Monthly Archives: November 2011

Plum Island Thanksgiving

On Saturday Abbey, her Mom and I visited the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, a 4,700 acre reserve that is a playground for migratory birds on Plum Island, near Newburyport, MA:

While we weren’t quite there on Thanksgiving itself, we did, as you can see above, cross paths with wild turkeys, which is pretty darn seasonal. The reserve is on an 11-mile long barrier island, with, accordingly, a beach side:

 And a marshy inlet side:

Other than the turkeys, a beautiful pair of Mute Swans that reminded me of the Palace of Fine Arts Lagoon, and a black cat on a fencepost as we were leaving when it was unfortunately way too dark to show up on film, we didn’t see particularly exotic wildlife, but it sure was pretty:


 Besides which, a guy just likes spending time with his gal and her Mom.


P.S. Bonus extra credit for anyone who can positively ID the following plant, and tell me if I will drop dead if I eat the berries:


America’s Stonehenge 978-Newt 130


 A quick one here, holiday week and all. I’ve been looking for appropriate sites to display some of my blog content on. Accordingly, I posted my recent blog on Newt Gingrich’s polling rise to the 2012 elections board on Reddit.com.

Reddit is a pretty groovy place in terms of aggregating news and content from a variety of sites in a user-moderated environment. The Newt piece got some decent traffic, so I decided to post my recent America’s Stonehenge column in their paranormal section.

The results? The Newt Gingrich post has generated 130 pageviews. America’s Stonehenge? 978! Does this say something about the relative online audience for news of the Paranormal versus Presidential elections?

P.S.- Over 1,100 page views between them, and still only one comment on either blog. What’s a brother got to do to get some reader interaction going?!?

Republican Booms and Busts

Oddly, I’m not talking about the business cycle here. Instead, I’m talking about the following phenomenon (provided courtesy of the “poll of polls” updated daily at Real Clear Politics):

That green line now reaching for the sky on the far right (all appropriate puns intended) is Newt Gingrich, currently enjoying a popularity boom in the polls tracking candidates for the Republican nomination. As you’ll see to the left, the same thing has previously happened to Michelle Bachmann (black), Rick Perry (blue) and Herman Cain (red). Mitt Romney (purple), meanwhile, remains remarkably range-bound, never lower than 15%, never much higher than 25%, as various opponents shoot up and fade away.

Now I’m hardly the first person to notice this. But, lover of figures and charts that I am, Gingrich’s path along the same boom as his predecessors made me wonder if there’s any regularity to the pattern. Curious, I tracked the timing of the beginning of the surge, reaching peak, and start of drop-off of the last three candidates:

It was interesting to see that, while the three boomlets so far have taken different amounts of time to reach a peak, that amount of time from peak to beginning of steep drop was remarkably similar. It makes me wonder if there’s some kind of structure to media saturation, boredom and vicious turn, such that the newscycle of three weeks is inherently how long you can stay on top once you get there. Even more fun, since we can spot on the polling graph the date of the beginning of Gingrich’s surge, it’s actually possible to predict the timing of his peak and fall based on the average of the last three:

So, if his cycle follows the average of the last three candidates, he’ll reach his polling high on December 2nd, and begin a steep drop-off December 23rd. Which won’t be a great Christmas present for him. Even worse giving the following dates:

1/3/12    Iowa
1/10/12  New Hampshire
1/21/12  South Carolina
1/31/12  Florida

In other words, his peak of popularity will likely come (and start to end) too early to translate into success in the first primaries and caucuses. Which would leave the consistently medium Mitt Romney again on top just as the voting starts, giving him the nomination despite GOP voters’ obvious equally consistent search for someone they’re more excited about than him. A lot of people have thought all along that this is the most likely outcome, and I tend to agree. But I can imagine a few reasons Newt’s experience might be different:

1. Everything tends to slow down over the holidays, and media cycles are probably no exception. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s just might stretch out the cycle enough that Newt is still at or near the top when voting starts.

2. If you look at the above dates, one thing that can be clearly seen is that, in each case the next comer was already starting to climb a few days before the previous person started to plunge. In other words, the “anybody but Romney vote” has probably remained consistent, and just looks for someone new to transfer to. This might work for Newt because there’s nobody else left. Bachmann, Perry and Cain have all had their day, Huntsman is too centrist for the field, Santorum has never gotten more than 2-3%, and Ron Paul is Ron Paul. Of course, someone new could get in, but this would be difficult at this point given early primary filing dates being closed or soon closing. So, the opposition to Romney might have to stick with Gingrich now, for better or for worse. 

3. A large part of what’s happened with the last three anti-Romneys is that they were still relatively unknown to a general audience, and the inevitable airing of their dirty laundry (plus just letting people hear the ridiculous kinds of things they say) started to pull down their popularity shortly after its surge. Gingrich has plenty of negatives, but they’re well known both in the party and among the public in general. If primary voters are liking him now, it’s not like they’re about to find out things they didn’t know that will make them reconsider.

Mind you, these are just reasons he might not totally self-incinerate before the voting starts in January. All this might really mean is that Romney is left with a somewhat credible opponent at that point. With his funding, organization, and consistent hanging in there, he’s still likely to be the nominee in fairly short order.

Which leaves us all with the shudder-inducing possibility that we could have a general-election that de facto begins by, say, April 1. Seven months of gaffes and spin and irresponsible rhetoric, saints preserve us all… 

I love packages from Amazon!

Even when, no, especially when, like this one, I already know what’s in them. Birthday and holiday gift cards are a beautiful thing, because they allow me to go on shopping sprees for things that have been piling up in the back of my mind for a while.

Sometimes, like in this case, I enjoy giving it my shopping expeditions a thematic spin. My purchases were:

The Big Book of Conspiracies I got the The Big Book of the Unexplained several years ago, I think in the excellent used comics section at Aardvark Books in the Castro in SF. Ever since then, I’ve been on the lookout for this volume on conspiracy theories from the same series. The basic format is a series of short articles on different topics, all written by the same person but illustrated by different comic artists for each section. The BBotU certainly alerted me to some aspects of the paranormal that I hadn’t known about previously, while also reacquainting me with some old friends. I’m looking forward to the same here. Despite the obviously tongue-in-cheek presentation in terms of form, the content is actually quite well cited. And there’s something about the juxtaposition that gets it further under the skin than reading or seeing something on TV alone would do. I’m also looking forward to the hours of joy in further researching online new things I run across in this book. I’ve found one can both do some instant debunking, and crawl further down the rabbit hole this way.

The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates This volume is co-authored by Loren Coleman, leading cryptozoologist and proprietor of the International Cryptozoology Museum that Abbey and I visited recently in Portland, Maine. It’s set up as a pretty straightforward field guide in some ways- illustrations, species descriptions, range maps, footprint outlines, etc. It just happens that the subject matter is a little more exotic and/or possibly nonexistent. Could come in handy, since I plan to doing a lot of tromping through the woods in these parts. Bonus question: Is the creature next to the book a mystery primate? I don’t know, but now that I have the field guide I can find out!

The Mysterious Monsters I am especially excited about this volume, as you can see. But hey, you’ve gotta understand! I got this book as a kid, around 10 years old, from a book fair at elementary school. The Mysterious Monsters in question are the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, and the book was actually pretty low on sensationalism and strongly evidence-focused in its treatment of the subject. This was one of my first forays into the world of the unexplained which, obviously, has had a lifelong effect on me. The beloved volume vanished at some point, along with a lot of things that were in my childhood room, as things from one’s childhood room will tend to do. Over the years I’ve tried to track it down, but was hobbled by the fact that I couldn’t remember two key pieces of information: the title, or the author’s name. I did try googling based on my recollection of content many times, but to no avail. And then, a week or so ago, for whatever reason, I found a combination of search terms that led me straight to it. I’m looking forward to re-reading it, and seeing what I make of it now that I’m about 4x as old as the first time I read it. Talk about unexplained phenomenon!

2012 Election: The Gaffe

As you may have heard, this guy is running for President again:

It will almost certainly be one of the four people in positions three through six below who will run against him:

It’s not looking like it will be easy for Obama. Incumbents usually win, but there are exceptions. The chief being that Presidents who have presided over a recession whose effects are still being felt usually lose. But there are also exceptions to that. Nate Silver, who is just about the most canny analyst out there, is putting the current odds of Obama being re-elected at roughly 50/50. However, I’m not here, at least today, to discuss his chances. I’m sure I’ll get around to that eventually, since presidential election seasons are to me what the football season is to the average American male. What I want to talk about today is the gaffe.

You know the one. Somebody says or does something a little silly. Maybe a lot silly. Rides in a tank and looks goofy. Gives a hoarse yell at a rally. Makes a comments that seems slightly pro-something they claim to be anti. Then it gets covered ad nauseam. In fact, this kind of moment will be what quite a lot of the presidential coverage ends up being about. Versus, say, a candidate’s policy positions. Their actual record of achievement, or lack thereof. The truthfullness of claims they make.

Because those things require time to report about, and time to listen to or read about. And some thought and concentration to actually follow. And the American attention-span has become more and more fragmented by each new media that has come along. It’s a little funny, since media bandwidth has exponeentially increased. But the average content of a single communication seems to decrease inversely, as more and more signals rush in to fill the bandwidth. Think of newspapers versus radio versus television versus the Internet circa 2000 versus social media now, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

So it is perhaps inevitable that short incidents with some entertainment value (i.e. “the gaffe”) will triumph over substance. But I don’t think it can be good for us as a Republic. Who out there wants to commit with me to try to ignore the gaffe and concentrate on the substance this go-around?   

   

Greetings from the International Cryptozoology Museum!

This past weekend Abbey and I went to the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. Cryptozoology, for those who may not be hip to the field, is the study of (as yet) unknown animals. In other words, the Zoology of animals that are not yet documented by science, but some day may be. Here to the left, for instance, is the cabinet for Yeti artifacts. The museum is the brainchild of Loren Coleman, who founded it in 2003 to house some of the many objects he’s collected in decades of work in the field. In-between teaching public policy and being one of the world’s foremost experts on the copycat suicide phenomenon, he’s spent a lot of time on the trail of unknown animals, and authored over 20 books on the subject.

Coleman is widely regarded as a serious and careful researcher, which befits Cryptozoology, since, of all the paranormal disciplines, this is the one that is most like conventional science. While there certainly are cryptids (unknown creatures) that seem supernatural, and researchers that specialize in the more paranormal aspect of the field, most people who work in it would say that these are animals that live, breathe, eat and poop like any others, it’s just that science hasn’t gotten a proper hold of them yet. The museum itself keeps a good balance of appropriate seriousness and whimsy. Like the giant beaver diorama to the right featuring guest appearances by Indiana Jones and Steve Irwin. Delightfully cute and silly. And yet, there were 8 foot long beavers around in North America as recently as 10,000 years ago, so who’s to say that in some remote mountain lakes in Canada or the U.S. West, surprises may not linger?

Bigfoot, of course, as the marquee North American cryptid, gets proper treatment here.  Besides posing for a picture with Abbey and I…


…there were some quite interesting displays on the footprints, hair samples and other leavings of our possible native ape. I also really enjoyed the cabinet of artifacts related to the 1967 Patterson film,  which is either a thorough fake, or some of the best evidence. I’ve gone back and forth on that question myself, but I have to say that lately computer enhancements and  scientific studies of the gait and body proportions of whatever’s walking in the film have me leaning towards “best evidence”.

The museum itself definitely doesn’t ignore hoaxes or issues of fakery. There are several exhibits devoted to the subject, one of the creepiest of which has to be the recreation to the left here of the Feejee Mermaid. Said “mermaid” was a fixture of P.T. Barnum’s traveling show. While the original was lost in the 1860s, the consensus is that it was probably the dried hairless remains of the upper half of a monkey sewed together with the lower half of a fish. More recent hoaxes and misidentifications are covered as well.      

And speaking of recent, Maine is apparently getting its very own cryptid sightings right up to the present day. The color-coded pins in the map to the right display the locations of sightings of various cryptids. Some are more prosaic, like the ongoing sightings of big cats that indicate that the Eastern Cougar may not be quite as extinct as advertised. Then there are your star cryptids, like lake/sea monsters and Bigfoot, of which there are actually a significant number of New England sightings. Abbey and I observed a cluster of pins in Baxter State Park and have accordingly decided to vacation there. My favorite, though, is the Specter Moose. It was apparently a huge whitish-gray moose with antlers that spanned ten feet wide, and was seen a lot around the turn of the last century. I hope he (or she (or descendants)) is still out there!

So, to sum up, cryptozoology is fun, and so is the museum. On top of which, Loren Coleman is there in person most days, and how often do you get to meet a real cryptozoologist? Plus, Portland is a beautiful town, with ridiculously pretty harbor views. Go visit when you have a chance!

     

10 Essential Sci-Fi Books

(from my Sci-Fi Book Club)
(and thoughts on 11 others)

One of the things I sorely miss about SF (the city, San Francisco) is my SF (the genre, Sci-fi) Book Club. We started in March 2008, taking turns each picking a book. Our membership waxed and waned from nearly 10 to barely 2 or 3 at times. We had periods where we met every 6 weeks like clockwork, then some others where we couldn’t get together a next meeting for months. Even in the face of all these starts and stops, we got through 21 books by the time I moved to the Boston Area in July 2011.

Despite being a very book kind of guy and card-carrying geek of multiple lineages (Star Trek, Star Wars, comics collector, D&D player, I could go on), I had actually never read much Sci-fi, so I was interested to see what was out there, and what I would think of it. From the admittedly not completely scientifc selection of the books picked by the guys and surprisingly large number of gals in our group, here’s my vote on a top 10, in alphabetical order (spoiler light beyond the basic premises, since I hate spoilers):

1. A Fire Upon the Deep  (Vernor Vinge, 1993) In full disclosure mode, I must note that this is one of the ones I picked. That being said, I really didn’t know a lot about it beyond being familiar with Vernor Vinge from his relationship to thought about the Singularity. It turned out to be a delight for the way it combined genres- at heart it’s a kind of horror story, with a really scary ultra-intelligence monster. But the story gets told in a unique Sci-fi setting (a race across across the galaxy, which turns out to be segregated by zones where intelligence, and even the laws of physics, are more advanced on the edge, and get duller toward the center). And a great deal of the action happens in what is basically a fantasy setting, full of castles and palace intrigue. Really well written, delightful all the way through, and provocative.

2. Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke, 1953) This was the third book we read, deservedly a classic. Clarke is a master of clear, simple prose. The book itself is the prototypical “saucers appear over every capital on Earth” story, and once you read it, you’ll see its influence everywhere. As far as what those saucers are doing there, who’s in them, and what they want with us, though, the thing I found most striking about the book was its originality, both at the time of publication, and still today almost 60 years later.

3. I, Robot (Isaac Asimov, 1950) Again, a classic, and one whose influence you’ll find everywhere you look. The thing that most impresses me about Asimov, though, is the warm humanity of the writing. The stories ring true not so much based on whether predictions about technology and future society are on target (though some of them are), but mostly because they are full of the author’s shrewd understanding of what people are like and why they do what they do. In the hands of someone else this could come off very cynical, but with Asimov it’s more of a wise, knowing, “Ah, yes, that’s who we are.”

4. Neuromancer  (William Gibson, 1984) Here is born cyberpunk. And happy birthday to it! In many ways, a chillingly plausible look at a world more technologically advanced, but more socially decayed. Did this foresee many aspects of the Internet, or actually influence its development? And seriously, could The Matrix pay some copyright for ripping off every element of character and visual design it had from this book (albeit with a very different storyline)? But beyond all the further thoughts I could unload about it, at heart it’s a damn well done film noir story thrust into the realm of cyberspace (a term it invented!).  

5. Revelation Space (Alastair Reynolds, 2000) All the books I’ve described so far do an excellent job with character, but I don’t think any of them get as deep into the psychology of their (often deeply flawed) main characters as this book does. Along the way, there’s horror, intrigue, skillful plotting as three widely divergent storylines converge, and high concept cosmic evolution. Given that so many of the works we read came from a Sci-fi heyday of the 50s to the 70s, this makes me glad to say: Well done, 2000s!

6. The Forever War (Joe Haldeman, 1974) When it first came out, this was a kind of parable about the Vietnam War told through the main character’s experience of a war lasting generations due to the time dilation between it’s far-flung battlefields. Nobody quite knows how the war is going, why we’re fighting, or even exactly who the enemy is. Sad to say, it has a whole new resonance thirty-five year later after our own decade-long Forever War Against Terror.

7. The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury, 1950) This was the book we kicked off with. As we should have, since it gave us the vital middle of the ABC “big three” of classic sci-fi (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke). In terms of science, the Mars it portrays was already badly outdated by the mid 60s, and throughout, the technology of how we get there and stay there is treated as an afterthhought. And that really doesn’t matter, because it functions on the level of fable- the things in it are true, because they’ve always been true. And that truth is suffused with some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful prose you will ever read.

8. The Mote In God’s Eye (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1974) There’s also some feudality here, in that there are lords and ladies in an interstellar monarchy. This turns out to be a feature of several of the books we read, a portrayal of human civilization becoming more feudal as it spreads out across multiple star systems. The focus of the action, though, is first contact with the Moties. I’ll leave it to you to find out all about them, but suffice it to say it is a superb portrayal of just how physically and culturally alien an alien race might turn out to be. Plus it’s just good, character-rich, well-plotted, fast-paced fun to read.

 

9. The Ophiuchi Hotline (John Varley, 1977) Set in a solar system that is now thoroughly inhabited (except for, curiously, but for good reasons, Earth) this book is rollicking good fun. It has everything you’d need for a good time- clones, aliens, spaceships, genetic engineering. It also delivers a future that seems quite plausible to me (especially the banana meat trees) despite how exotic it is. And it makes you think about just how little say we might have in the shape of our own future if there really are other intelligences and a higher cosmic order.

10. The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell, 1996) This could be exhibit A in the “Is literary fiction that happens to use Sci-fi themes or settings still Sci-fi?” argument. Or, conversely, “Can Sci-fi be ‘serious’ literature?” I’ve always thought it’s a bit of a silly distinction. Dickens and Shakespeare were, in their time, writing that day’s equivalents of potboilers. Meanwhile, many things that are supposed to be “important books” today will vanish in the mists of time, and thus prove to be quite as disposable as anything Danielle Steele ever wrote. Good writing is good writing, and time will tell what the enduring literature is. But this massively sidetracks us. A great book, literarily. And great sci-fi. Also one of my favorite kinds of sci-fi, near future, and involving first contact. Which turns out to be far less about the aliens, and far more about who we are and how we make meaning in life.

Honorable Mention (9 other good reads):
Berserker (Fred Saberhagen, 1967)– May man versus killer robot spaceships always be so fun.
Eon (Greg Bear, 1987)– I think about this one a lot, almost a top 10. Stunning ideas about future human evolution, with a time travel twist. Plus great use of Ralph Nader. Really.  
Flashforward (Robert J. Sawyer, 1999)– I told you that CERN supercollider would be trouble… 
IQ83 (Arthur Herzog, 1978)– A potboiler? Yes. But damn would it be fucked up if this happened.
Quarantine (Greg Egan, 1992)– While this didn’t make my top 10, I do think Egan is one of the finest, and most philosophically challenging, sci-fi writers out there. Check out Distress and Permutation City for further mind-bending.
Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein, 1959)– Right wing? Left wing? Somehow to blame for the movie made from it? And Showgirls as well, through mere association? Or just damn fun reading?
The Divine Invasion (Philip K. Dick, 1981)– One of my favorite authors. If I hadn’t already read his book VALIS before I got to the group, it would have been in the top ten above, and this is more from that same, very good, vein.
The Gods Themselves (Isaac Asimov, 1972)– I don’t believe Asimov wrote a bad book. Besides which, anything featuring trisexual energy beings is an automatic yes.
The Road  (Cormac McCarthy, 2006)– See The Sparrow above vis-a-vis Sci-fi and literary fiction. Either way, a great book that somehow manages to be heartwarming and unrelentingly grim at the same time.

 

Dishonorable Mention (2 cautionary tales)
Last and First Men (Olaf Stapledon, 1930)– It deserves props for ambitious future history, and recognition as one of the earliest sci-fi novels. It was also very dry and slow. The only one I never finished from the group, sad to say.
The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood, 2000)– Great book, albeit very slow to start and frequently quite bleak. Not Sci-fi, though it does contain a sci-fi tale within the tale. Discussions on group policy were had afterward.