Monday, November 20, 2017

A sketch

It seems to be raining more often than not.

I've never minded the drizzle and I have special affinity for the misty gloom of cold November rain. This year it just seems to...I don't

I see so much strata to the melancholy. There is the personal level. So many I know are grieving deaths and multiple incarnations of loss. I know I'm struggling with money and finding a job and providing and overall just fearing the future. Then there is the national and international level. More talk of nuclear war today. A daily scan of the news and social media brings more stories of racism, sexism, and alt-right nationalism. Civil war feels imminent. Debates constantly rage over just who will be punished in matters of taxation and health care. Not everyone's unhappy about it.

That's just it. I look around and feel like there's a party going on and I'm not invited. Don't get me wrong and think I'm saying I'm a born outcast. Because I was in the party once. But my invitation was conditional. All our invitations are. Just one false move...and it doesn't even have to be your move...and your invitation is revoked. You're out in the rain. You're face pressed up against the glass...

Sorry for whatever I did to get thrown out. I never meant to do it. Could it be, perhaps, that my invitation was far more fragile than I first expected? "This message will self-destruct in five minutes..."

How do you get back into the party?

All tomorrow's parties.

That very Velvet Underground song and eventual title of a William Gibson book came into my head. An hour later I heard the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover of it on Sirius First Wave.

For whatever reason, the song made me think of "Emma" by the Sisters of Mercy, one of my favorite tracks of theirs. A few minutes later, I heard "Emma" as well. Am willing songs to me?

Wish I could will more useful things to me.

That image above. I think about it a lot as I curl on my 15 year-old couch in my hoodie, scrolling through social media on my iPhone. Living virtually. Either because it's all I can or because I'm afraid/unable to unplug. Is this the best case scenario?

I also read blogs. A favorite is Space: 1970. Christopher Mills hasn't updated in a while, but that's all right. There are plenty of old posts to sift through, allowing indulgence in Star Wars, Star Trek, Buck Rogers, BSG, and Flash Gordon. I feel guilty about it though. Am I ducking the question? Is it the intellectual and science fictional equivalent of curling in fetal position under blankets and sucking my thumb? Is the graphic above, in all of its dour Blade Runner-ish glory, far more realistic? As I look out both the glass and the computer windows, I see a dirty, rainy urbanscape and a world where people have plenty of prescription drugs and ready access to weapons of mass destruction. Is any indulgence in gleaming rocket ships nothing short of cowardice in the face of the problem?

Depression is a feedback loop.

A thing in your brain and in your chest, clawing from the inside every waking hour.

Deontology falls to a chemical skew.

“It's so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
― John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Alien tidbits

At various points, I've been asked: "Hey Jon. What gives with all the aliens?"

Aside from my obvious love of science fiction, there are a few other reasons.
Exobiology is a genuinely intriguing mental exercise. What would other life look like? All we have to go on is how life evolved here, and that's an imperfect template at best. Also, when your life is full of job loss, poor finances, health insurance angst, shattered dreams, and daily depression, thinking about life on other planets can be both diverting and relaxing. Even so, don't mistake me for a starry-eyed scrimshanker or someone who sleeps inside pyramids in hopes of "making contact."
That's because while I suspect that there are indeed other lifeforms out in space, I no longer see their existence as a given.

After all, we must face up to that pesky Fermi Paradox: "If the universe is likely filled with life, then where is everybody?" (I'm paraphrasing.) All these years and not one single solid (official) sign that dissuades us from thinking we're alone in the universe. There may be a reason for that.

Imagine you live in a small town in the interior of Nevada or another extreme rural location. If you didn't have access to electronic media, you might begin to get the sensation that you and your fellow citizens of the town are all there is in the world. What if the planet Earth sits in the cosmic equivalent of Nevada?

More specifically, our galaxy, the Milky Way, may float in the midst of one of the largest voids in the observable universeThat's what astronomers at the University of Wisconsin contend. Gravity drew matter together into familiar stellar objects while the universe expands. This "clumping" left behind vast zones of "empty." These voids are suspected to count for 80% of the universe.

All right, so it doesn't quite fit with my Nevada analogy as there are still plenty of stars with us here in the Milky Way. But still I must ask, why haven't we even heard anything? Not even a garbled transmission from the inky dark. Indeed the starry sky seems mostly silent. That may soon change if China has anything to say about it.

They have just built the world's largest radio receiver dish. The dish exists for one purpose: listen for alien signals. Yes, something we Americans scoff at and certainly deem unworthy of monetary investment. By contrast, China has no problem sinking millions into the effort. Just look at that picture at the link. All silvery and set amid green hills, the dish is over twice the width as Arecibo. The Chinese are serious about this.

If they find them, will we get to see what these aliens look like? Well if we do, there's a team of researchers who argue the aliens will look much like us. Scientists at the University of Oxford seem to believe that the same evolutionary forces that formed life on Earth would do pretty much the same elsewhere. This means planets full of multiple lifeforms of varying complexities, from single-cell organisms all the way up to complicated forms such as humans. If they look similar to us, could they be among us?

A tantalizing prospect, but an unlikely one.

Seems that covers about 90% of my blog material, but I digress...

Our view of the "rule book for life" is rather myopic. Biology keeps surprising us and we keep finding living things here on Earth where there shouldn't be any (see extremophiles). So what do we really know? I see no reason why intelligent life would have to look anything like us. It's probably logical to assume that they would have eyes in order to see and appendages with which they could manipulate their environment and build tools, but beyond that? Who knows?

Well that was fun. Now back to Earthly drudgery.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Film Review--Blade Runner 2049

starring Harrison Ford, Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Ana de Armas, Jared Leto, Dave Bautista, and Rutger Hauer as The Beav.

Thirty years have elapsed since the previous film. A new Blade Runner with the LAPD (Gosling) discovers a secret that has managed to stay hidden for many years. This secret could unravel all of society. As he delves into this scandalous discovery, the trail leads him to Deckard (Ford), the former Blade Runner who has been missing all these years.

Here's the trailer:

There was no reason to make this film.

I adore the original Blade Runner. It is one of my all-time favorite films. It is nearly perfect in every way. It is groundbreaking, looking and sounding different from most any other film preceding it. It is full of angst and existential dread, asking heavy, metaphysical questions, not the least of them being the nature of identity and "What is a human?" More than that, it does not spoon-feed you the answers to those questions nor is it obvious at first as to what is going on (e.g. What's with all the origami?) No, the viewer is required to provide a bit of skullsweat in order to truly get anything out of it. There are very human moments that are quite touching and full of valor and compassion. The ending of the film, just like the rest of it, turns convention on its head and defies typical audience expectations. Shake all of that in an urban industrial hellscape, serve, and you have a triumph.

There's not much of any of that in this sequel.

True, there are stunning visuals and an ominous soundtrack. There are a few moments that are moving and there are wonderful ideas, ideas that beg an exploration of memory and equality and human nature. But the original asked all of the same questions and did it better. This sequel adds nothing to the original and does not manage to extend the story in any meaningful way. Plus, in a true sign of the times, this movie hands everything to you, no interpretation required. That is except of course for just what purpose Jared Leto's character serves (full disclosure: I'm not the biggest Leto fan.) It drags on a good hour longer than it needs to and yet it seems to fill that time with...nothing.

That is why I say there was no reason to make this film. As if to add evidence to that assertion, I realize as I write this that several weeks have gone by and I have seldom stopped to think about the film. I remember only a handful of the scenes and I really have no desire to see it again. By way of contrast, the original still fascinates me to this day.

The original Blade Runner feels like a thinking, soulful art house film that somehow managed to emerge and (albeit much later) thrive at the dawn of an age where science fiction turned into shoot 'em up, bang bang confections in space.

This one feels like a pale imitation with a $100 million budget.

Really. They should never have bothered if they couldn't top this scene:

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Sunday, October 29, 2017



That's what the billboard says, anyway. If you travel southbound on I-65 in Indiana, just south of Merrillville you'll drive past the sign. I used to see it all the time. Then again, you really can't miss it.

Hell has been on my mind for several months now. As Halloween approaches, I'm thinking about Hell from the perspective of a writer. You see, horror fiction, like many other genres of writing, seems to go in cycles. Right now, you can't swing a dead bat without hitting an old and tired zombie trope. In the 1990s it seemed like vampires were everywhere. What many forget though is that 1970s horror fiction belonged to Hell. Hell and it's most famous resident, Satan. The centerpiece example of this is quite likely William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist. So much has been said about that book and the ensuing monumental film that I'm going to devote my attention to other texts.

How long have we been writing about Hell?

Long before the Bible was ever composed, Gilgamesh journeyed to the underworld of the dead, a Hell of its own sort. Odysseus crossed the River Styx in The Odyssey and Aeneas, shocker, did the same thereafter. The Hell of those traditions comes off as a dark place of death but with not much going on in it. That's bad enough, but then Bible comes along with, among other descriptions of Hell, the "lake of fire" from the Book of Revelations. It's from this source that Western tradition comes to view Hell as a place of burning and flame and great suffering.

John Milton seized upon this image for his epic poem, Paradise Lost. In it, Satan leads an army of rebel angels against God...and loses badly. The insurrectionists are cast out into the newly created pit of Hell, where Satan and his fallen angels build Pandemonium amid the lake of fire. "Far better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven," Satan promises his followers. Hell's gate is guarded by Sin, Satan's daughter. In Book 10 a bridge is built from Hell to Earth by Sin and Death after the Fall of Man, which has been caused by Satan, while the fallen angels are turned into snakes.

Long before Milton, however, Dante wrote The Divine Comedy. It's first of three acts, The Inferno, is probably the most famous and widely-read of the text, suggesting that readers are far more interested in Hell than either Purgatory or Paradise, but that's a whole 'nother matter. Inferno also is something of a departure from the standard, "everything is burning" depiction of Hell. In Inferno, Dante offers a sophisticated and judicious arrangement of eternal suffering. Hell is systematically divided in thematic tortures for crimes of the same nature in its Nine Circles, for example people who were violent against others are trapped in the Seventh Circle of Hell in a boiling river of blood with centaurs firing arrows to keep them in their place.

Then there's Ulysses by James Joyce. While Joyce's depiction of Dublin is in no way connected to Hell, I have recently spoken with a scholar of English Literature who insists that the very experience of reading this book should be listed in any description of Hell. As I am still intimidated by this book and have yet to fully dive into it, I cannot endorse that interpretation of the text. However, the professor does not appear to be a lone wolf in the wilderness on the matter, either. Joyce's long-regarded masterpiece is complicated, twisty, and at times nonsensical.

Joking aside, all of the above has accumulated into a sort of "communal perception" of what Hell must be like, should it exist. As for my own image of Hell, well it's a complicated amalgamation of my Catholic upbringing and album covers from my youth, To wit:

Naturally, it seems that writers are far more taken with Hell's ruler than with Hell as a physical landscape and more has been written on the former than the latter. Why not? Can you find a more powerful, more menacing antagonist for your hapless characters than Satan? Dennis Wheatley didn't think so. Wheatley was prolific writer of fiction dealing with black magic and the occult. His book The Devil Rides Out features English gentry discovering that one of their own is a Satan worshiper. This results in a black mass on the Salisbury Plain and later a country house besieged by demonic forces. There was also To the Devil a Daughter, wherein a writer (we're always the good guys) fights to save the soul of a young girl kidnapped by a Satanic cult headed by a former priest. Both of these books were made into films in the 1970s by Hammer Studios and both starred the inimitable Christopher Lee.

As I said, the 1970s were a time of renewed fear of, and honestly fascination with, Hell, psychomancy, and demonic forces. Aside from the crown jewel, The Exorcist, The Omen is probably the greatest example of this fascination. It stars Gregory Peck as the American ambassador to England who gradually puts together the fact that his son is not really his son, but the Antichrist.The aforementioned Hammer Studios even got their version of Dracula in on the scene. In The Satanic Rites of Dracula. a Satanic cult seeks not to summon the dark lord of the underworld, but Dracula instead. Comic book writers were quick to cash in on this trend as well.

The character on the cover of that collection is Daimon Hellstrom, The Son of Satan. The moniker pretty much says it all. He hates his father and works against him, leading to one of the premiere explorations of "daddy issues" in the comic book medium.

Of course many of the more interesting explorations of Hell are those that are said to have actually happened. These include numerous accounts of paranormal activity, such as demonic possession. One of the more famous cases is likewise firmly cemented in the pop culture of the 1970s. The Amityville Horror case spawned both a book and a movie of the same name. The case is pretty much the quintessential, "get out of the house" haunted hose story, only there are pig demons involved plus a gateway to hell in the basement. Though based on a true story, this narrative has been widely discredited by many investigators. When "paranormal investigators" Ed and Lorraine Warren are involved, you can pretty much bet the whole thing is a hoax.

Then there's this old chestnut: geologists working in Siberia drilled too far and punched a hole right into Hell. Temperatures read in the range of 2,000 degrees and microphones recorded the screams of the tormented and the damned. I've heard these recordings and they are most unsettling. Good thing it's all a hoax. Although I do like this tidbit from Snopes:  "The legend of the “well to Hell” is one that particularly appeals to some Christian groups as offering confirmation that Hell (and therefore God) exists. Popular endings to the story have it that scientists (the symbols of atheism) ran screaming from the site in terror when confronted with such proof, or that since the discovery of Hell conversions to Christianity began occurring at an unprecedented rate."

Let us not forget the Jersey Devil, a "crytpid" said to lurk the wooded marshlands of New Jersey. There have been several sightings but no convincing evidence as to the veracity of this creature.  Paranormal lore states that the thing was actually born of woman in the 18th Century, a poor woman who while having her 13th child, cursed it in her pain and gave it to Satan. At least the deformed kid has a hockey team named after him.

If you want to read truly good nonfiction on the subject of Hell, check out American Exorcism by Michael Cuneo. It's a fascinating read and it will leave you thinking that demonic possession either is a complete falsehood or that it happens all the time.

So is the billboard right? Is Hell real? If our literary imaginations have any bearing on our perception of "real" then I would have to say yes. In fact, Hell may be purely a descriptor for a state of being.

After all, I've been in Hell for months now.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Dollhouse diorama crime scenes

Above you will see a work of art by Frances Glessner Lee.

It also happens to be a perfect depiction of an actual crime scene...right down to the last detail.

Lee is known as "the mother of forensics." She grew frustrated that professionals often acted on hunches and neglected to take in every available piece of evidence at a crime scene. This was due in part, she believed, to a serious lack of training tools. To rectify this, she applied her unparalleled skill at creating miniatures and created replica dioramas for real-life crime scenes.

Over at Atlas Obscura, you can see for yourself just how amazingly detailed these dioramas are. There are tiny pegs for hanging coats, there are magazines and newspapers with small but still readable print, there are wedding photos on display and the like. Even more amazing is the fact that the features on the furniture and such actually work. Drawers can be pulled from dressers, a rocking horse rocks, and locks on doors are fully functional. Not one bit of deadwood. No detail could be spared, otherwise how else were budding forensic specialists to learn? From Atlas Obscura:

"According to Kimberlee Moran, Director of Forensics at Rutgers University, both the level of detail and the form are fundamental to teaching necessary skills. “With dioramas fortunately you can’t move things around and mess things up like you could an actual scene or a staged scene, so they’re teaching documentation skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and observation.” "

I've written before about my odd fondness for dioramas and I'm certainly fascinated by Lee's. At the same time, however, I do get a grim sense in my head and a queasy feeling in my gut for I know what they represent. No matter. Lee was doing a great public service. Not purely for advancing forensic science, but the pure act of fostering critical thinking and deductive observation contributed much to academics. And my goodness, the sheer level of her skill present in painting, sewing, and so many other creative talents. Additionally, keep in mind that Lee achieved all of these accomplishments at a time when women were expected to remain in purely domestic roles.

She serves as an inspiration to contemporary artists, academics, and forensics alike.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Total body replacement

On a rainy Saturday in a university library, my reverie went astray.

What if I, somehow. became fully posthuman? What would life be like?
A few parameters for what I'm about to write:

First, there are few books you should eventually read to get the most out of what I'm about to describe. The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil and The Transhumanist Reader edited by Natasha Vita-More and Max More are both essential reading on the subject.

Secondly, this post is not entertaining "Wellwhatabouts" and "What ifs." Naturally there are many and I've never shied away from them. Heck as I'm blogging this, TCM is showing The Curse of Frankenstein. A warning or just seasonal fare? Anyway, I'm not interested in any contrarian sparring at this moment. I'm trying to provide positives before a successive post on the negatives.

As I've said many times before, this is nothing new. Gilgamesh searched an elixir that would allow him to overcome the greatest of human frailties: death. Dante used the term transumanare in The Divine Comedy to mean, "to pass beyond the human." While he didn't mean by the application of technologies, Nietzsche saw humans as something to be overcome, asking "What have you done to overcome him?" That latter point, to my way of thinking, is the purpose of posthumanism. To overcome. More on that in a moment.

In his essay, "Why I Want to be Posthuman When I Grow Up," Max More identifies three categories of the human condition to consider:

1. Healthspan. This means being fully active, healthy and productive mentally and physically.
2. Cognition. The capacity to remember and to analyze.
3. Emotion. The capacity to react and enjoy.

Posthumanism is the ability to go beyond what is humanly possible in any or all of those categories. To me, it means overcoming the inherent limitations and to finally have control. It is my life, my body, and my mind. If the means exist, why should I not have the right modify what I am to my own desires? Sure, you can argue that we do have control through practices such as diet, exercise, medicine, meditation, and all that rot. But they are inefficient and in the end they are illusory. I don't care how many weights you lift and how much kale you stuff down, you will eventually meet your end. It just takes the right disease or injury or the mere ravages of time. You think you have control, but I'm sorry. You don't. On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

I then began to contemplate how my life would be different if I did have complete and total technological replacement in these three domains.

1. Physically. After the library last Saturday, I got my hair cut. They placed a black, vinyl shroud over my midsection and all I saw was gray hair falling upon it. It sickened me. What could I do to stop it? I mean truly eradicate it? Biosculpture. Better yet, mind upload into an artificial body. No more stomach problems. No more inefficient wastes of time as I brush to keep my teeth clean and my breath fresh, or swabbing skin and applying creams to fight off acne and wrinkles. I can at last eradicate my awful flaws. Want to fire me? Fine. I don't need to eat. I don't need shelter. I don't get cold. I don't get hungry. I don't get tired. I don't get sick. Something broke down? I simply replace it with a new component.

2. Mentally. This is the most tantalizing to me. I nearly salivate at the idea of rapidly correlating vast amounts of information and seeing patterns my meat-brain is currently incapable of. No more data corruption of memory with age. I was saying today that I feel I have long since lost my creativity. It's almost a foreign concept to me. With an enhanced mind, I wonder if I could reclaim it and then some. Which leads me to...

3. Emotionally. I realize that creativity is connected in several ways to emotion. "You need suffering for your art." Perhaps. Even so, I covet the ability to switch off emotions. To feel nothing, especially after the past ten month, would be a complete and total sense of relief. Inhuman you say? Posthuman I say. Laugh all you want about the Vulcan mentality but to me it sounds like bliss of its own kind. At this point I just want the option. I want control. If I must have this body and this mind, I at least want my hands on the source code to decide what I want to do with it.

I am not even considering any of the "superhuman" add-ons that might be possible. For the time being I would be satisfied with total control.Why be confined to an outdated and purely philosophical notion of what "humanity" should be?

I say it can be anything we want it to be.

Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets