Jupiter’s moons orbit like the most precise clockwork. Their positions around the largest planet can be calculated years into the future.
Jupiter is far away from the Earth – and at some points in its orbit, it’s *very* far away. Yet the orbits of its moons are regular and unchanged.
So an observation from the Earth should show the moons appearing and disappearing at the expected intervals. But there was a time, in 1676, when Jupiter’s moon Io (“Eye-oh”) did not appear on the anticipated schedule.
Jupiter was in the farthest reaches of its orbit relative to the Earth. Io circled Jupiter at its unchanging pace, but news of its position was delayed by several minutes as the light traveled across the greater distance.
This is how the speed of light was first calculated, a century before the American revolution.
Danish Astronomer Ole Romer gathered the observations, grasped the underlying mechanism, and made the calculations. An audience peering through telescopes watched Io finally appear at exactly the time Romer had predicted for light to travel at a finite and measurable speed.
Key figures were impressed, yet the director of Romer’s observatory, Giovanni Cassini, perhaps threatened by his underling’s success, dismissed Romer’s theory. Surely weather conditions, sloppy measurements or some other factor accounted for the coincidence.
Only twenty years after Romer’s death would his explanation of the speed of light be proven correct.
Light is information. It takes time – perhaps a great deal of time – to reach its destination.
But the truth will come out.
I’m reviewing old emails from my parents and found this exchange with my dad which seems painfully prescient.
Background: my maternal grandfather was William Bryan Dunham, born in Oklahoma and named after William Jennings Bryan – a complicated historical figure who was a hero to many.
The irony now is that the same feelings of having been cheated and abandoned that led rural Americans to support Bryan in the dustbowl era have now driven many to support Trump – even while he’s precisely the cheating, lying, wealthy, selfish figure they seemingly blame for having wronged them.
Perceiving this support for Trump as mere ignorance or raw hate is not helpful. People who feel vulnerable will seek champions, rationalize away their faults, and fall victim to their lies. (Hitler, of course, was perceived by his supporters as the savior of a broken country.)
We usually think of protecting the vulnerable as something noble and kind – a reflection of our best nature. Yet it is also our own best strategy for survival.
When our protection of the vulnerable is based solely on kindness, it can be dissolved by fear. The shortest path out of danger rolls directly over the people who most need protection. (This may explain how many “Christians” can show so little concern for others’ humanity, celebrating charity while holding in contempt those who accept it.)
Our commitment to protect the vulnerable must be based not simply on kindness, nor on self-interest. It must instead be based on a deeper understanding of the connected lives we share – and the common fate our actions will bring.
That’s why denying others’ humanity is such a terrible – and frequently used – strategy for weak leaders to gain power.
Steering out of our current catastrophe will not be easy, but I think the solution will look more like fighting an epidemic than winning an argument.
Written in April 2000, from me to my dad:
“Speaking of America, I’ve been reading Allistaire Cooke’s America again this morning (I call it my “Cooke book”), finishing the chapter on the family farmers of the plains and the oil and steel barons of the late 19th century – Rockafeller, J.P. Morgan, etc. Cooke describes William Jennings Bryan as the hero of the dejected farmers and plains people who’d bitterly watched all their dreams and hard settling and farming work result in too many dried-out patches of land and a tower of wealth for only a very few, and only in the distant cities. Bryan orated powerfully and rallied to defend the religious, cultural and economic values of the farmers who felt they’d been cheated and wronged.
A British writer and former nun named Karen Armstrong (Joane has one of her books) was on Fresh Air on NPR recently, talking about her new book on the subject of religious fundamentalism. She also mentioned William Jennings Bryan, who, as she put it, took on Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey Trial because of the atrocities the world had witnessed with Germany during the First World War. Germany had enthusiastically embraced Darwin’s coldly scientific teachings of evolution and the survival of the fittest, and, it was suggested at the time, the direct result was the monstrous inhumanity of the war. In defending the conservative, old-fashioned religious and cultural ideals of the midwest against the onslaught of science in the form of Scopes’ classroom curriculum, Bryan was trying not to halt the progress of human knowledge, but to steer the children of America away from the direction taken by the children of Germany – to preserve sustainable values in the only way he knew.
I’d long known that Mom’s father, William Bryan Dunham, had been named after William Jennings Bryan, but I’d never heard the man’s accomplishments clearly described in any context other than that of the Scopes trial. To hear of Bryan’s local heroism in greater detail explained why a man born in rural Oklahoma at the turn of the century would be christened William Bryan Dunham. To read this in Allistaire Cooke’s book was like stumbling unexpectedly on a chapter of family history, stuck in the middle of a brief summation of all of American history. It illuminates one more of the paths that lead to where our family comes from.”
My dad’s reply:
“I had the advantage that William Jennings Bryan was one of my high school heroes. (“You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold”). I wrote a term paper about him. Bryan was elected president three times. Everybody knew he was a shoo in. Unfortunately, by the time that the actual elections were held, he lost each time. One reason was some of the big factory owners, threatening dire consequences to their workers should that radical prevail. Nevertheless, he was immensely popular among the kind of people we are descended from, perhaps as popular as FDR in 1936.
It is sad that he is best known among modern college-educated youth for the Scopes trial and three losses running for President. He had much to offer beyond fundamentalist fanaticism. It doesn’t help that the famous play uses him as a foil and a caricature. He was Secretary of State under Wilson. He was in charge when Herbert O Yardley broke the U S diplomatic cypher in two hours. Yardley was a junior clerk in the State Dept. Since Great Britain and Germany had extremely sophisticated cryptologic (code breaking) departments, this was not good news. If Yardley could do it, other nations would obviously have no trouble doing it.”
The technology I find charming, delightful, and useful is the tech with very conspicuous limitations. It helps with a specific task – and then it retreats.
Only with such limitations will the technology truly support my needs. When the technology intrudes any further, *my* efforts will ultimately support *its* needs.
That’s one reason those “It looks like you’re writing a business letter…” tools were so annoying, despite their utility – and why I personally find those “Dim the lights, Alexa” commercials so disturbing.
Technology is useful, but so are boundaries. The public rejected Google Glass because it directly assaulted boundaries of privacy – not of the user, but of everybody else.
That Google Glass users could not understand that was not a coincidence; it was closer to a symptom.
The crossing of boundaries is much easier to accept when it is not YOUR boundaries being crossed. (Offramp to “cultural appropriation” thread…)
Social and cultural boundaries will always fluctuate between decades and communities. The intrusion of technology already seems welcome to some and profoundly threatening to others – and both with good reason.
All of the above sounds uncomfortably close to discussions of people or ethnic groups “knowing their place”. Robots are not people – we need not recognize the humanity of robots, and we must not empower corporations as if they were citizens despite corporations’ non-corporeal needs and desires. The topic is vitally important and disquieting specifically because we have not yet set effective boundaries which artificial intelligence must and will observe.
Steampunk is popular in part because it represents a fantasy level of technology that is absorbing and wondrous, but also completely focused on human causes. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but very little steampunk artwork seems to focus on Artificial Intelligence.) The focus is always on invention and craftsmanship and discovery, with physical danger and surrender to a roboticized system looming only in the far distance.
Star Wars had such an impact in part because R2-D2 and C-3P0 represented intelligent technology playing a specific, *limited* role.
It’s actually R2D2’s story, and he represented technology offering exactly the right level of mission-focused independence and people-focused devotion.
C3P0 became such an effete bother because he was aligned with the mission but had no meaningful role to play within it. (Same with Jar Jar!) If Luke had been just a bit less skilled and devoted to the task, he would have been just as annoying.
As conflicted as I am over Facebook, I’m awkwardly pleased to see the sudden ‘ditch Facebook’ movement. The people I connect with are great, but the ultimate impact of Facebook (and social media in general) is troubling.
What feels most distressing is to recognize that social networking has filled (and monetized) a very specific and growing need. I describe it as “life sprawl”: most of my close friends live over an hour away. (Bay Area traffic can make a short distance into a long trip.)
Connecting online can provide real nourishment to people whose mobility is limited, whose loved ones live far away, or who would otherwise be without an active social life. Yet it can also turn physical isolation from a reason to explore the neighborhood into a reason to retreat into virtual relationships, and accept the limitations they offer.
A commuter who walks an hour to work every day finally buys a car. Do they then drive five minutes to work every day? No, they move farther away, buy a bigger house, and spend the same hour driving to work instead of walking.
This doesn’t always happen, and it isn’t a good argument against driving. But it’s human nature to change our circumstances to match our compromises instead of the other way around.
Facebook presents specific problems. Monetizing friendship itself, controlling media access, and turning users into marketable data can each, we are now realizing, have a major, largely negative impact on American culture and human civilization. Some of that negative impact could be diminished by recognizing social networking as a public utility to be separated from commercial influence. But some of it can only be dealt with by recognizing it as a kind of symptom – not to be fought as a disease, but to be understood as a reflection of deeper problems requiring a holistic response.
1) When Stranger Things is a scary mystery, it’s GREAT.
When it’s a horror-action movie, it’s fun.
When it’s a mid-1980s character study, it’s shaky but compelling.
When it’s a superhero story, it’s *terrible*.
2) Every detail about the show that really works or really doesn’t work is encapsulated in the character “Eleven”. Why are her good scenes so good, and her bad scenes so lame?
In part it’s because she’s the show’s wild card: we haven’t seen a character like her before, so we have no expectations. She’s the part that can’t be phoned in.
And that’s why it’s so awful when they phone it in. The “Lost Sister” episode was terrible – precisely because it treated Eleven as a conventional superhero character, developing her unusual skills, like Rocky doing pushups.
The basic idea of the episode is pretty great: mysterious victim finds a mentor and learns to focus, transforming into mysterious avenger – but Eleven plays an odd role in the series. She’s both a living character and a representative of the show’s central mystery: a combination of childhood isolation, government conspiracy, and (pretty standard) open portal into hell. The less mysterious her powers become, the less of the story she can represent. The mystery must then expand beyond her, and that’s where it fell flat.
3) Sherlock Holmes stories work like this: the characters are plunged into an obviously supernatural mystery, which has a delicious, consciousness-expanding effect on the reader. The world’s greatest detective unravels the trick, and we’re left back on the island of rational thought – which feels safe, and correct, and profoundly unsatisfying. We hunger to escape rational thought again – we recognize something from our own lives there – but we don’t want to spend the night beyond its safe limits, so we open another Sherlock Holmes book for another round-trip guided tour through the seemingly impossible. Win-win!
Something similar happened in the original Star Wars: Ben Kenobi introduced “The Force” – and then every ten minutes we learned something new it could do. For the length of the movie, life’s possibilities seemed to extend beyond all limitations – but living within that expanded world demanded another movie ticket.
We embrace stories that make life feel bigger. Even when the mysteries are frightening, we want to be reminded of the many possibilities, real or imagined, we’ve learned not to see.
And that’s the problem with Eleven becoming a superhero. It’s great that she’s powerful, and troubled, and human, and learning to master her skills – but her mastery of her skills confines the story more than it opens it up. Instead of a tension between story details that do or don’t fit within the limits of reality, we get a more conventional battle between demon dogs and Eleven’s hand-waving magic – and we mostly know who will win that battle, and we don’t really need to know why.
4) I’m not prone to reading reviews of TV episodes, but I indulged with “Lost Sister”. Much of the discussion was about how incongruous the episode was with the rest of the series, but that wasn’t the problem.
First: Criminal refugees desperate to evade discovery don’t wear big full-fan mohawks. A troubled youth might have awesome fashion sense, but “acting out” and “hiding out” are opposite things.
That’s just one detail, but it’s a marker: “How lazy is the storytelling in this one?” “The career criminal who lives in hiding has a standing orange 12-inch-fan mohawk.” “Ugh. Too bad.”
Second, it was great to see more racial diversity in the cast, but the Saturday morning cartoon gang of colorful misfits had the dramatic heft of a violent cereal commercial.
Third, “Superhero learns to use their power” scenes are great when the audience already knows what the character is just beginning to learn. Such scenes introduce not the powers, but the character encumbered by them – and we see where a seemingly invincible character is vulnerable. When the character’s powers are themselves the mysterious detail we want to understand, gaining mastery over them makes the story less interesting.
Fourth, exploring the blurry line between “good guys” and “bad guys” can make for powerful drama – but only when it’s done with nuance and complexity. Broad, simple characters who commit violent crime and murder while dressed like art students and mentoring our troubled heroine make the whole series look cruel and tone-deaf.
5) The violence in the last several episodes was disappointing: given how compelling the first season was, the bloody mayhem seemed unnecessary. But there were many things I liked – such as the complex way Will behaved when possessed by the creature.
Two characters bugged me: Dustin blithely nursing a baby demon when he knows his friends are struggling to escape the grip of the underworld, and Billy, the over-the-top bully.
Characters are more interesting when they have strong motivations, but strong motivations demand strong logic. Billy is represented by many sadistic bullies in the real world, but I didn’t buy his backstory scene, where his father brutally demands that he show respect to his mother and sister. The idea was poignant, but it seemed pat and clunky. Brutal treatment from his father seemed very appropriate for the character, but a code of respect for women absolutely did not.
6) Every dramatic conflict demands a balance between our heroes’ chances of winning and their chances of losing. The most exciting stories provide enough details so the conclusion is logical, but not predictable.
Sloppy stories often make the hero appealing by making them invincible – but then it’s unsurprising when they win, and it makes no sense when they lose.
This is the problem with playing Eleven as a superhero. She raises her hand, her nostril bleeds – and whatever needs to happen happens. It’s great to have a strong female character, but her strength is not what is interesting about her. The story – and most importantly, the conclusion – is ultimately about something else.