I Know You’re Out There

I’d been wanting a telescope for a while. I had one when I was a kid. Later, my parents bought one for me and my brother, a reflector. It was small, but we were able to see the rings of Saturn and some of Jupiter’s moons. It was so cool to be able to see such things with my own eyes, that is, not in photographs, but looking at the actual planets and nebulae. We spent many hours in the back yard, late at night, looking to the skies.

I’ve read a lot of science fiction, and I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek TNG and Voyager. So, I’ve given the idea of extraterrestrial intelligence a lot of thought. I suppose most people don’t think about this much, and many don’t believe E.T. even exists. That might be true, but the universe is huge, and there’s bound to be at least one more world like ours out there. And scientists are discovering new planets every day. It’s a very exciting time to be alive. Within my lifetime, I believe we will send humans to Mars and further. I’m certain there is no limit to what we can accomplish.

If there are intelligent forms of life elsewhere in the universe, I wonder what they must think of us. We as a species make a lot of noise. We have been sending out radio and television transmissions for decades, now, and anyone with the most basic radio equipment could surely have picked up something by now. But do we really want Jerry Springer or Honey Boo-boo representing us to the galaxy. When some alien race does intercept our signals, they will see that we worship money, are highly fixated on the ideal human body; and we say we want to eat healthier food, and yet we continue to fill our bodies with poison.

If I were watching, I would seriously question the wisdom of visiting earth. The Arthur C. Clarke novel, Childhood’s End, portrayed this notion. Extra-terrestrial visitors were justifiably cautious about showing themselves (for good reason, as you will learn about halfway in). And human beings are, even to this day, decidedly superstitious and xenophobic. We hardly trust someone who doesn’t speak our language. In my country I am an outcast for promoting the metric system. Why do we believe we would not demonstrate our worst behaviour the moment first contact is initiated? Some of us will probably launch missiles. Others will panic and destroy themselves. Actually, we’re on our way to self-destruction without anyone’s help.

Well, this got depressing very quickly. My apologies. But while I appear to have absolutely no faith in humanity at this point in time, it should be noted that there is a lot of good in this world. Just listen to the works of Thomas Tallis, or contemplate the paintings of Van Gogh. I like to people watch. It’s a strange little game I play. I did it the other day, watching humans coming and going in a busy shopping area. It was fascinating to see people of all types, different shapes and sizes, clothing and hairstyle choices, the distinguished and the ludicrous, the ostentatious and the mundane. Oh, the humanity! But there were all are. We’re not easily dismissed, and you can’t put anyone into a single classification. Some of us are joyful, while others are contemplative and melancholy. Some are left-handed. Some of us are more creative than others. Some cannot discern red or green. Some of us are anxious. All of us are mortal.

If you are out there, here we are. We’re special, but we’re not remarkable, just like the stars in the sky. Some of them really shine. But there are so many that don’t even get a name. They have a number. But they’re all unique, like every human being. But I hope someday we will make contact. I hope we will be worthy of it. I hope that whoever represents the human race will not be a total embarrassment.

 

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CUI BONO?

I’m fortunate that I am the recipient of a liberal arts education. This might seem like a contradiction in terms, since I did not receive specific job training from my university studies, aside from the credentials to teach literature, or having seemingly scattered reference points on the map of human history. Part of my career was in pursuit of the natural sciences, specifically human biology, at which I excelled. Ironically, I work in the field of information technology, which I came into purely by happy accident. So I am particularly blessed that I have a good job in spite of my area of study.

College may not be for everyone. There are many good-paying careers that do not require a college degree, not in the traditional sense. Electricians, plumbers, and welders, to name a few, while perhaps benefiting from study of a foreign language and some advanced maths, can find work after a one or two year course of study. Culinary arts and other fields promise the same results, with another year of study, possibly. But the traditional four year degree may not be necessary or economically feasible.

When I was an undergraduate back in the 1980’s, attending a school in the state university system, my tuition per semester amounted to about 8 weeks salary, based on minimum wage (then, $3.35 an hour) at 20 hours a week. Of course there was room and board, books, meals, and sundries. But I’m just talking about tuition. Here in 2017, that same state college tuition, based on minimum wage today of $7.25 an hour, will take you at least 60 weeks to pay off. It’s not unheard of for a college grad to be in hock for $100,000 or more in student debt. And if you are the parent of one of these students, you would pray that they have some career lined up, so they can start repaying their debt as soon as possible.

So I was fortunate. I did have to take out student loans, but not for too much. But I would gladly pay it all over again (provided I was paying 1980’s dollars). But reliving those years would offer no guarantee that things would work out the way they had. (Of course, things might have been better.) But was it worth it? Who benefited? (Cui Bono?) What did I really get with my degree? It didn’t provide any training germain to my current career. In fact, client-server software development didn’t really exist as we know it, not that anyone truly understands it now. (Incidentally, I met my wife at college). The skills needed to work in today’s IT world can be obtained from a local community college certificate program. But many companies still look for at least a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent work experience) from their candidates. Equivalent work experience? Abraham Lincoln was self-educated, and many people in their fields are self-taught.

But I would recommend the university experience for some. That experience is unique, and the memories last a lifetime. You may never apply your knowledge gained in that one semester of poli-sci, or remember the French you studied. But you will have benefitted from it. Will that experience be worth the thousands of dollars you will eventually have to pay? That may depend on what happens in the future. As I said, looking back, it seems worthwhile to me. But that was a different time, I suppose. It seems that colleges and universities are not what they used to be, academically speaking. Students may not wish to study literature, and they may see no value in analyzing Othello for hidden meaning.

It’s too bad you can’t simply certify yourself as self-taught. It worked for Lincoln. Why can’t a person study law and attempt the bar exam? What about medicine? Well, some areas of study really need to be at the university level. In the future, a four year degree might cost more than a house. I think we’re starting to see that now. It’s shocking how much tuition has increased over the years. As I mentioned above, calculated in terms of weeks worth of salary, it’s gone up by more than 7 times in 30 years. Is the answer in increasing the minimum wage? Should tuition be regulated? Is Bernie Sanders’ plan feasible? Could the US pay for anyone who wants a college education to receive one? In the meantime, certain skills are hard to come by. Even someone with a masters degree is not automatically qualified. On the other hand, I have a friend who has never set foot on a college campus and excels in the field of technology. But even then, education is the key. Education takes many forms. It can be through diligent observation of the world around us. It can be through books, extension of the great minds of the past. It may be through experience. Education is crucial.

And for you lawyers out there, cui bono does have a specific legal definition, but I am thinking of the broader meaning. Thanks for noticing.

What’s in Your Wallet?

I don’t wish to alarm anyone, but our economy is a bit of an illusion. Goods and services are being exchanged for currency, which is mostly held in bank accounts as electronic records, instead of a proper certificates and legal tender. Many of us have abandoned cash, opting instead in favor of credit and debit for monetary exchanges. Putting aside the astounding amount of consumer household debt in the US for another time, I want to talk about the economy of everyday life.

A very long time ago, people exchanged one good or service for another in a bartering-type system. For example, a farmer grows cabbage and potatoes, but he needs other commodities, like rice and wheat, milk, cooking oil, and fuel. So he goes to the market and exchanges his goods for the things he needs. This works well until he decides to hire someone to help him pick his crops. The farm hand cannot realistically be paid in cabbages, so a form of currency is needed. The various precious metals, copper, silver, and gold, are established as acceptable remuneration for any debt or fee, and would eventually be codified to a standard we accept as legal tender.

Fast-forward a little, and we find ourselves in our current state where money is held in accounts, not in safes or mattresses. When we pay for something, we whip out a debit card (if there’s money in that account) or credit card and authorize payment. We don’t really think about it, but what’s keeping all this going? Maybe it’s just my mind being manipulated by watching Mr. Robot,  and I do get a little anxious with each episode, but I’m bothered by the way our modern banking system seems to control everything. And what’s stopping the whole thing from falling apart? (I’m searching for a specific passage in a science fiction novel where I read that the end of the world was not caused by plague or war, but by cascading failures of electronic banking computers. The entire world economy was in memory somewhere, and something went wrong, horribly, catastrophically wrong. I was sure it was Arthur C Clarke, but I haven’t found the reference.)

My point is that the economy is extremely vulnerable. If you recall 2008 when the housing market crashed, the whole thing was caused by bad loans and greedy investors. If it happened once (and it has repeatedly) it can, and will, happen again. Except this time maybe it will be caused by hackers like the ones in Mr. Robot. What will happen if money is useless? What is money, really? Like I said, that legal tender concept is nice, but it’s just paper. And coins are not worth much. They contain very little precious metal, and no silver or gold. Pennies aren’t even made from copper anymore. Money is only worth something if the authority backing it says so.

So, let’s imagine what the world would look like if banks stopped working. You couldn’t use a debit card, and there’s no electronic “wallet” or other e-payment. Online bill payment is not an option, and no one accepts checks. The little cash there is might be accepted, but it’s only paper, like I said. In post-WWI Germany, inflation was so high that people used bank notes as fuel to keep warm. Eventually, a new economy would appear. Food and firewood are the new currency. Maybe you can trade some commodity for either. If you have a particular skill like making soap or metalworking, that is definitely worth something. If you’re thinking Fight Club you’re following me.

This vision of the future frightens me. It should frighten everyone, because not many people will thrive in this environment, and those who can are dangerous. This is why the governments of the world are working hard to keep economies flourishing. They will even go so far as to artificially prop up currency valuation or offer bailouts to prevent the unthinkable. By 2009, the US had spent $700 billion from taxpayers to prevent catastrophe (according to the Forbes article, it’s much more). And I think we were closer than is generally known.

When I go to the supermarket to buy coffee or potatoes or strawberries, I am participating in global trade with many different players. Coffee plants do not grow in the continental US. They require a specific climate that is best found in mountain regions in the tropics (high altitude, lots of sun and moisture). Strawberries in February come from Chile. We have to assume that people are getting paid all along the way. But if we paid what is fair – and whose definition of “fair” are we going by – that coffee would cost five times more. And strawberries in February would be cost-prohibitive. But through a careful balance of trade deals and other machinations, we can get what we want, and we don’t worry about what we can’t see, right?

Now I don’t recommend hoarding cash. And I am not condoning a policy of austerity and self-deprivation. That said, I am not the consumerism fan-boy. Capitalism is highly susceptible to greed and corruption. Marxism is also deeply flawed. Wherever there is a monetary system, it seems that people tend to fuck it up. We could theoretically live in a society where everything is traded; no one takes advantage, and there is trust. Borrowing and lending are simplified yet rarely implemented, but everyone buys only what they can afford. In this utopian economy, would money exist? I guess if that world could exist, maybe not. But unfortunately, we live in the real world, and that world must get paid.

Back to the Drawing Board

I was walking through the parking lot to my car after work when I started daydreaming about all the people who had been there before me; earlier the same day, or perhaps a month or a year ago, meandering to their cars, stopping to check messages, and standing, talking to coworkers. Science fiction writers love to explore this “space” when they write about time travel. Michael Crichton, for one, tended to incorporate more science in his sci-fi than others, introducing the idea that while time travel is not possible, travel to other dimensions might be. In H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, the notion of being able to journey to another time in the future or the past was first popularized. In his story, the Time Traveler was able to travel to a very distant future version of earth, while staying in the same geographical location. Aside from Doctor Who, most other time-travelling narratives stick to this point. And so, as I perambulated and wondered about the past lives that, if only on the same timeline, would have crossed my path, or bumped into me if I weren’t looking.

But while it’s proper to consider that time travel, if it were possible at all, would limit the voyage moving in time, it is not reasonable to assume the traveller would also change position, geographically. Or is it? As my daydream began to mutate (as they often do), it dawned on me that if I were to travel backward one year, I might end up somewhere else. You see, 365 days ago was not 19 September, but instead 20 September 2015. But ignoring the very predictable results of Daylight Savings changes in the Gregorian calendar, we must shift our attention to the fact that where you are, right now, in space is unknown.

The earth is currently orbiting the sun at a speed of 108,000 km/h, or about 30 km/s. Therefore, if you travelled instantaneously to 1 second in the future, and you didn’t change your location, you would be 30 kilometers away from your current position. You would have teleported on top of travelling in time. Also, consider that the sun is moving around the center of the Milky Way, around 800 km/h. So, if you wanted to travel in time, but you didn’t want to move, you would have to predict where the earth would be at that time. Since the earth and the sun and the galaxy are all moving at the same time, this would require some awesome math. Now, considering that we are already in the possession of some awesome mathematical principles, created by some equally awesome mathematical geniuses, we could extrapolate and get a pretty accurate calculation of where you might end up. But it wouldn’t be perfect, and so you could still end up in the middle of a mountain or floating in space, but within tolerance (inside the orbit of most satellites.) This is assuming we have a good idea of what a fixed point in space looks like.

If you wanted to travel forward in time to 2150, you would need to know just where the earth and the sun would be at that time, that second. But assuming we could overcome this obstacle, there are other problems to consider, like exposure to pathogens that do not exist in our time, or the increase in pollution, or incomprehensible dialects. Naturally, not having nearly enough money to get around would pose a serious problem (someone from the late 1800’s would be absolutely shocked at the idea of spending $40 on a meal). No doubt, the increase in population and significant lack of privacy would be disturbing to our time traveller, not to mention being completely ignorant of 130 years of history. In the Back to the Future series of films, several characters move backward and forward through time with very little difficulty, aside from having to fuel the time machine, but it would most likely be traumatic.

Of course, time travel is not a reality, except for the slow, day-to-day type with which we are all familiar. That’s alright with me. Gradual change is much easier to accept. The changes we face now are quite dramatic enough, and most of us are barely able to keep up. History reveals that civilizations have embraced change, and then violently rejected it. Swings in public opinion seem to come back to their starting point after a generation or two, or a millennium. But before we presume we have come so far in our modern civilization, we should look at our current form of entertainment and make sure it is not worse than gladiators fighting to the death. It may look truly bizarre to future historians, our taste for pugilism might be horrifying, or charming, whichever the case may be.

I guess we’re fortunate that there are things that are beyond our ability to comprehend. Otherwise, we would have very little in the way of fantasy. Science fiction would be nonexistent, and our daydreams would be pretty dull.

 

Gastronomique

I am a man of passion. I am passionate about language. I have a passion for art, particularly photography. And I am passionate about cooking. I love to cook. But it goes well beyond a fondness for making meals. Since I was very young, I have had a yearning to create things. And for me cuisine provides the best palate: the human senses of taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing. When you combine all these in various aspects, you can create something that is not achievable from the sum of these senses. A photograph only appeals to one’s sight. Music is often only perceived by the ears, but sometimes it is seen and heard. But when we eat we experience something more.

When you peel open a navel orange, the zest bursts forth its oily essence, releasing the unique properties for your olfactory receptors. That, combined with the juicy flesh of the fruit, awakes the senses, bringing together the sight, smell and taste. Texture is a part of the experience, too. And let’s not forget about the sound the peel makes as you tear it open. You might have to really pay attention to get all five components. Maybe we are in too much of a hurry when we eat to take notice. It is easy to blame the fast food industry for this catastrophe, but we are also partly to blame. Humans are pre-programmed to crave fat and salt. We can’t help it, and so when offered the choice, it takes a lot more than willpower to resist it.

Why do we eat, really? I guarantee it is not just for sustenance. Our ancient ancestors did forage all day, hunting for meat and hides to cover their bodies, and eating whatever they could catch. They had to do this to survive, but then they discovered cultivation. They settled in one place, formed civilizations, and the rest, quite literally, is history. So when did we go from eating to survive to making meals more significant? Well, it probably happened about the time that grain was harvested and stored. Eventually, someone figured out that you could make stuff with it. Once mixed with naturally-occurring yeast, humans had discovered beer and leavened breads. And there was much rejoicing.

Actually, cooking has been around a lot longer than agriculture. Prehistoric peoples, I am sure as soon as they discovered how to make fire, began to cook food. It must have been that it improved the taste and texture, because it’s hard to imagine that they were concerned about microbes. But we may never really know. About 80 thousand years later gastronomy evolved. Ancient Egyptians have been credited with inventing beer. They at least learned how to cultivate grain and turn it into bread. This was a game-changer for civilization.

Now, 6000 years later, we have evolved again, with the advent of molecular gastronomy, featuring dishes like “carrot air” and Massimo Buttura‘s “Five Stages of Parmigiano Reggiano”. These dishes typically push the envelope of texture and visuals, but I don’t know if the flavor has been improved. Also, the price has increased exponentially. Of course, we get what we pay for. You can live on canned beans and powdered milk, if you want to call that “living.”

My passions lie in the making of simple dishes, actually. Lentil stew, baguettes, roasts, fricassee. Some would call it peasant food. Massimo says, “when you ask Italians where to get the best food, they say, ‘Mama’.”

Well, I’m off to the market to get some fresh thyme for my Superbowl Chicken. Go Broncos!

Beauty

I was watching Youtube tonight, listening to “Fiddler on the Roof” and some “modern” sacred music as well. It was a welcome respite from the noisy backdrop of political lambaste, rumors on the internet about various government conspiracies, violence, calamity, and the turmoil of our world. Therefore, I turn to music. Not just any music, but a sound for the mood, be it Mozart or Sleater-Kinney. I have my moments when both will suffice.

But the songs tonight reminded me that there is beauty in the world. Maybe not that anyone can see right now, but it’s there, like the stars in the day time. You can’t see them, but they are there. There are a lot of voices drowning out this beauty. Loud, obnoxious voices filled with hate and anger. I have been one of these voices recently. I have been angry at times. But I am grateful for the peace I get when I can get it.

You don’t have to be particularly religious to appreciate sacred music. But I grew up with these tunes, so I am comforted in the sounds, the colors, if you will, of the choral ensemble.

There is a good Arabic proverb that says, essentially, “if the next thing you say is not more beautiful than silence, be still.” I wish most of the world would be guided by this principle. But sometimes we could use a little ugliness. Besides, one’s perception of beauty could be wildly different from the next. I mention Sleater-Kinney again, because I find beauty in the piercing vocals of Carrie Brownstein. Some might find it offensive. There’s no accounting for taste.

Find something beautiful that will bring you joy. It’s more difficult than you think. Turning off the world requires a lot of strength. Gather it up. The world will still be there when you get back. Be careful not to allow the turmoil creep into your state of bliss. Somehow, I find moments when I can really, truly cut myself off, as it were (since I am browsing Youtube, and anything can pop up next.) But it’s amazing when I get in the right groove. I guess it’s like when a surfer picks up the perfect wave she’s been waiting for all morning. Or so I’m told.

I am fortunate that I also get to create. I get to contribute to the beauty of the world. I don’t get to spend as much time as I’d like producing art and music, photos and so forth. I suppose I could spend less time on Youtube. My day job is technical and does not allow for much in the way of creativity. But I have to produce documentation, so I tend embellish a bit.

It’s good when you have the opportunity to escape. It’s my wish that everyone has the chance to take a break and experience some real beauty, especially during this season where the nights are long, and the wind is cold. I like to watch the skies when it’s clear. Winter skies are good for stargazing. Others like a good book. The human experience demands so much from us. We have the right to step back and take a breath. It could change the world for the better. I hope it does.

Anything You Ever Wanted to Know

Here in North Texas, on our local public radio station, KERA, there is a weekly call-in show called “Anything You Ever Wanted to Know“, which attempts to answer questions posed by the audience, either via phone or email or Twitter. I am borrowing the title today to explore this notion, that here in the 21st century, we have at our disposal all the knowledge so far gathered about this world and the space beyond it. What have you always wanted to know? Do we believe the answers are out there somewhere? The typical call usually involves someone wanting to know where to find a product or service, or advice on how to get rid of fire ants, or practically anything one could find by using Google or any other search engine (does anyone use Yahoo? Bing?, really?)

How much information is out there is practically unknowable. The wealth of human knowledge is virtually infinite, because it keeps multiplying, and we will never reach the horizon. I can google (see, it’s in our lexicon) anything, and I’ll probably get pages of results. It’s rare – almost unheard of – to get just a few results back, usually by enclosing your search terms in quotes, prompting an exact match requirement. But with so much information out there – videos showing how to separate eggs, circuit board layouts, specifications for building a motorcycle, the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe – you would think that we would be a more literate and enlightened society. There it is. Everything you want to know within a few keystrokes or a mouse-click. And yet, many of us remain in the dark.

Naturally, there are things we may never know, like who was really behind the Kennedy assassination or whether Shakespeare was truly solely responsible for all the works attributed to him. But the great thing about the internet is that all theories have a voice. That’s also one of the worst things about it. But information is valuable, even if it’s wrong. Really. If we only received 100% accurate data, how would we know if it were factual? People in the DPRK (North Korea) receive a certain “truth”, but they are not better off for it.

In my day job, people come to me many times each day with requests for information – information they could gather if they looked for it. I’d like to tell them, “you will find this the same way I would: by looking it up.” The truth is, I have the answers, usually, and I tell them what I know. But my point is, it’s no secret. Anyone can find the answers. They only need to look.

We ought to all be the most informed generation the world has ever seen. We possess all the knowledge from all generations that came before us. Why do we know so little? Why is it more important for us to follow “American Idol” contestants than to learn about the history of the Roman Empire or how to solve math problems? I appreciate that entertainment is an important part of our culture, but maybe we have had our fill. Looking at waistlines, you can understand how Americans approach things. (Sorry, people, but you know I’m right.)

Anyway, I don’t mean to pontificate. I’m as guilty as anyone else for indulging in the inane. One of my favorite guilty pleasures is dash-cam videos from Russia. So, yeah. I realize I should be watching Veritasium, but come on. It’s like I know what foods are good for me, and yet I still like fries. That is another subject, actually, because it goes to evolutionary predisposition. I’ve covered it before, but there’s room for more thought on it, and I’ll more than likely write about it in the near future. We humans tend to desire pleasure more than growth. Growth is painful. Muscles are pulled and stretched in order to be built up. We all know this process to be undesirable, but we like the results, after the soreness vanishes. Expanding one’s mind also requires some exercise. But it will be beneficial in the long run.

If any of us truly do not want to know anything, I feel sorry for them. It’s my primary motivator, beyond the basic element of food and water, to be informed. I want to know stuff. I like knowing about the Tudors or the Etruscans. I love where history and technology intersect. I like listening to all kinds of music. I love haiku. And I want to try new things – things I haven’t dared to try. How to sew a coat, how to make cheesecake from scratch, how to take better photographs. These are all things I’ve challenged myself to accomplish, and I made many mistakes along the way, but that’s part of learning. Anything you ever wanted to know is out there, waiting for you to discover and explore. And if you can’t find the answer, maybe you can become the expert. And next time you are listening to that radio show, you might feel the need to add your input. Jeff Whittington would thank you.