I know you only by your silloughette.
Walking, running, dancing in the sea’s foam.

I know you only by your outline,
glowing against the rising sun.

I know you only by the shape
of what I hoped we’d become.

Live Long and Prosper

Mr. Spock

The death of Leonard Nimoy is moving for me. Nimoy was an actor who incorporated the essence of what the character Mr. Spock meant for him, into his every day life.

Having grown up with Star Trek re-runs, even ten years after they had aired (played at prime times throughout the ’70s), much of who I am and what I yet expect of our species was given foundation in that sci-fi TV series.

Perhaps it is a curse, to always compare where we are to where we thought we’d be, but even 100 years from now it seems the foundation of Nimoy’s character Spock will remain an important goal.

He continually strove for balance between the deeply rooted emotional, reactionary side of being a human and the reasoning which enables us to work together, to grow beyond our animal foundation and achieve what no one person can do alone.

Yes, live long and prosper. But more importantly, perhaps, find balance and thrive.

Only a surfer knows the feeling

The sun rises over the back-line, black silhouettes against the shimmering horizon. Sometimes, only shoulders or a head show, the full upper body of the surfers adjacent to me temporarily hidden in the rise and fall of the swell.

But this morning, the sea is nearly perfectly flat. Trapezoids suspended in a web of reflections are bound by shifting edges. They break and rebuild, again and again, each a fragmented mirror for the sparse clouds overhead.

Some days the water is turquoise blue. Others, a dark, river bottom red which gives the false appearance of a far thicker substance. The spring tide brings high water followed by broken shells, sea life, and the occasional body of an adult seal or lost, barking pup.

My legs below the knee are wrapped beneath my surfboard while my upper body constantly adjusts to the undulating water, stomach muscles tensing and relaxing to counter the shifting centre of gravity. Even after months of surfing, I yet find it difficult to bring my arms across my chest or to my front when sitting on a shorter board. Instead, my arms are at my sides, touching the surface of the water to maintain balance, a fluid equilibrium.

I look around me am reminded how new I am to this sport. The more adept sit upon far smaller boards, sometimes lying back as though in a reclining chair. Relaxed, they seem far more at ease. I keep reminding myself how far I have come since mid December, from total frustration to riding every wave I catch.

A poster in the window of a local surf shop caught my attention. A determined man, tangled hair high above his head, turns one hundred eighty degrees far above the crest of a wave. As I walked past I noticed the caption, white on blue, “Only a surfer knows the feeling.”

If to be a surfer is to know the feeling, then I will claim, even with such limited experience on board at sea, to be a surfer. As my instructor and friend William has said more elegantly, it is not just riding the waves that makes surfing so compelling, but the time spent between the runs, sitting on the board at the backline, watching the sun rise or clouds roll in

Some days, hours after I have come in from the water, showered, and transitioned to the confines of brick, mortar, and office walls, my chair feels as though it is in motion, rising, falling, and rising again. Inside my body, I undulate with the same rhythm. I nearly grasp the edge of my desk before I am returned to the reality of the moment, and look out the window to determine if the waves provide the ideal medium for my return.

I am learning to read the water in a way that I have not since I kayaked in Glacier Bay, Alaska for ten days, or when I spent a summer running rivers in Utah and Colorado. There is a subtlety to the sea’s motion that tells you the direction of the wind, if the tide is rising or falling, and sometimes its temperature too.

On the water, body prone, head lifted to see just inches above the tip of the board, the smallest of eddies toss and turn the prone, paddling surfer. One meter, two meter, three meter swells remind you how small, how incredibly minimal the mass of your body is against the tireless force.

Looking to the South, toward the backline, surfers seek breaks in the wave, places to pass such that less energy and time are wasted to gain the ideal position. For every wave, full or broken, you must choose a course of action. Dive beneath by shifting your body to the front of the board; lift your chest high to force the water to channel between you and the board; or flip upside-down, the board remaining on the surface, you beneath, only to right yourself again on the other side.

Long board, mini-Malibu, or fish–you must find the best spot to launch your campaign. Depending upon your board, fitness, and experience, you catch what is right for you.

I find my way to the back line, sometime with ease and grace, sometimes with an exhausting, twenty minute struggle, … sometimes not at all no matter how hard I paddle.

Last week, just before 7 am, the water was incredibly smooth, the swells minimal. As I paddled out to where a dozen surfers had already arrived, I noted the fins and bodies of dolphins rising and falling all around the boards. Everyone was talking in hushed tones, pointing. For more than fifteen minutes these sleek creatures moved in and around our human figures. Two women were furthest out, having tried to catch-up with the dolphins given their relatively slow pace.

The dolphins did not seem to mind, for they circled one or twice and surfaced right along side, less than two meters from the women on their boards. One surfer slipped off his board and dove as far as his leash would allow to get an underwater view of the pod.

It was, as I have heard people report, an emotionally charged encounter. I don’t believe they are healing nor necessarily incredibly intelligent as we have heralded without evidence for so long, but there is something beautiful about sharing the water with another mammal. It just feels … familiar.

The wind picked up, driving the small swells into proper wave faces, cresting and breaking in a nearly straight line. Muizenberg is ideal for learning in many ways, for you can walk out and ride in on most days. The only frustration is that the waves do not maintain a proper, clean face for long. You must get on fast, choose your direction, and allow the wave to pass beneath you when it collapses to foam.

I face out, looking beyond the backline where I rest. The swells grow over the course of a half hour. They begin to break close to the beach, the cheers of surfers catching the first waves of the morning carry to us and onto shore. It’s motivating, to witness the success of your companions.

Finally, one I believe I can ride. Sitting on the back third of my board, I spin to face the shore again, lying down quickly. I tap my toes against the very tail of the board to confirm my position given what I judge to be the vertical angle of the on-coming wave, adjust for balance, and paddle.

The sea rises slightly and with it, I rise too. I look to my right and see two meters of water behind and above me. I paddle three, for times more and then as my board tilts forward, throw my arms over my head at the same time for a few power strokes. To my right another, more experienced surfer catches the wave and is carried away as though some mighty creature chose him to carry to shore.

I, however, did not time my approach and missed the opportunity. Frustrated, I am reminded how much I have to learn. Unlike climbing or running which seem to dictate a fairly similar body type for success, surfers come in all shapes and sizes. Guys with bellies bigger than a pregnant woman do flips and turns while a white haired, arched-backed man clearly in his seventies catches every wave he intends. He is a regular, one I watch intently each morning we share.

My third try I am on the cusp, my board balanced just over the edge of the face of the wave. I look down into a well two, maybe two and a half meters deep. I throw my arms over and over, kicking my legs in the air to break the inertia and finally, I drop down the face at a tremendous speed. Quickly, I find my hands on the edges of the board, prop my chest high, confirm I am not about to run over anyone, and then spring onto my feet.

Leaning back, I allow the wave to catch-up (for many times, I am not yet quick enough to catch the wave properly), and then adjust my hips and shoulders and stance to ride what remains until it crumbles to foam.

On a good day, with long runs, I enjoy the simple accelleration, fine tuning my ability to gage the direction of the break and to stay on the face. For others, I am up for only ten, maybe fifteen seconds. On those short runs, I work on quicker turns and walking to the front of the board as the waves presses down on the back end.

As the poster says, “Only a surfer knows the feeling.” Falling, falling, falling–as long as the wave is moving forward, you are granted a liquid, perpetual motion machine.

Time just sitting at the backline. The potential sighting of a seal, dolphin, or shark. The sweet taste of the sea. The smell of atomised salt water in the gusts of wind. Even the hard pounding one can take in the face of large waves is part of my life now. I find it difficult to imagine moving back to the desert or high mountains where the ocean has not provided this kind of engagement for tens of millions of years.

Until the next opportunity, my body longs for the motion of the waves.

LIGO Generations

Funded by the National Science Foundation through the University of Mississippi, LIGO Generations shares the passion and the motivation of individuals who have worked for nearly three decades on a single science experiment. We engage in the stories of those who motivated a new branch of physics in order to prove the last piece of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and to hear the universe in a new way.

Read more …

A Daily Unfolding

My time in South Africa has been one of constant adjustment, of intentionally holding doors open in order that they do not prematurely shut; and sometimes being surprised by those which present themselves without even the sound of a key being inserted nor the turning of the knob.

The beach has become my home. It’s daily redesign by wind and water presents a new realm to explore. I no longer find the need to move from place to place, for each day there is something new unfolded before me.

Massive piles of kelp appear overnight while some mornings bring a scattering of snails, blue bottles, or sharp, black shells. What would require a labour force of hundreds of pairs of human hands coupled with powerful engines, scoops, and locomotion is undone in a matter of hours by the liquid fingers of the wave, tumbled foam, and gravity.

Sometimes the ocean brings a baby seal onto shore, separated from its mother, abandoned for reasons unknown, or orphaned by the success of the sharks which reside just past the surfers’ backline. The seal swims onto the beach, is rolled by the next wave, and while curious about the human lookers on, any approach is met by its bark and retreat.

Unfortunately, it is not only the sharks that torment these young, for humans too seem to share a propensity for harming those things which should be left alone. Last month a surfer rescued a baby seal not from the sharks, but from kids who kicked it and threw stones while it moved along the shore. It seems respect for life is gained only after our inherent curiosity about death is explored.

As when I lived at Buffalo Ranch in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I have again learned to shape my day based upon what happens out of doors. The weather, the motion of the sea, the rise and fall of the tide. Running, surfing, or swimming based upon what is presented, but combined, a daily routine that carries me from week to week, month to month, for nearly a year.

I have learned to find joy in a place that is not always easy for me.

I have learned to find comfort in the waves that once scared me.

I am again learning to accept what I am given for a day, knowing it may be gone the next.

St. James Tide Pool

Kai Staats: St. James Tide Pool A day of good intentions started at 7 AM. After five days of editing the LIGO film, hour after hour sitting on my back side, it seems a day of simply re-organising, of catching up was in order. I sorted hundreds of photos and some documents, conducted a full computer backup (minor backups conducted every Friday evening), and then ventured to the St. James Bay tide pool.

One of the perks of living here is a two minutes walk to the waves, surf board under arm. But on those days which are overcome by wind (November through January), the St. James Bay tide pool offers a respit, warm(er) water, and the company of hundreds of families from across this part of Cape Town.

After lunch, I walked the fifteen minutes to the tide pool for a swim. I asked a local stranger to watch my bag which contained only my shoes, towel, and shirt. It is simply too easy for things to be stolen here.

I swam across the pool and pulled myself up onto the wall. I sat next to a man who introduced himself, our backs to the ocean and feet dangling in the protected water. At just one and a half meters deep, I was astounded by the dives the local kids were performing. I would have cracked my head open if I were to have attempted these–but they have a trick, a kind of ‘spring’ in their upper body which releases when they hit the water. No matter how high they jump or how far they twist, roll, and dive, they enter the water nearly flat, compressed, and then open on impact. This keeps them from hitting bottom. The guy who was watching my bag promised to teach me when I returned.

One of my classmates from Madagascar swam up while we were talking. I had seen her coming, but did not recognise her with only her backside to the sky. I joked, “Not to hard to find the white guy in this crowd, huh?” She laughed. The man to my right noted, “It’s funny, eh, how each beach, each place has a majority. This is where the coloured and some blacks go. But just over there, at the next bay, the beach is almost all white. And back at Muizenberg, you have your white tourists and a mixture of locals. But it is a good mix, there.”

He was right. It’s strange how that happens. Comfort in the familiar.

We discussed comfort zones, independent of colour. I commented on how much personal space I grew up with, never in a crowd but for certain occassions. He laughed, “In Africa, you are always near someone. You are always in a crowd. If you leave, you miss the energy and want to come back.” The same could be said for all big cities, for Africa has many small towns and villages with open space. Yet here, people are more … visible, not indoors nearly as much. I told him about the fist time I returned from Kenya to Colorado. I felt I had come upon the scene of a nuclear holocaust sci-fi, everyone hiding or obliterated.

Indeed, there were hundreds of individuals, yet there were maybe a handful of whites, only two of us in the water. It’s part of what I love about living here. My comforts have changed considerably, what I find normal was, perhaps, even uncomfortable at one time.

Yet yesterday was the opposite, for among the thousands who attended the “Hot Water” concert (which was astounding), the number of black people could be counted on two hands.

Time to edit, edit, edit … LIGO awaits.

The man in the seal suit

During my run this morning, I came across a dead seal rolled onto the beach by the waves. I touched it, to see if it was yet warm. But it was cool and slightly bloated. I recognized the opportunity to learn more about this animal, one I had never encountered this closely before.

I spread its front flippers and counted the fingers contained within the webbing. Five, just like mine, with what I believe are the same number of joints. Its rear flippers have toe nails. Not flat like ours, but tubular like a dog. Some just barely pressing through the skin, others nearly an inch in length.

The wave came in and rolled the seal higher than lower on the beach again. The seal was presented anew.

I bent the fingers at each joint, making a fist the size of my own. I was amazed at the similarities, the distance between knuckles nearly identical on the lower digits. Thin, strong bones suspended in a cape of black felt, cool to the touch in this inanimate form.

So very familiar. I half expected a small man to jump out from the suit.

The nose is so much like the snout of a dog, with stiff whiskers and familiar teeth. Large eyes left open when the life no longer occupied this creature, alone on the beach.

Best Feature Apple has to Offer

While my dedication to Apple is all but lost, the quality of their hardware undermined by lack of an upgrade path, the OS a heavily burdened iPad work-alike forced upon the workstation, there is a single feature of the Apple offerings which I find incredibly compelling.

Apple firmware enables a total system copy and restoration with but a few clicks of the mouse.

This is perhaps the most underutilised, little known feature of Apple computers. Interested? Follow these instructions:

1) Attach the USB drive and make certain it shows up.

2) Reboot the computer. The moment you hear the chime, press and hold the ALT key.

3) A simple graphical interface will appear with what should be 3 or more icons. 2 of which will be for your internal drive, 1 or more for the USB.

4) Using the cursor controls, choose the “RECOVERY” partition of your internal drive and hit ENTER or the button at the bottom.

5) Select your language.

6) Select “DISK UTILITY” (see screenshot.png)

7) Select the icon on the left which is your internal drive.

8) Select “RESTORE” from the upper-right of the 3-4 options. This drive should now be in the SOURCE entry.

9) Drag the icon for the USB drive to the DESTINATION entry.

In this step, you can backup to a partition on the backup USB drive and ONLY replace the partition. This is what I do. But that would be ONLY if the backup drive is substantially larger than the internal drive and you don’t want to waste the space.

Else, if the 2 drives are closely matched, then select the primary (not indented) and see what happens. It may reject it. In which case you simply use the indented instead. It will rename that partition anyway, to match the drive it is copied from.

10) Double-check that the SOURCE is your internal drive and that the DESTINATION is the external, USB drive. Else, you will wipe-out your entire computer. Not good.

11) Press RESTORE and accept the warning for total doom.

12) Between 35 minutes and an hour and a half later, your computer will have made a complete, bootable copy.

What’s more, the external USB drive will now have 2 partitions, one which is a bootable copy of your internal drive, and the other a RECOVERY partition. When next you conduct this backup, you will again boot from the internal RECOVERY partition, not that of the external USB drive, just to play it safe (and it is faster).

Partner in Time

Cities have never given me comfort. I find the visual arena less than compelling, a clear example of the human species’ inability to plan beyond a few years at a time. In the audible arena, it is overwhelming. The constant drone of traffic, sirens, and construction is enough to drive anyone to commit a heinous crime.

Yet, I realise, I am in the minority. Some ninety percent of the population of the planet lives within high density populations and not only survive, but apparently thrive.

We adapt reactively far better than we do proactively develop.

I am both enjoying my social interactions and at the same time lonely here in Cape Town, in a way that I am just now coming to understand. I enjoy direct human interaction, day to day, week to week. Yet, the conversations seldom last long enough to garner what I feel is a deepening relationship for any given topic. The pace of life in the city is one that forces us to carve a few minutes here and there into lumps which may or may not span an hour such that we press against the momentum of a machine of our own blind design in order to stand still long enough to simply … talk.

I miss corded telephones. I may have a mobile phone at my side, but the telephone was once a device which demanded a kind of concentration on conversations that found depth through time. In this African standard pay-as-you-go market, no one can afford that luxury. The mobile phone encourages multi-tasking, not good listening. SMS and WhatsApp are now the de facto means of communication, incomplete, written sentences with conveyed attempts at emotion have all but replaced the sound of a human voice.

I often return an SMS with a phone call, in order to conduct a proper conversation, only to receive an answerig service. I am successful in that I enjoy the recording of a human voice, but the thumbs which conveyed an SMS just moments earlier were apparently exhausted, unable to execute the required swipe and press of just one more virtual button.

I recall, as a child, staying up late into the night at the side of my childhood friend Chris Boernke. We were at her parents’ home in semi-rural South Dakota, not far from Rapid City. Our families, four and four, two sisters in their clan, two brothers in mine, would come together a few times a year for a long weekend.

After a day of hiking and home cooked dinner served between thick, wood beam walls whose sap, in places, yet ran, we talked. I could hear the murmur of my parents speaking upstairs from where I sat with Chris. My brother Jae and Chris’ sister Melissa were already asleep. Chris and I told ghost stories authored on the spot. We spoke of California sliding into the sea and of a future in which humans would live on another planet.

We sat side by side. I could feel the heat of her body, but as we were just kids, holding hands, even leaning against each other was not a consideration. We talked. For hours. In a darkness in which we could not discern other’s faces, we shared things we would never express if our eyes were visible to each other.

Sometimes it is the silent visual domain and opaque sound space that gives us the freedom to be present in a moment. Sometimes it is doing nothing that enables a future in which everything is possible.

I have too many times these past six months experienced days and weeks as though only hours had passed. Friends and associates claim this is age, that it happens to us all. I argue instead it is the age of expectation which drives time at the end of a whip, not a leash.

I know where one can return to that space and time, that domain in which time slows again.

Where asphalt and concrete are but reflections lost to a glow on the horizon and the rumble of traffic is replaced with the audible crumble of a gravity bound stream, falling over and over again, time too takes notice and relaxes its pace.

I may yet purchase a car while living here, if for no other reason than to visit a friend when the last train has retreated to the other end of the line. Or I will continue to call, at the expense of my mobile minutes, hoping for an answer.

But I prefer a night soon spent, side by side a nearly invisible partner, engaged in conversation in which time takes us to a multi-verse. California is an island retreat, ghosts are haunted by humans, and we return from an interstellar voyage with tales of far away places waiting to be explored.

There, in the silence of darkness unperturbed by the reminder of time, will the minutes become hours and hours days, and the city is but a relic of one’s fading memory.

A Night Beneath the Stars

Kai Staats: south pole from Sutherland Kai Staats: 20" telescope at Sutherland

Last night I sat alone, on the flattop remnant of an ancient volcanic intrusion, it’s hardened crust resisting erosion moreso than the surrounding terrain. This is where the telescopes reside, spaceships that travel millions of light years but never leave the launching pad.

I sat on a folded blanket, three layers on top, two on the bottom. The air was perfectly still, the sky dark overhead. I read the latest novel by sci-fi master Ben Bova while pressing the shutter on my camera, via remote, over 200 times. Each exposure was 20 seconds long, capturing the SALT observatory silhouetted against the centre of the galaxy.

Satisfied I had captured enough for a timelapse animation, I repacked my camera, book, water, nuts, and blanket and walked along the paved road to the observatory which houses the 20″ telescope on which I have been training. Pierre was conducting his observation run, and doing research into which objects we might photograph the following night.

The moon was rising when I departed, visiting the two astronomers in the 1.9m observatory. Danika, a Ph.D. student from Serbia training under her professor from Australia.

I had left my camera running, a long exposure at low ISO to capture star trails behind the SALT observatory.

Ever time I step into an observatory dome, I am overcome with a sense of childhood thrill, the kind that Jae and I likely shared when we built a fort in our shared bedroom, made of card tables and blankets and flash lights, or when as a child I first visited NASA JPL and saw the Galileo spacecraft under construction.

For me, the observatory has this kind of mind-expanding capacity, for it reaches to the night sky and receives photons from distant galaxies each with billions of stars, massive explosions closer to home, and of the stuff that gives foundation to the formation of planets which may be home to inquisitive creatures looking back at us.

The telescopes are tremendous achievements of engineering and design. There is an incredible sense of accomplishment when you one move, a 3-story, multi-ton creature of iron, steel, and glass as graceful as a dancer; as accurate as a laser.

Like astronauts, the astronomers reside in a small, cramped quarters monitoring the light received by the telescope just outside. Following each observation, one rises, slips through the door which isolates the telescope from their heat and light, to adjust the direction the instrument is pointing.

Returning to their seat, warm cup of tea or coffee or hot chocolate, the music, conversation, and observation resume.

Night after night, week after week, across the planet, thousands of individuals dedicate their sleepless hours to gathering data which helps us better understand our world.