Sunday, February 29, 2004

This is a rarity: a gizmo with actual class. If these things aren't everywhere in ten years, some high-placed marketing executives will have a lot of explaining to do:

Mirror TV Reflects New Era in Consumer Technologies

"The Mirror TV uses a unique polarized mirror technology, which transfers close to 100 percent of the light through the reflective surface."

On a kitschier -- if more portentous -- note, check out "Valerie" at Android World. I don't know about you, but I'm extremely disappointed. The website makes Valerie out to be a no-kidding domestic servant, but in truth it's basically a department store mannequin with a voice synthesizer.* Judging from the oddly prurient pictures, I doubt Valerie can even move -- let alone do laundry or fetch lattes. And it costs nearly $60,000! What are you going to do with it? Sure, it's an OK illustration of concept. But anyone who forks over this kind of money thinking they're buying an artificial human (and there have reportedly been two so far) is bound to be sorely disappointed.

Even as a mannequin, Valerie fails to pass muster. Her eyes have a cheap, glazed look. Her expression, if you can call it that, is cadaverous. Android World assures prospective buyers that Valerie comes in your choice of ethnicity. Eye color and skin tone are up to you. But I don't see how any degree of tinkering could mask that dead-fish gaze and those bloodless, Sigourney Weaver-rish lips.

Fortunately, for an additional $2000, you can have the face custom-made, but I'm not sure how the garage-Frankensteins at Android World intend to accomplish this. To create a new face to customer specifications, they'd need a mold of some sort. So unless you're planning on having a duplicate made of a consenting acquaintance (a rather disturbing prospect, but hey), I suppose it's up to the customer to somehow provide the blueprints.

Which leaves the uniquely daunting problem of acquiring "rights" to a stranger's face. I'm thinking specifically of celebrities. There's doubtless a sizeable crowd of fantasy-prone males who would love to have their own soulless emulation of Britney Spears or Paris Hilton to boss around. But I don't foresee celebrities with desirable faces readily uploading wireframe models of themselves to the Net for public consumption. Autographs are one thing. But I would personally find it excruciatingly difficult to approach, say, Natalie Portman or Christy Turlington with a bucket of FX-quality silicon putty and asking them to kindly bury their heads in it so I could, um, commemorate them. There's just something too Ed Gein about the whole thing for my taste.

Not that it wouldn't be nice to room with a simulated supermodel. But until the technology improves (and it will), attempts to create convincing human facsimiles -- famous or nonfamous, male or female -- are doomed to fetishistic oblivion.

(Just the other night I was reading an interview with Michael Stipe, who commented on computers' increasingly dexterous "sampling" of celebrity voices. Mixing technology can duplicate a person's voice by recording an ensemble of syllables. Stipe found the prospect fascinating, but assured the interviewer that if some ad exec stole his voice to sell merchandise, a court case would likely result.)

*Note that I'm making a point not to call this thing "she." Maybe when domestic androids reach something close to the "Nexus-Six" stage (as depicted in "Blade Runner") I'll acknowledge gender. In the meantime, efforts like Valerie -- and the Mars rovers, for that matter -- will remain appropriately sexless.
I woke up late last night in a state of panic, unnerved at the implications of the "nested simulation" cosmology mentioned a few posts back. Although I was exhausted, my mind was functioning lucidly enough. But the protective veil offered by daylight had been peeled away, and I seemed immersed in remote blackness . . . trapped within numberless Chinese boxes.

If we're living in a simulation -- or I am (for all I know solipsism may have the last laugh) -- then what good are efforts to reach the "next level"? No matter how hard one tries, one is still condemned to the computational substrate that houses his or her particular tier on the cosmic shelf; my own sense of confinement was almost visceral, governed by the recursive grammar of bad dreams.

My attempts at insight, my nagging desire to transcend merely human perception -- whether couched in quantum physics, neuroscience or arcane philosophy -- seemed (and still seem) flimsy and ineffectual. The abyss wasn't merely staring back at me; it was leering into my face, so close I could feel its breath . . .

Ranks of aquaria in some dim multiverse-girdling warehouse, each astir with the thrashing of eyeless fish.

Divine Light?

"Baumann's book gives an overview of two historic physics experiments performed to determine the nature of light. One, the 'double slit' experiment, proved that light waves behave differently when they're being studied than they do in isolation. The other, known as the 'quantum eraser,' went a step further, showing that light waves can actually anticipate future experiments and alter their behavior accordingly, 'which, from a Newtonian standpoint,' Baumann adds, 'is something that could never, ever occur.'"

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Italian dames dig Mars

It's sort of ironic that I make fun of the "cosplay" thing since the first I heard of it was when I started getting tons of hits from Francesca links to my Mars site on her stats page; her favorite place is Cydonia. She seems like a lovely person, but I'd hate to see what she'd come up with if NASA asked her to design spacesuits for a Mars mission . . .

Friday, February 27, 2004

Imagine a whole site populated by clever, iconoclastic Netizens afflicted with innumerable mutant variations of the Posthuman Blues. For lack of a better label, call it "Chapel Perilous."

(I think they like me, too.)

Astronaut: We've had visitors

"'A few insiders know the truth . . . and are studying the bodies that have been discovered,' said [Dr. Edgar] Mitchell, who was the sixth man to walk on the moon."
"The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos."

--Stephen Jay Gould

I'm becoming less concerned with the possibility that our reality is a simulation and more concerned with the probability that it's a simulation within a simulation within a simulation within a simulation, etc. We could be virtually anywhere in a near-endless regression of "nested" universes, about as note-worthy as microbes at the bottom of a mineshaft -- and that could be glorifying ourselves considerably.

Are we artificial lifeforms?

The nested universe cosmology makes the future of "The Matrix" seem almost utopian. At least in "The Matrix" a Red Pill brings you face to face with authentic reality, however unpalatable. Assuming our universe is located at random in some regressive "stack" of simulated universes, it's doubtful we're anywhere close to the "top." Chances are we're located somewhere in the middle. But how many higher (more "real") universes encompass our own? How many Red Pills do we need to swallow in order to extricate ourselves? How much truth can we tolerate before our status becomes hopelessly abstract, forever beyond our grasp?

And we're faced with another disorienting prospect: Ultimate reality -- if we should ever come close to reaching it -- may not be amenable to human existence, just as the vast realm beyond the ocean is off-limits to water-breathing fish.

A simulated universe may be a prison, but it may also be the only substrate capable of sustaining us . . .

Thursday, February 26, 2004

"The Passion of the Christ." Will I see it? Do I want to see it? Is it worth seeing?

There's a barbed review in this week's Pitch that accuses the movie of gratuitous gore, vacuous characterization and not a little anti-Semitism. But somehow these things don't bother me as much as my being forced to revise my mental image of Mel Gibson.

"Mad Max" was a touchstone of my childhood. I've always considered Gibson one of Hollywood's most accessible, authentic personalities. So if I see "Passion" and the film is indeed anti-Semitic, that's one less actor I can respect. I can live with the gore; no doubt Jesus' crucifixion was gory indeed. It's not the historical or scriptural accuracy of "Passion" that's in the balance: it's Mel Gibson. If I discover that the Road Warrior is a Jesus freak, that's it.

Then there's the inevitable religious nut factor. Apparently at least one person has already had to be dragged from the theater in the throes of some sort of Christly seizure. You know, you pay $8 to see a movie and this is the last thing you want to see. There should be a "no stigmata" placard on the wall right next to the "no smoking" sign. And I don't want to hear anyone "speaking in tongues," either. (And I thought those guys jabbering about "The Return of the King" trailer when I went to see "The Matrix Revolutions" were annoying . . .)
We're overdue for a good old-fashioned meteor impact.

I'm not saying it will be a huge one, like the one that ejected the dinosaurs from the evolutionary stage, but it will be significant. When you have a chunk of metal plunging into a planet's gravity well, it doesn't have to be all that big to pack a hell of a punch.

Earth has been narrowly missing these things for decades. The last time we got hit was in 1908 -- really not that long ago at all, when you think about it. Fortunately it exploded over Siberia instead of, say, Paris or New York City, in which case the history of the world would be quite different.

So let's get morbid. Say we get hit by a 40-meter rock, and we're unlucky enough for it to land in an industrialized country instead of the middle of the ocean or Antarctica. There's a lot more industrialized territory than there was in 1908, so the odds of a catastrophic strike have risen. Yet despite our expansion, we're woefully unprepared to divert -- or even detect -- incoming meteors. One of our only prospects for advance warning, the Hubble Space Telescope, is probably going to be scrapped -- apparently so Dubya can invest more skull-sweat into the pressing issue of steroid-use in professional sports.

So if we get hit, it's likely no one will know what's happening. And remember that many of us live in a culture trained to be perpetually afraid. Yellow alerts. Orange alerts. We've been conditioned, with ruthless efficiency, to attribute Western society's ills to terrorists and "Evil Doers."

By now you probably see where I'm going with this.

A nickel-iron meteorite obliterates a major city. Before the cause of the blast can be determined, some foreign power has been targeted by what's left of the afflicted nation's nuclear arsenal. The beleaguered nation fires in a white-hot rage. The recipient state collapses in a "shock and awe" thermonuclear inferno. Sympathizers immediately retaliate in whatever way they can. Dirty nukes, poison gas, hijacked planes, you-name-it.

Suddenly, while the dust settles around the epicenter of what will later be revealed to be a chance collision with an unallied celestial body, the world is wracked by spasms of self-inflicted mass destruction. Like a forest fire, the spread of retaliation may be too swift to stomp out. And even if we do manage to get a positive ID on the original culprit within the first few hours of conflict, who's going to believe it?

Even more ominously, who's going to care? By then, we will have reached critical mass. Mob mentality takes over, fueled by fear, devastation, and millennia of self-fulfilling Armageddon stories.

Surely I'm not the only one who's thought of this. I'd like to think that somewhere in the halls of power, contingency plans have been drafted to deal with such an event, in which case we might make it out of a collision-retaliation event not wholly incapacitated.

Or the truth might be even darker: Someone indeed realizes the danger, but has chosen not to educate us. The idea of being exterminated from above has a powerful mythical resonance; perhaps we collectively long to be sterilized. Given the option of mere oblivion or dreadful knowing, will may well elect to die in ignorance.

"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

-- Albert Einstein

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

I just read a pretty good short-story by Tad Williams in which the Internet achieves sentience and assumes control of the world. While I don't think this is likely to happen anytime soon, comparisons to Earth's telecommunications net and the synaptic structure of the human brain have not gone unremarked by scientists and sociologists. I read an interesting, pre-Internet book called "The Global Brain" that forecasted something like Williams' scenario. And in David Brin's "Earth," a near-future Internet achieves self-awareness and becomes Gaia, the digital personification of Lovelock's famous hypothesis.

In William Gibson's "Idoru," there's a passing reference to a religious sect that prophecies some paradigm-busting change when the amount of human nervous tissue reaches some critical threshold. Again, the same sort of lofty hope that an emergent property will seize control of our psycho-evolutionary reigns sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Is it just me, or is the so-called "Singularity" predicted by hardcore Extropians basically a jargonized version of the "Rapture" awaited by Christian Fundamentalists?

Reality in the melting pot

"Because fake worlds can outnumber real ones without restriction, the 'real' multiverse would inevitably spawn a vastly greater number of virtual multiverses. Indeed, there would be a limitless tower of virtual multiverses, leaving the 'real' one swamped in a sea of fakes."

Therefore -- statistically -- it's extremely unlikely we inhabit a "real" universe.

Earth almost put on impact alert

"Some scientists believed on 13 January that a 30m object, later designated 2004 AS1, had a one-in-four chance of hitting the planet within 36 hours."

Reform in a country of cons; A new government is making strides to reverse years of widespread corruption and scams that are synonymous with the West African nation

"The widespread 419 scam has helped seal the West African country's image as one of the most corrupt places on earth. President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was elected in 1999 after 16 years of corrupt military rule, pledged to tackle the international fraud rings and clean up government graft that thrived during the lawless years of military dictatorships."
Wouldn't it be cool if blogs came with soundtracks, just like movies? Here's a hand-picked line-up for Posthuman Blues:

1.) "Burning Down the House" (Talking Heads)
2.) "Country Feedback" (R.E.M.)
3.) "Mysterons" (Portishead)
4.) "Wide to Receive" (Morrissey)
5.) "Human Behavior" (Bjork)
6.) "The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell" (David Bowie)
7.) "I Know It's Over" (The Smiths)
8.) "Planet Claire" (The B-52s)
9.) "Enjoy the Silence" (Depeche Mode)
10.) "Don't Give Up" (Peter Gabriel)
11.) "Maybe Someday" (The Cure)
12.) "Idioteque" (Radiohead)
13.) "Hazy Shade of Winter" (Simon and Garfunkel)
14.) "Like the Weather" (10,000 Maniacs)

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I have a class reunion coming up. In keeping with the general tone of misanthropy of several recent posts: Why should I care? What would possess a sane person to "relive" one's high-school experience?

I had a decent time in high-school, so I don't have anything to be particularly bitter about. I actually had a pretty fun senior year. But the reunion concept just seems absurd. High-school reunions are synthetic experiences defined by the same formalized sentimentality that makes weddings and funerals so tiring. If I had any genuine interest in keeping up with former classmates, I'd be emailing them right now instead of blogging.

Invitations to class reunions are classic guilt-trips, ritualized ways of saying "We realize perfectly well that none of us really give a damn about what everyone else is up to, but we're having this event so all of us -- virtual strangers now -- will have the opportunity to ease our consciences and revel in a few hours of ersatz camaraderie. Go Bears!"
I'm totally out of it. Clueless. Square. Unhip.

Examples: I don't give a damn about perusing new/emerging bands. I see maybe two or three new movies a year. I don't think Britney Spears is sexy. I have literally no idea when sport seasons begin or end. I don't know who was in the Super Bowl. The last time I saw a music video was sometime in '98. I have yet to sample fondue or make a pilgrimage to a hypermall. I don't especially like beer.

By the standards of the military-industrial-entertainment complex, I'm an abject failure, destined for unperson-hood. I fully expect men in black suits to some knocking at my door wearing expressions of mixed disdain and sympathy: "Mr. Tonnies, if you'll just come with us. We know who can help you."

I am the dead.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Now the Pentagon tells Bush: climate change will destroy us

On a sunnier note:

Earth sows its seeds in space

Who's in a bunker?
I have seen too much
Yeah I've seen a lot
You haven't seen enough
I'll laugh until my head comes off
Women and children first

--Radiohead, "Idioteque"
More than meets the eye?

Transformers are making a comeback -- in the science fiction department of my local bookstore, of all places. There's a line of Transformers books -- actual novels meant for "adult" consumption -- quietly infecting a genre already compromised by lame franchise tie-ins. "Star Trek," "Star Wars," "Babylon 5." Now this.

A Seizurebot. Technically not a Transformer, but close enough.

This ready-made Transformer obsession is due, at least in part, to the U.S.'s inexplicable fascination with Japanese "manga." Ever since Godzilla planted his scaly foot on the post-atomic landscape, the U.S. and Japan have been engaged in an incestuous cultural feedback-loop, each mechanically recycling the other's kitsch until a certain critical irony is achieved. It seems harmless enough . . . then you catch a glimpse of a malodorous, trenchcoated teenager ogling over pictures of hydrocephalic waifs in revealing cartoon outfits and you start to wonder.

The consummately fannish anything-Japanese craze manifests in a host of superficially disparate but deeply entangled phenomena such as Hello Kitty, X-rated anime, "plushies" (vanguards of a rather freaky sexual subculture that seems to be making a bid for mainstream acknowledgment), and "cosplay," which manages to splice elements of all of the above.

Of course, genre "fandom" has always had an insular geek core. Outsiders attempting to understand it are like onlookers peering through a badly lit aquarium. Don't taunt the weird-looking fish inside, because chances are they'll bite.

Suggesting that the re-ascendancy of Transformers and their ilk signals a creepy new form of infantilism isn't likely to sit well with hardcore geeks. Nose-pierced losers in Slipknot T-shirts will accuse me of close-minded intellectual snobbery and return to their oh-so-existential comic books (er, "graphic novels"). Teenage girls will scowl at my disdain for Hello Kitty.

Meanwhile, the "Moral Majority" occupies its time cringing at alleged "explicit" lyrical content in pop songs. The John Ashcrofts of the neo-Puritan political zeitgeist blanch at the very prospect of genitalia. I quite honestly suspect that there are Christian Fundamentalists out there who think Christina Aguilera is the Whore of Babylon.

Of course, they're looking for Armageddon in all the wrong places. Oblivion is as close as the nearest Sanrio outlet.

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Slight progress made in Barry Miles' "The Beat Hotel" -- which evokes a misplaced nostalgia for Parisian coffeehouses, communal apartments and all-night bistros -- and DAW's 30th anniversary science fiction anthology. I read the first two stories tonight. It's been a long time since I've read an anthology. So far I'm very pleased with the quality of the stories (all new, from "resident" DAW authors).

There's another fairly new anthology, "Redshift," that I've been eyeballing: new stuff by Rudy Rucker (whose epic "Frek and the Elixer" hits shelves this April), Paul Di Filippo and other big names.

In my stereo:

"The Very Best of Roy Orbison" (disc two)
"2001: A Space Odyssey" soundtrack
"The Wishing Chair" (10,000 Maniacs)
"So Tonight That I Might See" (Mazzy Star)
"In Time: The Best of R.E.M." (bonus disc)
One thing I just can't take: MINDLESS CHATTER. It's everywhere, like a reeking aural fog. I'm pretty adept at tuning it out but sometimes my defenses are weakened by its sheer inanity.

Have you ever stopped to really listen to the stuff people "discuss" while sipping lattes and window-shopping? It's not real dialogue; it's canned, vacuous, recursive. Eavesdropping on this prattle leaves me feeling like I'm surrounded by chittering bipedal insects that just happen to look human.

Way too many of us are addicted to this pointless facsimile of conversation. Maybe we've seen too many talking heads on local news shows and mistaken "happy talk" for the real thing. Maybe losing one's personality in endless sessions of automatized "discussion" (however superficially earnest) is merely an innocuous retreat from the stark horrors of a world still wobbling from its violent emergence into the 21st century.

Am I being elitist and whiny? Possibly. But I invite you to take up the challenge for yourself. Sit in a coffeeshop for an hour consciously listening to what people talk about, and how they talk about it.

Within five minutes you'll be searching for the lobotomy stitches.

Saturday, February 21, 2004

In an ideal world, laptop computers would be completely impervious to inclement conditions. Extremes of temperature wouldn't faze them; you could leave one lying in Death Valley -- screen open -- and come back a month later to find it operating perfectly. An ideal laptop could shrug off falls from great heights and body-blows from enraged gorillas: in effect, the sort of unrelenting percussion associated with professional hockey. And it would look correspondingly tough, constructed of ergonomically contoured black Kevlar and titanium, among other military-spec materials. Imagine something like the famously rugged "black boxes" carried aboard commercial airliners, but downsized into something you could strap comfortably to your shoulder.

Alas, we don't live in an ideal world. Laptops -- even the high-end ones -- are still worryingly fragile. You can't casually knock them around as you would, say, a mountain bicycle or even a weather-proofed cordless phone. Drop a laptop onto the sidewalk and something critical is going to shatter. Inadvertently dunk one in a body of water and you might as well leave it there.

So tonight I bought a small notebook and set of wafer-thin pens that double as bookmarks. This is my backup system -- imminently portable, reasonably coffee-resistant and a hell of a lot less conspicuous. Not that I'm especially afraid of a mugger relieving me of my Gateway, but still.

In the not-unforeseeable future, of course, it's possible no one will have laptops. Or, for that matter, PDAs or cellphones. (With the exception of neophobes and the occasional eccentric who finds the clacking of plastic keys and the heft of warm silicon in his palm a reassuring anchor to brick-and-mortar reality.) We'll be packing the hardware in our skulls, wielding high-bandwidth digital telepathy as nonchalantly as a teenager scrolling through the contact list on her color-coordinated Nokia.
Review of John Shirley's "Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas" posted.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Uh-oh . . .
All right, so I grabbed this off Beyond the Beyond, but you've got to see these blast-proof habitat modules! They look endearingly like 1950s flying saucers. And, like "designer" coffins, they come in all sorts of eye-catching themes. Roadside kitsch meets survivalist paranoia . . . it doesn't get much better!
I like it when obscure memes take on lives of their own and start manifesting in the strangest possible contexts . . .

By Zakas.

Incidentally, my Posthuman Blues essay on JPL's reluctance to address the "bunny" was picked up by The Weekend Bandit, a newspaper serving northern Texas and southern Oklahoma. If you live in the area, keep an eye out for it. The distribution is 14,000, which I'm quite sure eclipses the readership of the blog you're reading now.

Futurismic turned down my fiction submissions. And I have to agree with the editor that they weren't exactly gripping. Both were hopeful "outtakes" from my great unpublished short-story collection. Literary "B"-sides, if you will. One, "You Are Here," takes place entirely within an abandoned shopping mall after a viral holocaust. I once submitted this to Bruce Sterling, under the impression that he was the editor of The Infinite Matrix. I'd written it while under the influence of J.G. Ballard ("Crash," "Concrete Island") and Sterling (who wasn't the editor, although he maintained a well-received blog hosted by Infinite Matrix) saw through it, addressing me as "Mr. Ballard" in his reply. Which was actually severely flattering, if sort of unnerving. (Have I told this story before? I really hope not.)

Three new book purchases:

"The Best Short-Stories of J.G. Ballard." I've already read it, but at $5 I couldn't pass it up. Contains "The Voices of Time," one of the best science fiction stories ever written, and some of Ballard's more experimental postmodern fiction, including "Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan." With a very good introduction by Anthony Burgess.

"The Difference Engine." No, not the celebrated steampunk tome by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, but a nonfiction chronicle of Charles Babbage's attempt to create the first digital computer. (I admit to knowing alarmingly little about the actual guts of computers, but I'm fascinated by those who do.)

Barry Miles' Ginsberg biography. I've also got Miles' "The Beat Hotel" in hardback, which I'll probably read first. I enjoyed Miles' studious (if doting) book on William Burroughs.

In the meantime, I'm enamored of John Shirley's "Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas" -- which, thanks to John, I'm reading before publication. I recommend snatching this off the shelves the moment it comes out.
Here's an interesting read: Professor: Ike met with extraterrestrials.

I don't automatically discredit claims of high-level involvement with extraterrestrials. Statements by Gen. Arthur Exon, Dr. Robert Sarbacher and others lend credence to the reality of the hotly debated "Roswell Incident." And there are other cases that imply some degree of cooperation -- or at least recognition -- between the UFO phenomenon and terrestrial intelligence agencies.

So it wouldn't completely blow my mind to find out that there has been (or is) some type of liaison between "the government" and a nonhuman intelligence. But I find this quote from the article above particularly telling in regards to the good professor's credulity index:

"There's a lot of stuff on the Internet," [the professor] told the Post, "and I just went around and pieced it together."

A lot of "stuff" on the Internet, indeed.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

I was sitting in front of 47th Street watching motorcycles go by, nursing a coffee and trying to ignore my still-sore back when I suddenly found myself staring into the pastel-and-neon maw of The Sharper Image one block over. (The weather is beautiful today, hence the open doors.)

Inspiration struck. I sauntered inside doing my "I'm a customer" act and collapsed into one of the robotic massage recliners. Heavenly. I tested out "PERCUSSION." Not bad. I sampled a few minutes of "KNEAD," briefly transported by mechanical fists and tireless, disembodied fingers.

Not wanting to overstay my welcome (as good as it is, my "serious customer" act dissolves pretty quickly once I'm comfortably seated, staring at the ceiling like a happy corpse), I feigned interest in portable DVD players until an employee winked the store's lights, signaling that my relaxation session was at an end. Otherwise, I might still be there.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004


I just realized that the blog template I'm using has built-in "permalinks," just like everyone else's. One would think I'd have noticed this by now -- I've been blogging for over a year -- but this has totally flown under my radar. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, try clicking one of the date/time suffixes attached to each post. This bumps the post in question to the top of the screen and displays a new URL in your browser's address bar; paste this into an HTML link and it leads right back to the selected post.

Example: If you want to read the post about Parasite Pals that I wrote a while ago, just click here.

My apologies for not "getting" this earlier.
Late dinner at Winstead's. Ceiling lights like art-deco flying saucers; bubbles in the Wurlitzer like buoyant souls encapsulated in some gaudy liquid purgatory.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

PETA sent me an envelope stuffed with anti-Iams stickers. I didn't ask for 'em, but there they are, surreptitiously admonishing. Which leaves me with the dilemma of where to put them. I bet the coffeeshop would let me stick a couple on their community board. The Plaza is a haven for dog-walkers; during good weather LatteLand is jumping with pets brought in by window shoppers, so it might actually do some good.

In other "news," I've decided that I really want a decent TV/DVD player. My ban on TV broadcasting will remain in effect, but I've got movies I'd truly enjoy watching. Have you ever tried to lose yourself in a Hollywood film displayed on a laptop? It doesn't work. You have to view the screen at just the right angle or darker shades turn into undifferentiated shadow. It's like watching through a veil. And if you put the machine in your lap you quickly become aware of the thing's not-inconsiderable heat-output, bringing to mind uneasy thoughts of testicular cancer. All so I can watch "Dead Ringers" for the fiftieth time.

Monday, February 16, 2004

I haven't yet given NationStates a whirl, but I plan on it. From browsing the FAQ, it looks like author Max Barry conceived this thing pretty much on his own. Not bad at all for an author promo site.

I still haven't made it to "Jennifer Government," but it's still on my list. I'm presently making headway in Paul McAuley's near-future exobiological thriller "The Secret of Life." Gregory Benford's "In the Ocean of Night" might be next up. In the meantime, I'm battling stupefying headaches and waking up with pains in my back; both maladies can probably be traced to spending too much time on my computer.

It snowed copiously this evening. I walked down to Panera, had a sandwich, and savored an espresso at LatteLand in a desperate attempt to kick-start my psychometabolism back into caffeinated normality. You know that nasty taste you get in your mouth sometimes when you fall asleep after eating? My brain feels like that right now. No kidding.

New CD purchase: "More Songs About Buildings and Food" (Talking Heads)
The meme that won't die

The New York Times had a field day with it. Now author John Shirley's latest blog entry brings it to an even wider audience. I refer, of course, to the "space bunny."

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Colleague and guerilla ontologist Gerry Forster has died at the age of 75. Gerry was one of the Web's few thinking "anomalists" and a gracious, giving person; I'll miss him.
I just got this incredible piece of "beatnik" spam. This appears to be source code for the colorfully ambiguous subject headers employed by spammers to evade anti-spam filters. Keep in mind that this is just a portion of the entire email. You have to wonder: Did these tenacious Viagra-peddling drones get the idea from William Burroughs' cut-up technique? I'm seriously thinking about reading this at the next open-mic at Barnes & Noble. Dig it:

Crablike Bloodsucker Booking Reaction Cuckoldom Supercherie=
Ceremonialism Bassetting Adornment Coxcombery Disqualify Reasoner Urc=
eus Disseize Respersion. Dulcorate Bina Tenderness Runnion Plinth Pre=
figuration Scathful Deuced Inseverable Radoteur Crenated Hebetation No=
rther Seppuku Ructation Uxorious Airmanship Trebuchet Quicksands Decad=
ency Bobbery Plexus Operosity. Locular Varuna Operose Lustquencher Im=
poster Unbridled Babblement Beldame Capriciousness Attemper Atheistic =
Nonconformist. Instructions Embellishment Antipodal Imbibation Riverb=
oat Floss Lorcha Arietation Numberless Supersaturate Unerring Studded =
Snowdrift Hardened Clearage Libertinage Marbled Arbitrator Sirkar.

Yes, this thing again.

Oy! Those "debunkers" sure are a clever lot, huh? The esteemed New York Times, no less. Instead of going out of its way to edify the public with a guffaw-inducing image of the Face on Mars with cartoon rabbit ears, why didn't the Times' illustrious staff do any investigative reporting? If they had, they'd learn that the lander debris idea is porous, that the so-called "bunny" has evidently moved, that the Opportunity rover had a perfect chance to take a closer look but was steered onward to save "precious machine time," and that no one -- not even the biggest nuts out there (and there are a ton of them) -- think the "bunny" is actually a rabbit (I personally labeled it the "pronged object" in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid "hit-pieces" like this one).

The Times is brandishing the "bunny" label literally. What about "Sushi," the rock lovingly (and quite incomprehensibly) named by JPL's own? Will the Times run a condescending article chastising NASA geologists for suggesting the presence of raw fish in a Martian crater?
Valentine's Day: The usual parade of chatty, smiling couples and flamboyant limousines. I'm a terminally unromantic person, easily sickened by public displays of affection. Fortunately, I've built up something approaching immunity.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

I experienced today as if through borrowed eyes -- what robotic telepresence might feel like if we develop sufficiently realistic android stand-in bodies.

I imagine hooking myself up to a tangle of motion sensors and electrodes in the privacy of my apartment and "logging in" to a synthetic body halfway around the world. The foremost technical problem with venturing far from home in my second body is time-lag. The invisible tether that keeps my brain synchronized with my sense organs is stretched to capacity; my surroundings take on a dreamy, half-real quality, the cognitive equivalent to cheap videotape.

To combat this implacable sense of lag, I take drugs designed to modulate my brain's sensory intake. But even telepresence pharmaceuticals are a poor surrogate for actually being there, existing simultaneously in space and time. By the end of a typical session with my rent-a-body I'm addled, clumsy and irritable. The dream-like association between self and the "outside" world persists like a nagging, partially remembered nightmare. My brain has been supplanted, however momentarily, by a new host of rules, forced to adapt to alien parameters.

So, enervated, I log in to my other self once again, seeking communion, starved for reconciliation. I travel the world in a far-flung squadron of rented artificial selves, battling increased doses of time-lag, consuming ever-more-powerful drugs to combat depersonalization.

But at the same time, something in the depths of my bilocated mind craves this novel anonymity. Escaping into the flux of transmissions that comprises my electronically scattered "self" is the only readily available way to bridge the widening fracture between cause and effect. And so I become autonomic, my consciousness diluted into a thin mentational smoke.

One "I" is no longer sufficient.

Friday, February 13, 2004

The Hubble Space Telescope is arguably the most illuminating scientific instrument ever devised. And NASA wants to kill it.

The stated reasons for letting Hubble fall into ruin and eventually burn up in the Earth's atmosphere are flaccid, unconvincing and symptomatic of a truly frightening loss of perspective. Fortunately, NASA's plans have met with impassioned international resistance. Fight the darkness; sign the petition.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

"But the fact is, the emperor isn't decked out in a real plan for taking America out into the Solar System. The ermine robes of a human mission to Mars can be clearly seen as the gossamer of good intentions and miscued campaign rhetoric, by anyone with the capacity to be honest about what's before their eyes." (A must. Thanks to Sauceruney for the tip.)
Site of the day:
William Gibson's "Pattern Recognition" is out in paperback. Now's your chance. No excuses.

In Europe, cyberpunk icon and literary hero Bruce Sterling is living the future he helped create and completely digging it, a postmillennial Kerouac. (Have laptop, will travel.) As fellow Beyond the Beyond reader Chris Nakashima-Brown writes (to Sterling):

"Bruce, dude, your live journal over there at Beyond the Beyond is starting to really rock. The first truly 21st Century travelogue -- cyber-beatnik-noir, with ammo. The grizzled veteran of the Twentieth Century wanders the the [sic] near-future landscape he once imagined, battered laptop tapping the network through jury-rigged components of roadside detritus, anemic LCD glow the only illumination in the polluted rain . . ."

Can't put it much better than that. Although you might be able to approximate the experience by watching Wim Wender's "Until the End of the World" -- a film about the cyber-savvy brave new world of 1999 (a year which seems downright Pleistocene to me right now).

"Until the End of the World" begins with a stark voice-over that still makes my spine tingle:

"1999 was the year the Indian Nuclear Satellite went out of control. No one knew where it might land. It soared above the ozone layer like a lethal bird of prey. The whole world was alarmed . . . Claire couldn't care less. At the time, she was living her own nightmare. The same dream arrived each night. She was gliding over an unknown land, pleasantly at first, but then the gliding would turn into falling, the falling into panic, and then she'd wake up."

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Several years ago a couple high-school friends and I were fooling around with a video camera and produced a potentially interesting (but ultimately abortive) short movie called "Strobe Junkies." Now, thanks to Blake Dinsdale's newly launched design website, you can view the opening credits (concocted digitally by Blake after the actual filming). Click on "Motion" (far right) and select "Strobe Junkies." QuickTime required.

The "plot" of this particular piece of garage cinema, if I recall correctly, involves a psychiatrist (played by me) who discovers that some of his patients are able to achieve an endorphin "high" by staring into a strobe lamp. I think it's to Dinsdale's considerable credit that he makes this rather lame premise seem interesting.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Oh, to be a child of privilege . . .

Charles Fort

Paraview is reprinting turn of the century anomalist extraordinaire Charles Fort's books. And they want me to provide two paragraphs of commentary on "Lo!" that will appear on the back cover (along with a plug for my own Fortean book, "After the Martian Apocalypse"). Sweet.

Here's what I came up with:

Fort's third book, "Lo!," is a classic work of studied iconoclasm, a restless ensemble of anecdotes that produces a singular sense of unease mingled with awe, gape-jawed amazement -- and a pang of existential fright. Fort's parade of scientific anomalies frames the larger anomaly that is human existence. "Lo!" is a book with the capacity to rewire brains and sculpt new lenses for seeing the unexpected, the unexplained -- and perhaps for glimpsing our own role in Fort's mystifying cosmic scheme.

This book is a singularity, a focal point so rich with heretical memes that it's infected an entire century with its bizarre implications and sense of the inexplicable. Perhaps if Charles Fort had never existed, we would have been forced to invent him, or someone like him. But it's doubtful we could have improved on him. "Lo!" is something new and correspondingly startling: a crack in the veneer of orthodoxy and an impassioned plunge into the deep black waters of a most enigmatic planet. Go with Fort, with new eyes, and revel in what you discover.

(Coming to bookstores near you.)
Researchers pinpoint brain areas that process reality, illusion. In other words, our brains are habitual liars. They manufacture their own spurious realities and we happily accept them because they get us by, or at least seem to . . .
John Shirley writes sensibly and unromantically about aging. Speaking of which, I'm 28, which is very close to 29. And 29 is, for all intents and purposes, the same as 30. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't having any trouble with this realization. I look back on the last decade of my life with mingled disgust and horror; it went by so quickly, and I have so little to show for it. Lots of self-absorbed scribbling in notebooks, innumerable books read, boxes of drawings, a few stories published, lots of ideas pursued -- but it's not enough. There's an aspect of my life that's lacking: a certain warmth, a sense of fully partaking in the human spectacle, a gut-level mammalian belonging.

This sounds incredibly trite, but The Smiths might have summed it up best in "How Soon Is Now?":

When you say it's gonna happen now,
Well, when exactly do you mean?
See I've already waited too long
And all my hope is gone

The damnable thing is that all my hope isn't gone. Not yet. But what am I hoping for? A doctor to awaken me and reveal that I've spent a third of my life immersed in some fiendish virtual reality? Suddenly meeting the woman of my dreams (right on cue for Valentine's Day)? Open contact with benign extraterrestrials? All of the above?

Monday, February 09, 2004

A very nice essay on moral/intellectual "correctness." Quote: "To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that's in the habit of going where it's not supposed to."

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Today I drank a great deal of coffee and talked myself hoarse. I feel like I've swallowed a cactus. Salad and French-fries for lunch, microwaved pasta for dinner.

A pleasant ride home from work listening to instrumental music on NPR. Synesthetic stirrings: seething lattices of blue and silver light, fragments of shimmering chrome . . .

Not enough time.

I'm battling a tide of machine-reality, mouth barely above water . . . flesh and asphalt and metal blur into a forbidding gestalt. The cold embrace of circuits; a galaxy reduced to lusterless clockwork and the thoughtless twitching of insects. Giddy compasses and obstinate time-zones, scribbled maps and unnamed streets winding through indeterminate corporate wastelands, stripmalls piled atop one another in silent architectural copulation.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Some self-published "author" emailed yesterday imploring me to advertise his stupid UFO book on my website. He made a point to inform me that he wasn't in the writing business to make money, but to "make a difference." Evidently if someone actually sells a book he or she's a corporate pawn out to fleece the gullible masses, whereas self-published writers deserve our instant respect and admiration because they're so selfless. Right.
I have a mild form of synesthesia, a neurological processing "error" (?) that allows me to "see" sounds as patterns, colors and textures. I remember attempting to "draw music" when I was little and wondering why the results were so unsatisfactory. This psychedelic sensual mingling takes many forms, each highly individualized. Some synesthetics can feel tastes; others can hear colors.

Interestingly -- and perhaps a bit sadly -- my own synesthetic ability has waned as I've grown older. I don't know if this is due to an actual change in my brain's system architecture or if my increasing reliance on words to describe experience has simply drowned out the synesthetic signal. William Burroughs lamented that words are virulent place-holders for authentic experience, an artificial shadow of the sensory world. If so, it could be that my subjectivity have been impregnated with the Word Virus.

Few would argue that we live in a world rendered amenable to words for the sake of quick fulfillment. Information needs to travel quickly; written and spoken language, as opposed to the "mystical" non-grammar of synesthesia, is likely analogous to dial-up Net access vs. broadband. A whole subspectrum of meaning is lost in the act of communication, but we tend to rely on it because it's relatively ubiquitous. (Very few contemporary buildings are without telephone jacks. Except for businesses and cybercafes, high-bandwidth access is still fairly novel.)

Due to neurological budget constraints, words are our interpersonal lowest common denominator.
Gurdjieff: Most all of us are mere machines, automata, robots. Only a few people achieve actual sentience. Self-awareness is something that must be earned and cultivated. It requires stamina and fortitude -- but it's worth it. As John Shirley notes, "The Matrix" and similar films have tapped this idea with phenomenal success; collectively, are we "waking up," or at least trying to? The 21st century badly needs Red Pills, the courage to confront the unheeding force our species has become.

An example of our collective autism is JPL's refusal to examine certain unidentified objects in the immediate vicinity of the Opportunity rover that seem to have changed location on the Martian surface. I'm not referring to delusional claims of "alien machinery"; the objects in question are real anomalies, addressed by Mars project scientists but deemed unworthy of investigation. One is the "pronged" object featured in an earlier installment. Another is a brightly colored something that online commentators initially took for "litter" from the rover's bumpy landing.

Since their initial discovery, both objects have disappeared from view, gone without a trace.

Two possibilities immediately come to mind: Either the objects are lightweight space junk carried away by Mars' tenuous winds (picture a candy bar wrapper or Styrofoam cup held aloft in a strong breeze) or else they are a genuine unknown. In the latter case, then it would be foolish to prematurely rule out the possibility of macroscopic lifeforms.

JPL has admitted it doesn't know what these objects are. Project scientists surmise they're spacecraft debris, but they don't pretend to know how they got there or which pieces of the Opportunity ensemble they might represent. This last point, to my mind, is crucial. The MER rovers are not hastily designed devices. Every rivet, seam and bolt is accounted for. All components are required to work in flawless harmony for the robots to safely reach their destinations and function according to plan.

If we're merely looking at pieces of lander debris, as suggested by the JPL team, then why aren't the engineers at the very least intensely curious to see what has apparently fallen off their super-redundant hardware? If the "pronged" object is simply a scrap of airbag fabric ensnared on a rock outcropping, then what's responsible for dislodging it? (Remember that the airbag material, for all its thinness, is stronger than steel.) And why don't we see similar "litter" at the Spirit landing site on the other side of the planet?

I previously wrote that JPL was developing an anything-but-scientific immunity to the unexpected. Apparently rocks are fair game -- but only if they resemble terrestrial rocks. Rocks with "varnished" surfaces or geometric cavities must be avoided -- perhaps because they look just a bit too organic, like chunks of bone or petrified wood where such things have no business being. Oddly colored snail-shapes are studiously avoided because, in the words of one JPL scientist, taking a close look would "waste precious machine time." He failed to note that the anomaly in question was directly in front of the Opportunity rover, starkly unavoidable. In the scheme of the rover's mission, taking a closer look would have been virtually effortless. Instead, Opportunity was (presumably) steered directly over the strange formation; JPL has taken to literally running over what it can't explain, like a monster truck imperviously crushing a line-up of decrepit cars.

We've managed the staggering feat of transplanting our senses to another world . . . and decided to all-but cover our eyes for fear of seeing something strange, or at the very least instructive.

We are machines on automatic pilot, forsaking the possibility of authentic discovery in favor of so much gravel.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Will the Opportunity rover discover fossilized life on Mars? Has it already?

Shown smaller than actual size. I know because I, um, have one . . .

Be the first on your block to get an authentic plush Martian microbe! These things might be bigger than Beanie Babies!

Thursday, February 05, 2004

I've been receiving a nearly constant stream of free books in the mail. It's a little daunting, but very cool. Today I got a voluminous self-published science fiction novel called "The Number of Infinity" and an autographed pre-production copy of John Shirley's forthcoming book on Gurdjieff (which is about as seamless and satisfying as biographies get; I hope this gets the attention and acclaim it deserves).

Waiting in the wings is "The Orion Protocol," an intriguing-looking novel about Mars by Gary Tigerman (who has a cool website) and numerous related nonfiction titles. My plan right now is to hop back and forth between Van Flandern's book and Shirley's while reading McAuley's "The Secret of Life." Then I'll crack the cover of "Mars: The Living Planet" -- a book I should have read a long time ago. Of course, by that time I'll have a new stack demanding attention. But I can deal with that later.

By the way, it actually snowed. For a few minutes, before the street-shovelers and snow-blowers could work their dark magic, the world seemed satisfyingly alien.

I was testing out The Cyborg Name Generator and discovered that "MAC" stands for "Mechanical Artificial Construct." I thought I'd made that term up! And this program comes up with it in less than a second's "thought"! Can machine sentience be that far ahead?

Here's what you get for my entire name: "Mechanical Artificial Construct Trained for Observation/Networked Nuclear Individual Engineered for Sabotage." Ominous-sounding, isn't it?

Anyway, give your name a try. And if you get something particularly funny, let me know.
I've noticed a near-universal (and perfectly understandable) inability to pronounce or spell my name correctly. For example, at least two sites out there spell my name "Tonnes." No "i." I'm not mad at all. I honestly don't care how my last name is spelled or pronounced, or if I even have a last name, for that matter. If I could just go by "Mac" I'd be happy. Last names are for bureaucrats.

For the insatiably curious, "Tonnies" is pronounced "Tone-ease." Maybe someday, if I'm sufficiently famous, I can go by my first name or come up with a new name altogether and retire "Mac Tonnies" in much the same way that online businesses retire Internet domain names.

Modern-day cyborg Stelarc.

And, when you think of it, what is a name but a sort of domain name, an "address" that communicates to the world that the addressee occupies space and (presumably) exists in the same ontological matrix as everybody else? What if I eventually have my mind uploaded into a computer or android body? Does this constitute a change of address? Am I still "Mac" or am I post-"Mac"?

Extropians like to use the "greater than" sign (>) to denote someone with traits that fall under the "transhuman" rubric. So maybe I'm ">Mac." But that seems far too pretentious and clunky for my taste. For good or bad, I think I'm at this particular carbon-based address to stay . . . at least for a while.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

"Voting" as a cybernetic arms race

Like it or not, elections now hinge on the ability of hackers to infiltrate and falsify data harvested by electronic voting machines. Maybe we should simply drop the pretense that such archaic things as "candidates" and "votes" matter; the party with the best hackers and electronic sabotage techniques wins.

Philip K. Dick's first novel, "Solar Lottery," is about a future society in which the President is "elected" at random. Winning the Presidency is like winning at PowerBall or, more accurately, being selected for jury duty. It seems to me that this is an increasingly valid model for our own so-called democracy if we're to continue to rely on electronic voting machines. We must become nihilists. We must surrender choice to the caprices of barely understood software.

In this brave new democracy I've proposed, there is no more electioneering, no more posturing on "issues," no more handshaking. You can watch TV confident that you'll never see an ad endorsing a particular candidate or raking "the other guy" over the coals. In fact, you probably won't even know who the candidates are in the first place. And why should you? Ultimately, they're all represented by electronic fluctuations in the guts of some machine. They aren't "people" anymore . . . but really, were they ever?

The system's been corrupted, infected, fundamentally dismantled. We can't go back. So why not jettison the theatrics and start hacking code?

From the homeland of Hello Kitty come Parasite Pals! I love that Tickles Tapeworm -- what a character! (Check out the "Japlish" subtitles in the Flash intro.)

I hope I'm paranoid, but I have to agree with John on this. Bush has been diligently rewriting the rules since at least Sep. 11, 2001. The 2004 election will very likely be a farce far worse and infinitely more debilitating than the last one.

This is getting downright frightening, folks. Wake up. Stop talking about Janet Jackson's Super Bowl halftime show and fight this.
This panorama just might qualify as my favorite image ever returned from the surface of Mars. At 9 MB, it's big, with an epic quality that's hard to put into words. In the foreground you can see several "crop circles" where the lander's airbags disturbed the surface as it rolled down the incline; it's amusing to think that we're the aliens here, modifying the landscape in ways that would mystify any native onlookers. The protruding bedrock looks suggestively like the ruined vertebrae of some impossible creature, compacted and exhumed by wind. If you look at this image long enough -- and there's plenty to see and contemplate -- you get a vertiginous sense of actually being there that surpasses any virtual reality interface I have yet to sample. This small slice of Mars is redolent with history, infused with a timelessness and mystery that even Earth's natural wonders fail to evoke. In a word: Wow.

I was invited to speak at this year's Ozark UFO Conference. It's in April, two months before my book comes out. So I declined. Maybe a few people might "recognize" me from online ventures, but I'd still be a virtual unknown. Having something in hardcopy gives you street cred; the Web, for all of its benefits, has yet to supplant the printed page in terms of prestige, just how "e-books" will remain a mere novelty until the advent of bug-free electronic "paper." (Incidentally, one of the illustrators for my book did the cover for the current Scientific American, which features a hybrid cellphone, PDA and flexible touch-sensitive reader. If you think Americans are gadget-obsessed now, wait until they get their hands on tech like this.)

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

I'm finally reading Dr. Tom Van Flandern's book, "Dark Matter, Missing Planets and New Comets."

This promises to be iconoclastic science writing at its most lucid. The strange thing is that I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about Van Flandern's ideas. I write about them in my book. I've been published in his research journal. I browse his website. But I've never actually read the book that started it all -- and for me that's a painful admission. So it's nice to finally get my hands on the intellectual "source code."

By the way, my copy is courtesy of 21st Century Radio. (Thanks, Bob and Laura.)

It was supposed to storm. It was all anyone could talk about. The "big storm." 14 inches. The meteorological equivalent to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Schools closed. Restaurants shut their doors. Stores sent employees packing.

It never snowed. Not one goddamned inch.

Distended dreams, intimations of fluorescent holocaust.

"I've never done good things.
I've never done bad things.
I never did anything out of the blue."

--David Bowie, "Ashes to Ashes"

Monday, February 02, 2004

What the hell . . . ?

The object above is located at the Opportunity landing site on Mars. Either it's a piece of debris from the lander/rover, a strange rock outcropping, or . . .

Read all about it.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

The anticipated storm has yet to hit. In fact, it's warming up. The result is ubiquitous icy slush with the consistency of mucus, like Kansas City itself is dissolving into the undifferentiated "gray goo" of nanotech disaster scenarios. Nasty stuff. And dangerous; I stepped out of the coffeeshop and immediately fell on the sidewalk (somehow managing not to drop either of the books I was carrying). Thankfully, since everyone was at home cowering and/or watching the Super Bowl, there was no one there to see me. For all intents and purposes, the Plaza is a ghost-town awash in cytoplasmic goop: silent, gray and dripping.

I finished "Skeptics and True Believers." Read the review here.
A guy emailed and wanted to know if I'd review his self-published book. I agreed. Why not? Quality-wise, it's a gamble, but so is reading anything by an unknown author, self-published or not. So I'll give it a shot. A free book's a free book.

I'm almost done with Raymo's "Skeptics and True Believers." Wading through that odious chapter on UFOs was worth it; I love this book. Not at all your typical attempt to unify science and religion -- a task that takes up a lot of shelf-space that could be put to more productive use.

Science has yet to provide the sort of anthropocentric comfort so many human beings are looking for. Most people consider a mechanistic, impersonal cosmos intolerable, harsh, forbidding. They want their ontology cuddly and reassuring. Hence Precious Moments and the 700 Club and "Creation Science." Not to mention more faddish preoccupations like Wicca and predigested Eastern mysticism. (If you think Precious Moments should be downgraded to the list of mere fads, guess again. It's a literal cult with surprisingly deep roots.)

Raymo, like Carl Sagan, argues that there is a numinous grandeur to reality just as we find it. And there is; I experience it on a near-daily basis. I don't need "life after death" to help me sleep at night. I don't need any watchful deities to give me morality. I happen to like and appreciate the fact that I'm a flux of particles forged inside long-exploded stars, a small portion of the universe sculpted in such a way as to reflect on its own beginning and eventual end. I have an innate yearning for the intergalactic abyss, the seminal pyrotechnics of the Big Bang, the distant roar of supernovae.

To Raymo, this strange affinity for the cosmos is the essence of religious experience. The True Believers of his book's title get a distilled version of it by speaking in tongues, firewalking and doting on dubious "miracles"; I get a dose of it whenever I look at the night sky or immerse myself in theoretical physics. I even get a pleasurable tingle looking at pictures from the Mars rovers. So in this sense, I guess I qualify as "spiritual" -- although I'm as uncomfortable with that word as I am with "believer." What is spirituality, after all, but an electrochemical process confined to my brain? Let's not get too excited, here. (Yeah, maybe I'm dead wrong and consciousness somehow survives physical deanimation -- but I'm not betting any money on it. See prior essay on cryonic suspension).

Of course, if "spirit" is neurological, it follows that everything else is. Love, hate, you name it. This is dangerous territory. Maybe we're so many deluded puppets. To me, the most sensible course of action is to upgrade the human condition. Self-awareness is nice, but we can do much better; thus my Nietzschean fixation with technologies with the potential to transform us. If we ever make open contact with an alien civilization, I predict it will have taken a similar path, perhaps shedding biology altogether in its never-ending quest for the numinous. From a biological perspective, "humanity" is a dead end. The critical difference between our plight and that of Cro-Magnon man is that we can consciously direct our evolution instead of weathering nature's caprices.

The tools (i.e., genetic engineering, nanotechnology) are just waiting to be picked up and refined; the challenge, as always, is to use them wisely.

What I'm listening to:

"Murmur" and "Reveal" (R.E.M.)
"OK Computer" (Radiohead)
"Speaking In Tongues" (Talking Heads)
"Blade Runner" soundtrack (Vangelis)