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Imagination in Flight

November 16, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin has her protagonist, Genly Ai, travel to the distant planet Gethen which has no birds or flying insects. As a result, the communities there never even thought to attempt flight and their language has no word for flying. It is no wonder, then, that the people mistrust Genly who arrives by airship. It is also easy to see why Le Guin chose this scenario. She masterfully removes something which we often take for granted (that there are flying animals and insects) and then demonstrates how it impacts imagination. (For the record, there are many other major differences between our earthly world and Gethen, but I’m only talking flight today. I definitely recommend the book for all of those who are curious about science fiction experiments.) In chapter thirteen, Genly Ai and another man are sharing folktales about the places where they are from. Genly shares the story of flight. He remarks that he is not talking about a spirit world, but the real world. He says, “’Not by flapping their arms, you know. They flew in machines like cars.’ But it was hard to say in Orgota, which lacks a word meaning precisely ‘to fly’; the closest one can come has more the meaning of ‘glide.’ ‘Well, they learned how to make machines that went right over the air as a sledge goes over the snow.’” Of course, in order to communicate, language restricts Genly Ai to analogies of the place where he is, so he focuses on a common machine from this icy climate, the sled.

 Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The history of flight is extremely curious and inspiring. The history of aviation includes such fascinating, bold, strong personalities as Emilia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, the Wright brothers and many, many others. However, I was caught by surprise recently when I discovered how little I know about lighter-than-air ships. In reading Ships of the Air by Lyn Curlee, I saw again that same spark of curiosity that often drives human invention. Curlee writes, “One day, after watching ashes from a fire float upward, Joseph Montgolfier folded a piece of paper, held it above a fire, then watched it fly up the chimney. Joseph believed that the smoky fire created some kind of gas that was lighter than air. Only later did he and Étienne understand that hot air rises. But Joseph did understand that if a big enough bag could be filled with hot ‘gas,’ the bag would rise off the ground – and could carry a person with it.” From there begins a wonderful, rich, global history layered with politics and science. After Montgolfier demonstrated a hot air balloon flight to Marie Antoinette, the world took note. Furthermore, his balloon contained a flight crew of a sheep, rooster, and duck, whose survival proved that the atmosphere was higher than previously imagined. Many people became interested in designing and flying airships. In the late 1800s, they became popular sights in France, London and Germany. And as war broke out, the zeppelin famously became a machine of war, rather than leisure.

Back when the Montgolfier brothers were experimenting with cloth and paper balloons, however, there were many misconceptions regarding flight. Curlee writes that in 1766, “Professor Charles’s balloon floated 15 miles into the countryside, landing near a small village. The villagers, who thought the balloon was a monster, destroyed it with pitchforks.” This mentality echoes what Le Guin describes on her science fiction world, Gethen. It took an incredible amount of imagination to believe in flight. Furthermore, imagination is, in part, problem-solving. For the story of airships to become any kind of success indicates that man must often think outside the box. I return to Joseph Montgolfier watching ashes rise. With possibility comes the calculated risk of burning the paper. Understandably, then, the airship has faced many problems, such as weather, flammability, size versus weight ratios, etc. Curlee continues, “The story of lighter-than-air travel is mainly the story of failures. People who designed airships made many mistakes – often because they were experimenting with new technology, sometimes because they were careless.” Even so, hot-air balloons still inspire our imaginations. They predate airplanes, have been created by humans all over the globe, and have been put to many uses (including a German mail service). One thing is clear, flight of any kind captivates humans. The ability to defy gravity, even for an instant, sparks the imagination.

 Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Darth Vader at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

These photographs were taken at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta. Every October, over five hundred balloonists visit Albuquerque for its unique landscape and wind patterns. Balloons feature colorful designs, brand names, and cultural icons (Darth Vader is often a big hit). To see five hundred balloons floating up in the sunrise certainly inspires the imagination!

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Manifesto

November 9, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Manifesto, directed by Julian Rosefeldt, disorients the viewer. Locations change without warning, as do characters. The speaker is a sometimes character and sometimes narrator. So many things happen simultaneously that it would be difficult to express them all. I will wander through a few of the things that caught my attention, though I am, unhappily, missing the majority.

The precision of this movie astounds me. As an introduction to the puppeteer, for example, the camera begins with an aerial view of the puppeteer working on a puppet that we soon come to meet quite closely. The viewer is yet unaware of this puppet’s meaning. It is only as the puppeteer rises from the desk and leaves the scene that the viewer is introduced to the the rest of the room. As the camera slowly pans across a small, brick room filled with puppets, we begin to recognize famous or historical figures. Some wear shocked expressions, some bored, some guilty, some blank. Sirens and street noise sound in the background. The collection includes figures such as Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Hitler, and the Planet of the Apes. My favorite is Marilyn Monroe, who lies face-up on a dingy, toy sofa with a man’s hand suggestively patting her exposed knee. The expressions on these two linked figures do not correspond to each other. Marilyn Monroe looks pained, while the man smiles joyfully. This quick snippet implies significant action. Small details such as this connect the viewer to the image in a way that creates life. Furthermore, the room contains such a dense amount of history, that the viewer is bound to connect with the overwhelming feeling of the passage of time. As with all the other scenes in Manifesto, Rosefeldt overloads the scene with sensory information. Therefore, by the time the camera returns to the puppeteer, the viewer has formed an emotional attachment to the puppets. (Emotional regard in any sense forms an attachment.)

Rosefeldt excels at a minimalism that forms some emotional bond between viewer and screen. This perplexes me, particularly in this scene with the puppeteer, whose hands we see and whose voice we hear, and yet we have no real knowledge of this figure outside of the hundreds of dolls placed about the room. The things I know about the puppeteer: the person is intense, passionate, exacting, precise, and interested in history or characters. The viewer is reasonably startled, then, to find the puppeteer pinning a wig onto their very own puppet. This most startling event astonishes us because, in my mind, the puppets have become hyper-real. They express emotion, and therefore, they must themselves convey some sort of “real” emotion. They are the placeholders of our emotion, and to see (and hear!) their creation is grotesque and surreal. Moreover, this particular puppet enters creation only once hair has been added. This grants an identity. Now the viewer connects with the puppet by labeling it. Therefore, the viewers themselves restrict the doll’s freedom. This is, of course, the intended effect. These hyper-real puppets exist in this box-style room, piled on top of each other in some sort of eternal limbo for the voyeurs’ eyes. They represent an act of creation, but the viewer agonizes over their apparent lifelessness coupled with their inability to die.

This reinforces the larger narrative in Rosefeldt’s film: that a manifesto is born out of a particular moment. It explosively responds to specific cultural content. What, then, is the next generation to do with it? What is the viewer, who likely feels no connection to the particular character of a movement, to do with the incongruities and absurdities presented by a manifesto’s anger? Is the manifesto to be shelved among others, dismissed from its specific argument, but unable to die? Should it be removed from view altogether? However, if we dismiss the manifesto as completely irrelevant, then perhaps we overlook some important cultural revelations.

Rosefeldt masterfully incorporates incongruous images. Cate Blanchett brilliantly plays all of the characters and delivers all of the manifestos. In each scene, she also slips into a monologue, delivered in a different pitch from the character’s voice. She plays both men and women, young and old. She plays rebellious, ridiculous, hallucinating, strict, poor, wealthy and conservative characters. She incorporates accents and body language. Meanwhile, Rosefeldt pays particular attention to sound and image. Each scene offers some startling revelation, such as we saw and heard with the pinning of the puppet’s hair.

Irony rules this movie. I offer a few examples of scenes which struck me, though there are many to speak of. First, I found the CEO at a fancy party particularly ridiculous. We meet them at a beautiful house, located along a gorgeous body of water, during a cocktail party. The horizon dominates the viewer’s gaze. While the viewer contemplates the horizon and natural beauty, however, the party-goers never even glance in the direction of the water. Furthermore, they discuss beauty in such abstracted, idealistic and theoretical terms as to make it unobservable. They literally miss the point. In another scene, a woman rises to a podium above a gravesite to give a speech of mourning. Instead, she desecrates the body and offends emotion. Standing over the corpse, she claims that “to sit still is to risk one’s life” and that “one dies as an idiot or a hero, it’s all the same.” The movie ends with a teacher instructing her students to steal and plagiarize. She claims that “nothing is original.” She does warn to steal only the things that speak directly to the student and that connection validly makes it their own. She then walks the room indoctrinating the children while erasing their ideas.

Part of Rosefeldt’s point is that manifestos become absurd when taken out of context. They burn brightly for a moment, but cannot last in an ever-changing world. Rather, if they do last, they become ridiculous. He achieves this through a balance of image, sound and speech. Rosefeldt compiled the script from actual manifestos written from the early 1900s through the early 2000s. During the span of 100 years, we see a variety of ideas demonstrated through art, architecture, drama and impersonation. I have only mentioned a few of the scenes in Manifesto. I encourage you to watch the scenes (or the whole movie) and post your thoughts. What does it say about art? About history? About characters or artists? Prepare for a disorienting experience, which is well worth your while. Visit Julian Rosefeldt’s website to view the film scene by scene.

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Rethinking Invention

April 13, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“The difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.” - T. S. Eliot

I used to work for a professor who would say: “Without the toaster, we’d have no computers!” Each invention brings about a whole new world of possibilities. The toaster may not resemble the computer, but they are stages on a continuum once seen at a distance. Of course, that is not apparent in the beginning of any invention, only hindsight provides that kind of perspective.

The first toaster came about in the early 1900s and even it did not resemble the toasters of today. The first toaster browned one side of bread at a time, requiring the user to flip the toast halfway through. And wouldn’t you know the invention that immediately followed the toaster? Presliced bread. In other words, the new product created space for another new product. This is not surprising, and in fact, seems to be an unwritten rule of invention. It is anyone’s guess which products will survive (like presliced bread) and which will fade.

Listening to Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony got me thinking about invention in general. Zuckerberg has repeated that he did not know exactly what he was creating Facebook. I think that can be said of all invention. And if the inventor does not fully understand the capabilities and repercussions of their creation, imagine the public. We are left wandering behind in a variety of states of interest, desire, greed, paranoia and ignorance. Listening to the questions I had two thoughts. First: clearly there is a difficulty in framing the right questions, particularly about something so foreign to our own experience and training. And two: humans really do not understand these new technologies.

It is likely that all teenagers function on nothing less than three social media platforms a day. Maybe more. They may not be able to imagine a day when these platforms did not exist. But I think it is worth our time to offer some perspective on technology. For this, I thought it best to offer a very visual demonstration of invention, namely, the airplane. In 1903, the Wright brothers successfully flew the Flyer. It was not their first attempt at a plane, but it finally proved that humans could fly. Furthermore, they “discovered the first principles of human flight”. And of course, flight experimentation did not stop there. Nineteen years after the Flyer, Italian designer Caproni built the Ca 60, a prototype of a flying boat, intended for transatlantic travel. To look at it now, in retrospect, it looks like a science project (because, of course, it was). On its second flight, the Ca 60 crashed into the water and broke apart. Airplanes nowadays are sleeker, constructed from entirely different materials and a whole lot more sophisticated, but the builders learned a lot from these early experiments.

 Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

That there were nineteen years between the first flight and the first pursuit of transatlantic flight is important, however, because it is also roughly equivalent to the length of time in which we have had social media. (The first blogs were generated in 1999, and took off by 2004. The intent of my blog today, however, is not to define social media, which will have to wait for another day). Blogs arrived in early 2000 and became heavy traffickers by 2010. Other sites naturally filtered in to fill niche markets. Sites like Photobucket and Flickr, Tumblr and Youtube generated a new way to use, share and create our own content. (During this time, Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004.) As social media sites visibly changed and grew with their markets, they also changed on the back end. Data-mining and information-gathering changed too. I think it is important to remember how revolutionary the internet was (and is!). Whereas with the Flyer and Ca 60 one could see the differences and reasons for construction, social media markets are much more subtle.

It seems to me that social media is less social and more media than we originally imagined. What is hidden may be more important than what is received. The way that we code documents, tag them, like them, share them, all create invisible data which now hangs onto the content in question, but also hangs onto the users. Ironically, this data is parsed and stored in a variety of middleman’s hands, on sites like Facebook and Twitter. In complete contrast to the airplane, the internet has masked invention in such a subtle way that the user is unaware of our own participation in invention.


When humans did achieve the first transatlantic flight, they had few navigational systems, and no bathrooms or heaters. Imagine Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh, who were embraced for their spirit of adventure and bold daring. The first airplanes carried one person or a few people at their own cost and risk of their own life. Today, we use the internet more often than we use transportation and yet we understand it less. Its implications are creating profound effects upon our lives and yet we still cannot see the wheels or wings. How do we make transparent that which cannot be seen? How do we create a spirit of cooperation, much like the Wright brothers or Charles Lindbergh?

I am simply wondering if, as concepts become murkier and more nuanced, how do we educate a global population which is heavily dependent upon such technologies? The Ca 60’s first flight was short and its second, disastrous. Can we risk that of our websites and internet services? Yet, one idea often inspires the next. We are fortunate to have inventors willing to test their ideas, but what happens when the inventions risk issues of identity and truth? I ask this because I believe that future inventions will continue to be hidden from sight and we should find ways for dealing with such subtlety.

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Planets, Planets, Planets

October 13, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“The vastness of heavens stretches my imagination... Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?” - Richard Feynman

In 1609, Johannes Kepler published a few surprising details. First, he said, “the orbits of the planets are ellipses with the sun at one focus.” Then he added, “the time it takes a planet to travel from one position in its orbit to another is proportional to the area swept out by a planet in that time.” This comes almost 70 years after Copernicus corrected Aristotle's view of the heavens. Aristotle's versions were so widely accepted that Copernicus's assertion that placed the sun in the center of the universe upset many people. Kepler, too, shocked with his description of elliptical orbits around the sun. It was not until Newton arrived on the scene that these theories were put to scientific tests. In fact, Newton explained a lot about the celestial beings in his laws of motion. While Newton used calculus to support his scientific findings, he realized that he had to explain the motions in terms that other scientists in his day might understand. Therefore, he proved the motions of the planets using plane geometry. (“Just for fun”, Richard Feynman proved the same in his “lost lecture”, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcD-5UfY1g0 )

Aristotle believed in natural final forms. In his book Meteorology, he explains his hierarchical system which includes: fire, air, water, earth. What may sound trivial to us is incredibly complicated, however. Aristotle observed a great number of events – some of them celestial – and attempted to explain them or their origins within his working framework. Yet even Aristotle understood that his categorization was incomplete. He admits the limits of scientific language in explaining his theories. He argues for a more scientific understanding of the processes on earth. He writes, “Some say that what is called air, when it is in motion and flows, is wind, and that this same air when it condenses again becomes cloud and water, implying that nature of wind and water is the same. So they define wind as a motion of the air. Hence some, wishing to say a clever thing, assert that all the winds are one wind, because the air that moves is in fact all of it one and the same; they maintain that the winds appear to differ owing to the region from which the air may happen to flow on each occasion, but really do not differ at all. This is just like thinking that all rivers are one and the same river, and the ordinary unscientific view is better than a scientific theory like this. If all rivers flow from one source, and the same is true in the case of the winds, there might be some truth in this theory; but if it is no more true in the one case than in the other, this ingenious idea is plainly false. What requires investigation is this: the nature of wind and how it originates, its efficient cause and whence they derive their source; whether one ought to think of the wind as issuing from a sort of vessel and flowing until the vessel is empty, as if let out of a wineskin, or, as painters represent the winds, as drawing their source from themselves.” Science often requires metaphor, and Aristotle certainly used this linguistic device. Drawing upon the idea of vessels being filled or emptied or the idea of a wineskin helps others understand his theory. It also helps to explain when there is no language for explanation. At times he writes of “stuff” or ambiguous “forms” and explains that we must use this terminology because it is what we have to use.

Creating a language for something new requires thought and metaphor. Proper nouns often rely upon metaphor or story. This is especially true of celestial beings. When Uranus was discovered in 1781, there was no standard of naming. It wasn't until 1850 that Uranus was officially accepted and a process for naming celestial beings was established. The International Astronomical Union (IAU), founded in 1919, now controls all names. Assuming that all planets within our solar system have been identified, they deal mostly with moons, surface features, asteroids, and comets.

 Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn have been recognized in the heavens throughout history. The next three planets were identified as technology advanced. First Uranus in 1781, then Neptune in 1846 and, if you want to include it, Pluto in 1930. Early cultures identified the movement of the planets with the movement of mythological beings. For this reason, Romans named Venus after the goddess of love, who would surely be epitomized by the brightest and most beautiful celestial being. Mars, of course, the god of War, takes on a reddish appearance, and Mercury whose orbit is so short, moves swiftly on winged feet. Merriam-Webster tells us that Earth, ironically, comes from the Indo-European base 'er,'which produced the Germanic noun 'ertho,' and ultimately German 'erde,' Dutch 'aarde,' Scandinavian 'jord,' and English 'earth.' Related forms include Greek 'eraze,' meaning 'on the ground,' and Welsh 'erw,' meaning 'a piece of land.' Jupiter, the largest and most massive of the planets was named Zeus by the Greeks and Jupiter by the Romans. This name depends entirely upon size because he was the most important deity in both pantheons. Saturn (Cronos in Greek) was the father of Zeus/Jupiter. Since it is visible by the naked eye, Saturn has a variety of names from other cultures as well. (Find a wonderful list of names gathered from many cultures here: http://nineplanets.org/days.html ). Uranus was first seen in 1781 as noted above, named for the father of Cronos/Saturn. Neptune followed in 1846 and is named for the Roman god of the sea. Pluto is named after the Roman god of the underworld. The name especially fits this body because Pluto can make himself invisible at will, as does Pluto in its orbit.

As science continues to push to exoplanets and quantum physics, language will continue to evolve. As technology jumps from email to iPhones to cloud computing, we continue to see metaphors emerge and converge, proving that language must evolve simultaneously with culture.

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