Monday, September 18, 2017

Twenty Years

Having anxiously awaited Cassini's last moments for the previous week, I spent last Friday morning glued to the iPad, eavesdropping on the operations room at JPL where the folks who'd been working on the project monitored its End of Mission. As I watched the room erupt in hugs and tears after Cassini's final signal was called, I marveled at the idea of spending twenty years (as some of them had) working on a project that contributed so significantly to the sum of human knowledge. If you missed the live feed, NASA's flickr page features collection of photos that can provide a hint of the moment's emotional power. 

The combined sadness and joy expressed during the television coverage was both moving and enviable to an old space groupie like me. Ending one month shy of the twentieth anniversary of its launch, the project went out quite literally in a blaze of glory--which we'll never see because there wasn't anyone there to shoot the video. After having accomplished far more than anyone had expected when the Cassini-Huygens mission began, many more years will be required to digest all of the data gathered.

From its inception, the mission that took the probe Huygens to Titan in 2004 and enabled Cassini to continue on for several added missions made possible by a good battery and international cooperation presented us with almost incalculable benefits (partially enumerated on the nifty poster included below). But its ending also reminded me that quite a number of things have changed since the 1997 launch.

It's hard to believe that in those twenty years communications technologies have moved us from dialup computer service to wireless, from bulky mobile telephones to smartphones, and from clunky desktop computers to sleek Macs and ever skinnier, ever more powerful laptops and tablets. It was also in 1997 that I purchased my web domain from Network Solutions and developed the first faculty web pages for the use of my students--because The Institution (which had programs in web development, computer graphics, and animation) hadn't yet caught on to the value of online education. But even this cranky old technophobe saw the potential of being able to put instructional materials where they could be easily accessed at any time. And so, "Owldroppings" came into being, and served me well for the remainder of my teaching career. In honor of its twentieth anniversary, in fact, the domain is in the process of being transformed into a more complex version of Owl's Farm, where the Owldroppings materials will be archived and other concerns developed.

As rewarding as my experience with digital enhancements was, the general tenor of higher education had declined so badly by the time I retired that I found myself truly envying the level of accomplishment in evidence at the end of the Cassini mission. How good it must feel to have been a part of such an enormously rewarding experience! The emotions were obviously mixed, but even those members of the team who will themselves soon retire will have all that glory to bask in and all that experience to contribute to yet other endeavors.

So, yeah, I was jealous. But then, one of my former students texted to check up on me, and I invited her and another of those few but significant grads who are both memorable and have kept in touch to come to lunch on Saturday so we could all reconnect. Later, yet another student (who had recently texted to announce her pregnancy) stopped by. We had a lovely afternoon and a romp down Memory Lane (even though not all of those memories were pleasant), and as they were leaving I began to realize that rewarding experiences don't all have to be big, spectacular accomplishments like Cassini.

Seeing these bright, affable, creative young women again, moving toward their own futures (much as my own children have done--taking their own time, but leading rewarding lives), and realizing that I played a small part in how they've turned out, is well worth the effort that went into a teaching career that didn't always seem particularly meaningful.

In the end, my disappointment in not having the proper education to become an astronaut or a rocket scientist can be assuaged by the knowledge that there are some terrific people out there that I would never have met (or children I would never have borne) if I had made it to the space program.

Image credits: One of my favorite of Cassini's gazillion shots of Saturn and its moons (Epimetheus, Rings, and Titan, from April 2006), I pinched this from Wikimedia Commons. Many more can be found through NASA/JPL's pages, including the chart of Cassini's accomplishments (which I originally found in Wikipedia's rather nice article on the mission).

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Skywatch Friday: An Afternoon in the Sun

Several months ago I realized that we were nearing what would come to be called (in our ever more hyperbolic media outlets) The Great American Eclipse, but didn't get terribly excited because we wouldn't be experiencing much of it here in Texas. I thought about driving north to Kansas to catch totality, but wasn't thinking far enough ahead to actually make plans. By the time the event was upon us, I had actually missed the window for obtaining glasses, and was facing the probability of a pinhole projection experience.

Fortunately for us, an old friend, boss, and fellow astronomy buff invited us to his place to watch through his appropriately filtered telescope, and he had glasses. So, I whipped up some thematically appropriate snacks (chile con queso and black bean dip), found round yellow and blue corn chips, and located well-named wine (Moon X and Honey Moon) and beer (Luna y Sol), and we headed a bit south to an amazing refuge from suburban life, bordered by a forest and a meadow. I was so mesmerized by the green space that it almost distracted me from the business at hand. But not quite.

We spent the day observing through the telescope, the glasses, and a nifty little pinhole setup. The Beloved Spouse discovered that he could take photos through the telescope lens with our Canon Eos, and we got a variety of shots that recorded the 75% of totality available in the Dallas area. One of the later photos even shows the sunspots visible through the telescope (using a telephoto lens).

In all, we had a splendid day, enjoying the company of my friend (whom I hadn't seen for a couple of years) and his wife, catching up with news, and enjoying the terrific view from their back porch. I even swapped photos with my kids, one of whom was rather closer to the action, in Seattle, and sent me wonderful shadow pictures.

In another seven years Dallas will be in the path of totality when the next total eclipse passes over a small portion of the southern US (in 2024), so we're already planning another soiree. By then we'll have acquired filters for both our telescope and the camera, and will be much better prepared.

I have to admit that I was caught completely off guard by the enthusiasm that greeted Monday's event. A generally scientifically apathetic public was swept into a kind of frenzy, most likely because we were all so eager to find something uplifting to distract us from depressing political news. But the eclipse is over, and within a day the fever had abated--or was, rather, deflected to the latest lottery jackpot.

So I doubt that all that many of the people who were so engaged by Monday's hoopla will care a whit that September 5 marks the fortieth anniversary of Voyager 1's launch (the anniversary of Voyager 2's launch occurred the day before the eclipse). Some of us, however, are currently awaiting the arrival of our copies of The Golden Record, at which time we'll be able to geek out on the contents of the box it comes in, with all the rewards for having backed the Kickstarter campaign. Folks who missed the initial campaign can buy a copy from Ozma Records when it becomes available to the general public.

So, happy Skywatch Friday. I had a bit of fun getting the Beloved Spouse to reproduce approximate 75% totality with corn chips, but the photo was taken of the sky, so it counts.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Fake History

Seventeen years ago, when we were looking for a house of our own to buy, we were attracted to this town and this neighborhood by the fact that ordinances prevented buyers from tearing down little old bungalows to build big, new, characterless monstrosities. Both house-hunters and builders had recently discovered east Dallas, and prices had begun to rise precipitously just when we were entering the market. So our cute little neighborhood in “Lakewood Borders” as I called it (officially “Lakewood Heights,” on the fringes of the posh and pricey neighborhood surrounding White Rock Lake) was almost immediately out of our range—and almost as quickly began to change character in the absence of any kind of historic designation. When The Beloved Spouse decided one day to drive up to McKinney and look around, he found The House almost at once, and within months it was ours.

It wasn’t perfect, with its AstroTurf on the front porch and gold shag carpet in most of the living areas, but the “bones” were most certainly solid, especially for a house built only a year after my father was born (1922). The neighborhood itself was a mixed bag of little scruffy bungalows (like ours) and large elaborate Tudor and Georgian revivals, along with Texas Victorians both large and small. The wooden bits of our house had been clad with white aluminum siding that hid some of its Craftsman details, which probably contributed to its affordability, and it would be years before we accumulated the wherewithal to begin to restore it. 

In the meantime, we stripped the floors of the carpet and managed to get up most of the goop that had held it down, and over the next ten years we refinished bits and painted other bits. The lovely quarter-sawn planks that had been hidden under the gold shag have been stripped but are still unfinished; we’ll get it done eventually. Most of our effort has been spent tearing down badly thrown-up sheetrock and ancient stained and worn wallpaper to expose the ship-lap underneath. Before it was trendy to do so, we removed sagging beaverboard ceilings and left the wood open to god and everybody, and later painted some of the walls and stained and sealed others.  What we have not done is to “update” the kitchen and downstairs bath, opting instead to keep as much of them intact as possible, even if they’re not quite period-correct. We’ve bucked the trend to enlarge the kitchen, replace the tile, put in stainless steel and granite and replace cupboards, even though the kitchen’s rather tiny and the bathroom is neither appropriate to the ’twenties nor particularly stylish.  Nonetheless, visitors seem to like the place, proclaiming it comfortable and homey. It seems to remind folks of their grandparents’ houses.

When we finally mustered the funds to get the siding removed, we painstakingly researched historically appropriate colors to paint the new hardie board sections (sturdier and less expensive than wood, and much more authentic-looking than the aluminum stuff). We chose four: a barn red for the major fields, "Dard Hunter Green" for the larger segments of trim, "Roycroft Adobe" and "Roycroft Rose" for smaller bits of accent. These all came from the Sherman Williams Craftsman palette, and were chosen to match the multiple shades of red and green on the brick. The comments were immediately favorable, with neighbors stopping buy to tell us how good they thought it all looked.

Unlike many bungalow-owners, we gave no desire to turn our home into a museum of the Craftsman style, in part because we could never afford to. Most of what our place is furnished with is old and well loved, but not period specific. So while I admire and respect the aesthetic sensibilities of Morris and his heirs, what decorates our home is useful and beautiful to us, but is unlikely to fit the criteria of the more religious of the American Bungalow faithful.

I’m not quite sure why it is that so many people rely so heavily on shelter magazines and home improvement/house-hunting television shows to determine how their interiors should look.  It’s as if they need permission to do something adventurous or out-of-the-ordinary, and so wait until they see someone do it in a magazine before they take a chance. And as much as I love my house porn, by far my most beloved of magazines is the British edition of Country Living. I no longer get it in print because I haven’t the room to hoard any more back issues, but the many I already have stashed reflect something intriguing. Even though I have issues dating back to the ‘80s, none of them seem out of date today. Open any issue and the rooms seem just as fresh and current as they did then.  Perhaps this stems from the fact that Brits don’t seem to need anyone’s permission to relish their history and traditional country life. But in the US, our history is so recent and such a hodgepodge of influences that we have very little in the way of deeply held aesthetic traditions. Some pockets of “native” design exist (the Southwestern adobe houses in Arizona and New Mexico, the Spanish Mission influence in California, for example), but these reflect the traditions and tastes of early inhabitants or conquerors rather than anything deeply American (whatever that would look like).

The recent housing boom has hit this town like a tornado, however, and the small bungalow interiors that make houses like ours so cozy will be disappearing even more quickly than they already had been. Buyers can’t do much to the exteriors because restrictions regarding architectural style are in place for older houses (sound structures can’t be torn down, but can be added to—considerably—and must retain one of the approved vernacular vocabularies), but they can gut interiors to match the modern, "open plan," country-ish interior they saw on Houzz. In addition, our city council seems to be rather lenient with new homes on vacant lots. The preferred new construction these days is a sort of Faux Texas Farmhouse Modern Rustic, clearly inspired by what’s been going on down in Waco for the past three years or so. I’m not quite sure what to think of all this, because it’s not true to the spirit of the town’s traditional structures, but it’s a damned sight better than the Middle American Texas Tudor Ranch Baroque crap that’s always being built on the other side of McKinney, outside of the historic district.

Anyone who spends as much time as I do fantasizing about land and old houses on Zillow will notice  the death of the genuine old house interior. Even when people buy one of the standard two- or three-bedroom bungalows built in the twenties and thirties, and even though they can’t really change the exterior of the house significantly (except to put up fake shutters, usually in a totally inappropriate size), they immediately start knocking down interior walls to “open up the space,” covering all horizontal surfaces in kitchens and baths with granite or marble, and jamming in the largest stainless steel fridge and range that will fit. They also tear out perfectly good tile and cover the vertical surfaces with too-narrow “subway” tile or some other hot choice-of-the-moment. Then they paint the walls and woodwork white.  And although a few on-the-market houses have adopted the  “Fixer-Upper” nouveau-rustic aesthetic so popular on HGTV now have chucked the sheetrock and tile for ship-lap and bead boarding—they then paint that white.

Since I’ve gotten a bit cute with my bathroom (topping the four-inch yellow tile with a frieze of varied hand-painted Mexican tile framed with some of the ship-lap salvaged from a beyond-rescue ceiling), I can’t comfortably wear the mantle of true historicity. But at least what we’ve done is to jazz up the old, staid, American Standard bathroom without tearing the whole thing down or enlarging it to hold a Roman bath complex. I’d be practically ecstatic if that’s what more people decided to do around here: look to their southwestern neighbors for inspiration that doesn’t come from a single source, or, better yet, delve into their own families’ backgrounds for ideas that evoke history and memory.

But the demand for houses in this area is exploding, and the asking prices are rising astronomically, and people seem to be “investing” now in “updated” kitchens and baths so they can get top dollar when they sell out. Which is what they’re really doing—although one can hardly blame them, since already ridiculous property taxes will only rise in respond to the boom. 

Oddly enough, this new fever has dampened our own ardor a little, and we're feeling less inclined to move away. We had already begun to seriously consider sheltering in place, rather than selling out and running west to the high desert. And now, with houses like ours being marketed with asking prices nearly twice what they should be, our anti-exploitive convictions are taking over and we’re much more reluctant to go through the angst of sorting through books and the clearing out that it would take be able to move. It’s probably more evidence of nostalgia on our part, but we’d feel as if we’d abandoned this well-loved house if we sold it just to make a buck. Or several hundred thousand bucks.

We came here because this is one of several towns in Texas that has maintained ties with its history. Many north Texas towns like McKinney and Waxahachie have taken steps to preserve older neighborhoods, and even Dallas has tried to stem the growth of McMansions and the destruction of its older bits by using historical designations as a means of turning back the tides of rampant “progress.” But if the nod to history is only superficial, we’re really not going to be much better than the old western facade movie sets. The small rooms that made bungalows cozy are giving way to “open plan” entertainment spaces that reflect lives at odds with what old-fashioned family values seem to require: intimate dining spaces, rooms for quiet reading, conversations around the hearth. Our house suits us much better than a much bigger one would—but then we’re empty-nesters on the verge of full retirement, without grandchildren or all that much family nearby.

I guess I just wish that before folks start telling their builders to tear down walls and put in the trendiest new accoutrements (and don't get me started on "distressed" furniture and phony "aged" paint jobs), perhaps they could spend a little time looking through an issue of American Bungalow or the British edition of Country Living for ideas about how to mesh the new with the old, in order not to remove the patina of history from houses that still have stories to tell.  Instead of watching "Fixer Upper," check out "Rehab Addict" for ideas about how to do less damage to a house’s original character. And if they want a new house, build a new house. Don’t try to turn an old, weathered, seasoned dowager into something that will never quite fit comfortably into heavy makeup and mod new clothes.