Saturday, November 11, 2017

Looking Backward, Going Forward

As I begin to transform my old website Owldroppings into a more complete exploration of the concerns that show up in this blog (which will become a component of a newly realized Owl’s Farm: The Website), I keep running into questions about what I really want to think and write about.

After all, I’m about to turn seventy, an age I never thought I’d reach. So what does a seventy year-old former academic, wannabe political economist, sometime philosopher of technology, lapsed archaeologist, retired art and design history teacher, and compulsive writer do with what remains of her life?

Early on in my musings I realized that I want to stop being so grumpy. Even though I don’t have grandchildren, my siblings do, and so I do have a small genetic investment in the future. It might behoove me, therefore, to begin to consider better alternatives than seem to be available in the present political moment.

Owl’s Farm: The Blog has always been about utopia. It was inspired by two of the best utopian thinkers I ever ran across: William Morris and Yi-Fu Tuan. Morris was a celebrated designer and an early socialist, and Tuan is a humanistic geographer with a profound understanding of place. Both developed creative visions of the notion of home, which led to my explorations into its many meanings.

As I searched for a focus for the new iteration of the website, I realized that it still had to be about education, and should still embody the “teaching philosophy” I was required to articulate for my annual evaluations as a college instructor.  But it also needs to spend less time on the current state of education and more on locating what could improve it—especially since there are good models available.

In addition, instead of just complaining about current economic conditions, perhaps I should focus on locating bright spots on the horizon, like alternative energy solutions or promising community developments.

The website should also continue to provide resources for the curious, since former students still occasionally use it for the links. I’ll also archive my topical essays for courses I taught (not just art and design history, but philosophical perspectives on food, anthropology, culture, and the Arts and Crafts movement), and see if I can stay on top of issues relevant to them.   

All along this blog was meant to be an adjunct to my novel, More News From Nowhere. That, too, is in the process of being revised somewhat—now that I have the time to revisit its reason for being.  As a lifelong interdisciplinarian, I want to use the novel (and others in various stages of development) and the blog(s) as outlets for the results of curiosity. It’s often difficult to compartmentalize my many interests, but occasionally I can focus on a single aspect (museums, for example) and develop lines of inquiry that can be labeled. Hence: Owl’s Cabinet of Wonders. Other attempts (like The Owl of Athena, a blog on educational concerns) kept leaking into The Farm, and so were abandoned (although they, too, will be archived on the revised site). 

The ultimate aim now is fun—as much as is possible in this moment. I’m too old to keep wasting time being a complete curmudgeon. I can’t promise that I won’t ever go off on another grumpy rant again, or that sarcasm won’t sneak into my commentary on life, the universe, and everything. I am by nature a cynic, in its original sense. I’m dog-like: suspicious, reluctant to trust without reason (see my post from The Owl of Athena on the topic). But also both faithful and curious, and willing to explore new ideas and approaches.  

And yes, I can be a cranky old bitch. But I’ll try to do more Frisbee chasing and romping around in the garden, and less grousing. I hope what I’ll have to offer is interesting, entertaining (in a very broad sense of the word), thoughtful, and educational. I also hope it will provide a sense of hope for the future, and tools for building more of a eu-topia than an ou-topia. I’d rather that we move toward a good place than continue to imagine what can only be a no-place, a place possible only in the imagination.

Wish me luck.

PS: is “live” but practically devoid of contact. Design work will progress as I have time, depending on concurrent pursuits.

Image note: The photo is of Mount Whitney, taken in the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine, California, during our winter trip in 2015/16. Whenever I stayed with my Grandmother, I could see a more distant version of this image from her living room window.

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.