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You probably know that H.P. Lovecraft was not known for his health, wealth, progressive views, or success in life, In fact, anything positive that happened to the man took place long after he’d been buried in obscurity. Today we know him as the creator of the sci-fi horror genre, a classic inspiration for ancient alien theories as we know them today, and yes, a virulent racist who had immense distaste for anyone who was not a white, male, wealthy Protestant with English roots, and drew on it to create alien monsters who ignored his protagonists at best, or would pray on them with a bizarre indifference. Society’s views have evolved since his lack of a heyday, and a lot of his creations found new lives in an entirely new genre. But the creator of these creatures still has to be acknowledged with all the vile cultural baggage this brings, which leaves his fans with a dilemma: accept the flawed man for his work alone, or find a way to reconcile the stories with his eloquent but vicious insults peppered throughout the thousand of letters he wrote.

Personally, I’d argue for the latter. Had Lovecraft been accepting and open-minded, there’s no way his tales would be as alienating and so focused on the “others” who, in the tradition of old, typical Puritan lore, hid in woods and caves far away from civilization. Venture away from what you know, trust, and find comfortable and familiar, and monsters who do unspeakable things in the shadows will find you if you don’t find them first. Science fiction isn’t really about predicting a future as much as it is about working through the authors’ concerns when writing. Lovercraftian horrors are emblematic of the collective American panic over the rapid changes brought by the sudden industrialization of the country and its rather unique geopolitical situation as an isolated empire too distant and expensive for many people to visit, yet too alluring to stay away. We can whitewash the xenophobic paranoia underneath it to make liking the stories seem to be a little more acceptable, but we’d be taking away from how they ultimately came about and why.

Flawed authors, like flawed characters, offer more depth because they can take us into a really uncomfortable place in which we can second guess our emotions and add depth to their stories in a way others might not have. Lovecraft had written a few parables about immigrants taking a small New England town over in a plot not at all dissimilar from the anti-communist commentary known as the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, true. But in most of his work, the aliens he feared were not actively evil for the sake of being evil or actively menacing. They simply came from far off places with no care about anything beyond themselves, and their malevolence was simply a means to an end, not a source of joy or a purpose in and of itself. His fatalism about how often these “others” were welcomed to America surely contributed to the nihilistic conclusions written for his characters. They witnessed insanity, barbarity, evil, and malevolence, yet no one seems to notice, much less do anything about it. Lovecraft’s mind manifested immigrants as monsters from the stars and their cultures as archetypes of “Satanic cults.” And it’s compelling.

In fact, consider the descriptions of what hooded figures did behind closed doors as detailed by the inciters of the Satanic Panic, then compare them to Lovecraft’s lurid narrations of the black masses held by those who worshiped the Old Ones. Chanting to awaken a scaly, winged entity or unspeakable horrors from beyond? Check. Sacrificing infants or young virgins, offering pure and unspoiled blood to the monster before whom they prostrate? Check. Orgies, intoxication, a great deal of nudity, and uncontrolled violence brought on by the malevolent effects of evil they summoned? Check again. It may not have been conscious, but it certainly seems that “experts” on Satanic cults, who were either frauds or deluded activists, heavily borrowed from Lovecraft’s stories, or at least reached into the exact same fears he used to build his underworlds. Similar patterns apply to the followers of the ancient alien theory, whose description of the Anunaki is a spiritual retelling of stories involving the Elder Things, who built their cities on Earth and created humans as both an obscene joke, and a source of useful slave labor to mine resources.

What we can take away from this is that while there’s no excuse for xenophobia and racism, no society is immune from the same fears of those who are different, and they all resort to virtually the same tropes to describe why those others are evil and should be shunned, if not fought. As our exact fears and ideas about the world change, however, we find new meanings for stories written long ago and adopt them to signify something else. Lovecraft was not ahead of his time but very much a product of it, and its environment and flaws. It’s just that his tales are uniquely styled and their villains so vague, indifferent, and sinister enough not to be cartoonishly evil, an entire generation of people raised in a connected world with many friends from the nations and ethnic groups their beloved author very vocally and actively despised, can dust them off to read their own fears, worries, and sense of alienation into them. Perhaps that’s Lovecraft’s greatest success as an author, managing to distill the literary formula for pure, simple human fear.


Now, is it just me or are you not really a celebrity until you either have a naked photo spread of yourself in a random glossy magazine, or your very own sex tape? It’s almost as if the gossips who decide who’s who on national television won’t pay attention to you unless there’s either an attention-pleading nudie spread or a threat of a sex tape looming over your head. But alas, the heady days of the celebrity sex tape might be coming to an end, according to Amanda Hess, a conclusion she bases on the ever less enthusiastic reaction of the public to the latest scandals such as The Fappening and Hulk Hogan’s recorded foray into swinging. As Hess sees it, we’ve entered sex tape and celebrity nudity fatigue because there have simply been too many tapes, pictures, and rumors, and the trend is so widespread, very likeable entertainers are affected by hackers in search of sleaze. Instead of laughing at the lax security and overconfidence of C-list actors and actresses, and the desperate pleas for attention from D-list has-beens, we are now empathizing with the invasions of privacy done to make a scuzzy buck off the shock value.

While this may all be true, I think there’s a very important piece of the puzzle Hess is missing in this regard and it has to do with the ubiquitous, internet-connected technology always within an arm’s reach. Back in the days of Tommy Lee and Pamela, you had to set up a camera, make a tape, have that tape duplicated, use fairly convoluted equipment to digitize it, upload it to a web server which you had to configure correctly to accept the format in which you digitized it, spread the word on countless message boards, manually submit it to a search engine, and finally, over the course of a few months actually get widespread notice of the sex tape. Just writing that out would be enough to make you winded, but also shows why celebrities thought they would be in the clear if they just hid their tapes well enough. But today, the camera is on your phone, video gets recorded in a standard format for which everyone has players, and with one-click uploads, you can go from casual sex to amateur porn stardom in a matter of minutes. And many do.

Having constant access to technology has also taken a great deal of flirting and hook ups to the web where you can find anyone from a soul mate, to quick, no-strings-attached fun. And much like the old joke about male masturbation, there are two types of people who use technology to help them flirt, those who send nudes, and those who lie about it. In fact, spies intercepting web cam and IM traffic on popular messaging platforms between regular people in the UK were just straight up shocked at how much nudity they saw. If the 11% number doesn’t seem that high to you, keep in mind that said spies were actually trying to do some targeted snooping, so most of the nudity they saw was after attempts to filter it out. We get naked for the camera so often, we overwhelm top notch government data centers with high tech filtering mechanisms to the point where “well, I tried searching for it and all this porn came up” is a real problem for spies on top secret versions of the internet built specifically to exclude civilian distractions and access.

It’s even a widespread problem for kids just entering puberty. Teens with low self-esteem and a hunger for approval and cred send naked pictures to each other all the time. Adults who need a confidence boost about their bodies can easily solicit strangers’ opinions in anonymous forums, even though they probably shouldn’t. And even when we take pains to make our adult pictures, videos, and chats private, all it takes is one small security hole or a careless moment, and bam, some hacker can get into out accounts and either harvest what we already have, or install very nasty malware to capture some of our sexual moments. Of course we could run with the notion that we shouldn’t share anything we don’t expect to be public and if there are naked pictures of us on the web, we deserve it. But this is a downright sociopathic line of reasoning, on par with a defense of a burglar who only stole your stuff because you didn’t have stronger locks while also lacking the good sense to only buy things you were prepared to lose in a robbery. If you tried to protect your assets and failed, telling you to protect them better, or not have them, is asinine.

So what does this all have to do with the decline of the celebrity sex tape/leaked pic genre? We went from giddy curiosity, to boredom as such tapes were being released for publicity and a bit of cash, to a nasty feeling in the pit of our stomachs as we’ve now taken enough nudes or done enough adult things on the web to realize that we might be next. There are extortionists whose goal it is to trick you into getting sexual with them and then blackmail you. There’s the revenge porn business, perhaps the sleaziest scam of all time. When we know that celebrity nudity was really hacked rather than made in an attempt for another 15 minutes of fame, and we can also be compromised in much the same way, as two non-famous victims of The Fappening were, it becomes a lot less fun to watch these videos or pics. Rather than guilty pleasures brought to us by paparazzi in that TMZ celebs-behaving-badly school of tabloid gossiping, they very much hit home like the gross invasions of privacy they are. And not having enough means of stopping a nasty hack that will embarrass us, we cringe in reply, knowing we can suffer the same fate…

not simba

You would think that with the advent of ubiquitous internet access across much of the world, we should have done away with many popular urban legends, misconceptions, and outright lies for fun and profit that appeared long ago and were summarily debunked. But sadly, since we gave everyone with internet access the ability to post something to it, many of these misconceptions, myths, and fabrications are still around and going strong, things like the myth that Einstein had once flunked math made up by Ripley’s (he was actually always a math whiz), or that spinach is full of iron made possible by someone not knowing how decimal places work (it’s actually about as good of a source of iron as watermelon), and many others I’m sure you can recall after this little prompt. In this spirit, David McCandless of Information Is Beautiful, who inspired a popular post on exactly how many nukes it will take to end civilization as we know it, created a brief and handy infographic of 52 of the world’s most popular misconceptions and why they’re wrong.

While it’s an interesting exercise in just how much common knowledge is so mistaken, it doesn’t answer the question of why these myths still persist. And there really isn’t one common answer, especially when it comes to religious beliefs and pop history. Sometimes people just won’t look for themselves because they place too much trust in someone’s retelling of a story. Sometimes they’re just too lazy to check the facts. But sometimes they just desperately want to believe the myth they do and will rationalize away any explanation for why it may be wrong. For any skeptic that last reason for the propagation of myths and legends is the hardest to fight because they’re dealing with people who are putting up an active resistance to the facts, so much so that they’ll believe the very opposite of what’s actually happening to avoid having to change their beliefs in the way the world must work. And as skeptics, we have an obligation to object when such willful obstinacy turns into harmful agendas affecting people’s health and legal rights…

[ ullustration by Tsao ]

metal gear solid surgeon

Remember the big news that an Italian surgeon was dead set on performing a head transplant on a human received an enthusiastic volunteer? Well, that story just got really, really weird this week, and yes, there is something more bizarre than an attempt at putting one person’d head on another person’s body. According to a conspiracy theory born on reddit and investigated by several gaming sites, Dr. Canavero might actually be doing this as a marketing stunt for Metal Gear Solid 5 from Konami. Not the surgery of course, but talking about it and getting the press worked up just so game designer Hideo Kojima can unveil his latest game. Some outlets wrote about this story in their usual fashion, omitting the steak for the sizzle, and missing the fact that people actually did ask Canavero head-on — hey, you try to resist when appropriate puns write themselves — about this, and not only did he deny the rumors, but promised to sue Konami for using his likeness without authorization and use the winnings to fund his research.

Of course this lawsuit is unlikely to go anywhere because according to a Belgian site for MGS, the doctor in the game bearing an uncanny resemblance to Canavero is actually Ian Moore, a UK-born actor based in Japan, who was definitely aware of the game, and was more than likely compensated for his appearance. That Moore and Canavero look so similar that they could be mistaken for brothers, surely wouldn’t be Konami’s concern according to the courts. Likewise, according to the gamers who spotted the similarity, MGS features a plot line about a surgeon performing a head transplant on Snake, but there’s no official word on whether this is the case, just a teaser in which some fans concluded this is what they were glimpsing. Kojima, known for teasing his fans, has only doused the flames in kerosine with a tweet of headless Snake bodies widely open to interpretation, and saying that the game deals with “taboo” topics.

Here’s my guess at what may be happening. One scenario is that Kojima was very aware of the controversial surgeon and is basically trolling the living hell out of Metal Gear Solid fans with all this teasing in which he winks, nudges, but never provides any real specifics, and wanted to do that from the start. The other possibility I see is very similar to it, but in which Kojima caught the TED talk by Canavero, made the connection between something important in his game, like say the question of giving Snake a robot body or whatnot, and decided to run with it to get free viral marketing done by game reporters. Finally, he could have changed a plot point in development and if there were no head transplants in MGS, there will be now. It wouldn’t be the first time the web ceased on some coincidence, spun an elaborate conspiracy theory, and inspired some big changes. But the bottom line is that Kojima definitely knows how to market games and if even a little pop sci blog like this is talking about his latest creation, that’s just proof of his talent…

Yes, Pacific Rim is a loud popcorn movie best viewed with your brain operating at half capacity, just enjoying the show without asking any questions. And that’s exactly what makes it fun. This may shock film snobs and critics who review Oscar bait, but not every movie in theaters needs to be an epic character drama that explores the fundamental issues with existence and the human condition, or brutally cataloging a bloody genocide while repeatedly beating its viewers over the head with heavy-handed questions about morals, ethics, free will, and what lurks within us all. At the same time though, big budget Hollywood spectacles with thin plots are usually outsourced to Michael Bay, or directors who emulate his style, who latch on to formulas that even the writers of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller movies would find too flimsy and groan-inducing, then proceed to viciously drill them into your eyes to a soundtrack of explosions. Pacific Rim was thankfully made by Guillermo del Toro and easily avoids this trap by being a simple and very straightforward little tribute to giant robot vs. giant monster anime many twenty-somethings watched as kids.

But that said, there’s something just not right about humanoid robots brawling with giant beasts sent from another world through an undersea portal called The Breach. Jaegers might deliver a knockout punch to a 30 story Kaiju or pound one over the head with a container ship to give the monster a hell of a concussion, but the mechanics just don’t quite work. Kaijus are fleshy, which means they’re more flexible and heal minor cuts and scrapes quickly. By comparison, a Jaeger would be made of comparatively brittle metal alloys and have to be refurbished after every fight, making it extremely expensive and labor-intensive to operate. When the Kaijus appear every six months or so as they did at the beginning of the war, the cost can be managed. But as the giant brutes keep getting bigger and bigger, and start appearing as often as once a week, resources are quickly going to start running dry, so building ever more Jaegers would quickly become very difficult. No wonder that the bureaucrats who run the world in Pacific Rim want to shut down this once promising program for a wall to keep the Kaijus out. They can’t afford it anymore.

Of course one also wonders how they got the Jaegers to be bipedal at such a scale. Walking on two legs is very computationally expensive for a machine that’s as big as a high rise, and even a small bump in the road could send these robots falling, and falling badly. Not only that, but they give the Kaijus excellent points of attack: the ankles and the knees. To truly make their punches count, the Jaeger pilots have to get their robots to behave just like a human fighter and put the core and hips into the blow. Punching in a basic one-two sequence, the weight would swing from leg to leg, so a counter-attack from a Kaiju aimed at the thigh or the side of the knee could send a million tons of robot down hard with its head lined up for a finishing blow from above. You can see the same idea in mixed martial art disciplines which use stomps and side-knees in a clinch to shift an opponent’s weight so you can topple him and get full mount for a well placed elbow, or a swift hammer fist to the side of the head. Jaegers would simply not be flexible enough to survive this sort of assault in the real world. Many much less brittle and more coordinated humans aren’t without at least a little training or a whole lot of mass to counteract the impacts.

For better fight mechanics, I would have designed Jaegers to look more like sumo wrestlers. An extremely wide base either on tracks or hovering with the aid of nuclear powered jet engines, no legs, and stuffed with ranged weaponry to soften up the Kaiju as it charges. Large, thick, heavy arms with huge claws would pummel the monsters at close range and its barrel-like core would spin naturally, so tipping it over or even getting it off-balance would be a Herculean task, even for the fat Category 4 Kaiju which attacks Hong Kong in the movie’s second act. Its hull could be made of something flexible like kevlar to make it tougher for a Kaiju to bite through and diffuse a good deal of the force that would be generated by a direct hit. One could even imagine it pulling off a complicated sequence just by rotating around its axis. For example, it could hit a Kaiju with an enormous left hook starting about 30 degrees left off center, keep spinning until it can follow the punch with a right elbow at between 60 and 120 degrees right off center, and returning back with a left hammer fist and a right hook, using the hits on the Kaiju to redirect its momentum.

And while we’re redesigning the Jaegers, we should ask why they can’t be piloted remotely. We can control drones halfway across the world in real time and all of the infrastructure to pull off a similar feat with a giant robot seems to be in place in the film. To minimize lag, the pilots should be in the base from which their Jaegers would be launched, but they wouldn’t have to be in their robot. Their brain-machine interfaces with their co-pilots and with their machine are going to be implemented as an abstraction over the kernel of the Jaeger’s operating system anyway so the pilots could fight, lose, and be ready to fight again as soon as a new machine is ready to go. It’s actually kind of a no-brainer that allows them to switch tactics, pushing the Jaegers further and taking risks that could kill them if they were in the actual robot but win the day in the end. There would be a huge psychological boost from seeing a Kaiju on a big screen in a bunker instead of up close and personal, its fangs tearing through the cockpit and rattling the robot around. Yes, it’s not as heroic or dangerous, but much more militarily effective and politically beneficial.

But then again, all of this is based on the idea that Jaegers make for the best front-line defense when a Kaiju attacks. That’s not necessarily true. We know they can be killed by nukes, but the proposition of turning the world’s most populated coastlines into radioactive deserts is a tough sell and actually doing that will kill food production and give the Kaijus a beachhead from which they can mount assaults further and further inland. However, launching a very large kinetic kill vehicle from orbit, basically a huge spike dropped from a satellite, could hit a Kaiju with roughly the same yield as a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead without all the radiation. Currenly we can’t build and launch wepaons like this because they violate the Outer Space Treaty, but when there’s an angry horde of aliens that can flatten a city block with each step rampaging on Earth and all of the nations unite in building and deploying Jaegers, I’m sure exceptions could be made and the current space faring powers can launch a system of satellites ready to drive a super-heated alloy slug into a Kaiju at hypersonic speeds at a moment’s notice. Should that somehow fail and some time needs to be bought for another shot, Jaegers can coral the beast into the kill zone.

This is how you would fight a Kaiju in the real world. Orbiting KKV launchers that can fire off an exceptionally engineered slug at the planet below at a moment’s notice, drone bomber swarms, and giant mobile weapon platforms known as Jaegers, remotely piloted as a last line of defense against the nightmarish beasts. Pacific Rim’s spectacle is great for a live action anime movie, a solid tribute to the genre, and it creates tension by putting the main characters in real danger in the maws of the Kaiju, but if we were to translate any of it to the real world, it would be a militarily unsustainable strategy with little chance of actually working. The only worse strategy would be a giant wall to keep the monsters out, i.e. the Wall of Life being built in the movie, but it seems like the competent commanders in the Pacific Rim universe were all on leave throughout the war and this is why the world has been stuck with worse and worse ideas for fighting the alien titans. But hey, how mad can you be at a movie’s plot holes if it lets you mentally design giant robots and a swarm of global space-based defenses to fight aliens the size of an office block?

Project Kronos, the short fake documentary by visual effects artist Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull about first contact and the possible origins of interplanetary travel by humans in the relatively near future, recently got plenty of attention on the web. And it should have. It’s a well done piece of work, its premise is developed enough to keep you glued to the screen, and its pacing and storyline are open ended and somewhat disturbing enough to provoke a lot of speculation. As a piece of art, this is really, really good. But before anyone gets ideas about sending our artificially reanimated brains in spherical vessels to roam the cosmos in a dream-like state, I’m afraid that a skeptic will need to step in to do some fact checking on the science regardless of how well Project Kronos was put together. Considering that I’m in one of the key fields involved, it may as well be me, so let’s unpickle some flying cosmic brains and figure out whether you really want to analyze fuzzy dreams on your way to meet an alien intelligence trying to summon you to the stars.

Believe it or not, mapping the neurons responsible in remembering what someone saw could be done, and there’s been some success in trying to see what another person has seen by looking through his memories. With enough time and more accurate devices, it’s not implausible to get much better resolution, maybe even as good as some of the fuzzy images of the brain implanted into the Kronos probe. But then again, you’re spending hundreds of millions, if not billions to get to interstellar space. Don’t you want extremely powerful high resolution images taken with crystal clarity so scientists can study what the probe gleams on flyby? Don’t you want a sensor array to measure everything from the solar wind to atmosphere of the gas giants’ moons? The film’s very ambitious space agency basically decided to take a shortcut to nearly human equivalent AI with an actual human brain, then launched it into deep space bereft of the tools to make the probe a source of good data for planetary scientists, focusing instead of establishing first contact based on the idea that a human brain would handle aliens better than a recording. But would it?

One of the more disconcerting things for me in the documentary is the notion of the brain kept alive after the person using is has presumably died of natural causes. Now, as someone who’d happily donate his body to science after I’m done using it, on the one hand, I would welcome the opportunity of being essentially resurrected as a space probe. In fact, on the surface, it sounds like one of my wildest dreams come true. To be brought back to life in some form and launched to travel the stars for eons on end. The concept is poetic, really. But the reality? Not so much. It would be the most extreme kind of sensory deprivation you could imagine. Yes, you could travel the cosmos and see planets no one has even seen before, but for the vast majority of the trip, you’d be surrounded by silent blackness. No friends, no family, very little interaction from Earth, and most of said interaction would be one way. Your thoughts and memories would be decoded and played back like a movie, complete with images of the life you once lead. What you have to look forward to is eons of solitary confinement in a completely alien environment.

Of course this is presuming that your brain will still be usable after death. Unlike the machine, it will deteriorate. Over time its functions will degrade, memories would be difficult to keep, and the probe will grow less and less reliable. Add this to the isolation it will experience and any aliens in range of a Kronos orb will more than likely be trying to make contact with an entity suffering from mental illness and with rapidly deteriorating cognitive abilities. At this point, a recording would be much more preferable. Now, you might wonder if the brain in a Kronos probe would actually live in any real sense. After all, it is just being zapped with a little electricity and given some nutrients so it can function but it’s not really embodied anymore and kept in a dream-like state. The film is not really clear on this point, oscillating between the scientists treating the brain as a substrate, and indicating that it would be capable of an emotional response, meaning that it may be sort of alive in a conventional sense. Maybe this is why the Human 2.0 project meant to respond to the alien attempt at first contact uses a fleet of probes. Maybe they’ll keep each other sane.

Still, note that first contact happens after aliens hack a human brain in robot form. That’s a very disconcerting feat. It means that the extraterrestrial life form either managed to figure out binary protocols for our electronics and how they map to analog buzz produced by our neurons, or had a machine capable of doing that. More than likely, they’ve either done it before or developed an absolutely amazing grasp on how to decipher brain machine interfaces in other species. They’d have to basically torture the brain in Kronos to figure this out from scratch, not on purpose, but they would more or less have to wire into the orb and zap the brain to see what happens so the inference map for how it works could be built. Does sending a hundred more Kronos probes to the coordinates they provided seem like a good idea in this light? Certainly not to me. Seems a tad dangerous to put it mildly. Sure it’s first contact, but with what and why? I could imagine this encounter suddenly diverting trillions around the world into building a heavily armed space fleet just in case, should the memories of the Kronos brain give the aliens too much information.

But all this aside, I can understand what Project Kronos was trying to show. Humans, as we are today, are more or less marooned on Earth. We’re not ready to live in deep space until we start to change ourselves through genetic engineering and significant augmentation, until we defeat aging as we know it and learn how to encase our bodies in materials that will keep us save from radiation and let us stand on other worlds without worrying about toxic chemicals, radiation, and the bone, joint, and muscle damage from changing gravities. The odds of us being brains in tiny orbs floating through the vastness of space are non-zero, especially if bean counters have their way with the future of space travel, but it’s not the best way to explore the final frontier. No, the best way forward for us is roaming space stations, vast interstellar ships, and cyborg bodies. It’s our need to be social, our embodiment, and our sense of community and adventure that define us, and if we want to boldly go into interstellar space, we need to carry them with us. That and a lot of weapons in case random aliens start giving us trouble by trying to hack into our brains…

enterprise vs. dreadnought

A good swath of the geek part of the internet is lit up with fury about Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s manifested on the familiar nerd hubs like Wired, Ars, and io9, especially io9, which is downright incandescent with rage about the movie’s choice of villain. Numerous calls have been made for the heads of J.J. Abrams and his crew on platters, to soothe the angry Gods of Trek, while fans of the franchise are busy offering ideas for what would’ve made the movie better, which, surprise surprise, involve following the canon of the original series and the spin-offs. But this was a given when you consider the source material and the fan base. You can’t reboot a franchise simply by continuing the story arcs already decades in the making, you can’t make an exciting movie that focuses on tedious exopolitical negotiations in the neutral zone, and you will ruffle some feathers when you try to boldly go (or go at all) where the franchise has never gone before.

For example, one of the big complaints about Abrams’ vision of Star Trek is the militarization of the Federation’s fleet. But here’s the thing. It’s a fleet of spaceships that might face adversarial life forms (like the Romulans and Klingons), the ships are armed with lasers and missiles, and a botched first encounter can turn a peaceful delegation of explorers into a military incursion. So it’s kind of hard to blame Abrams for seeing the potential of the Federation to wage war, and in dire circumstances, use ships that were once meant to explore the galaxy for force projection, as the Enterprise is used in Into Darkness. And of course there’s the commercial consideration. A sci-fi movie sells best when there’s war involved because that makes a good popcorn flick that’s going to attract big crowds. People generally struggle with peaceful meditations on life from all those little green men, and often don’t try to apply it back to the world they inhabit.

Yes, I know, Star Trek was supposed to rise above these commercial considerations but today, sci-fi is a hard sell. For studios, it’s either popcorn munching military science fiction or another rom-com because they’re a business and movies are expensive to make, especially those which require lots and lots of special effects. If you’re a die-hard Trekkie, you’re going to have to make some concessions to people who live outside your bubble and really couldn’t care about all the intricate stories to which you dedicated countless hours. Who knows, they might like the idea so much, they go back and rediscover what you saw in the source material. But if you’re going for mass audiences, something has to give and compromises have to be made. And here is where we run into the biggest complaint of them all, that Abrams was recycling deep material from the original rather than creating something completely new out of it. Unfortunately, this is an area in which every reboot director is facing a lose-lose proposition by the nature of the project.

Had Into Darkness essentially been an updated Wrath of Khan, Abrams would’ve been pilloried for simply giving the classic a coat of fresh paint, just like io9 was savaging him for using classic material and inverting it, with the writer sounding nearly apoplectic with fan rage. If the movie’s plot resembled nothing ever seen or done on Star Trek, the Trekkies would’ve been infuriated that they got their Star Trek without anything that made it like Star Trek, asking why Abrams did not make and references to the original and just borrowed the names, ships, and logos to make something completely different under the same brand name. That’s the nature of a reboot. You won’t be able to please the fans either way unless you simply continue where the last episode of their franchise left off without missing a beat, and that sort of defeats the whole idea of a reboot in the first place. Into Darkness was a fun movie, it had its moments, and it was technically very, very well executed for what it was supposed to be. And at least it has people interested in sci-fi, which is more than we could say for many past and upcoming sci-fi flicks…

old typewriter

In March, freelance journalist Nate Thayer is incandescent with rage. It wasn’t that he’s trying to make his living by writing and no one’s paying attention. In fact The Atlantic is knocking on his door and asking to run condensed versions of one of his blog posts. No, the big problem is that they were not offering to pay him for it, and their once upon a time talks of a $125,000 per year retainer never really came to anything because the editor working on it was killed in Iraq. Thayer was livid, saying that he can’t feed his kids, can’t pay for his internet connection, and can barely pay his rent, so how dare the publication offer him nothing but exposure. Maybe it was wise that he didn’t take the deal because it would’ve made the charges of partial plagiarism for the post in question all the more embarrassing. But charges and controversies aside, when I came across a reference to Thayer’s debacle, I thought it would be a good idea to highlight what this incident shows about new vs. old media and why journalists will find themselves fewer in number.

Here’s the important thing about selling your services. Just because you need to make a certain amount of money to pay rent, doesn’t mean that what you’re trying to sell is worth that much to the entity interested in buying. Professional journalists who worked back when there weren’t any blogs around to break news, and newspapers were arbiters of what was must-read, are used to being able to take their time, work on a story, and get paid good money for their efforts. But this wonderful world of overseas posts, expense accounts, and large retainers is now gone. People like the immediacy of breaking news through social media and TV, and then in depth summaries and investigations as the situation settles down. And they get this from virtually everywhere free because anyone can break stories. The result? News is cheap. So how will The Atlantic cover a six figure retainer for someone producing stories that aren’t necessarily that valuable and won’t generate enough traffic to pay for themselves at such sky high rates?

On top of that, exposure is a good thing. I’ve had one of my posts reproduced by io9, of course with my permission. It gave the blog more credibility and more traffic, which helped a syndication deal I had at the time because the payouts were based on the number of readers. Being picked up by Time Warner’s news sites was also a huge boon, and although few of the publications for which I’ve written sent me cold, hard cash, the traffic and exposure for my work made this blog turn a profit. At no time was I laboring under the delusion that I was going to make six figures for my pop sci writing because pop sci articles are a dime a dozen. The web is positively lousy with them. The money from the blog was simply a way to help with rent while doing some freelance IT work and if it became something more, great. For Thayer to expect anything more out of a blog nowadays is simply unrealistic, and his fury at being offered free exposure sounds really out of touch. If his kids are going hungry and his rent is going unpaid, he needs to find another way to make money because let me tell you from experience, this writing stuff doesn’t pay well.

That said, there will always be some room for investigative journalists and researchers who will curate what’s circling around social media, track down sources, and find out real stories, but it’s unlikely that they won’t rely on the traffic their stories generate for their salaries and donations from readers who want them to keep going and appreciate the time it takes to create a massive, long form expose. But again, their stories better be gripping, fascinating, and start debates on a national scale. An abbreviated review of North Korea policy doesn’t necessarily fit that bill while parsing leaked information about top secret drone strikes does. The future of journalism is very savvy writers who act as their own editors and work in partnership with publications, not as their employees, focused not just on their stories but the economics of their storytelling. If former big shot journalists like Thayer don’t know that, they really need to wake up and smell the coffee as they read through the Twitter feed, looking for material for their next post…

ancient aliens

Now, I’ve written a great deal about the ancient astronaut hypothesis, the idea that alien beings had profound influence on our evolution and civilization. Usually, when I did, I talked about a lack of a smoking gun for extraterrestrial meddling in our genome or our politics, and pointed out just how rare it would be for an advanced alien species with a passion for exploration to evolve close to the same time period as us, detect our planet, cross light years to get here, and have interest in doing anything on Earth to cover the scientific basics. But what about another line of evidence from ancient astronaut believers? According to them pictures of weird beings and stories of all sorts of bizarre creatures, monsters, and mysterious chariots in the sky must point to visitations, an assertion countered by skeptics with alternative explanations that usually have to do with the religious art commonly produced by the civilizations in question or pointing out the believers’ all too tenuous grasp of the historical facts and games of confirmation bias.

However, there’s another idea that seems to be missing. Our ancestors wrote fiction and were every bit as creative as we are. In fact, we have records of jokes that date to nearly 4,000 years ago and epic sagas that are more than a thousand years old. Fun fact, the oldest known joke in human history is a fart joke. The second? A joke about women wearing nothing but fishnets for the visual benefit of a pharaoh. The oldest European joke? A bait and switch riddle that seemed to be describing a penis. Yes, humanity hasn’t changed all that much when it comes to humor, I know. And that’s precisely the point. We shouldn’t take everything we see from the past literally like ancient astronaut believers, although we sometimes do. The legend of King Arthur written in Perceval has inspired many true believers today to argue that there’s a real Holy Grail, just see the book on which the DaVinci Code was based: Holy Blood, Hold Grail. Despite being written as an epic fictional tale with colorful characters and fictional creatures, people take parts of it to be factual or based on fact simply because they mention other mostly or semi-fictional works.

So when an ancient astronaut theorist invokes ancient texts, why not ask how he or she knows if the text was meant to be taken seriously? Were the flying creatures on flaming chariots part of a religious tract meant to guide worshipers of ancient gods or was it entertaining fiction for those who ruled our first empires? How many of the soap operas meant to describe the life of the gods in ancient mythology was canon and how much were creative add-ons? When we read ancient texts on religious matters, are we confusing their versions of Bibles with their versions of the Left Behind books? We know our ancestors were creative enough to dream up gods and monsters, and mastermind engineering projects that would take decades to complete. We know there were great epics with highly fictionalized tales of past wars and natural disasters, and we know there were countless books lost as ancient libraries were burnt down by illiterate conquerors or rabid zealots. So why do ancient astronaut theorists insist on treating every artifact from the past as a record of a historical fact rather than even pretend to allow for works for art and fiction?

man woman geek

Whether the latest movie will show nerds as socially awkward know-it-alls, table top gamers in a basement on a perfectly fee Saturday night, or hackers with supervillanous abilities getting into some hugely important piece of top secret data someone mysteriously decided to leave internet accessible, there’s going to be a common thread running through the nerds’ backstory. They’ll have to be relentlessly picked on when they were kids, they have to be emotionally stunted, and they have to have descended into their nerdy obsession to the point at which their lives revolve around it. This is why the scientists in The Big Bang Theory can’t relate to Penny, why the teams of early 20-somethings on King of the Nerds say they’re good at math, science, and gaming, as well as totally oblivious to flirting, and why the game master of Zero Charisma is such a sad sack who loathes the nerd hipster with a girlfriend playing in his multi-year D&D circle.

Basically, all this inability to coexist with normal humans is what’s supposed to make you a nerd because you’re supposed to latch on to games, comic books, sci-fi, anime, what have you, as a convenient escape until you find your niche in college, or as an adult. But the thing is that pretty much everybody gets picked on in one way or another, everyone has a hobby, and any of these hobbies can be taken to an extreme. Sure, your eyes will probably glaze over if a Star Wars fan who has seen all the movies so much that he memorized every frame, debates with equally rabid fans about the inner workings of the Millenium Falcon’s jumps to light speed and the physics of luminal travel (science tidbit of the day: the stars will not streak by outside). But won’t they also start to do the same when two people who live and breathe baseball use your ear canals as an amplifier for their dissection of statistics labeled by an acronym soup? So why is it more socially acceptable to make fun of the former scenario and the latter is supposed to be manly?

Why were the nerds who are supposed to be our future scientists, writers, and engineers given pretty much no social acceptance until now, when parts of geek culture are being adopted into major blockbusters? Even I have to admit to a little unease when on a first date some seven or eight years ago (was it that long ago?), a 20 year old blonde with a warm smile, wearing what I assumed to be trendy clothes who found me on MySpace (holy crap, it’s official, I’m old), told me that her whole family plays D&D on the weekends. Just let that sink in for a second. A guy who’s been working on computers since he was 13 was taken aback by trying to imagine an otherwise perfectly "normal" girl playing Dungeons and Dragons with her parents. Hypocritical? Probably. But this is how bad stigma is. Even nerds will balk at other nerds should a few dreaded hobbies come up in conversation because the message with which we’re constantly bombarded is that a D&D circle is the geekiest activity of them all. That, or devil worship, as per Jack Chick.

Who the hell decided that it should be the norm to ostracize comic books, computers, games, or sci-fi but fantasy sports leagues are a-ok? Whose edict was it that he who is nerd must hide his or her nerddom or be picked last for any sport or social activity? I’d ask why so many movies, TV shows, and sitcoms perpetuate the stereotypes, but it’s pretty obvious why. They wouldn’t want to rock the boat by casting a nerdy character as anything other than a punchline or a borderline insane genius with social anxiety, absurdly, though harmlessly aloof. Why showing a nerd with a normal day job who goes home, watches sci-fi to unwind from a long day and recharge since he finds long periods of time spend around people to be exhausting, then helps his significant other do the dishes would make him look, gasp, normal! Can’t have that. Likewise, we couldn’t show a nerdy girl doing something other than awkwardly trying to get laid by working all her nonexistent womanly charms on a disinterested jock on film. What are we going to do? Send her on a date with someone at a coffee shop to talk mostly about non-nerd things? That’s blasphemy…