The Observer in the Observed

'Message From the Unseen World,' by Roger Marks on Flickr

[Image: “Message From the Unseen World,” by Roger Marks; found on Flickr and used here under a Creative Commons license (thank you!). Click photo to enlarge. The photographer explains: “…this permanent installation is a collaboration between United Visual Artists and poet Nick Drake.  Alan Turing is one of Paddington’s most famous sons. This artwork, Message From the Unseen World, celebrates his groundbreaking work on artificial intelligence. Its outer shell comprises aluminium panels, punctuated with holes. LED lights shine through the holes, forming the words to Drake’s poem. A Turing-inspired algorithm shuffles through the poem, creating new interpretations of the verse.” An excerpt from the poem appears below, as the last entry in today’s post; the entirety can be viewed at the Flickr page.]

From whiskey river:

We’re only here for a short while. And I think it’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention. In some ways, this is getting far afield. I mean, we are—as far as we know —the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious. We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself. I don’t know that, but we’re made of the same stuff that stars are made of, or that floats around in space. But we’re combined in such a way that we can describe what it’s like to be alive, to be witnesses. Most of our experience is that of being a witness. We see and hear and smell other things. I think being alive is responding.

(Mark Strand [source])


There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was on the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of god. There is no whit less enlightenment under the tree at the end of your street than there was under the Buddha’s bo tree… In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree.

(Annie Dillard [source])

…and (from whiskey river’s commonplace book):

Why do I write?

To satisfy a basic, fundamental need. I think all people have this need. It’s why children like to draw pictures of houses, animals, and Mom; it’s an affirmation of their presence in the corporeal world. You come into life, and life gives you everything your senses can bear: broad currents of animal feeling running alongside the particularity of thought. Sunlight, stars, colors, smells, sounds. Tender things, sweet, temperate things, harsh, freezing, hot, salty things. All the different expressions on people’s faces and in their voices. For years, everything just pours into you, and all you can do is gurgle or scream until finally one day you can sit up and hold your crayon and draw your picture and thus shout back, Yes! I hear! I see! I feel! This is what it’s like! It’s dynamic creation and pure, delighted receptivity happening on the same field, a great call and response.

(Mary Gaitskill [source])

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Book Review: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book cover: 'Aurora,' by Kim Stanley RobinsonRecognize that book cover? No, I’m not referring to the whole thing — just to the idea: remind you of another science-fiction image of recent vintage?

I’ll tell you what it made me think of: this classic movie-poster shot, from Gravity. I’ve used a wallpaper-sized variant of that image as a computer desktop for several years now, which sharpens the point of the message: When you’re in space, you are really, really alone.

The main cast who populate the pages of Aurora aren’t quite as aware of their utter aloneness in space as viewers of that book cover are. True, they know they live in an interstellar spaceship, their mission’s purpose to populate a world beyond the solar system. They know the distance to their new home is vast — nearly eight light years — and the duration of their journey there likewise almost unimaginably long.

Oh, sure: how could they not know it, at least at an intellectual level? After all, when we first encounter these people, we’re seeing not the original passengers and crew, but their descendants six and seven generations removed: people who’ve never set foot on — or even seen — Earth. Their starship left the orbit of Saturn about one hundred sixty years ago. It takes only a single spacesuited trip out of an airlock — just a glance through a telescope — to tell them how isolated they are.

But the book-cover image of that starship deceives: the ship is big. I mean, forget Starship Enterprise-class big: really big. It consists of these main components:

  • The spine — that single central stem surrounded by the rings — is itself ten kilometers (six and a quarter miles) long.
  • The two outer rings: each torus-shaped outer ring (designated Ring A and Ring B) contains twelve “biomes” (about which, more shortly) — cylinders, each a kilometer in diameter and four kilometers long.
  • Six spokes connecting the spine to each ring: although their dimensions are is never specified, a seat-of-the-pants estimate would make the total diameter about eighteen to twenty kilometers. Thus, each spoke would be about nine to ten kilometers long (depending on various factors).
  • Two inner rings: these are purely structural in nature, serving to “lock” the outer rings to the spine.

Like I said: really big. And it’s populated not just by a couple hundred people, but by a couple thousand. On top of which are all the animals: Earth species which in some cases, yes, are raised as livestock, but in others are simply left feral. This ship is not just a starship; it’s an ark…

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Seeing (and Knowing It)

'I Know I See You, I Just Don't Know When,' by Thomas Hawk on Flickr

[Image: “I Know I See You, I Just Don’t Know When,” by Thomas Hawk; found on, used here under a Creative Commons license. The photograph shows one view of the Stata building at MIT, designed by Frank Gehry. The building houses various facilities in support of research into computers, information science, intelligence, robotics, and related topics. More in the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity—yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth, (significant only because of the Me in the centre) creeds, conventions, fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and look’d upon, it expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven.

(Walt Whitman [source])


It would be an endless battle if it were all up to ego
because it does not destroy and is not destroyed by itself
It is like a wave
it makes itself up; it rushes forward getting nowhere really
it crashes, withdraws and makes itself up again
pulls itself together with pride
towers with pride
rushes forward into imaginary conquest
crashes in frustration
withdraws with remorse and repentance
pulls itself together with new resolution.

(Agnes Martin [source])


To open our eyes, to see with our inner fire and light, is what saves us. Even if it makes us vulnerable. Opening the eyes is the job of storytellers, witnesses, and the keepers of accounts. The stories we know and tell are reservoirs of light and fire that brighten and illuminate the darkness of human night, the unseen.

(Linda Hogan [source])

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Potpourri, June 18th (2016 edition)

1959ish, I'd sayIt’s been a few months of hardware madness here — and if you know my tastes in computer stuff, you know they lean towards the software rather than the hardware side of things. So I haven’t been entirely happy during that time…

Back in mid-April, my two-terabyte (2TB) hard drive abruptly failed. It took me several weeks — educational ones, to be sure — to admit that I probably could not resuscitate the thing. I replaced it with a 3TB one, and all went swimmingly at first…

…at least, until I installed Windows 10 on it.

Here’s how my computer at home has been set up, now going back maybe five-six years:

The hard drive is divided into two (main) partitions, running two entirely different operating systems: Windows in the first partition, and Linux in the second. This is called a dual-boot setup: when you boot the computer, you’re prompted to select which operating system you want to run for this session. The default for me is Linux, but I do occasionally (rarely, actually) use Windows for one specific program or another.

The Windows side has moved progressively from Windows XP to Windows 7 and then finally to Windows 10, via the automatic (i.e., forced) upgrade which Microsoft “offers” to users of older versions. When I installed Windows 10 on the new hard drive, I was actually restoring it.

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“New” Computer?

mint1702_postinstall_smOkay, not really. It certainly feels that way, though: I just replaced the operating system I use for “everyday” purposes with a new one: good-bye, Ubuntu 12.04 (Linux), and hello Mint 17.2 (also Linux).

I spent about four hours this morning laying the groundwork, which mostly involved researching the problems I might expect to encounter (and how to avoid or recover from them), doing backups, and so on. In the event, though, the installation process itself took about a half-hour to run — during only a few minutes of which I actually had to be hands-on involved.

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Others’ Spirits, Others’ Senses, and Our Own

'Youth Culture - Mods - Late 1950s to Mid 1960s,' by Paul Townsend on Flickr

[Image: “Youth Culture – Mods – Late 1950s to Mid 1960s,” by Paul Townsend on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.]

From whiskey river:

I breathe in the soft, saturated exhalations of cedar trees and salmonberry bushes, fireweed and wood fern, marsh hawks and meadow voles, marten and harbor seal and blacktail deer. I breathe in the same particles of air that made songs in the throats of hermit thrushes and gave voices to humpback whales, the same particles of air that lifted the wings of bald eagles and buzzed in the flight of hummingbirds, the same particles of air that rushed over the sea in storms, whirled in high mountain snows, whistled across the poles, and whispered through lush equatorial gardens… air that has passed continually through life on earth. I breathe it in, pass it on, share it in equal measure with billions of other living things, endlessly, infinitely.

(Richard Nelson [source, apparently])


Of all the forms of voice and communication, a song is perhaps the least mediated by the intellect. It ropes its way through the tangle of our cautions, joining singer to listener like a vine between two trees.

It attests to the life of the singer through our skin and through our muscles, through the wind in our lungs and the fact of our own beating heart. The evidence of other spirits becomes that of our own body.

A successful song comes to sing itself inside the listener. It is cellular and seismic, a wave coalescing in the mind and in the flesh. There is a message outside and a message inside, and those messages are the same, like the pat and thud of two heartbeats, one within you, one surrounding. The message of the lullaby is that it’s okay to dim the eyes for a time, to lose sight of yourself as you sleep and as you grow: if you drift, it says, you’ll drift ashore: if you fall, you will fall into place.

(Kevin Brockmeier [source])


Horses at Midnight Without a Moon

Our heart wanders lost in the dark woods.
Our dream wrestles in the castle of doubt.
But there’s music in us. Hope is pushed down
but the angel flies up again taking us with her.
The summer mornings begin inch by inch
while we sleep, and walk with us later
as long-legged beauty through
the dirty streets. It is no surprise
that danger and suffering surround us.
What astonishes is the singing.
We know the horses are there in the dark
meadow because we can smell them,
can hear them breathing.
Our spirit persists like a man struggling
through the frozen valley
who suddenly smells flowers
and realizes the snow is melting
out of sight on top of the mountain,
knows that spring has begun.

(Jack Gilbert [source])

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“It’s Working! It’s Working!”

R. Crumb (self-portrait) (click to enlarge)Early in my programming career, I was assigned to a group of somewhere between twenty-five and fifty programmers, ranging in experience from more or less new (like me) to maybe ten years or so. Among the senior staff was a guy named Mike.

Mike fit almost every stereotype of nerd-dom you can imagine. Think of cartoonist Robert Crumb, say (that’s him in the self-portrait over at the right). Mike wore thick black-rimmed glasses; his hair nearly always seemed in need of a good washing; when his suits, ties, shoes, and socks were all on the same fashion wavelength on a given day, it was more or less accidental. He had various skin and dental issues. All of this fed into how he related to the rest of us, which was: barely. He never went out to lunch with anyone, as far as we could tell — in fact, except for occasional odd, misshapen sandwiches of indeterminate ingredients, he seemed not to eat at all. He had a good but rather skewed sense of humor, which could make conversations with him disorienting experiences. (“BE ALERT!” said a sign over his desk, “THE WORLD NEEDS MORE LERTS!”)

But ye gods, could that man code. As I recall, he worked mostly but not exclusively on some large-scale marketing-cum-engineering project (this was a giant telecommunications firm) with a couple dozen other programmers. But he was so good that people occasionally consulted with him on thorny little one-off jobs, when they just couldn’t get some tiny little thing — a subroutine, a calculation — to work quite the way they wanted it to.

I had occasion to bring him just one such chunk of problem code.

I can’t remember what it was supposed to do. But I remember that it was one of my favorite sort of programming: a procedure which could have been written to sprawl across a printout pages in length… but for which I had come up with a tight, intertwined, probably Rube Goldberg sort of nested loop which almost but did not quite do (as I said) as I wanted it to.

Mike looked through the program. He started to laugh — it was a wheezy, phlegmmy noise, not laughter at but laughter with. (He loved this sort of puzzle.)

He told me to leave him alone with the problem, and come back in fifteen or twenty minutes. I left his cubicle, went back to mine, and poked at the problem some more on my own. But I didn’t have to wait fifteen or twenty minutes.

I stood up at my desk, stretched, probably yawned. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eyes, I saw a figure pop up about thirty feet away. Mike, of course. And when I say “pop up” I mean he had done just that, sort of sproing! And he threw his hands in the air, and his head went back, and — laughing — he cried: It’s working! It’s working!

When I got to his office he showed me what he’d done. His solution was ingenious, as I’d expected, but what had truly excited him was a bit of code he’d put into place to assure that the program was functioning properly every step of the way, including every single iteration through that loop-within-a-loop-within-a-loop. In particular, the desktop terminal — we used terminals without screens back then, like sophisticated networked typewriters loaded with thermal paper — was spewing out line after line, overandoverandoverandoverandover, of all the intermediate results en route to the program’s conclusion…

When I’ve shared this story with other programmers, they smile at the image of Mike. Either they’ve known a Mike of their own, or they’ve been somebody else’s Mike (sometimes both). But then when I get to that joyous cry — It’s working! It’s working! — their smiles really grow.

They — we — know what Mike was feeling then. We love that feeling.

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The Uncertain Sum of Definite Parts

'I dreamed about a human being,' by Fran Simó (original on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license)

[Image: “I dreamed about a human being,” by Fran Simó (original on Flickr; used under Creative Commons license. For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river:

The Life of a Day

Like people or dogs, each day is unique and has its own personality quirks which can easily be seen if you look closely. But there are so few days as compared to people, not to mention dogs, that it would be surprising if a day were not a hundred times more interesting than most people. But usually they just pass, mostly unnoticed, unless they are wildly nice, like autumn ones full of red maple trees and hazy sunlight, or if they are grimly awful ones in a winter blizzard that kills the lost traveler and bunches of cattle. For some reason we like to see days pass, even though most of us claim we don’t want to reach our last one for a long time. We examine each day before us with barely a glance and say, no, this isn’t one I’ve been looking for, and wait in a bored sort of way for the next, when, we are convinced, our lives will start for real. Meanwhile, this day is going by perfectly well-adjusted, as some days are, with the right amounts of sunlight and shade, and a light breeze scented with a perfume made from the mixture of fallen apples, corn stubble, dry oak leaves, and the faint odor of last night’s meandering skunk.

(Tom Hennen [source])

and (italicized portion):

The brain’s dynamo runs millions of jobs, by mixing chemicals, oscillations, synchronized rhythms, and who knows what else. It is like looking at a mosaic or a pointillist painting in motion. Study the whole and the parts disappear; study the parts and the whole disappears. Maybe stronger brains will solve that problem in future days. I believe consciousness is brazenly physical, a raucous mirage the brain creates to help us survive. But I also sense the universe is magical, greater than the sum of its parts, which I don’t attribute to a governing god, but simply to the surprising, ecstatic, frightening everyday reality we all know. Ultimately, I find consciousness a fascinating predicament for matter to get into.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

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Pure (But Minor) Geek Stuff: Font Problem (Ubuntu, Chrome)

I’m currently running Ubuntu 12.04 as my main operating system, and primarily use Google Chrome for Web browsing. (The “About Chrome” page says it’s version 32.0.1700.107.) I haven’t added any goofy font-management packages — or goofy fonts, for that matter. And I’d never noticed any problems with the same setup on my older computer, replaced last summer: same OS, same browser.

For the record: Chrome under Windows did not display the same problematic behavior.

But on this computer, oy. On certain pages, particularly Wikipedia pages, I could see a very vexing problem. (The problem occurred only with Chrome, not with Firefox or Opera.) To illustrate, here’s a partial screen capture of a current Wikipedia article as I saw it when I first browsed there a little while ago (click to enlarge); the red ellipses highlight problematic areas on the screen:


As you can see, especially (but not only) on lines containing boldface text, adjacent characters — sometimes entire words — appeared to overlap. I could sorta-kinda read this text, but it was getting very, very tiresome to puzzle it out when I was really in a hurry to get to a page’s content without having to fight its form.

I did some research, saw that others had experienced the same problem, but the specific solutions proposed (often involving the installation of new software and/or fonts) didn’t interest or even apply to me. Yet the focus on fonts did

Short answer:

  • In Chrome, go to the Settings page and click on the Show advanced settings… link at the bottom.
  • Scroll down to the section headed Web content. Click on the Customize fonts… button.
  • Look at the default sans-serif font. Does it say Arial? If so, use the drop-down list to change it to one of the generic substitutes; I picked FreeSans.
  • Reload the problematic Web page.

At least in my case, the improvement was immediate (click to enlarge):


I can’t promise you identical results if you’ve got a similar problem. This one just worked for me.

And now, at last: back to researching minor planets, Chthonian planets, hot Jupiters, trojan planets, Lagrangian points, and yes, planetary cores…

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Weekend (Something Like) Music Break: The Lake House Band,
“Five Dollar T-Shirt Blues”

'laundry day' (photo by user 'eleanor ryan,' on Flickr)[Image: “laundry day,” by user eleanor ryan on Flickr]

You’d think a computer professional who got new computers both at work and at home within a few days’ time would be in a shuddery ecstasy of geek excitement. More power! More speed! More software! More… cool!

Speaking only on behalf of the computer professional nearest to my heart, however, I must disagree. Along with all the exciting new-new-new stuff comes quite a bit of drudgework, frustration, and uncertainty. Drivers have to be downloaded. Entirely new versions of favorite software have replaced the old — or gone out of existence altogether, or never been upgraded to match more recent hardware and OS realities and conventions. Old peripherals suddenly don’t even connect to the new boxes, because (say) “I’m sorry, but we no longer build PCs with parallel ports.”

Still, in the process of restoring old and often forgotten data from one computer to the next, you do come across some gems.

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