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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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. 

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