My Father and My Laptop, in Kenya

My father is good at many things, but sitting still is not one of them. His current adventure has him helping out at a school/orphanage in Meru, Kenya. He has been posting updates from Kenya on his eponymous blog.

It has been fascinating to read his updates, despite the lack of a working Z key on his laptop (though it does have other working punctuation keys, Dad). That laptop has had an interesting life of its own – it’s a ThinkPad T60p that I bought from Kevin Rose in 2006. It was my primary laptop for four years, until it ended up as a hand-me-down in the family. Now it is in an orphanage in Kenya helping my father keep in touch with family and friends back in Canada. The laptop will probably stay there with the kids after he returns home next month.

The local CBC Radio morning show aired an interview my father from Kenya this morning:

 

The Throes of Existential Angst

There’s an episode of the classic television series Northern Exposure (bear with me) where Dr. Joel Fleishman is anxiously trying to fill up his empty Alaskan summer days. A friend tells him that he’s in “the throes of existential angst”. This observation has stuck with me.

I’ve come to believe that I occasionally suffer from a condition that I call “cosmic vertigo”. While it would be a terrible name for a band (or a great name for a terrible band), this phrase describes a feeling I get when I catch a (usually metaphorical) glimpse beyond my daily horizon.

My first such experience was on a beach on the North shore of Prince Edward Island in my mid-teens. I was at a campground and woke unusually early. I walked down to the beach where I watched the sun rise (an altogether different experience than seeing it set).

As the sun came closer to cresting the perceptibly-curved ocean horizon, the stars were still visible on the dark side of the sky. I had the (probably illusory) feeling that I could clearly perceive the spherical nature of the Earth, and it’s position and motion around the Sun. I felt like I was standing on a giant 6th-grade Styrofoam-ball model of the solar system.

The experience was profound, but neither positive or negative. I’ve heard others describe feeling small or insignificant during such an episode. This was not so in my case. I felt solitary, but not lonely.

This is a simple, perhaps juvenile, template of experiences I would come to have in a more negative light later in life. I’ve always found myself drawn to the power of perceiving vast scale. Imagining how many years of light-speed travel we are away from the nearest star deeply intrigues me.

This attraction to grand scale is peculiar in that it transforms quickly into a morbid dread when I am actually able to grasp something of a truly grand scale. Watching the classic film, Powers of Ten, is fascinating as we move away from the earth, out to the entire solar system, then to the galaxy. Then, as we pull further from the Earth and see that our entire galaxy is a grain of sand on a giant beach. It is at a point like this that I occasionally get the feeling of cosmic vertigo. This visualization of the the Hubble Deep Field image has had a similar effect.

Like an acrophobic taking a step higher and higher up a ladder, the steps of the Powers of Ten film cross a threshold from insignificant (standing a few steps off the ground), to terrifying (standing atop a tall ladder). Where that threshold lies can seem arbitrary, and even silly, to an observer, but don’t tell that to someone scared of heights.

I’ve wondered if cosmic vertigo may have something to do with reaching the bounds of human intuition (or at least my own). I can hold in my head the concept of the distance to the Moon (roughly a five month journey at 100Km/h). Even the the nearest star, over 4 light-years away, is something I can fool myself into understanding. Much beyond that, though, one enters the realms where metaphors are inadequate and you are faced with the limits of your own perception.

Even something as simple as the mathematical constant pi (π), can trigger the dreadful pang of cosmic vertical. Imagine a number that continues on to infinity. Too abstract, perhaps, but consider the numbers of pi scrolling pie, faster and faster. They go on forever. For. Ever.

π

The BBC dedicated an entire documentary to four geniuses whose insights drove them mad to the point of suicide. Fortunately, I’m not smart enough to terrify myself to that extent. Maybe, though, we can all catch a fleeting glimpse of what they saw so clearly that terrified them so much.

This cosmic vertigo may be a symptom of some deep psychological, philosophical, or spiritual issue. Or,it may be the perfectly reasonable terror of an ant who realizes he’s been riding a bicycle.

 

Halloween by the numbers

  • Total trick-or-treaters: About 75
  • Costumes that might have been “prostitute”: 2 or 3
  • Dads dressed as Hank Scorpio: 1
  • Dogs that terrified my kids: 2
  • Dogs that delighted my kids: 2
  • Dogs dressed as hot-dogs: 1
  • Chihuahuas wearing sombreros: 1
  • Ninjas that needed to use our bathroom: 1
 

Regional Lament

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The Mars Trailer

NASA is promoting the upcoming landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars like a trailer for a Transformers movie. I might be the exact target market for this. Can’t wait for the landing.

 

Paul Leaves the Internet

Paul Miller, a tech journalist for The Verge, is leaving the Internet for a year. He’s an avid StarCraft II player, and writes about (and on) the web for a living. He’s going to continue to use a computer (offline) and continue to write for The Verge.

Miller is a great writer and I get the impression he lives online in the same way I do. I’m looking forward to living UN-vicariously through him as he documents his experience. His video introducing his project is also well done:

 

5-Year Old Focus Group

A designer asked his five-year-old daughter to comment on a series of corporate logos. The results are adorable and fascinating. It’s a powerful machine that can make a child look at a bright sunflower and say “Gas.”

 

The Best Game Of Tennis Ever?

I don’t know much about tennis, but this match (tennis-word!) between Andy Murray and Michael Llodrais at the Australian Open is amazing:

 

Update: Still bummed about the 11-million-year commute to the planet Kepler B we discussed last month? Be sure to read BoingBoing’s article on the (im)practicality and cost of interstellar travel. While Kepler 22b might be a boring 11-million-year flight away, the nearest star, Alpha Centauri would only be a brisk 70,000 years or so.

 

The Swoosh is a Lie

99% Invisible Podcast

From the delightful 99% Invisible podcast, I learned today that many televised sporting events use pre-recorded audio samples to fake a sense of realism. When you watch at least some sports on television, particularly those that cover large areas, the swoosh of a cross-country skier, the splash of a rower’s paddle, or the thundering stampede of horse racing, may be coming from a sound designer’s sampler rather than the atheletes you’re seeing on screen.

Like most episodes of 99% Invisible, this Sound of Sport episode is only 5 minutes long, well produced, and fascinating. Since learning about 99% Invisible from the also-delightful RadioLab podcast, I’ve almost caught up on all 44 (so far) episodes. Highly recommended.

While we’re enjoying podcasts, the Planet Money podcast somehow manages to make the world of economics interesting to those of us who are completely uninterested in economics.