Greetings, fellow Coppertops! On this week's edition of our Pharmaco-Fortean column, we'll discover lost cities & ancient secrets, dirty bombs & plans for immortality. And as we peruse further evidence of suitable conditions for life on Mars' ancient past, we'll close the chapter on the British UFO files, in hope that the Truth is still out there. Welcome to the desert of the Real --I hope you brought some sunscreen lotion.
10 June has been a pretty good month for Archeology fans. As you might remember, we closed the last edition of the Red Pills with the uncovering of an intricate tunnel system dating back to Neolithic times, and this week we've had 2 separate announcements pertaining to the discovery of ancient cities, one in Cambodia & the other one in Mexico. Both these findings were made possible thanks to the use of LIDAR technology, which allows the detection of ancient settlements irregardless of the thick vegetation covering them.
Interestingly enough, both cities --Mahendraparvata, north of Angkor (Cambodia), and Chactún in the state of Campeche (Mexico)-- were built on roughly similar dates, around 1200-1400 years ago; and their locations was completely unknown by the local population, which significantly increases the chances that the sites have not been tampered with by the looting of grave-robbers.
I wonder what would Indiana Jones think of his modern counterparts. Would he think of this fancy tech as 'cheating'?
9 One of the things I love the most about archeology is that it serves as a cautionary note: no matter the power & level of technological sophistication these ancient civilizations managed to achieve, in the end their empires crumbled into dust. Take the city of Chactún: the Maya warlords were so busy fighting with their rival city-states, they forgot to pay attention to the enemy that finally defeated them: Climate.
Nowadays we also need to pay attention to the environmental damage we're causing to the ecosystem, and even to ourselves. Which is why it's not that surprising to learn that in China serious polluters are now being threatened with the death penalty.
A new judicial interpretation which took effect on Wednesday would impose "harsher punishments" and tighten "lax and superficial" enforcement of the country's environmental protection laws, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
"In the most serious cases the death penalty could be handed down," it said.
"With more precise criteria for convictions and sentencing, the judicial explanation provides a powerful legal weapon for law enforcement, which is expected to facilitate the work of judges and tighten punishments for polluters," Xinhua said, citing a government statement.
This type of news cause mixed feelings in me. As a citizen of Mexico, I know how it is to live in an environment heavily degraded by pollution, which has caused the introduction of pretty draconian laws --depending on its age, drivers here are forced to keep their car home one day of the week, and they are required to take periodic verification tests to ensure their engine emissions conform within the permitted pollution limits.
At the same time, I'm not an advocate of the death penalty --commence your criticism of my 'bleeding heart' liberalism at your discretion-- even though I'm aware the unscrupulous egotism of some industrialists can provoke long-term health risks on innocent victims, which could eventually result in an early death.
Do you think more industrialized countries will adopt harsher penalties for environmental offenders? Share your thoughts on the Comments section.
But what about penalties for actions which cause a more intangible harm? The Huffington Post reported on June 14th that self-professed psychic Presley 'Rhonda' Gridley has been ordered a sum of $7 million dollars to a Texas couple, after being sued for falsely "claiming that a mass grave containing dismembered bodies was at the plaintiffs' home." Gridley contacted the sheriff's office with her 'vision', and from there the story was leaked to the media & made international headlines.
The lawsuit claimed that Bankston and Charlton were on vacation when the story was first reported. They returned home to find "a house full of broken dishes, overturned furniture, and 'animal urine and feces'" according to the Observer. The suit also said the couple has lost friends because of the debacle.
I bet she never saw that coming!
All jokes aside though, I've never sought the services of a 'professional psychic' & chances are I never will. While I don't discount the possibility that a few people have a special talent beyond our normal perceptions, no-one could deny that there's a lot of charlatans & con men (or women) seeking to take advantage of the gullibility of people. Then again, Gridley's actions suggest her intentions might have been genuine, in which case a penalty of $7 million seems an excessive wake-up call.
7 I hardly need to be a psychic to predict that Dan Brown's latest novel Inferno is going to be a best-seller this year. Ever since The Da Vinci Code became an international sensation, the public is still hungry for more adventures involving secret societies & the cracking of ancient symbols, performed by the dashing Robert Langdon while accompanied by a voluptuous female sidekick --'cause we all know that chicks dig Semiotics.
Yet nobody would have even heard of Robert Langdon or Dan Brown without the brilliant worked performed by alternative historian Michael Baigent, who in 1982 co-wrote the seminal book The Holy Blood & the Holy Grail, which first proposed the controversial theory regarding the supposed bloodline stemming from Jesus & Mary Magdalene. It was not until The Da Vinci Code arrived that this new interpretation of the Grail was introduced into the mainstream, and as a homage Brown decided to give one of his characters the name of Leigh Teabing --an acronym of his name & that of his co-authors, Richard Leigh & Henry Lincoln.
After the ginormous success of TDVC, Baigent & Leigh sought to sue Brown for copyright infringement, yet ended up losing. Brown's publisher Random House forced them to pay their huge legal expenses, which caused the bankrupcy of Baigent --Leigh died shortly after the trial.
Sadly we now have confirmation that Michael Baigent passed away this week. He was 65.
6 Many people think that The Da Vinci Code was Dan Brown's first novel involving the adventures of his character Robert Langdon, but in truth Angels & Demons came out first. The novel deals with Robert Langdon's attempts to uncover the mystery of the Illuminati, who threaten to destroy Vatican city with a powerful anti-matter bomb.
Although real-life terrorists are nowhere near as sophisticated as the villains penned by Brown, a recent news concerning the detention of 49-year-old New York state resident seems almost cropped out of a trashy sci-fi novel: Glendon Scott Crawford, an alleged member of the Ku Klux Klan, was arrested by the FBI & accused of plotting the deployment of a deadly X-Ray device --a 'dirty bomb'-- with the intention of killing president Barack Obama & an undisclosed Muslim organization. Erick J. Feight, who joined Crawford in the plot, was also arrested.
In a June 2012 conversation, Crawford – described by the FBI as a member of the Ku Klux Klan – called his design "Hiroshima on a light switch," the affidavit said. And in August 2012, Crawford allegedly asked a high-ranking official in the KKK for money to fund his plot. The KKK official informed the FBI, and within weeks two undercover agents posing as KKK members were introduced to Crawford.
Were I to choose, I'd prefer a dystopia involving a B-movie alien invasion, instead of the cliched mad scientist bent on destroying the world.
5 After 2001, Terrorism started to permeate every international discourse, but in the mid 90's the Western world was still living under an illusion of safety. That's why even in 1996, just 3 years after the first attack on the World Trade Center, speculations about the crash of TWA flight 800 was perceived as delusional. After a 4-year investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that the plane's demise was caused by an internal fire.
But a new documentary is bent on rekindle the fires of conspiracy, claiming the plane was brought down by a missile, causing the death of everyone on board.
In the film, former investigators Hank Hughes from the NTSB, Bob Young from TWA and Jim Speer from the Air Line Pilots Association call on NTSB to reopen the investigation because of suspicions that missiles sparked the explosion.
Speer, a former Air Force pilot, said Wednesday an initial test found explosive residue on a part of the right wing, which was retested without him present and the first result declared a false positive. He also found holes in the piece that he said indicated an explosion outside the plane.
Hughes said Wednesday that information about physical evidence from the crash was "manipulated" and is "a cause for grave concern."
I vaguely remember seeing the news about this catastrophe on Hard Copy. All I can say at this point is (a) if something similar were to happen today *knock on wood* I'm sure the terrorism hypothesis would be looked at much more closely; and (b) after 17 years, surely some terrorist group would have claimed authorship for this incident by now?
4 Your chances of dying of a terrorist attack in the USA is 1 in 20 million, which you can either look at it as evidence that said attacks are extremely rare, or that our lives are filled to the brim with all sorts of mundane threats as it is.
Which is why the aspirations of Dmitry Itskov, who is seeking ways to attain immortality, smack of us being recklessly optimistic to say the least. Yet this Russian multimillionaire managed to organize a fairly impressive event in New York: "The Global Future 2045 International Congress," in which he managed to assemble a group of the most famous futurologists & transhumanists, who explained to the attendees how death will become superfluous, or at the most optional thanks to future technologies --if you have the $$ to pay for it, that is.
On the io9 article this is the paragraph which caught my attention:
On the congress’s second day, Mr Itskov announces that an afternoon session exploring “science, spirituality, evolution of humanity and the avatar project” will be open to the public, with the aim of boosting public discourse of the idea of a death-free world.
The session features spiritual leaders ranging from a “self realised” yoga master to a Buddhist monk (the Dalai Lamai has supposedly lent his support to Mr Itskov’s project). In an audience of science enthusiasts the winding religious discussions appear to fall flat. Some attendees fall asleep. Others openly mock the speakers.
Hellooo? Do you think that rich materialist geeks care one whit about spirituality, when they are so convinced that St. Kurzweil is going to deliver them from the cold clutches of death? Most of the Transhumanist fans seem to be more focused on their own personal satisfaction, than trying to elucidate whether our obsession with technology is the proper path for mankind in general.
3 Regardless of their different approaches, every proponent of the Singularity agrees that before we start fantasizing about strong A.I., we first need to have a better understanding of the awesome processing unit sitting between our ears. We have discussed in the past president Obama's plan to map the human brain, and now comes news of BigBrain: an ultra-detailed 3d reconstruction of the human cerebrum, freely available to the public.
All these independent studies seem to go in tandem with an even more ambitious enterprise, the Human Brain Project, spearheaded by South African neuroscientist Henry Markram, who intends the goal of one day simulating the entire human brain inside a giant super-computer --and he has one billion euros to try to make his dream come true.
Will these highly funded projects bring about an age of sentient machines, or will we come to acknowledge there's more to consciousness than neural networks & synaptic connections? The coin is on the air.
2 Even if I still have my doubts about the so-called Singularity, as a Star Wars fan I can't hide my desire for more autonomous mechanical aids a-la R2-D2 or C3-PO, specially when I'm witnessing the slow pace of our current exploration on Mars.
Our Martian news of the week is pretty exciting: a new study published on Nature posits that Mars' atmosphere was once rich in oxygen, a billion years before our own planet started to show traces of this gas that is now vital to most organisms.
Spirit was exploring an ancient part of Mars containing rocks more than 3.7bn years old. The rocks bear the hallmarks of early exposure to oxygen before being "recycled" – drawn into shallow regions of the planet's interior and then spewed out in volcanic eruptions.
Volcanic Martian meteorites, on the other hand, originate from deeper within the planet where they would be less affected by oxygen. The meteorites travel to Earth after being flung into space by massive eruptions or impacts.
Which makes for an interesting puzzle, since on our planet oxygen is the byproduct of algae & other plants, yet scientists are not yet ready to admit the same happened on the Red Planet. They still theorize that Martian oxygen could have been the result of chemical activity, yet I'm sure all this second-guessing would be put to rest once we found a bonafide fossil on the red sands of our sibling (mother?) planet.
1 Things have changed since H.G. Wells published his seminal novel War of the Worlds. Unwittingly, the father of modern Science Fiction also birthed a whole era of speculation regarding alien life from within our local neighborhood, and even though some researchers tried to tied UFO waves with cycles of proximity with the planet Mars in the 1950's, it is safe to say nowadays there are no serious claims that our occasional interlopers come from some other planet in the Solar system.
Last week we experienced a hallmark moment: the final release of UFO British files, since the closing of the official 'UFO desk' in 2009. And undoubtedly the British media made use of the occasion to remind us that the MoD's decision was taken "by officials who deemed it had no "defence benefit", and the resources that were being devoted to it were taking staff away from "more valuable defence-related activities"". After reading this, one would be undoubtedly left imagining a vast government building with numerous government employees, working 24/7 to bring a resolve to the UFO cases submitted by British citizens, yet we should be mindful that in the heyday of the American project Blue Book, the USAF Air Force only devoted a small office & a handful agents to the lofty enterprise of solving ALL the UFO cases within the United States territory; so I suspect a similar approach was adopted by their English allies --surely more resources are spent organizing the queen's afternoon tea?
Dr. David Clarke, the UFO researcher who has worked more closely with the MoD on the release of the UFO files, had this to say on his blog:
The fact that some of these ‘sightings’ were reported by helicopter pilots, soldiers and police officers underlines how even so-called ‘credible witnesses’ can be mistaken about things they have seen in the sky.
Until next time, this is RPJ jacking out. Remember that you don't need an official sanction to search for the Truth.