Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Kung Fu Fighting: a 1974 disco song written and performed by Carl Douglas and composed and produced by Biddu.

You'll notice there on the album cover it says "And Other Great Love Songs."  Although i wasn't cognizant of the subtitle when i decided to use this song as a lead in for this post, it does actually speak to the point i want to make so...woot woot for serendipity.

Before i get to any further discussion, i would be remiss if i didn't provide you what you probably most came here to get:

So...yeah.  Carl Douglas, Jamaican born musician and one-hit wonder thanks to this song, originally intended as a B-side to "I Want To Give You My Everything."  You know - that old classic everyone loves.

i imagine Carl Douglas probably loved the success he enjoyed through the popularity of this song.  On the other hand, after a certain point i bet he felt pretty stifled creatively.

"I've got to wear the kimono on stage again?  Every time?!"

On the other hand, and this is related to the point i'll eventually get to, maybe he did continue to enjoy the hell out of performing this song.  It did reach #1 on the Soul Singles charts and was at the top of both British and American charts at one point.  It won a Grammy and sold 11 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling singles of all time.

i've loved this song for a long, long time.  In fact, a friend of mine once told me it ought to be my wedding song if and when i ever get married officially.  i've got no qualms about that.  Sounds good to me.

What i've always admired about this song, and maybe put a bit of my own imaginative spin on, is that Carl Douglas really loves him some kung-fu.  During the martial arts film craze of the 60's and 70's people couldn't get enough of these movies. i recall reading somewhere that, when it was released in 1979, the film i consider to be the absolute best of this genre played in a sold-out theater in NYC for over 6 months straight.  Anyone who knows me well has no doubt seen this film.  It is...well i don't want to say a requirement for friendship.  But i believe you're doing yourself a disservice if you have not seen this film.  i can't think of anyone who has seen this that felt like it was a waste of time or didn't enjoy it at least on some level.

Anyway, back to Carl Douglas.  i was thinking about his hit song and wondering where that kind of excitement is in today's entertainment scene.  Or more specifically, music scene i suppose.  Now granted, i am not very hip on current trends in popular music.  If i do get a chance to listen to the radio it's probably This American Life or Here's The Thing or Science Friday.  All three of which you ought to at least check out once.  Especially in light of the recent danger to Big Bird and the other educational folks over in the Alphabet City neighborhood.

Whoa, stop.  i made a solemn vow not to delve into political discussion on this blog.  It's strictly for things that don't incredibly frustrate me.  But i think it's safe to get away with that one teensy comment.  It's not an indictment, just a little nudge to get you to support public broadcasting.  Which you should.

To get back on track (pun intended), i'm wondering if there's a market for songs like this on the Billboard charts.  And...turns out there is, sort of.  Any idea what the #2 song on the Hot 100 is right now?  i'll spare you a video because we've all seen it.  Not that it's bad or anything.  In fact i think it's pretty frickin' catchy.  It's "Gangnam Style" by PSY.  And it's #2!

Perhaps my initial thought when i started today is unfounded.  Fun, catchy tunes about stuff that people like is still being made and performed.  As a matter of fact the #3 song is by a group called "fun," but i listened to a clip of "Some Nights" and it didn't sound all that fun to me.

Carl Douglas sure knew fun when he saw it though.  Can't you just picture him there in the theater, watching The Big Boss or Five Deadly Venoms or any of hundreds of other chopsocky flicks?  And he really picked up on the details too.  Everybody did know their part.  The choreography is more like an elaborate dance.  Every move had another to counter it until one guy broke the other's kung fu and then it was all over.  One of the coolest kung fu fights i've even seen on film was in Hit Man In The Hand Of Buddha.  It was a shot of just these two fighters' hands battling each other for probably 30 seconds to a minute straight.  It was really cool.

Well unfortunately, because of the terrible weather we've had here in Northeast Ohio, i've got to cut this short today.  So let's consider this as Part 1 of a short series.

i hope you come back again to check out Part 2.  Don't worry though, you won't need to have expert timing to catch it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Escapism: Role-Playing Games: a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting.

Just to be clear, i'm talking about the ones with polyhedron dice, miniatures, and character sheets with strength, intelligence, armor, hit points, and the like.  You know, the kinds that nerds play.  Not any bedroom antics or therapy techniques.

Like CCGs, there are a lot of role-playing games, or RPGs, out there.  A LOT.  Here's a sample but this doesn't really scratch the surface.  There's games based on intellectual properties like movies, television shows, and literature.  There's games of all sorts of genres like fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, horror, cartoons, espionage.  There's a game called Boring RPG.  There's a Japanese RPG called Families that is about the lives of homemakers (they like "slice-of-life" games over there).

The video clip above is in reference to what is undoubtedly the first of all role-playing games as we know them today: Dungeons and Dragons.  When i say all, i'm not just talking about pencil-and-paper dice games.  i mean ALL RPGs.  If you've played any sort of video game, board game...any sort of game with characters whose stats and abilities grow over time through playing in a persistent world, then you can thank D&D for that.  As a side note on the video clip: a true D&D aficionado will notice an error in Keith Stat's speech.*

The creator of D&D and subsequently RPGs in general was Gary Gygax.  It was actually him and Dave Arneson who originally designed the game but Gygax is like the Stan Lee of RPGs: he wasn't the only one responsible, but he's the one who wound up synonymous with the concept.  Gygax passed away in 2008 and that was a sad moment for me.  i didn't know him personally or anything, but it's strange when people who quasi-shaped your life die.  i'm sure it will be equally or more weird for me when the aforementioned Stan Lee is gone too.

i was first introduced to D&D much as i was to CCGs - by my older brother.  In the mid-1980s when i was in about 5th grade or so, i started flipping through his Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks and wondering what i was looking at.  There was a lot of terrific fantasy artwork on the covers and interiors: people wielding swords and magic, fighting monsters, exploring dangerous environments...sort of like the stuff i was pretending to do with my friends.  If only my family knew how many times we delved into open drain pipes or traversed the eroding shoreline of Lake Erie near where i grew up...but don't blame D&D and Tom Hanks for my behavior - i was doing that stuff before i'd ever heard of RPGs.

My brother had the classic "red box" set of rules, which was like the original game, as well as the follow up rules for higher level play:

Boy was i hooked.  i used to sit by and watch him play with his friends while they rolled dice, made graph paper maps, fought monsters and villains, and collect treasures and riches all night long.  It wasn't too long before i got my own friends to start playing.  i'll never forget the first time we played.  My friend Paul was the Dungeon Master.  While exploring an underground complex, we found a treasure chest.  We opened it up and out popped a white dragon.  i distinctly remember both my friend Aaron and me reacting with disbelief.  Not shock like "uh-oh we're in trouble now!"  More like an incredulous feeling.  We went with it, but that was a lesson in continuity for sure.  Obviously we're talking about a game with fantasy elements, but it's still got to maintain some semblance of internal reality.  True, there's magic involved.  But still...a full grown dragon emerging suddenly from a small chest?  Come on.  It wasn't too long after that when Paul lost interest, so Aaron and i continued gaming with only the two of us.  We took turns DMing and we both had our own characters too: Zorax the thief and Mordecai the fighter.  If i recall correct, eventually they wound up taking a trip to the Abyss and defeating every named evil overlord in the Monster Manual, who all happened to be having a sit-down meeting at a conference room in hell.  After that, there was only one place left to go:

That's right.  They became cosmic gods.

From that point, wow...i've played or at least read through the rules of i can't even tell you how many different RPGs.  For some reason the rulebooks always fascinated me and i used to read them casually like they were novels or something.  Let's see there was: Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Rifts, Talislanta (where my obsession with coffee began), Robotech, Elric!, Vampire: The Masquerade (and the other World of Darkness series), The Wheel of Time, Paranoia, Toon, Gangbusters, Call of Cthulhu, DC Heroes, Champions, Marvel Superhero RPG, Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplay, Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness, Villians and Vigilantes, Shadowrun, and probably some more but that's all i can think of right now.

i bet if you ask anyone who's ever playing a tabletop RPG who no longer does, they'd tell you every once in a while they feel an itch to do so again.  It's definitely a bug that has infected quite a few people.  As we get older and more settled in our lives, the opportunities to game seem to grow more and more distant.  Setting aside many hours at a time on a regular basis to get together with a decent sized group of people can be pretty difficult.  A couple of times over the years i've joined some gaming groups but, at least for me, it doesn't last too long.  You start missing a few get-togethers and you're pretty quickly out of the loop.  It's also challenging to get a group of disparate people together whose only connection is through this game and not get bogged down with disagreements, long discussions, debates over the rules, and different playstyles that can make a session very drawn out and boring.

For example, the most recent experience i had with RPGs was a few years ago.  My friend Brett and i responded to an ad posted at the comic book shop from a gaming group looking to expand.  For a while it was pretty fun because both the guy who ran it and his wife were our age and they were unabashed geeks with a garage dedicated to gaming.  They had a huge table with a grid pattern for mapping, thousands of miniatures and set pieces, every D&D book printed, and a good size group of about a dozen people.  But after a while we realized that every Friday night when we got together, we barely did anything.  One guy was a "rules lawyer" who had to flip through books to reference rules every time someone took an action.  One guy got progressively more drunk as the night went on.  Everyone had different ideas of how they wanted to play, and logistically, waiting for a dozen other people to take a turn plus the DM to handle everything else took a really long time.  So for instance we could spend 3 hours on a single encounter, but each person only really got to participate maybe 5 or 6 times.  Pretty boring.

Overall though, my experience with RPGs has been one of great fondness.  Like CCGs, they are a lot about the numbers and maybe the logical part of my brain responds to that combination of numbers and imaginative elements.  It's almost like a practical way to organize or explain fantastical things.  And again, it's about storytelling.  More specifically it's group storytelling.  All the players are active participants in creating a larger-than-life tale of heroism with drama and danger.  i've always liked collaborating with other people more than working on something all on my own.  i suppose the exception is this blog but this is just me rambling, something i could do for quite some time as readers will know my dislike for brevity.

Another thing i like about RPGs is that, in the context of a game, there is a clear goal and a clear obstacle to that goal.  So often in life, and especially in our modern era where there are so many problems, people get lost and discouraged just trying to find some way to start tackling them.  But in RPGs there is always the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) that defines everything that is wrong with their world or situation.  Defeat the BBEG and normalcy is renewed.  So as it pertains to escapism, maybe that's the lesson we can take away from RPGs.  Not that we should slay the perpetrator of wickedness, but maybe that we should really make an effort to identify what is the root of a problem and find new or creative ways to overcome it.

It's healthy to escape from our world into one of your imagination.  Just don't linger there too long and forget that you're there to learn, and grow, and bring something back to make the real world a better place.

Before i go today, here's a short clip of Gary Gygax in cartoon form from the show Futurama.  Originally i planned to have this at the beginning of this post, but damned if i could not find a clip of just the part i wanted.  In the episode, when the characters meet Gygax, he introduces himself and rolls a pair of dice to determine his feelings about the meeting.  According to the die roll, he was pleased to meet them.  But all i could find was this clip of the show's creators talking about Gygax, and there's some snippets from the show too.  If anyone has a link to just the part i'm looking for, let me know.  Thanks, and thanks for reading!

Oh, and also please notice i've added links over to the right.  One of them is called "My Personal Atonement" and there is a new post today, as there is every Wednesday.  It is a powerful account that i hope everyone checks out.

*Wet Hot American Summer is set in 1981, when the AD&D 1st Edition was current.  In that edition, Druids are a subclass of Cleric with their own spell list.  There is no 5th level Charm Spell on that list.  There is a 2nd level spell "Charm Person or Mammal" that is available upon reaching level 2.  It's power is not affected by a druid's character class level however.

Art Contest!

i don't recall where this image comes from.  i came across it years and years ago and for whatever reason it spoke to me on some deep level.  It's been transferred from computer to computer, on flash drives and whatnot and it's starting to degrade a little bit.  If i increase the size it's way too pixelated.  Basically it's getting to the point where it will be largely unusable.

So my challenge, or request depending on how you look at it, to you is thus: recreate this image digitally for me.  i don't care if it is the same colors or style or whatever.  The elements i enjoy the most and consider essential are: the suit, the raised index finger, and the head that is a fuse/lantern/lightbulb/whatever-the-hell-that-thing-is (by the way - what is that?  anyone know?).

i can't really offer any prize to you but if you need incentive, tell you what: i will make a gallery here of all the images i get and showcase them.  in that regard, please include your name/identity with whatever you send me so i can make sure to properly attribute you.

that's it!  i guess it's not really a "contest" per se, but that did cleverly draw you in didn't it?  thank you in advance to any artists out there who can help me out.  i'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with!

email picture files to me here: doug.vehovec@gmail.com

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Escapism: Collectible Card Games: a game played using specially designed sets of playing cards that combine the appeal of collecting with strategic gameplay.

i like to think of these sorts of games as chess on steroids.  In chess, each player has six distinct pieces that all move on the 64-square checkered board in their own way.  In CCGs, sometimes called TCGs (trading card games), each player has a pool of potentially thousands to choose from in designing a deck to play with.  Each game has a fundamental set of rules that includes the win condition, different categories of cards, and how they interact with each other.

The progenitor of CCGs is a game called Magic: The Gathering.  It was designed by Richard Garfield when he was a graduate student studying combinatorial mathematics and introduced in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast, a hugely successful publisher of games.  My guess is that Garfield's knowledge of this sort of math is key to the game's success.  i'm not going to delve into combinatorics too deeply because frankly i don't even understand many of the terms used to describe what it is.  Suffice to say it deals a lot with numerical structures in finite systems and algorithmic analysis.  Since CCGs boil down to a numbers game, it's no wonder the granddaddy of them all is still wildly popular today.

In fact, i've been playing M:TG in some form or another since 1994.  My brother and a friend of his had gotten into it right off the bat and introduced it to me.  i was hooked immediately and it's still just as interesting and fascinating to me now as it was back then.  Come to think of it, that could be said of a lot of the topics i plan to cover as escapism.  Never thought about that before.  Thanks bro!

Anyway, i'm going to primarily focus on M:TG here because it's the one i'm most familiar with and enjoy the most.  Feel free to add your own thoughts on any others that you've heard of or enjoy.  There's quite a few out there.  Those of you with kids might even know a thing or two about Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh.

The back of every M:TG card tells you a little about the game.  See those colored dots in the center?  That's the Color Wheel.  It represents the five colors of magic: white, blue, black, red, and green.  There's some other card types outside of these but primarily all cards fall (there are over 20K unique cards - if you've got a definite number let me know!) into one of these colors, which each have thematic styles.

Gameplay in CCGs is based around managing your resources.  This usually includes things like your starting total of points (or health/life/endurance), your hand, your attack and defense, etc.  As players take their turns, the output of resources increases, which allows for more powerful cards to be played.

What i enjoy most about CCGs is probably deck design, maybe even more than playing the actual game.  Designing a deck is where you get to manipulate the two things that factor heavily in gameplay: skill and luck.  

Most games have a minimum number of cards that must be included in a deck.  At the start of a game decks are shuffled and a hand drawn, with additional cards drawn at the start of each turn, the number of which is determined by the rules of the particular game.  In that sense, like a traditional playing card game, there's a huge element of luck or randomness in that you don't know what you're going to get.  Typically, in CCGs you are limited to a certain maximum number of any particular card in the deck as well (usually four).  That way, a player can't stack a deck with so many of the same card that you would essentially ensure having them every single time.  In other words you can't play with a deck full of aces.  You play by the luck of the draw.

Designing a deck gives you a chance to manipulate the odds of that luck.  For example, there are cards that allow you to draw extra cards, or search through your deck for a particular card.  Basically to do things that break the rules.  With such a large card pool to choose from, you can imagine how many interactions between cards are possible.  i won't say it's incalculable but at the same time i'm no combinatorialist.  To use our chess analogy, it would be like if you had a piece that let you move a pawn diagonally, or allowed you to move two pieces on your turn instead of one.

What i like most about deck designing is the sense i get that what i'm building is representing me.  That's not an inherent part of it as a function of the rules, but it's the feeling i get anyway.  In all the CCGs that i've played, i like to find out-of-the-ordinary card interactions, and i like to use cards with artwork that appeals to me, and i like to sort of tell a story with a deck.  i think that tells a little something about me.  In M:TG i prefer to use the color blue, which in the game is the color of intellect, reason, logic, and knowledge.

To me, CCGs represent a form of subculture.  There was a time when i would bring my deck everywhere with me.  It kind of reminds me of Chinese wuxia literature, the concept of a culture of adventuring men and women who traveled around and engaged each other in combat with their distinctive styles.  To that end i've always worked to create that "perfect deck" that would be effective against anyone else's strategy.  If i'm honest i think i've done a fairly good job at doing that over the last few years.  i don't win every time, but pretty often.  It's not a physical deck though, just a virtual one that i've built online.  If you're interested, you can download the client for free through Wizards of the Coast.  Maybe we'll meet up someday and play against each other.

The world of CCGs has some practical merit too.  A lot of these games have vibrant tournament environments.  Although it has decreased over the years, there was a time when World Tournaments for M:TG and other games had prize payouts of $1 million dollars.  For playing a card game!  In 2011, World Championship prize payout for M:TG was $45,000.  Still not bad for playing a game.  If i'm not mistaken, you also have to win a few tournaments on the road to that World as well, and those also have cash prizes.  Many are the times over the years that i've daydreamed about being a professional CCG gamer.  Just thinking about it right now as i'm writing this is making the wheels turn in my imagination.  Sure, it sounds risky and crazy...but so do most other aspirations.

Anyway, what i'd like to leave you with in terms of the relationship between escapism and CCGs is to reinforce the idea that escapism is not wholly a negative concept.  i brought that up in my initial discussion of it and i believe this look at CCGs bears that out.  While it is true that, like any game, CCGs give you an opportunity to step outside the real-world stuff we deal with every day, there's something to be learned there.  These are games based on complex math that involve critical thinking in everything from designing the deck you play with to calculating what your opponent might do.  They provide social interaction and camaraderie.  And for some they even provide a means of income.  And perhaps most important, they're fun.  A typical match only takes about 15 minutes to play.  With my free time being so limited these days between school, and work, and homework, and keeping up with things at home, CCGs are little oases in the day.  i might not have hours at a time to relax or escape into a different world through books, movies, video games, or the like.  But i can squeeze in a match or two most afternoons.

Hmmm...i might just flop some cards right now.  Maybe i'll see you there.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Escapism: habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine.

i'd like to make a few entries on the various forms of escapism that i enjoy.  Before i get to that though, i figured it's a good idea to think about the concept generally.  What it means, the positives and negatives, and so forth.

A further elaboration on the definition is that escapism is a means to avoid what we perceive as unpleasant or banal aspects of life.  It is often attributed to an avoidance to or relief from depression or general sadness.

i don't agree with that assessment.  Certainly, that is encompassed in the overall definition, but to characterize escapism as purely a mechanism of depression relief i think neglects a broader view.

Do you think this image belies an avoidance of real-life problems?  i don't.  To me it suggests that escapism can be grounded in reality, but take you somewhere you might not otherwise have been able to go.  Maybe what you find through escapism enhances what is real.  Or brings you to a place where you have a new perspective on reality.  You might wonder why someone would have a desire to escape from the picturesque scene shown here.  Maybe the view from the top of that ladder shows you how beautiful the vista is from a different vantage point.

For those who engage in the creation of escapism material, it's certainly not a bad thing.  J.R.R. Tolkien said in an essay that escapism has an element of emancipation through it's attempt to figure a different reality.  i can buy that.  Reality, for what it's worth, is defined largely by our choices.  Look at it this way: throughout all of time, there are very good things that happen all the time, and there are very bad things that happen all the time.  If you choose to zero in on only the bad things, chances are your reality is going to be pretty grim.  So perhaps escaping into different realities like fantasy literature for example, gives you a chance to look at things differently and understand that despite what may seem like an overwhelmingly negative world actually does have good things and good people who champion them.

His friend and colleague C.S. Lewis was more than happy to point out that the enemy of escape was a jailer.  So can it really be all that bad?

By the way, i'd like to point out here that quite a bit of reference that i use is from Wikipedia.  i know a lot of people scoff at that as a less-than-ideal reference source but i disagree.  It's not without flaws, but as an aggregate of our shared knowledge, what's the harm in using it as a resource?  Even in school, where it 's specifically discouraged most of the time, there's an easy way around that: citation.  That's what all those superscript numbers are, and there's handy links at the bottom of each page that bring you to the source material.

So anyway, if you don't feel inclined to read more about escapism there, i'll let you know that social critics often warn that controlling powers can use escapism as a means to further or hold on to that control.  This is where the idea of religion as the "opium of the people" comes from.  It's also prevalent in lots of dystopian stories, where those in power use television or similar constructs to pacify the greater population.  Galouye's Simulacron-3 that i mentioned a couple posts ago is sort of like that.  And i'm sure you already thought of The Matrix, which all but hit you over the head with the notion.

Even this blog you're reading is a form of escapism.  Is that so bad?  There's plenty of other things i could be doing that are more productive right now: working ahead for my classes, ironing my work clothes, scrubbing the bathroom sink.  On the other hand...

In light of that, i definitely don't see this exercise as an escape from unhappiness.  In fact it's the complete opposite.  In general i consider myself an unusually happy person.  Today my escape is in sharing that with you.  We all need those things that stimulate the parts of our minds that maybe don't get worked out that much when we're so busy with all the normal stuff.

In the next few entries i'll discuss some of my favorite forms of escapism.  My guess is i won't be alone in those pursuits.  What are some of yours?  There's a good chance that reading blogs is one.  What are some others?  Feel free to let me know: that's what the comments boxes are for.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Space, part 3

Wow i can't believe i failed to mention some huge space news from this week:

Unless you've been living under a rock, which apparently a few people i've encountered today have been (along with my brain for forgetting to include this earlier) you'd know that Felix Baumgartner broke a few records this week with the Red Bull Stratos jump.

He surpassed the highest manned ballon flight record set in 1961 with his nearly three hour ascent to 128, 097 feet (the old record was 113,740 - pretty impressive for 51 years ago).

He eclipsed the highest freefall record by over three miles when he opened his chute at 8251 feet above sea level.  That's a freefall of 119,846 feet.

And his biggest record?  Being the first human in freefall to break the sound barrier by reaching 833.9 miles per hour, or Mach 1.24.

i can't imagine what that must have felt like to stand there looking at the curvature of the Earth.  My one experience sky-diving was scary enough and that was only 12,000 feet up.  i should note though, the scary part was sitting in a rinky-dink plane that arrived at the air field on the back of a truck.  i was more than ready to jump by the time we did.  Falling from the sky seemed preferable to sitting in the craft made of metal so thin it felt like i could put my fist through it.  And it got pretty freakin' cold up there too.  There was no hesitation on my part when it came time to step off into the clouds.  Doesn't seem like "Fearless" Felix waited too long either.

Speaking afterwards, the daredevil jumper said that when he was standing up there, he wasn't thinking about breaking records or the scientific data that his jump would result in.  He said it was just humbling.

That's really what it's all about isn't it?  Those moments in our lives when we truly see the big picture of things and realize we're just floating around on this big rock with whatever time is alloted to us.

Why waste it on petty things and negativity?
Space, part 2

Since space is theoretically limitless, i don't think anyone will begrudge me a second installment about it.  Even the space here on the Internet is essentially without limit so no worries there.  Time, on the other hand, is a factor here, as i have to move myself through space a short time from now.

i watched Prometheus last night, and found it to be a really great film.  My only criticism is that, like a lot of sci-fi prequels, there's that weird situation where the events that happen earlier in time are so much more advanced looking.  Alien, et.al, was gritty, with scruffy, ragged characters and equipment.  But here in the prequel everything is clean and much more hi-tech looking.  Also, how come they were able to land the ship on the planet here, but in Alien they had to use those dropships?  Continuity, people!

Maybe in the 83 years between Prometheus and Alien things went to pot.  Perhaps we'll find out in the prequel sequels.

Anyway, pretty frickin' good movie.  i really liked the David character played by Michael Fassbender.  While watching it i started thinking he was villainous, but had to keep reminding myself he's a robot.  His actions seem full of deception and so forth, but really he's just following his programming and maintaining pretty standard scientific perspectives.

There's so many cool things about space and science and fiction.  A few years ago i got really into Philip K. Dick and other sci-fi novels of that era.  It is fascinating and creepy how much of what they wrote about is true today, in some form or another.  Often, their outlook on a grim future is actually tame by today's comparison.  Ever read Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye?  There's a movie based on that book called The Thirteenth Floor too.  Anyway, it's basically about how a virtual world is developed primarily for marketing research.  Sounds kind of familiar huh?  How about Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Dick.  One of the central themes there is that, if your identity is removed for the system, do you really exist anymore?

i'd like to think that our future will be more Roddenberry-esque utopian.  As a matter of fact, Star Trek to this day is one of the few examples of a sci-fi future that is not dystopian.  And yet, so much of our technology is rooted in that franchise.  i saw a documentary a few years ago about that.  It was a good example of how science fiction informs science fact.  A lot of young people who grew up watching those shows became engineers and scientists because they wanted to make what they saw a reality.

i also wanted to mention something in support of my previous post in regards to Earth's place of importance in the universe.  A friend and i were talking years ago about why in fiction, Earth is always in danger but also the place where threats are vanquished.  It is our contention that it lies in our diversity.  In most works of fiction involving extraterrestrial civilizations, they are shown to be more advanced and superior to us.  And yet, or maybe because of this, everyone in their culture wears identical or nearly identical outfits.  But here on Earth, we all have our own style.  Sure there are military uniforms and regional styles, but the point was that not everyone on the planet dresses alike.  We came up with a great line based on this phenomenon too.  At the climax of the story, when the alien threat realizes us humans are going to win, they'll wonder aloud how this could possibly be.  And our hero will proudly exclaim:

"Because this is Earth, and we don't all dress the same."

<please don't steal that line>

Well, crap.  Looks like time is running short today.  i may revisit "Space" again.  There's certainly no shortage of it.  Before i go today though, i'll leave you with some pics and vids about space that i think are cool.  Maybe you will also.


Until later, different time, same space...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Space: the boundless, three-dimensional extent in which objects and events occur and have relative position and direction.

Hubble's Sharpest View of the Orion Nebula

Usually i take the first image that comes up from a search of the topic word, but today i visited the Hubble Telescope site
instead.  There is, of course, a huge amount of pictures there.  The Hubble Space Telescope has been travelling through space since 1990, sending back information about our vast universe.

i spent a good deal of time today reading about the possibilities of life in the universe.  My goal was to write an opinion piece for the student newspaper at Cleveland State University, The Cauldron.  It's not the official university paper, rather it's one that is run entirely by students.  There is a faculty adviser though.  He's a real cool guy that is my professor for Advanced Reporting, Ed Horowitz.  Anyway, i've got a feeling the piece won't make the cut because it's too long.  i tend to do that.  Brevity isn't really my thing.  So rather than leave it sitting around as a dusty file on my computer, i'll share it here with you:


When I was a child attending Catholic elementary school, I was taught that God created Man in his image.  The implication was that Man was the only being of its kind, the sole form of intelligent life in the universe.  At the time, being the rebellious and non-faithful sort that I am, I scoffed at the notion.  Across the hall in science class we were learning that the universe was vast and seemingly limitless, and I’m supposed to believe there’s but a single planet with intelligent life?  The very idea was preposterous.
For at least two decades I stuck to those guns.  A steady diet of science fiction provided at least enough theoretical ammunition to keep that perspective loaded.  But somewhere in my 20’s my opinion on the matter changed.  Maybe it was as simple a matter as asking: “What if we really are the only intelligent beings in the cosmos?”  Certainly, the body of science fiction seems to suggest it.  Take away all the fiction, and what you get is a common theme in sci-fi literature and films: the buck stops here, on Earth.  An argument can be made that such stories are crafted that way to appeal to the audience, sure.  Let’s suppose for the sake of this piece at least that they’re not.
We’ll get to my personal opinion on the matter in a moment.  Before we do, let’s get some scientific perspective.  There already exists a scientific position of the lack of intelligent life beyond Earth.  It’s called the Fermi paradox.  The concept is named after the Italian-born, naturalized American physicist Enrico Fermi who, while discussing extraterrestrial theories in 1950, asked his colleagues, “where are they?”  The basic premise lies in the apparent contradiction between the high probability of extraterrestrial civilizations’ existence and the lack of contact with such civilizations.
The concept was further developed in the 1960’s by Dr. Frank Drake. He developed a mathematical equation, aptly called Drake’s equation, to estimate the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy.  The equation is still used today and the current estimate, despite all the technological advancements since the time of its development, is one.
Professor Andrew Watson of the University of East Anglia has conducted similar research.  His own mathematical formula for the evolution of intelligent life, published in 2008 in the journal Astrobiology, is consistent with the rarity probability.  In fact, his research is applied to the larger scope of the universe beyond our galaxy.  In his model, the chances for the emergence of intelligent life are less than 0.01 percent over four billion years.
This sort of research and my personal opinion gelled for me a few weeks ago.  I read an article that posed the question “could the Internet ever ‘wake up’?”  The article focused on the work of neuroscientist Christof Koch, the chief scientific officer at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle.  In his book Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist, he makes a correlation between the human brain and the Internet.  Based on his calculations, the Internet is a more complex system than the human brain – by a lot.  Written mathematically, the brain has 1015 of synapses while the Internet has 1018, or a thousand times more.
What does the Internet have to do with intelligent life in the universe?  This is where my opinion comes in, and maybe a little religion too.  Let’s suppose that humans are the sole beings in the universe with higher order thinking.  This seems consistent with traditional religious thought.  We were made, created, or evolved as sort of extended sensory organs.  We can think and feel and perceive the universe in a way our predecessors could not.  Throughout history, we have wondered “why am I here?”  We’ve developed scientific processes to help us understand, and we’ve come to learn that our time on this planet is finite.  We know that someday, the nearby star will consume us.
We’ll have to find somewhere else to live, but we know that a journey like that will take time, resources, and technology.  And even if we had all those things in abundance, would it be feasible for the entire population of Earth to migrate to the stars?  Maybe.  On the other hand, it’s possible that we’ll reach a point in time when we are faced with the inevitability that we can’t do that.
Fortunately, we seem to have developed an answer to that: the Internet!  We’re learning that this network is becoming even more complex than our own brains.  It has stored all our accumulated knowledge and may one day become cognizant of itself as an entity.  It can even “feel” in its own way.  An individual computer or node cannot feel pleasure or pain, but neither can a single nerve cell.  Taken as a whole on the other hand, with billions of others, it suddenly has the capability to experience the world.  Upon waking, it would find itself as the sole being of its kind.
Who better to explore this vast universe, potentially devoid of intelligent life?  A being that has no need of sleep, or food, or any of the needs we understand as humans.  A being that would go forth into the cosmos and multiply, so that it could share its experiences with others of its kind.  A being that would have myths and stories about its creator, who brought it forth from nothingness in its own image, imparted knowledge and the freedom to do with it as it wished, and set it outside paradise to find its way in the universe.

Note that the above piece deviates from my earlier stance on the capitalization of "i" as a nominative pronoun.  The piece was for publication and sometimes one must conform to certain standards.  That is, until one establishes themselves professionally at which point i'll be able to use "i" and it will just be kitschy and endearing.

Some other stuff today: there's a new installment of a friend's blog about redemption and atonement.  If you didn't check it out before, why not now?  It's powerful stuff.  You'd be helping him and helping yourself too.

i also mentioned last week about second chances that i'd follow up on one of my own later.  At the time, my employment was up in the air due to some silly crap at my job.  i was waiting to find out what the result would be when i wrote that and i didn't want to jinx anything.  Turns out i'm a persuasive fellow and there was some reconsideration.  Result: i still have a job, which is very relieving.  Don't get me wrong, i still don't like working.  But i don't like having no income even more.  99% of the reason i went back to school was so i could get a job doing work i enjoy.  Which as we've all heard isn't really work at all.  In that way, i like to think i'd be honoring the memory of a friend's dead granddad, Pops, whose immortal words i shall never forget:
"Put off work as long as you can."

Monday, October 8, 2012

Time: the measured or measurable period during which an action, process, or condition exists or continues.

That's just one of over a dozen different definitions of time.  Strange concept, time.  Philosophers and scientists (are they all that different?) have some contrasting views of time.  One is that time, as a dimension of sequential events, is a fundamental part of the universe as we know it.  Another is that it's a fundamental part of human intellect that we use to compare events along a sequence.

That second view will make anyone interested in time travel unhappy.  If time is neither an event nor a thing, but an intellectual construct, then it cannot by traveled.

Right now i'm thinking about time, and how i'd like some more of it.  If time is indeed a part of our structured universe, then it must be able to be manipulated in some way.  That brings up a lot of interesting ideas.  Time travel, as mentioned above, is one.  Beyond that though, maybe it is possible for other forms of energy to transform into some sort of chronal energy?  If so, i certainly would like to do that today.  That way i'd have more time right now to explore the fascinating concept of time.  As it is, time is short and other duties demand what there is left of it today.

At any rate, i believe a thanks is in order, to you.  Here you are, with the same amount of time in your day as everyone else, and the sequential events of your day include stopping here to read about time, however briefly.  i wish that i had more time to share with you.  But alas, as it is relative, i have relatively little time remaining to head out the door to work.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Second Chance: Opportunity to try something again.  Another try after a mistake or failure.

Interestingly enough, "Second Chance" is also the title of numerous films, songs, television shows, episodes of television shows, books, albums, body armor, algorithms, and a prison rehabilitation program.  i'm sure there's more, but that's all Wikipedia had under the disambiguation listing for the term.

So it seems pretty obvious that the concept of a second chance is something a lot of humans share.  The idea of arbitrary failure with no opportunity to give it another go is anathema to the old adage you only live once.  If i understand correct, there's even a popular meme (see #YOLO).


Okay so maybe there's some argument as to the validity of the sentiment.  On the other hand, i suppose you can look at it this way: that our lives are linear.  Even if the above statement courtesy of Dwight K. Schrute is valid and correct, it does acknowledge that we are continually moving forward in time.  Of course if time travel is ever invented, we'll have to re-examine our position.  Although, as a friend of mine recently posited, "if time travel is or will ever be possible, wouldn't there always have been time travelers running around all over the place?"  That was one of the rare times where i could think of no plausible response.  You stumped me @Pet_the_Dog

Anyway, so yeah, second chances have popped up a couple of times this week already.  On the most recent episode of Flipping Out, Jeff Lewis stated that he believes in second chances because he'd been given so many in his life after mistakes and failures.

The younger brother of an old high school friend started a blog about his own second chances.  He posts every Wednesday from the Richland Correctional Institution.  i recommend checking it out.  Dude is seriously eloquent and thoughtful.  Here's a link:

i personally have two second chance scenarios in my life this week.  The first one i'll explain more about in the coming days.  It may turn out that it's not a second chance after all.  How it all pans out is still up in the air.

The second involves the very first amateur spec script i ever wrote, back in 2002.  A friend and i worked our asses off writing and rewriting it and learning how to write something like that along the way.  And damn if we weren't proud as hell of it and sent it off to quite a few studios and production companies.

They all rejected it.

We have always been suspicious of one in particular, who released a movie a couple of years later with the tagline "For some men, the sky is the limit.  For him, it was just the beginning."  Suspicious because that was the tagline for our film!  We made lemonade though, reasoning that even if they stole our idea, it was a good idea!

The second chance here emerged in a roundabout way.  That same friend who wrote the script with me recently posted a link on FB to a Fats Domino song "There Goes My Heart Again."  

That song was on our imaginary soundtrack to the film at a critical point in the story, and i commented on that.  He had forgotten all about that.  In fact, over the years we've talked less and less but every once in a while we'll get a bug to work on something together.  Out comes that old idea, the first real solid idea we had.  We decided to give it a second chance.  It's been a long time, and we've both learned a lot more about structure and techniques and stuff.  So we'll see what happens.  Maybe nothing, maybe something spectacular.  At any rate, it's an opportunity to try something again.