Sunday, April 08, 2007

Out of the present

I was off blogging for quite some time. I spent the time making one
desperate (and unsuccessful) attempt at setting my life in order.
I mean, well, finding a place where I settle down and stop hopping
around the world in a different nation every week. Trouble is that,
under many respects, the situation I am in is ideal (even though
it may not look like that): got a prestigious research job with
no teaching that lets me free to travel whenever I want. I keep
living in different continents without having to give up any of
my different cultural incarnations. The flip side is quite evident:
a quick calculation of the miles I flew in the first three months
of 2007 divided by the time puts my avegare speed at 25 miles an
hour (even when I sleep!)... That is, frankly, a little too much.
Problem is, given the initial conditions, I would like to settle
in a place I really really like and not just go for the first
possibility that pops up (I'd rather keep going like I am doing
now), but when it comes to putting down a list of my desiderata
for the ideal place where I would like to live one quickly finds
that the intersection of all these conditions narrows it down to
a single point on the globe. So I went for that, and it nearly worked
but in the end it didn't. So what is this list of my desiderata
that is so picky as to leave so little choice? Well, let's see:
- Big city (big meaning 6x10^6 people at least)
- Mild climate (yes I am all for tropical weather, but if I can't
have that at least not below 25 C)
- Good science (well, I am not going to give that up: that's what
my life is about after all: here's a first big problem though,
for why is it that nearly all of the top academic institutions
are in freezing cold places? keeps brains superconducting I suppose)
- Good bookstores: especially scientific bookstores
- A tradition of left wing culture (hey, I am a communist/anarchist
and I am tired of places where people look at me like I come from Mars!)
- Diverse population (that goes along well with big cities but not all
big cities are really cosmopolitan: the more diversity the better!)
Well... what about the people's republic of Berkeley? All right, it was
a nice dream, too bad it didn't work. I might try something else some other
time, though I'll have to drop some of the items on the wish list.

Meanwhile, I have been traveling twice across the Atlantic within the
same week, done some hopping around Europe (France, Germany, France again
and now I am blogging from Sweden - bloody cold still around here, even
though people say it's the mildest spring in ages).

While I was browsing the local bookstores
here (not bad at all) I found the DVD of
the movie/documentary "Out of the present"
by Andrei Ujica.
It is the beautifully filmed story of the
mission to the Mir space station
of cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, who left earth
when the Soviet Union was in its final days,
remained in space for nearly a year, and
returned at the end of March 1992 to a much
changed country. Most of the scenes are filmed
on board the Mir station (you'll get stunning
views of earth from space and a very interesting
record of life on board the Mir space station).
The clever touch of mixing the docking of the
Soyuz to the Mir with the famous Kubrick's
2001-a space odyssey sequence
makes the point of imagined and real life in
space, while when the final scene of Tarkovsky's
Solaris gets mixed into the last view
Krikalev takes from space before his return
trip the few images tell more than a thousand
words. Another nice touch is the persistent
and unanswered questions of the journalists
demanding from Sergei a comment on his
returning to a Russia no longer Soviet Union.
The movie is a gentle, sad, and visually
incredibly beautiful tale of the contrast
between the volatile world down here
of crumbling government, shifting sands
and frontiers, and the immense permanence
of outer space. It is one of the best
celebrations of the achievements of the
space age.

This DVD reminded me of a small booklet I bought
last month when I was in California, which is a
commentary on an installation by the artist Ilya
Kabakov, called "The Man who Flew into Space from
His Apartment". It tries to illustrate the collective
dream of the conquest of the cosmos as it became
an important part of Soviet mythology through the
space program, and the individual appropriation of
the collective mythology through the unlikely
scene of the aftermath of the absent character's
final flight into space launched from inside a
small apartment. The observer is shown a strange
contraption of swings and springs mounted in the
middle of a small room with walls obsessively decorated
with a collage of posters of space age Soviet heroes
and a gaping hole in the ceiling that marks the point
of escape from the enclosed space with powerful burst
of a take off towards space. A very interesting vision.