Ten years ago:

Three in the morning is never a good time to make a critical assessment of one's life. Those small morning hours only add doubt and regret to every piece of evidence. The fundamental issues take on such an epic size that even approaching them is an impossible task. The contradiction is that the feelings that surface late at night also seem to contain more truth, so they are very hard to ignore.

I couldn't sleep at all for a week, staring at the ceiling above me. I didn't understand where things had gone so wrong that I found myself laying in that bed, in that apartment. I created giant piles of "what if" questions, and beat myself with them one at a time. What if I hadn't broken things off with Diana in high school, but instead dedicated myself to making that work no matter what? What if I had worked out that scholarship to Wagner or Saint John Fisher instead of going to Cortland? What if I could have figured out how to stay on my feet in New York? It also had the dimensions of a spiritual crisis, although one made almost entirely of desperation without any further growth. If there is such a thing as a spiritual panic attack, I certainly had one then, looking for meaning within myself and finding nothing there to cling onto.

I felt that I was wasting time. I was wasting my life away in some apartment in a part of the world I honestly didn't want to be in, working a job that was making me feel like shit. All of my friends were hundreds of miles away and there was no way I was ever going to be able to reclaim that life. I had made poor decisions, and now I was dealing with the regret that accompanied them. In this mindset, it was really easy to dig a deep hole, leaving myself no possible way to climb back out. I stayed in bed when I didn't need to be at work. I left the apartment a mess, and it slowly became a physical demonstration of my mental state.

It felt like there was nothing worth saving.

 


 

Here is how out of it I got:

I got up in morning, turned off the alarm clock and took a shower. I went and caught the bus, got a cup of coffee at the gas station across the street from the mall, and cross the parking lot. Then, I had a panic attack because the gate to the store was unlocked and open.

Not wanting to walk into my darkened store and perhaps get assaulted by someone I don't know lying in wait inside, I instead rattle the gate like hell and make a lot of noise, as if this will somehow protect me. What it did was bring my boss out from the stock room to find out who the hell was rattling his gate. I saw him, and thought to myself that I must be getting fired or something, since that that was the only reason he would show up to open the store when I was on shift.

He looked at me puzzled, but then had this goofy grin on his face. "I open today. You close, remember? You make the schedule after all."

And he was right. I did make the schedule. If there was anyone on the staff that should have known exactly when they were working, it should have been me. Instead I stood there like a fucking moron, four hours before my shift. But clearly my mind was so distracted by its inward turn that I had lost track of it. I cursed myself all the way back home on the bus, and then again when I tried to get my caffeine-addled brain to sleep for another hour or two. As I closed the store that night, I took a look at the chart I had made only a week before, and wrote down when it was I said I was going to work.

 


 

In the midst of this, my parents came out to visit. The focal point of their visit was clearly at my brothers house, where there were things like a kitchen table or some furniture to sit on. I don't recall them ever stopping by my apartment, but they must have at least stuck their head through the door for a brief moment. I can't imagine that I stressed out over that situation much: I had an apartment and a job to support myself with, and that was going to be good enough regardless of the state of either of those positions.

I remember my mother telling me that she was happy that I had decided to stay in one place for a while instead of "doing whatever it was you was doing" the previous fall. I laughed it off because there was such a gulf of understanding between the two of us, and it wasn't even worth trying to bring those two concepts into some kind of compromise. It is one of the many times in my life where my mother has taken a critical situation in my life and turned it into some silly game I was playing. Sometimes I think that growing up in this dynamic is part of the reason that I have an overly-emotional temperament today.

Letting things play out this way was drastic improvement over the way I had previously reacted. I had learned to accept her nonchalant reaction to the things I held dear, and work around it on my own terms. It was the only way I was ever going to have any kind of relationship with her that wasn't based on anger or anxiety. I let her say her piece, regardless of how off base it might be, and then move the conversation past those awkward moments. It doesn't result in a particularly deep relationship, but it is one that doesn't break down so often.

The important part of their visit to me was actually laying eyes on my father, and confirming for myself that he was healthy. After his accident a few months previous, I had been aching to see him standing in one piece. But this was something I could not really convey in words, so instead we smoked together in that way we do, talking about the little things that we can talk about.

Surprisingly, I felt a bit better about things after their visit. Perhaps a few moments with something familiar allowed me to reset myself a little. It was an unlikely outcome for me, and one that I don't really understand. But I am grateful for the change that it caused.

 

Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
Previous: April 2, 2010 <|> Next: April 22, 2010

One of the most interesting experiences to come out of my trip to the States was that I was lucky enough to meet one of my idols since I was a very young child, an astronomer and science writer called Andrew Kowal. In 1983 Kowal wrote a science book entitled "Travellers in Time and Space" which took the reader on a hypothetical journey from Earth to the Moon, then the Sun and planets and on outwards to eventually reach the most distant quasars that were known at the time, before diving back in time to examine the Big Bang and the origins of the stars and galaxies. Essentially it was a guided tour of the entire known universe and while it was quite long and dense, it was written at a sufficiently simple level and with a nice readable font that I ended up reading the whole thing from cover to cover. I was very young at the time and I just devoured every word of it. I still remember almost all of it. I was at the age where everything I learned was being stored on the very lowest levels of my memory, where they were probably going to stay forever. It provided a starting point for almost everything that I've gone on to learn about modern space science and astronomy.

The book is out of print and way out of date and extremely difficult to get hold of now, but it was still a significant aspect of my childhood so I jumped at the chance to actually meet Kowal in person at the Rosino Observatory in Florida. Getting to the observatory involved landing in Gainesville and then driving for about two hours in a perfectly straight line across gorgeously sunny but befuddlingly repetitious pancake-flat grassland. I'm serious, at one point I stopped and checked my GPS because of deja vu, to make sure I hadn't blundered into some warp in spacetime which had unknowingly sent me back fifty miles. Until now I never knew that Scooby Doo trees were a real geographical feature.

Rosino the town is like fog; so spaced out that you barely notice you've entered it and then, after trying and failing to find something resembling a city centre, you can't help but think it must be made entirely of suburb. This is true of many towns in the States. I suppose it's just a country that there's more of. At first I approved of building cities on grid patterns because of how easy it makes it to find stuff, but now the lack of symphony and creativity drives me spare, as if every town was spat out by the same bored computer which nobody could find the enthusiasm to go back and program to be less predictable.

The observatory is a few miles out the other side of the town. It's not Arecibo or the VLA, one of those towering technological achievements which is miles in diameter and gets used in motion pictures to make astronomy look sexy (which it isn't, it's mainly difficult number crunching and extreme patience), it's just a reasonably large, 1.0m-aperture steerable Cassegrain reflector.

Jon Cutter is the reason why I managed to find Kowal again. He is someone whom I met way back when I first got onto the internet in the early 2000s, thanks to free school access. Jon used to run a videogame high score site on which we both used to compete, back in the days before games consoles had any sort of capacity to automatically (and verifiably) report their users' achievements to the rest of the world. The charts and forums were a hotbed of unreliable results (scraped and collated from player-hosted GeoCities pages), juvenile trolling and, in the absence of YouTube and widespread webcams and capture cards, Photoshopped photographic proof. I wound up pouring hundreds of hours of my life into that N64 and those rankings, as this also happened to be years before me getting a life.

I left when, for various reasons that I won't go into, things started to get really twisted and unhappy on the forums. It's a bad patch that they've pulled out of now but it was enough to make me leave semi-permanently. I go back to the old community now and then, and, while the participants are still all quite familiar names and the top scores have inched upwards and the total best times have ratcheted downwards, the level of proof isn't much higher and nobody involved seems to have mentally aged by more than a few months. Still, Jon was always the most likely one of us to grow into a responsible adult and here you go. We'd never met in reality on account of a little thing called the Atlantic Ocean but he'd happened to mention on AIM that he was working with Kowal and I was coming over to the US anyway so I thought I'd plot this detour. The boy is married now, and soon to be a father. That particular fad, a rising trend among my friends, frankly terrifies me. Anyway he's also now finished his doctorate and turned into a professional astronomer and evidently claimed his free beard and lurid wooly jumper.

I spent an hour or two being shown around the instruments and control panels for the telescope and I also got to climb up the gantry to the top of the thing and take a look down inside all the highly polished and ground optical geometry inside it. This was broad daylight so no observation was actually going on. Jon also took me up to the office and showed me some of the data he and the rest of the eight-man (zero-woman) staff had recorded over the last few years. 99% of astronomy, it seems, is geometry. Most of that is handled by powerful computers (and I did get a chance to look at their "server farm" which was actually just a few racks of processors mounted in a dangerously overheating cupboard which Wrightfield University (who owns the observatory) doesn't have the budget to air-condition). The remaining 1% is what occupies Jon's time and 99% of this, in turn, is recording gigs and gigs of very mundane observations, formatting and collating them and adding them to the gigantic and growing collection of raw data which forms the basic bedrock of modern astrophysics. Finding a new patch of sky to chart is not difficult at all because the sky itself is four pi steradians and a typical telescope can look at, let's say, a billionth of that at a time. (Also: I know what a steradian is now.) But actual envelope-pushing requires envelope-pushing technology, and a ground-based 1.0m Cassegrain reflector is not exactly envelope-pushing. Jon's thesis was on the fluid dynamic behaviour of planetary nebulae and he has some impressive false-colour time-lapse images as well as some engrossing computer simulations which I spent an embarrassing amount of time toying with and trying to break.

Jon put it like this: science is a tower which we are all trying to make taller. The lower levels are all filled in and sturdy, but the higher you go, the more gaps there are. The people right at the cutting edge looking for dark energy and Higgs bosons and symmetry violations are perched on the very top of the pile, hurling bricks into clear air to see what finds purchase. Meanwhile, Those Also Serve Who Stay Behind And Fill In The Gaps. They need filling. It is not unusual for scientists to uncover very interesting and hitherto-overlooked facts while filling in those seemingly trivial gaps. But it is much less unusual for the gap-fillers to just go entirely unsung even while superstar names go on to build amazing things on top of that laboriously collected data. It's just the way Science with a capital S goes. It's a thing you just have to adjust to. Or quit out of.

By this time I was growing restless and dusk was falling and I was idly wondering whether Andrew Kowal was likely to be turning up for a night's observations when Jon dropped the bombshell on me. Kowal actually hasn't been to work for a few months now, because he's in the hospital.

I'm used to the idea that my heroes and idols aren't immortal-- I was beating my Dad at Sonic The Hedgehog when I was eight, which is an experience I'm sure all of us have had, in some analogous form. It was the idea that I might have come such a long way and missed the guy entirely that frightened me the most. My first reaction was selfish, what does that say? I kind of hope that the fact that I thought long enough to have a second reaction - "Zarquon, cancer in America is the most expensive and unpleasant way I can think of to depart a notionally civilised country" - negates that. Jon told me he had anything from one to eight months left.

So I said can I come and visit him at the hospital?

*

I stuck around for half a shift at the observatory, spending most of the time re-reading the Night's Dawn Trilogy (it's exhaustingly grand in scope and if I have to read the words "neural nanonics" another time I may scream and throttle someone, otherwise fine) and not actually helping out much. Then Jon and I headed back to his house and ate some instant food ("food" is about as specific as Jon was prepared to get, it was orange and possibly edible, nothing else can be stated with certainty) and played Mario Kart 64, even though I loathe it with the heat of a thousand suns now, just for old times' sake, until around dawn. His wife was in bed when we got back and she'd gone out to work by the time I woke up so I managed to avoid actually meeting her. Jon had to work too (he's seen Kowal very recently anyway) so I got to the hospital in mid-afternoon, the middle of visiting hours.

In my head I'd built this picture of a lonely guy with not much other than a few fellow astronomers to keep him company - Kowal was never a Patrick Moore-level popular scientist - but it turned out the man was surrounded with family: wife, at least four grown-up kids, a few baby kids of theirs and even his own mum. Mom? I had to wade through gifts and balloons to reach the bed. His mom is incredibly ancient, minuscule and adorable. Before I could say anything she'd spotted that I'd brought along the book to be signed and introduced me to Kowal as a fan. I told him I found his family so loving as to be intimidating, and told him that getting four generations in one room was braggable.

Kowal was not in good shape. I don't know how much more descriptive I want to be. He seemed to be trapped at the core of this big cloud of cheer. I asked him about the work he'd done. He launched into great technical detail on subjects I didn't fully understand, but after a while the room was full of dense astrophysics jargon and the rest of the family - all either less scientific or clutching babies in need of attention - had quietly ducked out for coffee. And we got onto his life story. I don't know if that was a coded signal or a planned move or improvised or what, but five minutes of lens geometry and it was him, me and space, which was great.

The only way I can put this is that Kowal's life story isn't long enough. Even if largely unknown, the man has done tremendous work. He has actually been to the sexy arrays. He was partially involved in some fascinating, ridiculous thing in the 1980s at a radio telescope in Alaska where it turned out that one of the people working there was 1) a completely incompetent astronomer, 2) stealing data and 3) probably working for the CIA. This tale, I reckoned, had probably grown in the telling somewhat, but then I went and looked up a few of the old newspaper issues online and there are some pretty interesting police reports surrounding it. A little further Googling revealed that there are also some insane numerological ufologist types who think it was about aliens, but they're worth ignoring. It might be connected with Star Wars. It might be connected with Russia. It could be just some ridiculous misunderstanding. What matters is that the story is great and if you carry all the theories to their logical conclusion there's probably a great movie in it.

Kowal's other story is from a decade earlier and basically covers the reason why he left SETI. The thing is that late 1970s were the Bronze Age of computing. Stone knives and bearskins. (Well, bronze knives.) That era's supercomputer would probably fit in today's breast pocket. In fact, check your pocket now. That Android phone? Yeah. This was slightly before the point when computer time became less expensive than programmer time. It wasn't "bits and bytes entered manually using physical switches" but it wasn't far past "stacks of punch cards the size of dollar bills". It was monochrome dumb terminals and space-cadet keyboards and magnetic tape decks. It was still about the same amount of cash to buy.

This was Kowal's intro, not mine. His point was that a modern Android phone probably has a fast enough bus to write out to memory fast enough to record the whole thing, whereas 1978's magnetic tape decks couldn't. He and his colleagues (Geoff McCusker, who was pretty much Andrew Kowal to Kowal's Sam Hughes, and Matthijs van Artevelde, whose name's spelling I was careful to note down in full) sat there sharing one set of TDK headphones listening to the raw binary because there was no actual way to make sense of what was coming into the receiver that night.

I mean, to listen to a raw screech, you can tell it's binary. That's true regardless of the bitrate. I know that, so do you. The problem is that just because you can tell it's coherent binary doesn't mean you can pick out the ones and zeroes, which is what you need to actually decode it. So what Kowal and his colleagues actually picked up - and they did actually record the last few minutes of the thing, which wasn't actually repeating - actually actually - was put onto tape, except that the tape is useless. I mean, there isn't the raw granularity in the storage medium, nor is there the signal processing technology to restore that fine detail. It's like looking at a fractal through a pixellating filter.

Okay, bad example. All pixel representations of fractals hide detail. It's like looking at the Mona Lisa through a pixellating filter.

And I said "What?" and Kowal said eighty million, four hundred thousand (plus or minus two hundred thousand) years ago an intelligent species originating near a probable blue supergiant in NGC 3780 spent its expiring moments harnessing a substantial percentage of its parent star's power to broadcast an unknown message of indeterminate length to the entire listening universe and we missed every last bit of it.

Which, given the previous story, was some cracked pottery. This was beyond ufology, this was some certifiable Pierre de Fermat crap.

I said again, "What?"

Of course he couldn't prove it, he said. He could put the tape in my hands and let me play all fifteen minutes of it, he could walk me through the complete construction of the dish which received it and all of the measures that were in place to prevent stuff from being inserted into the feed and to ensure that signals recorded from outer space originated where they appeared to originate, and I still wouldn't believe him, he said. The fact that I hadn't been right there on that night, standing underneath the machine that made the recording, at the moment that the recording was made, with the intimate knowledge of the capabilities of that machine and intimate understanding of the the things which were, for the machine, impossible, means that there is no difference for me between the tape recording and one of modem static, he said.

So I smiled and thanked him for his time and thanked him for the autograph and checked my watch and managed to excuse myself without saying anything stupid like "Get well soon" or "See you around".

Hilarious.

*

Of course I felt angry and embarrassed walking out of there. It's something I bet he tries - tried - on all his admirers. His whole family's probably in on it. They even sent me a tape in the post, having apparently got my address from Jon. I can't play the tape of course because it's the wrong shape and in any case who has a tape player in this decade? I never really figured out what the turnover point was when obsolete physical media suddenly becomes a valuable antique, but it's probably not for a while.

In case you've never read up on the history of supernova observation, supernova 1978H was, as a matter of public record, and by almost thirty years, the first supernova in history to be observed in its entirety, from start to finish. Its date (November 7, the day after Kowal's claim) and position in the sky (NGC 3780) are common knowledge.

McCusker died in 1989 and van Artevelde died in 2000. I haven't tracked Wild down yet, so I don't know whether he actually got lucky or what.

Forensic analysis is probably better now than it was thirty years ago. I sent the tape to some friends of mine at the University to see if they could do anything, or at least let me have a high-resolution rip.

*

I mean, supposedly, it was long, and it was non-repeating. Oh, and it was amplitude-modulated. That's all? Other than that, I can imagine people treating it as a piece of found art or found literature or found poetry and spending ridiculous amounts of paper just reading meaning into literal vacuum. My brother wanted to create some modern art and then put it under a hat, glued down. The hat isn't part of the art, the art is under the hat. This is basically the exact same thing. You know something is there, but you can't know what, you just have to speculate. My best suggestion was "another, smaller hat".

The thing is that all art is a product of its context and has to be evaluated in that context. That covers both social context and the literal container. It has to be this big. It has to be that heavy. It came in the form of a message and certain things are implicit in all messages, things like "I am here" and "I sent this" and "You are there" and "You are reading this".

Except that those are some pretty gigantic statements already.

And the other thing that I can't help thinking is that very few people have participated in serious attempts to make contact with other civilisations, and I've been part of subcultures before now. And subcultures remember their own.

What do you think?

This is a ramble that loosely centers around Ayn Rand. That's what day logs are for, right?

I suspect that Ayn Rand writeups get downvoted more than is typical. I put a writeup in Critique of Objectivism the other day, and that took a beating. Then today I made a writeup in Ayn Randroid which is doing middling well, though we will see what happens. This may just be my fault. Perhaps I'm not presenting the material well, in which case I need to improve my writing style... but free will got a C! and lots of upvotes the other day, so that probably is not the case. Then again, I put considerably more work into that than into the Ayn Rand stuff.

I suspect that the reason for this is that e2 is a liberal website, by which I mean that the predominant political orientation on this website is liberal. I have very little, some would say no, support for this notion. There is a vague connection between e2 and liberalism in my brain, and an equally vague connection between writing and liberalism. I would expect liberals to be more quirky and moody than conservatives, and I also associate quirkiness and moodiness with e2 for some reason. A conservative could well be quirky and moody, but that seems to clash more with conservative values than with liberal values.

I will likely continue to write about Ayn Rand anyway. I have gotten back into studying her system after a brief fling with Aristotle. I am trying to understand her rather than agree with everything she says, which I think was my failing the first time I tried her out.

Her writings are surprisingly difficult to understand. I have taken high level philosophy courses, and this is almost as hard as that. Although she is a good writer, she is very concise, which means that I have to reread everything several times before I can integrate it properly. This is suprising because the first time I tried her out, it seemed easy to read her. Maybe I've gotten dumber, or maybe I simply wasn't trying to understand her completely the first time around.

Goodbye. I was trapped in a vacuum

the solid-blank core of your frozen eyes; lukewarm, I have heaved the saline

And her never-not-forever-warm embrace

every day, to emote oft adrift; counter-actions feigned

My basement corner, half-light till dawn; blinking cursor

a kiss on the forehead, and one on the neck

One for the cat, nestled between the ankles on my ottoman

catch an afternoon fix, and another... no horizon to your depths; some penultimate ethereal death

Vibrating awake with the pang of the faucet handle underneath my left eye, every pore on my face expelling oils. As if an an entire layer.

and I laid down, waiting for the end

She had broken a necklace two days before; my first "real" gift.  Bought it on my lunch break, at Zales; it was Christmas 2002 and just a tiny diamond

with tears in her eyes, and mine barely open

"Oh my God! I was so afraid you were going to find out and be mad! But you fixed it," she strattled me. Traces of mascara ran in a line down her rosy cheek

"... but I didn't... know..."

"I don't understand"

her eyes never caught mine the same, ever again

Like living with a stranger

if you want to stay -  pretend she doesn't exist

All alone now, and for so long since

you liar

I've thrown myself at, down and upon the gates... begging...

my shadows

So fast, now closing-in... I could yet, or am I gone?

to be, and quietly cage myself in for the night; images flicker and you, dying; laughing, marveling at your creation

Coming, I Am.

 

 

 

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