Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Philae

"The stars, like all man's other ventures, were an obvious impracticality, as rash and improbable an ambition as the first venture of man onto Earth's own great oceans, or into the air, or into space...
Missions from the station explored the system, a program far from public understanding, but it met no strong opposition.

So quietly, very matter of factly, that first probe went out to the two nearest stars, unmanned, to gather data and return, a task in itself of considerable complexity.  The launch from station drew some public interest, but years was a long time to wait for a result, and it passed out of media interest as quickly as it did out of the solar system... It was a scientific success, bringing back data enough to keep the analysts busy for years...but there was no glib, slick way to explain the full meaning of its observations in layman's terms...

The press grappled with questions it could not easily grasp itself, sought after something to give the viewers, lost interest quickly.  If anything, there were questions raised about cost, vague and desperate comparisons offered to Columbus, and the press hared off quickly onto a political crisis in the Mediterranean, much more comprehensible and far bloodier.

The scientific establishment on Sol station breathed a sign of relief..."

Downbelow Station:  The Company Wars (1982 Hugo Award)
C.J. Cherryh

As much as we laugh today about the foolishness of our ancestors who believed that Earth was the center of the universe, our attitudes about space and space exploration have not really progressed much:  we believe we are still the center of all that matters in the universe.  Our egos probably couldn't take the truth which is that we are pretty darn insignificant.  Long after the nation-states, the politics, our gods, the monuments to human hubris and all our petty feuds and feelings are dust, the sun, the star around which we orbit,  will still be shining in the sky until it too burns itself out.  This is the real longue durĂ©e.

The exploration of space is something that captures the public's imagination for short periods before it sinks back into obscurity.  This is probably a good thing because in a world of national budget problems, the reaction that comes after the awe that we walked on the moon or that a shuttle returned to Earth  is something along the lines of "Well, shouldn't we have used that money for balancing the budget/better schools/saving our retirement programs?"

To which I would retort that NASA's and ESA's budgets combined  are such a low percentage of the overall budgets that cutting them (which they do often) would barely make a dent in the deficits. Personally, I would rather my tax money went to probes as opposed to drones.

This very week, Philae, the European Space Agency probe, landed on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  And I find that unbelievably cool.  They shot the Rosetta mission out into space in 2004 and it's been quietly hurtling toward its destination ever since while we here on Earth have watched parties and politicans rise and fall, fought wars, winced over a near meltdown of the world financial system, and agonized over the trials and tribulations of globalization.

Rash, improbable, and impractical?  Well, as Cherryh points out, past human endeavours have certainly been all that and more.   But the day we, the human race, stop being curious and no longer dream of space, we will have lost something precious - it would mean that we were in such deep despair that we could no longer conceive of a future for ourselves or for our descendants.

Here is a wonderful video from ESA with the first reactions to the landing.  I confess that I watched it and I was cheering, too.



I also recommend to you this a lovely animated sketch called Landing

More to come - landing on the comet was a beginning, not an end, right?

A suivre and let's brace ourselves to be surprised, open ourselves to wonder, let our curiosity run riot and our imagination take us to ever more stimulating flights of fancy.  For as Haldane once said:

I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.



Friday, November 7, 2014

Seeing the Sights in Osaka

I have two methods for scouting out a strange city.  The first method is to walk out of the hotel, pick a street and walk it until get tired and then go up or down a block and circle back to the hotel.  This has the virtue of discovery - I have no idea what I'll find.  I try to pay attention but I still find new things on each little promenade.

For example, I'd been going nuts trying to find street names in a script that I can read.  Well, I wasn't looking in the right place - I was looking up when I should have been looking down.  Yes, mes amis, the street names in Western characters were on the sidewalk.  Took me two days to figure this out which just goes to show you that I am not the brightest crayon in the box.

The other method is to pick a target and try to get there via the public transportation.  Yesterday I decided to visit the Osaka Castle park and I went via the metro.  Took me a few minutes to figure out how to find my line and how to pay, but I was on a train and on my way late morning and I arrived at the park around noon.

Wow.  I mean WOW!  The park is huge and the castle is on several levels with moats, gates, turrets and the most amazing stone walls.  I have never seen anything quite like it.



Today I went for broke and picked several destinations all in the same area.  I walked up Chuo-dori street to the ruins of the Naniwanomiya palace (6-700 AD).  Then I walked up a little farther, took a right and went looking for St. Mary's Cathedral (aka Tamatsukuri Catholic Church) and to my utter delight I actually found it.  I visited the chapel and walked around the building which is under renovation so not much to see.  There are two gorgeous statues, however, on either side of the main doors.  I am assuming these are saints but I couldn't figure out which ones (signs were all in kanji).



And the last stop was the Osaka Museum of History.  Three floors of exhibits about the history of the city and a very good presentation of the Naniwanomiya palace excavations which made me want to go down and walk them again.  As I ambled over to the  escalators to go down to the next floor, before my eyes was the most amazing panoramic view of the Osaka Castle Park.



Thursday, November 6, 2014

New Digs for the Flophouse in Osaka

Before I show you  the new digs for the Flophouse, I want to clarify something in yesterday's post.

That shopping street I mentioned?  The one that is covered and had so many small lovely shops (not to mention a McDonald's AND a Burger King)? I learned last night that this is a very well known street called Shinsaibashi-suji. Who knew?

The two most important features we were looking for in apartment were proximity to spouse's place work and an environment conducive to creativity.  Or, to put it differently,  this is a space where I will be spending a lot of time writing and working alone and so I need a home that won't exacerbate the feelings of depression and isolation that often come with crossing cultures and  living in a completely new place.

After two days of looking at different buildings and apartments, we decided that this one would do.  It's on the 14th floor of a tower in the heart of Osaka so it has a lot of light and (be still my heart) a view of the city and the mountains around the city.  It's not big by American standards, it's perfectly OK by French standards, it's positively spacious by Japanese standards.  It's located in the Chuo Ward and it is within walking distance of the Osaka Castle.  There is a lively district just one block away with places to shop for food or just to have a cup of coffee and it's about 2 minutes away from a metro station.  Honestly, I don't think we could have done better.

Here are a few photos (yes, I am a terrible photographer but bear with me).  The apartment is unfurnished and we will need to purchase a refrigerator, an oven, and a washer/dryer.  I see a trip to Ikea in our future...



This is one of the two bedrooms.  The other is a little bit bigger.


This is the living room.  The balcony is L-shaped and there is a lot of light.  I'm thinking two chairs here for reading and a small round table for writing.


This is a "Japanese room" which is right off the living room.  Note the mats on the floor and the sliding doors.  Just lovely.



And here is the view on one side.  During the day you can see mountains (and for my stepfather who is interested in such things there is also a clear view of several transmitter sites).  At night the city is all lit up and very beautiful.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

First Impressions of Osaka

Hit the ground running after I arrived on Monday.  The flight from Paris was about 13 hours and when I landed I was a complete jet-lagged mess.  It's got better quick, in part because it is sunny during the day and partly because I have an important task:  finding an apartment which keeps me out and about.

I narrowed it down to two apartments that I like and we'll be visiting them this afternoon and making a final choice.  After that I have nothing on my agenda until the end of the week and I plan to spend those few days seeing the city.

Just for fun, here are a few photos I snapped as I was walking around:


The Japanese are gifted gardeners.  This is a house/shop on a side street smack in the middle of the city and here someone has put out an elegant collection of potted plants.  Very nice.



This is the main street near my hotel called MidoSuji Avenue.  Lots and lots of trees (wasn't expecting that but it was a pleasure to see).


 A very cool shopping area.  It's a street that been covered and there are little shops on either side.  I went this morning to pick up some warmer clothes.  Osaka is sunny during the day and downright cold right now at night.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Flophouse Gets FATCAed

It's just a few short hours before I get on a plane for Japan to go apartment-hunting but I simply had to share this with because it is too damn funny and I think we all need a good laugh right now.

The Flophouse has been FATCAed.

Last week we received a snail mail from the French bank where our little Franco-American family has been banking for years - the one where we deposit our paychecks, pay our rent and utilities and all that jazz.  The envelope was packed full with a fancy glossy note in French explaining what it was all about and two nearly incomprehensible forms in American English.  (I tried to do my duty as a translator because there was much about them that my French spouse found puzzling but there were sections that even I, the only native speaker in the household, couldn't figure out.)

Now this part wasn't particularly funny.  On the contrary my spouse and I were definitely unamused by the note that said that if the forms weren't returned then the bank could send the information to the US IRS anyway (which made me wonder why we were doing this dance at all).  I also noted that there was no privacy waiver to be found in this pile of paperasses and I'd be very interested in knowing if that is in fact consistent with EU law.

My French spouse was appalled to read some of the search criteria they used for putting an account under suspicion:  US address attached to the account, US person attached to the account, and wire transfers from France to the US.  (Good thing we didn't send our daughters to university in the US, right?  And I guess if my relatives in the US ever need money from us, it's not going to happen.)

But, hey, none if it was a huge surprise either.  We've been expecting some sort of paperwork ever since the French parliament passed the law implementing FATCA.  In fact, I felt a sort of vindication because I've been talking about FATCA and what it meant for our family for years now and had the sense that I wasn't being taken seriously. "It will never happen" and "France wouldn't do such a thing to French citizens and residents living in France" and so on and so forth.  Well, sweetheart, you may be a Frenchman living in France but your American wife called it and she was right. A feeling that I savored for about two seconds and then let go because, yes, I'm an old women a trying to get into heaven now and being that petty and small sure won't get me there.

No, the funny part was not what happened but to whom.  Who in our little Franco-American household gets first prize in the Smack the Gopher FATCA Sweepstakes?

My 19 year old daughter - the younger Frenchling.

Yep, you heard me.  A kid who is in college, does not work, and has almost no money.  In fact, she has, to the best of my knowledge, a little local checking and savings account here in France which, if they exceed 500 Euros combined, I would be amazed.

And I'm sorry, folks, but this is pretty damn funny.  Congratulations, America, on the outing of my daughter, a French citizen with accounts in France who, even if you did find some way to tax her and you asked for say 10% of her "ill-gotten hidden assets" abroad,  might net you a grand total of  50 USD.

And if you think that you will somehow manage to balance the US budget on that kind of take? Well, I guess magical thinking abounds these days.

Allow me to propose a new motto for the US government:

"Winning the War on Tax Evasion, One College Student at a Time."

Bon weekend, everyone.