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In good, really good company

Friday, January 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- mildly NSFW if your office can't handle Leonardo, which IMNSHO we should be able to manage now in this 21st century CE -- and besides, it's the weekend ]
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Well, we here at Zenpundit have a particular interest in creative thinking, and this last evening I unexpectedly found myself in excellent creative company…

…in a months-old blog-post by an old friend, an astrophysicist by profession who goes by the name Cygnus on the web — presumably after the constellation that harbors Deneb, and also Kepler-22b, the “first known transiting planet to orbit within the habitable zone of a Sun-like star” (WikiP, since I know no better). Cygnus means “swan” in Greek, and Zeus became a swan for his own imperious purposes when he saw LedaHelen of Troy being one of their offspring (see eggs in Da Vinci‘s image below), with the Trojan War ensuing.


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Here’s then, is the A-Z of creative folk, as Cygnus pulled it together last April as part of an “A-Z- Challenge” — I’m honored and awed to be named in the company of such as Andre Breton, Donald Knuth, George Carlin, Octavia Butler, Samuel R Delany, Dame Frances Yates and the rest:

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For April 2013, my theme for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge was “An A to Z of Masters of the Imagination that You Oughtta Know About.”  In other words, on each day I profiled a person whose brains were just overflowing with weirdness and creativity.  Here’s a list of the posts:

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So that’s Cygnus’ list — quite a dinner party! You’ll recognise some members of your own constellation of creatives here, perhaps — feast on some of those you’re not yet familar with! Cygnus blogs about games and such at Servitor Ludi.

As for me, I’ll simply offer you William Bulter Yeats‘ great poem Leda and the Swan, to celebrate the company I just found myself in, and close out a memorable evening:

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                                 Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

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Test pilot and astronaut Joe Engle meets the Academician

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- how an exchange of Cold War stories broke the ice for US-Soviet cooperation in space ]
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Joe H Engle, X-15 test pilot and Space Shuttle pilot

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I was talking with a friend, ML, and she told me this story of her cousin, USAF Maj Gen Joe Engle (ret’d), test pilot and astronaut, which I reproduce below from a NASA oral history interview. It is the tale of the exchange between diplomatic enemies which opened up joint US-Soviet NASA-MIR collaboration in space — an extraordinary, exemplary dialog. I believe Zenpundit readers will find it powerful reading.

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To set the stage..

When Engle was asked to go to Russia to prepare the way for a joint commission between the US and Soviets to explore the possibilities of space cooperation, he remembers saying:

I was about as right-wing military as could be expected and I had spent a good deal of my professional career on the end of a runway sitting alert to go after them. I said, “I think I’m probably the last guy in the world that you want on that or that they want to see come and work with them.”

To which the response was:

“Well … that’s really kind of why I want you there, as a piece of litmus paper. … I figure if you can make it work and if they can work with you, why, then anybody will work.”

So Joe Engle went to Russia in January 1995, and things did not begin smoothly — but I’ll give you the rest of the tale in his words:

I went over with a group of two or three people and we had scheduled visits with the deputy head of Rosaviacosmos, RSA [Russian Space Agency], and RSC [Sergei Pavlovich Korolev Rocket and Space Corporation], Energia. The gentleman who had been identified to be Tom [ie Gen Tom Stafford]’s counterpart on the joint commission, who was Academician [Vladimir F.] Utkin, who is the most respected rocketeer that Russia’s ever had — well, next to Korolev, but most respected living one, an old gentleman, just a big bear of a guy.

We were not doing well at all. Mr. [Boris D.] Ostroumov had essentially thrown us out of RSA and Mr. Semyanov did throw us out of Energia. He didn’t want anything to do with us, didn’t want any independent—they didn’t know what an independent review group was. It wasman entirely foreign concept to the Russians. They were more prone to the stovepipe, of this enterprise has this task to do and you turn the finished product out and it will fit with this finished product, and you don’t talk to each other. Everybody was very, very closed door about it. So they didn’t want the idea of anybody looking over their shoulder, even their own people looking over each other’s shoulder.

It was a difficult concept to sell, and we were just about to say, “This doesn’t look like it’s going to work.” In fact, I had called Tom from over there and he said, “Well, pack it up and come home.” He said, “We’re not going to waste our time on this.”

And I remember telling him, “Well, we got one more guy, the guy you’re supposed to be the co-chair with, and I’ll go see him, because we can’t move the flight up anyway. It costs too much money to move the flight up.”

So we went to Academician Utkin’s, and he was pretty much the same way. I remember going in and being told to go in and sit in his office and wait for him. He walked in, and at that time, they didn’t have phones with pushbuttons. Each line had a separate phone, so he had fourteen phones on his desk, I remember, and a big map, a wall map of the Soviet Union. It was still Soviet Union then to them. Finally he walked in, strutted in, and sat down at his desk and started making some phone calls. We were sitting there, [William] Bill Vantine was with me and there was an interpreter present.

Finally, after about, I think, about twenty minutes, he turned and he said,”So,” through the interpreter, he said, “So, you are going to tell us how to go to space?”

I was trying to be as diplomatic as possible, but not wimpy about it, and I said, “No. No, sir. We’re here to join with you and go to space together and see if we can combine our resources.”

He reacted with a couple of things about, “But you want to use our space station? You don’t have a space station. You want to use ours.” Finally, he leaned back in his chair and he said, “Let me tell you. I was the head of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Program for the Soviet Union and I designed the SS-19,” which was a superb rocket, booster, and he went to the big map on the wall and he said, “We had — ,” and he started going through the numbers of missiles that they had targeted for New York and Chicago [Illinois], all our major cities. After he’d completed, he walked over and he sat down and he folded his arms and looked at me.

I remember saying, “Well, sir, I know that you did exactly what you thought was the right thing to do for your country.” I said, “At the same time that you were doing that, I was sitting in a [Boeing] F-100 [Super Sabre] in Aviano, Italy, with a nuclear bomb strapped under the belly,” and I walked up and I pointed at Aviano, Italy, and I said, “I had one target, one bomb and one target only, but I felt I was doing the same thing for my country that you were.” I said, “My target was this airfield right here,” and it was back in Hungary; it was not in Russia, but it was in the Soviet Union. I said, “That was my target.” And it’s amazing, the intelligence that the Russians had on us at the time.

He said, “Yes, I know.” And he said, “You would not have made it.”

I said, “Well, I think I would have made it.” I said, “My route was to fly up this –” We had memorized our routes so that we didn’t have to look at maps, so I followed the track up the river valleys and I said, “You had antiaircraft here and you had radar here, so my route was to go around these hills and on in.”

And he started to scowl and he said, “You would not have made it back.”

I said, “No, I would have run out of fuel before I got back, but I was going to bail out in Austria. I felt if I could get to Austria, why, I would make it back.”

And he sat there and he just scowled at me for a while, finally pushed his chair back and he got up and — he was a big guy — and he started to walk around his desk toward me, and I figured that — he wasn’t smiling at all, and I thought he was going to cold-cock me, so I figured I’d stand up and take it like a man. [Laughs]

I stood up and hadn’t really got my breath from standing up and he just grabbed me and gave me one of those big Russian bear hugs and he said, “It’s better this way, isn’t it?” [Laughs]

I recall just before he said that, when I finished I said, “This was what I was doing, but I really think that we have the opportunity to take off our gloves and do something together for the whole world.” And that’s when he didn’t smile, but he walked around and he said, “It’s better this way.”

So he set the commission up. A month later, when Tom went over, it was all set up and ready to go, and it’s been working for over — well, it’ll be ten years coming up next year. And even Academician Utkin said, “We’ll try this, but these things don’t ever last more than a year or two.” [Laughs]

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For more on the contrasting philosophies of the US and Soviets with regard to their fighter aircraft and space programs, and what it took to reach accomodation, read on from the tail end of page 16.

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Man in the moon: armed and dangerous

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- just kiddin' ]
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Chris Anzalone keeps us all up to date on the videos, graphics and anasheed used by various jihadist movements in recruitment and rejoicing/mourning via his various Ibn Siqilli blogs. Yesterday, he featured the graphic above in a post on Jabha al-Nusra, and it caught my eye.

The crescent moon (normally accompanied by a star) is a symbol of Islam. The man, Chris tells me, is “just the silhouette of a photo of a gunman from a photograph, which, if I remember correctly, isn’t from Syria”. The outline map, however, is of Syria. The black banner motif inside the map, reading “No god but God” and showing the Prophet’s seal, is now pretty widespread, but with some AQ and sometimes specifically Khorasan / Mahdist associations.

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The man in the moon is a jihadist? Does NASA have drone capability? Is this what President Reagan‘s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative was all about?

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Thy game be won?

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- a theology of little things, sports and wars included ]
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Let’s start with Tim Tebow, and phrase the issue this post raises as a question:

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The headline of a TMZ post, God Is Saving the Broncos … Says Colorado Pastor, clearly suggests that God takes sides in sporting events.

Pastor Wayne Hanson — who runs Summit Church in Castle Rock, CO where Tim’s dad often speaks — tells TMZ God is actively intervening in Denver Broncos football games … and aiding Tim on the field because of his strong faith.

Hanson tells us, “It’s not luck. Luck isn’t winning 6 games in a row. It’s favor. God’s favor.”

Pastor Hanson adds, “God has blessed his hard work.”

We asked Hanson if Tebow would be winning games if he wasn’t such a strong believer — and the pastor replied, “No, of course not.”

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Tebow himself, if I’m reading my news correctly, realizes that his God might have as much to teach by having a sports team lose as by having it win, hence his prayer as quoted above — “no matter, win or lose…”

And that level of subtlety would also be present in the sports theology of Notre Dame, if (once again) I’m not mistaken:

The team is unapologetically Catholic. Before every game, the Fighting Irish participate in a Mass overseen by one of the team’s two appointed Catholic priests, a tradition dating back to the 1920s. At the end of that ceremony, each player receives a priest-blessed medal devoted to a Catholic saint—a different saint every game for four years. Also during the pregame Mass, players can kiss a reliquary containing two splinters that Notre Dame believes came from the cross of Jesus. “Most of the non-Catholic players are Christian, so when you tell them these splinters came from the actual cross of Jesus they are humbled to reverence,” Doyle says.

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I appreciate that combination of prayer for what one hopes and surrender to what happens, it’s way less heavy handed than supposing you can gauge Divine Providence by the results at the end of a game — or a war.

One Huffington Post writer was moved to ask: If Tim Tebow Were Muslim, Would America Still Love Him?

That’s an interesting question, roughly analogous to “If Tim Tebow had a losing streak, would America still love him? And God?

And if God does routinely show preference for one team over another by granting them victory, what are we to make of these two examples?

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It seems the universe scales quite happily from tens of billions of years (or more) to femtoseconds (or less), and from almost a hundred billion light years (or more) to the Planck length (and I’m not so sure about less) — and my own tiny worm of a lifeline has given me “experiences” of a car rolling over a center divider and landing upside down, some moments of breathtaking beauty, times of bordeom, rapid eruptions of anger, the rock of early electric Dylan and the Baroque of Bach’s Matthew Passion. And I have causally picked my nose, almost without knowing I was doing it.

Who’s to say a God, ground of being, Great Mystery Power, or simple unaided universe can’t “purposefully” do Big Bangs and enormous time lags while gasses and galaxies and solar systems are formed and dissolve, flashes of lightning, inspiration and insemination, reproductions sexual and asexual, lives long and short, painting by El Greco and Vermeer, horrible puns and ugly Oscar ceremonies, mu mesons and mitochondria, prayers answered, hung up on in disgust, or unheard on account of it’s the Lord’s Day of Rest — grasses, feedlots, cows, milk, beef, methane…?

Depending, of course, on your definition of “purposefully” — since the purpose may be no more and no less than the unfolding of what is.

Whatever it is (or isn’t) that encompasses all this, it’s in little things as surely as big ones — and thumb wrestling, too. So there you have it: my theology of little things.

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Don’t you mess with my mother the moon

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- a poor, low-res copy of the greatest photo, a poem of mine, and a recent report of a scenario involving nuking the moon, apparently considered and, I am happy to say, rejected by the military ]
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First, the greatest photo:
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Photo: Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941

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Next, the poem:

Don’t you mess with my mother the moon!
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Don’t you mess with my mother the moon!
Pearl.
Superb in the night sky.
Which you treat as a junkyard.

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I am serious. I was never
more serious. This, which you thinking
life to be composed of things consider
real estate, rock,
subtly balances that other,

portending at the eye
that same angle — and that other, too
you would colonize,
strip, slash, mine, burn,
rape had you the chance, were it not
so magisterial a furnace.

Gold, which figures the sun
with silver the moon,
you have tapped for coinage,
despoiling hills for greed,
valleys for your convenience:
nor is your idiocy limited in reach
by anything but your idiocy.

Sun and moon are married
in a wedding you cannot conceive,
to which you lack invitation
though it was offered you.
The simple light of the night sky
escapes you, neither glimpse
nor sonata troubles your soul with its ripples,

for you lack, altogether,
reflection.

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I wrote that poem quite a few years ago, and intended it as an appeal from the side of joyous poetic appreciation against the prevalent idea that the moon is a chunk of rock to be mined and otherwise exploited like any other. I didn’t suppose then that my voice would be heard against the amplified voices of technology, commerce, and human hubris—but voices will be voices, even in the wilderness.

The Japanese have a tradition of “moon-viewing” festivals — Tsukimi – a superb idea, appropriately reflective of the culture that produced the zen poet Ryokan, who celebrated a thief’s visit to pillage his mountain hermitage with the words:

The thief left it behind:
the moon
at my window.

The thief couldn’t steal it — but boyo, we still might be able to figure out a way to mess it up…

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I for one don’t ever want to look at the moon and know that someone is using it as a projection screen for advertisements, let alone that its face is disfigured by robotic factories producing cheap running shoes – bad enough that we’ve left our trash there already!

Credit: NASA / Orbiter shows trash, tracks at Apollo moon landing sites

Look, my techno-leaning human friends — mine the asteroid belt if you must, I suppose Disney will eventually get the rights to Saturn, and make a ride of it – but leave the moon, leave the moon alone.

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Then, the scenario:

I mean, how myopic can we get? According to Forbes yeaterday:

There’s a couple of preposterous reports out today alleging that the United States considered blowing up the moon in order to freak out the Soviets during the Cold War. Apparently something called “A Study of Lunar Research Flights” seriously pondered a moon bombing, and scientists as notable as Carl Sagan were even involved in planning the lunar attack, which was to take place in 1959 — before cooler heads prevailed.

Yup. There was a scenario — not a plan but a scenario — that was being explored: A STUDY OF LUNAR RESEARCH FLIGHTS:

Nuclear detonations in the vicinity of the moon are considered in this report along with scientific information which might be obtained from such explosions. The military aspect is aided by investigation of space environment, detection of nuclear device testing, and capability of weapons in space. A study was conducted of various theories of the moon’s structure and origin, and a description of the probable nature of the lunar surface is given. The areas discussed in some detail are optical lunar studies, seismic observations, lunar surface and magnetic fields, plasma and magnetic field effects, and organic matter on the moon.

I’ve corrected a spelling error, but otherwise that’s the abstract, as found within the .mil domain. I haven’t seen the document itself, but the abstract speaks for itself.

And no, as far as I can tell, the scenario didn’t involve “blowing up” the moon, which would have been pretty difficult as the Forbes article indicates. Apparently, though, some part of the military-industrial machine explored, discussed, and finally rejected the idea of hitting the moon with a single nuke — enough to switch a light-bulb on, it was hoped, above the Soviet military-industrial head.

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And finally:

I’ve dragged this poem out of retirement, and hereby give you permission to reproduce it in toto, with or without the rest of this post — and indeed encourage you do to so. Tweet and RT the URL for this post, repost the poem, agree with me, disagree –

This latest revelation makes me feel it’s time for a conversation about convenience, commerce and science vs beauty, reverence and awe — about what the moon is worth to us.

It’s my birthday, do me a favor — spread the word: Don’t you mess with my mother the moon!

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