Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Parable of the Cave

Today is the 72nd anniversary of the discovery of the cave paintings at Lascaux. There are other paleolithic paintings, and many were known prior to Lascaux, but the sheer volume, the imagery, the immediacy, and the "signatures" (traced hands) at Lascaux are still sui generis.

Here we have a time tunnel to 15,000 BC, to see how humans thought, how dominating the world around them was, as they still clung barely to survival of the species. The depiction of animals and the stars has often been attributed, without much evidence, as being part of the cosmology or religion of people at large. For all we know, it could just as easily have been some lone artist, grooving on his or her own aesthetic. Maybe they just loved drawing. Perhaps the artists' (artist's?) contemporaries considered the activity weird, or maybe it was the center of recreation, or a contest, not a religious rite. Who knows? The "art" may have been the birth of science: taxonomy of animals, depictions of recognizable clusters of stars. (At Lascaux, we have human witness to the truth of evolution: disappeared species are depicted, their bones available for inspection and confirmation of their existence nearby; surviving species are shown in earlier forms. We have evolved since then as well.) In any event, it's (now) a monument to human creativity that predates any surviving building or written record, and more to the point, the drawings are still just fun to look at, without any context. With the context, they're fairly jaw-dropping.

But the cautionary tale of Lascaux is not in the creation of the paintings, or the mysteries of the art, but what's happened to the paintings since.

I have always loved the fact the paintings were rediscovered by a group of teenagers, goofing around, with their dog (named Robot). In terms of the cycle of rebirth and rediscovery, I find this more heartening than if they'd been discovered by an academic expedition or some official organization. Of course, the site, even during World War II, was quickly taken over by "authorities" and "experts", who have held sway ever since.

And this brief 72-year history of modern supervision has been a disaster for the paintings. First thousands of visitors a day tromped through: I don't blame them, I'd love a chance to see these in person as well. Their gaseous emissions -- carbon dioxide, of course -- started degrading the paintings that had sat for 170 centuries relatively well preserved almost immediately, to the point they had to close the caves off to the public in 1963. In the ensuing years, attempts to "preserve" the caves with humidity control, the use of lighting, and simple disturbance of the soil have kicked up lichens, formed crystals, and introduced various forms of toxic molds that are destroying the art fairly efficiently, considering the time frame involved. The laws of unintended consequences certainly apply, but such consequences should be expected, because it's our way to leave a path of dissolution in our wake.

Our footprint is heavy: how many of those extinct species depicted did we extinguish ourselves through hunting? Is the quest to understand ourselves worth the destruction of our own heritage? What responsibilities do we have to our posterity?

Talk to the hand.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Five Things I Liked About Sally Ride

5. She went to Swarthmore. OK, for three semesters, but I strongly suspect Swarthmore of her era did not provide her with the kind of updrafts for her to spread her particular wings and fly. But I love that she started out there, and she had the sense to move on. (And I point out to future generations, she did not leave Swat with the intent of transferring; she dropped out, ostensibly to focus on tennis.)

4. She was a lesbian with a committed partner of 27 years.  Can we edit this in the future? This should be jarring to someone who reads it years hence as being a weird thing for me to note. To say nothing here, at all, and that in her obituary she left her wife of 27 years behind as a survivor? Because Sally Ride, first American woman in space, is the tagline for her obituary, which in 1983 was a huge freaking deal because of where we were, so wretchedly, in 1983. But I want to point out the issue in 2012 is that Ride died with a loving wife, and because of the lack of legal recognition, she won't have the simple line in her obituary that "legally married" Americans have. Maybe she didn't want to get married, I don't know. A hundred years from now maybe she'll be forgotten for "both" "achievements" (was she the first gay person in space? I don't know), but you know what, in 2012, I say, this is what an Astronaut-hero is. And you're going to tell me her survivor couldn't be buried next to her in Arlington (if that's what she had chosen for burial, at least)? Is this how America treats its heroes? Well, it's how it treats everybody who's gay. You could cure cancer, balance the federal budget, save Lassie from a burning building, and defeat Voldemort and in America in 2012, if you happen to be a lesbian, that won't get you a marriage license if you want one. It won't get your spouse survivors' benefits and it won't get them the simple recognition as a widow.

3. She was a Steely-Eyed Missile Man. This was the phrase they used in the 1960s, during the most macho and testosterone-fueled era of astronautics, to describe somebody who could solve complex and demanding problems under pressure. Its obvious phallic overtones had their origins in the test pilot program, but were extended to the technicians and engineers who worked problems on the launch pad. Ride was famous, famous for being cool under pressure in training and in space, notably while controlling the centerpiece robotic arm in the shuttle. Was she ever called a Steely-Eyed Missile Man? Well, I'm calling her one. She was a damned good engineer by all accounts.

2. She believed Roger Boisjoly. She ranks up there with Richard Feynman for unraveling the engineering side of the story, all too obvious in its origins of groupthink and "go fever",  of the Challenger disaster in 1986. Boisjoly was, like most whistleblowers, ostracized instead of lauded for truth-telling. I don't know whether Ride had a special position of security that allowed her to publicly support Boisjoly at a time when he was being scapegoated, or was perhaps even more vulnerable because of lingering sexism, or because of her sexual identity, but either way it still took a lot of courage to speak truth to power in that atmosphere.

1. She did not sell herself; she was not full of herself. In a society full of self-promotion and hype, and at a time when NASA is all about constant public relations to try to keep the human flight program prominent, she didn't yap. She might have been a booster of NASA, to be sure, but she was not a self-booster. She didn't take endorsements. She didn't make a big deal out of herself, even though she was, yes, a big deal. You can make the argument she was just a private person, or she didn't, with good reason, want her private life on a pedestal, or she was just an engineer at heart. Maybe the Gary Cooper attitude was a myth, and we've always been a nation of hucksters, but I prefer my heroes to be humans, not cardboard cutouts.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


extruberescence - (n) - an architectural feature, usually an addition, which does not match the original style of the building to which it is attached, in an unattractive and particularly noticeable manner. Also: a general term for an architectural crime.

Example: "Ooo, what a lovely Craftsman!" "Wait, what's that extruberescence on the side of the house?" "MY GOD, it's a vinyl-sided hot tub enclosure with sliding glass doors!"