Friday, 27 July 2012

When the olympic bid was won

(Inspired by Sara's post)

On 6 July 2005 I was living in our house (with R, a Scot) on an island (Berneray, population 130) in the Outer Hebrides, wondering if I would ever get broadband. And still getting used to seeing the open sea from most windows in the house. On the days it wasn't raining, I went for long walks on the beach, and watched planes fly high, overhead, to America. Despite the walking, I was overweight.

We watched London win the bid, on satellite TV. We were surprised, thinking Paris was going to get it.

I was a self-employed person, doing education research, working on funding body content, and doing local website work. Bits and pieces. I didn't really have a clue what I was doing, or wanted to do, in life. Faithwise, agnostic; politically, socialist liberal somewhere, I guess.

On 27 July 2012, things are different.

I'm in the West Midlands, renting with people I didn't know or meet until I turned up. The NHS are fixing me, and have been for a while. Brushes with mortality, travels to America (and a couple of years living there), Sweden, Finland, Denmark and other places, death and life, focus the mind.

Now, I'm engaged to B (an American), and do have a clue what I want to do in life. I'm still self-employed, but am more focused on a few specific things, academic, science and literature.

I've written a heck of a lot in various media over those seven years, probably a few million words. Not sure how much of it is good, or was worthwhile. But, generally, writing is usually a good thing to do, even though the media changes, sometimes necessarily.

Politically, I'm somewhere between liberal and libertarian. I really can't stand intolerance, in the myriad of forms it takes. Still overweight, and still agnostic, though.

There's no real point to this post (to paraphrase Sara). It's momentarily interesting to think of then, and now, and the changes (many, some good, some bad) in between. And watching the opening ceremony itself... Many, many good things in a quietly subversive but also proud (in a positive way) ceremony; of which the best thing was:

... which is also ironic, or appropriate, on a personal level as I've spent much of the last two decades, and especially the seven years between the bid being won and the ongoing opening ceremony, using his invention. Tim Berners-Lee is up there as one of the great scientists, and inventors, of mankind. Like other scientists and inventors, he used the discoveries of others, and built on them to make something new. In this case, an easy way for anyone to share and access information and digital content with anyone else.

I met him and had a great chat, while failing to outdrink the other CERN people, at the WWW conference in Boston in December '95. The next month, just before giving birth to Ariadne, he sent a nice email with congratulations and a message that was read out at the launch event. Which was cool. 

His tweet during the ceremony applies not just to the web, but arguably to the NHS and healthcare, to information access both online and through libraries, to education and self-empowerment:



My favorite Olympic moment (and it doesn't contain any sport...).

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Coding


Today I (unexpectedly) did some coding. Only 15 lines of coding, and odd coding at that.

But deeply satisfying. There's obvious parallels between coding and writing, that become more obvious when you do both. Creating something from nothing. That something having an internal logic. That something working, when you "test" it under certain conditions.

It's a nice piece of code.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Home

NASA are continuing to release pictures taken from the International Space Station, and previous missions, for anyone to use. Consequently, people have been making time lapse movies, some of which end up on Vimeo.

There's several good ones, amongst them this one. Best played on a full screen, in a dark room, with the sound up.

View from the ISS at Night from Knate Myers on Vimeo.

Friday, 20 July 2012

July 20th: the day of mankind's greatest achievements

It's July 20th today. Three things, in space, happened on this day. Individually and together, these count as some of the biggest things man has done.

1969.

A large part of my book-reading fascination came from watching TV programs on space exploration. Of which the most significant mission was announced, and demanded, by this man in 1962:

And it happened, on July 20th 1969. It's difficult to argue against this being the most impressive thing mankind has ever done in history. Bar nothing else.

Which kicked me off onto a long childhood, adolescence, then adulthood of reading science fiction. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of books from authors such as Asimov, Clarke, Aldiss and Adams. And science fact; plenty of science and space fact, such as the books of Patrick Moore, and - especially - Cosmos, by Carl Sagan.

1976.

July 20th, 1976 - the first spacecraft to touch down on another planet and start sending back pictures does so. Here's the first picture it sent:

Take a moment to pause and think about that. A spacecraft went to another planet (taking 10 months), did several days of orbits, successfully touched down on a hostile surface, analysed soils, took pictures, and sent back data for over six years.

All using 1970s technology.

null

2011.

The touchdown of the last space shuttle mission, the day after it left the International Space Station and started its descent to Earth.

There were people in space before the Apollo 11 moon landing. There have been people in space after the Space Shuttle program. But in terms of seeing, watching on TV and online, the big space things, those that emotionally charge and inspire us, those 42 years and one day from when man first stepped on the moon, and when the last Space Shuttle returned, marked the high point of where man went, and how he or she got there.

(I've just realised those 42 years and 1 day encompass very nearly all of my life. But now, we're in a post-Space Shuttle age)

There are other endeavors in space. The International Space Station flies over us at speed, often bright in the evening or night sky. Probes and satellites and other machinery go out to the planets, beyond the solar system, to the asteroids and to Mars.

And its to Mars that I hope to see man, or woman, put foot on before I die. Though in these ongoing, partisan, economically turbulent times, that particular dream seems further away than it's seemed for years, decades. Can man get there, as prophesised and discussed in books such as Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, before let's say 2050? I hope so, but I fear the chances are less than 50%, now.

I hope so...

Mars

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Tweets I could not send

On Monday, I was in Birmingham New Street station for a while. The platforms are in a grim collection of parallel tunnels, under the station concourse. It's not a nice place to spend more than the absolute minimum of time.

I couldn't get a signal there, so couldn't tweet or do anything else online. In the tradition of Amber, these are the tweets I wanted to send, which ended up being scribbled on a discarded newspaper and sent out into the twittersphere next day. Unlike Amber's tweets, they aren't funny.
Man on the platform. Greying hair, uncombed. Baggy eyes, unkempt, glasses, odd socks. Sleep deprived. Crumpled suit. Crumpled life.
Glances, repeatedly, at the briefcase he holds. Looks at the display; calculates waiting time. Sweeps away fast food cartons from the bench.
Sits down. Stares at the briefcase. Motionless. Silent. Shoulders sag. No one else notices him, sitting statue behind the buzz of travelers.
Fiddles with briefcase locks. Stops. Looks around. I look away. Unlocks. Opens. Stares inside. Takes off his glasses, places next to him.
Reaches inside. Pulls out a picture, something framed, the cardboard prop to put upright on a desk or shelf. Holds with one hand. Stares.
Stares, keeps staring, at the picture. Doesn’t move, do anything else. Unaware of passing trains, passing people. They’re unaware of him.
Minutes pass. Trains come. Trains go.
He clutches the picture, closes the briefcase, puts his glasses back on. Stands, looks at the display. Thinking, calculating, or deciding.
Suddenly resolves. He turns around, walks with determination. Without stopping, looking at it again, puts the picture face down on a wall.
Climbs the stairs to the Navigation Street exit, disappears. Never breaks his stride, never slows down. Never looks back.
I wait a few minutes. He doesn’t come back. I lift the picture, curious, before the trash men find it, dispose, send to its landfill grave.
It’s him, at his wedding, tightly holding his new wife. Him; a little younger, happier, but unmistakably him. Enthused. Not crumpled.
The wedding photo was taken in a garden. Bright colours, flowers, blue sky. Big blue sky. Aspirational. The hopeful, newly married, couple.
And he’s left, abandoned it here, now. In a colourless, dark, tunnel underneath the ground. Accidentally, or deliberately, appropriate.
The glass in the frame is cracked, diagonally. I put it back, face down, where it was. Wondering at their back story. Wondering what next.
Wondering. Did he resolve to fix, make things work again? To give up? To try to forget? To move on? To be reborn, share a life with another?
We'll never know.
Birmingham New Street June 1974

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Funding libraries and the arts

Not all members of the House of Lords are aristocratic in nature, swanning around in castles and ivory towers with a limitless supply of inherited wealth and not having a clue what most people do. Especially since the reforms of 1999, it's a surprisingly mixed bag of people in there. From the House of Lords debate on July 9th 2012, a quote by Nicholas Trench, the 9th Earl of Clancarty, in a longer speech on arts and cultural funding:
For two years, the arts establishment has been patient and felt that it should wait its turn in the queue. But this is a false situation. The same government policy of ideologically driven public funding cuts is cutting back on state allowances, benefits, libraries, museums and symphony orchestras alike. The most devastating news last week was the prediction by the Local Government Association that a shortfall of £16.5 billion would mean an almost complete eradication of funding at the local level of arts and cultural services, including libraries, by 2020 unless there is a radical change in policy.
Alarmist? No, not if you follow factual information sources such as Public Library News which gives you as precise an update on the gradual disintegration of the UK public library service as there is. It's still a matter of concern that public libraries have been shoved in the same boat as the arts in terms of public funding.

As an analogy, it seems rather similar to the mutineers shoving Hudson and a few others into a small boat with minimal supplies, and setting them loose to fend for themselves. I hope the Viscount is wrong. I fear he will be right. Especially as he's a self-employed artist and freelance writer and translator, so he probably knows what he's talking about. One of his posts from last year, on arts funding.
  Library Closed

There's another issue here. The funding of the infrastructure of the arts sector and public libraries, and the funding and recognition of the artists and the librarians, what they actually do and their contribution to society. It struck me this morning listening to a radio debate on this issue, where the person against funding referred to the "place" of the artist in society (know your place? monetise or die?), and the person in favor of funding referred to their "contribution". The "debate" through all media has become deliberately toxic over the last few years, with a defensive vocabulary ("protect", "preserve") not helping.

And little or no mention of what it is that artists and librarians actually, accurately, do. It's this point that really bothers me. Campaigners and politicians may, or may not, be successful in keeping public libraries, art galleries, museums, complexes where artists work, open. But it doesn't solve or reduce a fundamental, national and long-term problem, that a large proportion (possibly most) of the public innocently, and some parts of the media and political infrastructure not so innocently, have very wrong ideas of what librarians and artists actually do. There's more than a grain of truth in the recent "What do I really do" memes for artists and librarians.

A personal feeling is that, until that issue is in some way resolved, or made better, there's always going to be a defensive campaign to "Save libraries", as they come under constant funding assault (and while there are still some left to "save"). It's easier to cut funding to something that is misunderstood by most people. And nope, I don't have a solution to mass educating many millions of people that librarians do (a lot) more than stamp books and put them on shelves.