There Is No Cat

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Sunday, February 2, 2003

Telling stories

Last night, I sat down and watched my favorite movie about space, a little film from Australia called The Dish. If you're not familiar with it, it's about the contribution a radio-telescope at a tiny town in the Australian outback made to the Apollo 11 mission by receiving the television pictures of Man's first steps on the moon, and the obstacles they had to overcome to do so. It's a very sweet picture, and seems to me to capture the innocence and awe of that time very well, when the entire world fell in love with space exploration. I watch it and I remember what it felt like to be almost six years old and spellbound. That's a very impressionable age. I know it had a huge impact on me.

There's one scene toward the end where they use footage from around the world, showing people watching the landing, whether in Russia, the Vatican, China, India, everywhere. My family went over to my grandparents' house the evening of the moon walk, because they had a bigger television than we did, and theirs was color while we only had a black-and-white TV. At least that's what we said; I think the real reason was because we wanted to share the story. After all, the pictures from the moon were in black-and-white. The movie mentions that 600 million people watched those grainy pictures from space. Kalpana Chawla would have been about eight years old, growing up in a small town in India. I like to think she shared the story too.

Willi McCool, the pilot of STS107, would also have been about eight years old at the time of Apollo 11. I presume he was as enthralled and inspired by that as the rest of us, maybe more so. I found out on a mailing list I belong to that McCool was a friend of a friend. Two degrees of separation from the skies above Texas.

I still pay attention to space. I can't pick out too many constellations, but Orion always seems to jump out at me every time I look up at the sky. Best known as the hunter, Orion was also known as a bard, travelling the Greek islands telling stories. In my shortwave radio hobby, it's important to pay attention to space. The "weather" on the sun has a direct impact on the upper reaches of Earth's atmosphere, where the solar radiation ionizes the plasma and causes radio signals to reflect back down to Earth. Looking at the space weather tells me what kind of reception I'm likely to get when I sit down at the radio.

Doc Searls mentions that his six year old son was glued to the radio all day for news of the tragedy, which surprised even an old radio guy like him. It doesn't surprise me, though. My friend Kim Elliott of the Voice of America is fond of describing radio as "the most intimate medium". There's something about the disembodied voice unencumbered by distractions such as images. It reaches back to something primeval in us, the days when we would tell stories around a fire, maybe after the fire had burnt down to embers and you couldn't see much beyond your own hand. Radio is one of the best media for storytelling. When something tragic like this happens, it's stories that help us make sense of it.

Posted at 9:31 AM


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This site is copyright © 2002-2024, Ralph Brandi.

What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio

There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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