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    Kepler, blowing it up right now

    2011 - 02.06

    Big cosmological news this week, huge news. More exciting than the arsenic bacteria, I think.

    The Kepler Space Telescope team has just released a dump truck’s worth of data on what they have seen. The short synopsis: 1235 new planets outside our solar system. There’s a lot of juicy details to talk about, but the main takeaway is that these 1235 new planets are just the tip, of the tip, of the iceberg. A small iceberg, in a vast sea of ice.

    So first the disclaimers: they need to gather more data to firmly verify many of these planets. But that disclaimer becomes a moot, scoffable footnote when you consider how they found these 1235:

    The Kepler Space Telescope has been floating in space, watching a specific group of stars, around 145,000 of them. The size of the group is roughly equivalent to the size of one’s fist held at arm’s length if you were looking up at the sky. Note here, the entire Milky Way has an estimated 100-400 billion stars. So really just a tiny little group is being looked at.

    The way Kepler detects a planet is by watching a star to see if it’s brightness dips, when something passes between the star, way far away, and the telescope, near Earth. Now this is a hugely important point: the odds of a planet just-so-happening to be in the perfect orbit that it would actually pass between its star and Kepler’s vantage point is less than a 0.5% chance. Those 1235 repeating brightness changes that Kepler saw are only the ones that beat the incredible odds of lining up perfectly for our convenience. There is no special law of the cosmos stating “planets must be aligned perfectly between their stars and the planet Earth.” These 1235 worlds are the ones that actually do obey such a ridiculous, nonexistent law.

    So what does it mean? That are abundant planets. Everywhere. As in, more of them than you or I can possibly imagine. Says Wikipedia: “Based on Kepler data, an estimate of around 100 million habitable planets in our galaxy may be realistic.” “HABITABLE.” As in, if we ever get our act together and figure out terraforming, we could go live there. And “PLANETS.” As in, ‘we’re not counting all the moons in orbit around the giant Jupiter-like worlds that could also be habitable too’. (For reference, Jupiter has 4 large moons, while Saturn and Neptune both have 1 large moon each. So these moons are common too.) I would call 100 million a conservative estimate.

    I’ll go back to that mind-blowing sentence from the “Cosmos: A Field Guide” book: “There are more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way.” Oh how that sentence delights me! Andromeda, our nearest galactic neighbor, is over twice the size of the Milky Way. Multiply the conservative 100 million habitable planets by a conservative number of galaxies in the universe, let’s say 170 billion, going again by Wikipedia (though this may be low). So if every galaxy were at least somewhat like ours with regard to the odds of planetary formation, or would grow to be like ours by the time we could ever reach it…

    100,000,000 x 170,000,000,000 = 17,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 17 Quintillion habitable planets in The Cosmos.

    Quintillion, ten to the eighteenth power, I actually had to look that up before I knew what it was. When’s the last time you heard someone use that in a conversation? I mean, is that even a number? Or is it just some bafflingly abstract word? Carl Sagan loved to say “billions and billions”; well one quintillion is what you get when you multiply one billion by one billion. I think he hit pretty close to the mark.

    Now I know what I just did there was wholly unscientific, and it’s way more complicated than just multiplying some numbers. The galaxies further away are younger and undeveloped, there’s so much we still don’t know, you can’t just multiply like that, I know, I know! But hear me out: the larger point is, that there is a universe out there ineffably vast and surprisingly accommodating to life as we know it. (never mind life as we DON’T know it!) My absurdly large 17 quintillion doesn’t consider moons either. If there is a non-zero chance of life arising, which there obviously is because we’re alive, I’d say it’s a pretty safe conclusion that, in the incomprehensibly wide expanses of this universe, life abounds.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    There’s an awesome interview with this guy Geoff Marcy over at Wired Science. Dude is like Mister Exoplanet. It probably says that on his business card. Out of the first 100 discovered, he was involved in 70 of those, and he is listed as a co-investigator with the Kepler telescope team too. He has a bunch of deeply thought provoking things to say, one of the largest of which centered around the question, how common is intelligent life in the galaxy?

    “What we need are big radio telescopes that hunt for radio signals. It’s not that much of a secret. But we don’t have the cultural, political will to fund a serious radio telescope to answer a question that every six-year-old asks. The telescope called the Allen Telescope Array, which is our greatest hope, is struggling. And for what? It costs $100 million. NASA’s budget is $19 billion. Less than one percent of NASA’s budget in one year is enough to fund this marvelous, epochal Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria – why aren’t we doing this?”


    I suppose it will forever be the fate of the scientist to have their resources be dictated by the whims of bureaucrats who can’t be reasoned with. I’m sure the funding proposals for the Allen Telescope Array has taken many a red ink slashing on the desk of some idiot senator. This is one reason why I’ve decided (at least for now) not to write about politics on here. Seems like even when the so-called “good” guys are in control, foolish decisions are bound to be made and tantalizing opportunities are still squandered. I’d rather spend my time talking about things that inspire and fascinate me, rather than just complaining.

    Some more memorable quotes from Marcy, speaking about his early days, “Everyone seemed smarter than me. I felt a little bit like an impostor, like they haven’t figured out that I’m not as smart as them, that I’m not really smart enough to be a scientist. I thought okay, well now the jig is up. Maybe my career is over… I remember one morning in my apartment in Pasadena, as I took my shower, thinking, I can’t suffer like this anymore. I’ve got to just enjoy myself, do research that really means something to me… by the time I turned off the shower, I knew how I was going to end my career… by knowing I was a failure, I was free. I could just satisfy myself and hunt for planets–even though it was a ridiculous thing to do. At that time, I hadn’t heard of anybody actively hunting for planets.” When asked what people thought when he told them what he wanted to do, he says, “They were embarrassed for me. I might as well be looking for little green men, or how aliens built the pyramids in Egypt, or telekinesis.”

    I find those quotes both deeply moving and deeply inspiring. Anyone trying to do something great feels self doubt, whether it be something as modest as trying to make a painting, a film, find a job, or search for far away planets, against impossible odds. No matter how fucked up your life gets or how little you have to work with, you can always keep trying. Even if you fail a hundred times, you can always try again. I mean, here he is, talking about these 1235 new planets–what a triumph, what an utter victory! That moment is like solid gold, you can put that in a museum, in a spotlight on top of a Greek column. He’ll be getting a steady stream of congratulations in the mail as the months go by, and even if they never hear his name, people for millennia will look back on the time when we started discovering exoplanets as one pivot point in the enlightenment of the scientific & astronomical communities. A pivot point in the awakening of our species to our place in the cosmos. Maybe someday there will be a Geoff Marcy Space Telescope.

    And to think it all goes back to that one moment in the shower, when he was wracked with despair that, maybe this whole pipe-dream of being a scientist just wasn’t going to happen. Maybe I’m just not good enough, he thought. And then another part of him said, ok, look, maybe there are these other people with their unreachable masterpieces, who will always look down on the smallness of what I am trying to do. Maybe I can never join those ranks. But I’ve GOT to keep TRYING to do my thing.

    I wish the telescope could be named after whatever voice in that man’s mind told him that. The voice that says hey, even if your life’s work amounts to little more than some footnote in the annals of much more important discourse, that’s still something. And you should do that little something. I kinda got a bit emotional when I read those quotes, because it’s such a meaningful discovery–what that number of planets signifies about our own world’s role in the historical canon of the larger universe–and it had such humble, awkward beginnings. He was just a nut, some loony youngster trying to do something only a fool would devote their time to. Well who looks stupid now?

    The whole thing kind of underscores the nature of our collective quest to gain understanding of who we are in the cosmos. Those people who devote their lives to helping answer the biggest of questions are looked on like oddballs on some idiotic quest. What’s the point of spending our tax money on this stuff, most people ask? So you found some planets. I could’ve told you they were out there. We gotta pay for these fighter jets and build new churches. That’s the important stuff, needs them dollars today.

    It is an embarrassment, how unable we are to muster resources toward figuring out the big questions. All cynicism aside, maybe it’s just a problem of inadequate education about the wonder of the universe, or the inherent difficultly in succinctly communicating how this immediately affects us all, here today….  maybe it’s time I made a SETI donation.

    The Spiritual Uplift of Infinity

    2011 - 01.30

    Part one: Immensity

    One of the most endlessly fascinating human concepts is the idea of infinity. It’s a concept that is referenced often, but seldom do we get the occasion to sit and deeply contemplate the idea. There are so many ways in which infinity is a breathtaking thought. Let’s delve into it!

    The marvel which immediately comes to mind is the size of it. I think of a hundred as a big number. If I have 100 blueberry muffins, I’ve got more breakfast food than I could possibly eat. The refrigerator is going to be full, and even then, some of these things are probably winding up in the garbage. As much as I hate to see anything go to waste, and as much as I love eating a fluffy blueberry muffin, I simply cannot eat 100 of them. So 100 is a lot.

    Stepping up one order of magnitude, if I had 1000 muffins, now I would have to start giving them away. There would be boxes everywhere. Definitely not enough space in the fridge and freezer combined, and now I think I never want to eat another muffin again. Even the ones with the sweet crunchy tops. Iew. If I had 10,000, now we’re dealing with a disaster. The landlord is incensed with the gargantuan piles spilling out all the doors, and there’s probably not much room to walk through the house. At 100,000 muffins, I would probably get killed. Squeezed to death by the immense force needed to cram so many into one house. Even when you compress all the air out of that fluffy goodness, we’re looking at some dangerous volumes.

    But to a lot of people 100,000 is still not that big of a number. What about a million? That number gets tossed around like nothing. A million bucks for a mansion. A million oranges in a large plantation. 310 million people living in the United States. It’s a big country. But there’s almost 7 BILLION people living on planet Earth. 310 million US residents is not a lot of people compared to the 7 billion world population. We’re only 1/22nd of the total amount.

    A billion, now that’s a really big number. The sun and the earth both formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The universe itself is estimated to be 13.75 billion years old, with a visible size of 46 billion light years. So big, you can no longer grasp how large that is. There’s easily over 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. That’s more galaxies than even the widest, boldest mind can imagine. But there are bigger numbers still. And yet, the sizes of all these things are insignificant next to the size of infinity. A hundred billion is exactly the same distance from infinity as the number one. That’s the wonder of infinity!

    Just for fun, let’s keep going. The number of bits available for storage on my 1.5TB hard drive, 12 trillion. The US national debt is currently 13.75 trillion. A hundred dollars for every year in the age of the universe! The number of neural connections in the human brain is over 10^14. There’s over 70 sextillion stars in the observable universe. That’s 70×10^21. 10^80 elemental particles present in the observable universe. Google, now a household word, is an alternate spelling of googol, which is the number 10^100. Written out, that’s:

    Ten followed by a hundred zeros. But there’s even bigger numbers still! A googolplex is 10^10^100. In a scene from Cosmos, Carl Sagan humorously shows how it’s not possible to write out a googolplex because it’s simply too big–it wouldn’t fit inside our universe! Those 10^80 particles are simply insufficient for the task, even if one particle was used to represent one zero. And still, there are even larger numbers than the googolplex. Even dramatically larger numbers. But still, the idea persists that even the largest number conceivable is precisely the same distance from infinity as the number one.

    Pt.2: Park it wherever you like

    I’d like to talk a little bit about another fascinating property of infinity that gives me a lot of optimism and joy. When we think about infinity, my mind at least goes straight to the large: the vastness of the cosmos and the unending progression of time. But for all the giant spaces infinity implies, there are implicit minuscule ones as well. When we count from 1 to 2, we think of that as a finite interval. It’s easy to see, if I have one apple and you give me a second one, now I have two, a finite number of apples. I definitely don’t have infinite apples. (Although I wish I did.)

    But for every number you can name between one and two, I can give you a number that’s halfway between your number and one. You say 1.5, I say 1.25. You say 1.1, I say 1.05. You say okay wiseguy, how about 1.000001? I reply 1.0000005. We can start using scientific notation and continue this volley–until forever. And just like that, we’ve slid down the chasm into infinity, INSIDE the space between one and two. Infinity can exist inside of finite boundaries, because of the idea that in addition to being endlessly large, infinity is also endlessly small.

    This idea has tremendous philosophical ramifications. When we lay outside under the stars at night and gaze out upon the universe, the sheer scale of ourselves, compared to it, can really seem bewildering. Stupefying. Daunting. Maybe even a bit disheartening. We realize how utterly tiny we are. And how the vast spaces beyond our planet will never know our names, our histories, or the fruits of our lives work. The collective plight of our entire species will likely be a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a blink in the scale of our own galaxy alone, nevermind the cosmos. We glimpse the scope of the large infinity and all the treasure we hold special suddenly seems not just petty, but outright laughable. When our train of thought goes so far down that track, infinity seems to be a source of despair, pointlessness.

    It is in this moment we need to remind ourselves that the grandiose richness of detail, subtlety, and surprise that large infinities encompass is also fully present within the infinities of the small. And these infinities of the small reside within our familiar finite spaces. Holding two apples, one in each hand, you can hold the entire cosmos between your fingertips. That same infinity up in the sky at night is right here, literally in our hands, available to be reshaped, to be studied, played with, laughed about, and to reshape us with its own, bottomless insight. This idea of infinity, so breathtaking in immensity, is right here with us, a trove of eternal possibilities for inquisition.

    It’s a mathematical proof for the idea of interconnectedness. Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Buddhist, eloquently muses upon the idea of oneness using a single tree within the larger world:

    A tree is very beautiful. A tree to me is as beautiful as a cathedral. Even more beautiful.
    I look into the tree and I saw the whole cosmos in it.
    I saw the sunshine in the tree. Can you see the sunshine in the tree?

    Yeah, because without the sunshine, no tree can grow.
    I see a cloud in the tree. Can you see? Without a cloud there can be no rain, no tree.

    I see the Earth in the tree–I see everything in the tree.
    So the tree is where everything in the cosmos… come into.
    And the cosmos reveals itself to me through a tree.

    Therefore a tree, to me, is a cathedral.

    It inspires me so very deeply to think that infinity can be bounded within a finite space. It inspires me to think that the potential for limitlessness is anywhere you look. The comprehensive vast ‘everything’ is right here. All around us, within our hands, and inside of us. Exactly like Thich Nhat’s tree, we can look into ourselves, we can look between our hands, we can look…wherever we want, and see the whole cosmos.

    Finding the Meaning: Fine Paisley Like Mandelbrot Edition

    2011 - 01.27

    So I set out to write a post about the first poem I put on the blog and I ended up instead writing a long post about GTA. (coming soon!) Not sure how that happened… wait, actually I know exactly how that happened: I was talking about how I enjoy discussions of what meaning people derive from a work of art because it often give you new insight into why you, yourself enjoy it; and then I got sidetracked by talking about the awesome article/comments on Kotaku, which made me recall why I love GTA. I intended to write about poetry, and instead wrote about video games. Two disparate artistic mediums! And yes, contrary to Mr. Roger Ebert’s now-famous quote that video games can never be art, I do think they can be very artistic. Besides, Roger Ebert talking about video games is about as relevant as Bob Vila critiquing figure skating. Which is to say: Completely. Meaningless.

    But I digress. This is the second first posting in the beginning of my “Finding the Meaning” series which will analyze the deeper layers, the significances of…. whatever topic is in question! This installment: a poem.

    The piece I put up here called “Fine Paisley Like Mandelbrot” is a witches-brew cauldron, bubbling with the things that have been on my mind lately. It’s principle thrust is to simply chew up these influences and spit them back out. The common denominator in the disparate topics we’re about to flesh out is the sheer amount of detail. The richness. A Mandelbrot set, which you can zoom and magnify infinitely, would be an archetypal exemplar of such richness. In this piece I was trying to vocalize my effort (especially with the content on this website) to step up my game, and bring as high of a level of detail as I can to the artforms I practice. There is a thrilling element to such explosions of detail, and I set out to attempt capturing this.

    One of the chief influences on my brain right now (which should be obvious by this blog) has been space. The vastness of it. The crazy, stupefying, ineffable, head-exploding vastness of it. I was sitting at the kitchen table looking at a full two-page spread of a picture of NGC 3370, aka “the Silverado Galaxy” and thinking, “Wow. This galaxy is so big. And to think that most of it’s stars are blurred together here; I can’t even distinguish the vast majority of them because they’re too small or dim. Imagine if you could zoom in on just this one tiny part of that image, what would be there? Hundreds of thousands of stars maybe. Imagine if you could zoom in on a small cluster of them, a local constellation… what planets would they harbor, what minerals, organic compounds, and maybe… what life would be there? This tiny, itty bitty pixel from that image of the whole galaxy is like a miniature universe unto itself. You could spend a thousand lifetimes cataloging and analyzing just the stuff that is there, even if there were no life (which I bet there is). The detail. The detail! And yet–what is this small cluster of stars, compared to this galaxy? One Pixel. And what is this galaxy compared to its supercluster? What is this supercluster compared to The Universe? What are we, compared to that One Pixel?

    I wish I could get in there, squeeze down to pixel size and study what lays in the obscure backwaters of the Silverado galaxy, but that will not be possible for a hundred human lifetimes yet. Maybe (much?) longer. There is so much to see, to know, to explore in the universe. It overwhelms me.

    So in the spirit of such detail, let’s tear this poem apart, piece by piece!:

    sunburst flares
    -one of the sections in the Cosmos: A Field Guide deals with the Sun, and discusses solar flares. Solar flares are an interesting topic because they directly affect our lives on Earth, unlike the distant stars of astrology. Solar flares can cause power outages, magnetic storms, interference with navigational instruments, etc

    magnified, deconvoluted
    -magnified; the infinite zoom-ability of the Mandelbrot
    -deconvolution is the process of taking something and extracting its component ingredients, which are not visible by simple examination of the whole. For example white light is composed of red, blue, and green light. A science textbook will tell us this fact, and we can verify it by watching the refracted patterns on the wall from a suncatcher’s prism in the morning. But to a six year old, who has never seen a suncatcher, and hasn’t progressed to the science book’s chapter on light waves, all of this knowledge would be hidden. White light’s origin a mystery. A less obvious deconvolution would be the ingredients to a recipe. Only the chef knows his secret ingredient in the incredible pasta alfredo.

    upon spectra wavelength
    -the different colors of white light, are the different wavelengths. Red is 700nm. Blue is 460nm. Green is 540nm. (approximate numbers)

    chopped, split, spliced
    -here there is a parallel drawn with audio. When making songs, it is fun to chop samples apart, split them, and recombine into odd patterns. Soon I’ll be doing an album review of “Arboreal” by The Flashbulb, a fine specimen of chopping, splitting, splicing. The genres of Glitch and breakcore use these techniques extensively.

    reconstitued, & noise filtered
    -reconstitute like orange juice from concentrate. Noise filtered like you’d do to a photo you took at high ISO, to sacrifice a bit of sharpness for the sake of a smooth image, to remove the distracting noise (a technical glitch) and focus your viewer upon the artistic aspect of your snappings.

    grasped with warm
    nearly-sweating anxious palms
    of blossoming love’s first

    -If there is a thing such as magic in our world, I would say it revolves around the times in our lives when we are falling in love. When we’re making these tiny, joyful discoveries of who a person is, and finding how our sets of puzzle pieces interlock. Of course there’s an avalanche of this at the beginning of a new relationship, but even when love reaches a sort of plateau, there is perpetual opportunity for surprises and new planes of interaction to be opened up. These sacred instants, when love is increasing, are some of the brightest moments in our existences. Love itself is such a wondrous emotion. Literally, wondrous; filled with wonder. That excitement, the fervor of intertwinement, discovery. Something so fresh and new entering your world.

    divine vector pattern explosions
    vector art is something I wish I knew more about. Skilled artists in this medium tend to use a stunning amount of complexity in their works. This explosion of detail is commonly made by using repeating elements (patterns) which have been varied in their scale, orientation, color, opacity, etc so that looking at the whole, it seems like there is an impossible level of density that must have taken forever to craft, when it is in fact the work of speedy workmanship in the task of applying many minor variances.

    miniscule star filter artifactings
    -the star filter is so awesome. It instantly takes things up a notch. I almost feel like a sucker for falling for its allure so easily, but what can I say, it just works. You could call it an “artifact” in the sense that its presence is caused by areas of oversaturation in a photo.

    revolve non-linear focus-pulls
    -focus pulling simply means moving the focus plane in a video. So something far away gets blurry and something close up that used to be blurred now appears sharp. There is an art to acquiring ‘the touch’ to do it with finesse. Shooting film, there is often one person who is devoted solely to this task, or it can be done precisely with automation.

    densely populated in unpredictable
    -the quest for density! With surprising small discoveries therein.

    differential units
    -in calculus, differentiation is the process of finding a rate of change. A differential is the term “dx” if you’re finding the rate of change of x-position, or “dt” if you’re making calculations in relation to the progression of time. A differential unit would be one single point along the progression of a function, which is infinitesimally small. For every point you can pick around the point t=1, I can give you something halfway between your point and t=1. Infinite sequences can be found inside these tiny spaces…

    along our revolution’s arc
    -a reference to the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, the passing of time.

    the bokeh of horse-hair strings
    -bokeh is blurriness caused by a lens being out of focus, a tool that makes photos look pretty.
    -stringed instruments are often played with bows that are made from the tails of horses.

    with richness of three cent detuning
    -a “cent” is a logarithmic unit of measure for musical intervals. In the western 12 tone system of music there are 100 cents between each pitch. C to C# for example is divided by 100 cents. When creating music, it is pleasing to the human ear to have minor imperfections in the pitch. Two violins that could play perfectly in tune with each other (zero cent variation) would not sound as good as two violins which are maybe five cents off. Our ears are used to these minor imperfections, we crave them. It is the human element which separates flawed beauty from a cold, impersonal preciseness. Believe it or not, perfection sounds bland.

    sprayed in gradients & layered thick
    -gradients can either mean visually: a soft transition from one color to another or mathematically: the gradient of a scalar field (ie a 2D plot of data, like time versus temperature) is a vector field (a map of arrows pointing in the direction of flow, like an illustration of many arrows showing currents in a river) which points in the direction of the greatest rate of change (largest derivative)

    cloned in petri dishes then
    -I was thinking about something a friend said, during a conversation about the recent NASA discovery of an organism that uses arsenic in place of phosphorus for building its DNA chains. He’s going to school for biotech, and he said (paraphrased), “What they did is really nothing special. They forced evolution by feeding these bacteria arsenic over and over. I mean, I force evolution all the time in the lab. You have a bunch of samples and you keep trying for a specific outcome; when you get something that looks promising, you isolate that specimen and forget about the rest, and you keep iterating until you’ve got what you wanted.” That idea he was talking about, that you can create whole new strains or pathways using evolution is an idea that applies to artistic mediums as well. You create a song that’s different from your usual work, and you like it, so you keep forging down that path, with a certain direction in mind, eventually arriving as a different composer than you initially were.

    composite imaged
    -composite imaging is something I do at my job, using different methods of examining something and combining the results. Like overlaying an optical image over an X-ray image, that’s a composite image. Or two photographs which have been blended together, as in HDR, or creative masking to provide an overall better exposure.

    twenty-first generation
    eleventh remix

    -welcome to 2011

    sum totaled obscurities for
    -I love me some obscurities. Hooray for B-sides. A book of minor Beatles trivia sits on my kitchen table, a lesser known masterpiece by Van Gogh hangs on my wall in a giant frame (original shown below), and pixellated backwaters of the Silverado galaxy are what I spend my free time thinking about.

    distillation refinement
    -the process of converting “that was close” into “that was IT”

    over wide timescales
    -it takes a lot of time to assemble a menagerie of gems. A lot of failed attempts and almost-but-not-quites, a lot of practice and persistence to fill a gallery. Having this site, writing this poem, vocalizing these concepts, and painting pictures I know are going to be lame are all part of building toward a whole that will someday outshine the constituent pieces.

    eclectic nostalgia
    eased in and hit with a firm lock
    into multithreaded collusions

    -lines inspired by the song I was listening to at the time I wrote this, “Once Weekly” by The Flashbulb

    99 ways to analyze &
    99 angles to percieve

    -a reference to this poem

    we have moved beyond the saturation knob
    into the thousand-dial selective colour

    -refers to an upcoming photoshop tutorial on the benefits of selective color

    blowing the tones into a billion
    points of nuance sprinkled within
    fine paisley like mandelbrot

    -paisley has always been a favorite pattern of mine. True that it can look hideous when applied in poor taste, but when done right, it is magnificent. The elaborate shapes it forms would take forever to sketch. If I handed you my paisley tie and said “here, draw this tie, exactly” it would take all afternoon, easy. Like vector art, it’s a complex pattern made by copying, pasting, and variating. Shortly after I posted this poem, I redid the navigation bar of the site with a color-shifted image of a paisley tie I have. In the future, I intend to modify it further with extra details.

    WHEW! There you have it!

    Cicadas in the forest of the universe

    2010 - 12.23

    I remember as a child someone once telling me about a type of cicada that sleeps underground for years.  There are a great number of them hibernating in the dirt, and somehow, on a special day, all of them emerge at once. They climb out of the soil and up the trees, where they shed their exoskeleton and take flight to find their mate.  Once they’ve reproduced, the eggs are laid and the cicadas die.  These eggs hatch on tree branches and the larva fall to the ground, where they dig into the dirt and the cycle begins anew.  They too will spend years asleep underground, and emerge for a few frantic hours to proliferate themselves.  Depending on how quick it all goes down, they may live as a flying insect for a few days at most, and just a single night at the least.

    A recollection returned to me of digging in the sandbox and finding the empty shell of a cicada.  It was kind of gross, but I couldn’t help but study it, scooped up in my orange plastic shovel.  Suddenly that empty shell had taken on a new meaning.  It was the spectre of a creature who had lived, maybe only a few short hours.  Even to the perspective of a human child, probably six or seven years old, only having a few hours to live your whole life seemed like something of a sad story.  One night only.  Just a single sunset in the breadth of your whole being.

    Our existences are brief.  There is an expression, “we are not long for this world.”  How true it is.

    If you could live a thousand years, would life get boring?  What if you could live a hundred thousand years?  What would the meaning of life be, to someone who lived for so long?  Would it be different than a human who lived a normal 80 years?  What would the highlight be?

    Given a different set of parameters, ambitions change.  If a doctor told you tomorrow that you had one day left to live, you’d probably do something relaxing and introspective.  If he told you three months, you’d probably book some flights, see the MVPs of your life, and maybe check out the Mediterranean like you always wished you had.  If the doctor said you had 50 years left, well, you’d probably say, “thank you captain obvious,” and keep going in to work every Monday.  But what if you had 500 years?  You might start making some different plans.

    “What is the meaning of life?” is a question somewhat like “what is your favorite color?” in that everyone will have their own answer, and there are certainly popular replies.  “Blue” for instance, would be a lot more common than, say, “chartreuse”.  Of course there’s no wrong answer, but I wonder what it says about our priorities when we compare what our objectives might look like, given a much longer time span to execute.  I’ve been wondering to myself what my own ambitions would look like if I thought I had an extra century to get there.  What does it say about the merits of my current goals?

    At half-price books a few weekends ago I picked up a ten dollar hardcover entitled “Superstructures in Space” which contains boatloads of pictures illustrating the various craft we’ve sent out into the sky.  Everything from the Hubble Telescope to Voyager to the Deep Impact spacecraft.  A full-page image, taken by the Hubble, caught my attention.  This photo shows a nebulous stellar nursery, where stars are born.  A stunning sight, which explodes the boundaries of the mind.

    What amazements could possibly await those who will someday voyage there?  We think of our own planet as endless, and our lives as eternities, but compared to merely this one section of the cosmos, as captured by Hubble, they pale in size.  More than tiny.  Beyond minuscule.  Like cicadas in the vast forest of space, our minds cannot grasp the richness, complexity, and subtle beauty of our surroundings.  We are filled up with preoccupations of digging out of the dirt, and finding a partner, just in the nick of time before we all expire.  We may be lucky enough to soar over the treetops for our own brief instant, but a towering pine in the distance, a mountain upon the horizon, and that great unknown beyond it remains hidden to us.  Our time is too short to visit there.  Our time is too short to even figure out what may lie there.  Nevermind the world beyond that, and the world beyond that.

    “What is a drop of rain, compared to the storm?
    What is a thought, compared to the mind?
    Our unity is full of wonder which your tiny individualism cannot even conceive.”
    -System Shock, 1994

    In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan discusses the composition of Neptune’s moon Triton, which is covered in layers of frozen nitrogen snow.  He says, “In some places the surface is as bright and white as freshly fallen Antarctic snows (and may offer a skiing experience unrivaled in all the Solar System).”  Skiing on a moon of Neptune.  Think about that one for a minute.

    Then consider the fact that as wildly fantastical as skiing on Triton may sound, winter sports in our outer solar system is only one adventure, out of the innumerable adventures offered by our universe, on innumerable worlds, most of which are, in all likelihood, unimaginably different than Earth.  By the time we get to Triton, the sport of skiing may be as ancient as games once played by the Mayan tribes, or the Incas.  Humans will have since moved on to other snow sports, probably using technology not even conceived of yet.  Something even more outlandish than Marty McFly’s hoverboard.  By the time we make it to the stars captured in the Hubble image, homo sapiens will have long ago have evolved into creatures different than we now know ourselves.  Maybe some elegant, drastically improved humanoid who evolved through cosmic radiation and scientific enhancement, devoid of the flaws of tissue degeneration, memory loss, and tendencies toward aggression, thoughtlessness.

    These intrepid adventurers will set foot upon worlds we visited only in the ships of our imaginations, confined to the ground as we were.  We may smile, thinking of our own yearning to travel to such exotic places fulfilled vicariously by our descendants, a way of reaching past the limits of our own single evening as a cicada in the forest of our universe, and fulfilling a goal too vast for the blips of our lifetimes; to see, to know the universe.  To permeate it, populate it, celebrate it, to play a long, graceful part in it.

    The awesome tablet no one is getting this holiday

    2010 - 12.21

    The book. It’s the oldest form factor for information. How much have you learned in your lifetime from reading pages in a textbook? How many hours have you spent leisurely flipping pages in your free time? Laughter, history, enlightenment, escape, understanding, introspection–we look to books for all these things. They will be revered in history as likely the most important invention we ever made.

    Modern computer technology is a very recent invention when compared to the book. Its own form factors are still being debated, switched, refined. For a long time the desktop model of computing has ruled. There are voices who say that it is dying, due for replacement. I’d disagree. Especially in the business world, nothing else can touch the desktop in terms of speed, flexibility, and widespread acceptance. And as long as it remains entrenched in business, it will retain at least a modest foothold in the consumer world. But there are other form factors which will definitely grow in popularity to offer some desktop functionality in a more couch-friendly format.

    Tablets are all the rage these days. I’m not particularly won over. When the iPad came out, I was very disappointed in it. There are a lot of reasons to dislike it, but maybe the worst aspect of it is that Apple tends to set the trend. So if they release a product whose form factor is a slab with exposed screen on one side and brushed metal on the other, you’re going to get 500 other companies making essentially the same device. And that’s what we’ve seen. The Blackberry Playbook, the uncountable Android tablets, the color Nook, the upcoming Motorola tablet; these are all the same form factor. One that leaves the screen wide open to scratches. Some people say it is tedious to hold for an extended period. I have only used one for a few minutes at a time, so I can’t say.

    It seems ironic to me that a laptop computer is often referred to as a “notebook”. How often does anyone use an actual notebook with the pages oriented vertically?

    There are a few different products out there now which blend a tablet, a book, and a smartphone. To me, this is the form factor that I want to see. Give me a leather-bound computer that looks like an old-fashioned ledger, just like the one above.  This type of design is referred to as a “booklet PC”. Toshiba’s Libretto W105 was probably the first commercial product to go down this avenue. However this product was more of an experiment or publicity stunt rather than a serious attempt at a booklet PC. The operating system was windows 7 and it ran on laptop hardware. That in itself tells a lot. Cramming desktop OS and laptop hardware into a tablet is a recipie for lousy battery life and poor UI. The software must be lightweight, and designed explicitly for touch/stylus. The hardware must be completely low-power-centric.

    Just this week, another device became available that intrigues me a lot. It’s called the Kno, and it’s intended for students, as a replacement for notebooks and textbooks both. It comes in dual and single screen versions (of course the former is what interests me) and it accepts input from a stylus, running on custom Linux software with webkit browsing. Now this is an eyebrow raising product. You can doodle on it, take notes, or surf the web, read books, play music, and watch video. Nice!

    It would appear that demand is high. On their website, you’ll be greeted by a notification saying that you need a special invite to be eligible to recieve one. The ultimate success of the Kno will probably hinge upon how widely it is accepted by textbook publishers and students. It is also surprisingly large. Those displays are 14″ each! I’m not sure if that’s huge to the point of unweildy or not. I’d love to get my hands on one and try it out!!

    As sweet as it is, the Kno is, in my mind, a shadow of the most incredible booklet PC that never was. The Microsoft Courier. When videos of the software interface first surfaced, it was shocking that a company as lumbering and overweight as Microsoft could have been the origin of something so fresh and ahead of the curve. Alas, Microsoft didn’t find the project worthy of pursuit, and it was cancelled. The very talented man who was Microsoft’s “Chief Experience Officer”, J Allard, resigned shortly after these events. Coincidence?

    J Allard sheparded the design of the Zune player, which, despite the impossibility of ever catching Apple in the PMP space, was an excellently-designed product. The interface of the Zune HD went on to form the basis of Microsoft’s nascent phone OS, Windows Phone 7. Allard also worked extensively on the XBOX 360, and presumably the earlier stages of their recently released Kinect system. Allard had been spearheading Courier.

    So what was so cool about Courier? Watch this:

    and this:

    In essence, it was a sketchbook. True, it also did the stuff that Kno does (doodling, handwriting, web surfing, music, video, books), but the Courier was centered around what they called the Infinite Journal. This was a space to paste clippings from webpages, jot ideas, scribble in the margins, and draw, using pencil, marker, or paint. There was no soft keyboard. Stylus only. The key concept of what made Courier exciting was that it was all about writing down ideas and making drawings. The interface pictured, conceptual as it may have been, was a brilliant structure revolving around your journaled ideas. There were lots of neat little touches too, like the 2 buttons on the stylus: one for undo, another to switch between marker and pen. Flipping the stylus 180 degrees turned it into an eraser. A device like this is an artist’s pipe dream.

    Wake me up when it’s real, tablet makers.

    One billion trans-cosmic years in love

    2010 - 12.08

    Recently I’ve been watching the series “Cosmos” co-written by Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan.  The fascinating concepts it conveys and thoughts it provokes are a whole wild series of tangets that I am not even going to be touching upon today.  Somehow I managed to avoid being exposed to Cosmos until I reached the age of 30.  In a way, I’m grateful for this circumstance; watching over the last months, Cosmos brought together all of these compartmentalized facts that I had already known into one coherent ‘big picture’, artfully told by a brilliant and inspiring man.  It’s intensely emotional and intellectual in the same breath.  Not having seen this series until my 30s, it has impacted me that much more dramatically.  Forcefully.  Profoundly.  I’m not certain there is a right word.  Let’s just say “Superlatively.”

    It is hard not to be swept up by Carl’s eloquence and enthusiasm, and the whole scope of Cosmos just feels so deeply meaningful.  Those words seem to fall short of conveying the emotions which this saga has elicited from within me.  It’s a bit like meeting a new person who you are so strikingly in agreement with that every syllable they speak just makes you want to say “Yes.  Yes; That.  Yes.”  You want them to keep going, and you concur so much that other words would just get in the way.

    After finishing the series, and wistfully wishing there were more, I went online and read about the stories of Ann and Carl, these fascinating new characters who’ve permeated my consciousness so resoundingly, as if they have always been a part but I had never known.  I was astonished to read the story on NPR of the Voyager Interstellar Message Project; particularly the portion of the story which explained how Ann had been involved in the creation of two gold records which were sent into space with the Voyager probes.  These records were meant to contain a representative sampling of the whole breadth of the human exerience.  The magnitude of this undertaking can scarcely be grasped.  The resultant records contained samples of music from many cultures, various spoken languages, greetings to potential space-faring civilizations who may someday intercept the probe, and perhaps most interestingly, a recording of brain waves.

    Ann Druyans’s brainwaves were recorded for the records, and what gives this whole story such an unbelievable spin is the context under which it happened.  In another interview recorded with Ann, she tells the story of how her and Carl fell in love.  Apparently the two had known each other and worked together professionally for some long time, but had been romantically involved with other people.  This pair harbored a deep admiration for one another and had what Ann describes as “wonderful, soaring conversations” but had never crossed the divide into romance.

    So much of love centers around timing.  Is this person available?  Are they emotionally available?  Do they have these big personal goals that are going to dominate their priorities and prevent a love from ever blooming?  Timing.  And one day toward the conclusion of the Voyager Interstellar Message Project, it sounds like the time alignment of Ann and Carl magically snapped into place, over a phone call of all things.  That in itself is a chronicle of how major life events can strike at any time, in the most unexpected of ways.

    She doesn’t elaborate much about what exactly was said in that fateful telephone conversation, and indeed I’m certain a large part of it was a blur as soon as the reciever returned to the hook.  But by the end of that phone call the two were engaged.  When she hung up the phone Ann says she literally screamed out loud, in what felt like, “this great eureka moment, it was just like scientific discovery.”  (The fact that she would equate the fireworks of such a moment to one of scientific discovery, I find quite humorous, and heartwarming from someone with a noteworthy nerd-streak of my own.)  Moments later Carl called back to ask, “just want to make sure, that *really* happened?”  Of course the answer was yes, and so began the love affair of Ann and Carl.

    So just two short days after this momentous, powerful occurence, Ann traveled to Bellvue Hospital in New York to have the sounds of her brain waves recorded for the golden records which were to be sent off into space.  While she meditated and the ECG machine recorded the electrical impulses firing in her mind, she says part of what she was thinking was “about the wonder of love, and of *being* in love…”  Certainly two days after not only professing your love to someone new for the first time, but simultaneously becoming engaged to be married, any person’s mind would be fully awash with an overpowering elixir from that puppy-dog variety of freshly bursting affection.  In the song “The Real Thing”, arist EMO muses “there’s nothing like the real thing, when love is increasing.  There’s nothing like the real thing when it comes to you”.  Undoubtedly, experiencing this feeling is one of the most uncontrollably thrilling and gloriously consequential moments of the human experience.  Ann adds, “and to know it’s on those two spacecraft!  Now, whenever I’m down, I’m thinking: And still they move.  Thirty five thousand miles an hour, leaving our solar system, for the great, wide open sea of interstellar space.”

    As a message in a bottle, floating in that sea of interstallar space, what a romantic and grandiose moment to encapsulate for discovery epochs and epochs later by who knows who.  It gives me great joy to know that these two people, who seem not only so exceptionally intelligent but also so gifted with the ability to masterfully communicate nuanced truths about our universe as we see it, are serving as the trans-galactic ambassadors to whomever recovers the Voyager message.

    Meanwhile back on Earth, we’ve had buffoons like George W. Bush leading the free world, the uncultured dreck of reality television beaming through our bodies at every moment, and the painful missteps of so many religions polluting our collective minds–Yet still!–a capsule floats, out through the great beyond, carrying a snapshot of thoughts from one of our most brilliant minds, upon the marvel of that which is best within us; our emotion of love.  Binding us together and inducing us to cherish the value of our mutual existences.

    It give me joy.  And hope that our most articulate, clairvoyant voices shall be the ones which rise to prominence.  When these two probes fly out to the vast unknown, it would be irresponsible to put anyone but our best representatives on duty to greet those who they encounter.

    Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan are on the case.

    And.  Rightly.  So.


    While daydreaming about this all, I’ve been listening to the song “The Reason” by Soulstice.  This piece of music conveys, for me, what it’s like to be so deeply in love with someone.  “You’re the reason/So beautiful and full of bliss/my little piece of happiness/You’re the reason” More than the lyrics though, it’s a lovely track instrumentally, and an inspired vocal performance.  I tend to be a harsh critic of vocalists, prefering instrumental music on the whole, but this track really captures something.

    I enjoy thinking about the love between Carl and Ann.  Especially because their delight in one another is the interstellar sample of human affection, captured in Ann’s brainwaves on the Voyager spacecraft.  The shelf life of those gold records was designed to be one billion years.

    One billion years.

    That love will keep enduring for for a thousand, million years, out in the cold emptiness of space.  And in every second of that time it will be just as fresh as it was when it was two days young.  I hope that some intelligent species happens upon it, with the technology to decode Ann’s thoughts.  What will they think when they read her mind?  Maybe they will be moved to the extra-terrestrial equivalent of tears.  Maybe they will find it naive and judge our species ripe for subjugation.

    Or perhaps humankind will be long, long extinct, and that battered voyager spacecraft with its gold record will be the only remaining fraction of a fraction that’s left behind from our collective plight.  They’ll place it in a galactic museum with a set of headphones far better than humans ever built, for the citizens of future advanced civilizations to stop, stand, and spend a small moment listening to the love story of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan; two creatures from an obscure planet destroyed eons ago that somehow, by complex forces of nature or random happenstance, managed to transmit this poetic instant out across the cosmos; a beautiful ballad of love that defied the slow decay of millenia, and returned some miniscule portion of their beings to the stars for which they held such wonderment.  If this is all that remains behind when we’re gone, I think that’s a pretty good note to go out on.

    shifting sands

    2010 - 12.04

    Two events have happened within the last couple months that I want to ruminate upon; two events which I think say something subtle but strong about how our world is changing.

    The first event is the news that Technics is ceasing production of the widely, widely celebrated 1200 turntable.

    Now, if you’ve ever listened to the radio, or heard live music, I guarantee that you’ve heard music played back on a Technics 1200. Matter of fact, I’d be willing to make a bet that everyone who reads this, at one point or another in their life, has gotten their ass *rocked* by music coming from a 1200. For a very long period of time–and we’re talking decades here–the Technics 1200 has had not just a significant role in the turntable market; it has utterly dominated it. If you’re gonna be playing a lot of records, and you’re serious about buying a deck that was bulletproof, reliable, and sounded top notch, this turntable was THE choice. I can’t really think of an analoguous product that’s held such reverence. When you’re done playing with all those kids toys, step up to the real deal and get yourself a set of 1200s, junior.

    The fact that demand has fallen so much–to the point where it’s no longer financially sensible to continue with the manufacture of this ledgendary means of music playback–it says something about how technology is changing. Even in the face of of what I’d call a vinyl revival, this is happening. There are still legions of people out there who believe in the superior fidelity of analogue records, and plenty of people, like myself, who have built CD collections but have started to feel like, hmm, maybe digital music formats are kind of lacking in something… call it “warmth.” Or maybe that tactile interaction of dropping a needle into the groove. Or just the simplicity that the sound waves you hear are literally etched into the record–no binary ones and zeros, no D/A converters, no sampling rates, no lasers or fancy tricks whatsoever. Just analog waveforms, straight from microphones far away to your platter, right here.

    That the 1200 is soon to be an out-of-production commodity, is a bit shocking. How long before the last film camera rolls off a closing assembly line? Or how long before you cannot buy a panavision movie camera that isn’t digital? How long before books cease to be ink on paper, and exist only as ones and zeros? Maybe these events will never transpire. Even so, it’s a watershed moment, to watch this veritable giant come tumbling to its knees.

    And speaking of transportation, the second event which recently happened that, to me, says a lot about the changing nature of our world is the completion of a project in which a series of driverless vans, equipped with cameras and various sensors, but no GPS, have autonomously navigated from Italy to China. That’s a real milemarker (ugh)  for human technology.

    Roadways are very complex. They have uneven surfaces, various colors, lines, painted symbols, signs and markers bearing all manner of information. All intended to be interpreted and reacted to in conjunction with the processing power of a human mind. Add in the fact that these vans navigated through several different nations, each with their own convention of roadway signage and languages. And then add in the fact that all these roads were populated with other cars driven by human drivers, with all of their random, inattentive, unpredicatble, and sometimes downright dangerous or malicious posturing to get their ahead of the next guy, and this is kind of a mind-boggling achievement. All with no GPS–something human drivers regularly use to find their way.

    I’d say one big difference between these two events is that while the future that will result from the first one makes me sad on several levels, this second one has exciting ramnifications. Yes, it’s gonna be a long, long time before anyone sells a car that’s intended to automatically drive you home from work while you read the New York Times or take a nap, but the fact that this technology now exists is a fleeting glimpse of what’s to come. Flying cars, for example, are going to need this technology. If we ever have large scale local air travel, it’s going to have to be automated. Human beings can barely handle the coordination it takes to drive their cars in 2 dimensions without getting into crashes. Almost every day on my commute home I see someone pulled over from a fender-bender. Driving in 3D? Never, ever going to happen for the proletariat.

    To tie it all together though, what these two things share in common is that they were made possible by the power of the microprocessor. They call this era that we live in the Information Age. But it’s not the acquisition of more information that has allowed the rapid advance of technology in the last several decades. Some people will call it the Digital Age. But it’s not the digitization of analog data that has changed our world. It’s processing power. Flops. Teraflops. Petaflops. Cycles per second. Megahertz. Gigahertz. Terahertz.

    CD players weren’t possible until digital processing ability reached a certain threshold. And they weren’t economical enough for mass dissemination until economies of scale and drastic advances in processing power made the modest requirements necessary to decode CDs dirt cheap. These forces, grinding away for a while now, have finally resulted in the demise of the analog champion. For most people, the indistinguishable difference between a sufficently high, finite bitrate and true analog reproduction has led them to invest in the lower-cost system. Compact Disc.

    The processing power required to visually decode roadmarkings, conduct defensive driving, and navigate to a destination without access to global positing satellites is a newly attained high water mark. When you compare it to other recent events, like the sucessful containment of antimatter at CERN, or the discovery of graphene, it may seem inconsequential in comparison. But I see these two matters, seeming disparate events, as poingant indicators of the same trend–our ever-expanding ability to decode our world and to master the complexity of analog systems by letting the processing horsepower we’ve invented do the heavy lifting for us.

    In the end, perhaps this will free up our minds to focus on other, more complex tasks. Imagine what more you would accomplish if all the time you spent driving was replaced by free time. You could write a novel, you could paint a masterpiece, or learn a new language. Or maybe just space out in front of some mindless TV. Afterall, a little relaxation is good for the soul too.