Tonight, I am deeply troubled by the fact that Hershey’s Syrup with Genuine Chocolate Flavor contains no chocolate. And we wonder how and when the world became prone to believing alternative facts? I say it started a long time ago, when we were first fed chocolate syrup, that is not.
For the third year in a row I have returned to our family farm in Iowa for the week of Thanksgiving. My grandmother of 99.9 years lives in town, at an assisted living center. Time with her is cherished, for while she will soon move into the start of a second century on this planet, we know intuitively that years past 100 are limited.
With each visit my mother and I engage my grandmother in story telling, recording each memory on our cell phones, camera, or audio recorder. She shares with us a blend of bitter, sweet, dismay, and wonder at all she has seen and experienced. In the century that has passed she has moved from moving between rented farm houses by means of horse and sled to the automobile, the first commercial airlines, jet engines, and Moon landings. She has seen communications evolve from installation of the first telephone lines to mobile phones, satellite, and the Internet.
Just yesterday afternoon, while decorating her apartment for Christmas I played a Putumayo album ‘Folk Playground’ which started with a fun version of ‘This Old Man’. My grandmother leaning just a bit forward on her walker, swung her hips left and right, tapped her feet, and rolled her shoulders to the lyrics and the beat. My mother quickly came ’round to my grandmother’s front and danced with her, both of them laughing.
The moment was just that, a few bars of a familiar song and a reminder of the countless thousands of evenings that my grandparents danced in Texas, Florida, and Arizona during their thirty years as Iowa Snowbirds. And then my grandmother asked, “Where is that music coming from?”
“From my little black box,” which is how she refers to my cell phone.
“Oh my,” shaking her head as she found her seat, “I just don’t understand how all of that works. All of that,” referring to phone calls, text messages, photographs and music, “in that little box?”
Once seated she concluded, “As I always say, what does the future hold? What … does … the future hold?”
She asks this with a certain degree of longing to know, and at the same time a need to let go. She seems content to know that it produced a song familiar to her, and in that moment she found joy. Moments are what matter most to her now, not the past nor the future. In some ways, she is living exactly how the wise have advised for millennia—in the moment.
I am of that generation that yet cherishes the physical representation of music in vinyl and CD form. I listen to albums, not songs, enjoying the story as it was designed to unfold. As long as I was visiting, I walked the CD isle at Best Buy to see if there was anything new of interest.
I noted an album by Styx called The Mission. I didn’t even read the back—I just grabbed it, as I had not seen a new album by this, one of greatest rock bands of all time, in many years. When I got home, I read the booklet and was blown away, realizing this is not a compilation or digital re-sampling of old songs, but a totally new album written specifically for this, the second era of space exploration. I ripped the CD, copied it to my phone and listened on my car stereo as I drove north to Flagstaff.
The Mission is the sixteenth studio album by the band Styx, released on June 16, 2017. It is the band’s first studio album since 2005’s Big Bang Theory, their first album of original material since 2003’s Cyclorama, and their highest-charting studio album in the United States since 1983’s Kilroy Was Here, reaching #45 on the Billboard 200. A concept album, it tells the story of a mission to the planet Mars in the year 2033. The album’s story was written by Tommy Shaw and Will Evankovich —Wikipedia”
It is difficult to express the impact this album had on me—a visceral response that included goosebumps, adrenaline, sweating as I moved to the beat, and most of all—a reminder of what music, real music used to be.
The Mission is not just a voyage to a distant planet, but a voyage through rhythm designed to match the unfolding story, intelligent lyrics (“Time may bend, but it hasn’t bent enough for me.”), and engaging melody. These songs contain a deep understanding of instrumentation, dynamic control of the human voice, and the telling of a complete story much as a movie carries the audience through a full range of emotion. It may be that each generation says the same thing of the prior, but there is nothing being produced by modern bands that matches the rich offering of Styx and the era in which they were born.
On the way out, the guys behind the counter asked if I thought CDs would be around much longer (clearly, they were asking “the old guy” this question). I said I was not sure, but referred to the fact that more LPs are being manufactured today than at any time in history. Clearly, muzak and random play lists are not cutting it any longer. I encouraged them to set aside just one hour, just once, and do nothing but listen to an album, start to finish, to hear the story as intended by the musicians. They admitted they had never done this before … but I am not certain I convinced them to put down their mobile phone for such an eternity.
I have decided that a new pair of socks may be one of the best things one can experience.
A snug fit, the kind that provides a sense of security, yet soft, fluffy, and warm. Hiking socks are the best, for they are full bodied, like a good beer, totally enveloping your foot with or without the boot. New running socks give new life to old running shoes.
Yet, if you purchase a half dozen new socks that are of the same model as the old, you run the risk of not immediately telling them apart once through the wash. Yes, under the right light it is possible to see which is faded, for black is truly a dark, dark blue in the world of cloth and dyed materials. Sometimes you are able to pinch the wall, rubbing thumb and forefinger together to determine which is thicker. But sometimes you just have to try them on, determining which is the thicker. The thinner is removed, and another tested until you have a match.
This can be a time consuming process, and anxiety producing if you are late to get going in the morning. I am considering some kind of marker, a tag or tiny bleach spot, perhaps an ID tag for the various degrees of age.
NO DOT – new
ONE DOT – previous generation
TWO DOTS – two generations old, likely ready to be come rags
I haven’t had much to say lately. Neither here nor on social media (which I seldom use, anyway). My words are no longer at home outside of my head. Where do they go? What value to they carry? To whom do they intend?
I’ve been hyper-focused on my research project and team at ASU, building a mathematical model of an off-world habitat and community. My work at LIGO has slowed, but remains in motion. Mostly guiding, in a supporting role. With the help of my high school physics prof Dan Heim, we are preparing the Cave-Cassegrain telescope to ship to Tanzania, the one I drove from Wisconsin back to Arizona a few weeks ago.
I am settling into some semblance of a routine, now that Colleen and I share a house in Flagstaff. Runs every-other-morning from here around Buffalo Park and back. Home made fruit smoothies, fresh eggs from Nikki’s chickens on the east side of town, then work from my shed-office, a tiny tin-roofed structure built from lumber recycled from two generations earlier. Interior sideboard are covered with newspapers from the 1800s. When I need a break, I walk around the space (4 paces long, 2 paces wide) and journey back in time.
I am experimenting with crabapple pies. Colleen continues to cook incredible meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She is a natural with food. We eat incredibly healthy, yet both crave garden-fresh food knowing we have succumb to store-bought produce that always fails in comparison.
This was my summer to begin construction of a home on my land outside of Moab. But recent alterations to the C&Rs have raised confusion and tension. My ideal, modest mountain cabin may not be accepted, for it does not uphold the neighborhood that is leaning toward half million dollar homes. Legal language has been employed instead of neighborly consideration, despite my best attempts at personal communication. While the land remains astounding, I question if this is where I want to live, to raise a family. I should not have to seek legal approval to build a greenhouse or children’s playground when the nearest neighbor is a quarter mile away. I cannot help but see parallels between our small microcosm of the larger, over-developed world. Houses are sized not according to personal need nor their impact on the environment, but by the need to increase the value of the investment. This establishes a contest between frequently opposing forces. Development almost always wins.
The issues on the border are crushing to me. I fight back tears as I listen to the news. Having worked on the border with No More Deaths (https://www.kaistaats.com/blog/2010/06/no-more-deaths) I feel the pain of the situation deep inside. I contemplate forgoing a vacation and instead learning if my organizational and computer skills could somehow be applied, a database and image recognition algorithms to help reunite children with their parents.
Today, I must remain focused. Three calls with ASU research team members (ignoring that it is a Sunday), editing a film proposal, and the final submission of my book proposal for MIT Press.
A few paragraphs from my book, “When Stars Collide” (working title)
This is the realm of multimessenger astronomy, the amalgamation of instruments each designed to witness a cosmic event though a unique point of view. Not unlike seeing the human body from the outside, optical light refracting from clothing and skin, an x-ray image looks past the superficial to the inside. Add ultrasound, CAT, and fMRI and we have a multimessenger means to probe the interior as we do the vast exterior of the cosmos with telescopes.
What makes astronomy so exciting is that while you anticipate one thing, you are often met by another. It is not that the laws of physics are being broken, rather that our understanding of the laws is being challenged and expanded. What we did not expect catches us off guard, keeps us humble, and reinforces a childlike sense of the mystery and magic of the incredibly vast universe in which we reside.
Franco was annoyed that I had not kept up with the LIGO email lists, that we could not reflect on this together. I realized my mistake, for I had missed the live unfolding of something extraordinary. But what we didn’t know then was that just three days later there would be another detection event, this one a total game changer.
This confirmed that the signal was real. It could be seen with an unaided human eye above the background noise in the data from both Hanford and Livingston. At that point, all skepticism disappeared and a chant erupted in the telecon chat: “Send the alert!” “Send the alert!” “Send the alert!”
The alert went out to hundreds of astronomical observatories around the world, partners who had for years waited for just such an opportunity. This started it all. This was the birth of multimessenger astronomy.
I have all but lost my philosophy. It lingers, here and there, a remnant of its once prominent place in my daily routine. The words used to describe something deeper, a connection to more than the mundane are now missing from my vocabulary. I can discuss algorithms, programming paradigms, and the missing depth of themes in modern film, yet I feel next to nothing. That upwelling, that hidden source of power, angst and rhyme has eluded me for months at a time.
In daily conversation I find that what I say has almost no impact, not on me nor those with whom I speak. Just words. Just phrases. A kind of auto-complete. Yet inside there is a depth that has not been tapped since I departed South Africa in 2015 and moved back to the States. I seemed to have left that part of me behind that listens more than I do speak, contemplates more than I generate, and creates more than I mitigate.
Productive I remain, checking off items on my list every day. Yet closer to that which I desire … I remain at a distance for my goals are amorphous, ambiguous, and ever set to change. Only with a foundation set in philosophy, some undercurrent of constant flow and direction does everything I do carry the subtle underpinnings of a belief system, a philosophy of hope and change.
Maybe it is time to read the classics again, to be reminded of the words of those who have come before. I need to allow the stories, the poems, the rhymes of many generations to settle into me, to again become integrated into who I am such that when I speak, I speak with the depth and conviction not of a single entity, but of a whole.
It is time to read more, write more, sing more–to no longer fail for a loss of words.
Future generations will look back on this time and place and see us as selfish and corrupt, as barbarians who were year after year, election after election willing to put congressional desires for power and control before the lives of those they claim to represent.
As one of the high school survivors shared, “We are survivors of a cruel and silent nation, a nation where we do not live out the true meanings of our creed. When will we as a nation understand that non-violence is a way of life for a courageous people … we are here to fight for love and peace. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Violence cannot drive out violence. Only peace can do that. Death cannot drive out death. Only proactive life can do that.”
To not directly address the issue of this nation’s addiction to violence is to perpetuate a state of insanity that future generations will look upon as we do now electric shock therapy, castration of those with learning disabilities, and witch trials. Looking back we will see clearly how inconceivable it is to reduce the use of weapons through the application of more weapons. We are on the verge of curing cancer, building synthetic thinking machines, and walking on the surface of Mars. At the same time our congressmen and women would rather watch hundreds of school-age children be gunned down than admit they were wrong to accept overt monetization of our democratic process for the increase of their personal wealth and power.
We will some day look at those who ignorantly repeated the phrase “Guns don’t kill, people do” and say simply, shame on you.
The first death associated with a fully autonomous vehicle occurred Saturday night in Tempe, Arizona, as reported by the Associated Press. While it is not yet determined what happened, and if a human controlled vehicle might have resulted in the same unfolding, this raises a number of questions about how we should now and will over time learn to deal with the death of a human due to computer error.
For me, it feels different than when a human kills a human due to drunk driving or not paying attention while behind the wheel. It feels wrong. And yet, the theory is that if all vehicles were self-driving, the 40,000 vehicular deaths per year would be reduced to almost none. To tabulate lives this way is to reduce humans to a body count, even if it the portrayal of saved lives is accurate.
For our society to accept that a computer mistake, not a human one will be acceptable is going to take a while. How will autonomous vehicle companies deal with law suits? Will the car company as a whole, the supplier of the cameras, sensors, or software designer be responsible? When a person is killed due to an intoxicated driver or distraction we blame that individual and perhaps society for allowing substance abuse or texting to continue. But when a computer is at fault, a system designed to be faster and safer than a human, will we still seek to blame or simply justify the error by running the numbers?
It seems we have grown afraid of silence.
Despite the increasing isolation, we no longer know how to be alone.
We now talk to our computers, to our cars, to the machines that provide our music and to our phones. Talking, talking, always talking. Yet, we no longer longer just talk to each other.
It seems we have grown afraid of silence.
It seems we don’t want to be alone.