Thus the name

thus the name


When I created this blog three years ago, the name “Futureworld” came to me right away. I had a dim realization that the title wouldn’t be as meaningful to others as it was to me, but that didn’t matter very much: it was my brand-new beautiful little baby blog, and I was determined to call it whatever I pleased.

But my thoughts ran something like this:

I was born in July 1957, just a few months before the official beginning of the Space Age. My childhood was full of astronauts and science fiction. Soon, we thought, we’d be living in an unimaginably advanced world; no one would suffer or be hungry, and everyone would have a flying car, and everything would be utterly futuristic and wonderful.

Well, you know what? Some of that stuff came true. The Internet is still a miracle to those of us who remember the primitive 1950s and 1960s. Partner and I comment almost daily on the fact that we can pick up a mobile device at a moment’s notice and summon up the weather report, or the news, or the cast of a 1944 movie, or Skype someone on another continent, or do any number of other bizarrely futuristic things.

So: Partner and I are living in the “future” that we were promised back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Except that we’re not. People are still stupid and retrograde. There are still politicians who want to restrict voting rights and immigration. Just like the 1920s and 1930s! The world is still at war. Just as in 500 BCE!

That’s what I meant by “Futureworld.” Here we are, in 2013, and we should be living on space stations and speaking Esperanto, but in many ways we’re still primitives, attacking and killing one another over trifles.

Ah me. The farther we go into the future, the more firmly we remain stuck in the past.

In Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” there’s a scene in which two ghosts – a medieval one and a 17th-century one – appear in the 1980s to speak to their descendant, a gay Manhattanite with AIDS. The medieval ancestor doesn’t like the 1980s, and leaves as quickly as he can. The other sighs and looks around himself. “The Twentieth Century,” he says sadly. “Oh dear. The world has gotten so terribly terribly old.”

Brother, was he right.



I hate David Brooks

i hate david brooks


I’ve written about David Brooks before. He is a toffee-nosed middle-of-the-road sort-of-conservative social commentator for the New York Times. He is priggish and frequently clucks his tongue over our decadent society. His preferred society would, I think, be a cartoonish Eisenhower-era America, with everyone living in a little white house and going to church every Sunday, in a rocket car (because David Brooks is a great believer in progress).

Seriously, people like this kill me. They long for the days of Big Religion, when everyone went to church except the really bad people. People like Brooks often whine about how society has suffered without Religion as a Unifying Force.

O yes indeedy, it’s a unifying force, all right. Go ask all the Lutherans and Catholics who died in the Thirty Years War, back in the seventeenth century, about how powerfully they felt about their religion as a unifying force.

But religion is also a civilizing force! the David Brookses cry. Music! Poetry! Art!

(They overlook all the music and poetry and art that’s been created without benefit of religion.)

Which is why this passage, from a recent Brooks NYTimes.com editorial in which he describes Charles Taylor’s book “A Secular Age”, drives me batty:

 “. . . What I most appreciate is [Taylor’s] vision of a “secular” future that is both open and also contains at least pockets of spiritual rigor, and that is propelled by religious motivation, a strong and enduring piece of our nature.

This gives me a splitting headache. First of all: “pockets of spiritual rigor”? Does Christian fundamentalism, or Muslim fundamentalism for that matter, constitute a “pocket of spiritual rigor”? If so, in what way do they add to the value of their respective cultures?

And why would a “secular” future be “propelled” by “religious motivation”? This baffles me completely. I’m a non-believer myself. Can I somehow “propel” myself with “religious motivation” that doesn’t involve believing in a particular religion? Or do I just sideline myself, and allow my culture to be “propelled”?

I don’t know why people read Brooks seriously. I only read him to reassure myself what a completely fatuous bore he is.

Now excuse me while I propel myself into the secular future.


Old men reading the news

old men yelling


CBS is the network of the elderly, especially on Sunday mornings. All of the correspondents on “CBS Sunday Morning” speak slowly and carefully, so we old codgers can understand them as we gradually awaken. The host of the show is the charming (but elderly) Charles Osgood, who’s eighty years old as of this moment.

And the show is followed by CBS’s “Face the Nation,” hosted by Bob Schieffer, who’s a comparatively youthful seventy-six years old.

One Sunday morning last spring, Schieffer opened the show with something like this: “Flooding! Snow in the Northeast! What’s with the weather?”

It’s a perfectly valid question, with a plethora of answers, all of them interesting. But it was his tone – his shrill old-man querulous tone – that made it almost funny. He seemed to be saying: What’s this? And why haven’t we heard about this before?

 

Well, we’ve heard about it approximately a thousand times. I first heard about it in the 1970s in high school, when the first Earth Day was celebrated. I even spent a few pennies then to buy an Earth Day decal, the money for which was supposed to go to some good ecological cause.

But here we are. The atmospheric CO2 level has gone to 400 parts per million, the highest level in three million years. This will have definite consequences on the climate.

And yet Bob Schieffer, who’s possible more than three million years old, wants to know what’s going on!

I’m on the verge of being an old man myself. But even I know more than Bob Schieffer seems to know.

The climate is changing.

Grab your hats and head for the exits, ladies and gentlemen. The future isn’t going to be very nice.

I’m only sorry that the old men on the Sunday-morning television programs aren’t preparing you for this.


Movie review: “Star Trek Into Darkness”

star trek into darkness ii


I was nine years old and in the fifth grade when the first “Star Trek” series began on TV. It was a bit late – ten o’clock, I think – but, for some reason, my parents allowed me watch it. I was hypnotized. I remember especially the “Cat’s Paw” episode, with Korob and Sylvia, which first aired just before Halloween 1967:

I’ve never been  the same since.

I’ve seen most of the various TV series, and most of the movies. I didn’t care much for “Next Generation,” but I did love “Deep Space Nine.” “Voyager” I flirted with, but we never fell in love. “Enterprise” I didn’t connect with at all, though I think Scott Bakula is very hot.

The movies have mostly been disappointments. The first one was much looked forward to – I remember yelling “Beam me up!” in the theater lobby, which everyone thought was very funny – but it was really pretty terrible. “Wrath of Khan” was a good movie, as was the one with the whales – what was it? – “The Voyage Home.” Most of the “Next Generation” movies were completely forgettable. The movie before this one, “Star Trek” with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, was pretty good, although it seemed to indicate that we were moving  into, ahem, an alternate timeline, in which things didn’t happen the way they did in the original TV show or the first few movies.

Anyway: so here we are, on our second movie! Chris Pine (Kirk) and Zachary Quinto (Spock) are still both very cute. (The director likes to let the camera dwell on Chris’s pretty eyes for minutes at a time. I admit that his eyes are very special.) Spock is still in a relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and they’re spatting this time around, which is also cute. Scotty (Simon Pegg), Sulu (John Cho) and McCoy (Karl Urban) create a solid old-fashioned connection to the original series, funny and serious at the same time, and all three of them give terrific performances.

But, unfortunately, all of the above excellent performers are saddled with a sub-standard plot.

Benedict Cumberbatch is the villain, and he’s very good at being a villain, because he has that voice, and that slightly-inhuman face. But the plot is all things blowing up, and maybe the Klingons will attack us, and maybe there are bad guys within StarFleet!

Yeah, mm-hmm. We’ve done this before. About a million times.

There is a ton of stuff in this movie for the fans (which non-fans will not even notice): tribbles, a mention of Harry Mudd, the appearance of Carol Marcus. The producers made a big deal of not revealing the movie’s plot in advance, and I’ll play along. I will say this: Cumberbatch is playing a villain named John Harrison, but John Harrison is not his real name.

I went to this film as a Star Trek fan always does, hoping for a really good movie.

I came away thinking: “Oh, well. Chris Pine is cute, so it wasn’t a total loss.”

Well, anyway, I have high hopes for next weekend’s “Man of Steel.”

And if it turns out to be terrible: well, at least Henry Cavill’s very cute.


It’s this crazy weather we’ve been having; or, Rhapsody on a theme by John Ashbery

crazy weather


So (I says casually), did you see the photo on the front page of the New York Times on Friday? Snow in Jerusalem. Crazy, right?

And how about that heatwave in Australia? Pretty awful.

Not to mention the soaking rains they’ve been having in the UK.

And did I mention that it’s gonna be close to sixty degrees here in Providence over the next few days? In mid-January. Seriously, it feels like late March / early April outside.

You know where I’m going with this.

We’ve done it to ourselves. We didn’t mean to do it, but we did it. We have steadily warmed our climate, and now abnormal weather is the new normal: storms, droughts, temperature extremes. 2012 was the warmest year on record in the United States, by the way.

So what can we do about it?

Little enough. The damage is already done. The carbon dioxide is already out there, and the ozone is already torn up.

Good night and good luck, human race.

(But let’s end with something nice. I started with a John Ashbery quote, so let’s have the whole poem, and think – or hope – that humanity might not die out completely, or might at least leave behind something beautiful.)

(Something like this:)

It’s this crazy weather we’ve been having:
Falling forward one minute, lying down the next
Among the loose grasses and soft, white, nameless flowers.
People have been making a garment out of it,
Stitching the white of lilacs together with lightning
At some anonymous crossroads. The sky calls
To the deaf earth. The proverbial disarray
Of morning corrects itself as you stand up.
You are wearing a text. The lines
Droop to your shoelaces and I shall never want or need
Any other literature than this poetry of mud
And ambitious reminiscences of times when it came easily
Through the then woods and ploughed fields and had
A simple unconscious dignity we can never hope to
Approximate now except in narrow ravines nobody
Will inspect where some late sample of the rare,
Uninteresting specimen might still be putting out shoots, for all we know. 


 

Asteroids

 asteroids


Partner and I saw something interesting the other night. A near-earth asteroid, Apophis, was making a near approach to Earth, and we watched it in real time, on a British website called Slooh.com, which operates a powerful telescope in the Canary Islands off Africa.

The images were peaceful enough: a tiny bright spot moving slowly against a background of stars.

Apophis will not trouble us this time; it’s too far away.

But Apophis is coming back. It will make another near-Earth approach in 2029, and again in 2036. There is a vanishingly small chance that, in 2036, Apophis will actually hit the Earth.

If it does, it would not be quite as bad as the dinosaur-killing asteroid that hit Earth sixty million years ago. It would be very bad, however.

But, as I said, the chances are very small.

Makes you feel uncertain, doesn’t it?

I don’t much care. In 2036, I’ll be 79 years old, if I’m not already dead.

But it makes me think of all the odd things that can happen, and the random horrible accidents that can really ruin your day.

And I used to like the asteroids.  I thought of them as a remote peaceful place, a planetary archipelago, kind of like the British West Indies.

I prefer them that way.

Here’s Diane Ackerman’s poem from the 1970s:

We imagine them


flitting


cheek to jowl,


these driftrocks


of cosmic ash


thousandfold afloat


between Jupiter and Mars.


Frigga,


Fanny,


Adelheid,


Lacrimosa.


Names to conjure with,


Dakotan black hills,


A light-opera


Staged on a barrier reef.


And swarm they may have,


Crumbly as blue-cheese,


That ur-moment


when the solar system


broke wind.


But now


they lumber


so wide apart


from each


to its neighbor’s


pinprick-glow


slant millions


and millions


of watertight miles.


Only in the longest view


do they graze


like one herd


on a breathless tundra.


Reading the cards


I think of myself as very irreligious. I don’t really believe in any god, except inasmuch as there may be more powerful or knowledgeable entities than me in the universe (which is completely possible). But a personal deity? One who cares about me, and who can help me in a real way? I don’t see it.

On the other hand, I think the universe is full of odd connections and synchronicities. I think that “fortune-telling” – horoscopes, cards, palmistry – is just a way to tease out the synchronicity, and maybe latch into a feeling about things that are happening around you.

I have an especially strong feeling about card-reading. You shuffle cards in the here and now, and the cards fall into a shape that’s dictated by what Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians called “the structure of the moment.”

The cards fall a certain way when you draw them and lay them on the table. An experienced reader can find all kinds of interesting things in them.

Why not?

I have read cards – regular playing cards, Tarot cards, and even the cards of Madame Lenormande – many times. I feel them in my hands as I deal them, and I can tell if the reading is going to be the real deal or not. Sometimes the cards get annoyed with you, especially if they know you’re asking a stupid question (a stupid question is a question to which you already know the answer). Sometimes you get what I call “static” – nonsense answers – but not very often.

Most often, the cards tell me (very sincerely) what’s going on in the world.

Example #1: Back in the early 1980s, I was in a dreadful job, and was applying for a much better job. I was assured – assured! – by the new employer that I was the leading candidate for the job.

I was thrilled. So, just for confirmation, I read the cards.

And they told me I wasn’t getting the job.

I resented the cards’ bad attitude, and dealt them again. They told me again – in very definite terms – that I was not getting the job.

Foolishly I dealt the cards a third time. The cards hate this. (I know I’m anthropomorphizing the cards, but it’s difficult not to; they have moods.) This time, the DEATH card came up.

And – what do you know? – I didn’t get the job.

Example #2: A few years later, I was offered a Peace Corps job in Morocco. I was excited, but uncertain. I read the cards. I saw:

Uncertainty.

Strife.

Difficulties.

Travel overseas. (No kidding!)

And, at the end of it, The Sun. This card represents – let me quote an online source:

The Sun promises the querent his/her day in the sun. Glory, triumph, simple pleasures and truths. This card symbolizes discoveries made wide awake. This is science and math, beautifully constructed music, carefully reasoned philosophy. It is a card of intellect and youthful energy. Like the Sun, the querent will likely come across to others as warm and radiant, and he/she can be told that this is a good time to make decisions.

In short: Oh, shit, go ahead and do it. It’ll turn out just fine, despite the difficulties.

And it did turn out just fine. There were twists and turns and unexpected things, just as the cards had warned.

And at the end of it, the Sun: radiant happiness.

I am timid of the cards. I do not ask them casual questions. I play with them, and meditate on them, but I respect them.

(Do I sound superstitious? I suppose I am.

(But I believe that the present holds the seeds of the future, and that – if you know how – you can peer into the structure of the present and glimpse, dimly, the shape of the future.

(Want me to read for you someday?)


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