The Incessant Cacophony

Imagine for a minute that you are an alien being, an intelligent species from somewhere out there in the universe, somewhere far, far, away, from a very distant galaxy.

Imagine that you are the alien being searching for signs of life in the universe, listening to patterns in the radio waves that whiz past all around you. You are capable of recognizing not just emissions from point sources, but also all the kinds of signaling that exist in the universe, both simple and sophisticated. You can certainly recognize all the simple forms of signaling invented on Planet Earth.

Imagine that one day you hear something from a very, very, distant source that seems to make sense to you. Somebody is trying to send some “information” to you about itself. And you are curious….

You focus more of your resources on tracking this new source of “information”, and you are able to pick the fainter signals emitted from this source. You begin to separate the many signals and the patterns in them. And you recognize that there are many, many, different kinds of signals, at widely varying signal strengths, being emitted. And embedded in these various signals are many different kinds of information coded in many different ways.  This information seems to be more sophisticated than what you first detected from this source.  Since you have zoomed in, you realize that information sources are clustered around a central location which seems to be generating most of what is being sent out into space. But there are also emissions from the space surrounding this central location, and the intensity of the emissions is  reducing gradually with distance from the central source.  Indeed, there seems to be some form of “communications” going on between the central source and the surrounding space.

And, you, the alien being, get even more curious. You find a way to focus even more of your resources on this source to find out what is going on. All of sudden, you are hearing a cacophony of signals that are getting more and more difficult to make sense of. The signals are in all kinds of frequencies and at varying signal levels, and the ones you can extract from this cacophony are of many different kinds. A lot of it is difficult to make sense of even when decoded.  There could be a lot of communications going on within the source, but it all seems so random.  It seems like chaos.  It seems like a mess. And, the intelligent creature that you are, you wonder what is going on. This source is generating a whole lot of what seems to be noise. Is it some form of pollution?  How is this being generated?  Is there a purpose? How much of the energy of the source is being used generating all of this noise?

And, perhaps, intelligent being that you are, you are concerned. This seems to be pointless, and maybe even self-destructive. Is the planet radioactive? Where is all the energy coming from, all to be expended into nothingness?  All of this cannot be sustained for too long a long time. What is going on?  What is the point?  Is there a purpose?

Onward to the Land of the Incas

We are preparing for a visit to Peru next month.  During this trip we will be traveling to the interior and visiting the heartland of the old Inca civilization, including the ancient city of Cusco.  We are looking forward to this visit.

I have been doing some reading in anticipation of this trip.  The first book that I read was ‘Turn Right at Machu Pichu”, by Mark Adams.  This book, first published in 2011, weaves two different story lines.  The first is Mark’s experience of traveling the region, following in the paths of earlier explorers, including trekking the famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  Mark interweaves this narrative with an account of the history of the region, some of it very brutal, mostly centered around the time of the Spanish conquests of the area.  He talks about the “discovery” of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham III, a somewhat self-serving American explorer in search of fame, in 1911.  But Machu Picchu was never really “lost”, especially to the people who are from the region!  In any case, the stories are interesting, even if the details of the book are difficult to remember just a few weeks after reading it.  My memory is not what it used to be.

The other book I read more recently was “The Old Patagonian Express”, by Paul Theroux.  This book was first published in 1979.  It is an account of Paul’s travel from Boston, Massachusetts, to Esquel in Patagonia, mostly by train.  The travels took the author through Peru, and specifically Cusco and Machu Picchu.  I have a copy of the book that I had bought in June of 1985, when I was about to graduate with my doctorate degree.  It was time to open the book once again.

The spirit of the somewhat arduous trip taken by Paul Theroux (it took a few months to complete) is something that I can appreciate.  It is an undertaking that seems to have been driven mainly by the author’s sense of curiosity and adventure, and his need to leave his zone of comfort in the process.  It is about the thrill and the romance of travel.  You do it because you want to see, experience, and learn about new things, new places, new people, etc..  You are not looking for the familiar place or face.  You do not have a complete plan in place to handle the situations that you will encounter.  And it is more significant than that – you willingly open yourself to the unexpected and let yourself become more vulnerable. And in all of this, you manage to learn something more about yourself.

One has to remember that Paul Theroux’s book was written in the 1970s.  I now find that his attitude towards the kind of people that he encountered, especially the locals, seems to be somewhat condescending, or maybe it is just a general sense of superiority.  I wonder if it is actually a sign of the times that Paul Theroux lived and traveled in, or if it is a somewhat generic attitude taken by folks who are out on voyages of discovery, including most of the explorers of times past – especially those from Europe and North America.  They always thought that they were better off than the others, and that they knew what was good for others. Perhaps they were really better off from a materialistic point of view, but did they necessarily know what was good for others?

Paul talks a lot about the poverty he encountered in Peru, especially among the natives.  The power structures in place in government in those days did not seem to be geared towards improving the lives of the common man.  Perhaps it is all true.  My problem, reading Paul’s work at this time in my life, is the feeling I have that he does not seem to have gone beyond the superficial in trying to understand the lives of people.  He does not seem to have had the conversations that someone who is undertaking this kind of effort should be having.   Maybe he did not have enough time.  Maybe he did not think his book was meant to be read by somebody of Inca ancestry.  In my mind, he comes off as being quite opinionated in this regard.  He might have thought that he was be brutally honest, but I think the problem is that he did not make the attempt to have a more complete perspective. He really did not complete his homework.  Perhaps, this is a general problem with the attitudes of too many explorers.

Anyway, here we are, more than 40 years after the time of Paul Theroux’s travels to South America, and we are on our way to South America once again (we went to Ecuador two years ago).  I wonder how the country of Peru has changed since the 1970s.  We are not adventurers like Paul Theroux.  We are going in an organized tour group, and everything is going to be taken care of for us.   We will probably be shielded in some way from the locals.  Paul Theroux had also traveled through Ecuador, and he talks about the poverty in that country, but our exposure to those circumstances a couple of years ago in the tour group in Ecuador was minimal.  It could be that the situation has changed since the 1970s, but it could also be that we were just shown what would be tolerated by “tourists” like us – things that were unlikely to cause us distress, or show the country in a poor light.

It seems like the town of Cusco was geared somewhat towards tourism even in the 1970s.  It is in all likelihood even more so today.  You only have to see all the information on the Internet in this regard to sense that this is the case.  You would also be led to believe that people are generally much better off in Cusco today than 40 years ago, but how can one be sure without having the complete experience?

As I said before, since we will be arriving in Peru as tourists in a tour group, almost everything that we do will be according to a plan and a schedule.  But the explorer in me feels that perhaps some of the more remarkable and memorable moments of the trip could happen outside of the script.  One just has to be open to the possibilities.

One final note about the trains that Paul Theroux took many years ago.  Even in those days, there was no way to do the entire trip from Massachusetts to Patagonia solely by train.  Looking at the available train services today, this situation has gotten even worse.  Passenger train services are available in much fewer places today.  Common folk have to depend more on the buses than they used to do in times past.  In a few places, the trains have been saved by running services over short distances just for the tourists.  But this is not the real thing!  The romance of the railroad is not what it used to be.

 

 

 

The Paper Shredder

My first encounter with a paper shredder was at my first place of work.  It did not take too long for me,  a person who had just become a full-time working stiff, to figure out that the device could also fit nicely into my, then still nascent, ideas for managing paperwork at home.

Consumer models for paper shredders have been around for many years.  Since it is a mechanical device that suffers constant wear and tear, I have run through and destroyed many of them over the years. And then, recently, I encountered an industrial strength paper shredder at my brother’s place, a shredder that was capable of shredding over 20 pages at a time! And I felt a little “shredder envy!”   Further contemplation on the topic of paper shredders continued at home later as I was getting rid of a whole lot of papers using my relatively itsy-bitsy paper shredder.  I considered how my structured use of this device over the years had ended up being a reflection on my general approach to the organization of things in life in general.

These days I use a paper shredder mostly to get rid of old paper documentation that I feel is not needed anymore.  I have a tendency to keep documents for a certain amount of time and then discard them as more recent versions of those documents make it into my paper filing system.  The nature of these documents in itself would say a lot about my personality.  I know a lot of people  would not even think about saving the kinds of information I do on paper, and even if they did save such information, doing so in a process similar to mine.

You may ask, why not just throw away this stuff.  Why shred?  In fact, I would have discarded things of this nature directly in the recycling bin in the past, but I prefer to use the shredder first these days to make sure that some of the more sensitive documents do not fall into the wrong hands by mistake. It has become a habit to shred almost everything.

What are the kinds of things I tend to save?  Some of them are historical in the context of personal and family life. These could perhaps have some kind of sentimental and nostalgic value going forward.  I have stuff in the basement from when I went to graduate school. I have kept both notebooks and textbooks. I don’t know how much longer I will keep them.  I have many other books, both works for fiction and non-fiction, that I will probably not read again, but which I hesitate to get rid of at this point.  One still saves letters and notes of different kinds from the past if they were special.  This kind of material, in general, tends not to be discarded.  Then I have the financial stuff which stays with me because of my tendency to try to be organized, sometimes excessively so.  I try to do as much as I can to minimize uncertainty.  Then there are the other important documents related to the official business of managing life here in the US in general – information about all kinds of accounts, benefits, taxes, insurance, etc…

I do tend to balance this tendency of mine to accumulate stuff that may or may not be useful in the future with the realization at some point or the other along the line that I may never look at this some of this stuff.   The first thing that got discarded on a mass scale in my life were the hundreds of journals and  technical papers from the early years of my career.  In retrospect, I think I had the good sense to realize the uselessness of storing this stuff even early in my career.  I had moved on.

As I mentioned before, many official documents end up going through my shredder after being saved for a certain period of time in a filing system that may be difficult for others to figure out.  Different kinds of documents also survive in this filing system for different periods of time that I decide, many times somewhat arbitrarily, and then they get shredded.

While the purpose of saving most of my documents in paper form is to make sure I have the information contained in them if and when needed, the reality is that I seldom look at these documents.  There is some other mental process going on, perhaps a sense of  security that may or may not be justified, that causes me to put things away for possible use in the future.   Besides, these days, one can also archive most of this information on the computer, perhaps “forever”, with relatively less concern about use of storage space.  But I have reached a certain comfort zone at this point in life with what I am doing. One falls back to the processes that have kept you going.  I continue with my system of organization and the use of the paper shredder.

The process of shredding can actually give you a good feeling of completion, and of moving on, when you are done with it.  If you can physically complete a task to the satisfying sounds of the shredder, then it is truly over!  A physical action has been taken from which there is no retreat.   The sound of the machine when it is in action is also a satisfying one.  In the end, you feel you are rid of the old (even if it is not really true), and you move on to the next item on your list.  There is some sense of satisfaction.  It has become a comforting habit.

The kicker in all of this is that I am also pretty good at saving most of the above information on my computer.  And there are other places to go to grab some of this information even I do not have it on myself all the time.  So, perhaps, the utility of most of what I am doing and achieving is questionable.  But this kind of a feeling is also true of a lot of other things we do in life.  Que sera sera..OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

The Unexpected Experiences

We had arrived in Florence, AL, the previous evening for a weekend event, and had spent the night in a hotel room beside the highway.  We woke up early (considering the local time) because of the difference in longitude between the place we were visiting and our home (which we had departed the previous morning).  We had traveled in a south westerly direction the previous day.   I raised the shades covering the window pane just to take a look outside. This is what I saw. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sky was an optimal mix of purple and orange and shades in-between, with the clouds at different locations in the sky passing through different frequencies of the color spectrum.   I quickly pulled up a pair of pants, grabbed my camera, and dashed out of the front door of the hotel to get another view that would hopefully not be blocked by something in front of me.  By the time I got to a clear location, the moment was gone.  This was what I saw.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAConsider the different elements that came together for me to have this experience.  First of all, I had to open up the shades of the window at the proper moment in time when the sun was at the position that it was in relative to that location on the planet.  Secondly, the window to the room that we were staying in had to be facing east so that I would indeed see the event. (Being on the third floor of the hotel also helped.)  Thirdly, the cloud formation had to be right for me to get a glimpse of all those colors.  I would probably have not enjoyed this experience if any one of the three elements had been out of place.

Some may be tempted to invoke divine intervention as the cause for the circumstances of this experience. But if this had indeed  been a set up, I would consider it a partial screw-up – at the moment when the sunrise was at its best, I could only view it through the branches of a tree, and by the time I got to a location where I could get a better view,  that moment was over.  But perhaps the screw-up was also purposeful, eh?!  We can go on and on…

Best to take it as it comes and try to be prepared for the unexpected experiences, both good and bad.

A Bridge in Montgomery County in Maryland and the African American Experience

Some people think of systemic racism as a thing of the distant past, especially if they happen to live in a part of the country which in the 19th century fought for freeing the slaves.  But institutional racism was alive even in the later half of the 20th century, and in some senses is alive even today.  I would bet that there are some practices today that future generations will look at and say – how could we have accepted that?  The current state of the national education system comes to mind in this regard.   The video below presents life experiences of people who lived, and are living, some of these experiences, told through the story of the bridge.  Not all stories make it to the limelight.

Talbot Avenue Bridge will eventually be demolished and replaced by a new bridge that is a part of the Purple Line project for light commuter rail.  I understand that parts of the original bridge will be saved and moved to locations where they can be used as memorials to remind us of our history.

P.S.  I biked across the Talbot Avenue bridge last year as part of training for my long ride.  The bridge is a part of the Georgetown Branch trail, which is an extension of the Capital Crescent Trail.

Costs of our Life Styles

What we may not realize here in the US is that a lot of consumer products, and some of the services that we use, can be remarkably inexpensive in the grand scheme of things. In some cases it is hard to imagine how a product can even be made available to sell at the particular cost point to our benefit.  Some of our mass-produced food and clothing come to mind in this regard.   Economists will probably tell you that there are many reasons for this, and several factors that make this possible.  My point is that things are this way also because we, the public, generally wish it to be that way.  While we might feel good about the situation we are in in this regard for the moment, some of this does come at a cost, a cost that we ignore because we do not like to think about things for the longer term and in the bigger picture.  We may not realize that the situation could be a cause of issues over the long run.  Perhaps the living is really not that easy.

One of the results of our desire for cheap stuff is that we are willing to go anywhere in the world to get them.  This is probably the primary reason for the successful existence of Walmart.  I know that I myself like a good bargain and do not necessarily look for where the product came from. Cheap consumer products are brought in from some place abroad – where they can be produced less expensively – with cheaper raw material, with cheaper labor, with perhaps poorer working conditions, and maybe even using environmentally exploitative methods. In some cases even child labor may be involved.  We also look for the least expensive way to get work done, for a cost that we would not be willing to pay ourselves if we were ourselves in the business. We  are willing to exploit other people whom we we might even consider less equal to us in some ways.  And then we can get upset with the others when there are other issues that arise.  And if there are middlemen involved who have their own axe to grind, people can get squeezed even more to support our way of life.

Most of us will go go through life without even thinking about these kinds of consequences about the things we do and accept as normal, but it is also good to read about organizations that see what is happening and try to make at least a small (may be very small!) difference in changing how society works in these contexts.

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/08/13/634962251/ben-jerrys-milk-with-dignity-pact-with-farmworkers-seems-to-be-paying-off?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=news

We should be supporting such organizations, and perhaps even be willing to go the additional mile in this regard in terms of possibly accepting an increased cost of living.  I believe there are organizations that focus on this kind of concept if one is serious about this.  Here is a link to one.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_Trade_USA

It is also not too difficult these days to get a better understanding of how your favorite store sources their products, and to respond appropriately.

 

 

St. Louis Union Station

This blog will serve as a postscript for my trip to the city.  After my visit to St. Louis in October last year, I wrote a blog about the struggle of older cities like St. Louis to thrive in this day and age.  In many cases, the downtown areas have become shells of their old selves, likely to also be surrounded by neighborhoods which are in a state of disrepair.  Most of the better-off population tends to live in the suburbs.  When people think about reviving such downtown areas, it is mostly about attracting businesses and tourism, but not about making the place more livable.

St. Louis Union Station is an example of this approach to downtown revival.  Opened in 1894, it was at one time the largest and busiest railroad station in the country, serving as a gateway between the east and west.   But times change, and the last train departed St Louis Union Station in 1978.  Today, the space has been re-purposed for a different function, a sign of changing times.

The first sight I got of the the station during this trip was from Interstate 64. The highway is elevated at this point and as you are driving, off to the side, you can see the distinctive roof-line of the old station.  The structure is quite big, and it looks like it is in a state of disuse, like an old industrial building.  The roof looks like it is rusting and falling apart.  At that time I was told that the structure I was looking at was Union Station, but I did not know what lay under it.  I then got the opportunity to see the station from another perspective, from the road that went past its former entrance.  It did look grand, and it turned out that this was now an entrance to a hotel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was later, the day after Angela’s surgery, and she was interested in going for a walk.  We headed out to the location of the station on foot because I had expressed a curiosity about it when we had driven past earlier.  We were actually expecting it to be an Amtrak train station.  When we arrived, we found that we could not enter the building from the doors on the side.  It seemed liked they had been deliberately disabled.  The place looked shabby and I was thinking that there must be some concern about security in the area.  We went back to the front.  The signs indicated that it was an entrance to a hotel – no sign of an Amtrak railroad station.  There were attendants in front of the building waiting to help guests.  We entered one of the doors into a huge open space.  To our left, we could see the old station building.  Some of the rooms had been converted into hotel suites.   To our right were structures that looked new. This seemed to be the  space occupied by the hotel. The space where we were standing was probably near where the train tracks and the platforms terminated in the past.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The place had an empty feel about it.  We walked through the hallway hoping to find a way into the station itself, but it appeared that this was the entrance only to the hotel, and we were uncertain if we could walk into the station area that surely lay beyond the hotel.  We ended up exiting the hotel from one of the side doors (one which we had previously, unsuccessfully, tried to open from the outside).

We then walked along the outside of the station building to its other end.  There were no other people around, and the place did not look inviting.  There were extensive signs of construction work going on.

It was only then that it dawned on us that this was not a real train station any more.  We found a way to enter the premises and a surprise awaited us.  There were a couple of high end restaurants under the station area.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the distance, towards the front of the station, you could see the hotel buildings, a multistory affair that fit comfortably under the roof in the cavernous space of this huge structure.  There was a big pool of water immediately in front of us where a show with music, fire, and light began just as we entered.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were fish in the pool.P8040018-1.jpgWe could feel the heat from the fires that were being lit as a part of the show, and I was wondering how all of this affected the fish.  Perhaps they were crowded to the side of the pool for reasons other than the promise of food from a tourist.  There were very few people around to watch the show.  In fact, there were very few people around at all.

You probably realize by now that there were no railway tracks left in this space.  This was how this area, the train shed, looked in the old dayshttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Union_Station_St_Louis_diagram.jpg(Image from Wikimedia)

What a change!

There were actually a few tracks left, and they were in the space on the extreme left side of the picture above. The tracks ended on platforms without roofs. These tracks converged into a single pair that joined this section up to the mainline.  Perhaps this section was still in use for special events and occasions. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I read later that this conversion of the station into a place for tourists happened in the 1980s.  It turns out that there was even a Ferris wheel present in front of the train shed at some point in time.  It was probably taken away before the present renovation stated.

But the significant thought that I had about all of this was mainly about the incongruous nature of what I was seeing.  It all seemed quite out of place.  This was not a touristy area of town, and in fact that place looked uninviting.  The surrounding area had a gritty feel to it and there were not too many people around.  Yet, here was a very high end hotel hidden under a somewhat decrepit looking shell.  And they were seemingly in the process of reviving a concept that I was not sure had worked that well for them the first time. Based on what I saw, I guessed that there might have been a time in the past, before the reconstruction, when there had been more commercial establishments in the place, and that these had disappeared over time.  One could take a guess as to what had happened.

Here are a couple of parting shots that show elements of the structure of the roof from the outside of the station.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While one hopes that things work out for the city of St. Louis in their attempts at urban renewal, it is my fear that making a success of this particular effort for the long run is going to be quite difficult.

And then there were the other, different, types of impressions I got on the occasions that I went to Forest Park, each time for a different purpose.  The early morning run, almost 6 miles, approximately along the perimeter of the park – past a museum, golf courses, ball fields, a zoo, etc.., and past older homes and an Interstate highway on the outsides of the park, revealed the vibrant and resilient side of the city.  They have succeeded in making this place very inviting for the locals.  There were a lot of people around early in the morning on foot and on bikes.  It was a diverse crowd.  Being in a new place, I was trying to keep to myself, but I had to respond to the many cheerful good mornings.  (Some day I would like somebody to take a picture of my face when I am running – without my being aware of the presence of the photographer!)   And then when we went to see the play in the park later in the evening, at the Muny, the crowd was quite animated.  It was a well dressed, but less diverse, crowd where we were sitting towards the front.  There was a palpable sense of pride about their town, perhaps because of the fact that the musical we were watching was about St. Louis.   If anything is going to keep the city alive it is its people, and I hope they do not simply depend only on a misplaced sense of nostalgia in what they are attempting to do.  Times change!

I hope for the best.