"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, April 24, 2011

ISS Leads My Cosmos Clearing House for April

ISS Captures Hurricane Earl Image

My NASA Daily Digest Bulletin included the following image. I love angled shots like this. They strike me as more dramatic than photos taken from directly overhead. Enjoy.

Photo Credit: NASA
We are entering what will hopefully be the heyday of the International Space Station. Now fully stocked and staffed, it is poised to churn out lots of research and experience that benefit not only the space industry, but all of humanity. Will the ISS deliver constant heart-stopping discovery? Of course not. Still my personal hope is that, like the Hubble Space Telescope, the ISS will accumulate a body of dramatic images and knowledge that cultivate public endearment. Bottom line: space exploration needs a thriving workaday culture that only mainstays like Hubble and the ISS provide.

LightSail-1 Makes NASA's Short List

As a member of The Planetary Society, I'm always excited when our organization hits another milestone or achieves new results. So it was wonderful to hear that LightSail-1, a solar sail spacecraft funded by the Society, has been short-listed for a future NASA launch. I suppose this is the cosmic equivalent of scoring an Oscar nomination. It's not the actual award, but it is a major vote of confidence.


'Martian Summer' Makes Childe Jake's Short List

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/U.Arizona
Okay, the above image is not the most exciting Mars photo ever taken...but it is very special to me. Look closely and notice the DVD affixed to NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander. It is a time capsule of sorts--a gift to future Martian colonists. This archival disc includes various pieces of literature about Mars exploration, including science fiction classics. It also includes a list of names of Earth citizens, including mine. So I remain fond of this particular NASA artifact. Now about the new book.

Martian Summer: Robot Arms, Cowboy Spacemen, and My 90 Days with the Phoenix Mars MissionMartian Summer is a non-fiction firsthand account of NASA's historic Phoenix Mars mission. Phoenix discovered the Holy Grail of cosmic commodities: ice. I'm especially excited to discover that this book, which I first heard about on NPR, is not written by a NASA scientist. Rather, it comes from the pen of a Brooklyn-based writer who is described in publicity materials as a "fanboy." I'm looking forward to what will hopefully be a very good and accessible read. Expect a review sometime in the near future.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Swamplandia! - Go for the Gators, Stay for the Kids

Swamplandia!Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took reading half of Swamplandia! for me to appreciate the story, let alone truly connect with it. Author Karen Russell keeps many things up in the air, including the very genre of the novel. Is it contemporary realism by way of a coming of age story? Fantasy by way of ghost story? Mystery by way of abduction story? To be candid, my chief worry early on was that the weakness was in me, not in Swamplandia!. Has a steady diet of TV and Internet made my attention span woefully short? Am I incapable of enjoying an expertly prepared, slow-boiling narrative?

Alas, the weakness was mostly mine. Using slow rising action, Ms. Russell seamlessly merges fantasy and reality. And she begs the question of which is which--especially for children. In retrospect, I should have drawn more significance from Stephen King’s endorsement on the novel’s dust jacket. He gives Swamplandia! a glowing accolade while simultaneously appraising it as “creepy and sinister”.

I say all that to say this; I wholeheartedly give Swamplandia! four stars. And if I was rating the quality of the prose alone, I would give it five. Ms. Russell is a world-class wielder of English. Even as some narrative choices bugged me, I rarely went a paragraph without being entranced by the way she arranged words and phrases. Experiencing this novel reminded me of how worthwhile it is to spend an evening reading excellent writing.

Where Swamplandia! exhibits a problem is in its larger structure, which sometimes feels out of balance. There can be no mistaking that Ava, a young girl left alone in the swampland of Florida, is the novel’s central character. She even narrates most of the story in first-person. Yet, not too far into the book Russell begins switching to third person for some chapters. She does this to develop a parallel narrative. While Ava remains in the swamp, her older brother Kiwi embarks on an urban adventure to save the family business, an old alligator-wrestling park. For a time, these narratives compete more than they complement one another.

Compared to Ava’s mystical adventure in the vast swamp, Kiwi’s plotline initially read dry and static. Frankly, I struggled to get interested in Kiwi for several chapters. But when a new personal crisis thrashed its way into his life, I began feeling the same connection to him that I already enjoyed with Ava. And the tension kept increasing. Nothing that happened to Kiwi and Ava in the second half of the book allowed me to feel ambivalent.

One of the richest themes explored in Swamplandia! is the give and take between old and young. Ava and Kiwi are ever vying with seasoned adults of varying repute. At times this generational tension reaches frantic levels. I found myself comparing the fictional struggle to a real-life frustration of mine. Of late, I’ve been feeling anger toward my elders. In particular, I’m flabbergasted by politicians--left and right--who claim to want the best for children. Yet they aggressively cut education funding before even daring to discuss scaled back funding for--I’m going to say it--old people.

For me, Swamplandia! evinces a hope that opposing individuals or groups can reconcile and jointly succeed. To do so they must strive to give as much, or perhaps more, than they expect to receive from the other. The characters in this novel who triumph do so by going to great lengths to aid others. It’s a tribute to Karen Russell that she has penned a novel rich in fantastical trappings that never loses its relevance to our real world--a world we all need to understand better and accept.

Bottom Line: I highly recommend Swamplandia!

View all my reviews

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Partial Shutdown of Childe Jake's Weekend

From the Associative Press

Childe Jake enacted a partial shutdown of his weekend after the right and left sides of his brain failed to reach a budget deal by Friday at 5pm. Essential services remain up and running, including heating frozen pizza and viewing a copy of The Last Picture Show borrowed from the library. However, Jake's social life has already begun to suffer. For the duration of the shutdown, he is restricted from sending tweets to the three "real" Kate Beckinsales he follows.

At a press conference, the Childe had this to say:
“I regret that internal disputes over discretionary spending have caused a partial shutdown of my weekend. Nevertheless, all facets of my soul can take heart that the microwave, freezer, computer and toilet continue to operate normally.”
Asked to clarify if other hygiene services would be affected, Jake indicated showering would proceed at a delayed rate. Dishwashing, which has always been sporadic, will only occur in the event of a spoon outage.

Jake’s left brain had been optimistic about reaching a compromise that would have capped weekend spending at $33. However, negotiations broke down when the right side of Jake’s brain attached a morality rider to a proposed stopgap cash withdrawal of $20. The rider basically stated that Kate Beckinsale fantasies are naughty and should be offset with reruns of Touched by an Angel. Jake balked.

“Folks, this is a checkbook issue. What does discontinuing a highly elegant fantasy set in the forest near a waterfall have to do with whether I buy DiGiorno or settle for the Totino's that's already in the freezer?”
UPDATE: An agreement was reached earlier today as Jake listened to a particularly mirthful segment of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! on Michigan Radio. Funding will continue through Sunday night, at which time Jake is set to begin debating a purchase of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to take his mind off the coming week. Though both sides are applauding this new accord, Jake’s cynical aspect made a pointed statement while appearing on the bathroom mirror earlier today:

“Get real. Shutdowns only affect the checking account. Jake's governing tendencies retain full access to the credit card whether the dishes get done or not. Now if you’ll excuse Kate and me...”


I’ll believe it next Friday.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Climbing Everest for Alzheimer's Research: An Update

For the most up-to-date coverage of climbing and Alan's support of Alzheimer's research, visit www.alanarnette.com

Logo from climb4ad.com
It's again time to be a responsible amateur blogger. Responsible amateur blogging, in my opinion, involves routinely steering people to blogs written by professionals and experts. I'm happy to do that today for a very good cause.

World-class climber Alan Arnette is currently trekking to Mt. Everest Base Camp. Everest is the third of seven summits he is climbing this year to raise funds for Alzheimer's research. He is documenting the adventure via blog posts, tweets, images and audio.

If you've never followed an Everest expedition in real time, Mr. Arnette's quest is ideally suited for newcomers and casual observers. His site is rich with great content. Personally, I can attest that following a climber's attempt to summit Everest takes on the same excitement and suspense of any spectator sport. It's even more worthwhile when you follow someone who is climbing for a good cause. So here is a link to a blog post that is well worth the read:

Memories of Everest First View