Sunday, February 16, 2020

An Update From Betelgeuse

Just because I do not want to write about the ongoing crimes of the Orange Buffoon, climate change and Australia being on fire, or the really scary Corona virus, here's another disaster that could be upon us soon. Well, that “soon” part is strictly speaking a bit of a misnomer on human terms, but on the cosmological timescale it could happen any minute. The disaster I am referring to is the “imminent” supernova explosion of the star Betelgeuse.

Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star located in the Orion constellation about 700 light-years away from Earth. That red supergiant description isn't just words, if Betelgeuse took the place of our sun its boiling plasma surface would reach beyond the asteroid belt. Of course, such a size means the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars would be inside the star being cooked like cheap turkeys. 

Wanting to avoid all the stellar techo-babble about Betelgeuse, that huge size means its lifespan is considerably shorter than our long-lived sun. The best estimate of Betelgeuse age is a little over ten million years, thankfully, there hasn't been enough time for intelligent life to evolve on any planets that might orbit it. Although when Betelgeuse does go BOOM, any inhabited star system within a few dozen lightyears are in serious trouble.

When Betelgeuse does go supernova the best estimates is that it will shine as bright as a half-moon for about three months. Bright enough to cast shadows at night and be seen in the daytime. Even as it dims, the supernova will be visible during the day for about a year and several years afterward at night.

The reason why the science journalists have been mentioning Betelgeuse recently is because back in October of 2019 it started to dim noticeably. By January of 2020 its brightness had continued to drop appreciably prompting speculation by less than accurate science sources that the star was going supernova on a time frame on par with our society's short attention span. Realistically, Betelgeuse could go supernova anytime in the next 100,000 years. Meaning our current human civilization will either be dead and gone or changed beyond all recognition by the time it lights up Earth's sky.

Now the universe has a tendency to overturn human expectations, so while I fully understand it will be thousands of years before Betelgeuse explodes, there's a part of me that wouldn't be surprised if it does happen soon. Even though our civilization has embraced rationality and scientific inquiry, at least in name for the last five-hundred years, I can only imagine the ridiculous and possibly dangerous reactions that various people and groups might have to a visible supernova. Just a few years back a total eclipse of the sun tracking through the United States had people proclaiming it was a sign of God like ignorant medieval peasants.

Yeah, if you want to get technical someone could say the orbital mechanics of planets and moons was set in motion by God billions of years ago. But a solar eclipse isn't something that happens suddenly or miraculously, humans have an expert-level grasp on when and where these events occur. Have a wormhole to the Alpha Centauri star system open up suddenly just beyond lunar orbit and that's when I'll start considering the inexplicable. Even then one of Arthur C. Clarke's laws comes to mind that any sufficiently advances technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It would be nice if a Betelgeuse supernova caused humans to realize they are comparable to viruses living on a speck of dust floating in the air and begin to clean up their act. But despite countless religious-based admonishments that humans are insignificant creatures, a number of us not only believe we can guess the mind of God but that the Almighty engages in direct conversations with a select few. The former taking the shape of bizarre indicts condemning certain people for no justifiable reason. As for the latter example, numerous politicians will get on television and say with a straight face that God picked them to be President of the United States. The only thing more glaringly stupid would be for the unwashed masses to believe such claims of divine preference in human political affairs.

So you should be able to guess that my worries about a Betelgeuse supernova would be for the various usual suspects to claim it was a sign of godly displeasure or approval on some subject. Even worse would be for some narcissistic, delusional personality to say it was a sign to launch a crusade or Jihad against evil heathens. Only a few centuries ago some societies freaked out over the sudden appearance of a comet in the nighttime sky. Which is nothing but a large dirty snowball doing a gravity-directed loop around the sun.

When all is said and done Betelgeuse will do its thing when it's ready without any regard to the hairless primates here on Earth. I guess the one certifiably good thing in all this is that we're over 700 lightyears away from the explosion so that when it goes supernova, it will just be a light show for us or our descendants. For any possible alien civilization within a couple of dozen lightyears of Betelgeuse, it will truly seem like a biblical event.

Yes, I should have mentioned the little tidbit about how Betelgeuse could have in fact already gone supernova but we wouldn't know it until the light of the explosion reaches Earth. But I guess if you want to view time from our end of space it hasn't happened yet until we see it.  

Sunday, February 9, 2020

My Outrage is Exhausted

Democracy dies

And Republicans use to make fun of political cults like they have in North Korea and Russia.

I bet the Roman Republic went through this type of shit before it fell.

Outside Independence Hall when the Constitutional Convention of 1787 ended, Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Remember the spasms some went through saying there was no difference between trump and Hillary.

We are so fucked.

Oh, the hypocrisy! 

There's been a lot of talk of Karma and how it will come back on the Republicans. Frankly, from my observations about life and human interactions it doesn't exist. 

Funny how this wasn't more widely viewed or talked about.

Added just because I hate this whiny piece of shit. 

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Celebrity Equinox Cruise: December 14-21 PART FIVE

For me the best part of the trip was visiting the Mayan ruins at Tulum, a recognized World Heritage site facing the Caribbean Sea. The trouble was that getting to Tulum was a bit of an adventure since the Celebrity Equinox docked on the the island of Cozumel.

The seas were already rough as we pulled up to the docks on Cozumel with the ship you see already tied up. There was a second cruise ship in the immediate area that for some reason that had anchored nearby instead of docking. Scuttlebutt among the experienced travelers was that both of these ships were based in Europe and that do regular transatlantic runs. That's what you get when you live in countries were bosses and management don't think of worker vacations as infringements on their rights to squeeze every damn cent of profit out of their employees.  

To get to the ruins we had to board a ferry to the mainland, which involved us doing the kindergarten-like walk from the Equinox to the smaller vessel. The Mein Schiff 1 you see in the picture was a beautiful ship and I would have loved to see the insides if it was possible. Ignore the drop dead gorgeous blonde in the picture. Yeah, the guy in the orange shirt knew I was checking out the blonde crew member of the Mein Schiff 1. On a side note, there are a whole series of cruise ships carrying the Mein Schiff name, you would think a premiere cruise line could cough up some euros for better, more original names.  

This is the ferry that took us to the Mexican mainland and brought us back. I give the locals that crewed it the highest marks in professionalism and seamanship. The only problem I had was with the weather conditions that made the trip to the mainland difficult and damn near intolerable returning. I didn't get seasick going out but the rough seas coming back to Cozumel had me dry heaving into a plastic bag. In fact, coming back to Cozumel the crew had to stop the boat twice to check its condition after something outside came loose. By that time, I was French kissing the barf bag and going through my first flop sweat in years. It got so bad my wife was worried my heart might go bonkers. It didn't and fifteen minutes after we finally got back to the docks I was back to my usual abnormal.     

Not exactly sure why I took this picture or included it in this post.

This was the stairway leading up to the entrance to the ruins. Had a fine collection of people from North America and Europe. All during the time I heard French, German, Spanish, and what I think was Dutch I wanted to scream out that I was an American that hated trump. I resisted, mainly because my wife would have probably slapped me across the back of the head.

The entrance to the ruined city. Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Mayans. It reached it peak between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive for around 70 years after the Spanish began their occupation of what would become Mexico. 

As you might be able to guess, the diseases brought by Spanish colonization resulted in significant moralities among the native population. This disrupted Tulum's society eventually causing the city to be abandoned.  

I first found out about Tulum years ago from watching a documentary on the Mayans. Further research on my part turned up beautiful, sunny, and clear pictures highlighting the green of the vegetation, the light blue of the sky, and the dark blue of the ocean, along with white fluffy clouds. On the day of our visit it was cloudy and rainy throwing off my ability to take a decent picture.  

THis was our tour guide who said his name was Jesus. He was extremely knowledge on the Mayan civilization and took excellent care of his spoiled norteamericano guests. That being said, I got a heavy vibe that he didn't like me. Part of that may have come from the army surplus booney hat I was wearing as well as my camouflage backpack. It wouldn't be the first time that the stink of the "Ugly American" caused me an issue with citizens from other nations. I'm tall, Caucasian, and pretty much a poster child for white American privilege even though I try not to be a dick.     

Too many similar pictures, yeah I know. Was trying to get one to be decent given the conditions and my lack of talent.
I believe I snapped about ten of these while playing with the preset filters on my camera.

One of the current locals at Tulum. He seemed wholly unimpressed with everyone. 

Not sure, since I never could get the tour guide's attention to ask a question, but I guess this was a well.
Probably the best picture out of the bunch. You can actually see some blue sky.

Really wasn't up to spending hours researching the use of the different buildings. Time at the ruins was incredibly limited since the ship had to leave later that afternoon.

By this point the tour guide had broken us into two groups, one that went straight back to the shops and the other which stayed to take more pictures. I stayed to take more pictures and didn't get a chance to prowl all the neat souvenirs.

I did get to the cliff face to snap a bunch of pictures there. No, I didn't get the sunny skies or crystal clear waters like I have seen in magazines. But at least I can say I have seen one of the most remarkable sites on Earth. 

And in the space of a few minutes the clouds came back in and made taking pictures difficult.

Clouds rolled out again but by this time I was down to about 10 minutes before I had to race back to the bus.

The path leading out of the city.

Our next stop was a beach resort that was supposed to be a place to relax and swim. Except the weather had turned bad again with it raining steadily. We got our meal, great local seafood, but no one wanted to go swimming in the rain.

Not sure if this is a real fishing boat or a decoration.

I didn't go swimming but I did take a long walk on the beach. My wife stayed under the shelter drinking coffee.

After the nightmare return trip to Cozumel, the Equinox soon departed for Grand Cayman. As we were heading out I caught sight of one of the Disney ships heading into Cozumel. By this time of the cruise I was perfectly happy with Celebrity Cruise Lines and didn't miss Mickey at all.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

An Examination of "The Ones Who Stay and Fight" by N.K. Jemisin

Several years ago I finally became aware of a piece of fiction written by the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin that greatly moved me. The story, entitled The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas can't really be classified easily. The best description for me is to call it philosophical/science fiction/fantasy in that it creates a situation that could never happen in reality but nevertheless opens up a huge can of ethical and moral worms that does bleed over to our world.

In short, Omelas is a utopian city of total happiness and plenty inhabited by a sophisticated citizenry who have no need of kings, soldiers, priests, or slaves. Omelas is such a cool place that Le Guin goes as far to strongly suggest that booze, drugs, and orgies are a standard practice for the citizens. The one huge wrinkle in this charmed existence is that to ensure the continuity of Omelas' success is that one unfortunate child must be kept in filth, darkness, and misery for its entire life. Making matters worse, this sacrificial lamb has no idea why it is being treated this way and pleads to be released.

How this arrangement came to be is never explained by the author, that's why I add the word “fantasy” in my personal description. In fact, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas is an incredibly short story given the complexity Le Guin is able to build.

For the lucky kids of Omelas, once the elders feel that they have reached a certain maturity, they are brought down to to the place the tortured child is kept and explained that its suffering is the reason for their peace and plenty. While initially disgusted with the conditions the tormented child must live, these new citizens eventually acquiesce to that single injustice. That is except for a tiny few of those young folks and those older who can no longer live with the knowledge that their happiness being conditioned on the suffering of a single human being. These dissidents leave Omelas never to be seen again.

Now you might be wondering how such a piece of fantasy could possibly disturb my philosophical foundations. Well because dear folks, much of the glorious American lifestyle is built upon the sufferings of millions of poor folks around the world and here at home.

American revel in plenty on display at your average grocery store. Shelves stocked with cheap food to the point we're dropping dead of obesity on a regular basis. This food is very often picked and prepared by migrant workers who labor in conditions most Americans would call cruel and unusual punishment. And yes, the pay and living conditions for these people are almost certainly crap. For the most part we're oblivious to what those folks have to do to just survive.

The technological gadgets we base our lives on now and the clothe we wear are also produced by people in factories dealing with conditions that would cause Americans to riot. The best example is the factories where our nifty smart phones are produced. While exception may exist, hundreds of stories over the years have leaked out of near slave conditions the workers are forced to endure. So you'll have to excuse me for my sentiment, I get uncomfortable when someone suffers at my expense.

The killer for me is that unlike those few exceptions who leave Omelas, I can't leave for various reasons. Yes, that makes me a hypocrite but I continue to cling to my weary conscious and not pretend the shit is wrong.

I didn't think another story could affect me as strongly but I found another just yesterday that again rocked my philosophical foundations. It is called The Ones Who Stay and Fight by the brilliant author N. K. Jemisin.

Jemisin's story takes place in another city that at first read seems a lot like Omelas given how plenty and happiness seem to abound. But her fictional city, named Um-Helat isn't really a utopia and there aren't any fantastical elements like the tortured child who keep everyone fat and happy with its suffering. Um-Helat uses what I would call realistic technology to make everyone's life better.

The author also gives us details about the nature of Um-Helat's citizens. There are many different ethnic groups who speak varying languages. We never learn anything about the nature of Omelas citizens other than their propensity for getting high and group sex. In Um-Helat everyone lives for as long as fate, choice, and medicine allow. The kids have opportunity to advance in life while parents don't have to give up theirs.

Breaking with Omelas, the city of Um-Helat is not a true utopia. The economy of the city appears to be built on a form of benevolent capitalism with slightly more white folks doing the executive stuff and with slightly more colored folks doing blue collar jobs. We are quickly informed though that active efforts are underway to remedy that small injustice.

The author also tells us that while everyone has access to an apartment, some are indeed homeless with the city offering up padded benches for sleeping and maintenance of the space under bridges to keep them clean for occupancy. For those suffering from mental illness, the city keeps them away from weapons or places they might harm themselves. If these homeless folks become ill or cannot take care of themselves the city comes in and takes them to a facility to be cared for. The philosophy of Um-Helat is to care for its inhabitants, not to generate money. The author makes the point to say that Um-Helat is not “barbaric America” nor Le Guin's Omelas which she described as “a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child.”

No, Um-Helat appears to be something as close to utopia as humans can achieve, but this is where things go slightly sideways. The technology of Um-Helat allows them to listen and view communications from parallel Earths in other universes where society hasn't advanced as much as them. Since the citizens of Um-Helat have no worries about safety, war, food, healthcare, and the other basics of life, they often seek knowledge of these other, less developed realms. But the knowledge of places where hate and fear rule is viewed as dangerous by the leaders of Um-Helat.

In the past the ancestors of the people of Um-Helat knew greed, hate, and war. The remnants of that age dot the land in the form of ruined cities and implements of war. Knowledge of these previous eras is passed to the young citizens carefully and is a shock given the world they were raised. These young people simply do not have any concept of a society where only certain humans were respected and cared for while others were excluded on the basis of physical characteristics or behavior.

This is why knowledge of other Earths and their bizarre societies is considered dangerous. Since Um-Helat is a polyglot city made up of many different ethnic groups with multiple languages spoken in the streets, the spread of ideology that sets some above others cannot be tolerated. While the vast majority of the people in Um-Helat who listen in on these alternate Earths react in total horror to the brutality they hear and see, the idea of those evils and the rationalization for their existence remains. Through word of mouth these deceitful ideas spread and because Um-Helat shares a similar past with these backward, barbaric places the Social Workers of the city must act to contain the contagion.

As the story concludes three Social Workers stand over a body of a man they have just killed. He had broken the law by listening in to the alternate Earths and his punishment was swift. Next to the dead man is his young daughter, distraught over what the Social Workers have done to her father. The daughter through tears warns them that she will get revenge over what she sees is the murder of her father.

The Social Workers look at each other in concern over the girls words. They now understand that the dead man had shared the poisoned knowledge of the other Earths with his daughter. To an uncontaminated citizen of Um-Helat it would be incomprehensible to spread such beliefs. But because the daughter has been contaminated she has already decided that the Social Workers are less important than her dead father.

The duty of the Social Workers is clear, the girl will be quarantine away from the public. Over the next several days they will attempt to reach the girl and explain why her father had to die. If the girl can be reached and made to understand, she will ultimately become one of the Social Workers. Because all the Social Workers have been exposed to the notion that some people matter above others they have dedicated their lives to defeat that idea.

I came away from the story shaken because of something said at the end, that everyone, the poor, lazy, even those considered undesirable can matter. That the idea of this provokes utter rage in those who have been taught to believe some people are more important than others. The narrator called this rage the infection defending itself.

I like to think of myself as “enlightened.” That I am above the petty prejudices that do define our society. But this story forced me to realize that I'm just as stuck in the mire of fear and hate like all the others I look down upon. It's incredibly hard to look past my own enmity but I think I understand at least one point of the story. That when you start making distinctions about the worthiness of people you devalue your own existence. I can't honestly say I will keep this understanding at the forefront of my thoughts. We're in the middle of a shit storm of hate and misunderstanding in this country and as the story suggests, the infection uses rage to defend itself.

The other point I think I now understand is that The Ones Who Stay and Fight is a response to Le Guin's story of people walking away from the tortured child kept in Omelas. That injustice and oppression has to be fought no matter the cost. My final takeaway from this story is that while I welcome this revelation, I'm just not that smart enough to know where to begin to fight.

The story: The Ones Who Stay and Fight can be found in the short story collection entitled How Long 'til Black Future Month on Amazon. I highly recommend it!

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Celebrity Equinox Cruise: December 14-21 PART FOUR

    After a peaceful day at sea our next stop was Costa Maya, a stretch of Mexican coast on the eastern Yucatan Peninsula. As usual I was up way before my wife roaming the ship taking pictures. There was a fairly cool wind blowing as I snapped this picture of the sunrise. It felt awesome!  

    The nearby village of Mahahual is a popular cruise ship port with beaches and beautiful coral reefs. My wife and I didn't leave the ship that day instead we laid out at the indoor pool. Hindsight being what it is, that was a mistake since there were two biosphere reserves in the area.
     As I was strolling the decks that morning, I noticed a strange building off in the distance. But since the sun wasn't fully up and the haze in the air, I couldn't really tell its purpose. 

    This massive structure at first looked like a Mayan pyramid sticking out from the surrounding jungle. You would not believe the numbers of pictures I took of what I thought was a Mayan ruin.
   I eventually learned it was not a genuine historical monument but a brand new, Mayan-themed water slide. Luckily, I didn't embarrass myself by verbally speculating to anyone about the structure.     

    A discovery that was truly mysterious was this sailboat. At first I assumed it had been washed ashore by a recent hurricane and probably abandoned. While this picture doesn't show it, the boat is a considerable distance from any sign of human habitation. I'd say about a mile from the docks and the village.
    As I obsessed over the boat, I realized it was sitting almost upright, something I doubt a raging tropical storm could accomplish. I also noticed that the boat still had its rigging, a sign that it was a recent arrival to that location or that someone was taking care of it.

    Naturally, since it was in a reasonable walking distance from where the Equinox was docked, I wanted to go check it out. Something my wife said would have been a bad idea. Mexico isn't a good place for a stupid American to go walking off alone in the best of locations. So I continued to watch the boat from the Equinox and take pictures hoping to squeeze a few more details out.   

    If you click on the picture here, you should be able to tell that the name and origin of the sailboat isn't painted on the stern. You should also be able to tell that the sailboat looks relatively new, in the sense that it appears to be recently constructed.
    It's a good thing my wife talked me out of trekking to this sailboat just to satisfy my curiosity. Given my luck, I would have probably been on the news for getting snake bite or simply disappearing.      

    If I titled this picture it would be called, "Fluffy Anvil of the Gods." Sorry folks, since we stayed on the ship there isn't many pictures that do not involve my mystery sailboat. 

    As much as I have whined about the "Blue Hairs", my wife and I spent much of our ship time in the Solarium. A place dominated by the old folks who shied away from all the loud music and activity of the outside pools.
    The Solarium was exceedingly comfortable and quite, allowing me to read in peace.  

    I may have already posted this picture but I wanted to point out a few things about the main pool. It was freaking cold! I did want to at least say I did get in the pool figuring it would be as warm as the one in the Solarium. I only got down to my waist before having to do a quick retreat. 

I also wanted to point out that I did visit the gym several times while on the cruise and in fact took part in a yoga class. The yoga instructor, a goddess originally from New Zealand took it easy on her students but even the basic moves kicked my ass. Sorry no picture of me in the yoga class exist.
   Instead here's one of me on the tread mill working off some of the excellent food the ship offered.  

A piece of Key Lime Pie. One of many that died at my hands. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Celebrity Equinox Cruise: December 14-21 PART THREE

     Being upfront here, I simply do not have the talent to take decent pictures nor write a proper description about Key West, Florida. A partial explanation is that while I have visited the place four times through the years, it was always on cruises that took me away after only a few short hours.
     But truthfully, I am far from an unbiased person when it comes to Key West. For years I listened to Jimmy Buffett sing about the place, its character, and its history. So I continue to be enchanted like a love struck teenager even though many people have tried to dissuade me of my clumsy romanticism. These detractors say Key West is tacky beyond redemption and that its banal commercialism has ruined everything special about the place.
     All very possible, but enough still lingers to make it close to paradise for me.    
    On my first visit to Key West way back in September, 2001 the aftereffects of a very recent 9/11 prevented a lot of the usual tourists from visiting. Long story short, that allowed me a lot of time at the Southern Most Point. There was no line of people waiting to have their picture taken at the colorful buoy.
    On all my other visits though, the line of people has been so long as to make it impossible for me to get another. So I just settle to take a quick picture as I ride by on one of the Couch Tour Train or Couch Tour Trolley.
    Caused a bit of an issue with my wife as we rode passed the Garden of Eden Bar on the very crowded Couch Tour Trolley. As I mentioned in earlier posts, the Celebrity Equinox was overwhelmingly an older crowd with many obviously of the more socially conservative bent.
    So my lovely spouse didn't appreciate when I loudly spoke out about how we needed to get off the trolley, go up to the Garden of Eden Bar and strip down ot our birthday suits like we did years ago. No, we never visited that bar but I did thoroughly enjoy my wife's discomfort and the weird looks we got from all the raging stiffs.

    Yes, there was a price to pay for my improvisation but it was worth the several hours of stony silence. I honestly can't say I would never visit a clothing option bar like Garden of Eden. While on cruises I generally follow the idea that since I will never see any of those people again I can act as stupid and foolish as I want.    
   The "Lost Weekend Liquor Store." With such a name, that place screams to be added to a story of some hard luck loser looking for redemption.
   From what I understand, it's actually a new business, not something from the days when Papa Hemingway could be found walking the streets.   

    If you look beyond the palm tree you will see the destroyed air traffic control tower at Key West Airport. Now the story told to us by the trolley driver was that the tower has been that way for years. That air traffic is controlled by some person sitting at the end of the runway with a radio.
    Not sure how about the truth of that story but it does sound cool.   

    Time, or the lack of it, has always been my enemy when visiting Key West. On this trip I accompanied my wife to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory, not a place many would expect me to like, but it was awesome. If my heart was normal, allowing me to drink beer, I would have done the bar crawl again.
    But be that as it may, I did enjoy seeing the 50 to 60 different species of butterflies that live in the indoor park.
    Not sure what species this bad boy belongs but this was one of my better pictures. It was funny how many shots I took but because of the nature of butterflies, failed to capture any image. 

    In the center of the park was a pond where two flamingos lived. They are named "Rhett" and "Scarlett" and didn't give a damn about any of us humans prowling around their humid home.     

    This butterfly looks like he, or she, has seen some rough times. Not sure if butterflies fight, but I can't think what would have caused this damage to its wings.

    A better view of the insides of the conservatory. 
    Like the previous visits, we had to get back to the ship much too early. These two Princess Cruise line ships were tied up at the Mallory Square docks. One of the things that fascinates me about cruising is the complexity of these ships, even medium-sized one like these two. Pack a couple of thousand spoiled North Americans and Europeans on a ship with about a thousand paid crew members answering their every whim.    

    Don't really know why I included this picture. Maybe because all the others I took at Key West were just not good enough. Riding the Couch Trolley wasn't really conducive to taking good photographs. Plus my wife was having issues with her knees making walking highly problematic.
    While I have forgotten the name of this little island just off Key West, I do remember it's one of those upper crust, exclusive communities.    

    Barely an hour after leaving Key West I took this picture. I really liked the contrasting blues of the sky and ocean. The next stop on the cruise after a day at sea was Costa Maya, Mexico.