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Regret Is All

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Regret is all, it's only human
An emotion with an intimate audience
The tinge of shame and imperfection
And the taint, for we were never innocent

For some can never descend the mountain of regret
They can't let go of the history or even decide to forget
Forever revisiting the past, vivid scenarios replayed
It's hard to live in the bed of remorse that they've made

Questioning whether the requisite words could have been found
Or whether alternative actions could have been summoned
Standing on the verge, poised between restraint and impulse
Rueing whether different actors might have changed the outcome

Communal regret is often the essence of cultural memory
To find oneself laying down markers of collective identity
Intimations of free will weighed against chaos theory
The direction of the arc of time and missed opportunities

Regret is all, it's a deficiency disease
Testimony to the fallibility of memories
Or sometimes to a surfeit of imagination
The raw materials of life, regret is an imposition

boy on steps of crumbling castles

Regret, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note (spotify version)
Vaguely related: Decision to Forget. The theme is buyer's remorse.

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Writing log: March 31, 2022

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4 days ago
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Death, Lonely Death

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Billions of miles away at the edge of the Solar System, Voyager 1 has gone mad and has begun to die.

Let’s start with the “billions of miles”. Voyager 1 was launched in early September 1977. Jimmy Carter was a hopeful new President. Yugoslavia and the USSR were going concerns, as were American Motors, Pan Am, F.W. Woolworth, Fotomat booths, Borders bookshops, and Pier 1. Americans were watching Happy Days, M*A*S*H and Charlie’s Angels on television; their British cousins were watching George and Mildred, The Goodies, and Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. If you turned on the radio, “Hotel California” by The Eagles was alternating with “Dancing Queen” by Abba (and, if we want to be completely honest, “Car Wash” by Rose Royce). Most cars still ran on leaded gasoline, most phones were still rotary dial, and the Internet was a wonky idea that was still a few weeks from a working prototype.

_The Thorn Birds_ was on top of everyone’s bestseller list. The first Apple II home computer had just gone on sale. The Sex Pistols were in the studio wrapping up _Never Mind The Bollocks_; they would tour on it for just three months and then break up, and within another year Sid Vicious would be dead of a heroin overdose. Barack Obama was a high school junior in Honolulu, Hawaii, living with his grandparents: his grades were okay, but he spent most of his time hanging with his pot-smoking friends in the “Choom Gang”.  Boris Johnson was tucked away at the elite Ashdown House boarding school while his parents marriage was slowly collapsing: although he was only thirteen, he had already adopted his signature hair style.  Elvis had just died on the toilet a few weeks ago.  It was the summer of Star Wars.

And Voyager 1 was blasting off for a tour of the Solar System.

There’s no way to pack the whole story of Voyager 1 into a single blog post.  Here’s the TLDR: Voyager was the first spacecraft to fly past Jupiter, and the first to take close-up photos of Jupiter’s moons.  It flew on past Saturn, and examined Saturn’s moon Titan, the only moon with an atmosphere.  And then it flew onwards, on and on, for another forty years.  It officially left the Solar System and entered interstellar space in 2012.  It just kept going, on and on into the infinite emptiness of space.  

(You know about the Golden Record?  Come on, everybody knows about the Golden Record.  It’s kind of hokey and cheesy and also kind of amazing and great.)

Voyager has grown old.  It was never designed for this!  Its original mission was supposed to last a bit over three years.  Voyager has turned out to be much tougher than anyone ever imagined, but time gets us all.  Its power source is a generator full of radioactive isotopes, and those are gradually decaying into inert lead.  Year by year, the energy declines, the power levels  relentlessly fall.  Year by year, NASA has been switching off Voyager’s instruments to conserve that dwindling flicker.  They turned off its internal heater a few years ago, and they thought that might be the end.  But those 1970s engineers built tough, and the circuitry and the valves kept working even as the temperature dropped down, down, colder than dry ice, colder than liquid nitrogen, falling towards absolute zero.  

(Voyager stored its internal data on a digital tape recorder.  Yes, a tape recorder, storing information on magnetic tape.  It wasn’t designed to function at a hundred degrees Celsius below zero.  It wasn’t designed to work for decades, winding and rewinding, endlessly re-writing data.  But it did.)

Voyager kept going, and kept going, until it was over 15 billion kilometers away.  At the speed of light, the Moon is one and a half seconds away.  The Sun is about 8 minutes away.  Voyager is twenty-two hours away.  Send a radio signal to it at lunch on Monday, and you’ll get a response back Wednesday morning.

* * *

I could go on at great length about Voyager — the discoveries it has made, how amazing it has all been, the Deep Space Network that has maintained contact over the decades, the ever shrinking crew of aging technicians keeping it alive on a shoestring budget. But I’ll restrict myself to just this:  the Pale Blue Dot.

Dark grey and black static with coloured vertical rays of sunlight over part of the image. A small pale blue point of light is barely visible.

In 1990, just before Voyager’s camera shut down forever, the probe turned around and looked backwards.  It zoomed in and took a picture of Earth.  But by that time, it was so far away that Earth was just a single pale blue pixel.  Look at the right-most band of light.  A little past halfway down — see that speck?  It’s not a defect.  It’s not something on your screen.  That’s the Earth.

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” — Carl Sagan

Voyager kept going for another 34 years after that photo.  It’s still going.  It has left the grip of the Sun’s gravity, so it’s going to fall outward forever. 

* * *

Here’s a bit of trivia: Voyager 1 currently holds the record for most distant active spacecraft.  It’s not even close.  The only other contender is Voyager’s little sister, Voyager 2, which had a different mission profile and so lags billions of kilometers behind their older sibling.

Here’s another bit of trivia:  if you’re reading this in 2024?  It’s very unlikely that you will live to see that record broken.  There are only two other spacecraft outside the Solar System — Voyager 2 and New Horizons.  Both of them are going to die before they get as far as Voyager 1.  And nobody — not NASA, not the Chinese, not the EU — is currently planning to launch another spacecraft to those distances.  In theory we could.  In practice, we have other priorities.

* * *

We thought we knew how Voyager would end.  The power would gradually, inevitably, run down.  The instruments would shut off, one by one.  The signal would get fainter.  Eventually either the last instrument would fail for lack of power, or the signal would be lost.

We didn’t expect that it would go mad.

In December 2023, Voyager started sending back gibberish instead of data.  A software glitch, though perhaps caused by an underlying hardware problem; a cosmic ray strike, or a side effect of the low temperatures, or just aging equipment randomly causing some bits to flip.

The problem was, the gibberish was coming from the flight direction software — the operating system, as it were.  And no copy of that operating system remained in existence on Earth.

(This is a problem NASA long since solved.  These days, every space probe that launches, leaves a perfect duplicate back on Earth.  Remember in “The Martian”, how they had another copy of Pathfinder sitting under a tarp in a warehouse?  That’s accurate.  It’s been standard practice for 30 years.  But back in 1977, nobody had thought of that yet.)

Voyager Mission Control used to be a couple of big rooms full of busy people, computers, giant screens.  Now it’s a single room in a small office building in the San Gabriel Valley, in between a dog training school and a McDonalds.  The Mission Control team is a handful of people, none of them young, several well past retirement age. 

And they’re trying to fix the problem.  But right now, it doesn’t look good.  You can’t just download a new OS from 15 billion kilometers away.  (For starters, there isn’t the bandwidth.)  They would have to figure out the problem, figure out if a workaround is possible, and then apply it… all with a round-trip time of 45 hours for every communication with a probe that is flying away from us at a million miles a day.  They’re trying, but nobody likes their odds.

So at some point — not tomorrow, not next week, but at some point in the next few months — they’ll probably have to admit defeat.  And then they’ll declare Voyager 1 officially over, dead and done, the end of a long song.

And that’s all.


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5 days ago
Deep space 1.
Central Pennsyltucky

Safe Harbor

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My hope is to disappear into you
Dissolving slowly as you forget my name
When our first encounter becomes a distant memory
And the phantom sensation is all that remains

Streams of thought, the quality of evanescence
Happy to be wrapped in a blanket of impermanence
Ephemeral traces, the comfort of a mood marker
It was in your very self that I found my safe harbor

sumi swirls

Safe Harbor, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note (spotify version)

See previously I Daresay

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Writing log: March 10, 2022

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10 days ago
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Waiting for the Pope

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The Pope and Archbishop were coming
And so we waited in the morning sun
Sensible, well pressed skirts for the girls
Boys in sharp shorts, our khaki school uniforms
At the behest of stern teachers and chaperons
We all made an effort to tamp down our ruffian ways
Arrayed, or rather displayed, in formation at the roadside

Earlier, after assembly, we'd marched out of the school gates
Passing through the dusty streets of North Ridge
And made our way to Ring Road, all the while chanting
Oh the heat, the hours passed without a sighting
No water, no snacks, but the novelty of the excursion compensated
Seven year olds will find their own entertainment
Serene and papal, we practiced our hand waves
Then, inspired, tried out our Polish-accented English
"Holy, holy, very holy... I bless you, my children."

In the event, after all that, it was a two minute affair
No popemobile as it turned out, a rather sober procession
Cars bearing dignitaries preceded by the motorcade
Cheers, such cheers, and a mad scramble
We bore witness

A slight man in the flesh, pint-sized
Can't say that he was larger than life
Still, you could have sworn he looked you directly in the eye
Made you feel a connection even at the roadside
Our healthy skepticism of catholicism was almost overcome
The great man theory, we'd learned some kind of civic lesson
We savored the escape and managed to wrangle a further hour of fun
Then slowly, very slowly, made our way back to North Ridge Lyceum

ghana stamp pope john paull II archbishop of canterbury with president Hilla Limann 8-10th May 1980 20 pesewas

Waiting for the Pope, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note (spotify version)
education church or state

See previously Articles of Faith and On Catholicism

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Writing log: March 28, 2022

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17 days ago
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The bravado departure

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Leaders of military juntas of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have announced the exit of the three countries from ECOWAS

I am sitting here wondering what to make of the news that Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso had announced they were leaving ECOWAS, “without delay”. 

Read More …

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24 days ago
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Brow of Discernment

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The kind of man that says unexceptionable and significations without irony
His every pronouncement comes weighted with ballast and profundity
The stylized pomp is deadly earnest and has no end
Behold, in its full glory, the brow of discernment

The arc of his thought, it is said, bends toward the contrarian
Witness his long-standing battle against the conventional wisdom
Very important this man, and altogether immune from mistakes
Forget the previous discourse, here comes the definitive take

Dizzying opinions fervently held to all appearances
Beneath a surface layer of puffery and self importance
Self identifying as a public servant of mankind
Truth be told, he is a legend in his own mind

Much like his peers, say, the mustache of understanding
And erstwhile nemesis, the bow tie of fulsome waxing
A mouthpiece to righteous blather,
   ever prone to attacking cartoon villains
Sample accusation: unlike him,
   "no one is thinking about the children"

Aspirations of grandeur,
   capital's spokesman-in-chief
Empire's useful idiot,
   providing oligarchs comic relief
Forever flirting with the masters of the universe
Still there's something staid about him,
   he's cool's dour obverse

Paradoxically, one can point to
   a thin veneer of past competence
Before the turn to punditry,
   there were some tangible achievements
But hubris is all these days,
  riding high, he's nigh invincible
Try to pin him down though,
   you won't find a guiding principle

His stock-in-trade is outrage,
   yet he's always on the side of angels
Labels galore in his arsenal,
   he knows how to turn the tables
Throughout, he's surprisingly adept
   at knowing where the money is flowing
Mind you, he always checks first
   to see which way the wind is blowing

Backslapping repartee as befits the unctuous
His prose style never varies from the oleaginous
His days of punditry rather embody the savior complex
But when caught out, his words were "taken out of context"

Observe well,
   his penchant for bonhomie and folk wisdom is rather notable
With his idiosyncratic way with the mixed metaphor,
   he remains ever quotable
"Rising empires never sleep on blankets
   forged in the fires of benign neglect"
Car crashes have been caused
   while trying to decipher his arch concepts

Humanity is always on the precipice,
   society is always at the crossroads
Norm policing is his business,
   he's prone to pearl clutching episodes
So quick to assume the pose of the supercilious
Even as he proudly wears the badge of the incurious

After prefacing his remarks with a counterintuitive statement
Comes a nod, that's when you'll find him fully in his element
His favored weapon finally ready for deployment
Raised and furrowed, the brow of discernment

Presentation Pete - Natty Dresser Pete

Puff, a playlist

A soundtrack for this note. Self regard is everything. (spotify version)
See previously: A Taxonomy of Useful Idiots

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Writing log: March 24, 2022

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24 days ago
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