Monthly Archives: October 2010

“The Story of Stuff”: rethinking the materials economy

This week, the scientist-philosopher bloggers on 13.7: Cosmos and Culture are exploring ways of rethinking and reimagining our materialistic, consumer-based society. Following that conversation brought me to Ursula Goodenough’s insightful evolutionary perspective on our self-absorbed human culture — “If there has been an overarching human error, it has been to construct cultural contexts that fail to mesh with planetary realities” — which led me to her earlier “homily on stuff,” which in turn pointed me to this video, “The Story of Stuff,” by Annie Leonard. I’d seen it before, but it’s one that bears frequent rewatching — to remind ourselves of how we live, of how we could live, and of the difference between the two.

There’s lots in here to think about — not just the process by which we turn the Earth’s resources into skinny jeans and iPads, but the role of government and corporations, and the vital necessity of rethinking the very nature of the economy itself: the kinds of jobs and identities we should wish to have in order to exist in a sustainable web, one that both respects the Earth and fulfills our need for meaningful ways of living. Not an easy task, in these hard times (and in this toxic American political season), to ask ourselves if the economy we depend on is even a good thing, when so many people are struggling and just want the damn thing up and running again.

More information, including videos on specific issues, can be found on the website of The Story of Stuff Project. It’s a great introduction to how the materials economy works, and how we can make it better.


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A new look

I thought I’d experiment with some different themes and layouts; the old theme was starting to feel a little cramped and cluttered to me. The site’s appearance may change at times over the next few days. If you’re a regular or occasional visitor, I apologize for any confusion.

I hope to settle on a look that’s simple, easy on the eyes, and easily navigable. Your comments are welcome, of course.


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Parchment, pens, and pigments: videos from the NYPL’s “Three Faiths” exhibition

If, like me, you geek out over calligraphy, manuscript illumination, parchment-making, and other aspects of the scribe’s craft, these videos — from the New York Public Library’s new exhibition, “Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam” — are a must-see:

More videos on specific manuscripts — the Scroll of Esther, the Tales of the Prophets, the Harkness Gospels, and others — can be viewed here.

From the exhibition’s website:

Three Faiths includes 200 rare and precious works created over the past 1,500 years. Among them, great works of the miniaturist’s art and of calligraphy, drawn from all three faiths, delight the eye, as they have done since their creation centuries ago. Manuscript materials are accompanied by some of the most significant printed works of the past 550 years. The scrolls, codices, illuminated manuscripts, and printed volumes are complemented selectively by important bindings, early photographs, prints, maps, and liturgical or ritual objects dating from the fifth century of the Common Era (CE) to the present.

I’m so there. Being an atheist in no way diminishes my appreciation for the craftsmanship, the artistry, the painstaking attention to detail, and the sheer devotion that went into the making of these astonishing works — and that continue to inform the work of modern scribes today.

“Three Faiths” is on view through February 2011. I may post some further thoughts once I’ve seen it; stay tuned.

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Quarks to quasars: the scale of the universe

This is very cool. Click on the image (or on this link) to activate Cary and Michael Huang’s interactive program, which lets you zoom in and out to see the relative sizes of everything in the cosmos — from neutrinos and preons (and smaller) to the Local Galactic Supercluster and the size of the observable universe itself. And for kicks, check out the three alternate versions provided: “Wrong,” “Swirly,” and “Portuguese.”

Update 2/12/2012: See a new version here.

Demonstrations of the scale of the universe always fascinate me. I’ve highlighted some of my favorite zoom-out videos here, but it’s also possible to grasp the relative sizes and distances of things without the aid of fancy camera moves and CGI effects. How? Read on


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Why libraries matter, cont’d

Because without librarians, public radio would suck.

Left to his own devices, NPR host Scott Simon admits he would regularly confuse Monet, Manet and Matisse; Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal; Socrates and Sophocles; Crete and Sicily; and Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft.

Thank goodness for librarian Kee Malesky — who, for 20 years, has been saving NPR’s hosts and reporters from themselves. Malesky is the organization’s longest-serving librarian, and Simon says he suspects that she is actually the source of all human knowledge.

In her new book, All Facts Considered; An Essential Library Of Inessential Knowledge, Malesky catalogs some of the facts that she has researched so dutifully over the years.

Listen to the interview, and read excerpts from the book, here.

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“The Poetry of Science”: Richard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about everything

Got an hour and a half? Here are evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, talking about — well, quite literally, life, the universe, and everything. I highly recommend the whole thing, but if you’ve only got a half-hour, the Q&A period (starting at around 50:25) has some thought-provoking discussions about the role of philosophy in science; the imperviousness of certain rigidly religious minds to evidence; the decline of America’s prominence in science; the notion of people as extremophiles; Tyson’s views on mortality; and the best manuscript typo ever.

Settle in. Enjoy.


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“The 600 Years”: A medieval clock tower comes to life

This is absolutely wonderful:

So many levels to this. Art has been an integral part of architecture since architecture began, of course; buildings have always served not just functional needs but aesthetic ones, expressing the myths, stories, and philosophies of the builders. But the advent of “urban projection mapping” takes the notion of “architecture as art” to a stunning new level (or at least it can, when wedded to an intelligent artistic sensibility rather than just crass advertising).

This projection — celebrating the 600th anniversary of the Astronomical* Clock in Prague’s Old Town Square — is easily the most impressive I’ve seen. The tower itself is already a masterpiece, boasting a mechanical clock and medieval astrolabe, a zodiacal ring, a calendar dial, and an hourly display of moving clockwork figures, among other embellishments; the history it’s witnessed is already inscribed into its features, if the eye knows where to look and how to interpret what it sees. But the dynamic images superimposed on the tower’s structure bring that history to life: they unlock it from static, solid forms, using the tower as a canvas to comment on the tower itself. They take the viewer from the tower’s construction in 1410, through upheavals in astronomy, religion, war, and politics, to the dawning of the space age: the tower itself fittingly transformed into a rocket headed for the stars, whose movements it was meant to chronicle in the first place.

This visual feast was engineered by The Macula (an artist? a collective?), whose website explains the philosophy behind the project (crudely rendered from the Czech by Google Translator):

Video mapping using current technology available in the entertainment industry, a whole new way. The main contents are the projections to cooperate with the selected object and try to break the perception perspective of the viewer. With the projector can fold and stress any shape, line or space. Evocative play of light on the physical object creates a new dimension and changing the view of the seemingly “normal thing”.

Everything becomes an illusion.

The closest thing to this that I’ve seen in person is the enormous video wall of the Comcast Center in Philadelphia (though that’s actually a 10-million-pixel LED screen rather than a projection), but as entertaining as that is, it doesn’t approach the levels of sublime that the Prague video does. In any case, it’s exciting to see these artistic efforts to play with architecture — to quite literally cast buildings in a new light — and to find new ways to interact with the real objects around us.

*The video calls it the “astrological” clock, but it’s “astronomical” according to Wikipedia and various Prague tourism websites. I’ll stick to the scientific rather than the pseudoscientific term.


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