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There are no wrong notes on the piano, just better choices.

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Thelonius Monk said that.

Written by ahess247

August 27th, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Posted in Jazz,Music,Video

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Ten Years Of Listening For ET

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Ten years ago today, on a whim, I got involved with the [email protected] project. It was something a certain kind of geek did at the time, and the result was that you had an interesting-looking screen-saver running on your computer.

As you may or may not know, SETI stands for the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life. And the project involves a few million people donating the use of their computer when they’re not using it, to the analysis of data taken from radio telescopes. This is something that used to be handled by supercomputers, and usually on the US Government’s nickel, that is until funding was cut in the mid-1990s. Those radio telescopes are basically listening for any hint of radio signals from somewhere else in the universe — that is evidence of intelligent life.

It’s one of those big questions that people ponder from time-to-time: Are we alone in the universe? I first began to think about it seriously when I was eight or nine. I read “The Star Wars Question And Answer Book About Space” cover-to-cover several times. It contained a section on radio astronomy that was rather sophisticated for a kid’s book. Among other things it covered a basic explanation — but notably no illustration — of the Arecibo Message sent to the star cluster M13 located 25,000 light-years away. It also included sections on the Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft, and the golden record placed on the Voyager probes, but for obvious reasons, no pictures of the message engraved on the Pioneer plaques.

By the time I was 12 or 13 I had a subscription to Discover Magazine, had seen the film ET, and had also watched much of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on public television. The March 1983 issue of Discover had Sagan on its cover, trumpeting the launch of a new effort to search seriously for life in space. (Summary of the issue here.) Within its pages I first learned about Frank Drake who predicted that we would find intelligent life by 2000, and was first exposed to the concept of a von Neumann space probe. It arrived in the mail on a day when I was home sick from school, and I devoured it, learning more from it than I probably did in any science class I would take.

In his TV series, Sagan made an argument (which I now know was borrowed in part from Drake) that fascinated me. When you consider the number of stars in the galaxy, which is about 400 billion, the chance that there’s life out there, and that it’s intelligent isn’t unspeakably far-fetched, but by a reasonable stretch of argument, plausible. (Though Sagan’s own math is off on one point: In the clip below he says our solar system has 10 planets, when the accepted orthodoxy at the time was nine. It’s now eight. In the early 80s, when Cosmos was made, Pluto was still considered a planet, rather than a Kuiper Belt Object. Thank you, International Astronomical Union.)

In any event, the thought that I could help out in even a small way with the effort of finding a signal from somewhere out there, however remote the chance of success, has kept me mildly entertained these 10 years. As of today my computers have contributed 229,235 work units, comprised of 198.06 quadrillion floating point operations to the effort. (That’s 198,060,000,000,000,000 or an average of 54.2 trillion operations per day.) Plus I’ve earned credit for another 3,053 work units under the original “classic” [email protected] program, which works out to 33,319 hours of computing time.

By [email protected] standards, my numbers aren’t impressive. I rank somewhere at about 38,000th place among its base of users. A team I’m involved with, SETI.USA, has a few members who have reported more than 10 million work units, and many more who have stats north of the 1 million and half-million mark. I’ve never been quite as disciplined about keeping my machines running the program as I might have been. But when I learned that the 10-year anniversary of my participation was coming up, I had hoped to push my machines to the point of having finished 250,000 units, and have paid close attention to my progress in recent weeks. I have four computers running [email protected]: Three at home, including my newly purchased MacBook Pro, and one at the office which runs it only when I’m not there. Obviously I didn’t hit the goal I had hoped for, but will probably see that number before the end of the summer.

I was interested to see the video below of a talk by SETI’s chief scientist Dan Werthimer, and for once to see a face on the other end of the [email protected] process. It’s been fun to have been a small part of the biggest supercomputer on the planet and the largest computation that’s ever been done. Still, no signals yet.

Written by ahess247

July 7th, 2009 at 8:47 pm

Where I’ll Be Friday Night

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It’s been more than a fracking year, but this Friday the wait will pay off. I’ll be parked in front of a TV set watching the opening of Season Four of Battlestar Galactica. I’ve not written about it here before, but it is in my estimation, the best thing ever put in television. It has easily outdone everything that has come before it in the science fiction genre, and a substantial portion of everything else.

The reason is that for once a show that happens to be set in space has been created under the assumption that it can and will be enjoyed by adults of higher than average intelligence. There are no silly pseudo-scientific solutions to the problems faced by the characters, no last-minute inventions based on theoretical particle or temporal physics.

It is instead a basic human drama set in a time of catastrophic events, not so unlike what we’ve come to experience and imagine to be plausible in our own reality, or perhaps in the reality that has been visited upon others. In one sequence of episodes, a planet settled by the human protagonists is occupied by the antagonistic, genocidal Cylons, leading the humans to struggle with the idea of, and to ultimately carry out suicide bombings as a means of resistance.

The plot arc of the first three of four planned seasons have covered topics ripped from the streams of cultural and political consciousness: Stolen elections, war crimes, trust, marriage, family, and a peculiarly thoughtful twist on the old boilerplate of science fiction television, what constitutes being human.

Season three climaxes as four core characters discover suddenly that they are actually not humans as they’ve long assumed but Cylon sleeper agents of unknown purpose, it made my very skin crawl. After hating Cylons all their lives, they suddenly are Cylon robots made to appear and act human. The philosophical implications for the current political culture are staggering. When terrorists are the ultimate villains, what happens when those who fight terrorism are viewed through other eyes as terrorists themselves? Down becomes up; heroes, villains, and so on. The moral clarity through which one might wish to see the vital polemic struggles of the day are oddly clarified because there are no right answers. Show runner Ronald Moore, a Star Trek veteran, constantly asks the simple question: What would real people do in the given situation? Answer: The best they can, which often isn’t enough.

It has been criticized as being a liberal-motivated allegory about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, yet reaches no firm conclusions, leaving the messy moral ambiguity of it all unresolved. Eventually humanity escapes its occupiers in an impressive and complex military operation so richly imagined by the show’s writers and masterfully filmed in a combination of live-action and CGI special effects that it looks as though it could have been taken from combat footage on CNN.

Battlestar thankfully lacks the stupidity that so often infects nearly all television drama, but is instead played straight by a powerful ensemble led by Mary McDonnell who will for the remainder of her career be best remembered by the honorific “Madame President.” Her ruthless portrayal of the cancer-stricken President Roslin, head of the 50,000-odd survivors of a human population that once numbered in the tens of billions has been daring. It is jarring, when a female head of state, who can’t help but be compared to the real-world counterpart who would be president of our own republic, orders without trial the summary execution of an enemy agent. Edward James Olmos as the world-weary warrior Admiral William Adama is the opposite of the moralistic philosopher of Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard. He’s instead a soft-spoken leader who not only doesn’t have all the answers, but when pressed isn’t above blatantly lying to motivate the people he leads.

The show is a remake of a campy and largely forgettable 1970s TV travesty of the same name. The title still tends to trigger memories of Lorne Greene re-imagining of Bonanza’s Ben Cartwright transplanted to a spaceship. This unfortunate circumstance tends to color people’s reaction when I tell them the title of my favorite show. There must always be an explanation. This show is nothing like the original, except in the most basic of its plot premise elements: The remainder of humanity stuck on spaceships looking for a planet called Earth they know of only through religious myth. Eventually they’ll get here. What they’ll find when they do – they may arrive on Earth during the time of the dinosaurs, or in the wake of a latent environmental collapse – is the question that Battlestar Galactica fans like myself will be pondering now through over the course of the next fracking year.

Written by ahess247

March 30th, 2008 at 4:28 pm

Posted in Currents,TV,Video

Tagged with ,

I’d like to forget this, if you don’t mind

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I get irritable at the end of the summer. It wasn’t always that way. I liked the fall, liked the transition to the new season, a shot at a fresh start whether academically or at work. September always seemed like a clean slate. Now I dislike it, in no small part because of the insistent cultural pounding that always starts toward the end of August around Sept. 11. The image pictured is pretty much what I saw that day, and it seared itself into my brain as I stepped out of the subway tunnel at the 22nd St. and Park Ave. and walked west toward the Flatiron building.

This is the time of the year where people ask me “where were you when it happened?” I was underground.? I didn’t actually see the planes hit, but I saw the buildings fall. I stopped to vote. The primary election for mayor was on that day, and I stopped as I left home, first thinking I wouldn’t bother, as everyone knew that Bloomberg was going to win in the general election. Then I remembered how much I really disliked Mark Greene and figured I’d go to the trouble of voting for Alan Hevesi, not that Hevesi stood the slightest chance of winning or anything, but it seemed important at the time. If I hadn’t stopped to do that, I’d have seen the whole thing, not that I would have wanted to.

I remember the subway ride was uncharacteristically slow, but nothing else about it. I wasn’t terribly eager to get to the office, and it was an incredibly beautiful day, the kind of day that makes you depressed that you have to be cooped up inside doing things that seem important but really aren’t.

So I got out of the subway and walked west, crossed Broadway and noticed something I can only really describe as a buzz around me. I didn’t hear anything that told me something was wrong, but it was just a sense of something out of place, of people agitated for some reason, but I couldn’t place it and from where I was, couldn’t see anything amiss. The first clue was people looking at their wireless phones, that look that says “I’m trying to make a call but can’t get through, let me look and see how my signal is.” Two or three guys were doing this, and as I pressed on in the along the south side the Flatiron building a woman, walking east who seemed to know the guys walking near me, said “This is just insane.”

At this point my pager went off. I reached down to grab it and looked south, at 22nd Street and Broadway. I don’t remember which came first: Did I read the pager, or did I see the holes in the towers? The message was a news alert from CNN that arrived at 9:12 AM. It read: “World trade center damaged; unconfirmed reports say a plane has crashed into tower. Details to come.” I could clearly see that there were two holes, one in each tower, and couldn’t figure out why two holes would be caused by one plane. Of course by this point the second plane had already crashed into the towers ten minutes prior. CNN got around to “alerting” me to this fact by 9:22, by which time I was already in my office.

From that location I was one of several who watched the towers come down from Jim Spanfeller’s office. Someone hadn’t paid the office satellite TV bill, so I and my colleagues couldn’t watch TV news like the rest of the world. We didn’t really need it.

That’s the gist of my Sept. 11 story. I’m not terribly interested in observing with the rest of you the fifth anniversary of what was for me a profoundly unpleasant day. Images of it on TV make me feel shaky and agitated. Seeing the trailer for that Oliver Stone movie made me mad, but I was glad to see no line outside the Zeigfeld theater where it is playing.

I want to get over it. It’s the rest of the country that insists on dredging up old video tape and pictures and survivors tales and permeating the media with it all. I don’t want to weep and shed tears while watching stupid and TV documentaries. I’d like to forget it, and frankly I wish those of you who insist on partaking in this cultural weep-fest, buying special anniversary editions of magazines and watching TV documentary specials about it all would find something with which else to entertain yourselves. I have a better idea: I you want to properly remember the World Trade Center towers go rent “The Cruise”. I found a clip from that neglected 1998 documentary on Youtube, and it appears below.

Written by ahess247

September 6th, 2006 at 9:59 pm