Sunday, January 31, 2010

Martian Media

This final weekend of January 2010, we have enjoyed a so-called Wolf Moon. This occurs when the moon is at perigee – its closest approach to earth in its elliptical orbit – and is full at the same time. It usually happens once a year. Sometimes it happens twice. This weekend, Mars also is easier than usual to spot, since it shines brightly and ruddily just to the left of the moon.

Looking at the objects Friday reminded me of the Phoenix Lander, which NASA has been trying to wake up for a couple weeks. Phoenix sits near the north pole of Mars where it has conducted geologic (areologic?) studies for the past two earth years. With the arrival of the Martian winter 5 months ago, the lander’s operations were shut down. Phoenix wasn’t expected to survive the winter, and apparently it hasn’t. NASA will continue to send instructions for a while.

The craft did the field work for which it was designed. What is more, it took the opportunity to say “Hi” to the Martians. Yes really. On the photo of the lander, what is the object to the left of the little flag that looks like a DVD? It is a DVD. It contains science fiction stories and artwork with Martian themes, as well as the names of a quarter million humans (without their cell phone numbers, which seems to me an oversight.)

One only can guess what the Martians will make of their depiction in the Terran media. Let’s hope they’re more amused than insulted. Perhaps the next DVD we send (high def, of course) should be more about earth. I wouldn't advise including any cheesecake photos though. I saw Mars Needs Women (1967) and know what can happen.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Expired Futures

In every January of the twentieth century for which I was present, my casual awareness of the of the new year’s number was shaky. Accordingly, when paying bills, I often dated checks the previous year. Sometimes I would catch the error and try to re-tweak the date. Changing with a pen stroke 1985 to 1986, for example, was inelegant but possible. Changing a 6 to a 7, on the other hand was so much messier that in 1987 (and other 7 years) I tore up a lot of checks and started over. I have no idea how many misdated checks went out uncaught and unedited. None ever came back for that reason, so I presume banks make allowances for that error. By February I always was fully adjusted to the year.

Since the turn of the millennium, the annual transition has been much smoother, and my checks so far this year remain untweaked – yes, I still write them by hand rather than on some computer bookkeeping program. This is not because my day-to-day awareness has grown sharper in any way. Rather, it is because all twenty-first century dates seem equally unlikely to me. 2009 looked just as surreal to me as 2010. The former never looked quite right, so writing it never became a habit. I've hesitated before writing any date in the past 10 years. All of them seem to belong to a faraway future.

I remember sitting in a Boston theater watching 2001, A Space Odyssey during its first release; being 1968, the marquee outside actually said, "For Stoned Audiences." I didn't question the film's suppositions that by 2001 we would have true AI computers, passenger flights to moon bases, and manned flights to Jupiter. For all the hot wars, cold wars, and turmoil of the time, it was an optimistic era.

Visions of the future always say more about the time in which they are made than about the future itself. Take the classic film version of HG Wells' Things to Come (1936). The movie was right about upcoming global war, of course, though perhaps in 1936 one didn't need to be a science fiction writer to foresee that. The film’s postulated post-war (in the context of the movie, utopian) recovery, however, was disturbingly authoritarian, which was very much a 1930s way of looking at things. Try another Wells adaptation, The Time Machine (the 1960, not the 2002 version). The ambiguous anti-war message (ambiguous because Rod Taylor’s character takes on the Morlocks) is a little less disturbing, but still very 1960. The actual 1895 novel, of course, is not about war at all but about class cleavage, a theme reflecting the industrial politics of the day.

What does twenty-first century scifi say about us – The Matrix Reloaded, Aeon Flux, Ultraviolet, et al -- other than that we expect the future to be rife with experts in martial arts? By and large, the visions are darker than in earlier years. Compare the 1970s Battlestar Galactica with the 2000s one. Perhaps it is reassuring that scifi dates quickly. Our gloom may yet prove to be as misplaced as the cheeriness of 1968.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Luck of Myshkin

I just tossed away yesterday’s losing Pick-6 ticket. Yes, I buy a state lottery ticket every week or so (though I often forget to do so) for no real reason other than that the fantasy of winning is worth a buck. It’s not worth more than a buck per week, however, because winning a lottery (to mix gaming metaphors) is not in my cards. Correction: in the draft lottery my first year of college, I scored “31,” which was a winning number that carried a prize of an all-expenses paid tour of Vietnam, but I opted to keep my student deferment rather than cash in on it immediately; by the time I graduated in 1974 the prize had expired. So, I’m not unlucky by any means. Things sometimes break my way. Yet, four leaf clovers don’t bloom in my yard either. I roll sevens exactly the percentage of times statistical theory predicts, and turn up snake eyes with equal fidelity to the odds. I’m the rule, rather than the exception, just as, by definition, most of us necessarily are. So, New Jersey collects an extra $50 from me per year, and the chance that lottery cash will flow the other way is less than getting struck by lightning.

Is there really such a thing as being born lucky? Yes, I think so. I don’t ascribe anything paranormal to it. The Bell Curve requires outliers in each direction. Purely randomly, some people just are just flukes.

You surely know someone like this. Let’s call him Lucky Chucky. His investments always are perfectly timed. He wins the best jobs and the best dates without apparent effort, just by being in the right place at the right time. He never gains weight during the holidays despite a voracious appetite. Even when his luck seems to desert him, it turns out for the best after all: the flight he misses because he is stuck in traffic has double engine failure on take-off and splashes in the Hudson; a bank error freezes his accounts for 48 hours, preventing him from buying the stocks he wants, the day before the market crashes; that sort of thing.

Then there are the Gloomy Glendas who seem hounded by fate. My favorite example is the winner of a Dubious Achievement Award by Esquire some years ago. The fellow drove off a road in Italy and was seriously injured, but he hung on by a slender thread. An ambulance picked him up, but hit another car on the way to the hospital. The patient hung on. A second ambulance took him, but drove off the road. The man survived. A police car showed up, put the man in the back, and sped off toward the hospital. The police car had an accident with another vehicle. That one killed him. Then there was a British mariner in World War One who had three ships sunk under him by U Boats in one hour, a record which holds to this day. The sailors who pulled him out of the drink the third time showed daring under the circumstances.

Lucky Chucky typically dismisses the awe of onlookers with the smug comment, “People make their own luck.” Annoyingly, there is some evidence of this. Belief that you are unlucky is deleterious. Friday the 13th, for example, really is hazardous for those who think it is. A nationwide Finnish study of hospital records by Simo Nayha covering accident fatalities between 1971 and 1997 showed significant spikes (from 5% to as high as 38%) on Fridays numbered 13 compared to other Fridays. This looks suspiciously like dangerous overcompensation, especially since it is purely a Western phenomenon. Among Chinese, not 13 but the number 4 is traditionally inauspicious. Sociologist David Phillips found a 7 percent higher mortality from cardiac arrest among Chinese Americans on the 4th day of each month; no such correlation exists among non-Asian Americans. The effect again probably involves stress and overcompensation. We all know how counterproductive it can be to try too hard to avoid a bad outcome; in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Prince Myshkin is so determined not to break his hostess’ vase that he accidentally smashes it.

It cuts both ways. In a study by Richard Wiseman, volunteers were asked to rate themselves as lucky or unlucky. They then were given a newspaper and were asked to count the photographs. Inside the paper was a half-page ad that read “Win 100 pounds by telling the experimenter you have seen this.” Far more of the self-described lucky people than unlucky ones spotted the ad. By focusing on counting photos – in other words, on not making a mistake -- the unlucky ones missed the opportunity.

There are limits to making your own luck, of course. No amount of positive attitude will alter the odds on a throw of the dice. There is not much to do about the truly random vagaries of fortune but bear with them. Jim Croce: “Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.” The universe is disinterested, but (unlike some people) it is not actually malicious, however much it sometimes seems to be. And yes, lottery results are covered by the limits to making your own luck – short of rigging the draw, that is. Self-described “lucky” and “unlucky” people show no statistical difference whatsoever in lottery results. They are equally unlikely to win.