Monthly Archives: March 2018

Place of Memory

Languages die surprisingly often, and for a multitude of reasons. It is probable that most of the languages that die are so remote that they do so unrecorded, and so will be forever lost. According to a 2015 article in The New Republic, of the roughly 7,000 diverse languages now in existence, linguists predict that half will die over the next century. More aggressive forecasters assert that 80 to 90 percent of existing languages will die in roughly the same amount of time. A National Geographic (2012) article claimed that a discreet language dies about every 14 days.

Some languages are relatively rare, but they hang in there. For example, in Great Britain, some 5,000 people claim to be conversational in Cornish, one of three Brythonic (Celtic) languages. (Welsh and Breton are the other two.) But Cornish may boast fewer than a thousand fluent speakers, and perhaps far fewer — only 400-500. (By comparison, about 6,000 people are fluent in the Lakota language.)

Gwenno.

The artist Gwenno has released a wonderful new record called Le Kov, sung entirely in Cornish. You may be sure that its pleasures will not be missed because of a language barrier. Gwenno Saunders was a member of the 2000s pop group The Pipettes. She then released a debut solo record as Gwenno called Y Dydd Olaf (2014) sung mainly in Welsh, with one song in Cornish. Le Kov is her second record.

Her influences enjoy a broad range, and there is a pervasive wooziness to the production that compliments all these stylistic influences. Piano is up front on some songs, with tidy string orchestrations and horns joining the act, so there is a distinct and groovy Bacharach vibe.

Fans of Broadcast and Stereolab will be rewarded by the confident and laid back la-la vocals. Some of the more dedicated electronic instrumental backing would be right at home on a Boards of Canada record.

Welsh singer Gruff Rhys, who fronted the marvelous Super Furry Animals, joins Gwenno on a song, and several of the rhythmic elements on Le Kov are reminiscent of SFA, with driving bass and drums.

I love it when an artist can mix so many influences and come up with something that still sounds so original. The title means “place of memory.” This page obsesses with memory and music’s ability to act as a portal both for remembrances, and the building of new memories. There is much here to set us free in our memory, despite the lack of lyrical understanding. It is just beautiful and it is a testimony to the power of music to transcend the sometimes confining nature of language. Its passion shines. Below is a link to a song from the record, called Jynn-amontya:

Le Kov by Gwenno.

Le Kov by Gwenno (2018 Heavenly Recordings).

Slow Life from Phantom Power by Super Furry Animals (2003 Epic).

9 March 2018 

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Judy reads about Space

Like many people, I’m fascinated with space travel. I am in awe of astrophysics and the big brains of scientists who imagined space travel into real life. I marvel at the intelligence and the bravery of astronauts willing to be catapulted into the solar system strapped to rocket boosters and equally impressed with their ability to steer the craft expertly into orbit. The entire space program, from Earth to Milky Way, is a wonder to me.

But I am just a common person and my real questions about space travel are “what about that astronaut diaper?” and “how much worse is space sickness than drunken bed spins?”

Scott Kelly answers these shallow questions plus deeper ones in Endurance: a year in space, a lifetime of discovery. Scott Kelly is the U.S. astronaut who, along with the Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Korniyenko, spent 340 days on the International Space Station (ISS) from 2015 to March 2016.

Mikhail Korniyenko and Scott Kelly spent almost an entire year living on the ISS.

Reviewers of this book indicated it was different than other books about space because Kelly told it like it is. It’s a tell-all about space-dwelling from the glamorous to the mundane – from rocket science to bodily functions. Truthfully, I read it for a glimpse into the day to day life on the ISS.

What I learned…The diaper is used because they spend so much time in situations which stopping to take a whiz is impossible without calling off time-sensitive operations such as rocket launch and space walking. Putting on and taking off a pressurized suit takes hours. I guess I thought those suits had so many bells and whistles, there’d be some sort of pee vacuum, but no, they just “diaper up” as Kelly casually refers to it.  Just part of the uniform. (I’ve read, since finishing Endurance, that a space suit with a built-in biffy is in development).

Space sickness?  Way worse than bed spins. But there is variability and while Kelly sustains mild nausea and vertigo, for some, violent symptoms can last for many days. Kelly tells of one astronaut who, upon arrival to the ISS, used up every NASA barf bag on the station. The bags are specially suction-rigged to contain the contents, so they had to make-shift a facsimile that would work just as well as the original. If they couldn’t, the astronauts would have had to chase down, capture, and clean all the floating vomit globules. They succeeded in fashioning a new bag.

The International Space Station (ISS)

But I also learned…the ISS is the largest peacetime international project in history. It has been in use for more than 14 years. So it has been more than fourteen years since all humans were on the Earth at once. In the time it has been in use, the ISS has been visited by more than 200 people from 16 nations. When astronauts of different nations are there at the same time, they must answer to their own bosses from their prospective governments. Even sharing the same garbage bin takes international negotiations and grand declarations of what can be done when nations work together.

And…the personnel on the ISS are some of the most elite pilots in the world, yet their day to day business is not piloting the station. There is essentially no flying or piloting to do. They run other people’s experiments (dissect mice, tend to space gardens, take photos). They complete mandatory exercise to maintain muscle mass.  They fulfil diplomatic duties such as skyping in on morning TV shows for interviews and writing blogs for school children. Also, importantly, they maintain equipment that could be their demise if not taken care of because, what might be a minor or medium emergency on earth, could end a mission—either by cutting it short, or by exploding the ISS and its inhabitants into outer space. They fix and repair the heating and air systems, “hygiene stations”, and the oxygen and co2 generators. They clean. Any floating bits of food, liquid, or bodily tissue must be captured because all substances floating in the station have potential to clog a filter or block a seal that keeps it pressurized and oxygenated. And on occasion they do basic dentistry and medical procedures so that lost crowns and ingrown toenails do not end in infection and sepsis requiring early return to Earth. On the ISS every detail must be attended to or the mission will fail. The inhabitants, no matter their nationality or government, must always be up for these tasks; they must always be on speaking terms, and trust each other’s’ capabilities in all kinds of situations. Their lives depend on each other.

Space research

I liked this book. I liked learning about how one becomes an astronaut. Aside from being smart in science and maths, and not at all claustrophobic, you have to be a pretty even-Steven kind of personality. I liked learning that even if you have what appears to be quite a glamorous, one of a kind, dream job…it is still a job after all. Sometimes you don’t feel like working and sometimes you disagree with your bosses. I liked reading about the special foods and treats the astronauts would bring and get as packages and share with each other each Friday evening, the one day a week they all took time to socialize and have a meal together. (The Russians shared an MRE they referred to as “appetizing appetizer,” which was not appetizing, Kelly reported.  And one cosmonaut brought his region’s traditional horse meat and horse milk to share.) I appreciated Kelly’s comparisons of real life in space to sci-fi movies. Sandra Bullock, floating through her spaceship in Gravity, was realistic, he said.  When a spacecraft docks onto another and the doors open immediately in a hissy mist to allow visitors aboard, however, is not. In real life, docking, depressurizing, and boarding takes 4 or more hours.  I liked learning that articles that have been out in space have a burnt smell about them.

But the book is not all “Dear Diary…” It is about the Year in Space Mission. Its purpose, among other things, was to obtain data regarding the sustained effects of micro-gravity on the human body. Scientists already know a fair amount about this. Micro-gravity is trouble for humans. Space-dwelling compromises the vestibular system (see “space sickness”), bone density, visual acuity, and the digestive system. Kelly writes about the effect of micro-gravity on him and his co-astronauts. So, with data from this mission, scientists will learn even more, and this information will help them plan and problem-solve for missions even farther away. Since Scott Kelly is an identical twin, his brother Mark (also an astronaut) will serve as his genetic control. Researchers should learn a lot about both the physiological and psychological effects of life in space through this rare opportunity for comparison.

Astronaut Twin Brothers

This book captured my imagination and got me contemplating human physiology in space as well as space cohabitation with other individuals, other cultures, and governments. Perhaps the civility and cooperation needed for survival on the teeny tiny scale of the ISS is the answer to the human condition on Earth and beyond.

The cosmos is within us. We are made of starstuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself—Carl Sagan.

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Cathy’s Spring Reading 2018

Hello Scramblers:

And hello Spring! I’ve been enjoying our long and hesitant spring with a set of firsts. Take for instance a lot of what I have been reading.  All Our Wrong Todays is Elan Mastai’s first novel; it’s about time travel and it’s a treat. Put it on your list. And thanks Dan for sending this goodie my way.

Elan Mastai’s first novel

I enjoy science fiction books that shine a bright and happy light on our future; but don’t get me wrong, sci-fi stories filled with broken and clanging infrastructures and characters who rattle uneasily through the night because future society is broken – well those stories, I like those kinds of stories too. But if I could have a single wish, it would be one that secures a perfect future for us all. That future would come complete with a restored natural world, free education and technology along with a guaranteed living income for everyone. Oh yea, and with hovercraft and jetpacks for all. Amen.

In All our Wrong Todays the reader gets to experience both types of futures.

In All Our Wrong Todays 2016 looks pretty modern.

One morning the main character, Tom, wakes up in a 2016 world he doesn’t recognize. His 2016 was better, a nirvana really. Tom’s original world is a techno-utopian paradise. The reason why Tom’s 2016 is so much better than our 2016 is due solely to the invention of the Goettreider Engine in the 1960’s. The Goettreider Engine harnessed the power of the Earth’s rotation, which enabled humans to end all their earthly woes. The result: a Jetson world in 2016. Mastai highlights technology advancements and the universal availability of technology, which is great fodder for the story. I was so enchanted with Tom’s 2016 I wanted the narrative to extend to the bee population and the polar caps, but that wasn’t covered. Still, it didn’t take away from his story.

Just as the reader settles into the beautiful modern future, Tom who is not a solid thinker, makes a series of poor decisions that send him back in time (using his father’s untested time machine) to when Dr. Goettreider initially activates the engine. Tom’s interference results in the destruction of the engine, which in turn results in our lame 2016 world.

The remainder of the story is about Tom’s attempt to make things right as he travels back in forth in time to get the good 2016 back. The time travel loops got confusing to me, but the slowly changing 2016 scenarios were entertaining.

The tone in All Our Wrong Todays is lighthearted, the chapters (over 100 of them) are short and snappy. It’s a happy book even though the ‘crummy’ future is the now in which we currently live.

I read one review that compared Elan Mastai to Vonnegut. Nice comparison. And maybe not yet quite deserving but All Our Wrong Todays is clever in that way good science fiction can be when it is written with a light touch and a good amount of humor. Since this is just Mastai’s first published novel, let’s see if he continues down the Vonnegut path.

Another book I read during the earliest spring days was Educated by Tara Westover. It is her first book.

Educated is Westover’s life story and she tells a ‘can’t put it down’ tale about what it is like to be born to and grow up with survivalists. Surprise, it’s no barrel of monkeys.

The reader initially gets the sense that most people could pass the Westover house or meet the clan in a store and walk away thinking: eccentric or not my kind of life.

And that would probably be it. But scratch and sniff that household just a bit more (which is what Educated does) and anyone with a lick of sense would be bowled over by an olfactory tidal wave of very disturbed.

Westover’s youth was spent stockpiling canned goods and making herbal tinctures for her mother (who is a healer and midwife) and monitoring the whereabouts of her head-for-the-hills bag, packed in preparation for the end of the world. You see Westover’s father had convinced the family that the Feds were out to get them.

Westover was homeschooled but not really. Once she learned to read and write she spent most of her free time helping the family survive off the grid and prep for the Lord’s second coming.

The danger of living with mentally ill adults is that a child’s health and well-being is at constant risk because those in charge of making decisions shouldn’t be. Tara had six siblings, she was the youngest, and the first half of the book is filled with a series of dangerous, death-defying accidents that occur simply because of her parent’s muddied mental facilities. And then one of her brothers becomes physically violent towards Westover.

This book could be subtitled ‘My life without Social Services’ because Westover’s childhood is a march through increasingly dangerous situations. Situations that likely could have been prevented if the family had lived around stable citizens who would have likely contacted the authorities. She also begins to suffer greatly at the hands of her brother who may have inherited the family mental illness. It is maddening to read through the torture Westover experiences at the hand of her brother AND at the same time witness her parents, who reportedly love her very much, refuse to notice the abuse she endures. Finally, Tara’s survival instincts push her enough to get out of the house.

Westover’s educational experiences transform her life. She starts at Brigham Young and ends with advanced degrees from Cambridge. It is enjoyable to see Westover engage with society for the first time. Westover doesn’t know how to take class notes, she has never heard of the Holocaust and is offended by immodest clothes that women her age wear (e.g.; shorts). It goes on.

Throughout Westover’s transformation and exposure to the secular and scholarly world she cannot quit thinking of her parents and her home in the mountains of Idaho. She loves and misses them but her educational pursuits have put a broader barrier between them than just a physical one. Tara Westover’s successes are not the end of this story as the book continues to document the attempts Westover makes to connect back with her family.

I was fascinated with Tara Westover’s life story. She is a gifted storyteller and she sucked me in. I even followed up on her by listening to a recent podcast where she was interviewed by Michael Ian Black. Andy sat down and listened to the podcast with me. It hurt to hear her talk about her childhood with a thoughtfulness and grace that no one in her family had shown her. I wanted her to be angry. But instead there was a notable ache in her measured tone. It rang of pure desire to be accepted by her family.

The great George Saunders and his first novel.

Here are two other firsts:
George Saunders, who I believe is one of our greatest living American writers, released his first novel in 2017, Lincoln in the Bardo. I bought the book as soon as I could. But despite all my enthusiasm for the release of his first novel, I couldn’t finish it. This book was on nearly every ‘best of’ list last year and I couldn’t get through the first 100 pages.

The novel begins with the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie, who succumbs to typhoid fever in the White House one night while his parents host a state dinner. Willie’s body is taken immediately to a cemetery, but not buried. And it is not long before Lincoln arrives at the cemetery in the middle of the night to hold Willie’s body next to his and rage.

Cemeteries and Ghosts are a big part of Lincoln in the Bardo

Saunders weaves real-life accounts and reference material along with imagined narrations and false sources in alternating paragraphs to tell this story. There is also a community (a bardo) of ghosts that exist in the cemetery and who share their own stories, introduce Willie to the afterlife, and provide a running commentary to the readers on the ins and outs of daily existence for ghosts living in the cemetery.

Truthfully, Saunders’ unique style in this book became tedious for me very quickly. It was just too much; the numerous ghost voices, the continual references to real and imagined sources. The short paragraphs ended up only wearing me down and never caught my interest. (This is sharp contrast with my enjoyment of the short sassy paragraphs in All Our Wrong Todays). And then I bought the audio book, because I had heard wonderful things about the production and wasn’t willing quite yet to give up on Saunders’ book. But the same issues I had when reading the book were present in the audio version too. There were just too many voices even though those voices included Lena Dunham, David Sedaris, Julianne Moore, Ben Stiller and more. I simply could not get drawn into this story with all that yammering.

I am interested to hear from any Rocky Scrambler who completes the novel. Let me know what you think. I love Saunders’ writing so I am baffled by my inability to read his novel.

Finally, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas is another book I am listening to through Audible. It is a powerful YA book from another first-time author. Whenever I slip on the earbuds to listen I am immediately drawn into the story and it is very hard for me walk away.

Briefly The Hate U Give is a story of a 16-year-old African-American girl named Starr who is caught between two worlds. Starr lives in a mostly black and poor urban neighborhood but she and her brothers go to a white prep school on the other side of town. The story begins when Starr is at a party where a gang dispute leads to gun shots and she flees with Khalil, a childhood friend. Starr and Khalil have nothing to do with the violence at the party but are stopped by a policeman on their way home. The cop shoots Khalil in front of Starr, and Khalil dies.

After that the book centers on Starr’s struggles with how best to advocate and honor Khalil when the investigation into the shooting begins. Another significant concern for Starr is how to honor Khalil without exposing her true self to her school friends.

The Hate U Give is being made into a movie. I am not sure if a movie can capture the nuances of Starr’s situation without overplaying the storyline. So, consider getting the book, in any form very soon.

 

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