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.

 

One Star

I make purchases from Amazon.com a lot. I can get practically everything I need online. I shop around for the best deal, not necessarily the lowest price, and I value the customer reviews. On Amazon, customers are encouraged, rather, cajoled into leaving some feedback on their experiences with their purchases. It is important to note that not all Amazon reviews are from actual Amazon customers, and the site recently implemented a change that gives greater weight to verified purchasers. But I still think it’s worth something when I’m shopping for a product, and someone has something, anything, to say about their experience, no matter where they made their purchase.

When I’m shopping online, especially on Amazon (the rating/reviewing feature is ubiquitous on the web these days), I pay close attention to how many reviews a product has as well as the proportion of 1-star reviews there are to the total. For example, a Texsport 6 person dome tent has an overall rating of 3.2 out of five stars. More than half are 4- and 5-star ratings. But the number of 1-star ratings is 12%. By contrast, North Gear Camping 6 person dome tent has an overall 2.4-star rating. 60% of the reviews rate it 1 star, the lowest rating. To be fair, this tent is much less expensive than the Texsport product. But price is not an indicator of quality in all cases. Yes, you get what you pay for, but slapping a Kelty logo on a tent doesn’t always make it better. It’s worth noting that the North Gear tent received only 5 reviews.

I like to read the 1-star reviews. They’re sometimes off target, blaming the shipper, rating the product poorly because it arrived damaged. Sometimes a negative review is given because the buyer was unhappy with customer service, which is a valid reason to be dissatisfied. And once in awhile the customer is just telling us shoppers about their particular experience and not necessarily that the product is defective or inadequate. But I value the negative reviews almost more than the positive ones. That being said, it’s human nature to complain when something goes wrong rather than to sing praises when things are just okay.

Do I want myself rated? Not necessarily, but I do subject myself to feedback when I speak in Toastmasters. After some time you do develop thicker skin, not that people are brutally honest in their assessments. Maybe they should be, but we don’t want to scare anyone off. If we could speak face-to-face with those online merchants, would we be willing to be so frank, or in some cases, cruel? Probably not. The ostensible anonymity of the web makes it easier for people to be more “honest.” If you read Youtube comments, you will see that it often goes too far. And people are uncivil in their comments to what end? They very often do not offer constructive feedback, and they complain about things that cannot be changed. The worst of them are openly racist or homophobic. And it gets a lot worse.

That 1-star review might be a very good thing, when it is offered in earnest of making a difference. Telling someone that I didn’t like something without offering a suggestion for improvement is a pointless endeavor. I work harder every day to be more constructive. Of course, sometimes I just complain. I do it here. I’m probably doing it right now. There’s value in the negative. It enables us to hear about ways to improve, provided the review process is being handled the right way. We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, but we need honesty without too much emotion to get in the way. We shouldn’t be afraid to let our opinions be heard. And don’t use the word “humble”. Opinions are bold. They’re part of our makeup. And they matter, to us at least.

Most people won’t bother to offer feedback. It’s overwhelming, actually. The other day I was watching an awesome video on Youtube. It had, at the time, over 800,000 views. Disproportionately, it had 7,000 likes. That’s less than 1 percent! You might have noticed that many YouTubers solicit for likes and subscriptions. They practically beg. And it’s no effort at all. But people just don’t want to leave feedback, even if it means only clicking a button. But if they hate it, you’d better believe they’re going to say something. And that’s the power of the negative. I guess this is why we hold to the adage, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Even if this is a myth, it appears to have a little truth to it. Well, I’d give that at least 3 stars.

 

We Are Not Alone

Apparently, we have a lot more neighbors – by neighbors I mean planets 40 light years from earth – than was previously theorized. Scientists have estimated that there are millions upon millions of planets in our galaxy, and there are more galaxies than we can count. So it stands to reason that there is life out there, intelligent life. Perhaps there are people just like us on an earth-like planet around a distant star, wondering about whether there are people like them out there in the universe. And here we are.

But the problem is the space between us. Space, outer space, is immense, dark, cold, and unforgiving. And the vast distance between us and and our nearest stellar neighbor is expressed not in units of distance, like kilometers, but in the time it takes for light to travel between them. In the case of these seven new worlds, 40 light years indicates the time it takes light to travel from there to here, i.e., 40 years. It goes without saying that we don’t have the technology to travel at even one tenth the speed of light. For the sake of argument, however, let’s pretend we can; but even so, the trip would take 400 years! Our intrepid space traveler would not survive the trip.

Taking a step back from this conundrum, we find ourselves simply daydreaming of the possibility of reaching the stars. The prospect is the stuff of science fiction literature and movies. Some writers have imagined visitors to earth would be hostile, while others like to imagine the likes of “ET”, a curious traveler who means no harm. You have to consider that our first efforts in reaching out beyond our solar system have been with probe-type spacecraft.The Voyager and Pioneer missions  were launched with the hope of retrieving data from the farthest reaches of our solar system, as well as the space that separates the stars. After more than 40 years, it is still not possible to send humans into deep space. So we sent robots. I would expect our first encounter with extraterrestrials to be made in a similar way, by intercepting one of their probes and deciphering the cryptic, albeit rudimentary messages found with it.

More than distance would separate us. Consider that here on earth, cultures are divided by language and custom, and sometimes this is between neighboring countries. Here in Texas, there are people who speak only English, and those who speak only Spanish. Communication is not so easy, and we’re talking about people who live on the same street. Assuming alien beings from another planet even possess spoken language, the chances of being able to communicate effectively are very slim at best. (For more on this, I recommend seeing the movie “Arrival.”) But if we are somehow able to communicate, experience on earth tells us that that is not enough. Many people on this planet speak English, and that makes it easier for us to understand one another. But cultural difference abound, like the way we eat together, the way we greet each other, and the attitudes and customs of each group. For instance, people in Latin America tend to stand very close to the other person in a conversation. In other parts of the world this might make people very uncomfortable.

As much time and energy we have put into speculating about other worlds, perhaps they are doing the same. Or maybe not. It is possible that other worlds, even those capable of traveling to the stars, simply lack any curiosity when it comes to exploring the galaxy. It seems very unlikely. The others, the ones like us but not exactly, are probably exploring, just like us, but not for the purpose of making contact once a discovery is made. Perhaps they don’t care at all about their neighbors. Maybe we don’t matter that much, like our attitude toward the birds in the trees. We are aware of them, and we would miss them if they went away, but an individual bird is not important. It seems rather cold, but it’s possible our visitors are not emotionally invested in us. We’re simply a curiosity.

I like to think earth is special. But maybe we’re not remarkable in any way. Maybe there are millions of earths out there, much like this one, where “people”spend their days solving one problem at a time and raising their children and trying to make it one more day. Maybe all they want to do in their free time is to relax and enjoy their short lives, trying to forget how brief life is on their planet, and that it’s not worth their time to speculate about the vastness of space and the impossibility of reaching the stars, at least for the average person. Because space is huge, cold, dark, and inhospitable. Cue the song:

 

The Middle of … Everywhere

I get a little bummed sometimes when I think about where I live. It’s not that I dislike my home, here in North Texas. It’s just that there are so many cool places, but they are several days driving distance. I hate having to pay outrageous fees to fly. My friends in Europe tell me about great airline deals there, and the trains. Travelling from Fort Worth, Texas to Houston only takes 35 minutes by air, and it’s only 3 1/2 hours by car. But it’s Houston, so yeah.

I was looking for some good hikes without having to travel very far. North Texas is remarkably flat, so you do have to drive at least two hours, depending on where you start. Palo Duro Canyon is a great place for hiking and mountain biking. But it’s 7 hours away, and there’s not a lot to see along the way. By contrast, there are a number of historic places and national parks within a few hours of Washington, DC. The nearest mountains to my location are in Arkansas, and I wouldn’t call them mountains. Mountains or decent beaches are 12 hours by car, 2 hours in the air. Now, I know it sounds like I’m complaining. I am, so you’re pretty observant. But I do have some things to be thankful for.

For one, it’s sunny about 80% of the time. Tomorrow, 1 February, is expected to be mostly sunny and 22ºC. Perfect, in other words. This is not to say it doesn’t get cold. Just the other day it rained. But the sun came out later the same day. And we haven’t seen snow in a while, like 2014. And it gets very hot in the middle part of summer, July-September. The rest of summer is actually nice. I have family in Southern California. I’d live there, too, but the house I own in Texas would be worth millions there, and I couldn’t afford the taxes.

I do like my home. I can’t really imagine living anywhere else, despite every street corner looking like any other one, or a proliferation of BBQ joints. It’s not so bad. But you really have to see it, this place. So flat, so hot, so dry. A dear friend of mine from Oslo loves it here. I suppose it’s the opposite of Norway, so that must be refreshing in it’s own way. But where else could you get sunburned in January? (Sydney, perhaps). Therefore, tomorrow, I will wake up to a mild February morning – I don’t think I’ll need a jacket. Then I’ll drive for 17 minutes to work. I barely have time to listen to the radio. I guess it’s worth being in the middle of everywhere. That’s the deal. The middle is equidistant from any point.

Did I mention the cloudless skies?
crescent_moon

untitled

 

A-ha! “untitled” indeed. Alright, this is about as amusing as the old fake answering machine message where the person sounds like they’ve answered the phone, but about 30 seconds into it, you realize you’re talking to a machine, and you feel both embarrassed and frustrated, which presents itself in the recorded message that you end up leaving. Well, few people have answering machines anymore, so it’s not likely you would run into that particular comic gem. Likewise, the “untitled” post is probably reminiscent to the vaudevillian stage, no longer relevant and altogether unoriginal.

Originality might be overrated; it’s refreshing sometimes to hear someone’s interpretation of an old song or a reimagining of a classic movie. But after a while it does get old. I mean really old. Take, for instance, the film “Ben-Hur”, currently in theaters, which is a remake of the 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston in the titular role. Only, that was a remake of the silent 1925 film “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ“, starring Ramon Novarro. I found it on Youtube, but I won’t link it here because it’s likely to be taken down. But, since this film is over 90 old, it could be considered in the public domain. Both the 1925 and the 1959 films were monumental achievements, especially considering the astounding number of extras, horses and other animals, not to mention the massive sets, the chariot races, as well as all the costumes and other scenery. Nowadays, many movies incorporate CGI – computer-generated imagery – to produce the effect of crowded streets or a naval battle. Back then, you had to hire hundreds of people and build ships, or at least model ships.

Stories like that of Judah Ben-Hur, or Dorothy Gale and the Wizard are bound to be retold, and retold. Sometimes people are not even aware they are watching a remake. In fact, the original “Ben-Hur” was filmed in 1907. That film is surreal in that it seems to have been filmed with a single stationary camera, and there were no closeups or cut-aways. Early days. Even with all these remakes, and all the repackaging of other iconic figures, like Beau Geste or Figaro, lack of originality is rarely mentioned. It appears to be predicated on the staying power of the original. I guess that’s why so many films have been made from Bible stories or Greek mythology. (How many times are they going to remake “Clash of the Titans”?)

I’ll admit, being original is very difficult. Even John Williams, composer of film scores for movies like “Star Wars”, “ET”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Superman”, has been criticized for being derivative. But truly innovative composers are like rare gems. That’s why people remember names like Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt. Even Johannes Brahms “lifted” a bit of Haydn’s original work, but he did it with authenticity. His “Variations on a Theme” is actually pretty inventive and full of surprises. (Well, there I go linking to Youtube).

I guess you don’t have to be original all the time. You do have to be genuine, and people will always be able to tell when you’re trying to be someone or something you’re not. But like wearing a mask at Carnivàle, or doing cosplay at a convention, or whatever at Burning Man, you can make it your own.

Ilia attacks Shocktopus - Burning Man 2013

Photo by Kristina Reed/Flickr.com

 

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.

 

Purpose

We all arrived on this plane essentially the same: naked, cold, and outraged beyond our ability to communicate our complete displeasure with being forced from the only comfort we had ever known. Mother was at a distance of eternity compared to where we had spent the first ten months, albeit mostly deaf and blind and therefore unaware what our world even looked like. And then, suddenly, there we were. Welcome to the world; this awful, horrid, dirty, smelly, noisy world.

Since the first moment any of us drew breath, we’ve been suffering. Now of course some suffer more than others, and if you live in a part of the world where you can read this nonsense, perhaps your variety of suffering is what may be commonly adorned with the hashtag #firstworldproblems. This response usually accompanies complaints about not being able to find good help, having to park in a remote lot, or not enough foam in your latte. People like to bitch about a lot of things, and our tendency to complain is not abated by our elevation in socio-economic status. There simply is no end to our suffering.

Except, there is real suffering all around us. We would notice it if we would just look up from our smartphones and tablets. Suffering is a system default of humanity. We are born suffering, and we will live with it in some degree, and people die. Some of us are lucky. My degree of suffering – I shall refrain from using that term, because I really don’t endure much – my burden is nothing in comparison. I have tmj, chronic sinusitis, hypertension, and a few other ostensibly preventable afflictions, some, like seasonal allergies, are manageable. So, I try not to complain too much.

So what shall I do with myself? As I have mentioned previously, I am quite fortunate, and undeservedly so. I didn’t earn my genetic gifts. I had nothing to do with the fate I have. So I try to be thankful all the time. Others have not been so lucky, and I don’t know what to do for them beyond treating them the way I would expected to be treated. A few generations ago, people with afflictions and disabilities were shuffled off to asylums or worse. Autism and mental illness were viewed as something of a curse, and still are in some communities. If we are all God’s children, God should be irate with us for treating the “least of these” worse than we treat stray animals. That’s the most troubling thing about our society right now. All the wars and conflicts and arms buildups are atrocious, but the way we treat people who can’t take care of themselves is deplorable. And we should all be ashamed of ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I was daydreaming when I thought about what the purpose of my existence could be. Why are we all here, I asked. What’s the reason for all of this? If God was lonely, he had his angels and all the other creatures he made who weren’t afflicted with free will. Why did he have to make us? We’re a disaster. We’ve currently got a presidential candidate who is stirring up a nationalist fervor, and radical religious groups have killed and kidnapped innocent people, destroyed ancient cities, and displaced millions in the name of God. And I’m positive God does not approve. In the meantime, there’s more suffering than ever before, mainly because there are more people now living that have ever lived on this earth. It stands to reason that if there ever was suffering, it was never to this degree.

So what are we doing here? We are born, we live, and we die; and the cycle continues. And the population increases, more people fighting for less of a stake, more hunger, more diseases. I could see no solution to this equation. Then it hit me: our purpose is simple. Not why were put on this planet. That’s still a bit of a mystery. But while we’re here we might as well do some good. And what better good can we do than to bring comfort? Our purpose can’t be simply to feed our faces and leave a mound of waste for someone else to toil to clean up. I look at the producers of society, instead of its consumers. Those who have given more than they had taken. The artists, the poets, doctors, nurses, mothers, and pastors – the good ones. Nobody’s perfect, mind you, but it’s about quality, not quantity.

The mission is to soothe, to console. We are here, all of us, to ease others’ suffering.

Who are they, those who suffer? Like I said, we will not fail to notice them if we would just look up once in awhile. This coming from someone who was obsessed with Infinity Blade II. That was addicting. Had I not been so consumed, I might have come to this conclusion years before. I gave away my Ipad, my XBox, and my video games. That was a liberating experience, even though I still have a strong desire to play Skyrim (nerd alert).

I’m not telling you this because I want to be lauded, or that I want others to do this. It was something I needed to do, because I realized it was consuming me, devouring me. I still spend hours in front of a computer, if not working to manage huge amounts of data, then to continue to write about the things I think about when I am able to capture a moment to myself. And in between all those minutes of the day that are crammed full of the ephemera of living in the 21st century, I am able to look around me and make discoveries around me. I see people, instead of looking at my phone. I notice individuals on the verge of breakdown. I see worry and fear in people’s faces. I hear trembling in a person’s voice.

How can I possible ease their suffering and pain? It’s something I have learned to do, and I am in no way an expert. But I do make an effort to not make things worse. I have often said entirely the wrong thing. I’ve laughed when I shouldn’t have. I have looked uninterested, yawning, being distracted. But I learned. And I suppose it was because I was to endure some hardship, small though it would be. It is through suffering that we become empathic. You would think this ought to be universal, but some people are complete assholes, and they have suffered much. Still others are complete jewels. Go figure.

Want to make a difference? I do. It’s kind of a passion of mine. I feel compelled to make some impact on humanity through my writing or photography. I dream of becoming a journalist, traveling and hearing people’s stories, learning about their plight or their joys. I did photograph a wedding once. It was very festive, even if a little unconventional. I loved being part of the experience. If I were a full-time wedding photographer, I would like to photograph unusual weddings, celebrations of people rather than exhibitions of wealth. Those seem to be a little sad to me. And I don’t understand why. I guess it’s because it cost so much, and the stress was about to kill the bride’s parents.

How can we ease this suffering, this first-world problem? Is it worth any effort? Perhaps. I intend to make a difference wherever I am able. Maybe it’s not in being a writer. Maybe I can make my impact just being around people and bringing them happiness. Can we spread joy even if we are not joyful? Have you ever tried to make someone laugh and not laugh yourself? The easing of suffering would therefore be reciprocal, and hat better reason would you want to spread some cheer?

Since we are all in this together, why not make the best of it? I see people who are miserable fucks. And I ask myself why they would want to be in that state. Many people feel stuck. They feel like they can’t escape their circumstances. Perhaps that is true for some. But I have seen some really cheerful people in desperate situations. What then is happiness, and how do we find it? Well, that’s a topic for another time. I’ll sign off now, but I will visit the idea of happiness, and perhaps I’ll write a book on the subject.

In the meantime, be joyful, and don’t cause any harm. The world is already a better place just by our thinking about it.