Sunday, 22 July 2012

Some Fine Links on Poetry

The web site Textetc (pronounced "text, etc.," one assumes) is a huge resource on poetry. Its sections are traditional, modernist, criticism, theory, workshop, exhibits, resources. Of these, I have spent the most time in the Workshop. Some of its articles are detailed looks at how poems achieve their effects. Others are detailed discussions of foreign language poems that enabled me to launch into translations of them.

Just today I came across a site called Poemshape run by a gentleman who identifies himself as "a New England poet." It has thoughtful and very well researched postings on poetic devices, individual poets, favorite poems, and his own work as well. I discovered it through his posts about John Donne.

Also today I looked up the author of a song that I grew up hearing: "The 51st (Highland) Division's Farewell to Sicily," Hamish Henderson. What an interesting man he turned out to be. Like some truly impressive people here in North America, such as Paul Robeson (singer, Shakespearean stage actor, movie star, lawyer, football player, Civil Rights worker) and Pete Seeger (folk singer, writer of hit songs, blacklisted by McCarthy for refusing to testify, winner of the National Medal of Arts, and performer at Barack Obama's Inauguration), he never repudiated the ideals that led him, at one point in his life, to communism.

One appreciation of his life brings out its apparent contradictions. For example, he was a multilingual expert on German and Italian cultures, married to a German, but volunteered for World War II and fought against Germans and Italians in North Africa. Despite his love of other cultures, he was also a strongly nationalistic Scot. He is well known for his folk songs, but was also a modern poet. His work Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica is sometimes compared in quality to Wilfred Owen's war poetry. Another of his obituaries quotes from the beginning of the Elegies:
Let my words knit what now we lack
The demon and the heritage
And fancy strapped to logic's rock.
A chastened wantonness, a bit
That sets on song a discipline,
A sensuous austerity. 
Compare that to the song that started me reading about him. First, here's how I learned it, sung by a group of Irishmen named the Clancy Brothers.

Second, with the full force of Scots vocabulary and accent.

The last ingredient in today's pottage is a fine sonnet by Robert Frost that I hadn't read before.

The Silken Tent

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.
Robert Frost

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Harlem, by Aloysius Bertrand

My French training was primarily in high school, and it has rusted considerably since I left it. Nevertheless, I applied a little WD-40 to it and attempted to translate a prose poem by Aloysius Bertrand. If anyone out there has criticisms or suggestions for improvement, please let me know.

Aloysius Bertrand

Quand d’Amsterdam le coq d’or chantera
La poule d’or de Harlem pondra.
Les Centuries de Nostradamus.1
Harlem, cette admirable bambochade qui résume l’école flamande, Harlem peint par Jean Breughel, Peeter Neef, David Téniers et Paul Rembrandt;
Et le canal où l’eau bleue tremble, et l’église où le vitrage d’or flamboie, et le stoël où sèche le linge au soleil, et les toits, verts de houblon;
Et les cigognes qui battent des ailes autour de l’horloge de la ville, tendant le col du haut des airs et recevant dans leur bec les gouttes de pluie;
Et l’insouciant bourguemestre qui caresse de la main son menton double, et l’amoureux fleuriste qui maigrit, l’oeil attaché à une tulipe;
Et la bohémienne qui se pâme sur sa mandoline, et le vieillard qui joue du Rommelpot, et l’enfant qui enfle une vessie;
Et les buveurs qui fument dans l’estaminet borgne, et la servante de l’hôtellerie qui accroche à la fenêtre un faisan mort.
When the Golden cock of Amsterdam sings
The golden hen of Harlem will lay.
The Centuries of Nostradamus
Harlem, that wonderful burlesque scene that starts the gaudy school again, Harlem painted by Jean Breughel, Peeter Neef, David Teniers, and Paul Rembrandt;
And the canal where the blue waters tremble, and the church where the golden windows flame, and the balcony where washing dries in the sun, and the roofs, green as hops;
And the storks that beat their wings about the city clock, tightening the collar of the upper air and receiving in their beaks the drops of rain.
And the alderman at ease who strokes his double chin, and the flower-girl in love who starves, eyes fixed on a flower;
And the Goth girl2 who swoons on her mandolin, and the old guy who plays on a rumble-pot3, and the child who blows on a bladder4;
And the drinkers who smoke in the dead-end café, and the hotel maid who hangs in the window a pheasant’s corpse.5
I especially worry whether the phrase "et les toits, verts de houblon" means "green with hops" as green as hops" or " the greens of hops."
1The Centuries is a book of rhyming quatrains published by Nostradamus from 1555 to 1558 that are supposed to be prophesies. His symbols and allusions, however, are matters of debate
2Non-conformists in dark clothing were once called Bohemians but are now called Goths.
3A rommelpot is a drum with a stick in its centre. The music is made by moving the stick.
4Used as part of a musical instrument.
5The French means literally “a dead pheasant,” but “mort” (dead) is the last word, and thus receives emphasis. “Corpse” is an attempt to get the same effect.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Captains of the Dark: The Military Budget for Space

The Hubble Space Telescope has produced some amazing images, including the
Hubble Ultra Deep Field, not to mention other data, since it was launched from a space shuttle in 1990, after a seven year delay.

Getting the telescope was an epic struggle that is described on the Wikipedia page. Planning was started in 1970, then financing was denied in 1974. The money was finally granted by Congress in 1978, after intense personal lobbying by astronomers, then the Senate cut the grant in half, which led to redesign and delays. By the time the telescope was ready to go up in 1986, it had cost US$1.175 billion. In 1986, also, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, so the Hubble stayed on Earth, which led to more complications:
 The telescope had to be kept in a clean room, powered up and purged with nitrogen, until a launch could be rescheduled. This costly situation (about $6 million per month) pushed the overall costs of the project even higher. (Wikipedia).
This extra cost mounted until the Hubble was finally launched, a full twenty years after the project began.

The launch was not the end of the Hubble's cost. As Wikipedia notes:
Between 1993 and 2002, four missions repaired, upgraded, and replaced systems on the telescope; a fifth mission was canceled on safety grounds following the Columbia disaster. However, after spirited public discussion, NASA administrator Mike Griffin approved one final servicing mission, completed in 2009. The telescope is now expected to function until at least 2014.
Nevertheless, funding will run out before Hubble's replacement, the James Webb Space Telescope, will go up in 2018 or later. Its price tag is much higher. Its Wikipedia page says,
The mission was under review for cancellation by the United States Congress in 2011 after about $3 billion had been spent, and more than 75 percent of its hardware was either in production or undergoing testing. In November 2011, Congress reversed plans to cancel the JWST and instead capped additional funding to complete the project at $8 billion.
In fairness, I should note that the James Webb Telescope is a much bigger project than the Hubble. Its main mirror is 6.5m across instead of the Hubble's 2.4m, for example.

The high cost of a space telescope makes it, practically speaking, irreplaceable. Or so one would think. That is why it is surprising that the National Reconnaisance Office (NRO) called NASA in January 2011 to offer not one but two space telescopes with mirrors the same size as the Hubble's.

The NRO is the security agency of the United States that, since 1961, has been, in its own words, "in charge of designing, building, launching, and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites." Since the satellites that the NRO offered NASA were designed as spy satellites, they are a little different from the Hubble: shorter and with a wider field of view. They were also stripped down before they were offered, "lacking a camera and other accouterments, like solar panels or pointing controls, of a spacecraft." (from the NYT article. Here and here are other articles). For now, they remain in a clean room at ITT Exelis, in Rochester, New York. My imagination, though, pictures them as being stored here, along with other treasures, being worked on by "top men."

After months of study, a new purpose for one of the NRO telescopes has emerged. It is apparently perfect for studying Dark Matter. If it were not for the donation, that would have to wait until at least 2024. The proposal must be accepted by Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and the Academy of Sciences before it can go ahead.

Why were two Hubble-class telescopes created and then declared unnecessary by the NRO? It is as surprising a revelation as the one in Colossus: The Forbin Project when the machine meant to safeguard the Western nations announced "There is another system," meaning a new and previously unsuspected, self-aware defence computer.

The "other system" here is a whole space program that has nothing to do with NASA development or priorities and is largely kept below the public's awareness. If you look at it narrowly, the "other system" is just the NRO, which built the satellites; if you look at it more generally, though, it is the American military and intelligence program for space.

Its budget seems to be larger and less capricious than the civilian space budget. For example, after the Space Shuttle Atlantis completed its last flight  on July 21, 2011, NASA had no rocket to take supplies or crew to space. The International Space Station had to be supplied by Japanese, Russian, and European craft. American astronauts travelled in the Russian Soyuz capsules, launched from Baikonur, Kazakhstan. It was an embarrassment to a proud space-faring nation.

The military, however, was not inconvenienced by the Shuttle's retirement. The Titan IV rocket lifted "shuttle class" payloads (21,680 kg to Low Earth Orbit) for the Air Force until Lockheed Martin and Boeing developed its successors, the Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, under an Air Force program called EELV. When the new rockets began launching in 2005, the more-expensive Titan was retired.

NASA approached resupply of the Space Station through a program called Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). I am sure that there was a punner involved in naming it, since the same acronym means "Commercial and Off-the-shelf," which also describes the goal of NASA's COTS program. It achieved part of its goal when a Dragon capsule, designed and built by the private SpaceX company, docked with the Space Station. SpaceX now has a contract to resupply the Space Station.

NASA's original plan to carry people was to develop the Ares I rocket and the Orion capsule. Now that the Ares I has been cancelled, its plan is to modify the Atlas V to carry people. This is far from impossible, since the Atlas V has had an almost perfect safety record. The work is ongoing, with only a $6.7 million grant, to "crew-rate" it to carry people by 2014 or 2015. According to the Wikipedia article, "Other than the addition of the Emergency Detection System, no major changes are expected to the Atlas V rocket, but ground infrastructure modifications are planned." Once the work is complete, it will probably carry the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser space plane and the Boeing CST-100 capsule.

A third member of the military family to go into space--after the NRO and Air Force--is DARPA, the American Defense research agency. It took over the X-37 project from NASA in 2004 and developed this:

The X37 has looks like a baby Space Shuttle, but it has about the same relationship to the Shuttle as a U2 spyplane has to a Predator drone. The X37 is unmanned. According to its Wikipedia page
The spaceplane's first orbital mission, USA-212, was launched on 22 April 2010 using an Atlas V rocket. Its successful return to Earth on 3 December 2010 was the first test of the vehicle's heat shield and hypersonic aerodynamic handling. A second X-37 was launched on 5 March 2011, with the mission designation USA-226; it returned to Earth on 16 June 2012.
In other words, it can work in space for close to a year at a time. We can only guess what it does up there because no-one is telling. 

However, in 2011, Boeing stated that work would begin on a larger model, the X-37C, which could carry 5-7 astronauts. At some point this would collide with the interests of another Boeing project, the CST-100 space capsule, so I would predict that only one of these would see completion.

If we look beyond what NASA does, we see that the United States has never been without a launch capability that could resupply the International Space Station, and that it already has rockets that could, in principle, take astronauts as well. I wonder how much of the country's space capability is in its military labs, bases, and budgets.