prueba de fuego

En una de mis clases de español esta semana, les di a mis compañeras de clase que yo era en Starbucks. En esta sala pequeña había personas de Brasil y México, y todos conocieron esta cadena de cafeterías. Alguien preguntó en broma si el nombre en español puede ser Estrella-Dólares.

Respondí en serio que el nombre Starbuck es de una novela famosa se llama Moby-Dick. Nadie supo nada del libro. Querría explicar que la novela es importante en la literatura de los Estados Unidos. Querría decir que todos aquí sabe el nombre Moby-Dick, incluso si no han leído el libro. Qué poco sabemos de las culturas de los demás, tanto yo como ellos.

Creo que esta es una prueba de fuego interesante: el nombre “Starbuck”, es un nombre de …

  • una novela de Herman Melville?
  • una cadena de cafeterías?
  • una serie de televisión “Battlestar Galactica”?
  • alguna otra cosa?

La semana pasada, en otra clase, dije que no podía recordar el nombre del actor que interpretó a Hawkeye, porque estaba herido en un accidente con una quitanieves. Un compañera dijo “Alan Alda”, pero fue Jeremy Renner, el que es en las películas de Marvel.

Poco a poco, gota a gota, el tiempo desgasta la comprensión.

design outlets

When I was a professor teaching science, math, and writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1990s, I enrolled in graphic design classes as a creative outlet. This experience has given me confidence to make my own projects, although I do tend to rely on the perfection of geometric forms. While this conservative tendency goes way back, at least as far back as middle school when I enjoyed constructing mazes, I may have ossified more over the years. Let’s see:

About four years ago I created an emblem to be burned onto the surface of a music box, as a prototype for an artifact that would survive on the Moon for millions of years. I regularized and aligned medieval symbols for Earth, Moon, and Sun. Looking at it again now, I find this icon striking but static; it could belong on a headstone as much as on a time capsule.

Earth Moon Sun 2016 02

About fourteen years ago, before the children were born, I designed a family flag, which I later had made into a lapel pin. Focusing on this project must have been a comfort as I mourned Mookie; the four colors represent the surface tones of the four mammals who had been the members of the family. While I obviously lean on geometry here too, the colors help introduce some movement.

Family flag 2005

About eighteen years ago I completed a book project that combined my interests in design and in poetry (honed in the writing group I started in Chicago and in writing workshops I taught for Bard College). Below is a sample of page layouts.

Before the Rain Contents 2001 04

Invocation Violation 2001 04

My dog 2001 04

Your first time 2001 04

Given this limited sample, it does seem to me that I have become less daring in my designs. I wonder if this is due to a heavy reliance upon keyboard and trackpad, or perhaps just lack of practice to push myself in this way. The children continue to produce wonderfully sloppy, dynamic drawings, but this type of artistry is not limited to youth. After all, when we travel this winter I expect to admire how Gaudí and Picasso produced work that was increasingly more organic and free-flowing in their later years.

measure twice, cut once

Living in the same house for fourteen years, we see how long things last.

The dishwasher that came with the house lasted six years. Its replacement began to leave debris on the plates after eight years, eventually complaining loudly by buzzing and then bleeding water all over the kitchen floor. 

The boiler for our heating system failed after four years into our residence, because the solenoid that shuts off the gas to the pilot light needed to be replaced. Today, about ten years later, that same thermocouple needed to be replaced. The repair guy said that they can last one day, or twenty years — there’s no way of telling.

On the other hand, some items are built so well and have such straightforward functionality that, with a little care, they can last a lifetime. Victorinox, for example, makes solid Swiss Army Knives and other tools.

So what is the business model for Victorinox? How can they make money when their products are so durable? They have a loyal customer base who recommends their products. And there are two additional reasons for me. First, I have misplaced and needed to replace some of mine: a Super Tinker and a Climber, as well as my first SwissCard, from moving across the country, loaning them out, and related to confiscation during air travel. Second, I have come to trust Victorinox for quality anytime I need different sets of tools for different occasions. As a result, although I already have three 91mm knives as well as four other models, I am already considering what my next purchase would be.

My heftiest Victorinox tool is the SwissTool RS, which is the first item I grab whenever I need to repair anything around the house. This well-crafted block of steel is an entire toolbox in one hand. My lightest is the SwissCard Lite, which crams so much into an incredibly easy-to-carry package. I also have a NailClip 580, which I purchased even though it is easy to find clippers at the pharmacy, and a Precision Compass, for my neck lanyard.

My oldest 91mm Swiss Army Knife, which I have had for more than a quarter century, is a Climber. This particular knife has served me well on brief and lengthy camping trips; it has more than I really need on a daily basis around town. Looking to lighten the load, I found a heavily discounted Serrated Spartan, which is very similar to the Climber except the large blade is serrated (two different edges is great) and is one layer thinner because it lacks scissors. Missing those scissors, this month I stepped up to the Explorer as my EDC, to replace both a Benchmade Bugout and the Victorinox SwissCard Lite. The Explorer has all of the Climber tools, plus an eminently useful magnifier and a solid Phillips screwdriver. I’m thinking of replacing its scales with Plus scales, to carry a pen and a pin in addition to tweezers and toothpick.

(The following family tree is from SAK Wiki, a great resource for information about Swiss Army Knives.)Victorinox wish list 2019 10 18I carry the Explorer in my shirt pocket, but still long for something that is thinner while retaining my favorite tools: scissors, magnifier, and can opener. A sensible way to slim down is to merge the bottle opener and can opener into a “combo tool” that replaces the small blade. This would also require going without the awl, which is on the back layer of the standard opener tools; although I have occasionally found the awl useful while camping, I can live without it. In addition, some users indicate that the combo tool is a bad compromise and is not robust for prying. Still, making this change reduces the Climber by one layer to the Compact model (which comes with Plus scales), and the Explorer trims to the Yeoman.

I prefer the Yeoman, in order to retain the magnifier, even though the Compact already comes with Plus scales. But Victorinox no longer manufactures the Yeoman. My grail knife would be a Yeoman with Plus scales (preferably dark-colored low-density metal scales, such as the aluminum and titanium ones made by Swiss Bianco), the uncommon hook with a nail file surface, the standard magnifier in production since 2012 (6x glass mounted in clear plastic), the “old” scissors (with an adjustable screw for a pivot), and well-stamped liners. To honor its custom manufacture, I would call it a “Yo, Man” or “Yahmin” or “Gnomon“.

I did mention “well-stamped” liners because, sad to say, my new Explorer has ugly liners. The aluminum is rough instead of polished on the edges, and there is even a little divot out of one of the internal liners. The corkscrew was rough and had some extra metal I scraped away with my fingernail. These issues don’t compromise the usability of the tools, but it’s disturbing that they passed Victorinox quality control, because these tools, with care, last a long time and proclaim the reputation of the company.

Artifacts survive us when they are durable, prove useful, and/or hold sentimental or informational value. Perhaps one of these knives, well-worn and one day freely given, will continue to serve beyond me.

words on the Moon

As a child the spectacular daring of men on the Moon inspired me. One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind extends a hairline beyond the terminator of my memory. I am old enough to remember the later Apollo missions. I zoomed around the living room during the opening credits of TOS before we called it TOS: to boldly go where no man has gone before. It was a time in my life and for the country when every boy dreamed to be an astronaut. And it was always man, mankind, boys: this was a decade before I began to penetrate beyond a skin-deep awareness of gender, coinciding with the biological imperatives of adolescence, visions from encountering New Wave science fiction, a broader diversity of crew on the Space Shuttle.

As an adult I maintain a general sense of optimism about the future. I’m still transported by videos and images from the Space Age, starting with we choose to go to the MoonThinking about space continues to influence my thinking, from teaching my history of ideas course on the circle, to archiving information across the solar system.

Yet here we are, fifty years after Armstrong set foot on the Moon, and what has changed? Here on Earth, the place where I work remains way behind the curve along many measures of diversity. The city where I live is segregated and surrounded for miles by one of the most monochromatic parts of the nation. The politics of the nation itself are fractious.

As for the Moon, we are going there again, or so we’ve been saying for years, and then beyond. But, as with any endeavor, who is actually doing the work? Who receives the credit when things go well, who distributes the blame or spins the narrative when things falter?

In Kennedy’s speech, he declared, “There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet.” But as we humans fling ourselves into space, we carry the politics of difference with us. To a certain extent, this is inevitable, even welcome — individual distinctiveness is good. And I want us to be adventurous as a planet.

However, when we leave the development of rockets to a tiny group of plutocrats, we should wonder whether only the wealthy should control access to space. When art on the Moon or communication with potential extraterrestrial intelligences is dominated by small groups, we should question how broad their perspectives and methods can be.

I am not interrogating whether we should go to space. I think it is inevitable. We are a wondering, wandering species. All of us begin our lives as curious explorers. Instead, I am wondering how we should go about space exploration and development. Sometimes when I consider our ventures in the early 21st century I think: yes, let’s do it, let’s go to space. But no, don’t do it like that. It hurts that way.

We should be more grown up by now, acknowledging the value of multiple efforts, values, and perspectives. Otherwise, it’s just Whitey on the Moon all over again.

small country, big dreams

Today the Beresheet spacecraft, containing the Arch Mission Foundation Lunar Library, descended towards the Moon, where it crashed.

The Lunar Library contained one of my projects, “A Brief History of Archiving Civilization,” including an essay, societal and astronomical records to mark the epoch, excerpts from the Westinghouse Time Capsule and Voyager Golden Record, data from Earth Tapestry, and a small collection of poems.

I hope SpaceIL is able to marshal the resources for another go. They came so close. Space is hard.

11SPACEISRAEL1 superJumbo v2

turn and face the Chang’e

On 3 January 2019 02:26 UTC, China landed a rover on the far side of the Moon. The Chang’e 4 mission, named after the Chinese lunar goddess, is an enormous technological and scientific feat.

For an entire generation, only China has committed sufficient resources and expertise to achieve a soft landing on the Moon. Russia returned samples to Earth in 1976. No other entity arrived intact on the Moon’s surface until Chang’e 3 in 2013. Now Chang’e 4 is the first mission to land on the far side.

The question is whether China has the will to sustain lunar exploration.

The United States government abandoned its lunar missions just a few years its citizens landed there. The national goal was to win the Space Race against Russia with this high-profile feat. After achieving this extraordinary and expensive goal, political and popular support dissipated. Presidential leadership changes after each election: Should the nation head directly to Mars, or first establish a base on the Moon? Focus on manned or robotic missions? On satellites of immediate and obvious benefit, on national security, or on scientific exploration of the solar system and universe?

For more than a decade, from 2007 to 2018, the Google Lunar X Prize offered prizes totaling US$30 million to land a robot and perform various tasks on the surface of the Moon. To this date none of the frontrunners — including Astrobotic (US), Moon Express (US), PTScientists (Germany), SpaceIL (Israel), Team AngelicvM (Chile), and TeamIndus (India) — have achieved this goal.

The simple fact is that heading to the Moon at all requires extensive resources, specialized expertise, coordination over multiple tasks, and persistence even in the face of failure. It’s a risky affair, whether seen from the standpoint of a business model or national budget.

What emotions will prove to sustain long-term exploration of the Moon and beyond? National pride or personal egotism, fear of mortality or of being overshadowed, greed or simple desire to make money, curiosity, altruism, sense of accomplishment, or some combination of these and others? In a thousand years, in a million years, when someone looks back, which social system (or systems) will have endured and prospered long enough to send flowers to the stars?

60 years ago, in the era of Sputnik and Laika and Yuri Gagarin, Russia seemed ascendant. 40 years ago I would have said the United States was maintaining its lead during the dawn of the Space Shuttle. 20 years ago, when the International Space Station was constructed, I might have named the partnership of the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, and the nations of the European Space Agency.

But today? Today I don’t know. On New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft performed a flyby of Kuiper object MU69 at a mind-blowing distance of 43.4 AU, about 1.5x farther than Neptune. Private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic suggest the will and wealth of a single individual could be the difference maker. The Google Lunar X Prize competitors represent for-profit corporations, national space agency partnerships, philanthropists, and space enthusiasts. 

And China is on the far side of the Moon.

to begin a billion years

On the eve of the winter solstice, SpaceIL and the Arch Mission Foundation announced the Billion Year Archive. My work will arrive on the surface of the Moon in 2019 as part of the BERESHEET mission. A Brief History of Archiving Civilization includes:

  • an introductory essay
  • Epoch Marker, to help future intelligences pinpoint when the artifact was made
  • Westinghouse Time Capsule materials
  • Voyager Golden Record materials
  • Earth Tapestry, to highlight important features on the planet
  • poems on the passage of time and the preservation of memory

For more than a decade I have been creating these and other projects to be preserved on the surface of the Moon. It feels wonderful yet somehow unreal that some of my efforts will actually, finally be landing there soon.

I’m grateful to the Arch Mission Foundation to allow my work to take a prominent role in this Billion Year Archive, in what we hope is just the first in a series of Archives of Civilization. It has been a joy to work with them.

breakfast of champions

As an undergraduate at Cornell about thirty-five years ago, I heard Kurt Vonnegut relate how he wrote this passage in the novel Breakfast of Champions:

As for the story itself, it was entitled “The Dancing Fool.” Like so many Kilgore Trout stories, it was about a tragic failure to communicate. Here was the plot:

A flying saucer creature named Zog arrived on Earth to explain how wars could be prevented and how cancer could be cured. He brought the information from Margo, a planet where the natives conversed by means of farts and tap dancing.

Zog landed at night in Connecticut. He had no sooner touched down than he saw a house on fire. He rushed into the house, farting and tap dancing, warning the people about the terrible danger they were in. The head of the house brained Zog with a golf club.

As I recall, Vonnegut said that when he was young, growing up during the Great Depression, some families were desperate for one of their children to become the next Shirley Temple. He witnessed a young girl, farting from nervousness as she tap-danced through her number.

Some things I’d like to remember:

  1. I’d like to read Vonnegut again.
  2. Some important events, those we remember longest, happen unplanned.
  3. We don’t really know how aliens, should they exist, will communicate.
  4. It’s remarkably easy for us to misunderstand each other.

1 hCBj1 h4n7iZm6v v8gNSw

politics and practice of CETI

Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence (CETI) is one of the most fundamental political issues facing humanity.

CETI is at a crossroads

Every year astronomers confirm more exoplanets and become better at finding smaller ones with Earth-like characteristics. Within a generation we will likely detect planets beyond our solar system with temperatures and atmospheres similar to Earth. We may even observe signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. As a result, CETI (sometimes referred to as METI) is undergoing a revival not seen since the heyday of the Space Age in the 1960s and 1970s.

There are many fundamental questions concerning communication with potential extraterrestrial intelligence: Should we initiate contact? If we detect a signal, should we reply? What type of message, if any, should we send? Most importantly, who has the right to decide whether and how to communicate with intelligence beyond Earth?

The International Academy of Astronautics proposes that the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space make these decisions. However, if we detect extraterrestrial intelligence, the reality is that many others will claim precedence: the home country of the observatory that detected the signal, the home country of the astronomer(s) who detected the signal, the astronomers themselves, various scientific organizations, political and religious leaders, etc. CETI is currently politically dormant, but in the event of signal detection, it will become one of the most important issues.

CETI is a global existential threat

The most fundamental political questions concern global existential threats: events that could destroy human civilization or disrupt the delicate ecosystem of our planet. Some existential threats are beyond foreseeable human control. Massive volcanic eruptions could release carbon dioxide and start runaway global warming. Conversely, the solar system could pass through an interstellar dust cloud, attenuating sunlight enough to tumble us into another ice age. Our Sun’s output could increase or decrease unexpectedly. The Earth’s magnetic field could collapse, wiping out many species. A small black hole could wander through our planet.

On the other hand, some global existential threats might respond to human intervention. We may be able to detect and deflect the next asteroid before it initiates waves of mass extinctions. By continuing to avoid the use of nuclear weapons, we prevent a hypothetical nuclear winter that would cause worldwide starvation. If we can wean off fossil fuels and become more efficient in our energy use, we can mitigate global warming. If we understand our impact on the environment more thorougly, we can head off crises such as the collapse of agriculture from declining bee populations, or the return of the Black Plague or rise of other global pandemics.

In order to solve these events, we might harness the power of developing technologies such as CRISPR  and artificial intelligence. However, these solutions could bring their own problems. The widespread ability to alter genes makes it easier to create bioweapons. The motivations of intelligences with inhuman speed, knowledge, and control will become opaque to us.

Communication with potential extraterrestrial intelligence is clearly a global existential threat. Throughout our own history, more technologically advanced humans often display little regard for other species and cultures on first contact.

the need to practice ceti

Despite the global existential threat, many will want to communicate with extraterrestrial intelligence because the exchange of knowledge could bring great benefits to humanity. Furthermore, we humans thrive on and crave connection with others. It may simply be impossible to prevent every individual on the planet from attempting to send a signal.

However, we are not politically ready to face the important decisions surrounding CETI. In this sense, we are fortunate that we have not yet detected extraterrestrial intelligence, because we still have time to build cultural infrastructure to prepare ourselves.

Science fiction in print and on screen provides a great start, imagining possible consequences of communicating with other intelligences. However, narratives alone are insufficient. We need people to engage in decisions that resemble the ones they would make for CETI. We need as many such models as we can dream and develop, to provide alternative perspectives. These models can prepare us for making CETI decisions in the future.

One of my projects, Earth Tapestry, invites visitors to identify locations that are delightful, awe-inspiring, ingenious, information-rich, durable, famous, irreplaceable, and noble. Earth Tapestry’s process of democratic deliberative curation invites the user to consider what to include and what to exclude in a message to unknown future recipients. I created the project so that anyone — not just experts — can participate in determining the most important places on the planet. I will store this data on the Moon: the current limit of humanity’s sandbox, as well as the traditional boundary between ourselves and the heavens.

Just as I hope we are not alone in the universe, I hope this project will not stand alone. Musicians practice before playing on the big stage. Likewise, we must practice CETI in advance of the real thing.