Steve Barnes' World of Happiness

James Webb Telescope launch complete.

As I write this, the supremely precious, massive, and beautiful, behexagonned James Webb Space Telescope, conceived 25 years ago, is floating out through space on a weeks-long journey to its destination in solar orbit.

Using the power of the Internet, so easy these days to take for granted, I spent the broadcast tweeting occasional updates and taking in the updates of worldwide neighbours, sharing pictures of their vantages and their thoughts. I had been surprised to learn this gigantic and delicate instrument had been moved, rocket and all, from its final sheltered hangar to the launch location on rails, in full vertical position, with careful unhurriedness through the Amazon rainforest during a storm.

Humanity has had its space engineering mishaps, which have been thankful exceptions, but I remarked this launch was actually kind of boring because everything went perfectly. The Ariane 5's main rocket broke away as intended only minutes into the launch, followed by the nose cone, no longer needed to protect the scope's body and mirrors once it had exited Earth's atmospheric limits. 26 minutes after launch, the final "upper stage" thruster broke away. This cylinder, which housed the telescope like a little round nest, also contained a video camera that transmitted the final, stark images of Webb as it drifted on alone.

Speaking of social media, that clockwork spreader-around of ideas, there is plenty I've seen it bear and convey which alludes to the uglier side of the human capacity for intent, though I've never been convinced most people are not well-intentioned, instead engaging with contention because they possess the desire to work problems out. Occasions like this launch highlight our shared capacity for achievement and wonder much more unequivocally. One tweet I scanned simply recognized it as what happens when we embrace science and work together.

The final host of NASA's broadcast this morning suggested the future would think of astronomical history as divided "before Webb" and "after Webb," so significant may its fruits be. I shiver merely to recall that the impressive launch, celebrated in the control room and around the planet, is ultimately significant only for its implications about the entirety of the scientific discovery that now draws near.

Probe dips into the sun's corona.

A quick update from NASA: the Parker Solar Probe has flown through the sun's upper atmosphere in the latest of a decreasingly distant number of passes around the sun, "sampling particles and magnetic fields." (An actual quotation, not scare quotes.) Apparently this is helpful in determining whence the solar winds, which happen when such flotsam reaches escape-grade parameters and flies outward rather than continuing to participate in the star's primary churn.

Stephen Sondheim.

I learned and performed much of his work during my time as an accompanist and music director, including the scores of Into The Woods and Company, though I never sought footage or audio of the man himself. He seemed too much "larger than life" for that to occur to me.

I wasn't aware of the age he'd reached when he died today, which places him in the category of the unfamiliar variety of role model who has lived almost a century – a significant fraction of human history since the eventual grip of science and industry – and whose eagerness to learn and create seems unrelated to their age.

When asked why he was still writing during his final interview with the New York Times:

What else am I going to do? … I’m too old now to do a lot of traveling, I’m sorry to say. What else would I do with my time but write?

And the quote shared today that I thought simplest and most useful:

The worst thing you can do is censor yourself as the pencil hits the paper. You must not edit until you get it all on paper. If you can put everything down, stream-of-consciousness, you'll do yourself a service.

A donkey's influence.

From our Internet neighbours at Caenhill Countryside Centre comes the news that Coco, the inimitable donkey, died suddenly this week.

"These things happen, we know – the circle of life," Chris says to Coco's companion Eli, who has seemed understandably sad, though still surrounded by the farm's animals and friends, of course.

I think the two had been around since I'd been following. Eli carried a tranquil and accepting air, and Coco seemed to exude enthusiasm and attentiveness; certainly because of carrots, and largely because of her general comfort and happy life on the farm. I knew to expect that sort of uplift when clicking on a video featuring her name, occasionally finding an energetic romp around an open field, an imploring bray from the distance, or an assertion of her ability to open a hinged door through which she intended to pass (perhaps on the second attempt once she'd observed the incorrect amount of force caused it to bounce gently closed again).

Chris and his followers sometimes describe the farm as "magical." Its continuous display of faunal community deserves the descriptor as much as anything, but I think its most valuable lesson is that the capacity for friendship across mammals and birds is available and discoverable without magic. It's there every day, and that prompts us to wonder whether it's also hidden closer than we think. Some look at the Internet and see an appliance, others see dollar signs for their company; but to me, this kind of sharing for its own sake, spreading experiences and happenings for each other to find and consider, is what the Internet is primarily for, and should always be for.

I can only wonder whether Coco gained any real awareness that she stood to influence across the world in this way. With the help of Chris and Caroline, it's possible she did more than she ever happened to imagine, just by being herself.


Mike Rostron on the continuing road.

My penchant for quiet online reflection was sated by an Internet neighbour this morning. My impression of people who have lived a while longer than me may have been too bland growing up, because I still notice how unusual it feels to take note of qualities I don't imagine time should or would affect in a person, such as enthusiasm, wonder, interest in learning, or eagerness to begin some project or creation.

(Also, a poetic defense of Prince Derek's "what else is there?".)

Federighi on mobile sideloading.

A very Apple-style presentation which was a little hard to find: Craig Federighi talking at the Web Summit conference in Portugal. Apparently Europe is proposing a Digital Markets Act which would require mobile platforms to allow native app installations from anywhere (whereas iPhone and iPad have only ever allowed app installations from their own curated App Store).

Federighi opposes the law. This little segment is the most concise version of Apple's thinking I've seen on this, including direct responses to some common counterpoints ("why wouldn't Apple allow a special setting for people who know what they're getting into?", et cetera).

Facebook goes Meta.

So, Facebook is changing its name to "Meta," because their main project is now building the "metaverse" – something like a worldwide virtual economy, social ecosystem and habitable realm which is perhaps more likenable to the World Wide Web than to anything else, but is not the World Wide Web.

This week's Facebook Connect presentation contained almost no real technology demos. It was basically an hour-long feature film depending heavily on chroma keying real staff members onto pre-rendered environments, and the sort of 3D animation which reminds me of a cross between yesterday's cutting-edge (e.g. Toy Story) and today's kitschier YouTube ads or Netflix kids' shows. To their credit, Zuckerberg conceded at the start that this was largely just a vision, but a vision they felt important to open up about.

I was baffled about why. More of the usual attempts to distract from the company's core problems? One Twitter neighbour suggested they were after generating investments, and… maybe? Does Facebook lack capital?

In my mind, Facebook's main issue is still its reputation as a company that has become one of the world's main tech brands while stereotypically adolescent about its principles, ethically and otherwise (no offense to actual adolescents). Once again, Mark Zuckerberg mentioned privacy more than once, and once again, gave no indication that this meant users would have any particular knowledge, let alone control, of how their personal data is used or shared by them. I'm no longer really sure what people think and feel who are both aware of this situation, but resign themselves to it. My best guess is formed by recalling how I felt when I was first learning about the rise of user trackability alongside the web's own adolescence, feeling the inescapability of it, and extrapolating that apathy single-dimensionally into something that overwhelmed me into living with it. I wouldn't instantly forget about it, but it would fade into the background, contributing to the tone of a permanently darker future something better than which I might have convinced myself to refrain from imagining. This is what seemingly would have happened worldwide if other figures and companies had not done some stepping-up of their own in this area, leaving Facebook to spend years all but lashing out defensively for being uninterested in following suit.

If Facebook does intend to improve on this, it would be smart to show off and explain the technology that does it – but no, nothing.

In a way, the fantastical presentation reminded me of something much older: a promo video for NewTek's "Video Toaster" for the Amiga in 1991 – a set of hardware and software tools that made professional-looking video production (for the time) available to the average computer enthusiast. It was glitzy, alluring, wow-inducing, futuristic, and presented along those lines. And though it was real technology, I knew I wasn't yet in a position to get my hands on it. But unlike Facebook's metaverse presentation – though the metaverse's promises are far vaster and more futuristic – I actually felt something when I watched the Video Toaster reel. I watched it over and over, and I doubt I'll ever watch Facebook's presentation again. I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say with this paragraph; I think I'm just trying to illustrate that these deeper problems with Facebook feel like they seep all the way through to their marketing.

Facebook just feels like "a company." Or, to evoke the connotations I think I feel, "a corporation." Mark said he "believes" people are on this planet "to create," but I don't find myself believing he believes that. Facebook seems to want to make money. I think it has people who are enthused by the future of technology, but collectively the thinking feels ironically short-term and perpetually untempered by wisdom. That's the feeling Facebook has spent its years earning.

Newtek really did seem to be about massively facilitating creativity. Nintendo has always seemed to be about bringing high-quality, fun video game ideas and worlds to everyone. Apple really does seem like it knows its attested place at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, and that it does strive to improve the world.

Facebook? "Oh, this is cool." "Oh, look what we can do," over and over. That's great – all those other companies have those moments every day too, no doubt – but at the end of the broader arcs, will they have left something truly wonderful to look back on with satisfaction, or just the remnants of a mess?

The Age of Scones' traditional spirit.

My personal journey into the world of scones feels somewhat about tradition, which I can't help reflect on. I didn't set out to bake the American-style scones I used to buy, but the halvable cylinders usually served with jam and heavily pictured in an image search for "tea and scones."

These are fairly close to heated flour, and out of all things one could bake, heated flour sounds about the least exciting. But it's that driving idea, this rather comical "ah, yes," intoned to myself with a dignity most unmerited, at the idea that so many people have enjoyed so many scones with so many cups of tea over so many decades, that beckons me.

Silly as this particular nod to tradition sounds, I think it's close to the appropriate consideration of traditions generally, especially anything culturally-contained. There are a few traditions I embrace and take seriously (e.g. critical thinking, outspoken support for empiricism and reason), and many I reject (a consistent bedtime, the presumed celebration of calendar birthdays or common holidays, the quest for a personal vehicle or a telephone), which leaves me with a fairly blank slate, and fresh chances to sample the supposed significance of a tradition without the burdensome feelings of undue profundity or weight. I've found myself witnessing too many life-changing decisions such as college embarkations, imitative career paths, and (perhaps most of all) weddings, and asking "are they only half-thinking this through, coasting on the notion this is just 'what one does'?", not to follow that question to its depths on behalf of myself. I encourage anyone else to do the same.

This path may not bring me endless delicious scones, but it has brought me many, and I believe there will be many more.

The Age of Scones prelude.

But seriously: after leaving coffee and regularly embracing tea, I have been consuming a lot of homemade scones lately.

Despite scones' long and privileged position at the tail of my social media bios, I've only just begun baking them. For years, a nearby store sold excellent "American" scones (wedge-shaped with fruit or icing, the kind some Americans seem to think is part of the definition of a paper cup of coffee with a paper heat guard around the middle, especially when served in a separate paper bag). But the stock has suddenly halted, leaving strong demand across the demographic of people who are me.

So strong was this demand that it proved the first force capable of ushering me into any baking routine. I have acquired a rudimentary feel for the behaviour of flour in various ratios to liquid, and a developing sense for the effects of sugar, butter, eggs, or baking powder. This is a change which, prior to day 14000, even I might have thought out of my own character.

The Age Of Scones paradox.

Here’s the argument:

1. It is the Age Of Scones.
3. Therefore, I have to eat a lot of scones.

The fact that the addition of some sort of second premise meant to strengthen this argument would in fact weaken it, is known as the Age Of Scones paradox.

Nitpicking Nerd on the soullessness of modern Star Trek.

I've known I would write about the cultural tragedy of the loss of Star Trek after 2005, and the literary value now locked in the classic series. But there's so much to say, and the emotional component has been so vast for me, that I've mulled and brooded for over a year.

Fortunately, I had also thought to check for others who felt this way, and have since balmed myself with the empathizing sharings of many like-minded cherishers. I can now instantly think of several I'd trust to convey my approximate sentiments, but I'll share this one by YouTube user "Nitpicking Nerd", who earns his pseudonym with elegance and an endless supply of supporting examples.

(But seriously, where is it?)

While udanite is undoubtedly a precious material, and “chauffeur” seems a luxury classification of anything, I’ve still yet to see the great chauffeur udanite the late-night hosts keep telling their audiences they've got.