Posted on January 24th, 2011 by george.
we’ve watched your star’s slow sway
for a long time now
since before you noticed your spin
causes your star to rise and fall in your sky
and named that a day
since before you noticed your tilt
brings you many days of heat
followed by many days of cold
with equilibrium in between
and named those seasons
since before you watched your abnormally large moon
wax and wane
or noticed its effect on your vast oceans
of dihydrogen oxide
at first all we could parse
were those two failed stars
the one sweeping a wide path
locking your solar system’s angular momentum
in its gargantuan grip
the other with those beautiful rings
at first mere pixels from our point of view
beyond them two icy giants
blue and green
it took time to detect you
your planet and its rocky sisters, anyway
as they buzzed around your calm star
time to sense your thin envelope
and read its signature
across these limitless reaches
when last we sampled your planet
it was ruled by thunderous lizards
who grew wings
by the time we picked up your scent
we saw those bursts of light
those heavy elements hanging in your air
your first stumbling baby steps
foolishly turned on yourself
missing the potential of your own knowledge
we’ll be here
for the next kalpa at least
until this star runs out and we wander again
at least as long as your star lasts
or your precious seas survive
hung so perilously close to that nuclear furnace
that you’ve moved from worshipping
we’ll be here
as you grow
and slowly gain a nobility
commensurate with your fortunate place among us
you will know us
when you grow eyes
that can see beyond
Posted on December 5th, 2010 by george.
the only in a squad of four
lounging by the pool
saw what we were looking for
but took me for a fool
magnetism drew us near
coyly made a case
anachronism’s feinted fear
while truth lay face to face
interrupted strangely then
by another dream
give me five but had a ten
plus one becomes sixteen
joined force against the evil one
let fly and made the chase
hunter, hunted on the run
we tread without a trace
introductions on the stair
drawn out from in the wall
the cube as black as sixteen’s hair
and not exactly small
convinced he’s more than binary
she listens to his tale
with heart beyond the pale
a flash of light and then he’s gone
we turn to find the source
the author of this heinous wrong
from that assassin force
but for our target it’s too late
we find him in disguise
in canine costume can’t escape
no matter how he tries
we find a quiet laundromat
with basins in the rear
a single patron calmly sat
nothing, we thought, to fear
with evil locked up in the back
we go out front to plan
and celebrate our clever knack
for catching such a man
her movements whisper how she feels
she twirls in close to say
I want to hear the dancing heels
on our wedding day
we fail to notice in our bliss
the patron sitting there
whose face unravels as we kiss
revealing hatred’s stare
then quicker than a blinking eye
our necks are in her snare
we perish there, sixteen and i
without a worldly care
The words I do not utter
The thoughts I do not voice
The photos I don’t take
For taking is thievery
The memories I’ll never share
And the ones I let slip
The moments I refuse to tarnish with my speech
These are the most important to me
For the greatest things in life
Are ineffable, indescribable, transcendent
And attempting to capture them
They will always elude you
And you will rob yourself
Of that moment
That deep breath
That knowing smile
It is only by letting go
That we can begin to grasp
Posted on April 15th, 2010 by george.
My friend Amin asked me today, in light of President Obama’s speech, if I thought the new plan for NASA was a good thing or a bad thing. First, let me say thank you to the President for taking the time to visit the Kennedy Space Center, and recognize that the last time we had the Chief down here was during the Clinton Administration. Landing Air Force One at the Shuttle Landing Facility is a serious gesture, and I appreciate that. I believe the President when he calls himself a champion for space exploration, not least because he’s promised an extra $6 billion to NASA over the next five years, even while the country is in an economic crisis. That’s commitment, if you ask me.
As for the plan, it is what it is. I don’t make the call. I toe the line. One of the unique aspects of our system of government is the term limit; it doesn’t always make for the greatest continuity of vision for NASA, but we deal. I’m grateful to have a job here, doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing. I know we’re capable of building a heavy lift rocket to rival the Saturn V. I’m glad Orion gets a second chance as an ISS lifeboat. I have high hopes that SpaceX will succeed and Falcon9 will make access to LEO cheaper and more routine.
Everyone is so resistant to change…but that’s life. You really have to let go of what you can’t control if you want to have any chance of being happy. It’s much easier to describe the set of what you can control: your own actions. That’s it. So I chose to work here. They tell me what to do, and I try to do the best job I can. That’s all you can ask of anyone.
I don’t get too caught up in the Team America rhetoric. I have more respect than I can express for what NASA and the United States have accomplished. But I’m just as happy to see other nations succeed with the peaceful exploration of space. Look at what just happened today: India launched a rocket with a homegrown cryogenic third stage. It failed, tumbled out of control at 11,000mph.
Hey, we’ve been there. We feel your pain, India. But you’ll analyze the failure, address the problem, learn from your mistakes, and move forward. Just like the Corvette racing team at Sebring this year, after the two Vettes collided in the pits.
Yes, I am a broken record, but I’ll say it again until it sinks in: we are one human family. I look forward to the day we can all collaborate, instead of everyone reinventing the rocket ad infinitum. Not that it’s not a good engineering exercise. But think of what we could achieve if we pooled our resources and worked together instead of competing, much less fighting. Gather the brain trust of every country in the world? Take all the money we spend trying to kill each other and turn it toward social justice, education, science, discovery, and exploration? We’d already be on Mars. We’d be on the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. Permanently. Today, Antarctica. Tomorrow, the solar system. Our fortunes would be diversified, and I can’t even begin to imagine the technologies we’d develop and how it would improve the lives of all humans, no matter which rock they ride. It’s an unspeakably beautiful universe out there. Look a little further: can you see the day we set off to another star?
What matters to me is the question, “Are humans exploring space?” The answer is a resounding yes. Humans have lived in space, nonstop, since the year 2000. There are more planetary probes and telescopes in space and on the ground than you can shake a stick at. Spaceflight is exploding worldwide. We learn new things every single day. And let’s not forget: if it weren’t for the Russians, the Europeans, the Canadians, the Japanese, and all our other brothers and sisters, the International Space Station wouldn’t be possible. I don’t care what percentage of the bill was footed by the United States: everyone helped.
How soon we forget that when we grounded the shuttles after the Columbia accident, ol’ Soyuz was the only ride in town. How convenient that we omit that the very first satellite lofted by humans launched from Kazakhstan. Yes, that’s right, the same Kazakhstan that Sacha Baron Cohen lampoons. Now, when the whole fleet retires, we get to thumb a ride with Yuri again, and pony up a little gas money. Let me be the first to say: that’s not a bad thing. Suck it up, America. Show a little humility. And a little gratitude.
I think it’s high time we Americans stopped thinking about everything in terms of us. You wanna lead the world? Fine. Take the lead by inviting others to help. The ISS is an incredible precedent, and a model for international cooperation. We would be fools to let the bonds we’ve forged with this effort slip away. Let’s propose a new vision that everyone can take part in. Let’s throw our weight behind it, and put our money where our mouths are.
It’s not a party if you’re the only kid there.
Endeavour landed yesterday on its penultimate mission. I tweeted about it, noting that there are only four space shuttle missions left on the manifest. My friend Patrick just asked me what’s next for NASA after the Shuttle retires. My reply on Facebook turned into an essay, so I thought I’d share it here.
What comes after the Shuttle? All the things about NASA that don’t make the headlines will continue. Some even get more funding. The Shuttle has been the poster child for 30 years, but in the meantime, NASA has been instrumental in furthering our understanding of climate dynamics, earth observation, deep space astronomy and cosmology. Robotic planetary and solar exploration, cutting edge research in biology, materials, aeronautics, energy generation, propulsion, you name it, have all continued. Shuttle launches are sexy. But when they end, perhaps a little more light will be shed on everything else NASA does. Cassini, the robotic probe that has taught us more about Saturn and its moons than we ever knew before, just got a seven year life extension. And human space exploration isn’t dead; the Falcon 9 rocket just went vertical last week, with a test capsule that SpaceX claims can be human rated. Static test firings of the Falcon 9 could come as early as this week. Private subspace (read: Virgin Galactic) should come online this year. The Russians are cranking out Soyuz launches like Henry Ford did Model Ts. Europe, Japan, China, & India all have launch systems. The Shuttle will stop flying, but humans won’t. Maybe if we’re lucky they’ll resurrect the HL-20. Or the X-33. And don’t forget: the Air Force has a spaceplane now.
Humans have had a continuous presence in space since the year 2000, thanks to the International Space Station. Think about it. For the last decade, a single second hasn’t passed that someone wasn’t zooming over your head at 17,500 mph. It may sound pie-in-the-sky, but that’s the reason I answered a question about NASA’s future with international and private examples: as we go forward, this will be a cooperative effort. It’s one planet. One home. That is an inescapable fact. We are one species. Why not pool our efforts? There’s no need to reinvent the rocket just because you live in a particular spot on this planet behind some imaginary line. There’s no need for every country to send an individual probe to the moon or Mars just because we hoard information about our solar system as if we own it because we were the first to discover it. A fact is a fact; congratulations on learning it first. Now SHARE.
Newsflash: you can’t see borders from space. In my book, that means they don’t exist. They are mere constructs, accidents of history, that everyone seems to agree upon. They are fiction. Made up. There is true reality, and then there is that of which we are convinced. Exploration is inevitable. So is growth. I hope the void left by Discovery and the other shuttles makes room for the spaceships…and discoveries…of tomorrow.
Let’s say you’re looking for a job. You find an announcement for one that matches your skill set, apply, and get an interview. You show up, the interview goes well, the boss is nice, and the job sounds great. You agree on a fair salary, and discuss benefits. You’re just about to sign on the dotted line when the boss jumps in.
“Oh, I almost forgot. There’s one more task we require for this position.”
“It’s nothing, really. Most people don’t even think about it.”
“After you work here for a while, it just becomes part of the routine.”
“In fact, most of the time we don’t even talk about it.”
“What is it?”
“Well, you may have noticed the track outside.”
“Yeah, I thought that was kinda odd for this company.”
“Sure. It may seem that way. But it’s just something we do. It’s just the way it is.”
“What’s the way it is?”
“Look, I don’t make the rules. It was like this when I got here.”
“Fine. Just tell me what I have to do.”
The boss sighs. “Ok. Well. Every morning before you get to work, you have to drive a few laps around the track.”
“Yes, really. And in the evening before you go home. Same number of laps.”
“Oh, it’s fun. A lot of people enjoy it. You can listen to music.”
“Sure. Ok. So this will be part of my normal eight hour workday?”
“Actually, no. We’re gonna need you to make these laps before and after your normal shift.”
“Oh really? We didn’t discuss this when we spoke about salary. And what about the extra time spent away from home?”
“It’s no big deal.”
“Are you going to pay me for my time on the track?”
The boss laughs. “Oh no. We consider it part of the job.”
“Huh. Well, I really like the position. I guess I can make a little sacrifice with my time.”
“It’s no sacrifice, really. Everybody does it. It’s normal.”
“So you said. Will you at least provide me with the car?”
“No, that’s not our responsibility.”
“Really! So you’re making me buy a car.”
“I’m not making you do anything. But you need one if you want this job.”
“How do you propose I pay for it?”
“Out of your paycheck, of course!”
“Ok, what about fuel?”
“Your responsibility. Oh, and it’ll need to be insured.”
“Yeah. We don’t want you to have to pay for damage to the other cars. It’s optional if you want to insure your own, so you don’t pay for damage out of pocket.”
“Yeah, we all start work at the same time in the morning and leave around the same time in the afternoon, so we all hit the track together. Plus, not everybody’s going the same direction. Gets kinda crazy out there.”
“That sounds dangerous!”
“Well, maybe for a new hire like you. But the more experience you get, the less dangerous it is. You’ll learn how to go with the flow. Just pay attention. We only lose about three out of every 20,000 people.”
“Yeah, they die in crashes.”
“Die?! How many are injured in crashes?”
“Hard to say. But we have emergency response crews, and a hospital nearby, so you won’t need a helmet or roll cage. Or a fire extinguisher. You’ll be fine. Of course, you’ll have to pay for any ambulance rides. But there are bonuses: you can use the car and the track 24 hours a day, even if it’s not before or after work.”
“You know, to get around.”
“Let me get this straight. Every day…”
“Rain or shine.”
“Every day, rain or shine, you want me to give you laps on the track outside, for free, in a car that I purchase, fuel, and insure…”
“It’s a law. You have to insure it.”
“Okay, by law. So I have to drive, without pay, my own car…”
“You can get a nice one.”
“A nice one. That way you’ll stand out from the rest of the field. And there’s less maintenance with a newer one. Maintenance can cost you a month’s pay.”
“Don’t I just need to make the laps? Can’t I get something cheap?”
“Sure, but you don’t want to look trashy while doing it. It could affect your promotion potential. You want to feel good about yourself, don’t you?”
“Oh yeah. And not everybody has to drive the same number of laps.”
“Well, it depends on how far you live from the office. The further you live, the more laps you have to drive.”
“Well I didn’t really get to choose my house based on its distance from here. There weren’t many places I could afford…”
“Not our problem. You can move.”
“Listen buddy, I don’t like your tone…”
“Buddy? You’re the one being interviewed here. I really don’t see what the big deal is; this is how we do business. I mean, I even take my kids out on the track.”
“Yeah. If you drive your kids to school, they have to spend time on the track too.”
“With all the other people out there, all of different skill levels?”
“You bet. And some people knock a few back before hitting the track. Takes the edge off. So we wrote the laws, and now all the cars for sale have seat belts. If your kids are young, they’ll need a car seat.”
“Let me guess: by law.”
“Are there any alternatives?”
“Oh sure. You can ride a bike.”
“In the rain?”
“Yeah, some people do it. Claim it’s good for exercise, whatever that is.”
“They ride bikes. On the track. With cars. Some of which are piloted by alcoholics?”
“Yeah, crazy, right? You can’t ride on the shoulder, either. You have to take the same path the car does. Make ‘em slow down, that’s the law. Of course, drivers don’t like it. Plus, it takes a helluvah lot longer to finish those laps when you’re doing fifteen miles an hour.”
“You’re telling me. So if I get a car, I can go faster than a bike?”
“Up to a point. We can’t have people going too fast. We commissioned a study a while back. The faster you go, the higher the risk. So there’s a speed limit. Plus, we’re trying to help you out, keep your fuel costs down. Oh, and part of your paycheck will be withheld. Taxes, you know the drill. To pay for maintenance.”
“What happens if I just wanna get my laps over with, and go a little faster?”
“You can try, but there are fines. Bigger fines the faster you go. Go too fast, and we’ll put you in jail.”
“You don’t wanna drive? Fine. There’s also a bus that makes laps around the track.”
“Oh! That sounds good.”
“It runs once an hour.”
“I knew there had to be something.”
“Yeah, that’s why we all drive. Those bus riders spend a couple extra hours at the track, waiting for the bus. And the buses are slower. Aren’t too clean, either. I mean, all those people sharing the same uncomfortable seats? No control over the temperature? Honestly, who would want to ride one? That’s why there’s only one bus: not enough demand. And not all tracks have buses. It just depends on the office.”
“This is insane.”
“Look, I don’t make the rules. In fact, I didn’t even have to mention this to you. I just thought I’d do you a favor. You look like a good kid.”
“Thanks. But this is all a little hard to swallow. I don’t have the money to buy a car right now. They cost a significant percentage of the yearly salary we spoke about.”
“Don’t worry! There’s plenty of financing out there. You can just make payments. In fact, you can have them taken right out of your paycheck.”
“For something that has nothing to do with this job.”
“Sure it does. We all do it. We just don’t get paid for it. Don’t think about it too hard, champ. You’ll get used to it.”
“What are you waiting for? Sign right here!”
If you commute to work by car, you are an unpaid racecar driver who finances the race team, pays for the car, and underwrites the fuel and maintenance. You race on a track with speed limits that requires insurance. Everyone on this track is going a different direction, and has a different finish line. There is no prize for crossing the finish line when you’re supposed to; it’s just expected. You pay taxes to maintain the track. You risk your life every day on this track for your job. They don’t compensate you for your time, and they make you pay for it. All of it.
Emily Haines says it far more succinctly than I can.
“Buy this car to drive to work. Drive to work to pay for this car.”
There’s a lot of buzz lately about the so-called “Climategate,” with so much dispute and contention that the wiki article has been locked. Some say environmentalism has become ideology and should be regarded as a religion. Lines are drawn, people choose sides, the issue polarizes and progress grinds to a halt as we all stand around fiddling while Rome burns. I recently sent an email to a friend who tweeted about it, and she encouraged me to share my thoughts with the wider public. The following are excerpts from my side of our conversation, with a few additions.
Global warming, climate change, pollution, environmental destruction, species extinction…these are all tough things to swallow, especially when we humans decide to acknowledge our responsibility as the dominant species and custodians of this planet. It can be difficult to parse out just how responsible we are. We’re learning, after all. We don’t have a perfect overview of the situation, but I think the clues point in a general direction. Our emerging global awareness helps highlight that at a population of around seven billion, we’ve reached the point where the sum our actions, for better or worse, has a measurable effect on the life support system we call Earth.
I don’t get into the debate, and I try to find common ground with everyone. Surely there are things we can all agree on, and surely the solutions will be manifold, not singular. It is still an issue of science for me, and I think everyone needs to stop choking the air with uninformed opinions and politically-rooted (and ultimately self-serving) diatribes. The bottom line is obvious: we need to reduce our impact on the incredibly complex, wonderful, and naturally-occuring systems of the Earth, all of which are vital to our continued existence and prosperity. The solutions are easy to state, but hard for those profiting from the status quo to concede. Don’t dump trash and hydrocarbons into the air and sea. Use the sun and sun-powered natural phenomena to generate electricity. Reduce packaging and the frivolous use of plastic. Design, redesign and grow cities around the pedestrian. Make goods, including electronics, easy to disassemble and recyclable. Eliminate wanton and senseless consumption and destruction. Align ourselves with the seemingly hard to appreciate yet demonstrably priceless processes that recycle our oxygen and water and provide a temperature- and pressure-controlled, radiation shielded, food-bearing wonderland. One simply has to tick off the list of challenges and costs in supporting a continuous human presence in low earth orbit to make it plainly obvious that it is beyond our ability to do what the Earth does for all of us. We may be able to keep a dozen humans alive for a limited time and with a constant resupply in a precarious perch overlooking our little blue marble, but good luck doing that for the entire human race without the inestimable gift of our biosphere.
We can’t just blame corporations, think that clears our consciences, and go on contributing to the demand that drives global exploitation. We also cannot set up entities whose sole reason for being is profit at the expense of all else. “Else” in this case being the welfare of Earth and humanity, whose fates are inextricable. There must be balance. Profit is not bad if earned within a responsible framework. Unbridled, irresponsible profit that cuts corners, pollutes and exists only for the benefit of a mighty few is unsustainable, and will eventually crumble. We cannot continue to treat Earth’s resources as infinite and free and expect life to go on exactly as it is in perpetuity.
Meanwhile, there are a million other things to tackle, like the health, welfare and education of BILLIONS of our brothers and sisters. The Earth is going to warm up; we’ve already done it. That goose is cooked. It’ll be a shame to see some of my favorite islands and coastlines swallowed up, but we’ll adapt. We’re going to be forced to, and no amount of blathering in the high school hallways that our media has become is going to make a whit of difference about it, except insofar as it influences people to change their habits in manageable ways. The sum total of our lifestyle choices has an undeniable globlal effect. There’s only so much we can do as individuals…but that’s exactly what we should do, and all that can be asked of us.
On this and all topics, people need to be open to discussion, truly listen to each other, examine the facts, and most importantly be willing to change their minds. All too often ego trumps logic, and for some unfathomable reason, people think that admitting you were wrong, even partially, is a bad thing. On the contrary, it shows that you are willing to assimilate new information and to refine your viewpoint, bringing it closer to the actual truth! Truth, life, faith, they are all journeys of refinement. In manufacturing and economics they call it “continuous improvement.” In the Baha’i Faith we call it drawing nearer to God. We need to let go of the idea that as a single human being, we can be “right.” Only God has the claim of ultimate Truth, as the Source. All human understanding is limited by definition, thus are our opinions, including mine. No one should be proud of their opinion; our responsibility is to interact with each other with the utmost humility and love and to be ever-learning, ever-growing, ever-improving.
Think of it this way: what would you rather be? A feather, light and airy, devoid of any solidity, blowing about on the winds of public opinion and at the mercy of novelty? A rock, staunch and unmovable, stuck in the mud, powerless to move or progress but proud of your crusty and outdated sediment, gathering moss and refusing to interact, offering nothing but blunt, cold, and hard opinion? Or a blade of grass, firmly rooted in historical precedent but flexible, drawing upon the rich soil of previous human accomplishment and the guidance of the Almighty, able to bend in the breeze of new information and the breath of confirmation, soak up the rain of divine blessings and technological progress, and grow through the animating energy of the Sun?
This excerpt from The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, which Lorenia read to me this morning, says it better than I ever could.
Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men.
Posted on November 8th, 2009 by george.
Lorenia’s grandfather passed away recently, and her aunt just scanned in some of the photos he collected. A black and white photo of the family was among the best of the batch, and not just because of the contrast and clarity. I had Lorenia crop it close and put together this diptych. It’s photographic proof that the mischief is innate. Notice her mother’s tight grip, just to keep her in the frame! I can only imagine what our children have in store for us.
I’d like to share two new videos with you. The first is the landing of space shuttle Discovery at the Kennedy Space Center atop the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft on September 21st, complete with coworker commentary. The second is Lorenia, convincing me we need a pack of eight assorted specialty scissors. Enjoy.