Go For Launch!

We just did a space topic yesterday, but I can’t resist this video. It’s called Go For Launch!. That name makes me think of Okay Go and their recent Rube Goldberg-inspired video. And I think: you know, this space shuttle launch prep is a pretty wacked-out Rube Goldberg sequence too. Only it ends with a freakin’ rocket ship flying into space. All they need are some marbles and a better soundtrack.


The shuttle in the video is Discovery. She is primping for her penultimate voyage. The 25 year-old Atlantis has already flown her last mission. She survived 32 transits to the void and is now on her way to a retirement community outside Palm Springs where she hopes to play golf and Canasta with her surviving sisters.

Saturn in the Big Picture

I remember, as a kid, being mesmerized by these cheesy old sci-fi paintings of the frozen surface of a moon IX around Tau Ceti 4, or some such thing. Frosty rocks in the foreground, a gas giant looming large above, and maybe a space ship for good measure. I was aware of how speculative these paintings were, but they could still get you to ask the question “What would it be like to be there?”

The Boston Globe’s Big Picture has a new entry on Cassini’s latest adventures around Saturn, and the amazing thing is how much these honest-to-goodness photographs resemble those old sci-fi paintings. For instance:

I half expect to see a busty astronaut in a tight-fitting space suit floating nearby, a disintegrator pistol at her side. If one of those shows up the next set of pictures, man, I will be impressed.

Alan Taylor, the editor of The Big Picture, is a Saturn-o-phile from way back. Here’s a Cassini Flickr set from his pre-Globe days.

In other planetary exploration news, I regret to inform you that your little Mars lander Phoenix did’t make it through the winter. A noble spaceship among the frosty rocks and under pink skies, Phoenix, may you rest in peace.

Typography from around the world

I’ve always loved strange symbols and exotic writing systems. Although of course, exoticness is in the eye of the beholder… The exuberant and effervescent curves of Tamil look otherworldly to me, but to 66 million people (66 million! So help me, I saw it in the Wikipedia!) it’s just what they print in the newspaper. Same old same old.

For a script fancier like me, these are the best of times. It wasn’t so long ago I was thrilled to find a rare book like Akira Nakanishi’s Writing Systems of the World. I would linger over the pages of wandering ink, scratches and spots carrying civilization on their tiny backs, one particle at a time. Messages in bottles bound for people I could scarcely imagine.

The mystery is still there, but the rarity is gone. I used to work hard to find examples of unusual scripts, but those days are over. The web is ideal for this kind of thing. I can drink in the Wikipedia Tamil page in Tamil, or flip through the pages of Dinakaran (Number 1 Tamil daily, if you take their word for it). Lately I’ve been having fun with the Google Transliterator. You don’t have to understand a word of it to enjoy rolling around in the graphical otherness of 22 different languages.

Finally, I came across this excellent piece in Smashing Magazine. The Beauty Of Typography: Writing Systems And Calligraphy Of The World. The explanations and illustrations are top notch, and the level is perfect for a dilettante like me.

Eyjafjallajökull in time lapse

My nephew Ben sent me this nifty video of the Keyboard Volcano (you know, EyjafjallajökulljalfjakofeyjaKABOOM!). I love the time lapse, but I was especially struck by the camera’s motion. Something about moving the camera during the image capture process completely changes the character of the movie. With a normal time lapse image, I can see, in my mind’s eye, a camera bolted to a tripod for the hours or days required. But when the camera translates through space, it feels like the dreamy vision of a slow moving creature.


Iceland, Eyjafjallajökull – May 1st and 2nd, 2010 from Sean Stiegemeier on Vimeo.

I first saw this technique on the recent Life series that Oprah Winfrey made in her spare time. The Filming Plants short video on the Life site gives you an idea what I’m talking about. The camera doesn’t so much record the plant as dance with it as it grows.

In the way of all things technical, this high-end trend is being made available to hobbyists. In the notes under the volcano video, filmmaker Sean Stiegemeier thanks MILapse for his motorized dolly. MILapse turns out to be Jay Burlage, and he’ll help you build an open source hardware motion control system for your high dynamic range time lapse video system. God bless the hobbyists! Amazing stuff.

Arrested development or pedomorphic edge?

It’s remarkable how much a baby ape resembles a small human. The similarity decreases quickly with age, but it does help explain how we can share so much DNA with them. In many ways we’re just slowed down versions of them. We carry that flat forehead and big brain cavity (relative to skull size) right into adulthood. I’ve often thought that chimps must look at us and shake their heads at how absurdly childish we look. Geez! These researchers, I swear they get younger every year.

In biological terms, this physical retardation goes by the name pedomorphosis or neoteny. And despite the insane length of time we have to spend sheltered by adults, we humans like to think that our childishness has treated us well. That big fat brain doesn’t blossom overnight, but when it finally pops, watch out!

A neuroscientist once explained to me that some fairly dramatic changes in brain physiology occur in late adolescence. Regions that were more plastic become more hardwired, or “burned in”. This is a reasonable biological response — your brain is saying “Hey, now that you know how things work, I can save us both a lot of time and energy by just looking up the answer on these note cards.” It’s also obvious: anyone can see that learning changes as you age, the best example of this being language acquisition. When you come to be old person, you canna learn to speaka da language… but never like a native.

On the other hand, maybe it’s time for us to let that brain be plastic a little longer. Call it Pedomorphism 2.0. After all, there’s a lot to learn these days, and it’s changing all the time. And right on cue, there is a rise in pedomorphic behavior. The average age of entry into adulthood is rising. Living at home as long as you can is a pretty sound strategy. And those extra graduate degrees may well come in handy some day.

That 28 year-old slob who plays video games all day in the basement of his parents’ house (a.k.a. Area Man)? He may well represent the future of the species. But only if he can be induced to get a girlfriend.

Come Out, Virginia

Come out Virginia, don’t let me wait
You Catholic girls start much too late
But sooner or later it comes down to fate…
-Billy Joel, Only the Good Die Young

A friend very close to this situation sent me this and wondered if I might post a link to it: Come Out, Virginia. It’s a blog written by a woman who experienced more at parochial school than a religious education. It starts like this:

Beginning when I was seven, the pastor of my Catholic school and parish sexually abused me just as he did a large number of children, mostly girls, during the 60’s and 70’s. I testified at a grand jury hearing in 1992 bringing charges against him that culminated in his guilty plea in 1993, just days before his criminal trial. I was scheduled to testify at that trial, and the fact that I had to cut short a Carribean vacation for nothing is one of the many, many reasons I wish him ill to this day.

Stories like this are anything but rare these days, but the writing here is very good, and it gnaws at the Great Riddle. The Great Riddle concerns anyone who has weathered evil or suffered grave misfortune. Whether that evil comes by parochial school or a thousand other paths is not the point. Here is the problem: in passing to the other side of that evil, blinking in the daylight as it were, most of us want to put the shadows away. Let them not be named, both now and forever. But… we have eaten what we have experienced; we are what we have endured.

One cannot be whole and reject a part of oneself. To love oneself is to accept the intrusion of the horrible. There’s no getting around it. This is the Great Riddle. With or without the help of religion, it is a life’s work to sort it out.

As the anonymous blogger closes one post after rattling off a list of (since departed) problems:

Were all these problems caused by what Monsignor did to me so long ago? It’s a question I have been asked in legal settings and have asked in therapeutic settings, and the answer is pretty much the same: Of course. Maybe. Probably. Who knows? But it for sure didn’t help.

Boston’s Dirty Water

Speaking of raw, stable video, here are two different views of our recent water-related unpleasantness here in Boston. First is this surveillance video of what it looked like on the scene as it happened. So that’s what it looks like when an 8 million gallons per hour geyser can’t get to the bathroom in time. I need a clean up on aisle three please!

This next video provides a slow aerial survey to the mess. Why it makes me feel just like Governor Patrick. Incidentally, that muddy water made it all the way downstream to me in Watertown. I understand we’ll have clean water again soon, but in the meantime this order that we drink only boiled water is scalding the hell out of my tongue.