Podcasts for Smart People – Welcome to Mars

Between 1947 and 1959, the future was written about, discussed and analysed with such confidence that it became a tangible presence. This is a story of weird science, strange events and even stranger beliefs, set in an age when the possibilities for human development seemed almost limitless. (Link)

I first discovered Ken Hollings’ Welcome to Mars on Boing Boing and can’t recommend this show enough to anyone who is curious about the intersections of science, popular culture, science fiction, and the nooks and crannies of American history from 1947 – 1959. From government agencies setting up brothels in San Francisco to test various combinations of psychedelic drugs, to UFOs, to the creation of suburbia, Hollings takes you on a ride through the kind of history that you won’t find in textbooks or in a Ken Burns documentary. Subtitled “On the Fantasy of Science in the American Half-century,” the series begins with an examination of Levittown, the very first of the modern suburbs and weaves a narrative that is both compelling and somewhat disturbing. Hollings’ narrative is also underscored by the electronic music of Simon James; music that alternates between haunting and jarring. On first listen, the music may seem extraneous, intrusive, or just plain annoying. In part, because Hollings’ story is so damn intriguing that whenever the music pulls focus, you think to yourself “get back to the real part of the podcast, I want to hear what’s next.” On second listen, however, the music and sounds of Simon James, these odd and jangling, ethereal and robotic sounds become a part of the narrative. James provides a non-verbal commentary that weaves together the various fantasies of science and culture that Hollings reveals.

This show tapped into my personal reservoir of interest in UFOs, science fiction and science fact. From fantasies of government conspiracy to conspiracies of government fantasy to the desperate desire for alien actuality, I have—since childhood and my reading about Betty and Barney Frank, the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, and the Bermuda Triangle—been intrigued and excited by questions of the paranormal, cryptozoology, and the possibilities of aliens among us. What sets Hollings’ discussion apart from the typical kooky claims, is that he approaches these subjects as a web of cultural and socio-political inferences. For Hollings, the question isn’t “do UFOs exist?” but rather “what does it mean for a culture to believe, disbelieve, and variously represent the existence of UFOs?” As an erstwhile academic influenced by performance studies and feminism, I believe that the connections between government policies, movies, television, architecture, music, and popular representations of science are tremendously important in the attempt to understand ourselves. Hollings offers a snapshot of culture that reveals a number of aspects of the American consciousness that, on the surface of things, may seems trivial, but are, in fact, the very warp and woof of our national identity.

Welcome to Mars is a twelve part series, with each show about thirty minutes in length. If you are anything like me, you’ll probably devour the series in only two or three sittings as you fall down a rabbit hole and find yourself in a strange world that is our own but that is refracted and off-kilter. Like how, when you put your finger underwater, your vision doesn’t quite match up with your physicality. A world of interconnections that rebuild your perceptions about American history and our cultural relationship to science fiction and science fact.

iTunes Link

Website Link

Hollings also published a book version of the podcast that is available on Amazon, Powells, or through Strange Attractor Press.

The Failure of Battlestar Galactica

Warning: spoilers and extremely critical thoughts ahead.

Do you remember the feeling you got in the pit of your stomach when you saw your best friend kissing the girl you’d never gotten the nerve to ask out but pined for night after night and who you just knew would fall in love with you if only she could see just how much you were in love with her?

Do you remember that night when you were five, maybe six, years old and you caught your Dad getting into a Santa Claus costume and your parents assured you that he was just helping out the real Santa but you knew, knew in your fast beating little heart that they were lying to you and that there was no Santa Claus. If your parents could lie about something so important and fundamental as Santa, then how could you ever trust anyone or anything ever again?

Do you remember the first time you lied to someone you loved? Not a small lie, but an important lie. Do you remember how hollow you felt afterwards?

That’s kind of how I feel about the Battlestar Galactica finale.

Continue reading

Farewell to Battlestar Galactica

4 1/2 years ago, I lived in a small studio apartment in Richmond, Virginia where I was attending Virginia Commonwealth University and quickly coming to the realization that it was the wrong school and program for me (not quickly enough, however, to avoid nearly doubling my student loan debt in that one year). Joya was living in New York City and I was making regular Greyhound pilgrimages up to the city while trying to hold myself together in the face of an increasing sense of disconnectedness from myself and the world. My IBM Thinkpad was equipped with USB 1.0 and 802.11b, and I spent something like $200 for a 120 GB external hard drive. I probably weighed about 15 – 20 pounds lighter than I do now. I didn’t have dark bags under my eyes (those occurred in NYC). I was still smoking, but my stage combat class had me moving and stretching like I hadn’t moved and stretched in years. In fact, that class remains one of the highlights of my time in Richmond and to this day I miss having the opportunity to play with a rapier and dagger.

Because I hadn’t had cable for several years, I’d missed the mini-series re-boot of one of my favorite shows when I was a kid: Battlestar Galactica.

When I was eight or so, I adored Battlestar Galactica and had no conception of just how badly written and directed it was. I loved it. I loved the Vipers that Starbuck and Apollo and Boomer piloted and would draw them over and over again when I was bored in school or at home. My drawing repertoire was never very large, and that Colonial Viper was just about the only thing I ever learned to draw well. And then, of course, there was Starbuck who seemed so frakkin’ awesome to me back then with his charm and grin and anti-authoritarian streak. He was a rogue and played by his own rules: exactly what I was so very not. Battlestar Galactica was a weekly adventure that thrilled me no matter how often they recycled the same canned footage for their battle scenes. I have no doubt that the premise, underdogs on the run and persecuted by a remorseless and relentless force, tapped into my own experience of the world as a child. Don’t misunderstand, I had a healthy and happy and overall uneventful childhood. But what child doesn’t see the adult world as generally oppressive and cast him or herself as the beleaguered hero in their own drama?

The mini-series and first season of the new Battlestar Galactica had come and gone by the time I started paying attention and so, one evening I took a look around and found that, yes indeedy, the mini-series was available as a bittorrent download and so I figured I’d check it out.

***

One of the powers given to a television series that sets it apart from other storytelling mediums is just how intimately its stories become woven into the fabric of our lives. Here I’m speaking specifically of the experience of watching a series as it airs. These days it is relatively easy to watch entire seasons of a series on dvd or through downloads or on Hulu.com, and watch them in an extremely compressed time frame, and I’ve done my share of obsessively watching a season or an entire series in a matter of days or weeks (13 episodes of Journeyman in 2 days, the entire series of Carnivale in 2 weeks, 2 seasons of Dead Like Me in 1 week, and the mini-series and first season of Battlestar Galactica in 3 days are just a few examples). As much as I might admire or fall in love with a series watched in such a way, the emotional impact of having a long term connection to a show can’t be recreated with such a compressed form of viewing. The act of coming back to a set of characters, of transporting yourself to another world week after week after week can build an emotional connection that cannot be matched by film or theatre. Doctor Who, X-Files, Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, Buffy: these were all series that became part of the fabric of my life in deeply interesting and compelling ways.1 Did these shows change my life? Did the recent Battlestar Galactica change my life?

Of course. Not in any profound, I’m-a-completely-different-person kind of way, but everything we encounter in life changes us in small and subtle ways. Powerful stories, whether in film, on television, in books, on stage, or told to us a grandparent, a lover, or an utter stranger will always change us in some fashion.

Stories and change are what it means to be human.

***

Last night I watched the final episode of Battlestar Galactica. In the time that I’ve been watching the show, I have left Richmond, moved in with Joya in NYC for what was the longest and most intimate relationship of my life, started and left a Ph.D. program, shared the sad realization with Joya that we needed to go our separate ways despite our love for each other, and left New York City. I have made an abortive but still emotionally useful attempt to move to New Mexico, decided to become a consultant and open my own business, realized that what I really want is to return to Academia and get my Ph.D. I have moved back to Providence, started temping for Kelly Services2, have designed the sound for eight plays, and applied to Brown University’s Ph.D. program for Theatre and Performance Studies and was rejected. I have faced and fought a number of my own personal demons, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. I have quit smoking, gained weight, and have somehow wandered to the edge of my 30s and am peering, a bit uneasily, into the unblinking eyes of my 40s.

***

When I moved to NYC and moved in with Joya, I turned her on to the series in time for us to watch the second season in the episodic, weekly format. Later, she got her parents and sister hooked on the series while I did the same with my parents. The past 10 weeks of the show have been tinged with a sadness that lies outside of show coming to a conclusion because I have very much missed watching the show with Joya. Battlestar Galactica has overlapped an often rewarding and often turbulent period in my life that is indelibly marked by my relationship with Joya. She and I have shared an ongoing connection through the show since we moved apart last July because, even apart, we have been able to share in this tangible remnant of our life and love together. For the last 10 weeks we have been spending time in the same story even as we write entirely different stories for ourselves in the real world.

***

Good stories are my favorite things in the whole wide world. A good story is a gift. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be the storyteller and give a gift the emanates solely from within ourselves. More often, however, we encounter a story out in the world that touches us deeply or makes us laugh or offers us a piece of ourselves we’d thought lost along the way. We then loan the book to a close friend, or drag her to the movie theatre, or get him watching a particular show, or manage to get her to the theatre. The joy I receive when giving a story to someone I care about fills me with warmth and smiles and a dizzy excitement.

Never let anyone tell you that feeling deeply and passionately about a story is silly. Never close yourself off to a good story just because it may come in a format you aren’t very familiar with.

Battlestar Galactica may not have been a perfect story—the facts of producing a television show rarely make for the creation of perfection—but it was a good story, told honestly and with a love for its characters even when those characters’ actions led to pain, loss, and betrayal. This show was also a remarkable story in many ways, principally because of its strong commitment to gender equality, its commitment to examining deeply political and ethical questions without giving the audience clear-cut answers as to what is right and what is wrong, and its portrayal of love and sex through the bodies of older actors. Ron Moore and David Eick, along everyone who worked on the program, have given us a gift forged in creativity, effort, thoughtfulness, laughter, pain, and love.

So, to all of you who brought this story into my life and to all of you who have shared this story with me, I offer you my gratitude.

***

Was last night’s episode perfect? No. Could I spend another 1000 – 2000 words offering a critique of what didn’t work in the conclusion. Yes, and probably will in the coming days. Right now, however, I am letting myself savor the final chapter to a story I have lived with for several years. I am letting myself feel the precious weight of this gift I’ve been given: this story that has touched me, made me laugh, and made me cry. I am letting myself mourn the loss of a story and cast of characters that made me think about what it means to be human and what it means to be brave and what it means to love.

You will be missed, Battlestar Galactica.

So say we all.

  1. Not to mention the shows I watched as a child: MASH, Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, The Hulk, Land of the Lost to name a few. []
  2. Yes, I’m a Kelly Girl! []

Neat Videos to Watch

Sharing some fun videos. Enjoy!

An amazing film that creates an entire world, offers compelling characters, and scary action scenes and does it in a few minutes and with no dialogue:

9 Nine Shane Acker Short Animation
by FrFKmeron

A lovely rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on a ukelele:

If you never watched Ze Frank’s daily videocast when it was on, you missed out on something special. This is the first I’ve seen of him as an actor in a quirky and low-budget project that was put together during the Writer’s strike last year. While not in development, the project has some tantalizing elements that make me hope for a future incarnation:
The Remnants from John August on Vimeo.

A brief interview with one of my favorite writers. There are two parts, check out MIT TechTV’s site for the second half:

And finally, the trailer for Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman’s book. This looks beautiful and scary and so much fun:

Robot Sex (and other Signs of the Future)

200901132009.jpg I don’t know about you, but I am starting to feel like we are living in the future. Maybe it’s my age (40 years is stalking me like a lion stalking a goat), or maybe it’s because 2010 just seemed so far away and futurey when I was a child, but 2010 signifies the future to me, even though it’s less than a year away. Here are some links that prove the future has just about caught up with us.

Carbon Nanotubes

How would you like to wear your Facebook connection on your skin, or have a tattoo that moves and changes color? “E-skin” is on the way and how cool is that? Check out this article on IO9 about research into transparent circuits. (Link)

Also from IO9:

A group of researchers in France and Italy have published a paper today in Nature Nanotechnology that carbon nanotubes can act as neural workarounds in the brain, forming tight contacts with the already-existing nerve cells and conducting electricity between them exactly the way neurons do with each other. (Link)

True, nanotechnology lags far behind our imagination of what such technology might someday do, but stories like these show that we are definitely making progress toward a world where we build ourselves and our materials in ways radically different than what we have ever known.

The End is Nigh

Of course, one of the signs that the future is upon us is the end of civilization as we know it, so we may not reach our nanotech potential if the sun knocks out our electrical systems and sends the world spiraling back into the (literal) dark ages. Even our iPhones will be useless. *shudder* (Link)

Bodies Fabricated & Altered

This is a still from a new animated movie called Metropia that looks amazing. You can see a gallery of stills at Twitch. The bodies in the movie, while not proportioned the same as a “natural” body, are uncannily real. How soon will we have avatars that are visually indistinguishable from life? Based on this work, not very long at all.

200901131938.jpg  

The trope of body modification has a long history in science fiction literature and while we aren’t quite at the level of designing our skin to change color with our moods, or interfacing with computers directly, or altering our bodies to survive environments without protection (like the deep sea or extreme cold or the vacuum of space), the body mod sub-culture is certainly pushes the boundaries of what we consider “human.” The video might actually be disturbing to some, but I think it’s fascinating and a clear sign that we are living in a future that allows us to sculpt our bodies in interesting ways.


Replicators

How cool was replicator technology in Star Trek? Nearly as cool as transporter technology. We may not be able to order an Earl Grey tea alongside Jean Luc Picard quite yet, but the beginnings of being able to simply fabricate objects instead of buying them. Need a coffee table—which I happen to need at the moment—just plug in a pre-loaded design or modify it to your specifications on your computer, send it to your in-house, 3-d printer and you’ve got yourself a piece of furniture to set you feet up on and write blog posts. Boing Boing links to a talk given at the Chaos Computer Congress that will get you up to speed on where we are and where we are heading with this technology. (Link)

Robot Sex

Then there is robot sex. Need I say more? (Link)

~~~

Those are just a few instances that, when I came across them, I said to myself, “Self, the future is now.” Have you found something that strikes you as utterly futuristic but immanently now? Drop a comment to share with the class.

Cool Stuff to Read, See, & Hear


“Anathem” (Neal Stephenson)

I’m currently about halfway through Stephenson’s latest book and it is an amazing, rich, thought-provoking, deeply intellectual, and engrossingly emotional novel. The kind of novel that you want to live in for a good long while. Even though I have over 400 pages to go, I’m already a bit sad that it will end in such a short time! With all the hype and build up focusing on the semantics of the world, I was afraid it would be a bit like Clockwork Orange, creating a rich and varied world but with the language being a pretty high barrier to entry into that world. However, Anathem is nothing of the sort. Yes there are words and cultural signifiers that are alien and I’m glad that he included a lexicon of words so you can look up key terms, but as a whole, the book is remarkably accessible. While there are some brain-twisting sections (especially if you aren’t used to thinking about geometric or logic problems), they are so integral to the story and the characters that they are no more off-putting than a description of a room or a character’s emotional state. Stephenson is a master at incorporating lessons—on the creation of money (among many other things) in his Baroque Cycle, on cryptography in Cryptonomicon, or on geometry and metaphysics here—into his novels without being pedantic or boring.

Anathem is quickly becoming one of my favorite science fiction novels of all time and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who likes their novels rich with ideas and intrigue and characters that feel like old friend, or who likes their world-making detailed, internally consistent. This is a book that will offer you a new world and make you look at ours in a new way.


“Burn After Reading [Theatrical Release]” (Focus Features)

I have to admit that I’ve missed the last several films by the Coen brothers, but am sure glad I saw this one. There is something very relaxed about this movie. Not so much in the content, but in the execution of the movie. I don’t mean relaxed in a lazy way, but relaxed in the way that a gymnast can make the most complex routine look effortless. The script is tight, nearly pitch perfect and treats the audience to one of the best comedy of errors made this decade: perfectly balancing the laughs with a dark undercurrent of tragic ridiculousness. In addition, the characters all zig toward stereotypes but then zag into complexity. Well, almost all of them. Of the main characters, Tilda Swinton’s never quite makes that zag, which is a shame because she’s an incredible actor. The actors, even Swinton (given her character’s limitations), are at the top of their game. Even the minor characters are invested with a fullness that I usually associate with British films more than most American ones.

One of my pet peeves about movies in general, is that characters often seem to come from some never-never land where they have never watched movies or television or read spy novels or romance novels or science fiction novels or . . . you get my point. Most characters in movies don’t carry around the models of reality that we all carry around in our heads. All those books and movies and popular musics and television shows that tell us the world is like this and people are like that. These modesl have an impact on how we behave. Not only on how we behave, but how we actually see the world. The characters in Burn After Reading seem to be making their lives up as they go, and are doing so in ways that reflect a whole set of mental models that include how one might act in a movie or on television. Don’t misunderstand, the movie is not a collection of post-modern references and the character’s never mention movies or tv shows. Instead, the Coen brothers present us with characters whose actions make sense only if they have been raised on a steady diet of popular media.

While I’m sure that Brad Pitt will get a lot of attention for his performance because he is so damn good at playing silly-funny and does it so rarely, and Frances McDormand is as wonderfully delightful as usual, for my money, George Clooney’s performance is the richest and most nuanced of the film. He’s not a very likable guy, but he undergoes a rather profound journey. In fact, his story is almost too serious at times in comparison to the overall tone of the movie. Almost. In the hands of a less accomplished actor, or less accomplished writers and directors, his character might have upset the balance and tone. In the hands of Clooney and the Coens, however, it all just works.

This is a movie that I look forward to watching again and is well worth seeing in the theater.



“Systems/Layers” (Rachel’s)

Along with the Clogs, the Rachel’s are one of my new favorite bands. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot more instrumental music and finding myself drawn to the images and emotions that I can find through music without words. There is a freedom of interpretation to programmatic music and the Rachel’s are evocative and full of humor, intrigue and suspense. I get images of foggy mornings, looking out on a winter scene through a window fogged with breath, a dark-haired woman smiling sadly. And that’s just one song listened to once. Every time I listen I see different images, feel different emotions.

Here is one of their songs from Systems/Layers set to some archival film:


So those are some of my recommendations. What are you reading, watching, listening to?

How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later

I’m not sure I have anything to say about this, but while Philip K. Dick was kinda crazy, sometimes crazy is kinda right:

The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words. George Orwell made this clear in his novel 1984. But another way to control the minds of people is to control their perceptions. If you can get them to see the world as you do, they will think as you do. Comprehension follows perception. How do you get them to see the reality you see? After all, it is only one reality out of many. Images are a basic constituent: pictures. This is why the power of TV to influence young minds is so staggeringly vast. Words and pictures are synchronized. The possibility of total control of the viewer exists, especially the young viewer. TV viewing is a kind of sleep-learning. An EEG of a person watching TV shows that after about half an hour the brain decides that nothing is happening, and it goes into a hypnoidal twilight state, emitting alpha waves. This is because there is such little eye motion. In addition, much of the information is graphic and therefore passes into the right hemisphere of the brain, rather than being processed by the left, where the conscious personality is located. Recent experiments indicate that much of what we see on the TV screen is received on a subliminal basis. We only imagine that we consciously see what is there. The bulk of the messages elude our attention; literally, after a few hours of TV watching, we do not know what we have seen. Our memories are spurious, like our memories of dreams; the blank are filled in retrospectively. And falsified. We have participated unknowingly in the creation of a spurious reality, and then we have obligingly fed it to ourselves. We have colluded in our own doom.

[From How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later]


When the Doctor Disappoints

The recent Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor’s Daughter” is arguably the worst episode produced since the show’s return in 2005. So disappointing that I had to blog about it, even with the attendant risk that I might confirm the suspicions of people who don’t like the show. I mean, it’s one thing to complain about episodes with other fans. There is a safety there, an “all in the family” feeling that makes it ok to admit to the show’s failings, but I hate to give fodder to those who might judge the show without ever giving it a chance.

This episode was really, really bad. More than that, however, it was actually insulting to fans of the show as well as the show’s own mythology in a way that felt calculated and cynical.

Let me stop you here if you are watching the show on Sci-Fi in America. The British air dates are about four weeks ahead of you, so you should probably stop reading right now and come back to this entry after you have seen this episode. For those of you in Britain or who are getting the show through, ahem, other channels . . . click through to read the rest of this rant.

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Darknote’s Notes on Doctor Who


10dr19.jpg

Darknote provides an excellent analysis of some of the problems and failures of the new Doctor Who series. If you are a fan, definitely give it a read.

In the history of the revived Doctor Who series, there have been ten multi-episode stories thus far. If we classify these multi-episode stories into three rough categories of “hits”, “misses”, and “neutrals”, most of them frustratingly fall into the category of misses than anything else. The most recent two-parter helps to further solidify a theory i have as to what makes more of these New Who multi-episode stories disappointing and also touches upon a fundamental problem with the series overall.

[From mutli-episode stories in the New Who » darkblog resonate ]

Of course, only fans get to critique the show like this. 😉