Wednesday, July 23, 2014
My first concern when I heard this was coming out, and was being produced by Seth MacFarlane, was that it was going to be one of those ensemble cast science shows, with lots of walk-ons and cross talk, like some 1980s kids science show. My concern was that it was going to be Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane, and Ann Druyan wandering on in front of blue screen overlays of galaxies and binary star systems doing hand-offs like “Isn’t that right, Seth?” “That’s right, Neil. And you know, the most interesting thing about…” I was also concerned that Seth would be inclined to add a spoonful of sugar in the form of light-hearted comedic elements here and there. I’m glad they exceeded my expectations in that.
I’m glad Neil deGrasse Tyson took this on. He feels like the natural person to assume the mantle of Cosmos from Carl Sagan. He has the same vision, but he’s not just an ersatz stand-in. Tyson strikes me as a little more down-to-Earth than Sagan… a mixed blessing, which I’ll return to.
One place where I think they scored over the original was in Tyson making a number of explicit charges at various enemies of science. Sagan hedged on that a lot in the original series; he largely combined his criticisms to ancient examples in Ionian Greece and the late Roman Empire. Of course, the need to combat such people was far less necessary in the 1980s than it is now. The astonishing rise in the US and elsewhere of willful, even proud ignorance and denial of the evidence of the world around us in favour of pre-scientific explanations for things needs to be addressed, especially in an age of climate change and rapidly exponentiating convergent technologies.
There were things for me that didn’t quite hit the mark. I was hoping for an update of the threads of the original series. When the series started in the same iconic location as its predecessor, I was sure we were in there for that. And here and there, we were given that. But not as much as I’d hoped. I really wanted every episode to have an explicit “here’s what we’ve learned about this since Carl Sagan said that…” That would have given the audience, especially kids, a strong impression of the power of science and the kind of progress it’s made; making them consciously aware of the effort and the change, rather than just swimming blindly in a sea of it like fish. I didn’t see all that much of that. For example, there was a moment in the original series when a bunch of kids the same age as I was at the time were told by Cagan in his own childhood classroom that they would know in their lifetimes if there were planets orbiting other stars; something we suspected was the case but did not know for sure back in 1980. By the 1990s, we did know. I would have liked to have seen them recap that segment and then have Tyson talk about what he learned in the meantime and how those first few planets were in fact found. Things like that would have been a moving tie back to the original show and a powerful example of the progress of science from hypothesis through experimentation to knowledge.
There also wasn’t a lot of what really made the first Cosmos epic for me… that every so often, Sagan would say something so profound that it literally changed the world for me. When he revealed that most atoms heavier than hydrogen and helium have to be fused inside stars, and anything heavier than iron has to be forged in the moments of a supernova that casts them all back out into the galaxy, and that we are all therefore literally “star-stuff”, I was flabbergasted as a child. I still am. To realize the atoms in your body, and therefore you yourself, have an ancient pedigree far beyond your own momentary existence, was hugely profound, and both humbling and elevating at the same time. Likewise, when he characterized the rise of intelligence from otherwise inanimate matter as “we are a way for the universe to know itself”, I’ve never looked at myself, other humans, or even other conscious animals the same. These were huge, awesome moments in the original series that crashed on my mind like tidal waves and rearranged everything they touched. I kept waiting for something like that in the new series, but I was never touched in the same way. Something like the same points were made, and might have had the same impact on new viewers who never saw the original Cosmos, but I was hoping the new series would have one or two new mindblowers like that.
Another aspect that troubled me a little was that the emphasis seemed much, much more heavily set on the heroes of science. It came across like an Omnis Sanctus, and I thought they spent far too much time on such material. Don’t get me wrong; I do think it’s important to celebrate the people who made the modern world possible and talk about how such otherwise ordinary people can affect great change. It’s inspiring and empowering. But the original series managed it with a much lighter touch. Sagan spent maybe five minutes talking about how Anaximander worked out the circumference of the Earth thousands of years ago using just sticks, feet, and insight. Occasionally the original show spent time in re-enactments, such as a roughly ten-minute-long segment about Kepler’s tribulations and bravery in abandoning a much-cherished hypothesis when it failed to concord with observations. But never did an episode of the original series indulge itself in an episode-length animated retelling of a moment from scientific history. Such moments are important, but the first series managed them more deftly and succinctly. I believe they had more impact as a result, and they also provide much, much more time for examinations of how and why those moments turned out to be important to our lives. The new series seemed to take it for granted that we would know, and I think that was an oversight. There was a lot more wonder in the original series; time and room for speculation and possibilities; I say this as someone who has repeatedly re-watched it as an adult and know it wasn’t just because I was a child the first time I saw it. The feel of the new series, with its heavy focus on the personalities of science, was ironically rather earthbound, and seemed increasingly so as the series progressed.
Of course, I’m simply airing the small issues I personally have with the series. On the whole, it was truly excellent and a timely and powerful entry and worthy continuation of an institution from a generation ago.
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Last night I had one of the strangest, yet most convincing and compelling dreams, I’ve had in years.
I was in a pleasant mall somewhere in southeast Asia. It was one of those malls that ambles and has short sets of stairs and the way meanders instead of taking you in a some orbit around the centre. I came to this one set of stairs with a car on it. The car was badly accordioned in the front, as if it had hit the stairs at high speed. The front end was pretty much just rust, as if it had been there for decades. The right side of it was pressed up against a flowered abutment. People just went around it. Then I noticed there was a skeleton inside it. I noticed another car further ahead. This one had a family of skeletons in it.
Someone started talking about the whole thing and it turned out there’d been some kind of disaster. The man said “if only they’d driven faster, they wouldn’t have been inundated”. I took that to mean the place had flooded. The cars, the bodies… they’d just been left there. If there were more victims visible, I don’t remember, but I suppose there must have been.
Then it turned out it had actually been a poison gas attack. Four NATO fighters had attacked the mall with missiles… one of them was Canadian. The missiles were small spheres, softball-sized grenades of some sort. In the dream, I saw a the planes fly up to me, launch the missiles… my viewed followed them down into the mall, where they swept up to three women in combat fatigues. The middle one reminded me of Sigourney Weaver. She caught one of the balls with a smug, derisive look, but quickly realized she was choking. They all began to run, but they couldn’t get away. Then I saw panicked people driving their cars in the mall itself, trying to get away, smashing into the stairs, dying.
At the end of the dream, crews began clearing the cars and skeletons away. It was as though my notice and my interest had shamed them into finally acting to do due diligence. I remember being a little miffed because I wanted to look them over more… shameless rubbernecking. That was pretty much it. Strange dream, but it felt surprisingly real at the time.
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Driving to and from work the last couple of days, I’ve been listening to presentations on the US Civil War by Yale professor David Blight. It got me thinking again about one of the odd, glaring omissions in the Schoolhouse Rock series in the early 70s on the lead-up to the US Bicentennial… no mention of the Civil War or the principles at stake in it.
I’m sure it must have come up across the table when they were deciding what aspects of US history to emphasize. Obviously they steered clear of this rather definitive moment. The reason was undoubtedly that it was controversial. But there’s a tinge of hypocrisy there. They had no problem demonizing and even dehumanizing the British in at least three of the presentations. But white slave owners who, by then, had been dead for at least two generations, were beyond reproach? The only reason could be that there were still people in the US in the 1970s who identified with those people and wouldn’t have taken kindly to any treatment of the subject that laid out the facts. Yes. Controversial. But I think they missed a real opportunity to elevate the tone beyond just “rah rah USA” and let kids know that sometimes threats to principles are to be found at home, as well as abroad. But the courage to imply that some Americans fought for the wrong things was lacking.
Leave the war out of it, even, if you must. What about simply the glorious idea of emancipation? For me, that’s a more important event in US history than simply breaking the bonds with Britain and accelerating democratic principles that were already in the works in the English-speaking world for centuries. No need to stress that some people were wrong, some to blame… they could have just pitched it as the people finally coming together and doing what was right. The song, the animation… I can imagine it set at the Lincoln Memorial, with kids gazing up in admiration, with cutaways to black people working hard in the field, and then being set free, and building their homes and hoisting Old Glory. Solemn, respectiful, inspiring. What would have been so bad about that?
I think even that, though, would have been touchy. This was an era where civil rights struggles were just finally beginning to cool down, but people were getting upset about things like busing (which happened even here in Canada; I myself was destined to eventually be bused to a different high school, but for a move to a different province before I was old enough). So I suppose in the end, the early 1970s—a hundred years after the Civil War—was still not enough time for the wounds to heal and for a presentation of those ideas to be something uniting instead of divisive.
Something else that’s come to up in Professor Blight’s dissertations is that some people still think the US Civil War could have, should have, been avoided; that if abolitionists in the North hadn’t been so pushy, slavery would have died of its own accord. This, in spite of that fact that it persisted till nearly the turn of the century in places like Brazil… and that’s with the example of the Civil War to inform and shame them. But I’m not convinced gradualism would have eliminated slavery in the US, and we have an example that contraindicates the idea. Eli Whitney produced the cotton gin in 1793. In the twenty years prior to that, the US imported 56,000 slaves from Africa. In the twenty years after the introduction of the cotton gin, the US imported 203,000 slaves from Africa… and this is at a time when most of the northern states were slavery. The slave population in the US went from just under 700,000 in the 1790 census to nearly 4 million by the 1860 census. The implications are clear: slavery’s fortunes were revived by the cotton gin, which made cotton—for a time the most important single product of the United States—both more profitable and easier to produce en masse.
Now, with that example, ask yourself what the fortunes of slavery would have been if it had still existed when, in the late 19th century, the principle of the legal personhood of corporations became accepted and entrenched. What kind of world would we be living in today if corporations in much of the US—and perhaps elsewhere—could have availed themselves of an unpaid work force? And one that could not strike, refuse to work in unsafe conditions, and could be traded and sold like equipment; unborn children auctioned off to pay the bills. In a world free of slavery (ostensibly), we still have Third World child labour and starvation wages. Is it really believable that slavery would have gradually disappeared if corporations could have gotten hold of it in the 1880s? That the US Civil War had to be fought is unfortunate… such bloodshed was avoided elsewhere in the struggle for abolition… but in having to be fought, it’s clear that it came at the last possible moment. We should be grateful we are the inheritors of that world, and not of the alternative. I’m not a religious person, but the US Civil War brings me close to seeing the hand of God at work in the world.
Monday, June 09, 2014
I've had a weight problem most of my life. I think I was about seven when kids started teasing me about it. The check on it was that till I was 11 or 12, I had someone looking after me after school. Once I started coming home and looking after myself and having full access to peanut butter jar and the cookies and stuff, the restraints came off and my weight really took off. Not to labour the point, but by the time I was in my early 30s, at one point I tipped the scale at just over 300 lbs.
One of my friends, a fellow who stood about 6'3, was just shy of 400 lbs. He got into a men's weight loss program and was getting good results simply eating sensibly. I joined, though it was crazy expensive (over a thousand dollars a year), and put my shoulder to the wheel. In the space of about 11 months I went from 285 to 182. That was my low water mark. My friend went from 396 to 190-something literally less than half his original weight.
I did pretty well maintaining for a couple of years but the old habits die hard, and as time went by, my weight crept up again. I've tried putting the brakes on several times over the past 12 years or so but the truth is, it's been unrelenting, and in the wake of Twinkle's death, it's really been considerable. I have no idea what my actual weight is at the moment but I'm pretty sure it's approaching what it was when I got serious back then. Of course, I'm considerably older now, well into middle age, and a lot of the assumptions about what my youth will absolve me of don't really apply.
There are some strategic problems, based around my life and lifestyle. I live alone. I don't have anyone pushing me. That said, I don't have anyone bringing anything I shouldn't have into my place but me. My problem isn't so much what I eat at home. I have a pretty good control over that. Most of the time. The problem is that when I finally get together with my friends, I just want to forget everything else and have a good time. Laugh, converse, listen to music, complain about sports teams we don't really follow. Generally that means sinking into a pub two or three times a week, having umpteen pints of beer and chicken wings and congratulating myself that I ducked the fries. I need it; I need to see the guys. But it's expensive, and it's doing me harm. I haven't been comfortable in anything I wear for a couple of years, and I'm back to feeling fainting embarrassed whenever I'm in public. I want to change that. But I've wanted to change that for years. The trick will be find a way to make it stick.
In mulling it over recently what was different the time it worked from every other time I think one of the things that contributed to my success back then was that I was going through it with friends… other guys going through the same thing. You know you have to show up. And you know if you're going to show up, you better have results. I think that's what made it easier to stay the course. Now, it's true that in the best of all possible worlds that I should be able to do this for myself, without needing that crutch. That it should be a matter of finding the will power; resources from within. But the reality is that that just doesn't seem to work for me. Making it social did. The problem is that when that support is gone, the weight goes up again. So it's kind of a spiral. I can't really see my way out of it.
Nevertheless I want to try again. I'm gearing up for another go at it. I'm trying to see if I can talk Larry into turning our Thursday evening 'eat, drink, and be merry' thing into going to Weight Watchers. He's not that overweight but he does complain about it, works out, etc., but never seems to shake it off either. My thinking is that if we can do it together for a while, by the time he's lost what little he has to lose, I'll have lost enough that I have momentum and the success will be reinforcing. That's kind of how it worked before. Sort of a push on the swing till pumping my legs will be enough, if you see what I mean. I don't think he'll go for it, but he might surprise me.
Anyway, it's time for another charge at the breech… if not a tilt at the windmill.