Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Carrington Event

One of my favorite science fiction scenarios is the production of an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) that wipes out our digital technologies and transforms society as we know it.  I first learned about this phenomenon many moons back in connection with the Carrington Event which occurred on this day 156 years ago and caused all manner of discombobulation around the globe. I was reminded of it this morning through Spaceweather, which celebrated the anniversary by pointing out that we had only just escaped an equally devastating CME (coronal mass ejection) in July of 2012. The eruption was massive--apparently as strong as the 1859 event, but missed us. What it did, however, was remind us (according to the Spaceweather article) "that extreme space weather is not a thing of the past."

Richard Carrington was by all accounts a wizbang astronomer, and on that fateful day was busy drawing the sunspots he was observing in his private lab. As he watched, the spots coalesced and disappeared--but only after erupting into "a white-light solar flare--a magnetic explosion on the sun." (NASA Science News)

The NASA article also describes the aftermath:

Just before dawn the next day, skies all over planet Earth erupted in red, green, and purple auroras so brilliant that newspapers could be read as easily as in daylight. Indeed, stunning auroras pulsated even at near tropical latitudes over Cuba, the Bahamas, Jamaica, El Salvador, and Hawaii. 

 Even more disconcerting, telegraph systems worldwide went haywire. Spark discharges shocked telegraph operators and set the telegraph paper on fire. Even when telegraphers disconnected the batteries powering the lines, aurora-induced electric currents in the wires still allowed messages to be transmitted. 

The article goes on to reassure us that flares of this magnitude seem to be rare, but also notes that our current electronic technologies are all at risk--as are our satellites and astronauts (if they're doing EVA when it occurs). This is where the science fiction fodder comes in, because although world-wide space agencies are busy studying flares, Spaceweather notes that a Carrington-grade flare could effect damage on the order of a trillion dollars worth "and require four to ten years for complete recovery." I should note here that CMEs and solar flares aren't the same thing, but often occur together (Christensen). The July 2012 event, in fact, began with a flare that was followed by a CME (Anthony).

Nor, as I've only recently discovered, are EMPs and CMEs the same thing. EMPs can be manufactured, and the effects of a CME are in some ways like those of an EMP, but there seems to be a great deal of controversy on the interwebs about which would cause what. 

What this teaches me is that if I want to use these kinds of events as a backdrop to a story (as I actually already have, but the story isn't about the science; it's about the people and what they do to survive, which could happen in any number of scenarios), I need to bone up on both.

At any rate, there seem to be a number of books/movies/stories already out there, which gives me more stuff to read (if any of it's any good; one promising book is by Roger Zelazy and Thomas T. Thomas, Flare, from 1992). And of course there are all those Prepper websites that I've already run across in my real estate porn forays into Land For Sale In Montana.

Anyway, happy Carrington Day. And remember to sign up for Spaceweather (especially if you live in Montana and points north; they notify folks about auroras). Also, read the cited articles, both with more information and quite interesting.


Anthony, Sebastian. "The Solar Storm of 2012 That Almost Sent Us Back to a Post-apocalyptic Stone Age." 24 July 2014. ExtremeTech. Ziff Davis, L.L.C. Web. 02 Sept. 2015.
"August 2010 CME SDO Multi-Wavelength." Multiple contributors. Wikimedia Commons. (There are multiple CME images in the Commons, but this was the prettiest.

Christensen, Bill. "Shock to the (Solar) System: Coronal Mass Ejection Tracked to Saturn." 05 Nov. 2004. Purch. Web. 2 Sept. 2015.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Phoneless in Technotopia

Seldom one to hop on a technological bandwagon, I was rather more reluctant than most to own a cell phone.  When my mother was ill many years ago, I purchased a Nokia job that was about the size of a paperback book, but lost it at some point and cancelled the contract. Only much later, when one of my favorite students convinced me of how much fun an iPhone could be, did I get my first smartphone--the old original iPhone "silverback." Eventually, when the operating system became too obsolete to use, I bought a 4, and then about a year and a half ago, a 5s.

Yesterday morning I awoke to a blue screen and then all manner of visual effects when I unplugged it from the charger, and after scanning the interwebs for comments from other users, I was off to Best Buy, fully prepared to upgrade to a new 6 Plus. I began thinking of a newer, jazzier phone as the communications technology equivalent of Vera (my Honda Insight, which I fully expect to be my last car).

But not so fast.  After discussing the situation with a polite young man, we discovered that I wasn't eligible to upgrade yet, due to The Contract, which doesn't allow for any improvements until January of next year.  I could, of course, just flat out buy the phone with no Contract (delicious idea, that) for 750 USD. This was not my path of choice (I am, after all, newly retired, and earning a vastly reduced income), so I headed around the corner to the cellular technologies repair shop in the same complex (an open-air mall in the next town south), and where I'd had a battery replaced a few months ago.  The nice chap there thought that I was right (a bad LCD), and said to come back in an hour or so.  So I went shopping for Emma and the dogs at the petfood emporium, and then popped in to a home-products shop for a bit of therapy, emerging with some nice pasta and a potholder shaped like a rainbow trout. It made me think of my father, and I couldn't resist.  Expenditures so far:  100 USD on food and cat litter, and another 15 on the pasta and potholder.

Back to the repair store.  No luck on fixing the phone. He tried a new battery, a new screen, and everything else he could think of, but had one last trick: a data dump.  So I went next door for a hot dog and tea (another 6 bucks) for 30 minutes while he did that.  But that didn't work, either, and he didn't charge me anything even though I'd shortened his productive life by a good two hours.

I stopped by for groceries and meds on the way home, but by the time I got back at about 2 pm, I was hot, tired, demoralized, and wholly fed up with technology. I was ready to get another land line and forget about portable phones altogether. I tried one more time to restore the phone through iTunes with no luck.  I'd been without my addictive attachment for six hours and was going into withdrawal.

About then, the Beloved Spouse came home, having received an email from me apprising him of the situation.  The only option by then was to haul off to the Apple Store, in the technology capital of north Texas, Frisco.  This wouldn't have been much of a problem, except that it's located in my least favorite bastion of modern life, An Enclosed Mall.  And not just your common run-of-the-mill Sprawlmart, but a posh, upscale thing full of Nordstroms and other high end stores (although it does have a Sears, so I guess it's not all that exclusive). I don't think I've ever gotten over the portrayal of the shopping mall as a community center discussed in a graduate philosophy class back at Stony Brook U in the seventies.  Things haven't changed much--just outside Nordstroms a group of old Jewish ladies were playing Mah Jongg.

At the Apple Store, we made an appoint to consult someone at the Genius Bar, for about two hours hence. They would text the Beloved Spouse on his non-Apple cell phone when they were close to ready for us.  Since it was, by then, nearing suppertime, we walked through a couple of stores (another 50 USD) and headed for a dinner venue: Pizza.  By the time we'd had some pita and hummus and adult beverages, we were getting closer to Genius time, so asked for the pizza to go (total tab ~35 USD), and walked through a bookstore on the way back.  Two books and another 27 USD later, we plopped down on a bench in front of the Apple Store and were summoned within a couple of minutes.

To make this very long story only a little longer, we waited at the "bar" for a "genius"--yet another charming fella who proceeded to try everything that had already been tried by me and the other guy.  The ultimate decision was to replace the phone with a rehabbed one at a cost of 291 smackeroonies. Which was better than 750, even counting the 80 or so additional bucks (not counting gas and tolls) spent during the time of tribulation for food and therapeutic shopping.

In the end, this will most likely not be my last phone after all, although I hope this is the last time I have to endure what--in the grand scheme of things--was a nuisance and waste of time but mostly just inconvenience.  I did have to re-download apps from the Cloud, and lost all of my cool ring tones for the kids and the Beloved Spouse. But I also had a relatively enjoyable time with him, and we got out of our rather stolid routine for a bit.

As much as I really like having the phone and the apps (especially the camera--which hadn't been working well on the old one, and the new one works properly), however, I still think that being so dependent on this particular technological apparatus is problematic. In one chunk of a day I discovered a bit about why my students' lives are so completely circumscribed by this one object. And now I'm even more worried about their futures than I was before.

Image credit: Teléfono de cordel, from  A. Guillemin, El mundo físico: gravedad, gravitación, luz, calor, electricidad, magnetisimo, etc. Barcelona: Montaner y Simón, 1882. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by clusternote.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Living In Interesting Times


This post will ramble a bit, but I hope to arrive somewhere in the end.  It's prompted by several recent events and the general state of the world as I find it, approximately a week into my first quarter in over twenty years as an adjunct instructor.

My quasi retirement came about abruptly, due to my having been made an offer I couldn't well refuse to voluntarily "separate" from the company in exchange for a lump sum of cash based on my years of service.  Since last quarter had stimulated thoughts of my retiring sooner rather than later, I jumped (pole-vaulted?) at the chance, especially since I'd be able to apply immediately for an adjunct position. What this meant was that I could take the money, run, and come back part-time, teaching a couple of courses a quarter. And although it meant getting a background check and peeing in a cup (neither of which happened when I initially joined the Institution), I went for it. The drug test was a pain because they wanted more out of me than I was prepared to supply, and it took two tries; but the residue of numerous heart disease related medications didn't disqualify me, and I was indeed hired back. I'm actually teaching three courses this quarter due to a special need, but beginning in the Fall--if the planets align properly--I'll teach two on a single day and thus be able to accomplish many of the tasks I've been putting off.

This new situation has quite naturally awakened fantasies of an actual retirement involving both me and the Beloved Spouse, and dreams of big sky, off-the-grid living in someplace not Texas.  House-porn has taken a new direction (northwest, to Montana), although the Owens Valley is still in contention.  But if anything is to come of the property lust, it means that I have to devote a healthy chunk of time to clearing out the detritus of a lifetime.  

In stage one of the process, I filled up three boxes of books to take to Half Price, and managed to bring home rather fewer (I only got enough from the sale to pay for what I picked up). But this was a start, and as long as the resident super-mice don't destroy the entire library, I will be sorting through, culling, and choosing what to move eventually. Actually, the mice might do me a favor if they keep devouring things.  One seems to have an especial fondness for the Greek Anthology, and has eaten most of the covers off all four volumes of the Loeb edition.

What has really made this month interesting, though (in addition to the political circus that I keep trying to ignore), is Pluto. After waiting for nearly ten years, NASA's New Horizons people have pulled it off and are currently processing the photos sent back from the outer reaches of the solar system.  Since I well remember how incredible the Viking shots of Mars seemed in 1976, the early images of Pluto and Charon are bringing it all back. Thirty nine years ago today, this is what the Viking 1 spacecraft saw:

Viking 1 lander site, July 21, 1976

To a youngish (early thirties; my first child--who grew up to design spaceships--had been born only a few months earlier) devotee of science and science fiction, these pictures were utterly astonishing. They would later be surpassed by those sent by the Mars Global Surveyor (1996-2001), including this one that showed clear evidence of surface water in the distant past:

Gorgonum Chaos, a set of canyons in the Phaethontis Quandrangel of Mars

 Since then, of course, the cute little robots Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity have contributed their share of information, and many future missions of varying complexity are planned, including one involving actual humans.  As the Beloved Spouse knows well, I'd go in a cold minute, even if it meant never getting back here; but unless they want to test the stamina of aging heart patients, I don't think he needs to worry.

The best news I've heard lately comes from none other than the venerable Stephen Hawking. He's teaming up with Yuri Milner (a Russian Internet magnate and serious science groupie) to search for aliens and spend a hundred million bucks doing it: a project called Breakthrough Listen. This will involve using real telescopes and getting real time to do it; it will also involve SETI@home, which (now that I'm sort-of retired and can get involved even minimally) I've just signed up for. I even downloaded the BOINC software, but managed to do it on a Tuesday, when they do maintenance. My computer will have more downtime now, and it will no longer go to waste. 

Do I want there to be folks out there?  Dunno.  They can't be much worse than we are, so it would at least be interesting.  When Carl Sagan talked about all this back in 1980 (I bought our first color TV, a little 13-inch job, so I could watch Cosmos in color),  the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft were already on their way, carrying the iconic "golden record" with sounds and images from earth (see opening photo).  Both of them are still "alive," sending data from beyond the solar system.  

Perhaps I've been reading too much Jack McDevitt, but I don't expect that we'll run into anyone before I die; I'm beginning to accept his basic notion (at least as expressed in his books) that even if life frequently occurs out there, civilizations are short-lived.  I can't really imagine that ours (such as it is) will survive too awfully much longer because we seem hell-bent on doing ourselves in.  Perhaps an alien invasion really is what we need to keep us from a cultural implosion.  But if ET really does visit, and doesn't much like us much, I hope they're nice to animals. Like Randy Newman, I don't want to hurt no kangaroos.

Now, if I can just find that "trigger" thing I used in More News From Nowhere, maybe I can find a nice utopia in which to retire.  Or maybe a remote twenty acres or so in southwestern Montana.

Image credits: all of the photos used above come from Wikimedia Commons, and some in particular from the Wikipedia article on Exploration of Mars. The one from Viking 1, however, disappeared, and I've replaced it with another from The Mars Team Online Photo Gallery--with hopes that it's not copyrighted or anything.