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


Innovation vs Status Quo in Science, the Arts and Business

The Visioneers: Skeptics Society Lecture at Caltech, Pasadena - Jan. 20, 2013

Jan. 20, 2013 Beckman Auditorium at Caltech, Pasadena -
The Visioneers, with author Dr. W. Patrick McCray, streamed online as shown here

First is the good news that the Skeptics Society at Caltech is now streaming their lectures live online. Usually I would prefer to be there in person, but in a pinch streaming is a great option for those who are not in Pasadena, or those who are, like me, but have not enough time to get over there early enough to get a seat, park, wait, etc.

Yesterdays lecture by Dr. W. Patrick McCray was derived from his research and book, The Visioneers: How a Group of Elite Scientists Pursued Space Colonies, Nanotechnologies, and a Limitless Future. If you are interested in the entire lecture, keep an eye on their website for when they make the DVD available - usually a collection of lectures.

I talk a great deal in this blog about the importance of having creative people join any discussion about science, ethical science, the future of science, etc. Dr. McCray made it clear why we also need the overview reflections of historians as we think about science and plan for the future of science. Those doing science are primarily, of necessity, bound up in the now of what they are doing; an historian is able to take the time and look from the vantage point of someone analyzing science with a perspective broad enough (history) to grasp implications of importance regarding what has gone before, what is happening now, and what might be in the future.

Dr. McCray's Visioneers are scientists who "blended countercultural ideals with hard science, entrepreneurship, libertarianism, and unbridled optimism about the future… (from the Facebook page for event)." He discusses Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill and MIT-trained engineer Eric Drexler. O'Neill explored the idea of space colonies, when that was all the rage in the 1970s as we began to realize that we were running out of earth (population explosion) and possibly destroying it (environmental damage by humans*1). Drexler came along in the 80s and pursued the idea of staying here on earth and fixing things via nanotechnology (the advent of computers and molecular biology allowed him to envision building little machines from atoms up that would do good things).

The support and controversy these men stimulated in our society, our government and in the scientific community itself make the lecture well worth watching and the book well worth reading. What I want to address here are the book-end observations made by Dr. McCray in his lecture, for I think they address the crux of what all of us need to be deliberating about.

The lecture opened with the statement: " The challenge is how to differentiate between radical new ideas that are great, true and worth pursuing and those that are quackery."

Dr. McCray cited what I consider a tired cliche: "We need to keep an open mind."

I have spoken here before about the problem with new ideas in the Arts. How they are often (usually?) met with scorn and ridicule. Audiences fled the concert hall in reaction to the new sounds of Debussy.  Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, today regarded as the pinnacle of ballet greats, was considered undanceable when it was written. The Impressionists, Cubists, and today many modern painters were/are scorned by the public and critics initially.

Seeing the parallels between reactions to new Arts and reactions to new Science is important. And it is not just "open-mindedness" that allows a few to appreciate new things, to grasp the difference between new that is valid and important, and new that is quackery.


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 Future of Space Exploration: Where’s the Public Discourse and Debate? – Part 2, Landing on Asteroids?

In 2010 President Obama promised that we will land astronauts on an asteroid by 2025:

. . .  we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first ever crew missions beyond the Moon into deep space. So, we’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to earth, and a landing on Mars will follow.

Yet, the National Academy of Sciences (in a report filed Nov/Dec 2012) thinks that is a dumb idea. And apparently NASA isn’t behind it either, as it has not allocated resources for this proposed mission, nor has it picked an asteroid on which to land (see AP report 12/5/2012).

Even worse, the Science Academy reports that NASA is adrift with little to no future plans, and blames the public and our elected leaders for this problem given the fact that we have given NASA no guidance.

I must state here that AP says a NASA spokesperson, David Weaver, told them that NASA in fact does have clear and challenging goals. Of course, we wonder, given the report, what those clear goals are.

So, what’s the deal? Who is telling NASA what to do? Who is telling President Obama and other leaders what NASA should be doing? What is NASA doing? Are we headed to an asteroid and Mars? Should we be?

I've also gotta state here that, you know, I am a member of the "public," and nobody asked me what I think NASA should be doing. I mean the news media and political leaders are so easy with their "the public is not providing guidance," but what does that mean, really? They haven't asked us for our guidance as far as I know. Or, by "public" they mean some select group that someone hand picked to represent the public, rather than what most of us citizens think of when we hear that word "public,"  namely, "us."


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.


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?


On the subject of “new” writers and wordiness: what author Annie Dillard Had to Say

Here is a riff I wrote in graduate school a few years ago - about author Annie Dillard's first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In an afterward to the version of the book I read, Ms. Dillard herself talks about the tendency of mature writers to be more "conservative with word count."

Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

(written in 2009) First a confession. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is the last book I am reading for my Master of Fine Arts program in writing at Antioch University. It is a book that probably deserves contemplative quiet reading, and I am in no position to give it either of those forms of attention. I graduate in thirty-eight days, and my mind is way preoccupied with finishing-touch things: preparing my graduate lecture, my graduate reading, making sure that my thesis is properly formatted, worrying if the technology will be there and working when I present the new media book I have begun to create as my thesis project. How ironic that I should pick up this meditation-on-nature during this most hectic month of my life in the last several years. I have read this book thinking throughout: what would my reaction be if this were my first semester, and I had time to devote to this book, could sit on a park bench in Pasadena reading it and thoughtfully digesting its stories and meaning? Instead I read it rushed: annoyed often at all the detail – who cares about all the details of frog mating and starling eradication? Oh, that is so gross anyway, why do I need to know that?

Here is another thing that happens when I read a meditative book in a forced rush: I discover wonderful analogies and metaphors like, “It has always been a happy thought to me that the creek runs on all night, new every minute, whether I wish it or know it or care as a closed book on a shelf continues to whisper to itself in its own exhaustive tale,” (69) but then I wonder why the author waits so long before wonderful thoughts such as this. Fills up pages and pages about the survival ineptitude of fireflies before saying something profound and meaningful. And then I feel pathetic. Would I not be happy to meander with fireflies if I had more time? Would I not be filled with awe and interest if I were not preoccupied with life things that must be done? This book won a Pulitzer Prize, after all. Students and teachers in my writing program could not believe I had not already read it, and said so; I felt pressured not to finish my program until I had.

I discovered Dillard’s story of the blind people who were given sight when cataract surgery was discovered. Pretty cool. It made me want to go read the book about it that she was referencing: Marius von Senden’s Space and Sight. Not so much because of the blind to seeing thing (although that was very interesting) but because I learned a secret about myself just a few years ago (it was something my mother apprised me of in fact), and I remember thinking at the revelation how I felt like I imagined a blind person would feel when suddenly given sight.


Listening to my unconscious: a riff inspired by authors R. Kurzban and J. Lehrer and V. Woolf

Terry and Salomé Take a Trip to Monterey on the coast of California

In the previous post I gave an example of listening to my unconscious - or what I might call my "key tracking mind app" in that particular case, if I am to draw upon Robert Kurzban's multiple minds theory (Why Everyone [Else] is a Hypocrite).

Another interesting incident of unconscious watching occurred last December.

I arrived home one evening and pulled pork chops out of the freezer, defrosted them in the microwave, located a casserole dish, filled it with milk and sliced yellow onions, placed the pork chops on top, sprinkled all with black pepper, baked it, heated peas, opened a can of apple sauce, and sat down a bit later at my kitchen table to eat the meal of scalloped pork chops and green peas.

What was so unusual about this? For one thing, I am pretty much a vegetarian; I can’t remember the last time I cooked pork chops or even had them in my house. For another thing, I seldom make a complete meal when I am by myself, and especially not on a week night when I arrive home exhausted from my job at the college. I am more likely to eat a peanut butter sandwich, or a plateful of fruits and vegetables. And scalloped pork chops are an unusual meal for me.

It was not until I took my first bite of pork and potato that the truth struck me: it was my sister’s birthday. Until that moment, I had not been consciously aware of the date at all. That was relevant because scalloped pork chops was her favorite meal when we were kids.


Back to Proust Was a Neuroscientist – with an intro riff to Kurzban’s Why Everyone (else) is a Hypocrite

I'm writing at a Starbucks in Encino today. Outside. Beautiful day. I love L.A.! Just came from a seminar on Neuroscience and Creativity at UCLA. I'll have a few comments about that in a later post. I seem to be on a theme roll for a while here with those two topics. I gotta admit, too, that I am thinking I should write my own book on the topic (maybe after I finish my Amy Beach and Me one). Scientists are studying this, but they are really missing the creativity and creator perspective, I think. I have made a few mentions of this in previous posts (will look up and link here later). There needs to be more cross-talk between scientists and creative people, too. And the scientists must take care that they talk to actual creators, not imitators - the latter being a descriptor for the majority of people practicing any of the arts. That in itself, is a huge topic of discussion - and I will discuss it, but today we are all about Walt Whitman and  Proust and Jonah Lehrer again.

Lehrer focuses attention on poet Walt Whitman's refusal to separate body/flesh and mind/spirit. He cites contemporary neuroscientist, Damasio, who conducted a card game study in which, over time, the game playing subjects' fingers appeared to learn the "danger" of selecting from one card stack before the player consciously became aware of the game's rigged win-lose pattern. The player's fingers would hesitate, perspire, etc. as they approached the incorrect deck. Damasio calls this the "mind-body loop." Lehrer raises this example as a modern day concurrence of science with poet Whitman's apriori understanding of it.

This particular example of Damasio's mind-body loop theory (hypothesis?) does not have me convinced. Why is it thought that the fingers are thinking and reacting, rather than that some part of the unconscious mind is calculating faster than the conscious mind, and directing the fingers to react (via sweat/perspiration) unbeknownst to the conscious mind? Or, perhaps, Lehrer has slightly misrepresented Damasio's theory here. Maybe we need to ask him.

Adding author Robert Kurzban's hypothesis  about mind structure (Why Everyone (else) is a Hypocrite) to this mind-body loop idea, I might draw a different picture.