Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Excellent new article on placoderms

We have an important new publication on the placoderms, including Dunkleosteus. An article in Cell Biology by Australian paleontologists John Long of Flinders University (Adelaide), who's written a considerable amount on placoderms, and Kate Trinajstic of Curtin University (Bentley) recaps the entire topic with the latest research. 

Dunkleosteus, Paeleozoo model

The authors discuss the history of placoderm discoveries, their place in public awareness, and much more. They accept the view of Martin Brazeau (published 2009) that, in their words, 

"placoderms are not a ‘natural group’ (monophyletic) but represent a paraphyletic grouping of early jawed fishes, with some branches of the placoderm family tree leading to modern fishes, while others were dead-ends."   

Placoderm evolution. Copyright 2024 Cell Biology: nonprofit educational use claimed.

Some 450 million years ago, in the early Silurian, lived a recently discovered placoderm only 3 cm long.  Xiushanosteus, from China, is apparently the ancestor of the arthrodires (which make up 60 percent of placoderm species) and other major lineages. 

The paper reviews placoderm evolution, the features that first developed in placoderms, their contributions to evolutionary biology, and their radiation. It's a great addition to the literature. 

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!

Friday, January 19, 2024

Is the government hiding UFOs? Nope.

 "...no record exists of any president or living DOD or intelligence community leader knowing about this alleged program, nor any congressional committee having such knowledge. This should speak volumes if this case were following typical procedure because it is inconceivable that a program of such import would not ever have been briefed to the 50 to 100 people at the top of the USG over the decades of its existence."

That's the word.

It comes from the first head of  the Department of Defense’s official investigators, the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO). Sean Kirkpatrick says his attempts to do serious scientific investigation but was buried in unverifiable, sensationalist claims. AARO will soon release its Historical Record Report Volume 1, demonstrating that nothing about claims the government has UFO remains can be proven.

Puzzling? Yes. Alien? No. (US Government image)

There are sightings and videos not definitively explained. In an era soon to see advanced hypersonic weapons with AI brains, some capable of diving down from orbital altitudes, investigating anomalous targets is extremely important. But that's hard to do in a cloud of myths. 

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's acclaimed book on the early days of the Space Age here.

The First Space Race was the first book to chronicle the efforts to launch the first satellites from all perspectives, US and Soviet. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

A bit of good news in rare tiger photo

Conservationists, with enormous effort, obtained a photo of the rare and endangered Malayan tiger. "It took 12 weeks of preparations, eight cameras, 300 pounds of equipment, five months of patient photography and countless miles trekked through the 117,500-hectare [451 square mile] Royal Belum State Park." There are fewer than 150 of this subspecies left. We need to celebrate every scrap of positive news these days.  I didn't include the photo here for copyright reasons. 

As a side note on my interest in cryptozoology, this puts into perspective the odds of a TV show going into reported Bigfoot habitat and immediately finding stuff, as they inevitably do. Bigfoot proponents, though, can also use it as an example of how hard it is to get a picture of a large, camera-shy animal.

Matt Bille is a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.

Read Matt's Latest book, Of Books and Beasts: A Cryptozoologist's Library. This unique reference offers a friendly skeptic's 400 reviews of books on cryptozoology, zoology, related sciences, and cryptozoological fiction. Your search for the world's new and undiscovered animals begins here!


Sunday, January 07, 2024

Book Review: Apocalypse Television


Apocalypse Television: How The Day After helped end the Cold War

Daivd Craig, Applause (Globe Peaquot), 2024. 245pp.

The title is a bit of a reach, but this film did have an impact far beyond what any other single Cold War TV-movie achieved. The story that unfolds here is an exciting as well as enlightening one. The best part is the inside baseball about how such a controversial film was approved and made, although the section on the film’s impact is also compelling. Craig is a good writer and has researched the topic thoroughly. He says at the start he wants to address the much larger issue of survival in a nuclear-armed world, and my reservations about the book mainly concern the way he treats that issue.

I am reviewing the book, not the movie so I went with my memory of the latter: I didn’t want my impressions of it to be overwritten by a rewatch long out of context.  It was certainly a good movie. Well-acted, well-cast, it used the town of Lawrence, Kansas as the perfect Middle American locale to study the impact of a holocaust. It was well-paced, although I thought the time wasted on bed-hopping was pointless. The military scenes made excellent use of stock footage and felt authentic. The ruined post-bomb town and its shattered, dying citizenry were superbly conveyed: no one could be unmoved.

I had an unusual perspective on the film. I was in a silo, with the keys to a nuclear missile, the night before we saw it. The Pentagon attitude toward nukes wasn’t cavalier as Craig portrays it. We knew the film was authentic because we’d watched in training the most graphic depictions of bomb test effects and horribly disfigured and dead inhabitants of Hiroshima: The Air Force wanted us to understand what we were doing.  I was certain the US would never fire first, but I understood the filmmakers’ decision to leave it ambiguous to focus on the human impact. In a quick survey of other retired missileers, everyone remembered the movie. Reactions ran the gamut: “I remember thinking how much worse reality would be;” “it made me more aware of what I was doing;” and “Marxist propaganda.”

How creator Brandon Stoddard got the movie made is fascinating. Initially, despite Stoddard’s track record of successful programming, no one else at the network wanted to touch it. As he persisted, debates included movie vs. miniseries, whether to make clear who started the war, where to locate the film (large city or smaller town?) and how realistic to make the postwar horrors. While Stoddard hatched the idea for the film with the intent of showing the horrors of a nuclear war, he insisted the film was nonpolitical with the villains being the nukes. The creative team did have antinuclear activists, including screenwriter Ed Hume and others connected to the nuclear freeze movement.

Craig portrays that movement as sincere, and it was, but he also portrays it as pure. As he surely knows, it was supported clandestinely by the USSR (although most protestors didn’t know that) and used heavily in Soviet propaganda. The book says very little about the Soviet actions the West was responding to or frightened by. Neither did the movement, which aimed 90 percent of its rhetoric at the US and carried out all its protesting in the West: no one took the risk of protesting anywhere an Eastern bloc government might arrest them. (I’m not sure Craig knows President Jimmy Carter offered Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev a nuclear freeze back in 1979 and was turned down flat.)

As Craig recounts, The Day After appeared during a space of American and British films, mainly documentaries but also dramatic films like Testament, dealing with nuclear war. On The Day After, producer Robert Papazian led the hard work of research. The filmmakers debated how much of the larger military and political world to depict, but they stuck (wisely) to focusing on the victims and showed just enough of the buildup and the war to tell their story.

The Pentagon declined cooperation since it was unclear who started the war, but did provide some access, like a tour of a missile control center. Young director Nicholas Meyer (whose recollections of the film, Craig notes, often differ considerably from those of his colleagues), came on board. There were many discussions with Broadcast Standards and Practices (“the censors”), and the filmmakers fought hard to keep realistic burns, illness, and death in the film. They definitely pushed the envelope. Some of the nuclear images in the film were from Hiroshima and some from American nuclear tests. The the mushroom of the explosion was a low-budget but effective special effect inspired when Meyer noticed how someone’s creamer dispersed in his coffee. The film used a reddish liquid dispersing into an aquarium and turned the film upside down, layering in the background shot behind it.

Lawrence, Kansas, became an indispensable part of the film, not only providing locations but most of the cast and its active local peace movement even reaching out to the Soviet Union to create exchanges. The choice to have only one name actor, Jason Robards (to whom Meyer offered the role in a conversation on an airliner), and a few younger actors plus a cast of unknowns and local talent turned out to be spot on. Forty percent of the speaking roles were local. Many actors came from Kansas City. Theater troupes, professors, etc. were solicited: University of Kansas students filled many roles, as did a good chunk of Lawrence’s fifty thousand people. Actual buildings were used unless they needed to be destroyed. Lawrence is in fact near numerous Minuteman missile silos, and it had the right rural Midwestern feel, even though Meyer and others were typical Hollywood types who wanted and expected the locals to be simplistic and aw-shucks. Despite that, it all gelled. Ratings were huge, and it’s not an exaggeration to say the whole country was discussing it. Reviewers felt the result, as filmmaking as well as an issue-raiser, was very good indeed, although Stoddard and Meyer both said later they thought the film could have been better.  The film’s signature shot, of citizens looking up as the ICBMs arc into a beautiful blue sky, is as effective now as it always was.

The political whirlpools and currents around the movie began swirling long before the air date. The movie was shown to peace groups, who did all they could to use it to promote the freeze movement. President Ronald Reagan saw an advance cut: while the book’s implication it was the film that ended in him enacting more “humane” policies toward the USSR is unproved, Reagan did describe himself in his diary as “depressed.” He and his Administration cited the film as proof of the famously hawkish Regan’s new mantra that “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Craig writes that ex-actor Reagan was moved by films “like no other medium.”  I never knew the Administration actually prepared a version with subtitles and sent it to the Soviets. The peace movement and the filmmakers didn’t want the message of the nonpolitical-but-political film co-opted, and they largely succeeded in keeping the focus on antinuclear sentiment. 

Craig makes the important point that The Day After would have less of an impact in similar circumstances in the modern day because it came at a time when the broadcast networks were still the most widely viewed and influential sources of televised drama. Excellent films of the streaming era rarely reach such a vast segment of the public.

In the mid to late 1980s, arms control policies were in flux, as hardliners in Russia lost their grip on power and, in 1985, passed power to the more practical Mikhail Gorbachev. Amid the continuing battle over intermediate-range weapons in Europe, Reagan proposed the “zero option” – no such weapons for either side. (Only later did he expand that phrase to include all nuclear arms, a distinction the book misses.)  In 1987 came the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which enshrined the zero option in Europe. Craig writes this treaty “ended the arms race.” It most certainly did not, as it had no effect on the heavier long-range strategic arms, but it was a major step in the right direction.

Stoddard went on to make the Russian-occupation film Amerika, which neither Craig nor I thought was all that good. He never admitted The Day After was political, although the rest of the creative team had never denied it was. Meyer, in later years, thought delivering the antiwar message through this film was “the best thing I ever did.”

Thie book, like the film, has a bit more of a political slant than the creator admits to. Only a lunatic can be in favor of nuclear war, but Craig doesn’t allow for the sincerity of people who thought keeping peace meant keeping a strong force and handling reduction step by step, with caution about Soviet intentions. Still, those of us who believed in a strong nuclear deterrent can’t claim there’s anything moral about it except the bare fact that it’s worked.

Craig has provided us with a well-written book that chronicles an important, though perhaps not pivotal, moment in Cold War history. This is a rare look at how the entertainment industry – or one determined individual, in this case – played a role in that war and the public’s understanding of it. I have differences with the context and background Craig provides, but that doesn’t take away from the importance of the book.

 Matt Bille is a former Air Force officer, now a writer, historian, and naturalist living in Colorado Springs. He is hte author of The First Space Race Launching the World's First Satellites (Texas A&M, 2004).  He can be reached at mattsciwriter@protonmail.com. Website: www.mattbilleauthor.com.