A Cold Abandonment

Posted February 14, 2019 by V. Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

I am strangely moved by the abandonment of the robot ‘Opportunity’ on the far away planet of Mars.

It strikes me as a betrayal, a kind of bad faith on our part — we as humans. A cruel act of inhumanity — inhumanity toward a robot that was not human, but that worked closely with humans and gave us far more information and photographs than we had a right to expect.

He deserved more of us than a cold and isolating and a never-to-return-home farewell. It wasn’t even a farewell. We just hung up the telephone. We didn’t even say ‘thank you,’ or ‘goodbye’ or ‘godspeed.’

We didn’t even say “We’re sorry” or “Forgive us.”

We didn’t even give the robot a human name. We didn’t call him or her “Sam” or “Rosie.” We just used him or her. And when he/she stopped being useful, we pulled the plug.

It’s too late now, of course. But I will call him Sam.

Sam was only supposed to last for three months, when he was launched toward Mars in 2004. Instead, Sam keep working for nearly 15 years. He sent back thousands of vivid photographs and roamed over 28 miles of the Martian surface. We Earthlings now know a thousand times more about Mars than we ever knew, thanks to Sam.

But last June, a terrible sandstorm whacked Sam in his solar panels and he stopped working. The theory is that the sandstorm encrusted enough debris on the panels so that the panels could no longer use the Sun to provide electrical energy to Sam’s roving mobile. And so Sam could not move and could not send photographs back to Earth. The signals sent from Earth to Sam made no difference. The signals could not restart his engine, and Sam could not send back a reply.

And so NASA decided that the project was over and that Sam was a lost cause. He had performed heroically for so many years. He had done what no robot had ever done before and done it wonderfully.

But on Tuesday night, NASA made its last call to Sam.

“It was an incredibly somber moment,” said one of the scientists who was present.

Sam heard the call but could not respond. It would be the last human “voice” he would ever hear.

The next day, the associate director for science at NASA spoke to his colleagues and to the people of Earth: “It is therefore that I am standing here with a sense of deep appreciation and gratitude that I declare the Opportunity mission as complete.”

That was all very nice, but none of those moving words were ever spoken to Sam. He would never know — he will never know — that the people he came to work with on Earth were grateful for what he has given them over the years.

Sam knew, when the project was complete, that his was a one-way trip. But for a decade and a half, he had put that thought in the background. After all, every day, he was still in touch with his friends and colleagues back home. They would send him messages and he would send them all the photos and soil information and typographical insights that they wanted.

The communication back and forth pushed into the background any sense of loneliness he might feel.

But now, there was nothing else for him except that background. No more photographs, no more excursions, no more details to send millions of miles back to the Earth where he was born.

Nothing but abandonment and loneliness from now on. Not even a thank-you or a goodbye.

Nothing but silence and paralysis.

Not even a suitable graveyard with a suitable gravestone.

Not even a beacon to mark his spot.


The Philosophy Behind ‘Walk’ Signs

Posted February 7, 2019 by V. Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

Our culture trains us to behave in certain ways. But we’re often inclined to think that those certain ways are universal ways and should be practiced universally.

The way we do things, we feel, is the right way to do things and the way that everyone else should do things.

And then we travel and discover that the rest of the world has other ideas.

It works both ways: when we go to a foreign country and when foreigners come to our country. Suddenly, behavior changes. What we’re used to doing naturally turns out to be different in someone else’s eyes.

It can happen in big ways and in small ways: for instance, in crossing the street.

Yale has had a long and extensive relationship with China. The university even has a whole separate organizational commitment to China called Yale in China — which also includes, of course, China at Yale.

There are hundreds of Chinese students at Yale — from mainland China — and I walk among them each day here in the city. It often feels as if there are thousands of Chinese students in the streets — males and females. There certainly are thousands of Asian students, whether or not they’re from China.

And one thing I’ve notice consistently is that these Chinese and Asian students pay close attention to traffic signals. They absolutely will not cross the street until the electronic sign reads “Walk.”

Even if there are no cars in sight, they will stand at the curb and wait for the “Walk” sign.

I, on the other hand, being a pragmatic American, will cross the street if there are no cars coming, regardless of what the electronic sign says.

And right there, I think, is a cultural difference between the more regimented Chinese society and what I call the more pragmatic American society.

America invented pragmatism, as a cultural impulse and philosophy. Philosopher William James was one of the early thinkers who spelled out this native disposition and gave it the name of pragmatism.

Pragmatism basically believes that what works is right and good and what doesn’t work is not good. It’s the opposite of the Platonic ideal, which says that there is a rigid Goodness above and beyond ordinary life, and that we should all be striving to achieve that Goodness.

American pragmatism doesn’t believe that. It believes that experiment and testing and individual initiative and trial and error are what lead to a good life. If something doesn’t work, put it aside and try something else . . . something new.

More traditional, more regimented, societies believe that organization and tradition and philosophical absolutes are what define good behavior and ‘success’. They believe in a more top-down style of order. You do something in a certain way, because that’s what you do. It worked in the past and should work in the future. Change can just as easily lead to chaos, as it can to progress.

American pragmatism emphasizes individual initiative. More traditional societies prefer collective action and sticking to the rules.

So when you come to a street corner, the rules say that you should wait for the Walk sign. So you wait, if you have a more regimented point of view. But if you’re more pragmatic and there are no cars coming, you cross the street.

For the traditional thinker from China, the Walk sign is the rule you obey. For the pragmatic thinker from America, crossing the street is your goal, not paying allegiance to the Walk sign.

The Walk sign is the emblem of organized living and rational tradition, for the Chinese student. For the American, the Walk sign is a safety convenience that allows him or her to cross the street safely. But if there is no danger, then the Walk sign is irrelevant.

One point of view emphasizes conformity to rules. The other point of view emphasizes commonsense and individual decisions.

The question is: how many bad habits will the Chinese students pick up here in New Haven and take back with them to Beijing? How much disorder am I provoking by walking against the Wait sign?

Enroute to a Great Film

Posted January 29, 2019 by V. Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

When I go to a movie theater, I always prefer to see the first screening of the day. That’s either in the late-morning or around noon. That’s when there are the fewest people in the theater. I want as much privacy as I can get. No distractions, no awareness of someone sitting nearby. I want it to be just the film and me. Nothing else, nobody else.

I planned to see this film this past weekend. I didn’t know it was in town and didn’t know much about it until I saw an ad in the newspaper. When I saw the ad, I knew the film was something I must see.

But I couldn’t go on Saturday, and when Sunday arrived, I couldn’t get to the theater in time for the 11:20 screening. So that meant yesterday, a workday for everyone else, which is always a problem if I’m driving. The streets are clogged and the parking garage is nearly filled, leaving me far from the elevator that takes me to the street.

The earliest screening time yesterday had changed to 12 noon. So I drove my car — it was too cold to walk the mile and a half to the theater– and looked for a parking space on the street. But there wasn’t any. So I drove back home. The next screening was at 3:10. I figured there might be a street space open by then, and I didn’t want to wait another day. And so I drove back and there was an open space, right across from the theater. I put my 12 quarters into the meter, giving me two hours, and walked into the theater.

There was no one else in the lobby, except for the ticket seller. That was a good sign. The cinema has about 10 small screening rooms within its facility. The film I was there to see was in Screening Room 5. When I entered the room, I was relieved to see that there was no one else there, with just 10 minutes to go before the previews began. Then an elderly couple came in. And after that, three elderly people. We were scattered around the room — all six of us elderly people.

I was not surprised at the ages of the audience. The film was something that old people would want to see. It’s called “Cold War,” and it’s the finest film I’ve seen in the past few years. It’s a great film, in fact, in black and white, made in Poland by Poles that brought me to tears at the end. I had to dab my eyes with my handkerchief so I could see clearly.

I later found out that the film is up for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film; the director, Pawel Pawlikowski, has been nominated for Best Director, and the Cinematography is also up for an Academy Award. All of which are mightily deserved.

The film reminded me of some of the great black and white European films made during the 1960’s and ‘70’s.

It focuses on post-war Poland, 1949-1964, and the lives of a man and a woman, who are desperately in love but are so artistically and emotionally complicated that they keep running into and out of each other’s lives. He is a pianist and composer and she is a singer and they have all kinds of emotional and political hurdles to jump — many of them self-made and others aggravated by the political climate in Poland.

It is a brilliant, emotional, unwavering portrait of two talented people who try and ultimately fail to rescue their passionate relationship from the gathering shadows of Marxism’s takeover of ordinary life.

The actors — Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot — give deeply affecting performances, taking their roles down into the depths of their characters’ entangled and exhausted psyches.

But as I watched the film, I thought that American audiences in general would hate it. It’s too emotionally and psychologically and historically sophisticated. The film assumes too much maturity and complexity and historical savvy on the part of the filmgoer.

And patience.

Americans prefer their dramas simple, either-or, good-guys-bad-guys, clear-cut clarity. Americans don’t give a damn about history that isn’t presented in a British castle or in a violent ghetto.

The emotional tensions in “Cold War,” clashing within changing historical pressures, is too raw on the one hand and too abstract on the other, for audiences who want life in their movies to be neat and easily defined. “Vice,” by contrast, is an acceptable political film because you get to laugh.

Nobody laughs in “Cold War.” The stakes are too serious and too high.

I wish the film would win the Oscar, but it won’t — not with a nice heart-warming film like “Roma” to soothe the cockles of the audience’s heart.

But I bet European audiences are flocking to see “Cold War,” people of all ages, not just elderly people, who straggle into a 3 o’clock matinee.

The Gun Sale That Went Nowhere

Posted January 24, 2019 by V. Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

The cops treat it as a big deal. But the way I read it in this morning’s New Haven Register, it seemed like pretty small, pathetic stuff.

Except for the 18-month-old baby in the back seat.

And then there was the snitch who tipped off the cops that the car was on its way.

The article doesn’t say where the car was coming from. It just says the car was headed for the Stamford, Connecticut, town center mall parking garage. It was a silver, two-door Acura. The cops were there waiting.

There were four young men in the car: three Hispanics and one brown-faced fellow, who was 19. The other men were 21, 21, and 25. Young guys, a couple of whom had been arrested in the past for small stuff. But they had a record.

The car pulls into the parking lot. The driver gets out, opens the hood, pretends that something is wrong with the engine. The police decide that this is the car the snitch told them was coming, and so they close in.

The driver turns out to have two loaded handguns — one of them hidden in a sock — and five bags of the opioid fentanyl. The 19-year-old passenger tells the police he’s also got a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol wedged in his belt, and he hands it over.

No muss, no fuss, no shooting. Just four amateurs trying to score a gun sale, and they got caught.

The plan was to sell all that stuff. They figured they could make some fast money selling handguns on the street, with a little drug action on the side. It was a small operation, with four guys jammed into a two-door car. Four young guys and three loaded handguns. The fentanyl was an after-thought. The real money was in the handguns.

So the cops are rounding up ‘the gang,’ and they look inside the car and they find an 18-month-old child sleeping in the back seat.

If you needed any more evidence that this was an amateur operation, that little sleeping boy is it. Lesson number one is that you don’t bring a sleeping baby boy to a gun-and-drug sale.

The Register article doesn’t say who the baby belongs to. Apparently, one of the guys couldn’t find a babysitter for the day.

At any rate, the police not only charged the guys with having loaded guns and bags of opioids, they also charged the driver with the additional crime of not putting the baby in a car safety seat.

All four men were arrested. The driver is being held in lieu of $150,000 and the other three at $100,000 each.

As far as the young boy is concerned, the police contacted the Department of Children and Families, who were able to track down the mother, who lives in New Haven. She drove to Stamford to retrieve her child.

And that’s where the Register article ends. We’ll probably never know how the baby ended up sleeping in the back seat of a crowded car, filled with mugs trying to sell guns and drugs. How did that happen?

And what’s the connection between the little boy’s mother and the guys in the car? And why wasn’t she arrested as being a neglectful mother and perhaps in on the gun-sale caper?

And who was the snitch who tipped off the police? Was it the mother, or someone else connected to her? Was it a trusted “friend” of one of the four guys?

If there had been no snitch, would the deal have gone down with no problem and would the guys have a little more money in their pockets? Would they have tried it again?

If the sale had gone as planned, would one of the guns have ended up a month later or a year later shooting some innocent person at a local dance?

It’s a rough world out there, and some of the young people trying to cope by committing mundane crimes are not cut out for it. These are four young guys who are going to prison for this fiasco and that will screw up the rest of their lives.

They were so incompetent, so amateurish, so in over their heads that a part of me feels sorry for them.

As for the 18-month-old boy in the back seat, he slept through it all and will never have an eye-witness account to tell the other kids at daycare.

A Town Called Cheshire

Posted January 19, 2019 by V. Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

Cheshire, Connecticut is an old town, about 15 miles north of New Haven. It was settled in 1694 and officially became a town in 1780.

My family moved there from downtown New Haven in 1951. I was 13 years old at the time. My brother Bill was 3. The town’s population was about 6,300.

It was largely a rural town, a lot of open land, some farming, growing apples and pears and pumpkins, a quiet, neighborly little town on the verge of becoming more than that.

There was no high school when we moved there. So I had to commute to a private school in New Haven. Other young people in town commuted to high schools in Hamden, Waterbury, Middletown, Southington.

The town finally built its high school in 1953 and I was in the first graduating class of 1955.

It was a great little town. Everybody felt part of our growing up. Having a high school brought a focus to our identity. Every home basketball game was packed with spectators. The local businesses were owned by local families and had been there for decades. Everybody went to R.W. Hine to get tools and seeds and fertilizer and lawnmowers and everything else a home needed to be complete. It was also the place where you met your neighbors and shook their hands and asked how things were going.

We stayed in Cheshire — that is to say, we kept our house there as a place to call ‘home’ — for the next 60 years. My mother lived there all that time, until she died in 2010 at the age of 95. My father had died of cancer in 1975.

My brother and I, of course, had moved out long ago to live our own complicated lives. I moved to New Haven and so could visit our Cheshire home more often than could my brother, who moved around the country, first in Washington, DC and then in Missouri.

And then suddenly, the town grew like crazy. It became a commuter town for people working in New Haven and Hartford and other nearby cities and towns. And money began rolling in — big money from families with big incomes who spent those incomes on big houses.

And what had once been a small, close, simple town became an upper-middle class town, with all the fancy, overblown doodads and attitudes that went with it.

What had been a population of 6,300 when we moved there, became a more crowded and upscale population of 29,000 in the last census of 2010.

And people changed, and how they treated each other changed.

And last month, an 11-year-old girl in town, named Anjelita Estrada, killed herself because her classmates had been bullying her for being Hispanic.

A year ago, her family had moved from New Mexico to Cheshire, and Anjelita had entered sixth grade at Doolittle Elementary School.

Sixth grade.

Elementary School.


The Wall.

The President.

This is where we are now. This is who we have become.

A young girl from New Mexico who thought it might be nice to live in a town called Cheshire.

It used to be nice.

But that was a long time ago . . . before people grew tired of being nice and decided to make big money instead and to treat ‘outsiders’ like the enemy.

Especially if those outsiders have funny names that sound foreign.

Hell Is For Child Abusers

Posted January 17, 2019 by V. Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

My moral universe allows no room — and no forgiveness — for people who deliberately hurt children. It could be one child or it could be thousands of children. The more children, the worse your crime. But hurting just one child — deeply and painfully and lastingly — condemns you to the deepest part of my definition of Hell.

Of course, there is no real Heaven or Hell. Those are make-believe constructions created by religions to keep people in line. If you do good, you’ll go to Heaven. If you do evil, you go to Hell.

The Catholic Church used to float a third option of Purgatory. But then the Church dropped the idea some decades ago. It was a logical concept designed for people who weren’t good enough yet to enter Heaven but nowhere bad enough to be sent to Hell. So where do you put such people? You put them in the in-between place, where they can somehow work off enough bad marks to eventually ascend into Heaven.

It’s all nonsense. But the Church preached it for thousands of years and billions of believers and hundreds of generations accepted it. It gave clarity to our judgment of people’s actions. Mother Theresa went to Heaven. Adolph Hitler went to Hell. Very neat. Very orderly. Very logical.

You couldn’t just have everybody end up in the same place when they die, could you? You had to sort them out. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

But sometimes I wish it were real. I wish there were a special place where people who did very bad things to children went after they died. All those thousands of priests, for instance, who sexually abused thousands — perhaps tens of thousands world-wide — of young boys. Those priests should suffer for eternity for what they did to those children.

They won’t, of course. But if there really were cosmic justice, they should.

And what the Nazis did to Jewish children — pulling them away from their parents and then starving them and then gassing them to death — was enough to strike Heaven (if there had been a Heaven) in the face.

And the stories of terrible abuse of children throughout the Middle East goes back centuries and continues to this day. And in India and Pakistan, in particular. A young Pakistani girl recently wanted to go to the birthday party of her boyfriend. Her parents said no. They didn’t like the boy’s religious beliefs. But their young daughter went anyway. When she came home, the parents hired someone to cut off her head and one of her arms.

They belong side by side with Hitler.

On a less drastic level but still inflamed with child abuse was the recent decision by Donald Trump to separate children from their parents, when they entered the U.S. as refugees.

We learn today that there were even thousands more children pulled away from their parents than was previously reported. The children — as young as babies — were hauled away without warning and placed in storage facilities or with foster families. No sensible records were kept by the Americans and to this day, many of the kidnapped children have still not been reunited with their mothers and fathers.

Those children are emotionally and psychologically scarred forever.

And yet, Trump — a man with no moral core or ability to feel empathy — couldn’t care less. He protested the ending of the separation process. To this day, he thinks it was a good idea.

Maybe he doesn’t belong in Hell. Just scarring and traumatizing children isn’t as fatal as actually slaughtering them.

Maybe instead of Hell, Trump’s soul — assuming he has one — should just drift endlessly between The Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, finding neither warmth nor companionship other than that provided by passing meteorites and the pulsating energy generated by voracious Black Holes.

But I doubt that cosmic justice is that creative. Trump will just die like the rest of us, moldering in the grave, while all the children he victimized live haunted lives filled with terror dreams.

An Image on Film

Posted January 14, 2019 by V. Galligan
Categories: Uncategorized

I bought my first serious camera 23 years ago. It was an Olympus Stylus and it used film. This was before digital cameras came into play. I don’t think there were digital cameras back then. Up to that point, I had using a haphazard collection of hand-me-down film cameras that came and went in my life.

My Olympus was a simple camera. It had a little zoom feature, but didn’t zoom very far. I could turn the flash on and off. It fit neatly in my pocket and had a sliding cover in front that protected the small lens. It marked the start of my serious venture into photography.

I shot big subjects, small subjects, in color and in black and white. I took my Olympus with me to San Francisco and shot my friend Michael as he climbed huge rocks, and I got a great shot of him stretched out like Spiderman that I framed and hung on my wall back home.

I took my Olympus with me into movie theaters and surreptitiously shot images off the large movie screen. This was forbidden, but I snuck a few shots anyway, before I was reprimanded by the movie staff.

And then digital cameras arrived and I bought one and then two others and switched completely to the digital way of photographing. It was so much easier to see what I was photographing and to frame it and see it clearly before I took the shot and then to instantly see it after I shot the image. And if I blew shot, I would know that right way and could take another one. And I could manipulate the images as I went along, and even switch from color to black and white and then back again.

So I packed my Olympus away and pretty much said ’goodbye’ to it. And a couple of decades passed.

And then one day I came across my beloved old film camera and I picked it up and held it and it felt good and comfortable and I remembered the good times we had shared together. This was three months ago. I felt a sudden rush of nostalgia.

So I bought a new battery for the camera and two rolls of black and white film and two rolls of color and I took a few shots. I couldn’t tell what they looked like, because this was a film camera and film cameras don’t let you see what you’ve just shot. You have to shoot a whole roll of 20 pictures and then take the roll to a photography shop to have it developed — unless you have the gear to develop the negatives yourself, which I’ve never had. And then you get to see what you got or what you missed.

Shooting with film is a crap shoot. If you did something wrong, you could end up with a whole roll of nothing ! Shooting with digital is much more comforting. You can see what you’re up to as you go along. Shooting with film is for daredevils. Shooting with digital is for scared-y cats.

I got back my developed roll of black and white film yesterday, and the images were pretty good — considering that I was shooting blind. The images were sharper than many of my digital prints, and the black and white gave a certain melancholic tone to the images.

In fact, one shot I took in December through two panes of dirty glass looked like something from the 1940’s. I photographed the remnants of a light snow that had coated my backyard picnic table and trees and bushes with a kind of dreary melancholy.

The scene felt like something I had seen in an old book I have about the Russian-Soviet writer Boris Pasternak, the author of “Dr. Zhivago.” I’ve had the book since the early-1960’s, when I was deep into my Russian ’period.’ The black and white photo of my backyard reminded me of a black and white photo in the book that showed Pasternak walking in the backyard of his dacha in Peredelkino.

So I dug out the book, found the photo, and placed my photo next to it. I then closed the book and put it back on the shelf. And there it will remain until my death, when the book will either be thrown away or given-and-rejected by a used bookstore or thrown in a dump on the edge of the city limits.

And no one but me will know that my photo is in there, why it’s in there, and that it was taken by my old Olympus Stylus film camera long after digital cameras had taken over the photography universe.

No one but me. And now you.

I and my photo and my book will disappear into the ether, the way Pasternak’s creation of Yuri Zhivago’s long-lost daughter disappeared into the anonymous mass of an uncharted destiny.