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.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Total Recall

During my continuing efforts to repopulate the memory centers of my computer, I've started noticing how often the concept of memory itself comes up in everyday life. As I was attempting (for about the four hundredth time since I formally retired) to clear off my desk, I noticed a little 3.5" floppy disk labeled with my old airmail dot net e-mail address, "netscape mail files," and the date 07 14 01. Now this isn't exactly what I lost in The Big Dump, but using the little USB drive I mentioned last post, I discovered that there were about three years worth of correspondence between my Dad, stepmother, me, and my children on the diskette. This amounts to about 800 or so pages of text, describing the events of the moment: my grandmother's hundredth birthday, my son's twenty-first, my mother's deportation from Taiwan (and subsequent arrival in Dallas)--and I'm only up to about p. 229.

All of this fills in great gaps in my physiological memory, and in many ways brings my father back to me (he died in 2004) because his voice is so present in his letters.

At the same time, I just finished rereading Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars (and some of the short stories in The Martians), in which the question of how memory works when people live to be 300 years old comes up frequently. In one story, a couple of characters who had met many years before discuss who remembers whom (one does remember the meeting, the other doesn't)--and after yesterday's romp through my own half-forgotten life, this reinforces the idea that if we do want to remember stuff, we need to work at it.

When I was teaching my introduction to the humanities course, one of the topics I explored every quarter was memory, and the role art plays in preserving it. The Annenberg Learner resources provide a lovely video on this very topic, called "History and Memory," a segment of their Art Through Time: A Global View series, and the film provided my students with a brief introduction to the importance of art as a means of preserving cultural and personal histories. The more I thought about it, the more it became clear that art is central to the whole idea, and that arts like sculpture, painting, literature, music--all the creative efforts we undertake--are means of preserving memory.

One of my favorite objects, used to illustrate discussions of both memory and the development of writing, is the Lukasa, or "memory board" developed by the Luba People of the Congo. I first learned about it on CBS Sunday Morning episode (which I remember clearly because I bought a VHS copy of the segment and showed it frequently in class) which featured an exhibit entitled Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (1996) curated by anthropologist Mary Nooter Roberts. The boards are covered by beads and/or bumps in patterns and arrangements that allow the Mbudye (a specially trained tribal historian who uses the Lukasa) to recall the past. The patterns vary widely, but on one early image search (in about 1997) I remember (!) seeing an aerial view of a Luba village which contained a number of circular houses that reminded me of the protrusions on one of the Lukasas I had seen in the film (probably this one, from the Met). The Lukasa is not, however, a physical map of a particular place, but more like a conceptual map of cultural experience. The one below is from the Brooklyn Museum, and contains both carved areas and beads. By fingering the elements, the storyteller remembers and recites stories and events.

I often thought of asking my students to create their own memory boards, but never did get around to it. I still think it would be a great personal project, especially for someone who wanted to reconnect with an African ancestral path.

Since one of my abiding interests is in museology (see Owl's Cabinet of Wonders--soon to undergo revamping and updating), the physical evidence of history as a tool of memory has been equally important, not only in my pedagogical life, but in my role as the unofficial family historian. I knew I'd taken over the mantle from my grandmother and my father when my stepmother handed over boxes of family documents during our visit in 2014. Hence my current efforts on Ancestry to tidy up the family tree, and my cataloguing projects associated with sorting through documents, photos, and memorabilia from both the paternal and maternal branches of my family.

In many ways, the human proclivity for preserving memories--and the numerous ways we find to do it--has been the focus of my academic life: archaeology, history of ideas, the role of technology in human creativity. So, despite the painful exercise I've undergone in the last couple of weeks, the loss of some documentary evidence has helped me uncover other sources, and has made me much more conscious of the necessity of backing things up.

The last two days have also taught me just how fast technological change occurs. The tiny memory and glacial speed of the machines and the internet in 1997 (when we gave my father a computer we had outgrown) seem positively archaic today. As I read the earliest of the letters (about setting up the machine and an e-mail account through Juno), I remembered sitting at my desk in our little Dallas hovel, listening to the sound of dial-up connections and experiencing the very long waiting times. Realizing that this all occurred nearly twenty years ago is even more astonishing to me, since in the intervening time span the Beloved Spouse and I have gone from debt-ridden, impoverished grad students (only one of whom had a full-time job) living in a now-demolished shack in East Dallas, to retired or nearly-retired debt-free home owners.  At the time, I could barely imagine what that might be like, or that it would ever be possible. And then I read the letters that recount how hard we worked to get here, and it somehow makes sense.

I often describe myself as an intentional pessimist, in the sense that if I expect the worst I won't be too awfully surprised or disappointed if bad stuff happens.  In truth, however, I tend to be more optimistic than I let on, and try to make the best of unhappy circumstances. So the recent loss of memory, whilst reminding me that I'll never be able to remember everything, has made me much more conscious of how important it is to curate the palace of memory rather more carefully in the future than I had been doing in the past.

Image credits: Mémoire Morte, by Michel Royon; Lukasa Memory Board, Brooklyn Museum. Both via Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Memory Loss

Seldom have I chosen a more poetically appropriate image to illustrate a post. Some may have been accurate as documentation for an event or object, but in terms of metaphor, this one tops everything.

The post's title is also appropriate on several levels, because it describes both a physiological condition associated with age, and a consequence of technological malfunction. Combinations of the two, it seems, can turn into catastrophes of major import to the one who experiences them.

And so, the fog-blanketed Inyos outside of my hometown, photographed on our way out of Owens Valley in the winter of 2014, symbolize aptly the conditions perpetrated by my ageing brain and my lack of expertise in things computer-related. For most of the past twenty years, since I first purchased my web domain (in 1997) and began this blog (in 2007), I've gotten by--flying by the seat of my pants, knowing just what I needed to know to do what needed doing. For the most part, this has worked. I hadn't really had the time while I was still working to learn the skills I needed to design better websites or properly manipulate images, or even understand more about the technical side of what I was doing. I simply winged it, and stayed lucky.

Until this week.  In the process of trying to diminish my download files, I ended up wiping out most of the document files on my Mac.  After my panic had subsided enough, I bought some recovery software (probably not the best one I could have, but it gave me a free download to try it out), and I've managed to recover what seem to be the most important files (after long days of painstakingly opening, sorting, and filing over the last week).  Some are still accessible elsewhere, having been uploaded with webfiles on Owldroppings,  but the short-term stuff (some recent journal entries, budget files, and lists of which ancestors lived with whom every ten years between 1850 and 1930) is gone, like much of my own short-term memory. And so are the e-mail letters I transcribed from my father when I decided to preserve them in case my e-mail account tanked. These I will miss the most.

Only a week or so before this happened, I had mentioned to the Beloved Spouse that I really needed to get an external hard drive to back up my stuff. But, still being something of a procrastinator, I hadn't gotten around to it. Well, now I have. There's a nice, compact little 1T machine plugged into the Mac to aid my Time Machine so that I don't have to go through this again.

In the meantime, I've probably lost my P22 fonts (although I haven't tried to recover graphics and images; the scans are saved so I can do that later), along with stuff I probably don't remember I had. Which is undoubtedly a good thing. I could get the fonts back, even though they're on 3.5" floppies (I've got a USB floppy drive)--except that we recycled them earlier in the summer when we started cleaning out the garage.

I'm getting over it--probably as a side-effect of Black Heart (the ability to forget losses engendered by the frequent up-rootings of life as a military brat). I'll eventually go back over the Ancestry census files I've attached to ancestral names in order to reconstruct the Excel files I built to help sort out familial mysteries (such as which Hannah Scofield is really my grandfather's grandmother). I'll rebuild my new budget template, which will be relatively easy now that it lacks two major expenditures per month (the mortgage and the Jeep having been paid off--although my "red-letter day" account of the events is now gone from my journal), and two fewer paydays. I'll probably wake up in a cold sweat some night not long from now, upon suddenly realizing that something critical is missing and I haven't yet realized it, but I'm hopeful that I've come through the worst of it.

I did manage to recover the stories I've been working on over the years, and both Word and .pdf versions of More News From Nowhere (in case the web version disappears in the EMP). Even the most recent of my "Old Bats In Space" efforts was recovered. Its potential loss may have been my biggest fear because I'd spent a couple of weeks revising it and bringing it up to date, just before the end of July.  Nothing after July 31 seems to have survived at all.

Thus, in an effort to start fresh, I've redesigned my blog template a little--although it's only temporary. I need to work on it more, but thought that the new banner and template might help to cheer me up and get me back into the spirit of things.

That, and I will be taking advantage of Google's archiving tools.  I'm not sure what I'd do if I lost the last 9.5 years of the Farm. The image on the banner, by the way, is another shot from Winter 2014--taken at Uhlmeyer Spring.

What this experience has taught me is that the current mania for simplifying, de-cluttering, and paring down may have serious consequences for those of us who value the past. I'm certainly going to be a great deal more careful about what I toss--and how I go about "deleting.". My children don't know it yet, but they're the ones who will have to do the final sorting, because I'm going to be much more reluctant to diminish the family archives while anyone's still around who might care about them.