Digitized We Fall

Photo credit: GBlakeley

If the nation is divided, blame computing. A nation digitized against itself cannot stand. When we invented the computer we started down a slippery slope by reducing information to data—a series of binary on/off switches. Everything became zero or one, plus or minus, yes or no…us or them.

In the process of digitizing information, we have also distilled knowledge and understanding to extremes. Once you express ideas in absolutes, the next step is to think that way. Life imitates information. So now we have red states and blue states and politicians pandering to their “base,” which is not really the base at all but the fringe. We’ve got a left wing and right wing but the body politic is missing its core.

Remember the proverbial pendulum that would dependably swing back when things got out of hand? That grandfather clock has been replaced with a digital readout. It’s not just a metaphor. Technology changes how we view information. Sure, a digital watch tells exact time—it’s 11:47:03. But precision is no substitute for context. The reliable hands of an analog clock pointed to the hour in relation to the day. We saw what time it was and what time it wasn’t.

No more. Today we calculate but we don’t figure. We advance but don’t progress. Taking things to extremes, the Internet connects like-minded people so they can communicate, commiserate, coordinate, instigate. This gives radical causes a louder voice. The media comply with publicity in a quest to sensationalize events into big stories. Everything achieves “controversy” status. We used to have talking heads but now they shout.

Through this polarized filter we see the world as a snapshot but not the whole picture, like a digital photo distorted by poor resolution.

Why do we reduce, produce, record and convey information in this way? Because it’s easy, fast and cheap. Where will it end? We need only look at our digital devices to know: We’re going to crash. That’s because digital and electronic systems function perfectly or not at all. It’s everything or nothing. A mechanical system on the other hand, like an old model automobile, undergoes a graceful degradation. It gradually becomes less efficient until it peters out. In the past, you could always prop the carburetor open with a pencil. But in the electronic world of black boxes, we have no role in how the car runs and little advance warning before it dies completely. This total system failure is what engineers call catastrophic degradation.

Depending on machines is frightening enough. Let’s not allow how we think to depend on them too.

Rebirth of a Nation

[Illustrators: Sudowoodo, terdpong pangwong]

I want to have a little talk with you about the birds and the bees. As you know, right now, your body politic is going through an awkward transition that brings with it strange desires, excitement and also feelings of uncertainty.

You may have noticed changes taking place that you didn’t expect and don’t understand. I want you to know that everything is going to be okay. We all go through this and it is perfectly normal, and in many ways a beautiful thing.

Remember when you were little and I told you that Republicans were made of frogs and snails and puppy dog tails, and Democrats were made of sugar and spice and everything nice? Well sometimes these two very different types of people come together and even go out with each other. I know you think this sounds pretty gross and you’re right to make that face.

But the reason we come together is to create a new nation, conceived in liberty. Remember when Fluffy had kittens? It’s the same idea. You see, it’s a natural cycle. Every four years we have an election. Don’t be embarrassed. These are the facts of life. In the election the Democrat meets the Republican. Then, a few months later, there’s a new birth of freedom as your Uncle Abe would say.

I know it all sounds very weird right now. When you grow up, after you are old enough to register to vote, you will meet a candidate and fall in love and make a new nation together too. I guess what I’m trying to say is, even though it doesn’t seem like it now, you will get through these growing pains, and when you do, things will get a lot better. I promise.

So now you know where you came from—you came from people. If you have any questions, ask your forefathers.

From Earth to Moon and Back

Source: NASA

Here’s to all the unsung engineers who made the Apollo 11 moon landing possible. I say this with particular pride because my husband was one of them. A systems engineer for a NASA sub-contractor, he was a card-carrying member of the IEE (from his early days in the UK) and IEEE (US). His expertise was in military/aerospace radar in applications such as tracking and guidance. This technology was used to land the lunar module, dock it back with the command module after the moon landing, and return the spaceship to Earth. (For more details, go to the link at the bottom of this post.)

My husband with a rooftop microwave dish, Ilford, Essex, England (c.1947)

Early wireless communication for the Apollo mission (RCA)

Below is a link to a press release. Read all about space radar, wireless lunar radios, HD-to-TV signals, digital rocket launch technology, and other precursors to the tiny cellular computers we now carry around every day.



For Those Who Need Comfort on Mother’s Day

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

The most important poem I have ever read is Carrion Comfort  by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I turn to it often for comfort. But I must quickly add that it is not a greeting card message or saccharine rhyme. It may take some soul searching to discover that despair can be felt as a kind of sickening comfort to wallow in, and that we must find reasons not to do so.

The poem can be read and heard here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44392/carrion-comfort

Hopkins was a priest and his work is both lofty and profound. I have recently re-posted a helpful analysis (Carrion Comfort: Hopkins Wrestles with God) by a contemporary poet (Hokku).

The poem ends with one of the most enlightened devices imaginable. For those who do not think it blasphemy to say “My God,” after reading this poem you will always say it twice from now on: The first time as a secular expression of shock, and the second as a sacred expression of awe.

In the audio clip below you will hear why the poem is so important to me, as I explain it to my daughter.






A thoughtful, line-by-line interpretation of one of the most important poems ever written.


We have seen in earlier postings how the 19th century British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins suffered from terrible episodes of depression, the worst aspects of which were depicted in his poem I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark.BonnatJac.

We may see today’s poem as a mate to that other work, because it deals with the same topic, but in a slightly different way. It has the odd title Carrion Comfort.

We should first make sure we know what is meant by carrion. Put very simply, it means dead and decaying flesh. It has a strong undertone of something very unpleasant, as when we speak of vultures feeding on carrion — on dead animals. Many humans, too, eat dead animals, but tend to avoid any signs of decay in what they eat. That did not stop me from now and then remarking to meal mates, when I was…

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My New Favorite Photo of Myself

At my age, one prefers photos taken from a great distance away. Here is a recent photo of me taken by my daughter. She takes after my husband who would pose me against a backdrop such as a vast landscape and tell me that I was needed “just for scale”.

The New Colossus


The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

–Emma Lazarus


Colossus of Rhodes image {{PD-old-70}}

No News Is True News

Truth Pravda Russian Dictionary

For over a century, Russia had two major newspapers, Pravda and Izvestia. In Russian, “pravda” means “truth” and “izvestia” means “news.” Those sound like good names for newspapers. But they were all propaganda. A famous Russian saying, evoking these pillars of journalism, can be translated to something like this: “There’s no truth in The News, and no news in The Truth.”

Ain’t that the truth?