To Reach for the Stars

“White Castle” by Yuri Shwedoff. Caption at bottom was added by someone else.

​I pray this picture will not foreshadow the embers of space exploration and colonization, slowly fading until we lose interest and forget we once had the opportunity to walk on other worlds.
Once upon a time, we listened to the sky’s siren call, and answered it. As it was with the sirens of myth, so it is with the heavens. They are unforgiving, more so than anywhere on Earth.
But that very danger is part of what beckons us. It is improper to overtly romanticize exploration, but exploration does carry more than a touch of the romantic, an urgency and necessity we cannot quite put into words. Some deep and fundamental part of us knows it is worth the risk, when we look up and drink in the sight of countless stars.
To stand any decent chance of surviving such a journey, your body and mind and spirit must be of the highest durability. They have to be tempered by demanding tests and adverse circumstances, not to mention incredible persistence and strength of character. Many of us need an enemy, as well. Whether it’s a competing empire, or an authority figure who said you’d never amount to anything, or even our own selves, we often wait until a voice tells us “You’ll never do that,” before we say “Yes I will.”
A famous passage in the Bible says that the heavens declare God’s glory, night after night pouring forth speech and displaying knowledge. And what knowledge! What rewards we have gathered from taking risks and pushing ourselves.
May we reach while we still can.
[Previously posted on Facebook]

The Magic of Practical Effects: An Open Letter to the Makers of Jurassic World 2

[Important Update: It seems the “news” of no new animatronic dinosaurs in the Jurassic films was based on reactions that misinterpreted what the director had said, so I have deleted the paragraph that linked to the news sites. However, I will keep this post up mainly because its point is still an important one in this age of CGI. And I guess I can still leave most of it as an open letter to ask for more than one robotic dinosaur in the upcoming movies.]

It’s no secret that dinosaurs and Jurassic Park are a huge part of my life. I have always loved the movies for so convincingly bringing to life these “leviathans of ancient history” (in the words of Steven Spielberg), on a level that no other movie has matched. Suspension of disbelief came all the easier when you could believe the dinosaurs were there. Rather than merely watching a dinosaur chase a character around, you felt as if you were truly face-to-face with creatures both beautiful and terrifying.

One of the most powerful ways the makers of Jurassic Park accomplished such a task was to painstakingly build animatronic dinosaurs that could move and blink, and actually be there on-set, so the actors’ performances would be all the more convincing. They had more to act with than a green screen or tennis ball. CGI was generally reserved for shots that couldn’t be obtained with a robot or puppet. And it forced the CGI crew to make their contributions photorealistic, because they had a life-sized reference on the set to guide their creative process.

As a direct result of this marriage between computers and physical effects, the Jurassic Park series has given us some of the most magical and thrilling moments in movie history. The T. rex’s escape and the ailing Triceratops in the first movie, Sarah Harding petting a baby Stegosaurus in The Lost World, the Pteranodon attack in Jurassic Park III.

As much as I loved Jurassic World, one of my only issues was the relative dearth of animatronic dinosaurs on the screen. But there was this one moment…(mild spoiler ahead)

For those of you who have seen Jurassic World: didn’t the scene with the dying Apatosaurus get to you on some level the other scenes didn’t? I admit, I shed tears during that scene, and still get choked up watching it. I believe that scene so much more than the CGI Velociraptors (which are admittedly quite well done). You actually feel something for this gentle giant, mauled to death by the Indominus Rex.

As the success of this scene and Mad Max: Fury Road proved this year (to say nothing of the crazy excitement for practical effects in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens), audiences still have an obvious passion for practical effects, if only the movie’s creators and company allow them to be used. Someone in Hollywood has to finally be taking notice that we’re getting tired of the over-reliance on computers that lessened the impact and suspension of disbelief in Avengers and the Hobbit Trilogy.

So I write this post as a plea to those who can make the decisions for the next Jurassic sequels. I ask of you, please keep the magic alive. Help us, as an audience, suspend disbelief. Please keep practical effects, for more than one scene or one dinosaur. The effects crews – and audiences the world over – will thank you, and you’ll give us more of those cinematic moments we’ll never forget.

Kindest regards,

John K. Patterson

Copyright belongs to Universal. Collected from http://jurassicpark.wikia.com/wiki/Apatosaurus

Copyright belongs to Universal. Collected from http://jurassicpark.wikia.com/wiki/Apatosaurus

A Plausible Monster? Part One

[Now that they are published, here’s part two and part three-A, and three-B will be released soon]

I could go back to staying “safe” on this blog, and not stick my neck out again. Nothing weird or controversial.

But that’s boring. And in some respects, it wouldn’t be right. For today, I thought a nice swim into deeper waters would do us some good. It’s invigorating.

Come on in! The water's quite pleasant.

Come on in! The water’s quite pleasant.

Today’s topic involves cryptozoology — the practice of investigating and searching for animals that have not been classified by science, but are reported by sightings and/or folklore. Think Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster, sea serpents, etc.

Here and now, I mean to neither take down nor advocate cryptozoology as a practice. This is not being written to defend or demolish it, or classify it as science or pseudoscience. That last distinction is odiously bureaucratic. I care much less about whether a claim is classified as science than I care about whether it is true. My main concern is in whether the animal really exists or not.

If you want to know my position on cryptozoology, here it is: In short, I reluctantly take the position that most “cryptids” (the animals cryptozoologists seek to find) most likely do not exist. But I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong if someone can show proof of their existence.

I used to think the world full of monsters, waiting to be discovered and ushered into our textbooks, zoos, and museum displays. From Nessie to Yeti, I was fascinated by the possibility of weird and spectacular creatures, and treated their existence like it was a near certainty. Of course, they haven’t showed up thus far. Nowadays, I hold out little to no hope in a monster at Loch Ness. Tourists and live webcams can only miss a large creature for so long. Nor does Bigfoot seem at all likely, as far as I can tell. In the Pacific Northwest you can hardly throw a rock without hitting somebody’s log cabin or pickup truck. Not the environment I’d expect an undiscovered primate to call home.

I’d love to be wrong about Bigfoot and/or Nessie, but I’ll be deeply shocked if I am.

On the other hand, this should never be cause to discount all cryptids as equally ridiculous or unlikely. You are no doubt familiar with the phrase “even a broken watch can be right twice a day.” A species of large animal can still persist undiscovered and unclassified, even today. Most of the new animals we are finding consist of insects and deep sea-dwellers. But on occasion, something a bit more spectacular can be uncovered. Several factors can be conducive to a species escaping detection by the scientific community:

  1. It lives in an environment where it can easily hide. By now this would be limited mostly to dense tropical rain forests and deep oceans.
  2. It is critically endangered, either through human activity or environmental factors. Specimens will be rare, as will physical traces (carcasses, footprints, scat, etc.).
  3. The animal’s environment can quickly erase traces, making it difficult to detect or track. Again, rain forests and oceans are the biggest offenders. Such an environment also presents great difficulty in bringing proof of a new species to the outside world, either from remains not getting refrigerated before they rot away, or the hostility of its native species and/or human populations.
  4. The animal has reclusive habits, tending to avoid human habitation (as a lot of animals do, from okapis to panda bears to cougars).
  5. If natives in a remote region tell about an unknown animal living in their part of the world, a biologist can be biased against the creature’s existence and assume that the animal is mythical rather than biological. It is quite possible his suspicions are correct, of course. If there ever was such an animal, it may have become extinct or migrated to another area. Still, one has to wonder how many times the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater, and a legitimate species had been missed by the biologist because he’d assumed it could not be there.

There is at least one cryptid that matches all of these factors. Therefore I am prepared to argue that its existence is more likely than its nonexistence. I speak of Mokele-mbembe, from the Congo swamps and jungles of Central Africa. Its range purportedly extends across Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and Cameroon.

My painting,

One of my latest paintings, “Cameroon.” Acrylics on watercolor paper, approx. 7 by 9 inches.

The name means either “One who stops the flow of rivers” or “He who divides the waters.” Its described morphology bears a resemblance to that of a small sauropod dinosaur. These are the long-necked herbivores sometimes informally called “Brontosaurs.” Both sauropods and Mokele-mbembe possess long necks and tails, small heads, and elephantine bodies with four feet.

Please take care to note: I am not here to argue whether dinosaurs persist in Africa today. I am arguing for the likelihood of a rare and unrecognized species living in the Congo basin. So please don’t comment with a post like “Sauropods can’t live in swamps, because of x, y and z.” We can discuss that in a later post, an addendum to this one.

Regardless of what kind of animal it is, what does Mokele-mbembe have that most other “cryptids” don’t? What keeps its existence plausible, even (in my estimation) likely?

The answer in a nutshell: The right environment and obstacles, where we could expect its discovery to be delayed.

I suspect very few of those who roll their eyes and mock the mere possibility of this animal being real would maintain their contempt if they took time to consider the kind of environment the Congo basin really is:

  • A region shredded by guerilla warfare, poaching and disease outbreaks that have a habit of shutting down expeditions to the area
  • Stifling jungles that pose a serious challenge to even the most seasoned explorers
  • An almost total lack of internet and technological infrastructure (so long, smartphones) outside the cities of the region — electricity is “expensive and unreliable” in Cameroon, for instance
  • A dense canopy of trees a hundred and fifty feet high that does a great job at hiding the rain forest from satellite photography
  • This Florida-sized jungle is so dense that it’s mostly unexplored to this day, even to the point that it hid over 100,000 western lowland gorillas from scientific eyes until just eight years ago. Another discovery made at roughly the same time was the Bili Ape, a new type of chimpanzee that plausibly eats lions and other big cats. (makes you wonder what else could be hiding in that region, doesn’t it?)
  • Largely corrupt governments, held together by miles of red tape, which don’t exactly roll out the red carpet to Western explorers, unless they’re with bigger organizations like the BBC, National Geographic or the World Wildlife Fund

Neither the Pacific Northwest nor any Scottish Loch can boast of such an ideal hiding place for an unclassified, critically endangered species.

At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, a good hiding spot does not necessarily harbor an unknown species. But in the next installment of this series, I’ll provide the main reasons why I think the evidence thus far gathered is quite sufficient to warrant further, more thorough investigation.

And then I can add another post, to tackle what have been some embarrassingly bad arguments against the Mokele-mbembe’s existence. I do allow for the possibility that the skeptics are correct, but they are in desperate need of improved reasoning. As I have stated before, being right for the wrong reasons is almost as bad as being flat-out wrong.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Speech to Congress

A happy Purim to all, my friends and family!

Ladies and gentlemen, it is a rare thing to find courage and conviction among the leaders of today’s nations. But Benjamin Netanyahu exemplifies both in yesterday’s address to Congress. Normally I won’t touch political issues with a ten foot pole. I weary of the arguments and backbiting and ignoring of important points.

But not with this. Not today.

Today, I am more delighted than ever to say I stand alongside Israel, and support in prayers and in spirit their stand against tyrants who wish their annihilation. The hatred of Israel by violent men is often greeted with either sympathy for the attackers’ plight, or a stony and telling silence. But it is a genuine relief and encouragement to see so many cheer Netanyahu and give him more standing ovations than a speaker can hope for.

This is what courage looks like. May God Almighty bless Israel. May He grant them peace and divine protection from their foes, and may He bless all those who stand up with them.