Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Space Worms

Remember the end of Independence Day, when Will Smith defeats the aliens by uploading a virus into their computers? I always thought it was a quaint assumption on the screenwriter's part that aliens would be using Windows 95 as their operating system.

Until I read today over at that the International Space Station has a actual computer worm (the W32.Gammima.AG worm) infecting it's computer system. This is a worm originally designed to steal information from on-line gamers. And somehow it got on the space station's computer!

No, I'm not making any of this up.

And it gets weirder. They used Norton AntiVirus to get rid of it! Really. Here's the actual NASA press release. Read the second sentence. Read further and you'll be relieved to know they are now installing Norton on all their laptops. In space!

Shouldn't they have thought of that before they took off?

Doesn't exactly give you a lot of faith in NASA, does it (to be fair, there are alotta space agencies involved)? My guess is someone was playing Defender up their on their laptop, when they were supposed to be working.

Since we're on the subjects of software and space, I found a nifty little open source application called Stellarium that gives you a realistic, 3-D view of the night sky, from any time and any place. And while it's fun to look up, say, what the sky looked like the time and place you were born, the real use of this is to set it to your own city, in real time. So the next time you're outside, taking out the garbage, and see what you think is a planet and wanna figure out which one, your can fire up Stellarium when you get back in and find out. You can also zoom in to any part of the sky, search for objects, turn on constellation art, star labels, all sorts of cool stuff. If you have a telescope, you can approximate the field of view of your scope while looking for some particularly hard to find galaxy. Planetariums even use it for their projections.

I've been using Starry Night for years, and have found it a good program. But Stellarium is not only better, but free! And the fact that it's open source means there is no hidden agenda, or profit motive at work. The only agenda is to create the best piece of astronomy software possible.

Again, it's free, so download it and check it out!

Below is a screen shot of tonight's sky rendered by Stellarium, pointed toward my favorite part of the sky this time of year: Sagittarius, Scorpio, and the Galactic Center! Constellations and labels are turned on. Click to enlarge.

Monday, August 25, 2008

She Dives

I wrote this poem in my head yesterday while watching my daughter jump off the diving board for the first time.

I realize in retrospect it is actually a poem about going back to school.

My daughter at the edge of the diving board
points not straight ahead, nor toward the closest wall
but directly at me, like an arrow, a pointed finger
my position clearly marked in her mind: you are here.

She dives.

Her world is consumed by the jump, the splash,
her swim to the wall to begin it all again.
I am pinned to the freefall itself
caught in the eternal split second
when she is airborne, fully beyond my grasp.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Chewy Nougat Center

Mona, her mind sadly clouded by back-to-school and the all-Michael-Phelps, all-the-time coverage of the Olympics, has abandoned the word of the week and replaced it with a theme of the week. College. I can do that.

This is fiction, by the way, not a confessional.

Or is it? (Insert creepy music here as we fade to black.)

I am not an easy man to like.

I was less likable in college. Less able to cover my self-interest with a candy-coated shell of easy-going respectability. My wife, my kids, my friends, my co-workers, they look at the shell during our backyard bar-b-ques, our weekend bicycle rides. They look at the shell and are satisfied, and look no further. Everyone likes candy, right?


My senior year in college I slept with a girl who had just lost her mind. Really. Her name was Rachael. Her roommate had taken out a Ouija board after a few too many bong hits, a few too many kamakazies, and I don't know, I wasn't paying too much attention when she told me all this, but some dead girl with black doll eyes had apparently shown up in her brain and grabbed her wrist and tried to pull her through the board. I know, it doesn't make much sense, but again, I was distracted trying to get into her pants, and may have gotten some of the details wrong. I showed up a couple hours later, in the dorm, and heard it all then. She was by herself in the lounge area, crying. She told me her story, I sympathized, held her hand, dried her tears, rubbed her back.

The sex was surprisingly hot. I'd been expecting her to just go through the motions, get it over with. But she was really into it.

At one point I said her name, I moaned "Rachael," and she moaned back, "I'm not Rachael," and I didn't laugh, though I wanted to. She was one fucked up girl.

I hung out with her awhile Saturday morning, to be nice, but avoided her calls and her knocks at my door the remainder of the weekend. When she showed up in my Monday morning Ethics class unannounced, staring at me with all that cheap mascara running down her face, I broke it off. Dumped her.

She dropped out of college a couple weeks later. I finished out the term, got my degree, got a job, got married, had kids, the whole enchilada. Built that candy coated shell around my skin until it became my second skin.

I never saw her again.

Until last night.

When I dreamt I was back in college, shaving, and looked in the mirror and saw her face. And she said "Remember me?" and laughed. "Are you Rachael?" I asked. "I'm whoever you want me to be, baby," she cooed, and her eyes turned into black doll eyes, and she reached through the mirror for my hand. I screamed, and dropped the razor. And woke up.

"Are you alright?" asked my wife.

No, would be the short answer. But I said nothing.

I'm seeing her face, and her dead black eyes, all day today. In the sunny glare of random store windows, the rear view mirror of my car, the refection in my children's bathwater, the shine of my wife's earrings.

I am afraid to go to sleep tonight.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Every Time You're Mean To Your Sister, A Unicorn Cries

The title has nothing to do with the rest of the post, it just popped into my head this weekend and has been stuck there ever since. I didn't say it. Wanted to. But didn't.

No camping trip last weekend, due to heavy rains. And although rain is always welcome here in the high desert, and Saturday was a dream, cabin fever settled in with a vengeance by Sunday afternoon. Thus the crying unicorns.

I know I've written about it a lot in the past, but I can't help but gush: the Cassini spacecraft is the single coolest thing we've ever flung into space (at least until the New Horizons probe gets to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt and eventually even our good friend The Oort Cloud). The Cassini mission just gets cooler and cooler, weirder and weirder, dipping and diving among the moons and rings and other strange critters orbiting Saturn, changing course every few weeks to check out something new and improbable. It's not a pre-programmed path, but done somewhat on-the-fly; whenever they find something cool they scoot Cassini past it for a closer look. A few months ago Cassini did a spectacular fly-by of Saturn's bizarre ice-spewing moon Enceladus, where it flew through a giant ice geyser to see what it was made of, how hot it was, etc.

Now it's back! Flying at an altitude of 30 miles, going 64,000 miles an hour, Cassini took this shot:

Let me repeat that: 64,000 mph, and skimming only 30 miles above the surface. That's an exacting flight path, particularly when it's being flown by people literally 800 million miles away.

Next pass will be from 15 miles high.

The reason Enceladus is getting so much attention is because of those geysers. They come out of a set of four great cracks in the ice called the Tiger Stripes. Beneath the cracks is some sort of heat source, probably in the form of tidal friction from Saturn (though the Babe in the Universe thinks, predictably, that it may be a black hole). The combination of water, a heat source, and the presence of carbon molecules (discovered in the ice geyser during the last fly-by) have made this number one with a bullet on the short list of places offering the possibility of life in our solar system. Nowhere else have water, a heat source, and carbon molecules been found in the same place. All three are considered prerequisites for life.

This is an exciting time. Ice on Mars. Methane lakes on Titan.

Life here on Earth is tenacious and resilient enough so that we find it in the Arctic, in deserts, in acidic environments, high radiation environments, huddled against underwater volcanic vents. Perhaps it's merely a hedge against my Godless world view, but I'd like to believe life is as plentiful out in space, and as infinitely varied, as it is here on Earth.

We might find out real soon.

I'd be remiss if I didn't add that Pedro pitched a poem of a game this last Saturday, his best outing of the season. 7 innings pitched, 1 earned run, 8 hits, 1 walk. He's back! And, not coincidently, the Metros are in first place.

The Yankees, meanwhile, with virtually the same record, are 10 games out of first place. Ah, the vicissitudes of baseball.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bourbon and Gymnastics

Well, first off, a correction: the delightful and sky-savvy Scarlett tells me Hanny (of voorwerp fame, see my last post) is a woman, not a man. Actually, Scarlett put the whole thing much more succinctly (and correctly) in her comments than I did in the post, so I'll just quote her comments directly: "Hanny van Arkel is a...25 year old dutch school teacher who knows zip about astronomy but wanted to help search through all the gazillions of photos at galaxy zoo, saw this unusual image and pointed it out to the guys in charge. Yes, she gets to name it."

Thanks Scarlett. Clear skies!

I've been battling a deeply annoying, noxious post-Rockygrass miasma of an allergic reaction the last few weeks, in the form of a large, rapacious and insanely itchy skin rash. Think The English Patient. Think Morgellon's Disease. Think Bug. I can't sleep because of the itching. Luckily, I got a new bottle of Maker's Mark for my birthday, and the Olympics are on, so every time the itching set in I'd pour myself a tumbler of bourbon and fire up the Tivo and watch gymnastics and volleyball and swimming all night. I've never been a big Olympics watcher, primarily because for every 10 minutes of sports they show there's 50 minutes of force-fed inspirational life story bullsh1t to sit through. I don't trust people who are trying to inspire me. I'd rather have angry bees shoved up my nose than listen to the pre-fab morality plays NBC insists on shoving down my throat.


With Tivo (actually it's a generic Tivo-ish DVR that came free with the satellite dish) I can fast-forward through all the bullsh1t and watch actual athletes performing actual sports.

So it hasn't been all bad.

And the girls have been watching the Tivo-compressed Olympics every day after daycare, so they are now obsessed with gymnastics. Yay! They run into the living room and tumble around til dinner. KK calls it "gymnastic-ing." As in "Look, Daddy, I'm gymnastic-ing!"

I finally got to see a dermatologist yesterday, so steroids are flowing through my bloodstream like army ants, and the rash is on the wane. Life is good. Or better, anyway.

Last camping trip of the summer this weekend. We're going up to the Sangre De Cristo range (click the pic above to see it up close), which typically host the clearest skies I've ever seen, and taking the telescope with us for the first time ever. If it doesn't break or dent on the trip up, it should be fun. Jupiter and the moon have been doing a nice little dance in the sky these last few days. Let's hope the weather cooperates (see how I effortlessly threw in the word of the week there at the very end, Mona?).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hanny's Voorwerp

No one knows what that blue thing in the picture is. It's called "Hanny's Voorwerp" (Hanny is the name of the Dutch guy who discovered it; Voorwerp means "object" in Dutch). It's gas of some kind, and something is (or was) lighting it up, but no one can figure out what is (or was) doing the actual lighting up.

It looks like a little blue alien guy to me, his arms hugging something we can't see. Or maybe he's doing the hokey-pokey. You put your voorwerp in, you put your voorwerp out....

The theory currently making the rounds is that the galaxy in the middle of the picture once had a big, bright quasar that lit up the voorwerp (I love that word), then disappeared. So the quasar is gone, but evidence of it's light remains in the voorwerp.

The coolest thing about it is that is was discovered by an amateur astronomer. There's this site called Galaxy Zoo where regular folks can log into a vast catalog of galaxy images and classify them, thus helping out the scientific community, not to mention being able to look a a bunch of cool galaxy pictures. SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Life) does this too. Hanny was doing just that, classifying galaxies, saw the blue blob, told the Galaxy Zoo about it, and the rest is history.

Don't know if they're gonna let Hanny name it or not.

Friday, August 8, 2008


Mona tells us to "cut." Here's where the knife landed.

Rachael was sitting on the floor, leaning against a toilet in a stall of the girl’s bathroom, dress hiked, legs slightly apart and pulled up knees to neck, the needle point of an earring in her right hand. She was cutting a small, jagged cross into the inside of her left thigh.

She had just come from an assembly about self-mutilation, because some wannabe goth girl had gone too far, lost too much blood and fainted in the lunchroom right into her beenie-weenies and was now in the hospital. Amateur, thought Rachael. The girl had subsequently shown up on the parental radar in every house in town, and so an assembly had been hastily assembled in the gymnasium. A powerpoint on self esteem was shown, a lady from social services was trotted out to try to put out the fire. Her voice was lively as she talked, in the way that cartoon birds are lively, but her face was pale and bloodless. Her eyes focused on a point on that back wall of the gym, just over their heads. Zombie, thought Rachael.

Then the school psychologist got up and talked earnestly about emotional numbness in the face of modern American life. The usual suspects, thought Rachael. Divorce. Drugs. Teenage pregnancy. The internet. How kids today had been left hungry, empty, abandoned, and were desperate to feel something real, conjure something true and unequivocal. That’s why they cut themselves, he said. To feel something.

Rachael was pretty sure he was missing the point. Numbness wasn’t the problem.

Numbness would be a relief.

The bell rang. She wiped the blood away with toilet paper, pocketed the earring, scooted off to class. A few spots of blood formed and dried along the edge of the cut as the day passed, tiny flakes of it dropping like scales of rust onto the dirty tiles of the floor below.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Angular Banjos Sound Good to Me

I wrote about Rockygrass last week but barely mentioned the music. So here's my favorite from the weekend: The Sparrow Quartet. It was one of the few acts that I ventured out of the water to go and see close up. Two banjo virtuosos (Bela Fleck and Abagail Washburn), a fiddle (Casey Driessen) and cello (Ben Solee). The two banjo attack gives them the pop and the drive, the cello and fiddle ground it and lend it a kind of formality. Their lead singer, Abigail Washburn is very into Chinese culture, which gives them another wrinkle (and make me think of the "angular banjos" line in that Steely Dan song). If this doesn't sound like old school, Beverly-Hillbilly's-theme-song bluegrass, that's because it's not. These guys have a sound all their own. Anyway, a clip is below, of them jamming in Beijing with Chinese musicians (intercut with mini-interviews). It's a little long at 10 minutes, but listen to the first couple minutes, at least; the cross-cultural collision is pretty cool.

I just found this on Youtube. A great compilation of the sights and sounds of Rockygrass 07 (yes, we were at that one too). Gives a great taste of why the festival is as fun as it is. Looks like a bunch of freakin hippies to me. These kids today.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Magic Realism and the Secret Life of Lawns

I used to hate mowing the lawn. I'd dream up poems in my head while I did it, using the standard boiler-plate teenage angst about conformity and the sublimation of nature. My Dad tells me I was very bad at mowing, leaving huge swaths of lawn unmowed while I was busy composing my angry anti-lawn manifestos.

I’m not much better at mowing now, but one thing has changed; weirdly, I now love lawn care. Well, not love, maybe, but enjoy. Using the little whirl-a-gig thing to spread fertilizer in the Spring. Fine-tuning the sprinklers as the jets of water chase my girls across the grass. The bits of grass sticking to the sweat on my leg (there, I used the word “sweat,” Mona, thus fulfilling my word o’ the week obligations) as I mow. Giving the mower electric cord just the right flick to get it over a rock or a potted plant (we have an electric mower, which is quiet and relatively maintenance free, but not for the easily frustrated; stringing the cord successfully after you without getting tangled up requires strategy and patience).

More importantly, where I used to see mowing the lawn as a badge of conformity, I now see it as a vessel, albeit small, for creativity and individuality. Across the street is a wall of three perfectly green, perfectly kept lawns. The owners are retired, assumedly nothing better to do than obsess about lawn care, and that is fine with me. They are all nice people. And they have nice lawns. They’re expressing themselves.

My next door neighbor, however, is the bad seed (pun somewhat intended) on the block. Never waters. Never mows. Ever. He has no actual grass left on his lawn anymore, as the Big Heat here in the high desert has baked it dead. All that's left are tall towers of weeds and many sprouting junk trees (the actual name is Paradise trees, I think, but they are nasty things, weed trees, unrepentantly predatory). In the spring dandelions rear their yellow heads and their seeds march toward my lawn as if driven by manifest destiny. I don’t care, particularly. He has a lot of things on his plate. And I’m a believer in what you could call passive bio-diversity; I try to keep the lid on the weeds in my lawn, but I have no interest in eradicating them, and rarely use herbicides. The weeds that are already on my lawn can stay, and give the biologically diverse finger to the perfectly manicured lawns across the street.

In The Novel, I went on and on about the secret lives of lawns, the mini-ecosystem of grubs and worms and bugs and aphids, the menagerie of critters (cats, dogs, foxes, raccoons) sneaking across it at night, the tangled beauty of everyday objects, from broken garden gnomes to the shimmering arc of water thrown from a lawn spinkler, late at night. I was trying to construct a version of Magic Realism specific to the suburbs. But with The Novel long finished, I no longer feel the need to belabor the point. I’m happy poised between extremes, the anarchy of the lawn next to me, the rigid tyranny of the lawns across the street.