Sailing The Solar Winds

“So, you are saying that we have no method of seeing the images on the CD now?”

“Not without a Windows machine. We have an external CD drive that we can mount, but if you do not have a Windows machine, you cannot install the software to load those particular images – yes.”

The husband looked sheepish. He is the tech enthusiast between the pair of us – a mellow one compared to some of our friends, I will grant him that. But I felt sorry for the fellow as he said we will not be able to install and retrieve the images on the disk. He is the one who feels elated when a new breakthrough happens that will disrupt storage as we know it, and all that lark.

I was holding a CD that contained some images that could be retrieved by the software also on the CD. I had been given the disc in 2017, and I was attempting to see the images in 2017. I could not. I live in a home spotted freely with software engineers. We trip over cables, hunt for laptops and so on.

I looked at the CD disc in my hand, and burst out laughing.

To think that we sent the Arecibo message to a star cluster some 25,000 light years away hoping that extra terrestrial life will receive and interpret it. Carl Sagan and an impressive set of folks came up with a message that showed humans, a double helix, numbers, elements and so much more. Read all about it here:

Arecibo Message

Arecibo_message.svg
Image attribution: By Arne Nordmann (norro) – Own drawing, 2005, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=365130

How confident we are that if intelligent beings do receive some radio messages, they will have the technology to extract it in the format we sent it to them in forty years ago. Just for fun, I’d like to see what would happen if that dratted message were to flop back onto Earth because of a series of mis-bumps along the way. We would first drive ourselves into a tizzy that beings of another planet reached out to us, and then I am not sure we would be able extract our own message.

I was reading an article recently about human beings sending a probe to our nearest galactic neighbor, Alpha Centauri.

$100-Million Plan Will Send Probes to the Nearest Star

The article talks about using “light sails” to ride those beams to other stars. I quote:

Although they have no mass, the photons in a sunbeam do carry momentum. In sufficient numbers they can push objects around in the vacuum of space. Bounce enough photons off a large reflective spacecraft and light alone can continuously accelerate it without the need for any onboard fuel, much like a sailboat catching a ride on the wind. Such spacecraft are called “solar sails.” This elegant idea goes back more than 400 years, to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, who noted that a wind seemed to blow comet tails away from the sun, and that it might someday be harnessed to push a celestial vessel through the “heavenly air.”

The explanation makes my head swim somewhat. They plan to send the probe that will zoom past Alpha Centauri in 20 years time, and hope to see images of an earth-like planet orbiting the star.

But hopefully we catch something worth catching, since as Stephen Hawking so elegantly put it:

Stephen Hawking explained his support for the project as less about science and more about survival. “Earth is a wonderful place, but it might not last forever,” Hawking says. “Sooner or later, we must look to the stars. Breakthrough Starshot is a very exciting first step on that journey.”

Now what took me on this interstellar, intergalactic quest you ask me. This is where you see me scratching my head, looking goofy, and mumbling something about googling on how to see images in a CD that I hold in my hand.

cd

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The Mountain of Greed

Hiking through the rolling hills one day, I noticed one hill that had the touch of our greed all over it. It was probably a quarry. Set against a state park, this stark mountain made me wince. It was visible from many points in the park, and I moved my eyes away from it as though it was a raw, open, visceral wound. I noticed later in the dozens of pictures I had taken that day, I had deliberately cut this mountain out from my lens. Like my cutting out a mountain from the frame will remove it from my conscience. But it didn’t. I can still see its jagged unnatural edges in my mind’s eye – edges that have been scraped by metal against rock abruptly, not shaped by wind and water over time.

A sight like that got me started on the book called Biomimicry by Janine Benyus, for we have devised a way of life that is not sustainable.

 

 

Our corporations, keen on profitability, raced each other to figure out the best ways in which to make us consume more and more. But we have taken the race too far. It is time we stepped away from the treadmill.

As I gurgled on in this vein, I could not help noticing that there was a spring gurgling nearby. I stopped chattering like a monkey and quietened down, and as I did so, I felt a queer feeling seep into me and fill my being. Could it be happiness or gratitude? Whatever it was, I liked it. When birds, butterflies, rabbits, pinecones, free flowing water, trees and mountains jostle in friendly ambience in the early morning sunshine the way that Gaia intended it to be, it is refreshing.

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Please read this marvelous article on The Sound of Silence – Brain Pickings

I looked at the vegetation around me, and I found I did not quite know the type of trees or the plants around me. Gone were the days when I could tell you which berries were good, which ones made you itchy, and which flowers you could sip to get a wisp of nectar. How do animals know instinctively what works and what doesn’t, while we do not? I thought of the chimps in Gombe Stream National Park, the most studied species in the planet thanks to Jane Goodall’s work.

Quote From Biomimicry by Janine Benyus: Observing a chimp in Gombe Stream National Park, anthropologist Richard Wrangham, says: A chimp I was observing had woken up sick and instead of rolling over for more sleep, she got up and made a beeline. Twenty minutes later she stopped at an Aspilia plant [a cousin of the sunflower that grows as high as 6 feet] She suckered up her face and swallowed a dozen leaves before she moved back to her troop. It was obvious from her grimace that this was not a taste treat. Though chemical analysis of the ingested leaves showed no conclusive proof of medicine, he saw that a spike in leaf swallowing behavior coincided with the months of host tapeworm infection.

We too had this kind of instinctive knowledge with us, and instead of adding to its repertoire, we have accidentally followed another path.

Most frightening of all reports is that one in four wild species(including all taxonomic categories) will be facing extinction by the year 2025.

All this huffing up hills takes a toll on amateur knoll-climbers, and on the pretext of admiring a giant pine cone, I stopped to regain my breath. The pine cone was beautiful: It’s tough exterior, perfect symmetry and overall shape made me look at it and wonder why we cannot build jam jars like that pine cone.

It is hardly the first nor the last time I will come across a Mountain of Greed. We have made extraordinary progress in areas pertaining to the skies, the seas, connectivity etc, but seem to grapple with the simple fact that we have one finite resource on which to live. There are no garages to be built for Earth. No extra closets. This is it.

no_garage

I sound extraordinarily sententious in this post, so maybe what we need is a reward system for eco-sustenance, so each of us can tap into the Naturalist nestled in us.

To see a world in a grain of sand
To see a heaven in a wild flower
– William Blake

 

Good Food Mood

This article was published in The Hindu 

Some of my articles, especially ones that involve the night sky have me pondering on the nature of our existence and how minuscule we are in the scheme of things. The precise sequence of things that led to this particular form of life on this planet and so on. Generally, the night sky is simply a becalming experience that inspires humility, and some vague musings.

The scale of the universe is one that is awe inspiring. We are minuscule compared to the universe, but we also contain millions of minuscule particles compared to our own size. As far as the microbes are concerned, we, each of us: deer, goose, humans are a universe unto ourselves. There is something deeply spiritual in that : we contain multitudes and we enable multitudes. The diversity and beauty of the microbial world is immense, and one that is still emerging in our understanding of it. With the sound of rain pattering outside, I was sitting snugly inside reading I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong, stopping every now and then to read out an interesting piece to the children.

Ayar padi maligaiyil thaai madiyalil kanrinnai pol
ஆயர்பாடி மாளிகையில் தாய் மடியில் கன்றினைப்போல்
maya kana thoongugindran thaalaelo
மாயக்கண்ணன் தூங்குகின்றான் தாலேலோ
Avan vaai niraiya mannai undu mandalathai kaatiya pin
அவன் வாய் நிறைய மண்ணை உண்டு மண்டலத்தை காட்டிய பின்

Roughly translates to: Here is little Krishna, sleeping like a little calf after eating a handful of mud and showing us the universe within it.

The son played the video for the nth time on the television, and the daughter said, “Oh no – not that again. How many times will you see that video?”

“See…see here – when baby Krishna opens his mouth, his mom can see the whole universe inside it. The whole universe!” he says his eyes widening, quite unable to comprehend why this fact is not as astounding to his elder sister.

“Yes – but you said that already.”

“I always watch what you are seeing!” said the fellow stung at this accusation of hogging the television. His sister scowled, the toddler tensed and I sensed it was time for dinner before the situation escalated, and rivers of tears joined the gurgling rivers of rainwater outside.

Inside the house, we sat down around the dinner table with hot food and slurped at it. We kept getting interrupted by alerts giving us flash flood warnings, and it increased the gratitude for being inside, relishing warm food and enjoying one another’s company. Minutes into the meal, the situation had considerably lightened and the children were rolling off their chair giggling at something inane. I watched them bemused.

Countless writers have written about the effects of good food. Jerome K Jerome from Three Men in a Boat goes on to describe the effects in great detail:

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep”. After a cup of tea(two spoonfuls for each cup, and don’t let it stand for more than 3 minutes), it says to the brain, “Now rise and show your strength. Be eloquent and deep and tender; see with a clear eye, into Nature, and into life: spread your white wings of quivering thought and soar, a god like spirit over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!”

What is it with food and mood? Is there a direct connection between the gut and the brain?

It turns out that there is. In ‘I Contain Multitudes’, Ed Yong goes on to write that there are now studies directly linking gut bacteria with mental well-being. We have a long way to go in understanding the role of gut bacteria.  Some studies indicate reduced symptoms of depression in people with irritable bowel syndromes after consuming certain types of probiotics.

If research advances enough to diagnose certain types of borderline psychiatric patients and is able to treat them with specific types of probiotics to enable well-being, would that not be great?

An excellent article on the topic by Maria Popova here: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/10/i-contain-multitudes-ed-yong/

The future could hold in store for us enough advances in microbiology & genetics, to enable personalized treatment options that aims at holistic healing. That is a promising, if distant, future to strive towards.

Quote:
It is estimated that every human contains 100 trillion microbes, most of which live in our guts. By comparison the Milky Way contains between 100 million and 400 million stars.

Maybe the mud that baby Krishna swallowed contained bio luminescent bacteria that made the universe inside of him light up when he opened his mouth.

krishna_universe

Whatever it is, like Jerome K Jerome says: “We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach, Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach and diet it with care and judgement. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart.”

Nothing For Something

We were listening to the audio books of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy over the numerous trips we took during the holidays. There is a section where the Earthlings manage to meet the creative team that designed Earth. The designer walks out very proud of his latest fjords in a section resembling current-day Africa, and I remember being awed. How marvelous would it be to think up new concepts, new colors and new landscapes. What shades to give the acacia tree bark? How about the Palm tree bark? Rustic brown or brown acacia sparkle? How about hay? Should hay’s shade be different from the dried grass bundles?

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I suppose it will be a salutary task for everyone to create something beautiful from scratch just to see the myriad choices and decisions one is faced with. There is beauty in creationism. Much more than in consumerism.

Henry David Thoreau would have been pleased indeed that his words about the world being a canvas to the imagination, was taken to heart.

The activity we had chalked out for New Year was painting the daughter’s room, and talk of shades of colors was ripe. I never knew that this many shades of light blue existed with such exotic sounding names.

If somebody had given me the list of colors from the paint section of the hardware store, I could have stumped my audience in Crocodile-Crocodile. Those of you who have not had the pleasure of playing Crocodile-Crocodile should do so at least once to experience the joy of looking up new colors. “Crocodile Crocodile, may we cross the golden river?” is a stellar game in which the crocodile has to catch a person who is attempting to run across the river (strip of land) if they don’t have the color on their persons.

Crocodile, crocodile, may we cross the golden river?

Yes you may. If you have Turquoise Blue.

What is Turquoise Blue? Is it the color of a turquoise? Is a turquoise a turtle or a tortoise or a porpoise or just a turquoise who is blue?

croc_croc

Anyway, once the paints were in, the smell of fresh paint along with the envisioned end product of a beautiful, clean wall was enough to get us going. There we were, looking ebullient and hanging off the walls at various angles and heights with rollers in our hand. Music played in the background and talk turned to various topics, including the dumb painter, Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture, Tom Brown’s School Days, the Asian Paints advertisement featuring a boy who looked remarkably like a cross between Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and R.K.Narayan’s Swami which of course led to Mark Twain’s short story of Tom Sawyer and his friends painting a fence.

After a few hours, I noticed that the toddler son had taken a break from painting. I asked him what he was doing. ‘Nothing.’, he said. ‘Just sitting and seeing you paint,’ . There he was sitting criss-cross-apple-sauce on the floor with his cheeks cupped in his hands looking enamored with the soothing aura of activity around him and content to absorb.

It is an answer I love to get from children. In their world, it is okay to say they were sitting, and doing nothing. It is those of us who have bought into this idea of being busy who loathe the term.  Sometimes, nothing is good. Maybe we all need to carve out worthwhile moments of doing nothing, so we can do something worthwhile.

“I soon realized that what I really wanted was time to ruminate, time to observe, and often time to be alone.”

Miss Read, Early Days

It reminds me of this drawing that occurs often in Brain Pickings articles : Everybody should sit quietly near a stream and listen.

Everybody should sit by a little stream and listen
Everybody should sit by a little stream and listen

In fact, I think it would be phenomenally better for our current President to do nothing at all. That will be something, and something is better than nothing.

Weaving The Sequins Of Time

Taking a drive up the mountains is always a nostalgic experience for me. Regular readers know I grew up in a small village nestled in the mountainside and every time I spot a pine cone or take in a whiff of Eucalyptus scented air, I get a gleamy look in my eyes that prompts the daughter to ask me for a story about my childhood. I comply almost gleefully and she sits back and imagines her mother as a little girl, a person who is vastly more interesting than the adult version. One loopy enough to jump across streams, build mud tree houses and make a wish against a shooting star.

I was thoroughly pleased to do that again during our recent visit to the Inyo Canyons. Not build a mud tree house, but to make a wish against a shooting star. One of the best things about going out to the vast expanses of nature that we urban dwellers completely forget is how the dark the sky is at night (duh!) and how many stars we can see against this backdrop.

We were blessed with remarkably clear skies during our time there, and we headed out bundled up like Eskimoes in Winter to see the night skies. We made our way up a winding mountain road that overlooked a vast plain thereby giving us a wonderful vantage point for seeing the skies. Maybe it was the enormity of what was in front of us, but it subdued our normally stentorian voices temporarily. We stood there in companionable silence for a while just gazing at the outer arms of the Milky Way (at this time of year, apparently, we do not get to see the whole Milky Way).

My, it is so dark – it can be lonely here, we whispered to each other after some time.

The stars tousled our hair gently teasing us : of course it is dark, what did you expect, and look up at us. You are not lonely unless you wish to be. You have a universe unto yourself. ( I have an idea brewing here: it may be laughably inadequate, but that has not stopped me from publishing before)

The sun groaned from the other side : Duh, everyday I give you the gift of night, you know?

For the first time, I saw Ursa Major or Big Dipper drawn large against the night sky, with nothing to impede its view. It is amazing how many different civilizations managed to study the skies in varying yet similar ways.

There is the North Star, that was known as the Dhruva Nakshatram  in the early days when the Indian civilization named it (Story here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhruva).

Can you see Arundathi? Did you know the story about Arundathi being a twin star to Vashishta and rotating around each other? That is why it is a wedding ritual.  Alcor & Mizar known as Vashishta and Arundhati. Really?

So it went.

The daughter rattled stories from Greek Mythology that we tried to find Indian equivalents for. The magic of story-telling under the stars came alive for us that night. Sirius barked and Taurus ran. The hunters belt was bright and gleaming, the Plaeidis cluster was there, the Seven sisters were being relentlessly chased by the Big Hunter, while the same Krittikai sisters raised Karthikeya in the plains of Indus Valley millenia ago.

sequins_of_time

Lest you run off thinking that the daughter has sat down with the classics and pondered the deep recesses of ancient cosmology, let me assure you that Rick Riordan and his Percy Jackson books formed the basis for the bulk of her knowledge.

The white cloud that we never really see in urban areas was visible – consisting of millions of stars, the cosmos probably is home to millions of Earths fostering life and intelligent lifeforms. I was reminded yet again of Carl Sagan’s words  about the pale blue dot.

pale_blue_dot.png

It is true, every tyrant, every usurper of power, every chaser of money, every person with cares in this world, should stand beneath the blanket of stars everyday, and look at our souls in a detached manner. See ourselves as specks in a dark world where the only place for us to find light is by looking inwards and capture the feeling of light in our hearts like Earth captures sunlight and warmth in its atmosphere.

As we stood there with the children bundled up in the cold on a mountainside overlooking a vast plain with the stars shining down, we saw in the distant horizon seven or eight shooting stars.

Magical moments come in various ways, sometimes it comes in the form of shooting stars, sometimes it comes in the form of a fluttering leaf falling upon you and other times it comes in the warmth of a lazy winter morning when all the world outside seems bleak, but you feel warm inside. Even these cold winters can be translated to a warm feeling that the Danish have a wonderful word for: Hygge. ( pronounced – Hoo-ghey)

Embracing Hygge – The Danish Secret to staying happy in the winter

It is the feeling of warmth and coziness even when the world outside is harsh and cold.

As Louisa Thomsen Brits, author of The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well says, “It leads to a sense of a rich inner life that radiates out through bleak days.”

What better way to weave the little sequins of magical moments into the fabric of life?

Oh Snap!

I attended a conference last week, a vast sprawling area brimming with people having an analytical bent of mind, or at least that is what they do for a living.

It was wonderful, for many reasons: It not only provided a good change of pace for me, but it also helped me cope with the post election disbelief by observing vast numbers of people from different parts of the country.

Before one of our trainings, our instructor put up a hashtag on the screen and requested everybody to tweet with that hash tag, so we could analyze the data coming in for that hashtag for the exercise.

For our convenience, he was also streaming the tweets as his code picked them up. For a hall containing at least 200 people, the tweets were trickling in. 5 and then 10 and then a plateau. After some time, another few.

The instructor then showed us how he was going to analyze this data and when he tried to pull up the dashboard he had created for the purpose of the training, the server went down. As it turns out, the instructor was embarrassed, obviously, that his carefully prepared presentation ran into a glitch in this uncharacteristic manner, but he had a Plan B, and going by the way he conducted his training, probably had Plan C, and D. Competence and Determination. He took a derogatory stab at himself, got a laugh, and moved on. He chose instead to recreate the dashboard from scratch, so we all get to see how it is done, instead of showing us the finished product.

The person right next to me, pulled out his phone though, and tweeted the hashtag almost instantly saying “#Hashtag Demo not working. Not Cool.” I was sitting right next to him , so I could see his tweet. I also remembered that he had not tweeted when the instructor asked us all to tweet so that he could get a dataset, but when it came to calling someone’s failures out, he was more than willing to do so.

That is human nature. We all suffer from it. So, I am not blaming this person by any chance, but rather hoping to use this as a call to introspection. Are we so quick to judge that we are losing our ability to empathize just because we now have the power to quickly voice our opinions? That could have been us fumbling when the server went down unexpectedly, couldn’t it?

I was reading an article in which President Obama warned us in a similar manner about snap judgments that social media enables us to make:

Obama, without directly naming Trump, appeared critical of the political discourse in the United States, saying social media has made it easier “to make negative attacks and simplistic slogans than it is to communicate complex policies.”

Obama-Merkel issue joint rebuttal to the coming era of Donald Trump

Every tool has its place, but if we attempt to mow the lawn with a kitchen knife, it will not work. I cannot help thinking of our gardeners, who in my mind have magical abilities, get things done quickly and efficiently, while I blubber and fly rudderless because I do not use the right tools for the job. (Divine Intervention of the Gardening Gods)

mow_the_lawn

Now is the time for all of us to tap the critical thinkers in us, to read extensively, to seek the truth and take up the job of providing a voice of reason. All of us know how distorted our consumption of information can be. Sites like Snopes.com have their work cut out for them in the age of social media.

Snopes.com Check Facts!

P.S: I loved Angela Merkel’s measured response to Trump’s victory:

Angela Merkel in her note to Trump offered cooperation reiterating that cooperation should be based on “a common platform of democracy, freedom, advocacy for human rights all over the world and championing the open and liberal world order.”

After all, we all may have to pack up and go to different planet soon (in which case we are all in the same boat regardless of race, creed or gender.)
Stephen Hawking’s prediction that humans have at best 1000 years in which to find another planet to inhibit

If

We had been to the East coast to gulp in the beauty of the fall colors before the trees were stripped bare for the Winter. I marveled at the beautiful tapestry that nature had laid out for us. The greens, golds, yellows, rusts, oranges, reds and browns blended together beautifully to please the eye. The same patch of forest looked beautiful in the different lights of day. The color of the skies above, the intensity of the sunlight, the shadows of the scudding clouds above, all painted marvelous pictures and nature soothed in a way that it has always done.

A forest is beautiful to look at. A forest in fall colors is brilliant to look at. The diversity in colors is mind boggling, and it all pieces together beautifully in a marvelous tapestry. It is the differences in color that make it glorious.

An artist’s palette is made more vibrant with different shades.

As much as we all like everyone to be like us, it is the fact that we are different that makes the world a beautiful place. It is the disappointments that should propel us forward.

I am distraught at the person America has chosen as its President elect. I am trying to find solace in the words of Carl Sagan on Earth:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

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Now, more than ever before, is the time for all of us to come together and become heroes in our own ways. I felt this was the right time to read Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ to the children.

If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

 

When the materialistic society around us automatically glorifies money, we can use the moment to say that money does not equal dignity, money does not beget culture, money may earn you servitude, but not loyalty.

And point to the example in The White House.