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[photo credit: Alcatraz Island Park Service]

The image above is a week ago. The image on the bottom is today. Smoke, anyone?

Trisha holding the setting sun at the Pacific coast of Guatemala.

[photo credit: Ziya Aras]

In the year 2019, scientists at the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico searching for extraterrestrial signals, finally succeed. They identify signals from the star Alpha Centauri that are unmistakably artificial. Through clever trials the scientists conclude that the signals are music. Mankind has found another intelligent and technological species.

Alpha Centauri is 4.3 lightyears away, the closest star to our own. A close-knit clique of friends in Arecibo, led by Jesuit priests, decide to launch a human mission in a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. The Jesuits want to meet those other “children of God.”

They build a makeshift spaceship using an asteroid and mining equipment and technology that is capable to accelerate to about 90% of the speed of light within a year, making the trip from Earth to Alpha Centauri take about 17 years, including acceleration, deceleration and mid-cruise coasting. However, due to time dilation at relativistic speeds, the crew only experiences eight months of travel. The idea is that they can go to meet the aliens, spend a few years there, and come back, and be five years older, while of course the time on Earth would have advanced almost 40 years by the time they came back.

Eight people go on the journey, four of which are Jesuit priests, the Father Superior also being the captain and pilot. The other four are the young astronomer who found the signal, a young female scientist and a doctor/engineer married couple in their sixties.

They reach their destination, find two coexisting species of aliens, and start communicating with them. Through a series of misunderstandings and accidents, most of the crew perish over the period of a few years, and only the protagonist, Emilio Sandoz, a young priest, eventually returns to Earth in 2060. He is severely injured, seriously distraught and psychologically damaged.

Now the Jesuits want to know that happened.

I read this book as it was recommended to me as a good science fiction book with a focus on philosophy and morality. I welcomed the tip since I love first contact novels, particularly when they are coupled with relativistic space travel concepts. The Sparrow promised to be all that.

I was also intrigued since I had speculated myself about traveling to Alpha Centauri, and what that distance would mean:

If the sun were the size of a red blood cell, which is about seven micrometers in diameter, then the distance to Alpha Centauri would be about 219 meters. That’s a little bit more than the length of two football fields. Ok, let’s picture that. The sun is an invisible speck the size of a red blood cell with the solar system the size of a tangerine. The nearest star and its planets  would be more than two football fields away. Just imagine the massive amount of empty space in all directions, left, right, forward, back, up down of empty space. 

See the entire post here for reference.

The Sparrow edition on my Kindle is 518 pages long. It was first published in 1996. So 2019, the start of the journey, was in the distant future, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program was still in its early stages. No significant exoplanets had yet been found. It was a bit odd to read this book for the first time now, in 2018, when 2019 is just a few weeks in the future.

While this book has earned a lot of awards and acclaim, and gets great reviews, I found it very hard to read and extremely disappointing overall.

All the Jesuit philosophy packed into the story just took up space and bored me. Pages and pages of Emilio dealing with his own celibacy vows while he was lusting for the only eligible young female on the crew didn’t add to the plot in any way, and simply didn’t interest me. This book could have been condensed to about 200 pages, would not have lost any impact, and it would have been a better book.

In der Kürze liegt die Würze.

And then there were the aliens. Two conveniently humanoid species, one evolved from a herd animal, to become the worker and slave race, the other evolved from a carnivore and predator species, both adapted to each other to look like humans with tails. Also, conveniently, they talked human-like languages that the humans could learn quickly, and their social behaviors and customs were like those of exotic human populations, not aliens.

The book’s structure made it difficult to read. There are two leapfrogging lines, one telling the discovery, the journey out, and the stay of the humans with the aliens, starting in 2019. The other starts in 2060, when Emilio returns and follows the enquiry into what happened.

Through this, the reader already knows that the journey does not end well, and the whole book is about finding out what exactly happened. But the narration is so poor and inconsistent, I found it hard to follow. Sometimes it seemed like the protagonist was talking and telling the story, other times the writer used lots of exposition to tell the story. It was always inconsistent and jarring when the switch happened from one mode to the other.

Endless pages about the “philosophy” and “morality” as some readers praised it just seemed like psychobabble to me. The book’s description calls it “deep philosophical inquiry.”  I felt like the author wanted to lecture me with her worldview, which I didn’t care about, and she packaged it into a pseudo science fiction book to make it interesting to me.

It didn’t work.

Reading The Sparrow was work. I finished only because I try to finish every book I start. I am glad I am done. And I will NOT read the sequel, titled Children of God.

 

Last Sunday our group took a bus tour to Chichicastenango, a market town in the highlands of Guatemala, about two hours from Antigua, over steep mountains.

Our guides took us there because it has one of the most famous markets. The market itself is in the courtyard of a two-story building. We went upstairs and looked down on it. Dozens of vendors were selling their vegetables. What you can’t see in this picture is the strong aroma of the amalgam of all types of vegetables, fresh out of the earth. I have never before smelled vegetables that strong.

To get to the market, we had to walk down crowded alleyways which were packed with vendors on both sides. The paths themselves were also patrolled by vendors, women and children mostly, trying to sell us trinkets of all manner. It was frighteningly crowded. Sure enough, within just minutes one man in our group had his wallet and smartphone stolen. Somebody had bumped into him from the front, while presumably someone else picked the pocket in the right leg of his cargo shorts.

I walked with my wallet in my hand and my hand in my pocket, and my other hand on my phone all the way. I got through unscathed.

As we walked, women and children constantly solicited us to buy their wares. One boy, I estimate him about 12 years old, was Jeremy.

Here you can see Trisha surrounded by vendors. Jeremy is the boy on the right. The vendors latched on to us and followed us. Jeremy would simply not leave. He was very polite, spoke surprisingly good English, gave his name, told us about his family. We bought a blanket from his mother. He would just follow us and keep us engaged for at least 20 minutes all they way back to the gate of the town’s best hotel, which was our meeting place. Vendors cannot enter the hotel. Armed guards keep them out. It was almost like a sanctuary that kept the locals out.

And there stood Jeremy, as we walked away from him and the other children and women, looking at us with his smiling eyes and wishing us a good day. I turned around and bought a bamboo drum for 50 Quetzales, as a mercy purchase. Jeremy had obviously learned that as long as he simply persisted, he would eventually make the sale. I didn’t ask him how long he had been working the market, but there were little boys and girls who looked no older than six or seven who were out there hustling and hawking their trinkets.

The poverty in Guatemala is striking. People everywhere are working hard, trying to make a living somehow, and it just seems that the system is holding them down.

The average wage in Guatemala is about eight Quetzales an hour, that’s about $1.25 or perhaps one Euro.

I wonder what they are thinking when they serve tourists like us in luxury hotels. A beer costs 24 Quetzales in any bar or restaurant, or about 3 to 4 hours of work for the average person. A meal for two will easily run 500 or more Quetzales. That would be almost two weeks of work. A night in a good hotel will be 800 to 1500 Quetzales. That’s one month of wages.

What do these people who serve us think about us? In a single week in their country, between meals, hotels, fares, entry fees for various events and places, each of us might spend two years’ worth of wages of an average person.

Is it any wonder that boys like Jeremy, once they are 16 years old and independent, get on a bus and head “al norte” to make a better living for themselves?

I cannot blame them. These people are made of passion and diligence and an indomitable spirit. It’s as if they came straight from Mother Earth.

We are visiting Antigua, one of the most historic cities in Guatemala. I can definitely say I am experiencing culture shock. Antigua is very different from any city I have ever visited, and some main features are very characteristic. For instance, all the roads in the city are paved with cobblestones, very rough cobblestones.  They are lined by narrow sidewalks, often broken, with major holes and walking hazards.

The city is classified as a historic monument, so all the cobblestone roads are supposedly the original colonial roads. They are not paved or cemented. This makes for a very rough ride in cars, vans, busses, tuk-tuks, or motorcycles, which are ubiquitous. Here is a quick video of what the roads are like. Forgive the poor video quality – due to my limited upload bandwidth, but it gives you a sense of the rough rides.

All city streets are like this. I can’t imagine what this does to their tires, suspensions, shocks, and the general reliability of their cars. It’s like speed bumps all the time, everywhere. When you’re in a car (we took many Ubers) you get completely rattled.

Above is a typical street picture. The houses or businesses reach right to the narrow sidewalks and windows either don’t exist, or they are heavily boarded or covered by prison-like bars. The streets, as you can see, are very rough, and there are usually too many cars parked along them.

Here is another view of a typical city street. There are hundreds of blocks like this. The walls by the sidewalk are often broken, covered with graffiti and usually very shabby.

But appearances can deceive. Sometimes these “houses” that are nothing like shabby walls from the street are elaborate homes inside. Sometimes they are hotels, restaurants or other businesses. Going through the doors of these walls is often like going into another world. I will illustrate this in another post showing you outside and inside photographs of our hotel.

Here is another example. There are thousands of facades like this in Antigua, and you can never tell from the outside what it is like inside.

Of course, some views are amazing. Here is a view from approximately the city center looking south to the volcano called Agua. It’s over 12,300 feet tall and towers majestically over the city.

This kind of stuff annoys me.

Politicians do not create jobs. The economy and industry creates jobs. Yes, I create jobs. I created jobs while Obama was president, and I created jobs while Trump was president.

Trump or Obama had nothing to do with my job creation endeavors. And I can say with certainty that I see no difference between the climate for job creation by Obama vs. Trump. It’s been good in the last 10 years. Trump gets no credit from me. The graphs of Obama’s presidency just continued.

But we get sucked into this nonsense.

 

Moondust came out in 2006 when Andrew Smith had set out to interview the twelve men who had walked on the moon. At the time, there were only nine alive. Three had already passed away.

Smith has an easy-to-read, colloquial style, and he weaves background stories about the astronauts in with the core interviews and tries to get answers to the most fundamental question we all have: What was it like to be on the moon?

We learn trivia about the intense competition in the early astronaut corps, and what their families went through during those years. We also get to know the men themselves, from the taciturn and almost reclusive Neil Armstrong to the gregarious and visionary Buzz Aldrin, and all the other astronauts that followed them on their journey.

Smith juxtaposes the moon landing over his own life as a boy in Orinda, California, and what he remembers happened to him on that historic day.

Moondust is at times a bit hard to follow. Its structure and the jumps back and forth and from one astronaut to the other sometimes left me guessing and mildly confused, but I was able to get past that. The tidbits of information, the insight, and the obvious awe the author has for the adventure of the 1960s came through and made it a worthwhile read.

Sadly, as I write this, of the twelve men who walked on the moon, only four are alive anymore. That includes  88-year-old Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), 85-year-old David Scott (Apollo 15), 82-year-old Charlie Duke (Apollo 16) and 82-year-old Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17).

In addition to the missions that landed on the moon, there were a total of nine Apollo missions that left earth orbit and went to orbit the moon: Apollo 8, Apollo 10 and Apollo 13.

The total number of men who left earth orbit is 24 and 12 of those are still alive today.

Only 12 people are with us today in the history of mankind who have seen the earth as a pale blue marble in the black of space, and only four of those have walked on a body other than the earth. All of them are now well into their eighties or older.

I was a 12-year-old boy when I watched the first moon landing. I was sure I would be traveling to the moon as a tourist and spending time in a moon hotel by the time my retirement age came around. I was dreaming big, and I was inspired.

Yet, at this time, humanity has not sent anyone to the moon in over 46 years. The United States does not even have the capability to launch humans into space, not even to low-earth orbit. The only two nations that can do that now are Russia and China. The lack of vision and engagement by our people and our government has starved us out of adventures we took for granted 50 years ago.

Moondust by Andrew Smith made me marvel about all this and it fired up my imagination.

 

No visit to New York City is complete for me without stopping in at the Met and spending some time with my favorite van Gogh paintings there. I probably posted these before, but I just can’t help it. These are some of my favorite paintings in the world.

van Gogh – Roses – 1890

van Gogh – Irises – 1890

 

I have posted about this before, but now it just happened again, and I can’t help but crack up.

It’s open enrollment on my insurance plan, and after going through a number of online pages and verifying information, I had to SIGN. Mind you, the only option I got was to use my mouse and sign my name. This is the best I could do.

Want to forge my signature, anybody?

Somebody tell me, what good is this signature? It has absolutely NOTHING in it that identifies me and that I could later attest to that it is my signature.

NOTHING.

Ridiculous.

Starman in Space

This has got to be one of the coolest things anyone has ever done. On February 6, 2018, Musk shot his Tesla roadster convertible with a space suited dummy in the driver’s seat on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket into an orbit around the sun. The car is now further away from the sun than Mars is. It will circle the sun for billions of years.

We’ll all be gone one day, but that car, and that dummy, will be like new, orbiting the sun.

The fact that a private individual can pull this off is fascinating to me.

Say what you will. Go SpaceX!

Trump really must think we’re all stupid.

If you took a commercial airliner from Dallas, TX to Guatemala, it would take over three hours.

The distance is about the same as that from San Diego to Canada, and the majority of the “hike” is in desert terrain.

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is a world-famous hike that a few thousand people hike every year. It starts at the Mexian border outside of San Diego and goes to the Canadian border in Washington State. Seasoned through-hikers walk 20 to 30 miles a day, every day. They start in April and end in September. The hike is brutal, requires frequent resupply packages, and only the most persistent and hardy hikers finish it. It also costs a hiker a few thousand dollars for resupplies, several pairs of hiking boots that they wear out, and broken gear. You can find out more by reading one of the many books about hiking the PCT. Here is one of them I reviewed: Book Review: Bliss(ters): How I Walked from Mexico to Canada One Summer – by Gail M. Francis.

So now Trump is sending over 5,000 American soldiers to the border to wait for 5 months for the first of these migrant families with children in their arms, in flip-flops, with water bottles in their hands, to reach the American border?

There is so much wrong with this. If the president really believes this caravan is a danger to the safety of the United States, he can definitely wait 5 or 6 months until the caravan gets close and then send troops.

In the interim, the military could use its satellite surveillance to keep track of the caravan.

Of course, not a single one of those migrants in the current caravan will ever make it near the United States border due to the immense hardship of the incredibly long trip. It makes the Mormon hand-cart trips in the 1800s look like a walk in the park in comparison.

Obviously, the president and his supporters are using this to scare us. They are using fear-tactics and xenophobia to whip up the ignorant and uneducated, the people that don’t have the insight to look at a simple map and assess what’s really going on.

Fortunately, most Americans can see through this nonsense.

I can only say: MAGA stands for Make America Stupid Again.

Here is a hilarious movie review by a fellow blogger. Enjoy!

My wife is profoundly snarky. So if you’re going to have a surreal experience, she’s the one to do it with. Last weekend we had one while watching the new movie First Man. Just as Neil Armstrong and crew were preparing to embark on their historical mission, the power failed. Moments later, we wandered into […]

via Putting a Man on the Moon — Mitch Teemley

I have waited for In Saturn’s Rings for several years and have followed their Facebook page. It took the producers years longer to finish it than they thought it would. It was supposed to be done on December 31, 2014, but was finally finished on May 4, 2018. It is a 42-minute documentary made exclusively from real photographs taken by spacecraft, from the Hubble Space Telescope to the Cassini-Huygens space craft. The movie uses no computer generated graphics (CGI) technology. All images are arrangements of actual photographs.

There are not many places in the country where the film is currently shown. On my visit to New York City I decided to go out to the New York Hall of Science in Flushing, NY, about 30 minutes outside of Manhattan where it is currently playing.

I have always been fascinated with Saturn and its rings, and I have written plenty about it here. Here is one of my descriptions from almost five years ago where I marvel about floating in the rings and then actually refer to this movie.

But I was disappointed. Perhaps I am spoiled by the amazing CGI production in movies and documentaries where pictures are enhanced and animations are smooth and stunning. In Saturn’s Rings seemed flat and boring in comparison. But again – I realize that there is value in looking at actual photographs, not made-up stuff. And I give the producer credit for that.

However, there is too much fluff in the movie. It starts out with the Big Bang and plays images of Hubble of distant galaxies. Then it moves into an odd collage of photographs of science and scientists, wasting a lot of time on those flying and merging still photographs that didn’t add any value to the message or the film itself. There were fillers, and there were too many of them.

The film is narrated in parts, but some of the descriptions of images were subtitled rather than narrated. I found that annoying. The images were there for a short time, and rather than looking at the images, I found myself reading the captions that described what I was looking at while the narrator was silent. Then the images were gone and the next ones came up. I missed them. This happened a lot.

In Saturn’s Rings is an admirable effort but ultimately not worth it. The images you see in the movie would be much more valuable in a book. Buy a book on the Cassini mission and I am sure you will see the best photographs there. You can read the captions in leisure, and then look at the images as long as you want. In the movie, you only have a few seconds before the next one comes along. Having the image move, or zoom in or out is not adding enough value to account for the brevity of the viewing experience.

As coincidence would have it, I was flipping through the channels yesterday and came across the Science Channel and found Space’s Deepest Secrets – Cassini’s Grand Finale. This was a documentary about the Cassini mission and it showed spectacular graphics of Saturn taken by Cassini but it also provided professional narration and interviews of scientists along with the history of the program. The subject was similar to that of In Saturn’s Rings, but done much better.

 

An Amazing View

I visited a company on the 36th floor of the Grace Building in New York City. That’s the building that slopes slightly back before it rises straight up, adjacent to Bryant Park. This was the view from their lobby:

The light bars at the top are the reflection of the lamps in the lobby. I could not get rid of those. Bryant Park is below, outside of the frame of this picture, but visible to the human eye standing at the window. With the park there, there will never be any construction in front of this building that could obstruct the view. Prime New York real estate.

The large building in the foreground, of course, is the Empire State Building, and in the very center in the back you can just make out the tower of World Trade Center One, which is down in the financial district at the tip of Manhattan.

The view from this office is incredible.

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