Riffing on Books and Life – Arts & Sciences Literary Blog by interactive new media author & artist Terry Bailey


Why the future of space exploration requires that we make Earth protection our first priority.

that thin layer of blue is the atmosphere that protects us here on Earth

That thin layer of blue is the atmosphere
that protects us here on Earth

The news media is rife with stories about missions to Mars and to asteroids lately. A great deal of the interest has been spawned by the fact that we have a mission on Mars currently, Curiosity. My guess is that there are also many stories being placed and encouraged by the public relations arms of our various space agencies and by some of the new private space tourist and exploration firms - to drum up more public and political interest.

There are huge questions looming: should we be sending personned explorations to Mars, Jupiter's moons, asteroids? What do we want to learn about Deep Space? How should the private sector be involved in space missions, and if they are, what kind of oversight should the public and leaders require? Can we learn as much from Earth as we can from traveling in space? What does space travel teach us that simulations cannot? Should we try to establish human colonies on Mars, and if so, why? How much money should we be spending on space exploration? Is space travel for humans really a possibility? What are we actually looking for, trying to accomplish?

Before the public can be expected to participate intelligently in any discussion or debate about where we are headed as Space Explorers, some history is certainly in order. I know it was for me. So I began some rudimentary research in order to make myself a more educated participant in the discussion. One of the greatest disservices that scientists have done to the public, and ultimately to themselves, over the last decades is to have constructed messages telling the public that science is too complicated for their feeble brains. Nonsense.

For as long as I can remember, space travel enthusiasts have compared our need to explore space with the early European exploration of the Americas. With their discovery of new worlds and the fact that the earth was not flat. But, as I have studied space exploration the last months, interviewing scientists, reading up on its history, attending lectures, etc., I have come to believe that this is actually an unworkable analogy. Yes, we have a human need to explore, to understand our world, our universe, our reality. Yes, we have a relentless need to know if we are alone in the universe, or if there are some others like us.

But it may be that humans simply cannot bodily explore the universe because our bodies cannot survive such an exploration. It may be that we can explore our universe more effectively by staying put here on Earth and developing exploration tools and simulations.This may not be as glamorous or exciting as the Space Cowboy scenarios so many have been weaving over the last decades, but that is even more reason why the public needs to be let in on realistic lessons about science if we are going to encourage their continued support of a space exploration something more akin to seated in an armchair and watching on the TV screen.

Thus far my research has taught me that the most important thing we need to do right now is to protect our Earth and the human/animal/life protective atmosphere it houses because we may very well be stuck here! Of course I will keep myself open to alternative ideas as I continue my exploration, but so far everything points in that direction. If we lose the protection of our planet, we won't be available to explore the universe in the future.

Next post I will begin with a bit of history about space exploration: "A Little Mars and Origins of Life History Before Tackling Today's Space Exploration Controversies, Part I"




Science and the New Space Race

Jan. 10, 2013 Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, Pasadena

Jan. 10, 2013 Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, Pasadena


I attended a great panel discussion about the future of the space race at Caltech on January 10, 2013. This panel was assembled by students at the college as part of a Keck Foundation grant. I have complained in this blog that so many community forums really only have as their motive the PR of some writer, thinker, organization. I am not surprised that when college students organize and host an event, they do not shy away from controversy, that they saw this opportunity as one to participate in civic activism as well as to learn from some luminaries in the field. My hat goes off to these students! The panel consisted of two professors from Caltech, Fiona Harrison (Professor of Physics) and Paul Wennberg (Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering) as well as  John Grunsfeld, astronaut and now at NASA, Steve Isakowitz, Exec VP at Virgin Galactic, John Logsdon, founder of GW Univeristy's Space Policy Institute and Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX. I'll share the discussion of the evening, in context of the discussion I have been riffing on here for last bit,  after I return from a trip up north (in southern California jargon, that means to San Francisco).

(Update: It made more sense for me to post about the Skeptic's Dr. McCray lecture first, as a lead in to this panel discussion and others which I will address later. 1-21-13 - Terry)


The world loses a young prodigy who fought for equal access to knowledge

Aaron Swartz - a prodigy who devoted much of his life to freeing up scholarly research and information for the masses, has taken his own life - a victim of depression. My heart and admiration go out to him today. I have often spoken about the need to keep scholarly information free to anyone who needs it for research - in order to have a democracy that is actually democratic, that gives every human being an equal opportunity to do whatever she or he wants to do by having access to the same knowledge base.

Cory Doctorow, science fiction author and online activist: “The world was a better place with him in it . . . . The fact that the U.S. legal apparatus decided he belonged behind bars for downloading scholarly articles without permission is as neat an indictment of our age — and validation of his struggle — as you could ask for.”

see article I recommend for above quotation and full details about this remarkable young man's life and accomplishments - and the trouble he ran into fighting his ethical war against those who would own information - can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/technology/aaron-swartz-internet-activist-dies-at-26.html?_r=0

(this photo is derivative of and uncredited photo on Mashable.com)


The Future of Space Exploration: Where’s the Public Discourse and Debate?

Mars Rock Et-Then taken October 29, 2012 by NASA's Curiosity Rover

Mars Rock Et-Then, Oct. 29, 2012 by NASA's Curiosity Rover

I wish organizations that provide public lectures had the courage to venture into more controversial realms. Too often they provide public education, which is great, but stick to the vanilla topics that will inspire interest, not dissension. They claim "new ideas," but insure that the ideas are either topics that will not weave any discord, or are presented in such a way to insure minimal disagreement or contention. What can we do  to evolve these public learning and sharing events to include more critical questioning and debate? - processes that move us forward as individuals and communities.

One of my friends posted on Facebook recently: "The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows - Sydney J. Harris"

Would that were true! Frequently education is no more than mirrors.  And distorted ones at that.

I am a huge fan of public lectures. It is a great way to remain socially engaged and to participate in continued education / lifelong learning. Some of the lectures I attend regularly are the science ones at Pasadena's Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, the Skeptics Society (hosted at Caltech) and Zocola Public Square. These lectures are sometimes fascinating, but often leave me with an unsatisfied sense. Because while they are informative they seldom raise the questions that need to be raised, seldom demand that the public think and debate and get involved with our path forward.

I think of Susan B. Anthony traveling our early nation in most uncomfortable ways, sans first class airplane seats or "comfort" inns. I think of her throwing out the heretical idea that women should have the vote - and equality. I think of the people who came out to support her and to learn the arguments they could later use in their own community debates on the topic. I think of the people who came out to jeer her; to prevent her ideas from getting any traction. Susan B. Anthony presented public debates on the topic she was most passionate about for the duration of her life. And died eleven years before women did get the vote. Her lectures were controversial. Her lectures served to stir the public and move them forward.

Yes, the Skeptics Society does have their  'God v. Science' lecture / debate each year. But that topic is so tired. What if we were to approach all lectures as debates?

Recently I attended a Zocola lecture at the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles about the future of space exploration. Talk about a topic ripe for debate, for public input and deliberation. But, for the most part, we simply heard life-story tidbits, and traditional "what we learned in space that we are now using on earth" tales from three panelists as they were questioned by a moderator who had given each of their bios a cursory study.


Why Information Must Be Free: The Factory Girl

I must admit, I like the idea of having information implanted in me for immediate access to it all. A personal database. Or a link to a complete information database in the Cloud. The Internet is a start to this, but it must be better organized. And the information must be free. Not owned by anyone. That is crucial. But it may not be where we are headed.  And we must deliberate and take action about this before it is too late. For the thrust of the day is in the direction of companies finding ways to profit from the storage of and subsequent sharing (and/or licensing) of hoarded information.

Our  founders had it right when they determined that all literature should be housed in a public and free system: libraries. If democracy is the goal, if equal opportunity is the goal, if righteous progress is the goal: information must be available to all and it must be free.

What if Einstein, Marie Curie or Thomas Edison had not had access to the crucial learning and information they personally read, stored and pondered to come up with their critical-to-history discoveries? Had Beethoven, Debussy or Amy Beach not had access to the scores of composers who came before, on what would they have founded their own knowledge and growth? (actually, Amy Beach did not have all the information access she needed, since she was not allowed to study in Europe "with the men," and that did have a detrimental impact on her work as a composer - something I am exploring in my biography-memoir, Amy Beach and Me, amybeachandme.com)


Backtracking – a check-in from blog author Terry Bailey

For the last couple of months I've been doing a lot of music playing, concert going, technology and politics magazine reading, Caltech lecture attending and science and art book reading.

Oh, and did I mention spending countless hours learning how to transpose my web-based prototype book, Amy Beach and Me, to iBook format for the iBook store, with a several week time out to convert it to PDF/ePub format so that I could fulfill the literature entry requirements for a MacDowell Colony residency?

Meanwhile my job at a Los Angeles art college, managing the web and interactive media department and teaching, continued full swing.

When I hear grown-ups say they are bored with life, I sometimes wish I could outsource some of mine to them!

Well, here I am back at Riffing, and I have decided I will quit ever saying "I'll be back next week," or back at any particular time. And I will quit saying what I am going to write about next. Because I don't want to break promises!


Music as a force for community

This is supposed to be the display image for the video below

Merlin Snider with Pretty Good Acquaintances Goin Down the Road, February 4, 2012
[FMP  width="320" height="180" align="aligncenter"]http://riffingonbooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/PrettyGoodAcquaintances_GoinDownRoad-Cellular.m4v[/FMP]

I had to spend this week trying out ways to embed my own video - rather that videos from services like YouTube. I still have not been able to generate an opening frame image, so that there is not just a black video screen sitting there waiting for you to click play. I'm just getting error messages.  Apparently my FFMPEG was not found at /usr/local/bin. Go figure.

I will keep working on that (unless someone proposes to me and asks me to go live on a farm somewhere warm, forsaking technology for an herb garden and home grown tomatoes before I manage to figure it out). And, Merlin, I promise I will get a camera with better sound for next time (this one was just shot with my phone as I cannot be a discrete journalist with my bulky Sony camera; I am currently seeking a discrete camcorder with good sound quality).

Update Nov. 21, 2012

I posted earlier today about the value of public debate, of a public deliberative approach to moving the world forward. A performance like this one by Merlin Snider and friends, on the topic of labor history through labor folk songs, is a perfect example of a presentation ready for public discourse. The performance was accompanied by a multimedia presentation produced by Deborah Snider, providing the audience with a visual history to accompany the music and narrative history.  And a panel and public discussion - debate - to follow it would have been tremendous.

But, sadly, we have evolved music in our society to a form of entertainment only, not of public discourse.

I had to think as I watched and listened to this important history lesson in music, which demanded a great deal of  research, practice and preparation by its performers, how unfortunate it is that our society so undervalues the work of musician-artists that they have only a rare opportunity to perform such a work. That there are so few venues for an important piece like this to be performed. That rather than the public valuing this work enough to demand, and support, regular performances, it is seen as an “act of love” of the performers, and a meaningful memory for a handful of audience members who were blessed enough to experience the one time event.

A musical history event like this is demeaned because we as a nation have evolved our opinion of music to be a form of entertainment, rather than a powerful form of political and historical and creative education that is just as important as any science lesson. Because we have demeaned the act of being an artist by failing to support or encourage it. Yes, this theme will be a recurring one.



House Concerts

John York 1-21-12

John York plays Gelencser House Concert

When I am not working at the art college where I am employed, or reading and riffing about books, I can usually be found playing music or listening to music. I want to mention a wonderful tradition to all of you, for I have learned many people are unaware of it: house concerts.

Many have been so media saturated by the big commercial musicians and artists that you may not be aware of a musical world much more rewarding, democratic, personal and human. House concerts are a part of that musical world. All around the United States, and I am told in many other countries, too, people open their homes to host audiences and an eclectic group of touring musicians. Some of these musicians are famous in the commercial world of music, and simply enjoy the more intimate setting of a house concert from time to time. Some are solo, or duo, or small groups troubadors who spend their lives traveling the country in Chevies and minivans - not big tour busses - sharing their music from the countrified south to the freeway linked west. A few house concert musicians just stick to their own backyards, playing regionally in people's homes and in small clubs and other venues.


A New Year!

My cat Salomé Wishing All a Happy Holiday Season and New Year!

My cat Salomé Wishing All a Happy Holiday Season and New Year!

Hi - I'm rushing off to my teaching and web/interactive media department management job, but wanted to check in this morning to let you know that I am back. It would be better to announce my holidays before the holidays, I know. My apologies. This holiday I really needed to take some down time from my over-the-top busy career as a college employee as well as interactive author, digital artist and blogger. It turned out to be one of the best holidays I have ever had, not because of holiday events or downtime, but because I took the time to visit with or talk to almost every good friend I have in the world. It's important to do that now and then, isn't it? Especially if you work in this high tech world that I live (and thrive) in. One of my best friends is my new cat, Salomé, so here is a picture of her wishing all of my readers a fun-filled, happy, warm, and book and idea filled holiday and new year.

Not to worry, though. This did not mean I stopped reading or thinking. I have read a whole slew of new books over the last couple of months, and will be riffing about them here. I have also attended some fascinating lectures at Cal Tech (near my home in Pasadena), and will talk about them here, too, over the next weeks.

Although my primary interests continue to be creativity, the mind and science, I would like to refer you to a book I have not read, but will put on my "to read" bookshelf. Does anyone remember the slide guitarist, singer-songwriter Ry Cooder?


The Genius who lived to merge technology and art and people – you will be missed


“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” - Steve Jobs, 1956-2011