Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hunkering Down In Dystopia

If my last post seemed overly optimistic in view of current circumstances, this one will remedy the impression.

As summer wanes, I should be looking forward to cooler weather, fewer mosquitoes, and settling in to the retired life with its time for Getting Things Done (things long put off due to busy-ness). However, not an hour goes by when I don't get a screaming, all-caps headline in my e-mail box from the Democrats, announcing that we're DOOMED, and that ALL HOPE IS LOST if I don't contribute more and more and more to the campaign. The Daily Kos (to which I am guiltily addicted) features one inflammatory "diary" after another in language every bit as offensive as anything you'd read in a tweet from one of the twits who truly believe that the Republican candidate is not an egomaniacal fascist but someone who will save us from whatever they want saving from.

The answer, of course, is to simply not read the stuff, and instead concentrate on the real news from more reasonable sources. So I turn to the Times (which disburses bad news much less shrilly than most other papers, including the Washington Post) and New Scientist, where my weekly science fix assures me that at least the UK (despite Brexit) is not as willing to abdicate reason as we are over here.

Last week's New Scientist, in fact, featured a story on the Indus Valley civilization and the possibility that it sustained a somewhat utopian culture for several hundred years. But hope that modern Western capitalism could produce anything even vaguely similar (warless, egalitarian, decentralized, prosperous) is slim. Instead we have news of all manner of mayhem: political, environmental, economic. And as the election draws nearer, and some polls indicate the possibility that the "Republican" candidate could win, I spend more and more time trying to find a place to live, off the grid preferably, somewhere far enough away from urban centers to be able to shelter myself from the consequences. We (the Beloved Spouse and I) are actually better off than the alt-right folks who swear they'll leave the country if the Democrats win, because there are unlikely to be any places for them to go that aren't even more culturally and politically leftish than we are here.

But TBS and I will undoubtedly just withdraw as far as we can into our domestic eu-topos, inside the fence, inside the walls, building our little suburban farm and trying not to go nuts.

Oddly enough, I've started wandering the neighborhood on a regular basis, getting to know the historic district in which we live. Quite to my surprise, the place is not completely populated by oversized, opulent mansions left over from McKinney's glory days. At least half of the houses I pass in any direction are smallish bungalows with eccentric yards, providing evidence of a wide variety of income levels. Some folks are clearly trying to take advantage of the current boom and are hiring contractors to put subway tile behind their cookers, replace their tile or corian counters (left over from the last boom) with granite, and replace their "dated" appliances with stainless steel. But some very nice fences are going up to hold urban chickens with fancy coops and small food gardens, many of these behind the smaller bungalows that have held on to their big lots. I'm truly enjoying the process of working through the streets and alleys to see what's there--and to get in my daily 30-60 minutes of not sitting on my backside.

Soon I'll make it to the local library (a nice walk up the street toward the town square) to start researching this house in hopes of obtaining historic status for it. If successful, it will cut the tax burden a bit and make the place more attractive should we decide to sell and skip town for parts west. The size and park-like aspect of the back quarter acre might make up for the fact that there's no central air or dishwasher in the house. And all we really need to do if we decide to stay is to find a way of blocking the light from the new Taj Mahal behind us (a rehabbed bungalow turned into a McMansion; the historic district covenants end in the alley between them and us), and covering up the piece-of-crap addition our northern neighbor has inserted on top of her already offensive fence. But thanks to a trip through an alley a few streets away, I've now got ideas about how to deal with both.

I'm still hopeful that the country will not abandon all reason and elect a clearly unqualified candidate, but my pessimistic nature requires that I prepare for the worst. In the meantime, I'll keep working on the house, walking the dog, hanging out in the garden with the cat, and preparing to shelter in place.


Image credit: I chose this image because it reminds me of my own neighborhood--and because it shows the hub of American political life as it once was--before modernity and urbanization changed it irrevocably.

Arcadian D.C. Uploaded by AlbertHerring to Wikimedia Commons. Montgomery C. Meigs's "View from the 2nd story of the residence of Mrs. Comre. John Rodgers, Franklin Row, K Street at 12 & 13 Sts, Washington, D.C., overlooking the backyard and adjacent neighborhood, and showing children standing on balconies," 1850. Library of Congress.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

News From Out There


 Relative sizes and distances of Alpha/Proxima Centuari stars from the sun
For as long as I could, I resisted the temptation to jump on the Proxima b bandwagon and start waxing poetical about habitable planets in light of recent news. A week or so isn't really all that long, but given the alignment of heavenly bodies in my particular cosmos, that's probably long enough. I could not, however, resist at all the inclusion of the rather wonderful artist's interpretation of what the planet might look like, even though it means noting the European Southern Observatory's requirement to credit ESO/Kornmesser as the source:


One reason I felt compelled to mark this moment is that twenty years ago I discovered a terrific novel about Jesuits in space by Mary Doria Russell: The Sparrow, which takes place on a planet called Rakhat in the Alpha Centauri system. (For Russell's take on the coincidence, see this article on her website.) The book, and its sequel, Children of God, was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the discovery of Proxima b.

The little red circle under the star on the left marks the location
of Proxima Centauri in relation to the other two. 

As if to punctuate this coincidence, my bi-weekly pilgrimage to Half Price Books netted a novel by Stephen Baxter called Proxima (2013), and then New Scientist featured a cover story on the discovery on 27 August. I'm still wandering around on Green Mars (I'm rereading Kim Stanley Robinson's trilogy because I can't really remember much about it), so I haven't had time to get into the Baxter book. Quite frankly Baxter's been knocking novels out so quickly that I can't keep up. I've got two or three others on my shelves that I haven't even looked at. At any rate, it now goes to the top of the heap under Blue Mars. (For movies that have used the Alpha Centauri region as a remote--ahem--location see this post on the Discover magazine blog, Dbrief: Alpha Centauri, The Hollywood Star System.)

And then there's the new Coursera MOOC I started a month ago, "Imagining Other Earths" taught by Dr. David Spergel out of Princeton's astronomy department. This one's twenty-four weeks long and is described in its blurb thus: "Are we alone? This course introduces core concepts in astronomy, biology, and planetary science that enable the student to speculate scientifically about this profound question and invent their own solar systems" (the grammar isn't mine). I thought it would be a good idea to get better at the science if I'm going to keep working on stories about old bats in space. So far I've learned tons, and it's helping me keep my invented planets straight.

Then, as if all that weren't enough, a message comes through the SETI board to look out for media blather about a "Candidate SETI SIGNAL DETECTED by Russians from star HD 164595 by virtue of RATAN-600 radio telescope." The board moderator/SETI project scientist Eric Korpela poked a hole in that balloon, noting that "of course, it's been announced to the media" and that reporters "won't have the background to know it's not interesting." So even though folks are looking at it, it's not coming from the constellation Centaurus, and thus it's probably not worth calling up the Father General of the Society of Jesus to see if he can arrange to buy a hollowed out asteroid to use to mount an expedition.

Good thing, too, since humans would probably screw it up.

As expected, however, my science fiction feeds on Flipboard were full of announcements about "interesting" signals, and I imagine that the less skeptical among space-fans will be glued to the interwebs for a while. Meanwhile, there's more substantial fare available at The Pale Red Dot, and a nice article on EarthSky by Larry Sessions on the composition of the Alpha Centauri system.

I do so love this stuff.

The reason I enjoy this sort of thing quite as much as I do is because "outer space" is the ultimate "nowhere"--the ou (no) topos (place), with the potential to be the eu (good) topos. When Thomas More made this marvelous pun in the sixteenth century, he tapped into a human longing that goes back to ideas of Eden in the Judaeo-christian tradition, or of a golden age imagined in classical antiquity. Nowadays, of course, modern technology invites us to look for "nowheres" that at one time would have been inconceivable except as fantasy. Most of us with any science background at all know that living on other planets still belongs in the realm of fantasy, but every little frisson of hope implied by a nearby habitable planet (or even a more habitable moon or Mars) where we could do a better job of living with each other than we do now is potential nectar to the hopeful. And I think hope really is the underlying impulse among utopians.

Especially now, when we increasingly seem to be on the verge of dystopia, at the hands of the greedy, the willfully ignorant, the misguided, the bigoted, the fanatic, the atavistic--essentially all of the enemies of ideals like tolerance, wisdom, and justice that utopias are built on.

Of course, even in fictional "noplaces," things don't always turn out well. It almost seems that whenever we try to imagine something better, the reality of who we are and have been creeps in and muddles things up.

And still we dream on. I'm not sure what all that dreaming means, but it does keep me from falling on my sword, and provides me with a reason to get up every morning, take the dog for a walk, and get back to the business of wondering what it would take to actually make things work.

Image credits: "Pale Red Dot" (J. Mencisom) and Alpha Centauri region image (Guy Vandegrift) from Wikimedia Commons. "Artist's Impression of the planet orbiting Proxima Centauri" ESO/M.Kornmesser, originally found on Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Why I Believe In Dog


This is not the first time I've written an obituary for a pet on this blog. Undoubtedly it won't be the last. But it may be the hardest thing I've done in a while.

Last Friday afternoon, the Beloved Spouse and I took our well-loved mutt, Woody, to the vet for the second time in as many days. This time he didn't come home. We're not quite sure what had happened, but he hadn't been himself for several months, and xrays and blood work indicated that his obvious pain had a source. So we let him go. The doctor and crew who had cared for him for the last twelve years helped us through it all, and when we got home his brother Arlo was waiting for us.

His brother's absence seems to puzzle Arlo a little, but he's soaking up the attention. And pet care is considerably easier now without the nightly tussle of administering drugs to a dog who had forgotten all his manners.  Arlo gets along with Mrs. Peel better than Woody did, too, and she's taking advantage of the situation by lounging around in places she avoided before.

So now we settle into life without one of the "puppies" who'd been with us since before my father died (we took photos of the little guys for my Dad to see when we went out to visit him in hospice), neither of which had spent much time away from his "womb mate." We always got a kick out of explaining that they were siblings because they were two totally different dogs, both in looks and in temperament. Woody, as I was fond of saying, was the pretty one; Arlo had most of the smarts.


With the news full of the awful things human beings do to one another and to other beings, dogs remind us what pure innocence and goodness looks like.  Not long ago my stepmother sent me some very moving photos of service dogs who help the military and law enforcement do their jobs. I wept through them all because their loyalty is emblematic of the kind of virtue we want our children to practice. Recently, in a conversation about a neglected dog, the Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax noted that "People don't deserve dogs" because of the way some of us treat them.

Thanks to a thoughtful former boss, who found these guys for us, and to the Frisco Humane Society who fostered them, Woody and Arlo have had good lives with a family who appreciates them. We will all miss our sweet, goofy, gorgeous Woody--and will treasure however much time we have left with his brother.

Images: Woody in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, California during his Big Adventure in December of 2014; Woody and Arlo enjoying one of their favorite pastimes. It snowed the day we got them, and they've loved romping in the white stuff ever since.