Monthly Archives: April 2011

“The Pale Blue Dot,” animated

Carl Sagan’s call for a sense of cosmic perspective and human solidarity continues to resonate and inspire. Here’s a wonderful take by budding animator Adam Winnik:

Sagan’s insight highlights the exquisite irony of our position: the vastness of the cosmos makes us both extremely insignificant and, by the same reason, extremely precious. He expresses this beautifully, I think, in a less-quoted passage from the end of Cosmos:

We have held the peculiar notion that a person or society that is a little different from us, whoever we are, is somehow strange or bizarre, to be distrusted or loathed. Think of the negative connotations of words like alien or outlandish. And yet the monuments and cultures of each of our civilizations merely represent different ways of being human. An extraterrestrial visitor, looking at the differences among human beings and their societies, would find those differences trivial compared to the similarities. But the Darwinian lesson is clear: There will be no humans elsewhere. Only here. Only on this small planet. We are a rare as well as an endangered species. Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.

(via Unreasonable Faith)

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Existentialism, with lightsabers

Possibly the coolest expression of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy ever:

I love how Artoo and Threepio’s personalities are perfectly suited to existentialism’s implications: Threepio tapping into despair (“We’re doomed!” as he often says in the actual films), and Artoo cheerily pointing out what lies on the other side of that despair — i.e. the rewards of a self-created life.

It’s interesting how much modern pop culture has absorbed a central tenet of existentialist (and humanist) thought: “existence precedes essence,” the idea that, more than our origins and abilities, we define ourselves by our choices and actions. Batman’s classic line from Batman Begins, a key idea in the Harry Potter series, and the entire underlying theme of The Iron Giant are just a few recent examples. (Frank Turner has been giving it some thought as well.) Sartre and Camus would be proud.


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Best mashup ever, cont’d: “No One Takes Your Freedom”

The Beatles! Scissor Sisters! Aretha Franklin! George Michael! Beautifully blended together by DJ Earworm (via a fan-edited video on YouTube). All together now:

More “best mashups ever” here.

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“Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal, the open mind against the credulous”

In a letter to the National Convention of American Atheists, Christopher Hitchens writes what sounds, sadly and suspiciously, like a farewell:

Dear fellow-unbelievers,

Nothing would have kept me from joining you except the loss of my voice (at least my speaking voice) which in turn is due to a long argument I am currently having with the specter of death. Nobody ever wins this argument, though there are some solid points to be made while the discussion goes on. I have found, as the enemy becomes more familiar, that all the special pleading for salvation, redemption and supernatural deliverance appears even more hollow and artificial to me than it did before. I hope to help defend and pass on the lessons of this for many years to come, but for now I have found my trust better placed in two things: the skill and principle of advanced medical science, and the comradeship of innumerable friends and family, all of them immune to the false consolations of religion. It is these forces among others which will speed the day when humanity emancipates itself from the mind-forged manacles of servility and superstitition. It is our innate solidarity, and not some despotism of the sky, which is the source of our morality and our sense of decency.

That essential sense of decency is outraged every day. Our theocratic enemy is in plain view. Protean in form, it extends from the overt menace of nuclear-armed mullahs to the insidious campaigns to have stultifying pseudo-science taught in American schools. But in the past few years, there have been heartening signs of a genuine and spontaneous resistance to this sinister nonsense: a resistance which repudiates the right of bullies and tyrants to make the absurd claim that they have god on their side. To have had a small part in this resistance has been the greatest honor of my lifetime: the pattern and original of all dictatorship is the surrender of reason to absolutism and the abandonment of critical, objective inquiry. The cheap name for this lethal delusion is religion, and we must learn new ways of combating it in the public sphere, just as we have learned to free ourselves of it in private. 

Our weapons are the ironic mind against the literal: the open mind against the credulous; the courageous pursuit of truth against the fearful and abject forces who would set limits to investigation (and who stupidly claim that we already have all the truth we need). Perhaps above all, we affirm life over the cults of death and human sacrifice and are afraid, not of inevitable death, but rather of a human life that is cramped and distorted by the pathetic need to offer mindless adulation, or the dismal belief that the laws of nature respond to wailings and incantations. 

As the heirs of a secular revolution, American atheists have a special responsibility to defend and uphold the Constitution that patrols the boundary between Church and State. This, too, is an honor and a privilege. Believe me when I say that I am present with you, even if not corporeally (and only metaphorically in spirit…) Resolve to build up Mr Jefferson’s wall of separation. And don’t keep the faith.

This comes via PZ Myers’ Pharyngula, where a conversation in the comments section makes it clear that Hitchens doesn’t hold admirable positions in all areas: he cheered on the invasion of Iraq and has said some decidedly unenlightened things about women. And it’s even possible — as Kenan Malik explains in his excellent book From Fatwa to Jihad — that critics like Hitchens and Sam Harris misattribute to religion some outrages for which the blame, more properly, lies with political schemers more concerned with power than with metaphysics.

What’s clear from this is that Hitchens is not God (an idea he’d be utterly revolted by), and his own political and cultural opinions shouldn’t be exempted from the critical, objective inquiry that he champions. But the truth of a message is in no way diminished by an imperfect messenger, and Hitchens’ forceful defense of reason, humanism, and Enlightenment values is still very badly needed today. His eloquence, his sardonic wit, his fearless questioning, and his restless, uncompromising intellect will be very sorely missed.

It appears that his close friend the novelist Martin Amis has also written an advanced eulogy of sorts, one worth reading in full.

Anyway, we do know what is going to happen to you, and to everyone else who will ever live on this planet. Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly.

(Photo by Christian Witkin)

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Mountain, sandstorm, stars

Photographer Terje Sørgjerd has put together a magnificent time-lapse video, filmed on the slopes of Mount Teide in the Canary Islands. Be sure to view this full-screen:

At about 30 seconds in, a sandstorm from the Sahara Desert hits:

Interestingly enough my camera was set for a 5 hour sequence of the milky way during this time and I was sure my whole scene was ruined. To my surprise, my camera had managed to capture the sandstorm which was backlit by Grand Canary Island making it look like golden clouds. The Milky Way was shining through the clouds, making the stars sparkle in an interesting way. So if you ever wondered how the Milky Way would look through a Sahara sandstorm, look at 00:32.

And beyond the dust from the storm lies the dust of the Milky Way itself. Phil Plait explains:

As the galaxy shows itself, look at the dark lane bisecting it. Feathery and ethereal, those dark fingers and tendrils are actually vast complexes of dust, long chains of carbon-based molecules floating in between the stars. Created when stars are born, age, and die, this dust litters the plane of the galaxy. Seen edge-on, it absorbs and blocks the light from stars behind it, creating the dark fog cutting across the breadth of our spiral galaxy.

Another moment of astonishing beauty: the clouds rolling and undulating like ocean waves, at 45 seconds in.

Roger Ebert writes of art as his consolation in the face of the universe, and Sørgjerd’s video (with Ludovico Einaudi’s exquisite music) is certainly art; but on another level, I like to think that the universe itself is its own consolation.

The thought will blow your mind if you let it. Here we are, the result of what hydrogen atoms can do given nearly fourteen billion years, peering upward through the veil of terrestrial sandstorms governed by the same titanic forces and universal physical laws that long ago ignited the stars: the unimaginable crucibles that brought forth the elements, the planets, life, awareness, us. And we turn our eyes to everything we have kinship with: to the high trees and flower-strewn fields, the fog-shrouded mountains and the golden light of desert storms — and eventually to the stars themselves wheeling overhead, their light crossing inconceivable distances to reach our eyes and remind us of the source of who we are. The idea that we are not merely in the universe, but of it — this is connection in the profoundest sense. This is what I think of when I think of spirituality.

Children of the stars, we turn our gaze skyward to consider our ancient origins — “starstuff pondering the stars,” as Carl Sagan wrote — and we make an offering of our awareness, our curiosity, our astonishment, our music and our art: if not in prayer, then in unbounded wonder and joy.

(via 13.7)

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On identity beyond ethnicity, cont’d: Donald Glover likes white stuff

Actor, comedian, writer, and rapper Donald Glover is insanely and unfairly talented. A daring, subversive, puckish spirit runs through all of his work — whether riffing on racial stereotypes in his standup routine, writing for Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, spitting rhymes as Childish Gambino, performing whip-smart (and sometimes beyond-the-pale) skits with the Internet sketch group Derrick Comedy (their take on an immortal Thomas Jefferson is hilarious), modeling for The Gap, or acting in the very excellent sitcom Community as geeky ex-jock Troy Barnes, whose bromance with Danny Pudi’s Abed Nadir never fails to delight:

The character of Troy, it must be said, was originally written for a white actor until Glover made it his own — a rare reversal of the usual situation (with white actors given first dibs on minority roles) that the activists at should celebrate. Between that and his well-publicized campaign to audition for the role of Spider-Man* in the upcoming reboot, it’s clear that Glover doesn’t care much for racial or ethnic lines being drawn around what he chooses to do.

And he says as much in Bill Jensen’s enlightening article for the Village Voice:

[Glover raps] about alienation, trying to fit in, getting girls to like him. Nerdy emo with a fro. Name-dropping Greedo and Inspector Gadget one minute, then laying something like, “Whiskey-sippin’/Wanna drink the whole bottle/But these smart middle-class black kids need a role model” the next.

“So many black kids Tweeted me about that line,” says Glover. “This is the first time in history we are able to talk about alienation and nerd things. Black kids do like white stuff. Arcade Fire were at the top of iTunes — it ain’t all white people listening to them.” He represents a new archetype of entertainer — a black nerd who can like white stuff. Not a black nerd in the over-the-top Steve Urkel or Dwayne Wayne sense, but a regular black guy who likes the same stuff white people like — but just happens to be more talented than you.

The black middle-class kid is a real thing. Earlier that night […] the conversation turns to race — who can say the N-word and who can’t. “He was voiced by a black dude,” he wonders out loud. “So is it OK for Darth Vader to say the N-word?” He quickly Tweets the question out to the world.

“During the whole Spider-Man thing, the only thing that ever hurt my feelings was this one comment. The guy said, ‘Look, I love you. I think you’re great. But let’s be honest: There are no black kids like Peter Parker,’ ” he says, shaking his head. “There are!”

And Glover will let us all in on a little secret: His first taste of rap wasn’t NWA. Or Run-D.M.C. Or even Eminem. No, his first taste of rap was guys like Fred Durst.

“They say there’s no place in hip-hop if you’re in the suburbs,” he says. “Kanye is a suburban kid. The struggle is finding your place.”

Indeed. I look forward to seeing how Glover continues to challenge people’s assumptions and push the envelope of identity. And now that Community’s been renewed for a third season, I eagerly await more Troy-Abed goodness to come.
*Update 8/3/11: Apparently, Glover’s Twitter campaign was a significant inspiration for the look and ethnicity of Miles Morales, the new black/Hispanic Spider-Man.

(Photo via Billboard)

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Why libraries matter, cont’d: the pop-culture treasure trove

From NPR’s “Monkey See” blog, a fantastic post by Linda Holmes on how the library is the best friend that pop-culture geeks may not have known they had:

There’s a big public library literally across the street from my bank and the supermarket where I most frequently pick up stuff like milk and paper towels. Across the street. As in: first I buy Diet Coke, then I dodge one SUV careening around the corner, and I’m there.

And yet, until this weekend, I’d never been in it and I had no library card.

I know.

I’ve talked a bunch of times about the economics of e-book purchasing and paper book purchasing, about my love of paperback romance novels, and about how unattached I am to book ownership and the growth of my personal library, and somehow, I never crossed the street.

After finally heading over to get signed up and then leaving on Saturday with the odd sense I tweeted about that they had let me walk out with six books and three DVDs for nothing and I felt like I’d committed a heist, I gave this some thought. Why, when there’s such bitter frustration over pricing of all the things people actually buy, is library borrowing often only faintly heard about in noisy, angry discussions you can so often hear about “How do I stop getting broken on the rack by publishers of various kinds?” What kinds of hesitations stop this from happening?

The rest is well worth a read. Holmes writes about selection, condition, availability, return deadlines, the DVD section, e-book and audiobook access, staff helpfulness, and more, and how she was more than pleasantly surprised on each and every concern. She concludes:

The point I’m trying to make is that as a pop-culture-adjacent person, you may think that public libraries are not particularly relevant to you. But I felt like since we’ve talked about movie pricing, e-book pricing, and a lot of other business models, it was only fair to bring to your attention my experience with this bizarre business model that’s so crazy it just might work.

Haven’t set foot in a library since you were a kid, and don’t think it’s for you? Think again. Seriously.

(Image via Click it!)

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