Wednesday, March 31, 2004

I'm reading a rather fat science fiction novel called "The Alien Years," an invasion-from-beyond epic by Robert Silverberg, an author best known for his delicate psychological fiction. I'm 100 pages into "The Alien Years" and I don't know precisely where it's taking me. So far, Silverberg has provided some scenic, well-written cliches but little else; the prose is only slightly more subtle than the cover art.

This book raises the question: How to write a genuinely new alien invasion story? Ever since H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds," the genre has been littered with variations on the same theme, both in literature and film. It goes something like this:

Initially inscrutable alien spaceships appear in our skies. Mankind looks up in awe and fright. Then Bad Things start happening. The humans wise up; the aliens are here to Take Over the World, although the way in which they attempt to do so seems curiously anthropomorphic. Life as we know it comes to a crashing end. Meanwhile, a savvy network of resistance fighters gradually realizes the omniscient-seeming aliens have a convenient weak spot. The rest of the story dutifully chronicles the humans' effort to eradicate the alien presence.

Thus far, Silverberg hasn't deviated from this formula one bit. I'm not saying it's a bad novel, or that surprises aren't in store. But I expected something uniquely Silverbergian, a sense of the surreal that's (so far at least) disappointingly absent.

Interestingly, there's a cop-out authors use when they release a Wellsian invasion novel: They simply proclaim that their novel is a loving homage to Wells. True, it's tempting to crank out a page-turning variation on the "War of the Worlds" theme (the temptation to employ cool literary special effects alone is enticing enough for many authors), but the homage bit is played. I'm not sure I buy it anymore. How many tributes does Wells need? Is it conceivable that SF publishers are inclined to publish formulaic Us vs. Them novels because they tend to sell?

The last really good alien invasion novel I read -- John Shirley's "Demons" -- wasn't about ETs at all; the villains were supernatural. But they were genuinely weird in a way that Silverberg's invaders are not.

Another extremely good alien novel (not quite an "invasion" story, but related) is Whitley Strieber's "Majestic," a truly creepy fictionalized reconstruction of the Roswell UFO crash (written, incidentally, long before "Roswell" became a paranormal buzzword). Check your local used-book store.

Take a look at these extremely bizarre UFOs. Several of them have an intriguingly "organic" appearance. "What the hell?" indeed.
To anyone who's seen David Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers," this may come as a somewhat disturbing revelation. But I can relate to the twin gynecologists played (with freaky artistry) by Jeremy Irons. Cronenberg's psychological vivisection is a singular metaphor, alarmingly identifiable.

"Dead Ringers" is probably Hollywood's most successful portrait of psychology stretched to aberrant extremes. The "identical" twins at the film's core form a composite organism, each the cerebral mirror of the other. One is socially cunning and icy-suave; the other is painfully shy, awkward, self-absorbed. Despite their glaring differences, each is utterly dependent on the other. Functioning in stealthy unison, they comprise an integrated (if chillingly synthetic) self.

Only when this duality is shaken by a love interest does their shared world begin to disintegrate. If each brother represents a respective brain hemisphere, any attempt at individual autonomy is like severing the knot of tissue that makes an anatomically bifurcated mind function as an undifferentiated whole. For the twins, escape from symbiosis equals suicide.

Reality fractures when the two hemispheres fall out of synch. In "Dead Ringers," Cronenberg illustrates this schism by assigning left- and right-brain attributes to each twin. Esteemed doctors, both live in the same swank apartment, ritualistically regrouping at the end of each day to synchronize. Their lives are carefully modulated so each can reap the other's experience -- an automatic process in an organic brain, but one that the twins must manage with incredible finesse lest their composite-self begin to fracture.

"Dead Ringers" may be disturbing, but the central concept is enacted within our minds on a near-constant basis. Cronenberg and Irons humanize a process most of us would prefer to consign to neurology textbooks, revealing how fragile that link between the hemispheres really is -- how something as trivial as a romantic obsession can cut deeper and more exactingly than the sharpest scalpel.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

It seems I'm always happening across extraterrestrial "unreal-estate" scams like this one.

Lunar kingdom - or lunacy?

"Dennis Hope, a Nevada-based entrepreneur who sells lunar property through his company, the Lunar Embassy, claims to own the entire moon and eight other celestial bodies in the solar system. He says he has sold 410 million acres on the moon and properties on Mars, Venus and one of the moons of Jupiter to nearly 2.5 million people."

Doesn't this guy keep up with cosmology? If he did, he'd know that we live in an infintesimal branch within an unthinkably vast quantum multiverse. Why sell bits and pieces of planets and moons when he could sell entire universes? Granted, you can never actually visit, but . . .

Sewerage and fertilisers 'are killing the seas'

(Yes, you read "sewerage" correctly. This is a British 'zine.)

"'Humankind is engaged in a gigantic, global, experiment as a result of the inefficient and often over-use of fertilisers, the discharge of untreated sewage and the ever rising emissions from vehicles and factories,' said Klaus Toepfer, the UN environment programme (UNEP) director. 'The nitrogen and phosphorous from these sources are being discharged into rivers and the coastal environment or being deposited from the atmosphere, triggering these alarming and sometimes irreversible effects.'"

Maybe I'll start flipping off Hummers after all . . .

But wait! It gets better:

Nanotech buckyballs kill fish

"Scientists today announced research suggesting buckyball molecules can trigger organ damage in fish, raising fears over the safety of the technology. When added to aquarium water, the particles also devastated the population of Daphnia, the tiny water-fleas near the bottom of the food chain."

If we can hasten the demise of our biosphere using primitive industrial technology, just imagine what poorly understood stuff like nanotech is likely to do if stupidly unleashed into the environment.

The upshot is that we can eventually design nanobots programmed to seek out pollutants and render them harmless. But by the time we develop a technological immune system for our oceans and atmosphere, the ecological bedrock may have crumbled beneath us. It will be too late; our only option will be to terraform our own planet, just as some optimists hope to "revive" Mars (which, ironically, doesn't appear to be quite as dead as everyone's assumed).

In any case, a massive human dieback is inevitable. Millions -- perhaps billions -- will probably die in the next few hundred years. Those "dead zones" out in the oceans may seem comfortably distant now, but wait until the United States finds itself situated in the middle of one. Wait until Europe is one big ecological Chernobyl, drenched in greenhouse heat. And do you really think everyone's going to peacefully wait for high-tech deliverance? No, there will be wars.

We are bounding blindly in the twilight.
To NASA Concerning Martian Methane

by Ray Stanford

Dispense with your doubting,

In faith take a dive,

'Cause if Mars is farting,
You can bet it's alive!

(Thanks, Ray!)

Monday, March 29, 2004

Private spacecraft could launch this summer

"Some of the 27 teams pursuing the $10 million X Prize for the first privately funded manned spaceflight are closing in on a goal that once seemed outlandish, and organizers believe a space trip could be attempted as early as summer."
The great thing about living on the 9th floor is watching the car wrecks. I'm not kidding. I mean, I rarely see them happen, but I commonly hear the telltale SQUEAL-THUNK of frantic tires and colliding metal and stop what I'm doing to observe the aftermath. There was a crash just a couple minutes ago in the intersection below my kitchen. I'm listening to the sirens now. Last night there was another one in almost exactly the same spot. White cars each time. It's like there's some electromagnetic anomaly buried in the street that causes drivers to space out and lose control.

And while I stand in my kitchen laughing with smug disdain, I'm not without sympathy. The truth is that driving scares me. I'd rather not do it, given the choice. I wish we had telepods like the ones in "The Fly": instant, petroleum-free molecular reconstitution for the masses. But on the other hand, look what happened to Jeff Goldblum. Do you honestly think public telepods could be kept insect-free? I personally doubt it.
Site of the day: Modern Ruins

"I'm reminded that nothing is permanent, that everything is always in a state of transition. And we see ourselves in our own transitions, sometimes too focused on where we're going to notice and appreciate where we are."

More Mars methane madness . . .

Methane poses Mars life puzzle

"Methane has been found in the Martian atmosphere which scientists say could be a sign of present-day life on Mars."

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Today I addressed a bunch of review copies of "After the Martian Apocalypse," finished Benford's "In the Ocean of Night" over coffee at LatteLand and -- as an afterthought -- read the first few pages of Robert Silverberg's "The Alien Years" at Starbucks.

I feel an absurd affinity for Starbucks, an ersatz nostalgia. I'm drawn to simulations, lured by attempts to reproduce authentic experience that deftly exclude the very humanity they're designed to commemorate. Starbucks franchises are like tiny bubble universes where the rigors of reality are temporarily suspended and dissolved. All is plush furniture, shimmering, overpriced merchandise, yuppies intent in front of color-coordinated laptops, and the omnipresent sursurration of cellphone conversation.

Of course, the entire production is synthetic, up to and including the brittle smiles of the baristas, who almost invariably screw up my order. But I don't mind; Starbucks lulls me into an uncharacteristically accepting stupor. I want so direly to sit in those absorbing, womb-like chairs savoring the smell of espresso, categorizing the faces behind their inscrutable flatscreens. I sometimes find myself ordering coffee simply as an excuse to linger, entranced by the almost library-like hush that predominates between outbursts of anonymous laughter.

Starbucks straddles the zone between crass commercialization and authenticity, or at least pretends to. Like an airport or a hotel room, a Starbucks is reassuring because it's implicitly transitional, an easily discarded prop stripped of sentiment. I walk into a Starbucks and find my own alienation abruptly justified, my ego severed and allowed to float, disembodied, amidst the canned music and aromatic steam.
Science on verge of new 'Creation'

"Scientists eagerly talk of a new world of ultra-small living machines, where marvelously made-to-order cells heal the body, clean up pollutants, transform electronics and communication, and much more."

Just thought you should know.
Comments added! Wow!

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by

Hey, posthumans! Now you can leave comments for each post in this blog, if the wish strikes. It's extremely easy. Just click on "Comment" and have at it. It's a killer time-sink.

You're welcome.
Posthuman Blues encourages you to Flip Off A Hummer . . . although, honestly, you won't see me doing it. Flipping people off is one of those things I simply can't do. I'm too damned nice. (Although I once fast-balled a cup of coffee at the windshield of a car whose driver I found particularly obnoxious.) But if you're already a flipper, now's your chance to participate in an actual grassroots movement. Can't beat that. (Thanks to Chapel Perilous.)

Saturday, March 27, 2004

I've discovered Gregory Benford's Galactic Center series. I'd promised myself to stay away from multivolume epics, but I might make an exception if "In the Ocean of Night" (originally a stand-alone) wins me over. The series is about humanity's realization that organic life is rare, with the galaxy dominated by ancient machine intelligences.

Rudy Rucker's "Frek and the Elixer" is out. I'm tempted to get this one in hardback. Check out the book's official site; Rucker isn't a bad painter at all.

Bruce Sterling has a new one on the way: "The Zenith Angle," reportedly to be marketed as a technothriller rather than science fiction. I feel obscurely guilty that I still haven't read "Zeitgeist."

Last night I enjoyed one of the best night's sleep in memory. I attribute this in no small part to brand-new pillows; I'd had my previous pillows for something like five years, and they'd become compacted by the weight of my head until they had the approximate buoyancy of dough. I gladly tossed them into the dumpster.
Imagine human consciousness as a palpable, visually arresting substance, a vibrant flowing stuff emanating from our minds and blending into fractal auras and impossible hues. From the air, cities would appear as congested, pulsating domes of color; up close, streets would writhe with brief, fantastic forms, office towers and apartment buildings bleeding livid Technicolor awareness into the night like vaporous portals into Mind itself.

An evening's stroll through an electric fog of roiling, mercuric awareness, tides of phosphoresence mingling, perpetually replenished.
Methane find on Mars may be sign of life

"Each group has independently discovered tantalising evidence of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Methane, a waste product of living organisms on Earth, could also be a by-product of alien microbes living under the surface of the Red Planet."

Unexplained tree-like formations on Mars.

This could signal the end of NASA/JPL's cult-like insistence that Mars is lifeless. The "Life on Mars" meme is gathering evidential moss on a near-daily basis.

So what if life (or its unmistakable signature) is discovered and recognized for what it is? Either NASA and the European space agency will begin serious proposals for a near-term manned mission or else the next generation of rovers will be equipped for on-site biological analysis. Either way, the current sterile milieu will be forced to adapt. And JPL as we know it will cease to exist as exobiologists, ecologists and microbiologists gain much-deserved control over NASA's geology-driven Mars exploration program.

(It's a safe prediction that if we make it out of the next few hundred years alive and intact, all of this furor over Martian life will seem quite amusing.)

More Mars fun:

God's creatures on Mars?

"Scholars with expertise in science and religion contend that the major religions practiced on Earth are elastic enough to account for intelligent life on other planets. But thinking through the possibilities could be an important exercise in getting followers of different religions to see how they can coexist."

Tell that to the boneheads who wrote the Brookings Report . . .
Life on Mars - but 'we sent it'

"After testing whether terrestrial organisms can survive simulated Martian conditions and the procedures used to sterilise spacecraft, he reckons there is a good chance some made it to Mars and might still be living there."

By the time we make it to Mars in person, perhaps our unwitting microbial colonists will have evolved into astronaut-eating monsters . . .

Friday, March 26, 2004

Perhaps the biggest benefit reaped by the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union is the metamorphosed Pravda, which routinely features cutting-edge investigative journalism. Take the following story . . .

Boriska-boy from Mars

"The little boy with gigantic lively eyes was about to tell a magnificent story about the Martian civilization, about megalithic cities, their spaceships and flights to various planets, about a wonderful country Lemuria, life of which he knew in details since he happened to descend there from Mars, had friends there."

The beauty of Pravda is that it has yet to become stale and self-aware like, for instance, Weekly World News. The pages of Pravda are infused with an endearing naivete; for all of the typos and blatant style errors, there's at least some heart driving Pravda, which is more than you can say for its grown-up American cousin.
You know, sometimes I really can't blame David Icke for thinking world leaders are actually malignant shape-shifting reptiles. How else to explain the following?


"Extract as much gas and oil as possible as fast as possible, at any cost to fish and other wildlife and with enormous subsidies to industry at a time of record profits. That pretty much sums up the Bush administration's 'energy policy,' hatched in secret with the energy companies themselves. Currently the administration is devising ways to overcome what it calls 'impediments' to energy development and what the rest of society calls environmental laws."

In better news, I got a hardcopy print of my book cover today. Looks good; I think it's eye-catching.
Are we alone?

"SETI is building a new radio telescope that will assist in finding technology from life elsewhere, Tarter said, similar to how the twin rovers are searching for microbes, or living organisms, on Mars. Before SETI's newest project, their researchers shared telescopes such as the Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico, sometimes giving them only weeks to work."

Ufologist Stanton Friedman quips that "SETI" stands for "Silly Effort to Investigate." I disagree; I think a vigorous search for ET radio/laser emissions is well worth our time. But daring to take the UFO phenomenon seriously and scanning the sky for intelligent signals are not mutually exclusive, as both sides of the dichotomy will typically have you believe. It's yet another symptom of Western society's addiction to binary thought, in which all eggs must necessarily be thrown into either one basket or the other.

An emerging thread in SETI discourse (as well as informed science fiction) is the notion of a postbiological cosmos. The majority of advanced aliens aren't likely to be flesh-and-blood; I suspect they'll be more like thoughtforms than anything familiar to terrestrial biologists. This catapults Arthur C. Clarke's maxim that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" to truly dizzy heights. In a cosmos populated by machine-based life, we are most definitely not alone; the Earth itself could be under siege by stealthy intruders. Even traveling at subrelativistic speeds, miniaturized probes designed to reproduce using raw materials encountered on their travels could overwhelm the galactic disk in "mere" billions of years.

Trends in electronics manufacturing strongly suggest that elements of the cosmic diaspora could be exceedingly small -- even microscopic. It's not inconceivable that we inhabit an airborne sea of alien machinery, a voracious "smart dust" taking up residence in our brains to understand how we think, or distributed throughout the oceans in order to track our planet's ecological plight. Of course, this assumes that the alien intelligence is interested in such things; perhaps by achieving machine-hood, ETI forfeits its stake in all matters biological. Carbon-based life might not be worthy of any special attention.

Some UFOs might be a manifestation of a machine-based alien presence. But this begs the question: If stealth is of the essence, why do so many UFOs and their ostensible "occupants" so often seek out our attention? The literature brims with credible cases of pilots closing in on uncorrelated targets -- only for them to scatter playfully in what seems to be a deliberate display of technological superiority. Maybe the alien intelligence is showing us something we can comprehend (i.e., humanoid aliens in metal spacecraft) in a gradual scheme designed to bring us up to speed.

A postbiological ET intelligence might be god-like but still yearn for companionship. So it's not unthinkable that our own evolution has been bootstrapped -- psychosocially as well as genetically -- in order to accelerate our own transition into machines. A version of this scenario can be glimpsed in the writings of Whitley Strieber, whose book "Confirmation" posits that UFO technology is ours for the taking -- but only if we're able to wrestle with its technical and political implications.

Like a lofty Olympian god, the UFO intelligence seems content to simply let us gape in wonder. But at the same time it must surely know that we're furiously trying to duplicate the bizarre physics seen in our skies.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

U.S. Department of Energy Will Review 15 Years of "Cold Fusion" Excess Heat and Nuclear Evidence

"The DOE has made a startling reversal of its past refusal to evaluate with a fresh look the large body of experimental evidence that now supports highly anomalous non-chemical magnitude excess heat phenomena in some hydrogen systems, plus associated nuclear anomalies. The details of how the review will be conducted and when it is to begin have not yet been released formally, but it is expected to be completed by the end of 2004."
Newsflash! The mainstream media has been plugging Mars anomalies thought to represent a vanished (?) extraterrestrial society. Only one catch: The "anomalies" are the specious "discoveries" of a single guy -- who will go unnamed; he's raking up enough attention anyway. (One clue: For once, he's not Richard Hoagland.)

The "Mars researcher" eating up page-space in newspapers across the country has unearthed examples of supposed letterforms in heavily processed photos taken by the twin Mars Exploration Rovers. (That's right; the Martians somehow chanced upon English. The odds!)

This is the first time I can recall controversial Mars research (if "research" is the operative term) achieving mainstream escape velocity since 1998, when Malin Space Science Systems released its first radically substandard image on the Face in a vainglorious effort to "scotch this thing for good," in the words of one participating project scientist.

Interestingly, qualified scientists of disparate disciplines -- Stanley McDaniel, Mark Carlotto, Horace Crater, et al -- have been providing objective evidence favoring possible artificiality on Mars for years and have never been mentioned outside of venues such as my own Cydonian Imperative (with the exception of highly specialized peer-reviewed journals). None of these researchers, with the exception of noted astronomer Tom Van Flandern, has ventured an unqualified declaration of artificiality, but their case, seen in proper context, is compelling indeed.

So why does the mainstream zero in on the infinitely suspect claims of one of the countless online "anomalists"? To finally give the "underdog" a fair hearing? Hardly. This is classic debunking. Wave the weakest, most outlandish and incoherent "case" for "Martians" in full view and the masses will accept it as representative of the entire controversy. It's good for a few laughs and quickly forgotten.

But in the meantime, the uppity hicks manning the Kansas City Star and other timid publications can revel in smug superiority, secure in the conviction that they're fighting the Saganesque "good fight" against pseudoscience -- even if this means tweaking journalistic parameters so that a lone fool's ravings are packaged as Actual News.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

I've got a sudden obscure urge for a double espresso macchiato at Starbucks. Indie coffee won't do; it has to be Starbucks. Some fragile component in my psyche craves the reassuring corporate iconography that's part of the Starbucks experience. It's frightening, but I'm succumbing . . .

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Human Studies Show Feasibility of Brain-Machine Interfaces

"According to Turner, while the most obvious application of such technology would be a robot arm for a quadriplegic, he and his colleagues are planning other devices as well. One would be a neurally controlled electric wheelchair, and another a neurally operated keyboard, whose output could include either text or speech. Such devices could help both paralyzed people and those who have lost speech capabilities because of stroke or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease)."

As usual, the prevailing medical paradigm insists we help the disabled and leave the non-handicapped alone. While we should be making every possible effort to assist amputees and paralysis victims, there's no reason -- other than a mystical but politically prudent fear of "playing God" -- we can't upgrade everyone.

Bush Allows Gays to Be Fired for Being Gay

"Despite President Bush's pledge that homosexuals 'ought to have the same rights' as all other people, his Administration this week ruled that homosexuals can now be fired from the federal workforce because of their sexual orientation."

Seriously: Is this a surprise? (I think the team at EroTech should promptly send W. one of their incipient LoveLumps just to make the man squirm . . .)

Monday, March 22, 2004

Nigerian spammers are getting smarter. Please note the following
personalized spam, revealing that I'm related to a guy named "Pitt" . . .

Dear Mac Tonnies,

I am Lawyer GARUBA MOHAMMED, a solicitor at law. I am
the personalAttorney to Mr. Pitt Tonnies,a nationalof
your country, who usedto work with Chevron
OilProducing Company in Nigeria. Here in After shall
be referred to as my client. On the 21st of April
2002, my client, his wife and their only daughter were
involved in a car accident along Lagos;Ibadan
Expressway. All occupants of the vehicle unfortunately
lost their lives.

Since then I have made several inquiries to your
embassy here to Locate any of my client's extended
relatives, this has also Proved unsuccessful.

After these several unsuccessful attempts, I decided
to track his Last name over the Internet, to locate
any member of his family Hence I contacted you. I have
contacted you to assist in Repatriating the fund
valued at US$18 million Left behind by my Client
before it gets Confiscated or declared unserviceable
by the Finance Firm where these huge amounts were
deposited. The said Finance company has issued me a
notice to provide the next of kin or have the account
confiscated within the next fourteen official
Working days.

[et cetera]
George W. Bush Is Getting Brain-jacked

"Vannevar Bush's vision was resurrected in the 1990s when the National Institutes of Health established its Neural Prosthesis Program. The NPP program pulls together disparate research on direct neural-computer communication and encourages cross-fertilization between scientists working on control of prosthetic limbs, cochlear implants, biomonitors and brain pacemakers. A central focus of the NPP is research on biomaterials, trying to find the right type of wires to communicate with human neurology."

Six-fingered tactile interface from the ever-intriguing "alien autopsy" footage.

This is imminently interesting stuff all by itself. But did you know that Vannevar Bush was a senior member of the original MJ-12 committee, allegedly created to exploit technology harvested from UFO crashes? I find Vannevar Bush's interest in brain uplinking most interesting, as some testimony -- such as that of Robert Sarbacher -- suggests that the "aliens" weren't entirely biological.

Was Vannevar Bush's interest in "cyborging" the result of attempts to reverse engineer the electronic pilot interface of extraterrestrial aircraft?
Transgenic sex-bot alert!

"LoveLumpTM is an artificially-engineered transgenic tissue sculpture. It is created using a variety of animal and vegetable DNA strands, which is then mapped onto a host chromosome palette. It is considered to be one of a handful of new species created from the basic building material now available to us through recent breakthroughs in modern science."

What will those wacky genetic designers come up with next?

This is probably a hoax -- I think we're probably a few years from synthesizing transgenic love machines -- but you've got to tip your hat to the aspiring folks at EroTech nonetheless. And the "decency" mavens thought Janet Jackson's nipple was appalling!

Prediction: If the LoveLump is for real, the number of "restroom breaks" at high-schools all over the world will quadruple. And can you begin to imagine the reaction from Christian and Muslim fundamentalists? This (literally) fucking thing could start World War Three!

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Lost in space

"Astronomers and historians of science alike say they cannot remember any other time in modern scientific history when the world's most powerful telescope was simply abandoned, without a better one ready to replace it. 'Usually other instruments are there and taking over,' says Owen Gingerich, emeritus historian of science at Harvard University who specializes in astronomy. 'You don't have this interim gap where you throw away an instrument that is producing heavily in anticipation of something else.'"

The Bush administration is deliberately trashing the single-most illuminating scientific instrument in the history of our species. Some insiders suspect this is to help fund a militarized presence in space, which is what W.'s Moon-Mars initiative is essentially all about.

But there might be another factor involved: Bush is a Christian Fundamentalist who, apparently, believes the universe is 10,000 years old. The Hubble, which routinely photographs phenomena billions of years old, just might be too unsettling for him -- and I think it's a given that Ashcroft assumes the Hubble is the work of the Satan himself. Speaking of whom . . .

Church rules chess is not the work of the devil

"Archbishop Wikenti from Yekaterinburg told the Itar-Tass news agency: 'Chess is a quiet, intelligent game that encourages people to think. It's not a sin.'"

Archbishop Wikenti obviously hasn't heard me play chess. I'm prone to all sorts of sinful epithets and muttered curses. Not to mention incessant trash-talking.
Exopaleontological sites of interest

Avoiding the 'F word' on Mars

"'Fossils are rare in rocks from the era before multicellular life,'" a NASA scientist explained to me privately, agreeing that microorganisms would be very difficult to ever find. 'But larger fossils are fairly common in more recent strata. If Mars ever had macroscopic life, whether truly multicellular or in the form of large colonies like stromatolytes, fossils would be discoverable with a reasonable search.'"

Mars Fossils, Pseudofossils or Problematica?

"This page was developed to explore the possibility that the Mars microscopic imager pictures taken by the Opportunity Rover at Terra Meridiani, and especially at the 'El Capitan' and 'Guadalupe' sites on sols 28 through 34 -- the last week of February 2004 -- show fossiliferous rock."
We are here to fail. How's that for fatalism?

Remember the revelatory scene in "The Matrix Reloaded" where the Architect tells Neo that the Matrix (i.e., reality as we know it) has been repeatedly allowed to fail so that the AI in charge of the world as it really is can anticipate and thwart any glitches? It's tempting to consider the possibility that the increasingly fast-paced and forbidding geopolitical milieu is somehow engineered . . . that consensus reality is destined to split noisily at the seams because, as the great Charles Fort speculated, "we are property."

Perhaps our unseen overseers -- call them "aliens" -- are deliberately allowing terrestrial civilization to fail so they can take preventive steps to ensure their own immortality. It might not even be the first time this has been enacted; scattered evidence of previous technological civilizations on Earth may indicate a grisly succession of self-destructive global societies. Perhaps we're merely the latest permutation, destined to fail in the service of an intelligence we'll never meet.

An arbitrarily advanced space-faring (or transdimensional) culture could have every reason to experiment with a hapless backwater civilizations like our own. For an industrious alien scientist, creating a new version of humanity might be as simple as a conjuring an experimental regime with NationStates. Adjust the parameters, sit back and enjoy the humans' apocalyptic antics until the final credits roll. Rewind, make a few changes, and repeat . . .

A psychology professor, using the pseudonym John Norman, once wrote a fairly exasperating series of novels in which god-like aliens periodically transplant Earth civilizations to a world of their own devising. Technologically omniscient, they subject entire populations to what author Brian Stableford correctly identifies as a long-term existential experiment. (To the delight of many male readers, Norman's recipe for utopia requires that most women function as eager sex slaves.) Ken MacLeod's Engines of Light trilogy provides a very similar (if substantially brainier) version. But the aliens of Norman and MacLeod act out of various altruistic (or at least politically merciful) motives; while they might be interested in keeping humanity in its place -- at least for the time-being -- they have no plans to see their "pet" species render itself extinct.

Right now, religion seems to be the most obvious precursor to our own planetary destruction; we wade through a thicket of theologically entrenched doomsday memes. What if geneticists discover that our capacity for belief is an artificially encoded trait? What if humanity has been altered to conform to some long-term experiment? What if religion has been "implanted" as a means of hastening our own demise? Imagine an oncologist grafting cancerous tissue into the body of a lab animal and dispassionately watching it grow.

The UFO phenomenon appears to have roots in prehistory. If, as argued by Jacques Vallee and John Keel, UFOs and "aliens" represent a form of psychological warfare, then the long list of reality-transforming events chronicled by theologians and neurologists may signal nonhuman manipulation. Our defining mythologies, so often based on "divine" messages, may be no more than experiments enacted to test our psychosocial endurance in the face of steadily escalating absurdity.

In a few thousand years of "progress," our inherent flaws will rise boiling to the surface for casual inspection. There's no need to terminate the experiment, since the experiment will effectively terminate itself. And within "mere" millennia, a new, amnesiac society will have spilled itself across the planet, perhaps endowed with a slightly different cerebral architecture. And, as always, the Others wait to see what mistakes will be made, cataloguing every atrocity with the cool reserve of clipboard-wielding lab technicians. It's the ultimate diabolical expression of Nietzsche's Eternal Return.

In the words of The Cure: "Over and over we die, one after the other."

Saturday, March 20, 2004

I just finished Roger Zelazny's "Damnation Alley," a brisk, lyrical trip through a United States mutilated by nuclear war. Not bad at all.

My biorhythms have been thrown into utter disarray. I feel like a superhero in some comic book panting "no . . . energy -- can't . . . move . . ." after being doused in some superpower-retarding substance. So I'm guzzling caffeine and reading and hoping this fog lifts so I can do some laundry later tonight.

"Decency" alert:

Daily blog/online hangout Chapel Perilous has posted a sexy picture of actress Angelina Jolie, which has struck up a healthy dialogue among admiring males (and some females) in the comments section. Not to be outdone, I'm posting the above picture of Laetitia Casta. And it's a nude shot, no less!

Take that, Chapel Perilous!

Friday, March 19, 2004

This is the way the world ends

John Shirley says it better than I can.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

I can't stop browsing my book now that it's actually bound and portable. Fortunately, I'm finding moments of poor phrasing and dumb word-choice which, in theory, can be corrected before the finalized edition is shipped. I basically have to force myself to put it aside for fear of finding yet more to correct; it's easy to get carried away. After all, this book is going to represent me to (hopefully) many thousands of readers. The last thing I need is to come across as needlessly verbose, pretentious or repetitive.

Then again, I think I'm my toughest critic. I'm positively anal-retentive when it comes to reading my own stuff, this blog included. Sometimes I get the overwhelming urge to alter posts for increased readability, but I typically desist because it seems somehow unethical, a bit like Winston Smith creating "unpersons" at the Ministry of Truth.

Incidentally, this post is a virtual clone of a recent confessional by John Shirley, who's going through a similar case of revision fever as the review copy of his Gurdjieff biography makes the rounds.
The following article stupidly omits any reference to the potential danger posed by Near-Earth Asteroids. Apparently the author was too preoccupied worrying about bin Laden.

Recently Discovered Near-Earth Asteroid Makes Record-breaking Approach to Earth

"Asteroid 2004 FH's point of closest approach with the Earth will be over the South Atlantic Ocean. Using a good pair of binoculars, the object will be bright enough to be seen during this close approach from areas of Europe, Asia and most of the Southern Hemisphere."

Bound-for-review galleys of "After the Martian Apocalypse" are in. If you're an editor/columnist/reviewer/commentator interested in providing a blurb to appear on the final book jacket or the inside review pages, let me know.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Man, I hate St. Patrick's Day . . .

Morrissey Tackles Weighty Subjects on New Album

"Due May 17 internationally and a day later in North America via Sanctuary's reactivated Attack imprint, the 12-track set finds the former Smiths frontman expressing his views on American politics, religion and the Irish troubles, in addition to imagining himself as a member of a Mexican street gang."

(Will I have to wait another seven years for his next one?)

Scientist Creates Roswell UFO Metal

Major. Jesse Marcel poses with weather balloon debris in 1947.

"Witnesses who found the debris from the Roswell, New Mexico UFO crash in 1947 reported seeing metal as thin as the silver foil from a cigarette pack that nonetheless could not be pierced by a bullet. Now Discover Magazine reports that scientists have created what sounds like the same thing."

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

When you're piloting a car from one location to another, you cease to be "you" in the normal sense. You become an extension of the vehicle, a meat-based nerve center for two tons of metal, glass and plastic. The concentration demanded by driving forfeits thinking the sort of thoughts that make you an individual, if only briefly.

So the driving experience is rather like teleportation; you get in the car, casually surrender your normal self-hood in exchange for speed and convenience, and (barring a crash) emerge at your destination, where you can "rematerialize." The "person" driving the car wasn't you: it was a subsystem, a drone summoned genie-like from the brain for a specific purpose.

I think the entirety of a normal day can be viewed as a succession of somewhat exclusive subsystems. The "you" on lunch break is a distinctly different entity than the "you" surfing the Web at 2:00 in the morning or the "you" dining out with friends. Maybe the notion of a central, indomitable Self is so much quaint wishful thinking. It seems more likely that we're composites, each transitory "disposable" self vying for supremacy in much the same way that the genes in an individual's own body compete for expression.
Today's Armageddon-fix:

Pentagon Harbors Wild Space Plans

"The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has a well-deserved reputation for tackling the quasi-fictional. But at the agency's three-day confab in Anaheim -- where proposals for thinking computers, wall-crawling soldiers and unmanned armies are just about ho-hum -- the ideas for space may be the wildest of all."

Dirty bomb victims 'may be shot'

"Police could be forced to shoot members of the public to maintain order in the event of a terrorist 'dirty bomb' or biological attack on Britain, it was claimed yesterday."

Monday, March 15, 2004

It's official: Bruce Sterling is really cool.

Let me qualify that statement:

He gets around. He's a "reality hacker." He watches the future emerge from the ground up and has an uncanny sense of which nodal points to eyeball; come to think of it, he's actually a little bit like the heroine from William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition." And -- get this -- he's stylish. He's nicely groomed; he's got cool glasses. And that earring doesn't look the least bit like the affectation it would be on any other writer. I've been to science fiction conventions before, and without fail the author guests basically look like they've been randomly selected from the Motor Vehicle Bureau. Not Sterling. Sterling looks the part of the post-millennial, idea-driven cyberpunk conveyed in his nonfiction (notably his European blog travelogue a while ago).

No, you don't have to know how an author comes across as a person to appreciate his/her literary contributions. In fact, most of the time it's best you didn't. But with Sterling -- and this is the anomaly -- it doesn't hurt. We need more cool SF writers.

Note to self: The photoblogging idea is neat. Buy digital camera!
For those of you who missed it:

Astronomers discover 'new planet'

"Sedna, or 2003 VB12, as it was originally designated, is the most distant object yet found orbiting our Sun. It is three times further away than Pluto (average distance to the Sun is 5.9 billion km or 3.6 billion miles)."

So what if Mars did have water?

"'So what if there is water up there?' said George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni, who served as a domestic affairs adviser in the Carter White House."

(The painful truth is that the "discovery" of former water on Mars by the Opportunity rover was nothing of the sort; we already knew Mars was once a watery planet. But the myopia evidenced by Etzioni's remark is nothing short of apocalyptic. Hey, Amitai: Has it occurred to you that if one planet can lose its hydrosphere, we could be next? Doesn't that warrant some concern?)

War of the Words: Scientist Attacks Alien Claims

"Plait, author of 'Bad Astronomy' (Wiley & Sons, 2002), which debunks space myths and common factual misconceptions, had for years not countered Hoagland directly, because he did not want to give a man he calls a 'pseudoscientist' the 'air time that he so desperately seeks.'"

(Hoagland had it coming. But legitimate anomaly research will invariably be tarred by the same brush.)

DARPA's Wild Kingdom

"A question seldom asked is why pie-in-the-sky creativity exists unfettered and fostered only in the context of lethal technologies?"

(That's funny; I ask it all the time . . .)
Up early. New short-story idea: "The Other Room" (based on a futuristic version of the "looking glass" technology described in the previous post). In the story, venturing outdoors is rendered virtually impossible due to genetically contrived airborne diseases and pollution. Interpersonal contact is limited to communing with "neighbors" via high-rez wallscreens. The screens are so advanced that they're easily mistakable for actual separate rooms, fostering a sense of enhanced personal space.

A homeostatic architectural ecology ("arcology").

The main character has lived his adult life "sharing" his germicidally insulated apartment with a female love interest. But all they can do is look at each other and talk; it's as if they're on opposite sides of an invisible glass barrier (which, in a very real sense, they are).

Anyway, toward the end of his life something goes wrong with the programming of his homeostatic apartment building and he realizes that the woman in the "other room" is a computer program designed to keep him from going crazy -- she never existed; he's wasted his life pining away over a simulacrum. And the World Outside is worse than he's imagined.

. . . And they all lived happily ever after.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

This thing is absolutely amazing. Imagine a global society where these are ubiquitous; it would be the next-best thing to teleportation . . .

Artifact: Webcam in the Round

"The device, which features a 23-foot wrap-around screen some 10 feet high, works in pairs: People gathered at one Tholos can see real-time, life-size HDTV images of people around a distant partner device, with microphones enabling users to converse."
Most people who read this blog or my book review pages probably assume I read a staple diet of science fiction. And while SF is my favorite genre, some of my very favorite books aren't SF at all. (Some, like J.G. Ballard's "Crash," hover in the twilight zone between science fiction and "mainstream"; although "Crash" employs no emphatically science fictional elements, Ballard himself refers to it as an SF novel; read it and you'll understand immediately why David Cronenberg was compelled to turn it into a film.)

Among my very favorite novels of all time is Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." (The movie's not bad at all, but doesn't compare to the book.) And I really like Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" . . . which, technically, is science fiction, even though I dare you to find it marketed as such. I read the back cover of one of her newer books -- I think it was "The Blind Assassin" -- and the publishers even use the term "science fiction" to describe it. But like "The Handmaid's Tale," "The Blind Assassin" (which I'll get around to reading eventually) has circumvented genre; it is Literature with a capital "L."

Likewise, Jonathan Lethem's back catalogue, containing the hilarious future noir "Gun, With Occasional Music" has been reincarnated as "mainstream" literature, complete with an inscrutably bland new cover illustration (the first was an inspired knock-off of 1940s detective pulp). When this book first came out, no one attempted to disguise the fact that it was a satirical SF; after all, one of the primary characters is a genetically augmented kangaroo. Lethem is one of those authors of the fantastic whose work mysteriously disappears from science fiction shelves, strategically repackaged for those who dismiss SF as so much juvenile escapism.

Kurt Vonnegut's fiction is often explicitly science fiction, yet Vonnegut recoils at the use of the term -- scared off, I suppose, by the books written by Kilgore Trout, his fictional alter-ego. So you won't find Vonnegut in the science fiction department either, even though "The Sirens of Titan" is about flying saucers, "Player Piano" is about the effects of automization in a near-future society, and "Cat's Cradle" is about a lab-created crystal with the capacity to plunge Earth into a permanent Ice Age. These are science fiction themes, whether Vonnegut wishes to admit it or not. And since his books are so readily available, I won't complain. At least I know where to go in the bookstore to find his books -- which is less than I can say about "slipstream" writers like Lethem and Steve Erickson.

Franz Kafka

Where does Franz Kafka fit into this scattered pantheon? His books are located under "Literature" next to those of Dean Koontz, but they're so unique and elusive that they all-but demand a classification of their own. "The Trial" and "The Castle" certainly aren't science fiction (although I think there's a case for Kafka's short-story "In the Penal Colony being borderline SF), but they're certainly not mainstream in any acceptable sense.

Maybe in an alternate universe Kafka took up science fiction. Or maybe, somewhere, there's an unopened crate of never-before-seen SF manuscripts drafted in his characteristic spiky handwriting.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Don't you just fucking hate that "motivational" crap you find in sterile cube-farms and corporate lunchrooms? You know -- those cloying, infantile posters of don't-you-wish-you-were-there nature scenes accompanied by abrasive "go get 'em" mottos? Despair, Inc. just might have the antidote.

And no, this isn't a paid ad.
NASA Schedules News Briefing About Unusual Solar Object

"The discovery of a mysterious object in our solar system is the topic of a listen-and-log-on news briefing on Monday, March 15, at 1 p.m. EST."

This certainly sounds portentous, even if the "mysterious object" turns out to be a minor trans-Neptunion object. Sometimes I wonder what a massive extraterrestrial starship would look like upon entering our solar system -- assuming it didn't object to being seen.

Remember the Hale-Bopp thing? When the first reports that the comet might have a "companion object" surfaced, I was skeptical but also quite excited. That a world-sized extraterrestrial craft would hitch a ride on a comet made sense to the physicist in me. As it turned out, I was thrilled just to have the comet hovering in the night sky like a second moon as it crossed Earth's path.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Al Qaeda letter warns of new attacks on US

"A letter in Arabic claiming responsibility for the Madrid train bombings on behalf of al Qaeda has reinforced fears of another imminent attack on the United States, Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge says."

If this happens before November, everything changes. There will be no pretense of an election. The Bush administration will try to convince United States citizens that it needs to "finish what it's started," and we will have begun the fall into a politically crippled, xenophobic police-state. (Even now, anti-Bush demonstrators must take their signs to conveniently distant free-speech zones designated by the Secret Service.)

Patriot Act Two will be quickly and unceremoniously made law. The inevitable policing of U.S. dissidents may very well be "outsourced" to private contractors unrestrained by Constitutional triviality. And bad news for Ashcroft-haters: You'll be seeing a lot more of his cadaverous jowls and hungry reptile eyes on TV . . .

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Oh, boy! A new Parasite Pals cartoon!

Am I a "technosexual"? Appearances aside, I don't think so. "Technosexual," like its mainstream rival "metrosexual" (which I'm really sick of hearing, by the way), is essentially a bit of lexiconic fluff, destined for a very brief swim in the meme pool. I like to think that I'm bigger than this.

Is there such a thing as secular Extropianism?
I did a double-take in the science fiction section at Barnes & Noble this evening; Vintage has released a book by Philip K. Dick called "Lies, Inc." This grabbed my attention for two reasons: any PKD release is a celebration-worthy event and, moreover, I'd never heard of "Lies, Inc." I pride myself on my knowledge of Dick (no lame jokes, please), so the prospect of having entirely overlooked one of his novels was startling.

It turns out that "Lies, Inc." is the restored, renamed version of "The Unteleported Man," one of the few remaining PKD titles I haven't read. So I dutifully purchased it even though I'm up to my neck in unread books. (I'm still reading McAuley's fascinatingly textured "The Secret of Life" . . .)

I've begun "Patrick Moore on Mars," a good history of Mars observation and exploration by the author of "Can You Speak Venusian?" (Weird fact: A staunch UFO debunker, Patrick Moore penned a pseudonymous first-person flying saucer contactee account back in the '50s or '60s.) Barry Miles' "The Beat Hotel" has taken a momentary backseat, as has Van Flandern's voluminous "Dark Matter."

This glut of literature has forced me to make a decision: No more series or trilogies. If a fiction author can't say what he needs to in a single volume, I'm afraid he'll have to wait, possibly indefinitely. I recently exchanged the second book in an SF trilogy for Robert Silverberg's "The Alien Years." Silverberg has never let me down, and I doubt "The Alien Years" (apparently a tribute to H.G. Wells) will be an exception, despite the "Independence Day"-ish cover painting.

Looking back on my favorite novels, the slim books have typically packed the most punch (i.e., "The Man Who Fell to Earth," "Dying Inside"). I've read some superb epics, but the "ideal" science fiction novel seems to lie in the 200 to 300-page range, as exemplified by Dick, a master of storytelling economy and an under-rated stylist.

Last night I hit on a really good idea for a novel. I'm not going to tell you what it is; it's that good! So I pitched it to my editor for a second opinion. (No response yet -- maybe he's already busy negotiating film rights. Yeah, that would explain it . . .) In moments of unrestrained optimism, I like to think that my writing career will quickly develop into a reliable succession of book projects, each somewhat bigger than the last, but I'm afraid that's naive; I truthfully don't know a hell of a lot about the politics and demographics of the publishing industry. I only recently learned that nonfiction is much easier to sell than fiction. I don't know why this came as a surprise -- it certainly shouldn't have -- but for some reason it did.

I like "After the Martian Apocalypse" and I think there are others that will like it, too. But how many "others"? How will it do commercially? Personally, I'll be happy if it achieves something like cult status. But even that's being ludicrously optimistic . . .

Boy, I'm really rambling, aren't I?

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

McQueen's fashion voyage is out of this world

"There are those who say British designer Alexander McQueen's talent is otherworldly, but the inspiration for his ready-to-wear show literally came from another planet."

(Yeah, I cribbed this from Sterling's Beyond the Beyond, but come on -- it has "Posthuman Blues" written all over it.)
I got the galleys for my Mars book for last-minute corrections. Formatted, it's about 300 pages. One thing I'm certain of: If nothing else, the book looks cool. I like the fonts, typestyle, etc. I lugged it to Starbucks this evening and managed to get about half-way through. The first half suffers from some repetition that needs to be cut, or at least downplayed, but overall I'm pretty happy with it. There are a couple nagging style issues, but it's little stuff (i.e., is "Space Age" spelled with capitals?) Parts of it are too wordy. I need to tighten up the prose a bit, at least in the first section. This should help minimize repeated references.

But at the same time, I can't simplify too much; the first several chapters consist of walking readers through alien territory, showing them the sights (often without benefit of illustrations). So maybe I'm being too hard on myself. Time will tell.

At least I can rest easy knowing that Martha Stewart is behind bars (or as good as)! That menace to society! Finally, justice!

What a joke. Martha, love her or hate her, is harmless. She's checking into the cinderblock hotel because she acted on an insider stock tip, for Christ's sake. Meanwhile, that bastard from Enron -- who deliberately and maliciously screwed people out of their life savings -- is going free because he had the good fortune to be chums with W.'s clan.

There are industrialists reaping the Bush administration's environmental myopia by unleashing toxic substances into our air and water. No questions asked. They get away with it. As John Shirley has bluntly and repeatedly pointed out for the benefit of those who can't accept we're living in a dystopia, "they just don't care if you die."

Keeping the herd distracted by sending interior decorators to jail while actual criminals trash the planet and compromise the well-being of entire populations because of sheer neglect and greed: It's a good thing.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Cypak creates disposable paperboard computer

"Swedish technology company Cypak AB, has created the world's first disposable paperboard computer by integrating innovative microelectronics and printable sensors into paperboard."

I "predicted" disposable laptops in a short-story contained in my 1995 book "Illumined Black." Only they were manufactured by Hyundai . . .

Figuratively speaking (?), this one's after my own heart:

First robot moved by muscle power

"A silicon microrobot just half the width of a human hair has begun to crawl around in a Los Angeles lab, using legs powered by the pulsing of living heart muscle. It is the first time muscle tissue has been used to propel a micromachine."
Mainly Martian: No, that's not a description of my genetic constitution, but yet another Mars blog.

I have the feeling the "unidentified object" photographed by the ESA's Mars Express during Beagle 2's separation is going to launch a maelstrom of woolly UFO theories -- and perhaps justifiably. This isn't the first time a UFO has been sighted in Mars orbit. The Russians' attempt to analyze Mars' moon Phobos ended after their laser-toting probe photographed an unknown elongated object. The photo isn't exactly revealing. But it raises questions.

Is Mars in alien custody? If so, how come some missions die strange deaths while others are unmitigated successes?

Anyway, about those black helicopters . . .

Monday, March 08, 2004

Beagle 2's landing (crash?) site. What happened?

Scientists Examine Image of Mars Lander

"European scientists said Monday they are examining an image of its Beagle 2 Mars lander, taken moments after it separated from its mothership and later was lost, that also shows an unidentified object."

Amateur asteroid chasers may get rewards

"Amateur astronomers could receive awards of $3,000 for discovering and tracking near-Earth asteroids under legislation approved by the House of Representatives on Wednesday."

Restoring Scientific Integrity

"Across a broad range of issues -- from childhood lead poisoning and mercury emissions to climate change, reproductive health, and nuclear weapons -- the administration is distorting and censoring scientific findings that contradict its policies; manipulating the underlying science to align results with predetermined political decisions; and undermining the independence of science advisory panels by subjecting panel nominees to political litmus tests that have little or no bearing on their expertise; nominating non-experts or underqualified individuals from outside the scientific mainstream or with industry ties; as well as disbanding science advisory committees altogether."

(As if we really needed another reason to uninstall Resident Bush.)
The other night I was sitting outside the coffeeshop listening to the weekend motorcyclists compare bikes when I realized that I was dressed quite similarly to the bikers sitting next to me: black leather jackets, blue jeans, black shoes. Even my hair was a little rebellious. It occurred to me that anyone passing by might -- for a moment at least -- assume I was one of the gang.

Then the biker nearest me, a guy with arcane patches sewn onto his midnight-leather jacket and an Australian accent, leaned over and asked if I'd kindly keep an eye on the silver helmet on the sidewalk while he and his friend went inside for lattes. Not having anything better to do, I took his place.

Suddenly the transformation was complete: I looked like a plausible owner of the chrome BMW cycle on the curb a few feet away. Cool. Very Brando. So I sat there for a minute until the Australian's friend reclaimed the chairs.

Sorry; that's the end of the story. No moral.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Image by Sauceruney.

Here's a UFO photo taken over St. Louis. The UFO looks discoid, but it's also silhouetted against the sun, so incriminating appendages like wings might be drowned out in the glare. Of course, there's every possibility this is just a Photo Shop fabrication . . .
NASA deluged by civilians' Mars 'discoveries'

"While NASA scientists pore over the latest Red Planet images for shreds of evidence that it might have supported algae or pond scum, thousands of earnest civilians are scanning the same pictures and pointing out all sorts of things the professionals missed or haven't acknowledged."

Hold it right there. What's this about NASA poring over images for evidence of life? The writer of this article is misinformed. No one from JPL has claimed that the rovers are looking for signs of macroscopic life. JPL recites the usual cryptic allusions to the "search for life," yes. But when pressed on specifics, JPL scientists readily admit that looking for lifeforms -- extinct or otherwise -- is not part of the plan.

The rest of the article is a parade of wanton cliches. The writer selects George Filer, a one-man clearing-house for anything strange or potentially "ufological," as a typical anomaly hunter. I have no bone to pick with Filer, but I'm unaware of any research emanating from his so-called "Institute." Why didn't they pick, say, Efrain Palermo or Lan Fleming?

Of course, I know exactly why. But I want to hear you say it for me.
So far tonight I've experienced two intense episodes of deja vu: the first while looking at a picture of a fossil-like formation photographed on Mars and the next after changing CDs in my stereo. (For an insightful essay on what deja vu may or may not be, click here.)

I very, very rarely experience deja vu. So when I do it's rather unsettling. Especially so since the sensation tends to come in successive "waves." It's a little scary, especially since neuroscience is still basically clueless about its origins. I personally think that "real" deja vu is a minor seizure, a momentary glitch in the synaptic matrix. There's no evidence that it's harmful or symptomatic of any undiagnosed malady. In fact, it's easy to understand the mystical, "shamanic" connotations the phenomenon has acquired. Though brief, it's an actual altered state . . . a dizzy certainty that all that is exists in some inaccessible holographic Now, an unannounced perforation in causal reality.

Saturday, March 06, 2004

The Potential of 'Brain Pacemakers'

"While stressing that the ethically sensitive research with 'brain pacemakers' has just begun, the scientists say the results so far have been so promising that it could mark the beginning of a new era in treating often intractable cases. The approach builds on rapid recent advances in understanding how the brain works, on high-tech imaging technologies that allow surgeons to pinpoint targets with unprecedented precision, and on the miniaturization of computerized electronic devices that can safely be inserted under the skin."

Amazing Blue Band Around Jupiter!

"At the moment it's too early to be sure of the nature of this disturbance or its potential evolution."
Well, I relented. Caved. Succumbed. I forked over eight dollars to see what the Mel Gibson Jesus movie was all about. Why? Maybe because I felt a little sheepish about bad-mouthing it without having seen it. Perhaps because I thought that its bad rap might be unfair. After all, it's a movie about religion; of course it's going to be controversial.

Having said that, the movie was god-awful. I intended to write a proper review, but what's the point? The reviews calling "The Passion of the Christ" gruesome and exploitative are right on the money. If anything, they're being kind. So instead of a review, per se, I'll share a few random impressions and get back to more important subjects.

Firstly, no characterization. No pretense of humanity. In Gibson's defense, "The Passion" simply doesn't have time for it. The entirety of this movie, except a murky first scene in which a brooding Jesus is apprehended by snarling Jews, consists of stomach-wrenching torture sequences. "The Passion" is a distended spectacle of aerosolized blood, flayed flesh, poked-out eyes, weeping onlookers and occasional blink-and-they're-over flashbacks.

Shame on Ebert and Roeper for branding this movie an "epic"; there's a palpable lack of depth to this eyesore, an utter absence of narrative meat (unless you count those sheets of ruined skin and muscle dangling from Jesus' mutilated torso). Compared to this, Japanese manga has the complexity and substance of Thomas Pynchon.

"The Passion" proceeds with malignant inevitability. At least fifteen minutes of the film consist of yawn-inducing scenes of Jesus, blood-drenched and oozing, collapsing to the ground in slow motion, accompanied by a so-dramatic-it's-comical musical score. The intention, I guess, is to pound home the title character's spiritual resolve, but it was all I could do to refrain from glancing at my watch. At one point, as Jesus once more toppled to the dirt under the crushing blows of Roman soldiers, I actually stifled laughter.

This movie doesn't merely approach self-parody -- it revels in it like maggots in shit. Not a good thing.

On the other hand, this cinematic atrocity isn't meant to withstand criticism. It's meant to provide the faithful with a high-budget retelling of their favorite bedtime story. And if the only way Jesus can sell tickets is to bathe in artificial blood, then so be it. Give 'em what they want.

I could go on (and maybe I will). I could mention the distinct and ironic lack of passion that went into Gibson's insufferable vision. I could harp on the completely unnecessary and gratuitous FX scenes depicting what I took to be an androgynous Satan, or the way the sound of whips cracking just gets, well, fucking old after 45 minutes. I could even present my case for "The Passion" being the product of a somewhat disturbed mind. But I won't, because I have the feeling that's partly what Gibson and company want. Instead of feeding the meaningless controversy already blazing around this forgettable piece of Celluloid, I choose to let it die the quiet, unremarked death it deserves.

Yet I can't resist mentioning the final scene. (Yes, I'm about to issue a "spoiler," but it's not like there's anything vaguely innovative to report, so bear with me.) After a brief dramatic silence, we see Jesus' gravestone rolled away, a conspicuously unoccupied burial cloth . . . then the J-Man suddenly appears in profile, scar-free, while the soundtrack escalates into a militant staccato unmistakably reminiscent of the opening credits for "The Terminator." And, in an uncanny Terminator impersonation that challenges viewers not to fall into the aisles screaming with laughter, the naked, robot-like Jesus proceeds to hasten off the screen -- but not before we get a good look at one of the bloody holes left over from his crucifixion.

Cue closing credits. Eight dollars, squandered. Get me the hell out of here.

Friday, March 05, 2004

A criminally boring day.

It was my own fault, of course. My major accomplishments consisted of consuming strawberry apple sauce, berating my cat for tipping over my lava lamp (for which I immediately felt guilty) and playing Asteroids Alive. Chapel Perilous (of which I'm now a confirmed member) is jumping with cool links; take a look.

I just swilled Beer Number Three at the joint across the street. "The Family Guy" (a show I've never seen) was playing on the overhead TV, muted. I watched the entire thing, my head a riot of imagined cartoon voices.

I've unearthed Ani DiFranco's "Dilate" from my CD collection. I've got Portishead's first record playing now. It doesn't get much better. And it's confirmed -- Morrissey's first new record in seven years is due out soon. That warrants at least some excitement.

Who said my life was all weird books and caffeine abuse?

Waiting for something
Looking for someone
Is there no reason?
Have I stared too long?

--David Bowie, "Heathen (The Rays)"

Thursday, March 04, 2004

The age of unreason (John Shirley)

"The rest of the civilized world agrees on the science of global warming; the USA under Bush ignores it. The rest of the civilized world agrees on the need to protect the ozone layer, and to suppress dangerous pesticides. The USA under Bush doesn't. Science, reason itself, is undermined by this administration in the service of profit. This president believes in Creationism; and he believes that scientific facts can be ignored if you turn your back on them."
I rarely leave home without at least one book to read. So I'm naturally curious when I see someone else reading in public. Unfortunately, I've noticed that Books Read In Public fall into a few considerably less-than-interesting categories. Almost without fail, people are reading either

a.) the Bible, or something to do with it,

b.) something involving weight-loss,

c.) the latest John Grisham,

or -- perhaps worst of all . . .

d.) books about TV.

This is a disastrous state of affairs. There are so many worthwhile, relatively esoteric books out there I can only wish I had the time to read -- and these bastards are perfectly content to read fluff.

I've always been rather amazed at the spectacle presented by Barnes & Noble and Borders. These are stores stocked ceiling-high with books by almost every note-worthy author. (With one inexplicable exception: One of the best writers in America today, Steve Erickson, is utterly absent from the shelves at my local B&N . . .)

But from what I can tell, no one's buying anything new and interesting. Instead, readers obligingly head for the bestsellers, the Atkins Diet section, the "Christian Inspiration" aisle. Or worse, the "graphic novels" or the so-called "news" stands.

I remember an interview with Norman Mailer on NPR. He predicted the novel would soon become obsolete, just how poetry is generally perceived as somewhat obscure and archaic by contemporary readers. In the near-future, actual novel-reading might be an almost unbearable eccentricity.

There are a number of ominous trends within the publishing industry that appear to support Mailer's prediction. Did you know that there's a spin-off of the ghastly Christian Fundamentalist "Left Behind" saga targeted at juveniles? No kidding. It's called, accurately enough, "Left Behind: The Kids." Or something like that. The point of this series -- and the point I'm trying to make about so much of today's "literature" -- is that it's not even remotely intended to provide an aesthetic experience, but to sow ideological seeds. (I find it distinctly amusing that so much of this garbage is co-authored, as if recycled Armageddon fantasies require the combined mental might of two authors -- and I suppose since we're talking about Fundamentalists, they very well might . . .)

Most of the time the ideology being packaged is laughable and harmless, as in the case of Atkins devotees. But then there's the truly detestable stuff: masochistic biblical fantasies masquerading as Tom Clancy-esque thrillers; demeaning supernatural claptrap disguised as "inspiration" or "self-help." Once upon a time, you found cheaply printed gospel tracts in restroom stalls; now you find their elegantly bound and savvily marketed descendents combating for shelf-space in actual stores.

And people can't get enough. Like the "reality TV" craze, spin-offs proliferate with the tenacity of kudzu vine. Any day now, I expect to find "Chicken Soup for the Soul for Dummies" staring back at me from a prominent display. The Wal-Mart-ization of the written word will have triumphed, leaving an embittered subculture to hoard the few remaining works of Kafka and Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut . . .

But, as usual, I'm getting ahead of myself.

(Parting thought: Isn't it odd that, for a series about the End of the World, the "Left Behind" books just keep coming? There are like 50 of the fucking things now . . .)

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Insurer warns of global warming catastrophe

"The world's second-largest reinsurer, Swiss Re, warned on Wednesday that the costs of natural disasters, aggravated by global warming, threatened to spiral out of control, forcing the human race into a catastrophe of its own making."

What the hell happened to my nose?

Habla espanol? Even if you don't, you'll get the gist of this avatar-generator in no time. The only problem is that there's no way to have the software display your creation in conveniently downloadable format; you have to copy the whole screen and then cut-and-paste (assuming you have the necessary imaging software, which I don't).

Elsewhere on the Web, The Electric Warrior has unveiled Forth Media, a tech-friendly design venture. Pay careful attention to the digital renderings on the Portfolio page. Penelope Cruz and I. What a couple!

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

That jazzy music in the background is "Blade Runner Blues" from Vangelis' "Blade Runner" soundtrack. Thanks to Sauceruney and Chapel Perilous.

On the Martian front, it appears I was dead-on with my press conference predictions. If there's one thing planetary exploration shouldn't be, it's drearily predictable. But the fact-management priesthood at JPL has managed to provide the impression that it's just that. What's more, no one with big-media backing is pressing them on it.

Oh, and it gets better. You know the money Dubya wants for his Moon-Mars initiative, ostensibly designed to get humans doing productive things in space? The Mars portion of it, at least, is going to finance more robots! Boy, I'm excited. With any luck, JPL can hold another big Mars news conference in an other five or ten years and regurgitate precisely what they "announced" today.

Something else I'm sick of: Gloating project scientists at the JPL operations center who just can't contain their excitement when one of their toys manages not to crash. I monitor the Mars mission websites, so I'm constantly coming across massively self-congratulatory quotes that never fail to come across as thoroughly geekish. They typically read like this:

"'We really slam-dunked this baby,' said Dr. Smith, pumping his fist in the chilly air of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory control room. 'When that rover extended its robotic arm, I almost had an orgasm.'"

And I'm sick of JPL's dewy-sweet anthropomorphism. Yes, the rovers are cool. But they don't "wake up." They don't "sleep." They don't give "stand-up performances" or "do jigs." They do exactly what they're told to do. These JPL guys are doubtlessly the same guys saving up for "Valerie" androids.
Spontaneous late-night jaunt to Fred P. Ott's for a Corona with lime. (That's Beer Number Two for 2004.) Turns out the bartender had an airport conversation with none other than Zechariah Sitchin, though she didn't know who he was until later. Small world.
I've received a lot of email about JPL's big Mars press conference. People are getting excited. In's words, "something wonderful" will likely be revealed. Many expect JPL to come clean regarding some of the curiously fossil-like formations seen under the Opportunity rover's microscope. Others expect -- at the least -- confirmation of liquid water.

I'm skeptical. Public interest in the Mars rovers has been steadily waning since Spirit landed in early January. JPL direly needs one of its patented staged "news" conferences to ensure that the rovers aren't totally forgotten. As I've written in Meta Research Bulletin and elsewhere, acknowledging a life-friendly Martian environment is academic suicide for JPL geologists, whose continued research hinges on Mars being barren and lifeless.

So I expect the conference to offer the same speculations JPL has been tirelessly masticating since the Viking missions. Specifically, the possibility of water in Mars' remote geological past. Or maybe -- if we're lucky -- the possibility of water in Mars' relatively recent past. Of course, "recent" will mean something like ten million years ago, but we'll still be expected to gape in amazement at the sheer wonder of it all.

Reality, however, appears to defy JPL's arid rhetoric. Strong evidence suggests liquid water on Mars right now. Will JPL dare admit it? Consider what's at stake. Conceding that Mars has the chemistry necessary for life is tantamount to an open invitation for microbiologists to join JPL's zealously guarded ranks. For scientists supposedly enamored of "searching for life" on the Red Planet, the JPL team has always been careful to exclude the life sciences from its post-Viking Mars ventures.

Neither of the MER rovers has any life-detection instrumentation whatsoever. Plans for future probes also carefully exclude instruments with the potential to tell us anything conclusive regarding the prospect of life. For far too long, Mars science has been the stuff of lofty peer-reviewed journals and endless debate. In this light, conclusive findings are the last thing JPL wants; best to keep Mars exploration enigmatic and sketchy so the academic press can continue to spew forth its never-ending post-hoc scenarios. After all, there's grant money on the line, careers to maintain. And so biologists -- the very people equipped to lead a "search for life" on another world -- are kept at the gates like so many annoying trespassers, forced to grapple with JPL's predigested geological musings.

There's an apt saying that sums up JPL's myopia: "When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like nails." So it is with Mars. When all you have is a rock abrasion tool and a proton spectrometer, everything looks like . . . rocks.
I'm intrigued by this thing. It's like a print-on-demand publisher, only instead of books they crank out clocks, T-shirts, thermos bottles, mousepads, etc. -- all emblazoned with your choice of custom artwork. Posthuman Blues coffee-mugs, anyone? Or how about a Cydonian Imperative ball-cap?

By the way, I've decided I'm not going to see Mel Gibson's Jesus movie. I was sort of itching to write a review, but I just can't work up the interest. Everything I've read equates it a snuff movie in religious clothing. If I want to watch a controversial Jesus film (not exactly a high priority at the moment), I'll stick with Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- which I haven't seen, although Peter Gabriel's soundtrack has done some heavy rotation in my CD player.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Mars: A Water World? Evidence Mounts, But Scientists Remain Tight-Lipped

"There is a palpable buzz here at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California that something wonderful is about to happen in the exploration of Mars."
Cryptic chalk graffiti: Oversized spermatozoa wriggling away from the center of a pendulous pastel egg cell, igniting like meteors as they gain distance . . .