E.T., Go Home

April 28, 2010

Recently, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking–while he wasn’t just sitting there being smarter than I’ll ever be if I ever replicated myself a thousand times and actually got around to learning how to use an RSS feed–lamented that, despite the misguided efforts of many of our countrymen, it may not be the wisest decision to contact alien life forms should they exist. Instead of sharing their vast array of advanced technology, they may just want to blow us up and take our stuff. Way to be a wet blanket, doc.

Alien invasions are something America has prepared itself against for quite some time. Even in the 1950’s and ’60’s, when flying saucers, science fiction writers, and L. Ron Hubbard were making hay–and cash–out of unexplained mysteries, there were significant portions of the population that didn’t think ol’ greenie stalk-eyes was just a parlor trick or cereal premium. There were a lot of strange things going on–historians technically describe these events as “freaky deaky”–during that time. Nuclear power, environmental changes, and, well, you never knew exactly what Ivan was up to over in Red Square–all of these things had huge question marks next to them, and instead of filling them with research or logic, we filled them with Martians.

There are entire organizations out there, from SETI and NASA to the guy who still mails out mimeographs of The UFO Report somewhere out of Montana, that believe in aliens. Our government has made concentrated efforts to contact alien life forms, supposedly to advance the knowledge of the universe but mostly I think to see if aliens might have a better idea of how to get some more oil.

It is sometimes scary how much people want to believe. Small flashes or specks in the sky turn into motherships and hordes of pods waiting to launch a full-scale invasion or at least disrupt the transmission of game seven of the World Series. Grainy photographs of weather balloons and jet planes constitute the basis of an entire malevolent species or, worse, a New Age movement. People even look deep into the past and find evidence of ancient civilizations possessing technology well beyond their means as proof that some day they will return and want the back rent, plus interest.

People want there to be aliens so bad they look for evidence of life on Mars or even the moon. Man, I would hate it if that were the case. I expect aliens to be from galaxies far, far away, with awesome technology and tales of wonderment of a society painted with a different cultural brush. But to find out the aliens are still in the same zip code? That’s like taking your sister to the prom.

I’ve never been particularly sold on the idea of space aliens. Even if they exist–something I rarely concede the mere chance of except for some nights after being in Station Square around 2 am–I don’t think there is any reason why they should be any more advanced than we are. Science fiction has always painted aliens as far superior than ourselves, having somehow transcended hunger, crime, and pollution, and after sitting on their duffs (or the alien equivalent) for a while decided it was time to go out and meet the neighbors. Then kill them.

I say that if Alf comes knocking at our door looking for some right proper X-Files-style justice, back home he’s still got some neighbor with the incessantly barking dog and mouth-breathing kid who tramps through the tulips, and he still checks the shower drain for hair as he looks wistfully in the mirror at the balding remains of his shattered youth. Human nature–or alien nature–doesn’t change even if you live on Parnesius V live for five hundred years and can shoot green lasers from your butt. You still have to pay taxes to someone.

So I’m actually kind of glad that Professor Hawking has brought this up. Most people assume aliens are out for either bloodthirsty conquest or xenophobic genocide just ’cause they ran out of Alien Indians to slaughter and they didn’t want to trudge back home just to work at the dilithium crystal mines. Professor Hawking assumes that they will be here to strip us of all of our resources. It’s economic expansion they are concerned about, not just conquest and the sweet taste of iron-based blood.

You see, I sleep a little better at night knowing this. The random whim of a slimy seven-legged King of Space Beetles just freaks me out. What is the point of taking out the trash when a bunch of man-bugs are going to warp into my den and eat all the Cheetos and shove a phasor in my gut when I come see what all the fuss is about? But knowing they have a plan in place–well, that makes me feel better. Turns out there is logic in the way the alien world thinks. They’re not coming to destroy us on some spontaneous impulse; they just ran out of tin.

Of course, if the aliens ever show up and we don’t want the bother, we can always just send them to Arizona. They’ll take care of it for is.

The End of the World as We Know It

February 6, 2010

Sometimes in the slow evenings of my existence I think about the end of the world.

Now, granted, this usually occurs when I’m watching either the History Channel or Jersey Shore, either of which are exceptional candidates for finding out how, and hoping for, respectively, the end of the world. But in thinking about it I’ve realized we have quite a bit to worry about.

There’s never been a shortage of theories. The Long Count Calendar, an elaborate prediction made by the Maya civilization, advised everyone that the end of the world would happen on 2012, at around 10:30 in the morning, right after breakfast. The Mayans devised this calendar using incredibly advanced technology for the time, mostly due to the scientific efforts they did not invest in, say, the wheel, or not falling for the Spanish-Dude-is-a-god trick.

Or course, we could also die by natural catastrophe. We naturally see blips of this on occasion, when tsunamis and rock slides just outright destroy entire nations in mere minutes. At some point, the weather is going to get its act together and start coordinating this nonsense. Someday, we’re going to get earthquakes, tidal waves, solar flares, volcanoes, ice storms, and Brett Favre’s last throw in regulation in the 2009 NFC Conference Championship all at once, and–poof!–we’re done.

The prospect of an infinitely expanding outer space doesn’t help. For those of us worried that some day the aliens will come with plasma rays and titanium boots and start laying waste to our cities, we really should be worried about what could actually realistically happen, since that is much scarier. The magnetic poles in the earth could switch, causing electrical generators to self-destruct and digital watches to switch to military time. A gamma ray burst, what as far as I can tell is the stellar equivalent of a six year old’s explanation of an episode of Kim Possible along with a brick of C4, could devour the earth in a blink of an eye. An asteroid could demolish the world, even with the assistance of a frustrated Bruce Willis now that he’s not going home to Demi Moore.

Of course, we could be doing it to ourselves each time we tap away at our computers. The concept of singularity–humans develop a computer smarter than humans, so it takes over its own development in an infinite loop of e-nightmares and cyberterror–is frightening. Only more so since I think it’s supposed to be the plot of Tron, but Disney was too scared to awesomeify it into reality. The term “grey goo” sounds cute, but it’s a scenario in which self-replicating nanobots, created with the intention of helping medicine and industry, end up consuming everything in its path, including–amazingly–Hot Pockets. Granted, I may be biased in this particular regard, since I am fairly certain the copy machine at work is smarter than myself, and is at least no doubt better organized. (For the record, I am also scared of most vending machines.)

Not all end-of-the-world scenarios involve random nastiness. It could be deliberate acts of cranky. Iran has been given a green light to nuke Israel, in the sense that I suspect that Tehran’s weapon of choice will be a fully functional and peaceful nuclear power plant small enough to fit inside an intercontinental ballistic missile. Kim Jong Il has been chucking Fat Men in the Pacific since Churchill was in diapers. Osama Bin Laden has been sitting in some cave in western Pakistan with an Erector Set, knocking over scale replicas of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Sydney Opera House while he waits for the canister of sarin to get to him, once FedEx finds his street number.

Then again, the world’s most destructive terrorist isn’t a nutjob in a turban or a fisttwister in Beijing, but a pig. Or a bird. Or some other random animal who, for some reason, holds a grudge against their caretakers and occasional preheaters. Swine Flu, Avian Flu, and no doubt Pachyderm Flu has mutated across species and will some day doom us all. Our bodies are weak to resist such outbreaks–thanks to their newly-formed transmission methods, but also because doctors have been pumping our bodies full of antibiotics like peanut M&M’s for years–and at some point a global pandemic may leave the buildings empty across the globe.

Of course, worrying about all of this isn’t going to do us any good. Aside from getting on the Opus Dei mailing list and maybe buying some of that astronaut ice cream, there isn’t any practical way to prepare for the end of the world. Me, I’ll pop a bag of kettle corn and crack open a Mr. Pibb. No, it won’t save me, but I certainly hope and expect that it will be one hell of a show.

Kiss a Sasquatch Good Morning

August 17, 2008

For a time, at least, alarmingly significant portions of the North American population thought that they had found him. Bigfoot, the elusive creature of which folklore and major motion pictures starring John Lithgow are made, was captured. Captured, of course, in the way all Bigfoot sightings are—in the sense of “We may or may not have found an animal of indeterminate origin that we’re not going to show you any of the evidence for.”

This time, of course, they thought they had found him. “They,” of course, being the sort of people to call a press conference before the conclusive DNA results have actually come back yet, so sure of their find. The story was even picked up by the major news outlets, something I assumed was devoted solely to the items that Lindsay Lohan regards as acceptable things to enter into or exit out of her hoo-ha or the occasional report as to what Obama pooped out after eating a McGriddle. But there it was, amongst sordid tales of subprime reform and protests in Beijing: Some Fringe Nutjob Thinks He Might Have Found Bigfoot.

Well, not exactly. The report, no doubt currently wrapped in a manila envelope being mailed to the Pulitzer committee, featured a rather disturbing photo of what appeared to be a Bigfoot carcass. It wasn’t Bigfoot kicking up some mold spores in a big hairy cage tied up by leather straps in some dude’s basement, or Bigfoot eating Froot Loops while sitting on a tree stump trying to do the Jumble. It was a post-Sasquatch. He looked like he was crumpled up in an abandoned meat locker, a shameful burial and no doubt a nightmare to the olfactories. It basically looked liked a hollowed-out monkey suit had been dumped into a malfunctioning refrigerator with the door tore off.

Of course, there’s a pretty good chance that it was, in fact, a picture of a hollowed-out monkey suit that had been dumped into a malfunctioning refrigerator with the door tore off. The DNA evidence, once the results came back, identified it as human or opossum. Of course, the counter claim was that these were obviously part of the stomach contents of Bigfoot, a known opossum connoisseur, but one doubts exactly how much further they are going to go with this.

The story, of course, is otherwise light on details and full of rampant skepticism. The body of a 500-pound suspected Bigfoot was “stumbled upon” by two individuals while hiking, who, oh, by the way, just happen to immediately contact someone who have previously detailed Bigfoot discoveries in the past. That’s about as believable as the cat who lovingly purrs up against you after you find out that someone just took a dump in your bathtub while you were out.

Bigfoot sightings are exactly the sort of thing that happen with unfortunate regularity, but not rare enough that it still shows up on the Odd News column. They go way back to the late 1800’s, when those still searching for the frontier would often report sightings of strange animals to journalists hungry for a story that didn’t involve railroad combinations or inkwell trusts. Most of these were converted into sensationalistic mockeries of modern journalistic standards except, of course, for the Sasquatch Preservation Society newsletter and the New York Post.

Out of all of this, the most amusing aspect of this Bigfoot story is the fact that a reporter for the Scientific American, no doubt looking longingly back at his four-year college degree in journalism, had to actually type out the phrase indicating that the individuals who made the claim “made an announcement on a bigfoot enthusiast radio program.” A bigfoot enthusiast radio program, eh? Someone in Riyadh just put another note in their file.

I don’t quite get the allure of Bigfoot. I mean, there is a certain attraction to many creatures in the cryptzoology menagerie; the scaly, dragonesque dread of the Loch Ness Monster, perhaps, or the eerily terrifying hoop snake, or maybe the tauntingly alluring mermaid. But Bigfoot? He’s basically just an ape, only bigger. He doesn’t have any special powers and didn’t come into being via any generally accepted birth of legend, except perhaps the divine experience of ingesting peyote by our Native American ancestors. He basically lumbers around and waves off cameras like the Amish, leaving big, suspiciously asymmetrical footprints and a disappointing taste of locale.

It’s somewhat perplexing exactly why individuals make wild, easily disproven claims such as this Bigfoot find. On some level, no doubt, there’s a certain amount of self-delusion involved, the exact sort of thing that fuels the initiative of American Idol contestants, Division IV rugby enthusiasts, and House Republicans. But it certainly can’t be the entire thing. As with nearly all human endeavors, the chance that someone, at some point, is going to stop someone and say, “Hey. Maybe this is kind of a stupid idea.” It doesn’t always happen—witness New Coke, the Golden Compass, and the inexplicable success of John Mayer—but more often than not batshit craziness tends to be self-regulating. At least, that the sort of thing that lets me get to sleep at night.

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Summer Blockbuster

May 18, 2008

It’s been quite some time since Indiana Jones last made it to the big screen. Partly it was because the age of the big-budget period blockbuster was fading, shunted aside in favor of overblown comic book adaptations and pussy independent dramas filled with angst and unsigned artists.

For years, a fourth Indiana Jones film has been in the works, with none of the principals involved reaching an agreement as to a serviceable and acceptable plot device. At one point, the plot was going to involve alien invaders, seeing the paranoid sci-fi B-movie theme a natural extension of the adventure pulp of the 30’s, but the idea was scrapped when they realized they had already done that when they produced Star Wars.

Of course, during this time several other plot lines and titles were proposed and ultimately discarded. Some of the examples are:

Indiana Jones and the Search For A Theologically Inspired Macguffin
Indiana Jones and the Search For Someone To Replace My Character That Isn’t Going To Die Of A Speedball Overdose This Time
Indiana Jones and the Not The Temple Of Doom.
Indiana Jones and the Search For Someone To Fill My Lipitor Prescription
Indiana Jones and the Quest To Determine Which Fast Food Outlet Best Exemplifies the Spirit of the Franchise And Award Them A Lucrative Scratch-Off Game Contract
Indiana Jones and the Search For A Plot George Lucas Isn’t Going To Completely Ball Up This Time
Indiana Jones And The Raiders of Calista Flockhart

They finally settled on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a menacing enough title that will be sure to provide ample opportunities for odd gadgets, period weaponry, and the dragging out and subsequent beating of the standardized action film formula.

To continue the franchise, the story had to advance a decade to the 1950’s, since even with all the advances in CGI in the past two and a half decades they can’t get Harrison Ford to look like he did in 1981. The new stand-in villains are the good old-fashioned Ruskies, trying to control the power of the crystal skulls to advance the People’s Republic above and beyond the capitalist menace. Or to be the big swingin’ dick at a Kiev discothèque. Either one, I suppose.

Sean Connery was approached to reprise his role in a cameo appearance as Henry Jones, Sr. However, Connery declined due to his decision to retire from acting, his commitment to the Scottish National Party, and the lack of opportunities in the provided script for his character to punch women in the yap for mouthing off too much.

There has been a lot of notoriously extreme secrecy in the production of the film, eclipsed only by Basic Instinct 2, the secrecy of which was so great no one went to see it. One of the extras from the film was sued by the executives after revealing details about the movie to a newspaper, and one person was sent to jail for stealing various documents related to the movie. However, the culprit who stole the plot from National Treasure to make the Crystal Skull is still at large.

I have a mixed record with the Indiana Jones movies. When I was a child of approximately ten, I happened to walk in on a network showing of the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The scene I was gloriously presented with was the one when the face of the evil Nazi henchman melted when the ark was opened, which my ten year old constitution reacted to by vomiting on the spot. To this day I can’t watch that scene without causing an unfortunate nauseas rush of repressed childhood memories; it also planted in me a deep-seated resentment of broadcast network censors, who were more than willing to deny me the rampant nudity in, say, Porky’s, but gleefully air the melting of a person’s face, the former being of much more interest to me at ten years old than the latter. (Still is, by the way.)

On the other hand, I was a big fan of the Last Crusade, believing that it had the right amount of humor and people defeating tanks on horseback that best represents the era.

I’ve never seen Temple of Doom because every time I put it in my VCR it spits it back out and does a dozen Hail Marys.

So the expectations of the fourth film in the franchise are pretty high. Most people are expecting an action-packed movie on par with the standard summer fare; some are expecting it to fulfill and advance the Indiana Jones character; and some are expecting it to be Sex and the City because their boyfriends tricked them into going. No one is going to be disappointed, though. Unless you’re that eventual government warehouse employee trying to get some overtime during an inventory control weekend who opens the Ark by accident. I suspect your health plan won’t cover face-melting.

So Much For The Afterlife

November 4, 2007

Sometimes, being deceased isn’t the end.

It’s kind of creepy when dead people come back to life. Granted, this only occurs in television, movies, and the South Carolina senate delegation, but, still, it’s weird to think about it. Now, I’m not necessarily talking about zombies and vampires or anything like that. They’re kinda creepy in their own special way, the same way that hummus and watching that show on the Discovery Channel where they show doctors removing benign hip tumors are creepy. You don’t really want to watch, but you’re about 90% certain it’s all just spray-painted foam rubber and macramé processed by Industrial Light and Magic anyway.

So the new television series Pushing Daisies has a premise very similar to this. Only instead of the fictional undead, the main character can bring deceased individuals back to life, but only for up to a minute, and touching them again kills them permanently. One would assume this would produce a lot of much-needed closure for families and law enforcement, but it pretty much is boiled down to proclamations of “I was expecting the white light to be a bit more dramatic” and “Dammit, I told you we should have switched health care providers.”

But fictional deaths are only disturbing up to a point, since we all know it’s just smoke and mirrors, like carnival games and S-CHIP. One step above that are people who are celebrities, who are almost but not quite fake. Celebrities, you see, are successful media personalities, their impact of which is felt long after they are dead. Forbes magazine recently released their list of richest dead celebrities.

That’s right, they ranked the most profitable celebrities that are no longer in this mortal coil. These individuals still get royalty checks and direct deposit in the afterlife. Topping this list is, with no particular surprise, Elvis, who one presumes is spending it on sequins and OxyContin.

In fact, speculating on what the top ten or so rich dead celebrities would spend their coin on is a creative and fun exercise we should all try just once in our life:

John Lennon: J.D. Salinger’s head on a platter
Charles Shultz: Minoxodil and Prozac for Charlie Brown
George Harrison: Money is a tool of the oppressive Western-based soulless society! Also, hash.
Dr. Seuss: Worblefeets and Gumgotrans, whatever the hell those are.
Albert Einstein: Cheeseburgers, stock in Lockheed Martin.
Andy Warhol: Crystal meth, taste.
Tupak Shakur: I thought this was a list of dead celebrities. I assume bling, here.
Steve McQueen: Wait, Steve McQueen is on this list? Really? Steve McQueen, of, uh, Bullitt, and a bunch of other TNT-on-Sunday-afternoon movies? I mean, c’mon. I assume he spends his money on bribes to the editor of Forbes Magazine.
Marilyn Monroe: Starch, Valtrex
James Brown: All monies earned are redirected to a fund to pay child support to his approximately 18,000 children.
Bob Marley: You only get one guess here.
James Dean: Catastrophic health insurance, seat belts.

There are a few surprises on this list, not only for who is on there, but who isn’t. For instance, I’m rather shocked that Keith Richards is nowhere to be found, and I can only assume they’re still airing Larry King Live. Maybe they both got a raw deal on syndication rights or something.

And, of course, we all know that politicians may die but that doesn’t mean thy stop affecting policy, much like how FDR’s actions shaped the modern world, or the frozen, animatronic figure of Ronald Reagan guides our current president’s day-to-day planning. Gerald Ford’s thoughts about the current state of affairs have finally been released, taken down by a biographer before his death earlier this year. His sentiments were simple yet refined. Well, maybe.

In a book teasingly entitled “Tell It When I’m Gone,” Ford knew exactly what he was doing—saving up one last salvo of hard-hitting invectives against a political system that unnecessarily tainted him with scandal and denied him his chance to prove his political worth in favor of a picket-fence toothed peanut farmer who buggered up the economy and single-handedly ushered Iranian hostages into the embassy, and wiped his feet on the way in. And, of course, doing it long after he’s checked out of this realm.

Although, Ford being Ford, the criticism seems…well, it seems very 1974-ish. He called his former chief of staff Dick Cheney’s role in the Bush administration “not the asset I was hoping,” apparently surprised that offshore platforms do not produce electoral votes. He called Al Gore a “bore,” which puts Ford on the same realm as every other person on the face of the planet, and Warren Christopher a “dried up prune” a rather unusual insult for someone whose main impact on modern political life was to make Lloyd Bentsen look like a cross between Orlando Bloom and a milk crate full of poppers.

And, of course, Ford stated that he wasn’t sure that America was ready for a “lady president,” a phrase I find endearingly charming and suggestively condescending. No one is called “lady” anymore unless you’re in a Jerry Lewis movie, at a Styx concert, or a former Prime Minister of the UK.

Then again, America wasn’t ready for an unelected President, either. And the unfortunate thing about being dead is you can’t stick around to claim otherwise.

I Want To Believe

October 28, 2007

A recent study claims that nearly one third of Americans believe in ghosts, UFOs, and other unexplained mysteries, which, among other things, certainly explains a lot about the inexplicable popularity of Will Farrell movies, Blackberries, and Whole Foods.

Hearing that one third of people in America believe in such things isn’t nearly as alarming at first glance, since they lump pretty much all of the paranormal in that figure. This include the standard ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, but also ESP, space aliens, spoon bending, parallel universes, kirilian photography, and OxiClean. Throw enough piss in the pool, and you’re bound to catch pretty much everyone under a certain threshold of awkward metaphors.

What you believe in, of course, is important because it can also tell you what kind of person you are. For instance:

Aliens: You wake up feeling like a freight train went the wrong way up your butt.
Telepathy: You honestly believe that you knew your wife was cheating on you before she did.
Spells: You weren’t all that shocked that Dumbledore was gay. I mean, c’mon. Hell-oooooo!
Vampires: You have too many The Cure CDs.
Psychics: You have a very tenuous grasp on the value of currency.
Zombies: You work at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Anthropomorphic Pumpkin That Travels By Night Harvesting Eyes With A Vice Grip: You, ah, you know what…never mind. We’ll come back to this later. Much later, when my therapist is available.
Killer Scarecrows: You either really, really like corn, or you really, really hate corn.
Bigfoot: You have very limited experience observing animals at the zoo.
Applied Kinesiology: You are a wayward Christian Scientist; or, you have no health insurance.

I can see how easy it is to believe—I mean, really believe—for most people. Many are simply looking for answers, but instead of researching issues, demystifying science, investing in a religion, or holding meaningful dialogue, most people will simply ascribe an uneven thump at three in the morning or a vaguely coincidental overexposed negative to a grand history of crimes, motives, and long lost loves, all because some penniless dope who lived in a barn on your property two centuries ago died of turpentine poisoning.

Color me skeptic. I’m not a big fan of the paranormal, at least in a swear-to-tell-nothing-but-the-truth scenario. It’s kind of a latent fun; listening to Coast to Coast AM, for instance, is a guilty pleasure I readily admit to and actively promote. It certainly makes me feel better about myself, anyway, the same arrogant feeling of superiority I feel when white trash hold up the line at the Dollar General proclaiming a violation of her civil rights because they won’t cash her money order because she doesn’t have any photo ID. Yeah, it wastes my time and it pisses me off, but it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside to know that of all the things that are wrong in my life at least I’m not her.

I feel the same way about ghosts. Or, rather the people who believe in ghosts. But it does alarm me a bit about the sheer industry of it all. There are psychics all over television, there are dramatic reenactments of possessions on every channel from Discovery down to Animal Planet (although the ones on Bravo tend towards the “What possessed you to wear fuchsia with horizontal stripes??” variety), and the scifi and horror genres are now full bore tilt with aliens and reincarnated evil. There is lots of money to be made by people who have both active imaginations, poor grasps of scientific principles, and, apparently, large sums of money to throw away.

However, for most so-called “paranormal” things…well, I’m just not buying it. People believe because they want to believe something is “out there,” a weaselly phrase that can only be made weasellier by inappropriately using quotes to emphasize it. To me, the “out there” is one part wind changing directions, one part basic scientific principles that were not fully observed, and about a thousand parts willful suspension of disbelief. Saying you saw a ghost in the back yard right above where Rover was buried a year ago today is a hell of a more exciting story to tell the ladies at church than your neighbor was parking the Lawn Boy and the headlights were reflecting off the garage door onto the basketball backboard. And telling everyone that the vaguely-shaped natural indention in the dried mud is a Sasquatch footprint is simply a clever application of misdirection to keep everyone from realizing you got poison ivy on your crotch when you went to go take a leak.

Although this is all probably unfair. There are degrees of belief, of course, and plenty of otherwise intelligent people are humble enough to believe that there are things in this world that simply can’t be explained. And I guess I have to respect that. Though in all honesty that’s the same type of respect I give washing machines, which I suppose is faint praise indeed. But as long as you leave your vice grips at home, I’m cool with it.

Weekly World News, RIP

August 11, 2007

I’m madder than a Canadian who broke his hockey stick. I’m madder than a Hollywood actor who misplaced his gerbil. I’m madder than a terrorist who forgot his vest full of TNT hanging in the closet at home.

The Weekly World News has ceased publication.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I hadn’t read the thing in years, and I’m pretty much the target audience for the world’s foremost news source for alien abductions and miracle diets based on the exclusive consumption of cough syrup. Competition for scarce newsstand space is hard to justify, though, if the sales aren’t climbing. It’s difficult to sell papers about the lost Ten Commandments and flying saucers hovering above the Pentagon when there’s eight other magazines on the same rack with Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, or, more likely and more frighteningly, both staring back at you. Even had the Weekly World News tried some of the tired old gimmicks to sell papers—the radical idea of switching to color, for instance—they probably wouldn’t have stopped the fiscal bleeding enough unless they incorporated unflattering pictures of Oprah Winfrey or Kirstie Alley at the beach in decidedly awkward angles into every cover story.

And it’s not really ceasing publication, as such, since the web site will continue operations. Though it’s just not the same. Sitting at home in front of the computer looking at grainy Photoshopped pictures of crop circles that spell out next year’s Oscar picks isn’t very fun. Sitting in Starbucks and having everyone in the place know that you’re reading an article about how Bat Boy was pulling drivers out of the Minnesota bridge collapse is. Web sites don’t have those creepy, perpetually black-and-white, obviously altered photos that adorn every story from A Scientist claiming that radishes cure AIDS to the alien who won the Powerball.

The writers of the Weekly World News were obviously skilled at their craft. Creating news stories is one thing, but keeping it interesting and fresh year after year is an accomplishment in and of itself. (Of course, it’s possible they couldn’t, which is why circulation dropped. Balancing out stories about, say, the world’s largest man marrying the world’s hairiest girl can be difficult when they keep getting divorced and going to swingers parties with the world’s shortest midget and JFK.) But the greatest accomplishment was somehow getting a space alien to endorse Bill Clinton, George Bush, Sr., and Ross Perot in 1992 and somehow make it plausible.

Still, there’s an almost magical amount of nostalgia in the newspaper for me. When I was in my early teens, I used to read the Weekly World News religiously, mostly because I found it endlessly fascinating. There was also another, more important reason, and that was every issue seemed to have at least one story about how the woman with the world’s largest bust line was in some kind of trouble, whether it be dismissal from the Israeli army, ejected from a ball game for “distracting” the umpires, or kicked out of Bloomingdale’s for screwing up the security cameras. And these stories were always accompanied by copious photographs in various flattering angles that featured women that I was not 100% certain were the same individual, though it was hard to tell because I don’t think I ever looked at her face.

But there was a lot more to love about the Weekly World News, too. There was Dear Dotti, a particularly cranky advice columnist whose responses were generally confined to:

1. Grow up!
2. Get lost.
3. You’re an idiot.

The truly scary thing was that you just knew that people were legitimately writing into her for advice. I also remember at one point that some rube asked Dotti for a picture of her posing in a bikini, which she complied with after about six weeks of drawn-out teasing. After all the anticipation, I was underwhelmed when she finally posted the rather visibly cropped photograph. She didn’t even look like she ever served in the Israeli army.

Then, of course, there was Ed Anger, hands down the single greatest name ever created for a fictional opinion columnist. Ed’s solutions to all of society’s ills tended towards the creative yet violent, but thankfully he was also largely evenhanded in his targets. He wanted to beat up environmentalists and oil company executives with the same amount of force, which drifted towards the embarrassingly lethal.

There was also a weekly column about wrestling, which seemed to me to be halfway legit, which kind of scared me that the same people who follow professional wrestling were also in the market for stories about carrots shaped like the Virgin Mary being commercially produced in China.

The scariest thing about the Weekly World News was, for all its bravado about being a real news magazine and its subsequent blatant manufactory of news, everyone knew in the back of their minds some people in this world believe this stuff. The fact that the same ads for power crystals, self-help cassette box sets, and electrode weight loss kits appeared in both the Weekly World News and The Enquirer signaled that certain individuals weren’t able to discern the fine gray line between gossipy truth and complete and utter fiction. This, by the way, also explains the popularity of horoscopes and The O’Reilly Factor.

It will be a loss to journalism when the Weekly World News disappears from newsstands. While their ham-fisted attempts to entertain us fell to the ravages of the Internet, where anyone and their brother can take a story about, say, Bigfoot, and turn it into something that a million people actually now believe is to be true, it ceases to be funny. But at least the writers and editors taught us the one universal truth, and that’s how to make a boatload of money making shit up.

Seventh Time’s the Charm

July 7, 2007

Today marks a day that is rarely seen. In fact, one can extrapolate how often it happens: once a century. For numerologists, state lottery players, and regular subscribers to Woodall Prime Number Digest, the date—July 7th of 2007—is a day as important as could possibly be imagined, at least for those whose imagination rarely stretches beyond calendar dates with moderately distinctive patterns.

Many people who care about such things believe that the triple sevens are a sign of good luck. The number seven, by itself, has always been considered lucky; and anything occurring in triplets has always been met with good fortune, as any casual scan of a standard Fairy Tale book will show you. There are three little pigs, after all, and the three bears, though one has to pause and think exactly of the burdens they bore to wonder exactly how lucky they were. Slackers and victims all around, I say. The industrious Germans, my ass.

But several classes of people are using this day to try to maximize their luck or, as rational people say, minimize the personal responsibility for the things that go wrong in their lives. Such as:

Brides: The wedding day has always been the bride’s Big Day, and what better way to make it even more of your Big Day than to have it on a numerically pleasing date? Churches and chapels are booked solid due to its popularity, lucky indeed since it falls on a Saturday. (Who wants their wedding to conflict with Texas week on Wheel of Fortune?) If that means having your wedding at 12:30 in the freaking morning and paying five times the normal rate to reserve a wedding chapel and the service be less than twelve minutes so the next bride and groom can be shoveled into place, then, well, so be it, since there is nothing so important as to have your wedding on July 7th, 2007. The true irony is that the luckiest person in the entire transaction is the groom, who shouldn’t have any reason to forget their anniversary. Woe to the unlucky fellow who fails to remember that.

Gamblers: 777 has always been a special number for gamblers; most slot machines have their big payout on the triple sevens (either that, or triple monkeys wearing fezzes or some nonsense like that, which is funny since the monkey wearing the fez seems to be the least lucky primate on the planet, except for maybe that poor bear on a unicycle. Where was I? Oh, right.) Every slot machine, roulette wheel, and keno table will be full of grandmothers and citizens who failed prob and stats in high school in the casinos and bars across the country, ready to attribute their good fortunes to the Gregorian calendar and their losses on watered down drinks and the super lucky key chain they forgot on the kitchen table at home.

Environmentally Conscious Concert Goers: Today also marks the beginning of Live Earth, a series of ecologically friendly benefit concerts to take place on all seven continents (get it?). This huge event will display for the media the solidarity that the world has to combat environmental issues by drunkenly mumbling the lyrics to Smashmouth songs while trying unsuccessfully to cop a feel with that emo chick in a tank top dancing in front of you. The point, of course, is to show support to young people about environmentally important issues, such as global warning, deforestation, endangered species, and the importance of not driving a Prius down the highway at 100 miles per hour carrying around pot and a trunkful of prescription drugs that you do not, in fact, have a prescription for.

One strange thing about the emphasis placed on this date is how, last year, June 6th, 2006 passed by with hardly a whimper. Perhaps the Powers That Be™ somehow decided that it wasn’t supposed to be a major media event, right before they fixed the Golden Globes and perpetuated the grand Daylight Savings Time Conspiracy, and the only slip up was the release of The Omen, which was a portent only for an eventual domestic gross of $112 million. Yet many major events did sound rather menacing on that day last year. (The Wikipedia helpfully notes, as always, that this date is “thought to be the end of the world by some.” Gosh, thanks for the heads up.) Still, one only has to look at the events that transpired on that date last year to grow concerned:

·Jason Grimsley of the Arizona Diamondbacks has his house searched for steroids.
·The conflict in sub-Saharan Africa between Chad and Sudan continues, with today’s highlight being the theft of 350 cattle.
·Most ominously, the Australian government commissions an obviously fictitious individual, “Ziggy Switkowski,” to head their nuclear energy task force.

I don’t care how many creepy animals and latent convicts influence the course of events in Australia, the world has never had, nor will there ever be, a man named “Ziggy Switkowski,” and if there was, he would not be in an important enough position to head nuclear energy. Department of Prop Comics, perhaps. Minister of Poorly Drawn Comic Strip Characters, yes. But nuclear energy czar? Please. That will be the day.

The Secret and Lies

July 6, 2007

The Secret is a rather sudden and forceful cultural phenomenon that I am apparently just a little bit too late in recognizing, much like my narrow-minded inability to recognize the positive merits of iPods or polio vaccinations. A hugely popular self-help “package”, The Secret is presented in both a book and a DVD format, lending its teachings to be published and easily accessible to (let’s face it) bored middle-aged housewives with disposable income the world over. It’s hardly a secret that The Secret is propagated prominently on Oprah, the Ellen DeGeneres show, and, presumably, junior high school soccer games, Costco, and overpriced massage parlors.

The Secret forms it base of philosophy off of the Law of Attraction, proponents of which claim it has its roots in quantum physics, much like how Papa Smurf no doubt is an academic derivation of dispensationalism. The Law of Attraction states that…well, to be honest, I’m not sure exactly what it states, because it has that touch-feely New Age definition that I’m pretty sure is vague enough to please anyone who has already committed $29.95 of their paycheck. It seems to be something like the following:

1) Your thoughts and feelings affect the events that happen in your life;
2) You can do this by drawing your thoughts on blank poster board;
3) Or, instead, you can think about it really, really hard; and
4) I’m not making this shit up.

The makers of The Secret tend to downplay the whole Win, Lose, or Draw combined with armchair psychology thing, believing it to be somewhat of a hard sell. Instead, they promote The Secret as a life-affirming, positive enhancement to the daily routine. Think positive thoughts, they say, and positive things will happen to you.

Which, as everyone knows, is complete hogwash. For instance, every single night I lie awake in my bed and crush my eyes tight, thinking as hard as I possibly can about Scarlett Johansson wearing nothing but a bath towel and a smile, presenting me with a plate of frozen chocolate covered bananas, a fistful of Double Eagles, and an advance copy of Madden 2008. But every morning I wake up to nothing but bran muffins and unfinished ironing, and when I finally show up at my boring job that cute blonde the next team over won’t give me eye contact, let alone the time of day. So, so much for that.

The Secret is spearheaded by an otherwise pleasant lady with the name of Rhonda Byrne, who kind of looks like a cross between an albino go-go dancer and an amalgamation of the appearance (and, I presume, the personality) of all the past and present female members of Fleetwood Mac. She has the dispensation of exactly the kind of person you expect to meet at a New Age convention somewhere—youthful, energetic, and scares the secular hoobity-joobities out of you.

Incredibly, The Secret proudly advises that its tenets can help you out financially. Most self-help products go through great pains to avoid the “get rich quick” angle, preferring the “scam good hard-earned money for a collection of worthless platitudes you could derive from the punch line on a Bazooka gum wrapper” approach. The producers of the film are up front about the appeal for riches; tell people they’ll find true love, inner peace, or efficient order in their lives, they say, and consumers will pass, thank you very much, as they stop at the state store or the OTB to find their peace, love, and order. But promise them cash, and they’ll line up around the block, clutching their Machu Picchu keychains and Whole Foods discount cards as they patiently wait their turn.

I’m a rather skeptical person by nature. I’m doubtful I’d believe anything that could conceivably show up on the same catalog page as, say, quartz crystals that can harness the earth’s energy, a wild claim I refuse to acknowledge until they can design a manual can opener that doesn’t involve me, at some point, accidentally shoving a sliver of tin into the meaty part of my thumb and loudly proclaiming a rather un-New Age like sentiment. So The Secret’s secret is lost on me; if I’m not buying into Area 51, Kirilian photographs, state lotteries, or Barack Obama, I’m certainly not buying an Australian-based pseudo-psychological documentary-in-quotes-only.

Still, I can’t fault a girl for trying. Even if you’re not a fan of The Secret’s warmed-over Psychology 101 nonsense and its borderline criminal marketing campaign, if nothing else it helps people who need that kind of thing with an easy, positive aspect of their own lives they can concentrate on. Granted, anyone could go to a used book store and pick up a Norman Vincent Peale book for a quarter or watch a couple of episodes of Viva la Bam to make themselves feel superior. But many who believe in The Secret are also those willing to buy pretentious rubbish for five times wholesale and are probably not exactly the most resistant when it comes to buying them several shots at the hotel bar after a grueling day bouncing about in their revealing sun dress pushing powder blue crystal healing stones slash earrings at easily pleased passers-by at the Holistic Convergence 2007 convention booth. Now that’s a positive thought.

Loch and Load

June 28, 2007

People have always had a fascination with the mysterious. The unexplained holds a lot of draw to those easily fascinated by it, whether it be things such as Bigfoot, UFOs, or Dennis Kucinich. And a lot of new press has recently been generated over one of the oldest mysteries of the Western world: the Loch Ness Monster.

Of course, the people of Loch Ness want to believe. The proprietors selling little plastic Nessies really do believe. The existence of the monster is ingrained in the history and the culture of Scotland, and people continue to believe even though the frequency of sightings appears, on average, to be somewhere in the likelihood of once every seventy years.

The field of investigation imaginary animals is called “cryptzoology,” a word I’m very uncomfortable with. It makes me think that these are people interested in collecting animal carcasses and devising new and creative ways to preserve them in giant stone monoliths. I mean, yeah, it sure as hell beats scrapbooking, but you gotta wonder what disturbing Ranger Rick article they read when they were nine to make “proving creepy-ass fictional animals actually exist” a valid career choice.

The first sighting occurred in 565 AD when the legendary Columba, no doubt uninfluenced by the fermentation of mead, saved the life of a Pict being attacked by the monster. The monster, not being savvy in PR management, ducked undersea to appear infrequently to newspaper reporters, the only additional appearances being those told by husbands when searching for an excuse as to why they came home at five in the morning smelling of beer and rotting oak.

This all changed in 1934, when what is euphemistically known as the “Surgeon’s Photo” was published. (Robert Kenneth Wilson, the surgeon in question, was a gynecologist; apparently, no one wanted to get too specific about his branch of medicine to avoid awkward questions, or at least anything more awkward than “You’re a professional doctor, and you’re wasting your evenings taking pictures of shadowy figures in murky lakes?”) This was famously revealed to be a hoax in the mid-90’s, when a confidant of the doctor, on his deathbed, declared that it was a “project” (read: an idea cooked up with airtight preparation one drunken stupor with an overly imaginative friend) which concluded with making the figure from a “submarine” (read: random piece of floating junk he found in his garage) with “molding” attached to it for the head (read: some elongated cylinder-type thing he picked up at a flea market).

Since all of the sightings have been in poor lighting, from a distance, or by disreputable sources, not unlike Marlon Brando, any claims to its existence have to be taken with a grain of salt and a lot of whiskey. This widely cast net of supposed sightings also leaves a rather large cast of characters as to what the Loch Ness monster looks like: a long-necked seal, an eel, a dolphin, a largish dog, a plesiosaur, an enormous salamander (!), an otter, a mollusk of some sort, a mysterious coelacanth, trees (?), the fictional kelpie, and, apparently, a brick of Styrofoam with a Pringles can superglued to the top of it.

I’m particularly intrigued with some of these theories. Many of these suggestions represent animals that are extinct—namely, the long-forgotten plesiosaur. The coelacanth lends itself to this particularly well, since it was thought to be extinct for a few million years but turned up off the coast of Madagascar (his excuse: “Had a dentist’s appointment up in Yorkshire”). If the eerie-looking coelacanth (He looks like a fish pasted together for a grade school project, and the last kid who was absent that day got to glue on all the extra remaining fins) can come back from being extinct, well, why can’t Nessie be “extinct” (please note pretentious quotation marks)? I’m also a bit puzzled about the dog theory. Sure, I’m certain that Scots can spend their evenings in various stages of being where their perception may be, ah, altered, but even the wispiest of denizens could tell the difference between a legendary reptilian creature and a Great Dane who forgot his boogie board.

The most recent sighting is a video uniformly described as a “jet black thing” that looks like a “forty-five foot long eel-like creature” and is “moving quite fast.” There is, rather remarkably, a good bit of skepticism about the new video. For once thing, the video does not exactly give any kind of reference to length or lighting, so it’s nearly impossible to determine whether it’s forty-five feet or really all that black. One suspects the video has the quality of that episode of ALF I taped back in 1988 and have left on the dashboard of my car for the past ten seasons.

But, still, any press is good press for the Loch Ness tourism industry. Any few bits of information that leak out are always good for some rampant speculation. And it’s mostly harmless fun, anyway: despite major scientific efforts through SONAR, undersea expeditions, and an infinite number of BBC documentaries, the evidence is inconclusive at best. It’s not Nessie they want; it’s the thrill of ambiguity. Most hedge funds, dollar-store pregnancy tests, and California-based religions have been founded on much less.