May 21, 2015

Mars, Rolling in Ecstasy at Your Feet

“You need not leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen...learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

-Franz Kafka

From Peter Capaldi's comic short film Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life
Here on Earth, writing great literature, Kafka savored solitude. Now picture him at his own quiet table on Mars. There, red dust curling at his window edges, could he have come up with something more maniacally beautiful and alien than Gregor Samsa?

There has been no lack of speculation in recent months about the pending solitude of 100 candidates for Elon Musk's one-way journey to Mars. Theories swing wide, offering two visions of the new home planet - a calming landscape and welcome refuge for scientific learning, or a desolate scene of failed human advancement with Ray Bradbury's soft rains pattering in the background. Either way, it will require the astronauts to reach deep within. Maybe it will even bring out the writer in each of them. 

For starters, the journey is poetic: a new cosmology will emerge for the selected crew  - they'll relinquish deep-seated concepts of "home," rejigger their map of the Universe, call out goodbyes in final puffs of Earth air...and then? 
“I do VERY well with solitude,” - 69-year-old computer programmer/Mars One candidate

“I have the feeling that spiritual issues would come up among the crew. The early explorers on Earth always took clergy with them,” - Reverend/Mars One candidate

As the ship hurtles toward Mars, idle dinner talk may meander through ethics, love, religion... Introspection can go a long way in tight quarters, and be useful while composing soon-to-be-famous first words for the riveting moment when boots grind into red Martian gravel. Will the astronauts go big picture Mahatma Gandhi-an, or opt for ambling and poignant Louis C.K.-ish to show us that Mars can be funny, too? There will be plenty of time to come up with something clever during the 7 month trip

To get a better sense of the tight-quarters potential, we researched writers who did well in solitude - Nathaniel Hawthorne (stayed in his bedroom all day), Ernest 
Hemingway (wrote standing up, alone), Marcel Proust (made himself a cork-lined room)... 

Proust wrote in his cork-lined room
Marco Polo dictated the account of his global travels in 1298 while imprisoned in Genoa. Solitude enabled strange revisions. The accounts were so fantastical - one city had 12,000 bridges over its canals, Kublai Khan traveled with 1,000 elephants - that the book became known as Il Milione (The Million Lies) and was, of course, a pop hit in medieval Europe. On his death bed Polo was urged to save face and retract the tales. His reply: "I have not told half of what I saw."

And we can't leave out Emily Dickinson: stayed mostly in her parents’ home, would only speak to visitors from behind the closed front door, had neighbors' tongues wagging. But from confinement emerged poetry that still plumbs the depths of the human soul:

                                  I felt a funeral in my brain, 

                                       And mourners to and fro  
                                       Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
                                   That sense was breaking through...

A fantastic mind and a pencil, in a tiny quiet space on Mars. All you'd need?


Because pencils in space, as you may know, are VERY dangerous.

According to NASA, the lack of gravity in flight makes the release of wood shavings, graphite dust, and ink compounds a hazard. Particles can drift, infect the lungs and eyes. Conductive materials can impede electronics. Rubber in erasers is combustible.      

Solutions have come about over the years. In the 1960's Gemini Programs, NASA tried the mechanical pencil (but it still contained lead), the Soviet space program tried grease pencils on plastic slates (messy, didn't last as long as ink), and they both tried ballpoint pens (ink is indelible and subject to outgassing and temperature variations, and there's no gravity to pull it to the ball of the pen)Enter one Mr. Fisher of Fisher Pens, who developed the high tech Space Pen (or Zero Gravity Pen), a gas-charged ball point pen that could stand up to zero gravityvacuums and extreme temperatures. 
NASA noted the high tech wonder of the thing and bought a bunch for the Apollo missions. The cosmonauts soon followed. Nowadays, a combination of Fisher pens, pressurized ballpoint pens, thicker-leaded pencils, and Sharpies are an astronaut's choice.

It seems that with a simple (safe!) writing implement, and solitude, the great canon of Martian literature could begin to emerge. Luckily, we have David Bowie's Space Oddity to pave the way:

                                    "For here 

                                   Am I sitting in a tin can       
                                     Far above the world
                                     Planet Earth is blue
                                  And there's nothing I can do."

Write on, Earthlings.  

May 5, 2015

The Merchant of Venus

In science fictional worlds, humans and aliens need to sort out daily life - warp drive, wormhole issues, money. Money may seem petty compared to the more galactic challenges, but no matter what planet it sidles up to, it begets social strata, commerce, and trade. It makes a world go 'round.
Stefan van Zoggel's Star Wars Stamp
Some sci-fi worlds try to forego the need for money, and run on the post-scarcity model, where goods, services, and information have become free (or practically free) to all inhabitants. As you'd expect with any idealized new economic system, post-scarcity can be more complicated than it seems (is the role of scarcity actually useful to a thriving economic system? what happens to the concept of value?), though "food and resources for all" does seem wildly desirable.

Where this is not the case, though, weird/fun units of currency are necessary:

Latinum  in Star Trek, used by the Ferengi

Cubits  in Battlestar Galactica, used on the planet Caprica
Galactic credit standard  in Star Wars 
Altairian Dollar, Flanian Pobble Bead, Triganic Pu in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Kongbucks in Snow Crash, used in Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong
Solari in Dune
Greedo hoping to collect his bounty, Star Wars

We find out, via Pobble Beads and Kongbucks, how our sci-fi characters act when faced with heart-wrenching issues of fairness, the challenge of cooperating, the bounds of rationality. What would you do if your family didn't have enough Latinum to put food (slugs) on the table? It is much easier to scrutinize even surprisingly familiar actions when we are standing outside, peering into a fictional world, or even jumping in ourselves. It's an important exercise, really.

Humans think and learn differently when placed in fictional contexts. Dr. Tania Lombrozo of the University of California, Berkeley, Psychology Department told the OSLab something we found fascinating...Researchers gave participants a scenario where two parties were in conflict over moral beliefs. They found that participants were more likely to say they could both be right if one was a human and the other a fictional alien, than if both were humans. The boundaries shifted, and an opening was created because they were on another planet. Fiction can potentially act as a social simulation in which we let go of the delirious hold we have on our entrenched beliefs, spread our biases out like personal maps, and maybe change a few features, overlap our map with someone else's. Even better, it is known that people can translate what they learn in a fictional world to the real one, so it's possible to interact in sci-fi, take hold of a good lesson gleaned, and bring it home.

Money is the loud, honking clarion call of human desires. Maybe it is beneficial to play out economic systems in our sci-fi, learn a few things about generosity with money, fairness in trade, empathy in the face of social inequity, and envision a system where these elements are pleasantly rampant. The economies of Earth's future may need some sci-fi mentoring.

Or, as Canadians did in droves after Leonard Nimoy's passing this year, we could simply change our present currency to reflect the alien we'd most like to honor:

a "Spocked" Canadian five dollar bill

Live long and prosper out there, and reflect from time to time on the place we humans truly occupy in space: how much of what we are is sci, and how much is sci-fi? And what are we learning betwixt the two?

Also, if you want to see how your dollars will work in your favorite sci-fi world, hop over to io9's Handy Currency Converter for Alien Money


For more on how sci-fi and science work together, you'll want to be in on the #ScienceIsStory Twitter conversation May 8 and hear Seth Shostak of SETI's Big Picture Science radio show tell great tales of science becoming story on May 9. It's all part of the Interstellar Day of Science and Storytelling, brought to you by Chabot, National Novel Writing Month, and Big Picture Science.

Jun 6, 2014

The Sampled Circles of Hell

Eons ago, I wrote a PhD dissertation. It's appropriately mothballed now, but the question that led me to write it still feels germane: How do women see, and reflect, themselves when science is declared "not theirs"?

In the paper, 18th century British midwives were the main characters, passing skeins of intimate medical knowledge by word of mouth, rustling up healing herbs, and bringing intention and acuity to the unbridled process of birthing. To grossly over-simplify what happened next: in the viewpoint of a world that was steam-powered piston-ing, industrial weaving itself toward perfection, the midwives were seen as far from perfect. Enter the menfolk. They doctored in the newly minted hospitals, and had cleanliness, regulatory credentialing, and impressive new midwifery tools in their favor.

blunt hook, perforator, fillet, used by "male midwives"

Knowledge was transferred from the midwives to the medical profession, and it would be nearly two hundred years before it began to make its way back again. How had the women interpreted the subtle shift in their landscape when childbirth - once entirely their domain - was whisked away? I made a visual map, parsing out the women's geography, concentric circles radiating outward: at the center, "natural knowledge" (biology) of their own bodies, then, moving out - clothing, rooms they occupied in the home, outdoor athleticism, travel, aspirations. There was a hellish side to their constraints; my circles were a nod to Dante:
I sampled him.

What song of science-led oppression wouldn't be more poignant with a bit of hell thumping underneath it?  

Those who are "sampled" experience a letting go, have their intimate creativity or knowledge taken in some way. As the midwives learned, it can be flattering, but oppressive when it is involuntary.  

We couldn't help it - we left the midwives (they're on the slow rise again, as you well know) and decided to end with some tidbits from the history of sampling in music:  The craft started out harmlessly enough - at the beginning of radio, genre-jumping riffs included industrial noise, radio shows being spliced together, the unbelievably funky thrumming train samples of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry's 1940's "musique concrète." Then, in 1956 Dickie Goodman and Bill Buchanan rolled out their Flying Saucer, a slapstick mashup of popular rock and roll hits with a fake news report about aliens landing on Earth. (Feathers were ruffled.) In 1961, James Tenney's Collage #1 clipped and re-engineered Elvis Presley's Blue Suede Shoes. It went on, and then there was hip hop...we'll leave the entire awesome history of sampling and dispute for to you to discover, but here's a treat for the road: a DJ Shadow bit from his Endtroducing, the first album made entirely of samples.  

It's late afternoon here in the Lab. We're kicking around ideas.
Super-dorky project: What would a song sampled from the history of science sound like, one that crooned about loss of power via patriarchy? A nice start: lines from Linnaeus' sexualized botany books, and Donna Haraway's cyborg manifestos.
For now, our preferred strong-woman backbeat: the nifty Meara O'Reilly's work

...and this month, we should add some vocals, a little #YesAllWomen hook.

filed under: Scream Booth, message, sampling

May 30, 2014

We Don't Give A Tinker's Damn

Tinkers were the traveling tinsmiths of yore, and are often conflated nowadays with Tinkerers. Tinkerers are America's darlings, an allegory gone all rumpled shirt. Their emissions, however, are not for the feeble of heart. Familiar objects and parts are stacked in the corner, lit on fire, garbled via the transmitter, stuffed in a backpack, glued to something else - this is how the best of things begin.

Phineas Mason, aka "The Tinkerer" from Marvel Comics' Spiderman series

In Jack Hitt's book Bunch of Amateurs, he writes that if you are today's tinkerer, or maker, you are adept at, "setting aside of all presumptions that you have, and look(ing) at something as if you've just seen it for the first time." (The Lab, as you all know, drools over this idea.) Throw it all out the window, throw it at the wall, throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you're a tinkerer, you're ok with less specialization, give much more interesting answers to the "what do you do?" question at parties.

For one: Thomas Jefferson invented household tools, studied animals, fossils, and botany. While dabbling in theology, he "cut all the miracles out of the New Testament because he thought Jesus made a whole lot more sense without the supernatural material mucking up the good moral philosophy.” On the side, he helped run the country.  

If you were a great tinkerer of his time, you maybe swore a lot.  A tinker's damn, as far as Victorian cussing went, was of little significance, as tinkers were reputed to curse so freely and often. Similar to a hoot, no real harm came of not giving one. 

If you were to be a great tinkerer of any era, you might also want a garage. 

Mike Nesmith's mom's White Out: perfected in a garage. And out of garages, many other ubiquitous things came ...the song Louie Louie, The Kinks, Credence Clearwater Revival...Google, Harley Davidson, the Maglite company. The first modern garages appeared in the 1920's, but it was the post-war 1960's garages that were attached to the house, and ripe for slip-out-there-late-at-night work sessions. Before the 1920's, inventors had been relegated to their carriage houses, alongside the horse and buggy. 

Alexander Graham Bell set up his first lab inside the carriage house behind his father's home in Washington, D.C.  And back in the mid-1880's Guglielmo Marconi started conducting experiments in his father’s home (garage?) in Pontecchio, Italy. He was soon able to send wireless radio signals over one and a half miles. By 1896 he held the world’s first patent for a system of wireless telegraphy. 

Isaac Newton was holed up at home for a couple of years waiting out the plague, so he whiled away the hours by aiming sunlight through a glass prism, casting a spectrum on the wall, and positing that white light was not a simple entity but a mixture of rays refracted at slightly different angles - from this, he constructed a reflecting telescope. (We up here on the hill are grateful for our Nellie.)

Homegrown, garage-blown things can blossom into world-changers.

In The Savage Mind French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss called tinkerers "bricoleurs," said they employed the characteristic patterns of mythological thought: in contrast to engineers' creative thinking, which moves from goals to means, mythical thought re-uses available materials to come up with new, innovative solutions. Following up on this idea, philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in their 1972 book Anti-Oedipus, said bricoleurs follow the classic patterns of the schizophrenic producer, one who is uncertain of what is real, and instead follows his/her own notions.

Exciting. A little off key.

Like the tinker-y Tom Waits tune. 

Have a good weekend, all, in garages big and small.

filed under: UnEarthed, Cognitive Dissonance, Tinkerer

May 23, 2014

I Am The Bread Man

My memories of childhood summer roadtrips are golden. The sticky-hot car seat, warm air twisting through my hair as the Subaru barreled down the highway, and the endless reams of CB chatter between us, my dad's best friend (in a little Rabbit revving a few lanes over), and all the truckers in between. A cool lake was waiting at the end, but for us, the joy was lingering in the airwaves.

Take your name and place it in the palm your hand. Familiar letters, stumbling obediently into place - that's you. It introduces you, signs your emails, does the job's unlikely, though, that it is as effervescent as your CB persona.

"Breaker 1-9, this is The Bread Man. Over."
"Bread Man, this is Sir Gallahad. Go ahead."

Hearing a trucker's name, their "handle", blaring through a CB is an intimate moment. "This is Rubber Duck...Snakebite...The Frenchman...Phox Mulder...Teddybear..." Some handles are self-chosen, others bestowed by fellow drivers. Either way, across the low-lit audio realm, a self floats toward you.

If this declaration of a pseudonym is followed by a friendly warning of something in your path - "Bear with a Hair Dryer" (police car with roadside radar), "Gator Sunning in the Road" (blown tire lying in your freeway lane), or "Little Cheese" (school bus), the exchange is leaning toward downright familial. The medium is old-time radio. The conversation can meander, and a post-modern life story emerges: favorite restaurants, end-of-the-world theories, role of religion in the family, dirtiest-jokes-you-can-drum-up, jibes at fellow truckers, and then back to radio silence for letting thoughts ramble as one rolls down a dark stretch of highway, middle of nowhere. 

The story always begins with a name, though, naked, Sun at its back, surfing the radio waves out to the farthest reaches of the Universe.


Exoplanets abound, and there's the possibility of water and alien life around every corner. Fermi's Paradox reminds us it's unlikely they're going to answer, but still we, NASA, SETI, try.  

When the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts were sent off in 1972-3, Carl Sagan requested they carry a plaque to tell other life forms of our existence. The people looked friendly enough, but the man's salute

raised questions. Some feared the contents would send the wrong message; television had begun beaming images of Hitler's raised hand into space back in the mid 40's, and it didn't seem prudent to hail back to an unsavory personality.

Then, in '77 the Voyager 1 craft went bounding toward our outer Solar System carrying the Golden Record, a soundtrack and accompanying photos to relay more extensively our biology, language and cultures, along with some "universal" math (Sagan had a hand in this one, too). The images are each startlingly germane to only a milli-slice of what it means to be human or to live on Earth; it is somewhat worrisome to guess at the story someone from far, far outside might extrapolate:

Admittedly, it is hard to imagine what the perfect montage might be. 

It is impossible to express all that we truly are with limited technology, or limited word count, but we could always do well with a tender moment of reflection before we holler hellos up onto new folks' porches. Social media provides minute-by-minute updates on all our real or imagined selves - soundbytes, tons of photos, stuff we think is interesting or funny (yes, we are complicit). Do we see more of each other this way? Are we well represented? 

Which self should we usher into the Universe when we let fly our next communication - yawp, tweet, Wilhelm Scream...? Too much pressure to decide. Instead in the Lab today we're keeping it 
low-fi, checking in about each others' latest CB monikers. 

Do you have a space-worthy handle? If so, by all means, send it in...

**update on 5/25/14 - NASA just released its new ebook on how to communicate with alien life forms. 300 pages! Hefty in all ways - we've skimmed through a bit - grander titles include: Inferring Intelligence: Prehistoric and Extraterrestrial, and Speaking for Earth: Projecting Cultural Values Across Deep Space and Time.  

filed under: Scream Booth, Messenger, Simulacra, Naming