Thursday, October 8, 2009

AutoTuning Carl Sagan

I remember as a child watching Cosmos on PBS. The show, written and hosted by Carl Sagan, was one of the very few television shows my parents would let me watch. Cosmos also had the honor of being one of only three TV shows I could always watch if I asked to, a distinction shared with the Muppet Show and 60 min. (Well, on occasion there was MASH)

But Cosmos did not affect me very deeply at the time.

Ultimately however, Carl Sagan was to have a huge impact on the direction my life was to take.

I remember quite clearly the day I was rummaging through the garbage at a swap meet in Tuscon Arizona, and I came across a book. This day was back in 1986, and I was a young teenager living in a converted school bus with my family.
Long past were the days of my aborted formal education, replaced by lessons of life in making a living selling items at swap meets, scrounging for food in dumpsters, and in some cases learning how to swindle people of their cash for some crappy trinket we were selling.

Any education I received that was not directly related to survival I obtained via the books and magazines discarded by others. This day, my prize was a hardbound copy of Carl Sagan's Contact.
The book was missing its dust cover, but was otherwise in great shape... what a find! Carl Sagan, the guy from TV! Knowing that as soon as my parents saw the book, they would force me to give it up to be sold, I hid the book as best as I could under my grubby shirt and smuggled it past their watchful eyes.

Over the next week I stole off every chance I could to read the book. 15 minutes here, 20 there I would wander off to read, and was pulled deeper into the story of Ellie Arroway's discovery and decoding of an alien signal. Her work as a scientist grabbed my imagination. In one scene I was charmed that she made her own jewelry from synthetic ruby she grew for her detectors, something I resolved to do someday. (Mine turned out to be synthetic opal!)  Her explorations of Pi sparked in me a great interest in mathematics, which later I pursued via more discarded books.

Some have said the writing was pedantic, turgid etc. But for me it set the course of my life. I resolved to become a scientist.

One day my parents found the book while I was out getting water for our dishes. They put the book for sale and immediately a customer bought it for $2.00.  I was walking back to the bus carrying two 5 gallon water jugs full of water, and from a distance of over 100 feet I recognized the book as it exchanged hands! The water jugs went crashing to the earth as I dashed towards my parents and the customer.

I went straight up to the customer and forthrightly pleaded for him to return the book. When he hesitated I offered to give back the money plus the $2.50 I had saved and stashed.
My parents were, in their embarrassment, pulling me by the arm to leave the guy alone, but I would not budge. The kind gentleman relinquished the book, saying that one who wanted a book that badly should keep it, and I gave him the refund from my own money.
My battle was only started as I had to beg and plead that my parents let me keep the book, to at least be able to finish it.

The outcome? Well... I still own that very same book, which has a prominent place in my large science fiction collection!

I never had the chance to meet Carl Sagan. He was younger than my Grandmother, whom to me was a picture of health! I thought there would be time. Alas time ran out for Carl, who passed away in 1996.

I cried.

Yesterday I came across this YouTube video where Carl was Auto-Tuned to original music.
Chills went up my spine, and I remembered.

For your enjoyment: