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


Reading James Baldwin

I decided to read James Baldwin. Everything he wrote, from start to finish. Even if it takes the rest of my life.

photo: Reading Baldwin

Reading Baldwin


Trumbo and Hollywood’s Romance With An All Male Mythology

Poster of Movie Trumbo 2015

Poster of Movie Trumbo 2015

It can be difficult for a feminist woman to look back at the sexism and gender inequality of history. It is even more difficult when one observes that history being told through the lens of a sexist and still unequal present. Trumbo throws us back to the days when the movie industry was dominated by men, the good women - like Trumbo's wife Cleo - were mere obedient and martyred sidekicks, and the bad women, like Helen Mirrin's portrayed Hedda Hopper, were shrews.

But times have changed, right? No, not much it seems. As the credits rolled, I read one male credit after another: writer, director, production designer, cinematographer, editor, composer, casting . . . . Yes, in 2015, just as in Trumbo's 1950s, and for most of history since, all the lead people who made this film were men. I found it particularly interesting that even the couple of filmmaking roles often reserved for women (casting and costumes) in this movie were done by men.

It goes deeper. In 2015, as in so many of the movies and plays of US history, the roles for women were still the obedient wife (Cleo) and evil witch (Hedda Hopper). You might ask, "Wasn't it just reflecting history?" As a matter of fact, one critic even referred to this movie as "educational." But, no, this movie did not reflect history, it is a Hollywood male rewrite of history. While Hedda Hopper udoubtedly played a role in the ambushing of Hollywood creatives by the Sen. Eugene McCarthy and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's communist witch hunt of the 1940s-60s, it was a minor role; those who are "educated" by this movie will come away believing that gossip columnist Hopper spearheaded the entire movement. Ultimately Trumbo serves to perpetuate the heroic male, witchy woman and martyred ingenue mythology that our society has managed to make a reality; feminist historians, anthropologists, and sociologists take note.


The “Folders” – Episode Two of My Afternoon at The Institute for Figuring with Margaret Wertheim and Other New Acquaintances

Learning to Fold at Institute for Figuring animation

Learning to Fold at Institute for Figuring

On first meeting, Margaret Wertheim impresses me as one who could keep a noncommittal face when confronted with surprising news – a demeanor useful to a poker player. Unlike can’t-keep-any-emotion-off-her-face me, who would make a terrible poker player were it not for the fact that I learned early in life to stay sober during a game.

Upon hearing me disclose that I do not fold, origami or otherwise (heck, I’d be hard pressed to fold a bedsheet to pass muster by anyone older than the age of five) Margaret’s reaction is a quick nod of acknowledgement, rather than the dismay or disappointment I might have expected. She immediately resumes the setting up that she apparently had been doing before I arrived.

I use the time to browse the art in the gallery’s collection, since she does not appear to need my assistance at this stage.

As I peruse, workshop participants begin to arrive in ones and twos. At some point we are all gathered around the table that appears to be our primary work-space-to-be. It is piled high with small pieces of heavyweight paper in 2”x3” business card shape and size. The gallery walls are lined with art sculptures made from these cards as well as other folded art objects and even some crocheted pieces.

Summoning my nerve I ask a few of the others if they fold.

“Oh yes,” effuses one of the two men in the room, “I’m just the driver, but my girlfriend folds every night.”

Mental note to self, “Okay, maybe the driver boyfriend will help me not be the lowliest folder of them all.”

A young woman to my right assures me that she is so enamored with spatial relationships and math that folding should be a breeze for her. Or, something to that effect.

Wouldn’t you know?

A mother and her 12 year old son are already seated and folding together. Where did they come from? Apparently the son had been there in another room for some other purpose, but decided to pop into our group and fold for a while before leaving.

Shown up by a folding 12 year old. Now I have a sense of how my computer illiterate friends feel. . . . continues


“Do You Fold?” – Episode One of My Afternoon at The Institute for Figuring in L.A. with Physicist Margaret Wertheim and Other New Acquaintances

Institute For Figuring - Colorful Doorway

Institute For Figuring - Colorful Doorway

I’d no idea what to expect when I entered the Institute For Figuring (as in mathematical) after locating it in-between The Chinese Unity Association of Greater Los Angeles and The Empress Pavilion, in the midst of Los Angeles’ Chinatown.  I was a little nervous. But if we don’t try those nerve rattling things in the world, life would be pretty boring. At least that is what I have told myself for as long as I can remember. And probably why, when anyone asks what is my favorite quote of all time, I always cite Eleanor Roosevelt’s:

“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face . . . we must do that which we think we cannot.”

I was a bit early, and there did not appear to be anyone else in the building. Gallery I guess I should call it. A gallery of very colorful and visually enticing mathematically conceived paper art and needlework. More about that in a bit.  Then Margaret Wertheim was suddenly standing in front of me.

It was a little awkward. Here was this physicist I had heard speak about amateur  physicists, and a book she had written about these outsiders with homegrown theories of the universe, Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything,  at a Caltech Skeptics meeting, what? a year or two prior, and me, an artist, writer, new media, whatever it is I am . . . And we are standing in this empty gallery, except for all the vivid trigonometrical art on the walls. And I am wondering just how early I am and should I have stopped in one of the plentiful neighborhood restaurants for some chicken wings rather than barging in ahead of the appointed workshop start time.

Nor did I have much idea what this Institute for Figuring was about, since it was my best artist friend Joe up in San Francisco who went online and found out about it after I told him about the interesting lecture by the rarity, a woman, scientist at Caltech. And it was Joe who told me I needed to go to scout out this "fascinating sounding place."

Joe is better at thinking to look things up than I am. You might remember from my last post that it was he who checked out the identity of the group who hacked this blog of mine last month. I just stared at their stupid signature and my way gone web site blog and wept.  But Joe headed for an Internet search engine and emailed back to let me know it was an infamous middle eastern hacking group. (Not to be too hard on myself – I did manage to get the site back up and harden coded it against future jerk black hat hackers.)

After her Caltech lecture, it had not occurred to me to look up Margaret Wertheim, either. But Joe did - and called to let me know not only about this Institute, but about a fascinating art project she was doing with her twin sister, Christine Wertheim, involving the crocheting of the entire underwater coral reef.

And when I finally took Joe’s advice and looked up the Institute for Figuring online, I saw they were having a Saturday, open to the public, workshop in origami business card folding and animating.

It was Joe then who had said, “Well, of course you will go, it sounds right up your alley!”

Whichever alley he was referring to I am not quite sure, because I have had zero experience with origami in my life.


On De-Celebrating Black Hat Hackers and Celebrating Graffiti Artists

art by Lady Pink

art by Lady Pink


Hi all - my blog is back up and carefully backed up so if any more infamous black hat hackers try to take it down, getting it back up won't be such an issue.

On the temp blog I set-up while I regathered my three years of this riffingonbooks blog, I posted:

"Hello. If you are looking at this you are seeing me in the process of reloading my blog site.

I was hacked. By a well know cyber crime group. But I won’t mention their name as I will not give them any more publicity than they deserve – which is none.

They left their “signature” on my site. It was boring. And lazy. Like 12 point Arial type.

I have taught some of the best graffiti artists in Los Angeles. Now THEY know how to make signatures!

What I taught them was to make productive use of their art skills and brains. So now they make movies and art and websites, and earn livings doing it – as well as have personally fulfilling lives with their art both in jobs and on their own time.

I wish that cybercriminals who do things like take down websites could learn to do something useful, something that would move the world forward in a positive direction with the brains I know they have – as evidenced by their ability to take down a website."


This entry was posted in Riffing On Life on June 25, 2013."

I'd love to post some of my students' (from the past, of course) graffiti art, but since I don't have any on hand, I did a little research and found the "signature art" of one of the few known women grafitti artists, Lady Pink.

Above is one of her images. Beautiful. She is a legend who made a name for herself in the 1980s as one of the only females capable of competing with men in the graffiti subculture. You can see more of her work at:  http://www.pinksmith.com. (or just click the pix) She was born in Ecuador but apparently lives in New York now.

I was remembering just now one of my tagging artist students, M-. I had okayed for her to use her tagging skills on a poster project in class. But the day we were to all work on it, she, unusually, was very late. Turned out she had been stopped by the Metro Police for carrying paint spray cans in her backpack! He made her dispose of them, so we had to improvise our art tools that day.

Another of my tagging / graffiti artist students was not sure what to do with his art skills when he started college. I had him in an animation class, and it occurred to me that he would be really good with type and animating it! He was. But one day he came to class with a video he had shot and edited. I was blown away. He had no background in video, it was just his intuitive genius and over the top excellent art skills that had been behind him producing a film the caliber of a film student graduate. (I know a little about the skills needed to produce an excellent film as I obtained a film degree before moving over to computer new media). Later R- switched from WEB and Interactive Media (the department I ran and taught in) to filmmaking with my blessing. He was a born film artist.

It's great to be back. I'll return to our science and art discussions soon.



On Space Cattle and Looking for the Origin of Life

Or, A Little Mars &  Origins of Life History (and other related thoughts) Before Tackling Today's Space Exploration Debates, Part IV

Space Cattle Image

Space Cattle Mash-up by Terry Bailey

Okay, so a couple of posts ago we left Stanley Miller and Harold Urey at the University of Chicago, in 1952, trying to create chemical reactions that would simulate Jupiter's atmosphere. They were doing this because it was thought that Jupiter's current atmosphere might closely resemble the atmosphere on early Earth. And the reason they wanted to simulate Earth in its early days was so they might see what conditions were present that led to the emergence of life.

The goal here, remember, was to figure out the origin of life. What kind of environment would be required for life to begin, and what might "spark" life.

Miller and Urey took molecules known to be present in Jupiter's 1950's atmosphere and placed them into a closed system. The gas molecules they used were methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), hydrogen (H2), and water (H2O). Then they ran an electric current through the contained gases, to simulate lightning storms believed to be common in the early days of Earth's formation. What they had accomplished was to simulate the presumed atmospheric environment of Early Earth. And, remember from our previous discussion with scientist Sherwood Chang, they were looking for some sort of chemical reaction ( a chemical reaction results from something - in this case, gas molecules - reacting with a source of energy - in this case, faked lightening).

So, qué pasó? Well, the scientific journals describe it a bit more scientifically, but I like what Sherwood Chang said to me: "At the end of one week, they fished out what was left in the pot and made the astounding discovery of the presence of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and therefore of life!"

At week's end as much as 10-15% of the carbon was now in the form of organic compounds. Two percent of the carbon had formed some of the amino acids. (source duke.edu) And, also according to Chang, "Three or four of the amino acids they found - in the pot - were the very specific amino acids that all biology uses. Out of a potentially almost limitless number of amino acids that are theoretically possible.   Most importantly, The Miller-Urey experiment showed that organic compounds such as amino acids could be made easily under the conditions that scientists believed to be present on  Early Earth.

Today most of us don't realize how big this was. Not just that the scientists "created" the building blocks of life but that they had been able to study something so successfully in a laboratory using a technique of simulation. We take simulations for granted today. But in the 1950s this was huge. And the Miller-Urey experiment resulted in an avalanche of such experiments by other scientists. Simulations of the Early Land, the Early Oceans, the ability of of volcanic events (stuff + energy) or sunlight (energy) and other "stuff" to create organic matter (life), on an on.

As ideas changed about what the Early Earth atmosphere actually consisted of, the simulation ingredients changed. But, eventually these Early Earth chemists managed to produce all the biological amino acids, and lots of other amino acids that are not used in biology.

Scientists at first became very optimistic that they were on the cusp of actually discovering and understanding the origin of life on Earth. In the 1950s many thought that they would have the question of life's origins wrapped up in a couple of decades. But, in fact, their journey was just beginning.

One of the many interesting things that Sherwood Chang shared with me during our drive between Berkeley and Vallejo came in response to my questioning him about how much he follows scientific progress now that he has turned in his Ames Laboratory garb for a cowboy hat in order to roam and manage his cattle ranch in Northern California.

Sherwood patiently addressed my perhaps over the top enthusiasm about the recent Mars mission and space exploration in general. He explained that a big aha moment for him was the realization of how slow research is. How many years go by, and how little we really learn in each chunk of time. Sherwood played his role in the timeline of human exploration and discovery. Now he is doing something else, cattle ranching. The scientific exploration continues, but the pace is  slow and will always be so. It took me a while to "get" what Sherwood was telling me about this.

My aha moment came when I began to read about the controversies that have followed the life creation simulation phase of those enthusiastic 1950s and 1960s scientists. For since that time, controversies have sprung up about the validity of their experiments, and many more, alternate, ideas have been proposed as to how those early amino acid building blocks of life might have "emerged" on Earth. Research takes time. Sometimes results and discoveries are validated, and sometimes they are invalidated - both the validating and the invalidating  taking years and years. Sometimes results and discoveries force the asking of many more new questions, the turning in new directions, which, in turn, takes more time. What seems to us in the moment some "great" discovery is usually just a pinpoint on the continuum of exploration - a continuum that will last as long as we do!

So, hats off to Sherwood for the role he played in the search for life on Earth, and happy trails to him on his Northern California ranch.

Next we will look at some of the controversies that succeeded the 1950s and 1960s simulator explorers, and start looking about the theories and research that has followed them. . . .



How Many Times Did Life Begin? And How Many “Lives” Are There?

Or, A Little Mars &  Origins of Life History (and other related thoughts) Before Tackling Today's Space Exploration Debates, Part III

Terry Collage Animation of NASA photos of Stefanie Milam, Michel Nuevo and Scott Sandford by Dominic Hart. These NASA scientists studying the origin of life reproduced uracil, a key component of our hereditary material, in the laboratory.

Terry Collage Animation of NASA photos of Stefanie Milam, Michel Nuevo and Scott Sandford by Dominic Hart. These NASA scientists studying the origin of life reproduced uracil, a key component of our hereditary material, in the laboratory.

A while back a college student mentee of mine asked me to join her for coffee. The moment I sat down, it was clear from the sadness in her eyes and the uncharacteristic squirming in her seat, that she wanted to talk with me about something important to her, not simply to share a cappuccino moment and discuss the WEB.

This brilliant but hardly world-wizened young woman began talking as soon as we sat down, and told me that she had recently made the very difficult decision to terminate an unexpected pregnancy. What had prompted her to consult with me was not the need for advice about this decision, as it was after the fact; she needed to talk about  a group of people who had confronted her as she left the medical clinic. With tears in her eyes now, she shared with me how the group had called her "a sinner" and told her that she had "killed the life that had been created in her womb."

As I sat there with my afternoon decaf latte wishing that she had come to me with a design problem or a missing closing bracket in a line of code, rather than this, something Carl Sagan once said popped into my mind. I don't remember when or where he said it, but it was one of those sentences that burns into your brain for some reason, as if a part of you knows you may need it some day.

"Mary (not her real name) I said to her, Life began only once. And it was billions and billions of years ago."

Mary looked at me unsure at first about what I was saying.

"I once heard a famous scientist, Carl Sagan, say that. About when life began. Mary, life did not begin in your womb. Life was not created in your womb. Anything happening in your womb is just a part of the continuum of something, life, that began so long ago we can't even conceive of it. Billions of years ago," I told her, hoping to reassure. Thank you Carl Sagan.

"I'm not a sinner?" she asked. To a young woman who had been accused of something so terrible, that is what this was really about.

"No, you are not a sinner. You are a young woman who had to make a really difficult decision, and I am sorry you had to make it alone."

I could not help but think back about that afternoon with my student, and the words of Carl Sagan, as I have been writing about my origins of life interview with scientist Sherwood Chang and conducting the accompanying research. Carl Sagan's remark, that Life began billions of years ago, may come in handy upon occasion, but it does not actually paint the truest or most clear picture, either. (continues, see button below-right)


Writing Out Loud About The Search for Life in Space Exploration

Or, A Little Mars &  Origins of Life History Before Tackling Today's Space Exploration Debates, Part II

Books recommended by interviewee scientist Sherwood Chang: Life's Origin and Planets and Life

Books recommended by interviewee scientist Sherwood Chang

One of the exciting things about blogs is the fact that we can update them with new information, make corrections, add comments. They are not static in time and space like traditional journalism or nonfiction writing.

Yesterday I had an email response from my new scientist friend turned organic cattle rancher, Sherwood Chang, whom I quoted in my previous post (and will be quoting in the next couple of posts). He made a few corrections and additions, which I have added right into the text of the post itself (see below).

I have a Master's degree in creative nonfiction. Why I chose "creative" nonfiction rather than traditional nonfiction has to do with my respect for creativity itself. One of the reasons that creative nonfiction was established as a genre was in consideration of the need to make the reading of "facts" enjoyable, rather than a dry boring academic, experience. Creative nonfiction allows an author to experiment with style, presentation and content in ways that make the information it contains interesting. Being a new media / multimedia artist as well as author, I also believe that a creative approach to writing about information and facts also allows us writers to present our content more successfully - using new methods to convey information, rather than sticking with traditional dry, emotionless and style-less words and diagrams.

I could have taken the suggestions of Sherwood and simply changed and updated my previous post, but, instead, I went to the text and crossed out the text I was eliminating and typed the new text in bold, so that readers could actually see my process, my interaction with the scientist. To me what is exciting about this is that it brings the words and process itself to life. It makes writing a public process, a shared process. As someone I quoted in an earlier post said, "Blogging is writing out loud." (I will look up my source later and update this sentence)

Oh, and thank you Sherwood for also recommending two relevant books for us, which I will post on the book page soon, too: "For an historical review and summary of recent (up to 2002) work on the origin of life, I suggest the book, Life's Origin (2002), ed. J. William Schopf, U. of Ca. Press.  A more recent and broader based book is by W. Sullivan and J. Baross, eds.(2007) Planets and Life: The Emerging Science of Astrobiology."

My next episode on the search for life in space exploration next week. . . .



How Sixto Rodriguez’s Searching for Sugarman Led Me To an Amazing Personal Lecture by a Space Scientist About the Search for Life

Or, A Little Mars &  Origins of Life History Before Tackling Today's Space Exploration Debates, Part I

picture of Stanley Miller, Harold Urey and Sixto Rodriguez

Stanley Miller, Harold Urey and Sixto Rodriguez

In my post before last I mentioned I'd share some Mars exploration history before moving on to Mars in current events.

In the midst of my interest in the current state of space exploration I coincidentally was offered a ride by a space scientist between my friend Karen's apartment in Berkeley and my friend Joe's house in Vallejo last October. I was visiting the Bay Area in order to see and hear the amazing Sixto Rodriguez, who was appearing at Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco.

I'd discovered Sixto was soon to play in San Francisco (my home town) after I saw the documentary about his remarkable life, Searching for Sugarman, in Pasadena. I went home, jumped online, and, in a happy spontaneous act, bought several tickets for his performance. I then called a few friends in the Bay Area to tell them I was coming up for a week visit, and asked them all to join me for the concert. Karen had insisted that I not bother renting a car as I could take BART or hitch rides any where I wanted to go. I saw this as a real adventure, and was later glad I took her advice. One experiences a whole new social world without the "protection and safety" of one's own vehicle.

Sherwood Chang, the scientist who gave me the lift to Vallejo,  is a retired space scientist now living in Northern California and running the largest organic cattle ranch in the state. He spent his previous career as a scientist with NASA 's Ames Laboratory in Northern California. I know that scientists David Peat and David Bohm would not have been surprised by what I considered a very happy coincidence (to meet a space scientist on vacation when I am blogging about space), because Peat and Bohm noted that it is of greater interest that we all do not notice more life coincidences given the mathematical likelihood of their abundance.

I hopped into Sherwood's SUV, buckled up, turned on my GPS as neither of us knew how to get to Joe's from Karen's, and asked him, "So. Tell me about your career as a scientist." He questioned what I wanted to know, and I told him, "Everything." I also told him that I have read lots of science since I was a very young kid, even though I am professionally a writer and artist, so that he did not have to talk down to me. Sherwood took me at my word, and proceeded to thoroughly entertain me with the most elaborate and compact one hour lecture (about the history of the search for life in space exploration ) I have ever experienced.

This is what I learned:

One way we can begin to understand the history of our universe biosphere is by studying molecular biology. Because the history of living things is stored in the genetic code of all organisms. But if we want a full understanding, we must also glean information from a bunch of other scientific disciplines. Astrophysicists look deep into space, and back in time, and try to figure out how planets formed around stars. Geochemists and Geophysicists help us to understand how planets formed  and what the environment is/was like in each of the star systems planets they study. They are all wondering if and when any planets or planetary systems are/were receptive to life or not.

While these scientists are doing their research, mathematicians and computer scientists are busy analyzing the data these  scientists come up with, and developing theories based on that data. One can certainly imagine that we are able to understand a great deal more today with the powerful computers at everyone's disposal for modeling, calculating and analyzing, than we were able to understand when all we had was a roomful of mathematicians sitting around calculating on their own (as recently as WWII to my knowledge) or working with a room-sized computer that had about 100K of memory!

Sherwood began his career in the 1950s as a chemist. Chemists study reactions. And the reactions Sherwood and his buddies were interested in were those that occurred in ancient, primordial, environments on Earth and on other planets in our solar system. If we are going to understand the beginning(s) of life, a great place to start is on the young Earth at the time our planets formed. And the first thing we would need to know, is what was the environment like then, before life appeared. Of course the goal then was to understand when and why life appeared here on Earth, and if it did on other planets as well.

Back in the day (as my college design students are fond of saying) not much was known about primordial (earliest stage of development) environments. Many scientists thought that the early atmosphere of Earth was similar to that of Jupiter. That belief was based on actual science according to my space history travel guide, Sherwood; it was just that Jupiter's was the only atmosphere they thought relevant to early Earth's.

So in 1952 at the University of Chicago, two scientists, Stanley Miller and Harold Urey, decided to create chemical reactions that would simulate Jupiter's atmosphere . . . to be continued


Earth Protection P.S.

Title slide for lecture by Riley Duren at JPL, with annotation by Terry, Feb 14, 2013

Title slide for lecture by Riley Duren at JPL, with annotation by Terry, Feb 14, 2013


Coincidentally, immediately after my last post - making reference to the importance of Earth protection and our meager atmospheric protective shield, I learned that a Riley Duren would be speaking at JPL on Feb 14 about that very subject. Specifically on global warming and the geoengineering research being conducted to save our planet from it. I am happy to report that Dr. Duren is more supportive of the idea of mitigation than geoengineering (i.e. let's try to do everything we can to stop, or lighten, this global warming we have started before we resort to the extravagant, and expensive, engineering methods to stop it). Dr. Duren's lecture would probably win a riffingonbooks award if I were handing them out (maybe I will start!), for he was not afraid to tackle the tough, controversial questions, and he spent considerable time addressing the need for cross-discipline and public participation in the challenges we all face due to global warming. The scientists cannot solve this problem alone, he told us. We need the public, leaders, legislators, physical and social scientists, etc. involved because the work and decisions are so complex as to need the input of everyone. I will write a full post about this lecture and subject after I complete the next few posts on Mars and space exploration.

Will post my next piece about Mars in a day or two. I am just waiting for the scientist I interviewed in northern California to get back to me with the answers to a couple of follow-up questions.