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With Respect To

It’s July 1st, so I’ve been back in the Midwest for, what, three months? A quarter of a year.

After fits and starts, travel and more travel and D gone for half of each month, we are beginning to own our home, home-ownership and the giant yard that always needs tending.  While D mows, I trim the plethora of plants we inherited and attack the weeds which threaten to take over after every rain.  While he puts food on the grill, I sort through the piles of mail addressed to Our New Neighbor or Bamani Venkat (my new name, which I am sure is a result of the following thought process over at Ohio Snail Mail Spam Central: “Maitri Venkat-R … what? Aaaah, new name! *FREAKOUT* Damned furners. *FREAKOUT* I don’t know what to do! Let’s just put it down as Bamani Venkat. Next!”  I am told not to complain as this is a great way to cull the junk mail.)

I had forgotten how beautiful the midwestern countryside is.  From atop a western hill, we often lose hours staring at the fields between our house and the county to the south, and the sun setting behind a limestone cliff.  Or a wild turkey or ten and deer that invariably spring forth from the same spot in the woods to the southwest. D watches them without a single movement, like an Ent or a patient predator, while the city girl in me moves and tries to get as close as possible without scaring off the critters.  I scare off the critters.  Apparently, they have great eyesight and like neither bright colors nor sudden movements.

Summertime, and the sun takes forever to wane in these northern latitudes.  At 10pm last night, patches of fuchsia and imperial violet sky peeked out from breaks in the trees and rocks.  Breathtaking.  And that’s when the fireflies and stars come out.  As the sun sets, they rise higher and higher, until you cannot tell where the fireflies in the tall trees end and the stars in the sky begin.  The stars.  Oh, the stars.  You can see every last one of them lying in the soft grass.  The Big Dipper, Draco, Cassiopeia, the rest of the northern sky, they’re all there.  I asked D if this is what it was like for him growing up in the Wisconsin back 40.  He nodded.  Wow.  I grew up in the Kuwaiti desert, where few ventured out at night and the twinkling red lights over the city’s skyscrapers were all the stars you needed.  Besides, living in the midst of the merciless urbanization of a coastal desert environment, the only animals we got to see were jack, squat and the occasional feral cat rummaging through the garbage.  Now you know why I want to say “Yeah, and one day we put dear old Humpy down and ate him with buns and ketchup” each time someone asks me whether I grew up with a camel in my backyard.

Might I have been a different person raised in a country house surrounded by trees, fresh air and animals?  Who knows?  Was I envious of kids raised here?  Possibly.  I remember midwestern farm kids, though, who wanted to trade places with me, bored of shucking corn, scrubbing the horses and other endless chores.  I may not consider a city, be it Kuwait City or New York City, an ideal place to raise a kid, but people live every which way and that is how it is, equally legitimate.  The way to go then is to enjoy our geographic variety as a species and live alongside, with respect to.  When I once asked my Barcelona-dwelling friend Annie if she would ever move back to northern Wisconsin, she replied, “It’s not a great place to be, but a wonderful place to be from.”

Notice that this whole time I’ve talked merely of the outside of our house and not the responsibilities inside or at work?  The not-completely-put-away and under-furnitured inside being a sore subject and all, let’s move onto work.  Or how much it isn’t like work when I’m playing with methods to place, render and store 3d, georeferenced cities on the 3d, georeferenced earth.  Having lived two to three miles below the surface of the earth for the last fifteen or so years, it is literally blinding to consider objects at the surface.  What?  No overburden?  No imaging issues?  And you don’t plunge yourself into cold water repeatedly while clothed in order to prepare for an offshore trip? That’s where the differences end and the similarities begin, and why I dig working up here now.  Once you begin to view subsurface and surficial features as computational entities, you realize three things:  a) a mesh is a mesh is a mesh: throw some properties on it, introduce force, temperature, fluid removal and observe results, b) rocks are materials: most materials break and bend very similarly, and c) it’s still a matter of scale: how many internal constituents of said object, neighbors and properties do you wish to affect your calculation?  It was and continues to be a matter of figuring out the key variables and telling the customer (previously internal, now external) that the study can be as fine-grained as they want it to be, please let us know and we will allot time and costs accordingly.

Another glaring commonality among all the realms I have worked in – academia, industry, geology, geospatial engineering, computing, visualization, large corporation, smaller firm – is the lack of information flow between disciplines that ought to be working with one another, with respect to one another.  At university geology departments, we called it “stratification” (especially at Wisconsin, where disciplines are ironically organized by floors, with geophysics in the basement and hydrogeology at the very top. Oh, stop).  In the oil industry, we referred to it as “compartmentalization.”  Now, in the realm of geospatial computing, data formats and departments are “siloed” resulting in “stovepipes.”  *headdesk*  Two decades after I stumbled upon computers and geoscience, guess what the challenge still is: Interoperability!  Or lack thereof.  It follows me around like a stray dog.  And guess what people still do about it: Grumble about it loudly at conferences and nothing.


Yesterday, while looking at digital maps of Germany, friend Amanda informed me that her beau Marc Stone and she will play at a music festival this August in Innsbruck, Austria (a New Orleans sister city, as it turns out). Never before having considered any Austrian city other than Vienna, I pulled up Innsbruck on Google Maps and Google Earth to find that, if you view Austria as a chicken drumstick on its side, Vienna sits at the very tip of where you would bite in and Innsbruck is a 4.5-hour drive west, situated where you would hold said drumstick.  So much for having her visit the Habsburg palaces and throwing kisses to the spirit of Mozart for me (but she will not be too far away from Salzburg – hmmm).  Pulling up pictures of Innsbruck, I marveled at just how many streets and people fill this little European town in this little European country.  The world is full of people.  Yes, I know, my god, it’s full of stars, almost 7 billion full.  But, a billion, much less 7 billion, doesn’t hit home until you consider one person bicycling down a cobblestone street in Innsbruck, that he wakes up in the morning, has a life and dreams before him, and that he is as much human as you are.  And that you are as real, unreal, close and remote to him as he is to you. Funny then that the aim of current location-aware research is not where you are, but where you are with respect to, in reference to other people and things.  Whom and what are you going to encounter and impact, and how are they going to encounter and impact you?  That’s where your smartphone is headed, privacy implications and all.  Pay attention.

I guess moving to the Ohio country, traveling more often and working in surficial geoscience has only strengthened what I felt in the wake of Katrina and The Flood: that we strive to make ourselves interoperable within our towns, as communities, as cities, as nations, as scientists, as planners, as legislators, as teachers, as advocates, as citizens, as neighbors, as people.  That we work with each other regardless of difference, especially because of our differences; not subsuming our wants, but recognizing that other people have them, too.  That we know, really know, that we aren’t the only people on this planet, and that the views of our silo or compartment may be better or worse, but they need not take over another community or the whole planet in a fit of self-righteous rage.  That we are, but we are with respect to.  And that life throws us enough curveballs without us having to make it worse, on ourselves and each other, with our whining and scheming.

There are more posts brewing.  How can I not tell you about my interesting (but not in the same way) visits to the local social security office, Vermont and MIT campus?

2 comments… add one
  • Curiosity July 5, 2009, 7:42 AM

    We’re just now in the process of our first house, and your first paragraph made me snicker. And sigh. And then snicker some more.

    Before we got possession, the last time we saw the house was about a month previous. We came back now to find out that apparently we had confused “quaint greenery” with “Rabid All-Consuming Super Shrub”.

    I tend to get junk mail with my name spelled phonetically. Don’t know how that happened, but it’s a little disturbing…

  • Alfred July 17, 2009, 1:49 PM

    A city isn’t a great place to raise a kid. I grew up in New York and, frankly, you can’t even do much there until you’re older. Kids growing up there often miss out on fun things like camping that they won’t have time for later on.

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