Friday, December 22, 2006

Carl Sagan blog-a-thon

Joel Schlosberg has launched a Carl Sagan blog-a-thon to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Sagan's passing on December 20.

I've been trying to write something about Carl Sagan ever since Trev and I received the 25th anniversary Cosmos DVD set. I got obsessed with it, watching the disks literally every night for several months. This was during the height of W. madness, the fascist cult of personality and war delirium that is only beginning to abate. (The war itself, of course, looks to be escalating.) I remember thinking how much we need Carl Sagan, now more than ever. Various folks are playing some of his roles, with decent success--Brian Greene on astronomy, Al Gore on global warming--but I can't think of anyone who has celebrated human reason with such passion. The first five minutes of Cosmos make it clear that understanding science, harnessing humanity's powers to explore our universe, engenders far more reverence for the universe than any religious teaching. The Bible, while containing some interesting stories, is static. Seeking answers in the same stories over and over is a travesty of our human potential. Unless we continue to look up and out we are stunted. In the middle of the Cold War, heading into Reagan's free-for-all of ignorance and selfishness, Sagan was goofily optimistic, delighting in what humans have achieved and what we have yet to find out. In Leonardo Da Vinci's workshop, he sketched out a spaceship that would support life for the generations it would take to travel to the nearest stars.

I still pull out a Cosmos disk at random every month or so. I think for me it's a kind of prayer.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sweet and Low (down)

The holidays are upon us, and I feel like bashing Woody Allen again. Every time I watch a movie of his that I used to like, I'm struck by the misogyny that forms the warp and woof of his stories. It may even go back to Sleeper; it definitely is more pronounced in the later films. The disillusioning film of the moment, courtesy once again of the San Carlos Library, is Sweet and Lowdown. I remember recommending this film wholeheartedly to my parents, then rushing out to buy Django Reinhardt CDs. I suppose the latter is something I can still be grateful for. But despite all Sean Penn's hard (you might even say sweaty) work, the film still has Woody's peevish little fingerprints all over it. First, and most prominently: the fantasy of the mute woman with a voracious sexual appetite who shrugs off verbal abuse because she knows "he doesn't mean it." God. But along with misogyny is the general resentment of all who don't recognize the great artist's talents. This occurred to me in a dream as I dozed off on the couch before the ending. Emmett Ray is the second best jazz guitarist in the world, the best being the European Django Reinhardt. In the past Allen carried on about how he wanted to make movies like Ingmar Bergman. I'm not sure whom he blames for his failure to come close to Bergman or even to Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze--maybe it's Mia's fault. In Sweet and Lowdown, the two women in Emmett's life tell him he'd be a better musician if he'd let his feelings out...but this can't be Woody's problem. What he'd let out would be a torrent of bitterness toward everyone, especially women, who fails to worship him (see Deconstructing Harry).

I used to think liking Woody Allen represented a certain level of sophistication, but now it seems like pseudo-sophistication--the very people he makes fun of in his movies are the only ones who would think the movies are profound.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Reading the river

There's no substitute for setting a draft aside and letting it cool. What not to do: get feedback, revise, and send out immediately after revising. The temptation is exceedingly powerful, but I've realized that I now can feel it physically when something isn't right. I'm learning to override my tendency to say "oh well, that spot's not important." Every spot is important. After I've rested the piece, I can read through and sense where there's trouble, sort of like an eddy or a hidden rock in the river. (I take this metaphor from whitewater kayaking; my cousins who do this like to walk alongside the part of the river they're going to run and "read" it beforehand.) I have to go to that spot and work through it. Often it's a fundamental flaw in the concept of the story, which is probably why my instinct is to avoid it. On the other hand, I usually can figure out a solution, and it's often a leap forward that strengthens the whole story. In other words, that eddy is an opportunity.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Two days before vacation

and all is stressful. Every time I think I'm on top of the task list, something goes haywire. Usually it's something small and stupid, and that makes the stress worse, because I get upset about being upset. I am trying to teach myself to see the big picture. When I look back on my life, will I remember this day? Will I remember petty misunderstandings, or worse, how I overreacted to them?

I remember a few years back somebody, some cultural thinker, said "we" don't dream about computers. Somehow they hadn't yet become iconic or symbolic in the subconscious. But I dream about email all the time. And I answer it; I work hard composing real answers to absurd questions, and then I wake up and all the work was for nothing. This has to stop. A friend of mine swore off email about a year ago, sending out, in her last electronic communication, her snail mail and phone number. I haven't called or written since then.

I need to get out of the office.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Antlia Pneumatica

A few months ago at a used bookstore, I picked up Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, written in 1963 by one Richard Hinckley Allen. Turning to a random page, I find:

Antlia Pneumatica, The Air Pump,

is La Caille's Machine Pneumatique, at first Latinized as Machina Pneumatica (which occurs in Burritt, and is the Italian name); but astronomers know it as simple Antlia. In Germany it is the Luft Pumpe.
The constellation lies just sount of Crater and Hydra, bordering on the Vela of Argo along the branches of the Milky Way, and culminates on the 6th of April; Gould assigning it eighty-five naked-eye stars.
He thinks that [alpha], the red lucida, may be a variable, as his observers had variously noted as of from the 4th to the 5th magnitude, and Argelander entered both of these.
La Caille's [beta] lies within the present limits of Hydra.
Although inconspicuous, and without any named star, Antlia is of special interest to astronomers from containing the noted variable S, discovered in 1888 by Paul of Washington, and confirmed by Sawyer. Chandler gives its maximum as 6.7 and its minimum as 7.3, the period being 7 hours, 46 minutes, 48 seconds,--the shortest known until it was supplanted by U Pegasi with a period of 5 1/2 hours.

So many, who is Paul of Washington? Extrapolating from the index, which refers me back to this page (43), I gather he was an astronomer, Henry Martin Paul. Not an American apostle.

I googled Antlia for more information and came across the very same quotation posted on this blog about archeoastronomy.

And this site tells us that the Air Pump was named in 1752 after the invention by Robert Boyle.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

West Wing

Watching West Wing (season 4) on DVD...I'm finding the experience really uncomfortable. That's because the show portrays an intelligent, engaged, genuinely caring president and his all-of-the-above staff. I find it shocking to confront how little I believe in any of that anymore. I picture the Bush White House, to the extent that I picture it at all, as a sort of dark circus. Bush making fart jokes and banging rocks together during meetings. Really, the notions of competence and public service don't enter into it. At one time I probably did believe in our government, which is why West Wing makes me so sad. I wonder how many people watched it during the Bush years and felt the same dissonance. How could you not feel it?