets added to them, creating a sort of external text above the shows. Sounds hoity toity? Maybe. What's for certain though is that this live tweeting creates a community. Every Saturday night, I look for the same people on Twitter and it's not quite the same if one of them is missing. Even though I've never met them in real life, sorry...IRL, they still get a virtual invite into my living room each "Sven night" and we enjoy the shows together. I have never before had such an experience with television programs.

3. Sacred space. Again, this might sound hoity toity, but I don't care. We humans create sacred spaces. These are places we demarcate as different from all others. Sometimes this includes the use of ritual, such as in a mosque or cathedral. Sometimes it includes a block of time, such as church every Sunday morning at 10am. Sometimes it includes storytelling, such as readings from sacred texts or rhetoric such as a homily or sermon. It is a meaningful time, meant to enrich ourselves.
I must ask, isn't this what I'm experiencing every Saturday night? I certainly feel much better after watching. I have rituals associated with my viewing. I get my snack foods set up and kept nearby. I make certain to have my iPhone charger positioned just so across the couch as my phone's battery will inevitably drain from all my tweeting and Facebook check ins. Judging by posts on those social media platforms, I'm not alone in these rituals. What's more, I see pics of whole families gathered together to watch these shows. I am reminded that I started watching Sven as a kid with my own family. My brother and I came to share a love of the monster movies, perhaps even spurring us on to our respective academic studies (myth and eastern religion for him, narrative and rhetoric for me.)
Are there that many things more sacred than family time?

It is sacred. Flirting with another lofty cliche, I'm going to say that Svengoolie is far more than a TV show. He's actually doing a great service to humanity.

How, you ask? How could a guy in black greasepaint and a whole pile of rubber chickens ever be thought of as more than diverting and disposable entertainment?

Well, these are dark times. They are full of deep political division, caustic rhetoric, and real-life horrors like school shootings. Many struggle to just to get by and wonder if they can afford basic necessities such as health care. I can certainly attest to the fear, stress, and anxiety of job loss, and I know my story is one of the tamer ones out there in terms of suffering.

Sven, if even for just a few hours, is an antidote to our condition. He's bringing happiness into the world. He doesn't do it with "edgy" and ironic, postmodern humor, which tends to be a reminder of all our daily woes. He does it with rubber chickens, a guy named Kerwyn, a cigar-smoking skull named Zallman T. Tombstone, and wonderfully bad movies. He brings people together, whether it's family and friends in our living rooms, or those we meet online in the live tweets. While the show may seem silly (and it is), there is a true nobility involved in bringing happiness to others that should not go without notice. I'm not sure Sven's aware of just how meaningful his show is.

I know that he, along with all my other blessings, saved my life this past year. An exaggeration?
I assure you. It isn't.

Thank you, Sven.

NOTE: I suppose I should point out that I am not employed by MeTV and am not on the payroll to falsely fluff up the network and its programming. I just love what they do. Then again, if one of the higher ups reads this and wants to hire me, I'm real cheap right now.

Jonathan Nichols. Writer/producer. Like the sound of it.
Maybe I'll finally succeed in getting Buck Rogers added to Super Sci Fi Saturday Night.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets