June 9, 2020
Well, there are many things that I’ve seen in nature that I feel are wondrous. I don’t know if there’s any one I could pick out. Although coming to mind right away is the Milky Way. I haven’t seen a blank dark sky of the Milky Way in about 30 or 40 years, but I remember being out in the badlands of South Dakota at night, and it was just phenomenal to see those stars. I mean, it’s like, it almost lights up the earth. There are so many stars up there.
Another thing that I really love is a field of poppies in France or in Italy. Just sort of floating in the air over top of the grass. I find it really beautiful. Well, I’ve seen it in France, and I’ve seen it in Italy. France, I’ve seen it every time I’ve gone from the 90s on up to last year. And it’s getting out on the countryside usually, and they’ll just be fields of grass with these bright red poppies floating above them and the wind blowing them, and to me it’s just magical. It’s really beautiful. And of course it also makes me think of the fields of Flanders, I guess, which is why the VFW passes out the poppies every year around Armistice Day in November. Yeah, there’s something… It’s just magical. It takes me away from everything. It makes living worthwhile to see something like that.
And the same is true with Milky Way. I mean, I’ve always liked stars and space to begin with, but to actually see the Milky Way in a really clear, unpolluted sky is just a marvel. I don’t think so many people see that anymore. I haven’t seen it in decades. It is just so beautiful, so transforming basically, it’s like, I feel warm and fuzzy about the universe. When I say it, it’s like I really belong, like this planet really belongs in that multitude of stars.
It’s sad when you think about it, it’s just so sad when you look at the night sky here. I mean, I live outside of New York. I live up in Hastings, not that far away, but the Westchester Amateur Astronomy club actually uses a place down here for some of their viewings, so it’s relatively un-light polluted for this area. But on a good night, you might see, I don’t know, 50 or 60 stars. I mean, it’s just, it’s nothing. It’s a very pale comparison to the real thing. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but it’s just really awesome. I saw it in the badlands of South Dakota So that was, you know, middle of a national park and there’s no light pollution whatsoever. And it’s just, I mean, you could just lay on your back and watch it all night long. It just moves slowly across the sky.
I was taking a vacation out west with a friend of mine. That was back in the 80s, early 80s. There was a campground in there, so we were camping. There a buffalo and all that kinds of stuff too, which are awesome. But the the night sky was just… Yeah, I really want to go see it again and I haven’t done it in such a long time. You have to go pretty far from here to find a night sky like that anymore. You really have to go out to the west or go to someplace exotic, like I don’t know the top of Mount Haleakala in Hawaii or something. I’m not sure if that’d be a good spot or not.
But, well, that’s another awesome thing that I think about was Mount Haleakala, which is the remnants of the volcano that formed Maui, and it is considered one of the quietest places in the world I just recently read. And it’s desert, basically. There’s a flower that grows near called a silver sword, which is the only place in the world that it grows and it’s about four or five feet high and only blooms one day, and then it dies back. Lots of people go up to Haleakala to watch the sunrise over Hawaii. So that was also pretty special, pretty spectacular.
Well, it used to be, I would tag along with my wife, who worked for IBM Research and she would have conferences. So the trip to Hawaii was one of her conferences. The trip to the Badlands that was just with a friend of mine, back in the 80s. And I’ve gone to France, to Europe, a number of times on vacations.
Oh, there’s another wonderful place which is the deserts of Saudi Arabia. We went to Riyadh. My wife gave a presentation there and I went along as the “companion.” We were there for maybe 10 days. And of course, it never rained. It only only rains less than an inch per year in Riyadh. We never saw the sun, and we never saw the sun because it was the change of the seasons. It was going from summer into fall. So after being 100 degrees and more every day for like three months. It was now in the mid to high 90s. And when that happens, there, there are sandstorms that occur. So the sand just stays suspended in the sky and you don’t see the sun. I mean, it gets bright and everything, but she just never see the sun. And to me, that was awesome was like the closest thing I’ve ever been to another world. I mean, in some ways, to me, it’s sort of like what Mars was to the old science fiction writers – desert and a strange alien environment. It was really wonderful actually, I would I would certainly go back again.
At the time I went, they didn’t allow tourism into Saudi Arabia and they still don’t as far as I know, but they’re thinking about opening it up. But most of the people there, a lot of people there, spoke English. And in fact, their currency, one side was in Arabic, and the other side was in English. And everywhere you went, they liked Americans for some reason. We ran into this couple at the airport as we were getting off. She was teaching English as a second language at a university there. She was from Utah, and she was telling us the hierarchy. So it’s the Saudi royal family and then it’s Americans. And then it’s the rest of the Saudis and surprisingly enough at the bottom of the list were the Canadians, because the Canadians had done something to the Saudis, at some point, I don’t remember what it was. But I was surprised that they were that enthusiastic about Americans. And as we were walking around a couple of times we had people just come up and approach us and they asked us, you know, “Hi! You know, I’ve been to Florida! I know you’re from the United States!” They were very friendly.
And it was also so alien to see women wearing the hijab, the head thing and the robes. And also the men in their thobes, which were white robes. You would just see some of the women with just slits in their eyes and others who their whole face would be showing. My wife was supposed to wear, I wish I could remember the name of it, but every time we went out she had to wear this robe and she had to cover hair. And I was sort of waiting for the religious police to come by and say something to her because she didn’t cover it all that well. And we had heard from other people that they will approach you and tell you to cover your hair up, but I think they do that more with the Saudis themselves. And that was Americans.
But I can remember being out on the outskirts of town at this university, it’s the largest female university in the world. They built 625 buildings, I think it was in 18 months. It was right on the outskirts of Riyadh, right across the road was a desert. And you can see for miles across the desert, and it’s a hard desert. It’s not a sandy desert. It’s like hard material, it’s hard sand, which I had never seen before. I didn’t know that desert could be like that. When they built things, you know, you can see them excavating in that hard sand and you can see the pits below. They were building an entire New Financial Center must have been 20 buildings or so, there wasn’t a single one that was a straight rectangle. They were twisted. They had openings in them. They were all very odd looking architecturally and I don’t know how they’re going to get enough people to fill up those office buildings but It’s the way they do things there. They were also building their first subway system, which we’re going to complete in five years and it has opened now. And now, women are allowed to ride the subway, without their male escort. Which I think is also very interesting and when we were there, women were just being seriously considered for driving. The experts we met from Southern Africa were telling us that the worst drivers in the world are the Saudis. They had taken us out for a picnic in the desert at night and they brought along homemade wine. As it turns out the largest importer of grape juice in the world is Saudi Arabia. Because all the expats, which is one third of the population, take that grape juice and turn it into homemade wine. But if you’re caught with that stuff, as a 75 year old British citizen was when we were there, they were debating whether to give him 100 lashes or not for being caught with this wine. Now a 75 year old, I don’t think would have survived a hundred lashes. And so that was part of the debate, but drinking, there was no drinking, of course, no movie theaters, no dancing. But there were lots of malls and people went to malls for their entertainment.
It’s a fascinating place. We also went to The old Saudi royal home, which was being renovated then, right next to the mosque, where they have a very severe form of of religion there of Islam. And there was a pact made between the guy who started that and the Saudi royal family back in the 1800s. I think it’s called Wahhabism, that’s right. So the Wahhabists have free reign in Saudi Arabia and even the royal family has to kowtow to them. They can’t do everything they want to do without getting the religious leaders to agree with it. Which holds back some of the innovation that they might want to do.