Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Where is your technology museum?

From the New Yorker.

I have a technology museum.

No really, I do. I noticed it the other day.

I guess it starts in the basement. There is, as the cartoon above describes, a box of AC adapters and power cables that have long since been orphaned. What did they once belong to? Who knows, because whatever it was broke a long time ago and being in a disposable society, I threw the tech out.

Next to that box is another, this one filled with VHS tapes. Their contents have been replaced by DVD counterparts years ago. Why do I still have all the tapes? This question is made doubly confounding by a trip upstairs.

I have a VCR. It stopped working at least two years ago. In fact, there's still a tape stuck in it (a Godzilla movie, if I recall). Why haven't I just thrown the thing out? Better yet, why haven't I taken it to one of the area's many technology recycling centers? I'm not sure. Just haven't gotten around to it.

And that's how simple it is. As technology turns obsolete, it accumulates in darkened corners as autumn leaves in the porch corner.

Really dusty autumn leaves.

I'm guessing many of us have similar versions of these museums that we curate. They come to be faster than we realize.

Ray Kurzweil, arguing The Singularity is Near, warned me...and all of us...about this phenomenon. Many of my museum antiquities were rendered irrelevant only ten years ago. That's not all that long in the grand scheme of things. In fact, even my DVDs are obsolete and cumbersome due to my easy access to streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime (except for a few rare gems I own, likely only appreciated by me.) The Law of Accelerated Returns. How long until I get cybernetics?

Hopefully soon. I'm feeling my age. Looking at technological relics isn't helping.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, April 13, 2018


Art by Alex Schomburg.

I have long called it a bored and tired trend in science fiction.

Just add "punk" as a suffix and you've got a new literary subgenre. It started (to the best of my limited knowledge) with cyberpunk and that made great sense at the time. After all, William Gibson was inspired by the increasing prevalence of computers, kids entranced with stand-up arcade games, and the punk movement of the late 1970s. Mix, shake, and serve, and you have something new and exciting.

Now we have steampunk. And dieselpunk. And biopunk. And nowpunk.

May I preemptively coin the term "Englishpunk" for campus novels about faculty? Why not? A few of these subgenres popping up don't have much "punk" in them, so that no longer appears to be a genre constraint.

I really am going somewhere with this.

On Facebook, I saw a fan page called "atompunk." I was skeptical at first, but something about the images people posted enticed me. They hearkened to a time that deceptively now seems simple. In the wake of World War II, our lives were destined to be brighter and better through the power of SCIENCE!

All our aircraft would be jet powered. Humanity would soon be moving outward to conquer space. Most importantly, all of it would be powered by atomic energy.

Of course the public at large hadn't yet come to fully understand the pesky side effects of radiation, but let's not harsh the buzz. For crying out loud, our lives were going to get better. Just look at this depiction of the family car, brought to you by atompunk:

It wouldn't all be a shiny utopia, though. We would face danger from alien invasion or monsters brought about by radioactive mutation. But those threats are nothing compared to the looming and omnipresent menace of Cuba, China, and the Soviet Union.

That's right, folks. I'm talking commies.

Once again though, the atom would save the day. All we needed do is make certain our arsenal of atomic weapons surpasses all rivals, therefore none would dare strike us.

Note: language use here is key. Things are all "atomic" at this point, and not "nuclear."

What exactly about it is "punk" though?

Well, I guess you could say it's found in the beginnings of social change during the Cold War. That was a time when teens had just started to grow defiant with adults. "I just don't understand my kid," was something of a common phrase. Just look to the popular culture of the times for this, the movies of James Dean just as a for-instance.

There are more novel and film examples of atompunk than you can shake a stick at. I'd recommend Forbidden Planet, The Thing (original one), and The Day the Earth Stood Still as being among the very best. If you're a true connoisseur so-bad-it's-good films, then you can't go wrong with Plan 9 from Outer Space.

For comic books, I suggest you look no further than The New Frontier from DC Comics with exquisite writing and art by the late, great Darwyn Cooke.

That's something else. Atompunk might even be seen as an art movement in and of itself. Just look at the above art by Cooke. It's bright. It's optimistic almost to the point of being Norman Rockwell. It's streamlined. It's still seen today, not just as kitsch but as serious marketing (note the logo for Sonic drive-ins.)

Would I like to write atompunk? Boy, would I. It has the escapist allure that I love, but then doesn't everybody these days? Only a jailer would oppose escapism. There is a naive optimism that is likewise tantalizing, even if my critical self keeps screaming "But it glosses over nuclear armageddon! Plus, the 'bright future' of the Space Age sure didn't seem to include anyone who was black or gay!" All too true. So would I write a snarky, critical parody? Too easy. Would I try to write it with every bit of seriousness as I could muster and attempt to treat it as high art while still remaining within the genre constraints? That might be a fun challenge.

Then again, maybe I shouldn't even try as nothing can beat Destroy All Humans.

Here are a few atompunk images I found that appeal to me. Don't know where the Japanese one is from, but it looks like fun.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Species unknown

Weird doings in the animal kingdom. Is Gaia at work?

First of all, a strange, writhing blob washed up on a beach in Thailand. No one seems to know what it is. The specimen was about five inches in length and rubbery in consistency. A couple of British tourists snapped a picture of it, which you can view at the link. Believing it belonged in the sea, one of the tourists returned it to the water. The pinkish blob immediately turned around and returned to the beach is if repulsed by the water. Observers even claim that the strange creature even looked like it was fighting to stay above water and breathe air.

"It seemed to have something inside which was moving around. The skin was almost transparent and you could see something else inside," one of the witnesses said.

Locals claim to have seen several of them on the beach, but its only been in recent weeks that these wiggly globs have appeared.

It won't be long, if it hasn't happened already, before claims of the paranormal will emerge. I can just imagine the stories now: This blob creature is an unknown species, perhaps not native to this Earth. It has existed for centuries deep in the sea and away from our notice. Of course that doesn't match with the creature's apparent revulsion with water, but let's not let that get in the way of a good story.

Or it's evidence of the Gaia principle, a new organism that has emerged to help get the environment back in balance.

But wait! There are more discoveries!

I missed this the first time around, but a story came out last January that orange crocodiles have been discovered in a cave in Gabon. Previously unknown, these crocodiles live in complete darkness, feeding on bats and crickets. They were thought to possibly be one of a few other species of crocodile, but it's now thought that they are mutations...entirely new species.

What other new, weird lifeforms is the Earth kicking out?

Speaking of the paranormal, discoveries such as these are likely to embolden proponents of cryptozoology. One of the arguments against cryptids is that we have long since discovered all the animals we're ever going to. Somehow, however, we keep finding ones hitherto unknown. Granted, there's a distinct difference between finding a five-inch blob and say...Bigfoot, but the principle is the same.

As a writer, it's giving me plenty of ideas, but I'm warning you, few of them are good. Maybe it's because I've been watching so much Svengoolie, but I think it would be fine to write a line of monster books. You know, adventure/horror stories that are non-serious and far more in the tradition of Kong and Gorgo than slasher fare such as Jaws or Alien.

A group of scientists crash land their helicopter in Gabon. While attempting to survive in the jungle, they are taken captive by bipedal, orange crocodiles and taken into the pitch-black depths of a cave where the orange crocodiles have their own civilization. Certainly isn't Moliere, but it sounds like more fun than I could handle. Is there an audience for it? Who the hell knows. One thing is certain, I think I might welcome the brief respite to write about something that isn't so personal and crushing for a change.

I have a writing partner in mind but I've yet to pitch it to him. I'll let you know what develops.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Behold your "new organ," the iterstitium

Your body may have a new organ.

Well, not really "new" per se. You didn't just grow it and not notice, rather it's a part of the body being looked at in a whole new way.

Medical researchers at the New York University School of Medicine have written a paper full of new findings on what's called, "the interstitium." This is a "lattice work" made of collagen and elastin connective tissue that is found all over the body near the skin, arteries, and organs such as the lungs and the digestive tract. It is, according to the study, a “highway of moving fluid” and “a previously unknown feature of human anatomy.” The researchers term the interstitium as "an organ in its own right." In fact, it would be the body's largest organ.

An important finding in this study is that the interstitium is the means by which fluids enter the lymphatic system, thereby possibly spreading disease throughout the body and causing cancer to metastasize. Understanding how this happens and the interstitium's role in the process could aid in treating and preventing cancer or several other maladies.

Why am I writing about this? Several reasons.

I can't help but wonder if by understanding this "new organ" and what connection it may or may not have to illness, we might eventually see how transhuman applications can aid in...well, people leading better lives. Knowing the nuances of the interstitium may help us, just as a "for instance," better target nanotech treatments.

I'm also being rather fanciful and thinking about this from the perspective of a creative writer. The headlines proclaiming "new organ found" are somewhat misleading. But what if we really did grow a hitherto nonexistent organ? What would it be for? Why would it have developed? I like to muse that our modern lives have prompted the body to develop an organ that disperses a natural Xanax three times per day or more as needed.

Evolution or mutation? Is that, as a few out there would argue, the same thing?   

Lastly, the objections to the study interest me. Most of these disagreements are based not in the research but in calling the "fluid highway" a "new organ." "There are no new organs" one scientist countered, "except those for musicians on stage." Heh. He's a card.
So, what we have here is essentially a matter of rhetoric. Can you rightfully apply the phrase "new organ?" Does it fit the definition? It's an interdisciplinary argument with at least a few fingers in how language is used.

As much as I'm on Team Rhetoric and enjoy debating the nuances of word meaning and how we humans "code" the world around us, that interest only goes so far in this case. If someone you love is suffering from any form of malady, particularly one where diagnosis is maddeningly elusive, you likely don't give a rat's ass whether or not the term "organ" may be viably used. You just want the research to help make people better. To allow the quibble over terminology to distract from the research is self-defeating and mushyheaded.

Guess there's a practical side to me after all.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A warming Arctic and a growing Garbage Patch

And now for even more news of humans being inhumane to their environment.

Climate change continues to rear its ugly and undeniable head. This study hit the news a little over a month ago. Temperatures in the Arctic have reached record highs this winter, as high as 35 degrees Fahrenheit at times. The average temperature has been at or just around freezing, which is 50 degrees warmer than typical. Naturally. this has led to ice melt and a open waters around Greenland where there should only be ice. This would seem to be just another point on a continuing trend found by a study  released last July arguing that these stretches of warming have, since 1980, become more frequent, longer-lasting, and more intense. 

As if that were not dejecting enough, we also have the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to contend with. I mentioned it in passing in the last post, but a student I knew back at SJC (hey Nathan!) posted an article on FB that describes how this mass of modern refuse is actually much bigger than anyone had previously thought. It is now a moving collection of plastic trash situated between California and Hawaii and spread out over 600,000 miles. Winds and the currents of the ocean have converged to sort of funnel it all together in that spot.

Sure, science has been trying to find ways to fight climate change. But is the field prepared to deal with a growing mass of Tupperware and empty two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew? This is just plain weird. So weird, that I can think of no better testament to human shortsightedness and ignorance. I suppose it could give one plenty to write about.

I have long toyed with the idea of writing a novel that involves a superstorm hurricane. Climate change causes this storm to be so super-charged that it becomes sentient, a living system unto itself. That's not quite enough, in my opinion, to carry an entire narrative, so I decided it would become a running subplot in a story about an intrepid and mythoclastic journalist. I see now that I must include a weird, self-aware mass of plastic garbage rising out of the Pacific. Well, then again, why would it want to? If the polar caps keep melting, it will have ample habitat.

As my student friend said, "What a terrifying time to be alive."

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

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