Friday, August 12, 2011


From the enormous to the tiny.  I said that my first sense of a feeling of wonder had a component of fear within it, but upon further inspection I am not certain that is necessary.  Perhaps the fear is simply an extension of another component of wonder: the inexplicable.

Monarch butterflies migrate as far as 2500 miles from their spring and summer feeding grounds to return to California and Mexico where they hibernate during the winter.  Millions of butterflies make this journey every year, but the most fascinating thing about it to me is that only 1 out of every 4 generations make this journey and no single butterfly ever makes the journey more than once.  Monarch butterflies go through 4 generations each year.  The first 3 live only 6 to 8 weeks, while the fourth lives 6 to 8 months, migrates, hibernates, and then produces a new 1st generation that will migrate back to the feeding grounds.  Aside from their spectacular beauty, their inexplicable sense of their own species life cycle induces a sense of wonder.

You may want to skip around a bit in this video, as it is 10 minutes long, but at very least it gives a good sense of what the butterflies are like in their migration and hibernation.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Recently I've been thinking about the time and effort I put into studying the Humanities.  I guess I'd be considered an expert on some of man's greatest thinking, though I feel like I've barely scratched the surface.  I've especially felt a connection with the writings of Aristotle, probably because of his curiosity and insight.  But I think perhaps what I felt connected to was the innate sense of wonder that must have driven him to write so much on so many different topics.  When I started thinking about that, I began to ask myself what happened to my own sense of wonder.  It isn't gone, I've felt it at times flickering on the edge of my consciousness, but it's certainly been subdued.  Certainly one of the lessons I took from St. John's was that there is more to knowledge than simply studying.  My childhood exuberance for studying the scientific returned to me then, as I feel it returning now and, rather than pass it morsels or focus on the humanistic sciences like math and physics, I think I'd like to let it take in a full course meal of the wonder that we should all experience.  Hopefully, while I'm doing that, I'll learn a little more about the feeling of wonder itself.

So the first step is to explore some things that really invoke my sense of wonder.  Today, some videos of whale sharks!  Sorry about the music in this clip, maybe mute the Coldplay.  There are 4 whale sharks in captivity at the Georgia Aquarium in their 5 million gallon Ocean Voyager exhibit.  Certified divers can actually set up an appointment to swim with them and also with manta rays.  While their massive size (about as big as a school bus) is certainly intimidating, they are considered to be very gentle and have been known to playfully allow divers to swim with them.  As a child I was very fearful of deep, open water and especially of large sea creatures.  I think the memory of that fear contributes to my sense of wonder at these animals.
Whale sharks are the largest fish on the planet, reaching over 40 ft. in length.  Their diet primarily consists of plankton, though you can see one consuming small bait fish in the clip above.  Wonder for me seems, at least at the moment, to be a sandwich (philosophically speaking) of fear, fascination, and the kind of detachment that a being so alien to my own inspires.

Anyhow, enjoy the videos.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Out of Context Problem

This is a really interesting concept that I encountered over the weekend.  An "Out of Context Problem" is one that we encounter without any possible preparation of forewarning.  For example, the Aztec Empire was at the height of its power, literally the strongest nation in their world, when the Spanish arrived.  The Spanish had technology so far beyond the Aztecs that they could never have predicted or prepared to combat it.  We've seen many versions of this particular brand of "Out of Context Problem" throughout history; the Romans versus the Teutons, American Colonists versus Native Americans, even the atomic bomb dropped on Japan.

In the late 90's there were a bunch of popular "apocalypse" movies that played off of the Out of Context Problem.  Armageddon, for example, was a very popular story in which scientists discovered an asteroid that would destroy the Earth within some very brief time period (I think a couple of weeks).  There was no plan in place for this possibility because it was not even considered a realistic possibility.  A lot of sci-fi uses this idea; most alien invasion stories use it in some way or another.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation the arrival of the Borg is a problem like this.  In the real world, I think the September 11th attacks are a pretty decent example.

What I've been thinking about is how we can prepare for the arrival of an Out of Context Problem.  Given the unpredictable nature of the problem (something so far out of our paradigm that we simply can't see it) it would be wasteful to attempt projections of possible problems, since we already do this as a society and the types of things we predict, no matter how far-fetched, are unlikely to be the problem we will face.  Worst-case scenario preparation seems more viable, like the CDC releasing a zombie apocalypse preparation guide to teach people to plan for a variety of serious disaster situations.  The problem is that there is only so much planning that we can do, and worst-case scenario preparation usually focuses on basic, day-to-day, and, most of all, temporary survival needs.

It seems to me that the one thing we can do to prepare for an Out of Context Problem is to become better problem solvers in general.  This might seem a little obvious, but hear me out.  Whatever the problem that comes up, it is going to be outside the realm of anyone's expertise, so we become more analytic and generalized learners and problem solvers.  I'm not just talking about challenging problems though: asking a mathematician to solve highly complex calculus problems isn't an Out of Context Problem.  Asking an English Teach to solve the same problem is closer to being out of context.

Being able to analyze information across diverse fields and use it to solve problems is a highly valuable skill that our very specialized education system seems to ignore.  The people we will need to solve the problems we aren't even qualified to dream up yet are those who will not balk at the challenge of new concepts and ideas beyond the scope of their own experience and education.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Question: She Should Have Died Hereafter...

See what lively discussion provides you?  A continuation of a three year old promise to discuss Macbeth on this blog.  I know I'm starting near the end, but this question has jumped the line.  Oh and SPOILERS, I guess, if you haven't actually read Macbeth.  You can probably just skip this post if you haven't though, because it's not going to make a lot of sense.

Probably the most famous monologue in Macbeth, the "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech from Act V, Scene V is the last time we are truly presented with Macbeth's internal point of view.  Off the cuff, I'd say this scene shows us the death of what is left of his humanity; after this point he becomes a berserk warrior.  Since they are public domain, here are the relevant lines:

Macb. I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in ’t. I have supp’d full with horrors;
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.

Wherefore was that cry?

Sey. The Queen, my lord, is dead.

Macb. She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word. 
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I think I've seen this played a couple of different ways, but most of the time I've seen it presented introspectively, with a melancholy attitude.  I've read that, based on the construction of the prose, there appears to be a pause after the word "hereafter" which could signify a moment of contemplation.  For anyone who has ever experienced serious depression this passage is particularly evocative, especially given the way that it is usually played on the stage.
Apropos of yesterday's blog entry, I have begun to read this scene a bit differently.  Change the emotion from melancholy to anger.  Although she manipulates him throughout the early parts of the play, Macbeth is very closely connected to Lady Macbeth.  I've seen various theories that equate the husband/wife relationship in the play to differing components of the same individual (e.g. husband and wife are two made one, so the differing views of Macbeth and his wife represent conflicted views of an individual struggling to choose, in my opinion at least, between his place as a heroic, honored follower or a villainous, bloodthirsty tyrant).  This view is attributed to the switch between their personalities after Duncan's murder, where it is Lady Macbeth who feels the guilt for the act, while Macbeth has overcome his earlier misgivings.  Either way, at the moment of his greatest invincibility, Macbeth suddenly loses a valued part of himself.  This is the point at which his fortunes shift and all his certainties collapse.  Macbeth is King, as promised, but he begins to realize that what was promised is not what he imagined it to be.  Perhaps it's a personal response, but I read anger in his words; at the witches, for taunting and tricking him; at his wife, for the weakness that pushed him to murder Duncan and for the weakness that heralds his own fall; and at himself, for the path he chose from which he can no longer divert.  All that Macbeth already had, all that he sought to gain, all that he thought he was promised is on the cusp of destruction.  Everything that belonged to him as a man has come to nothing.
Why should Lady Macbeth have died "hereafter"?  What is it about her death that leads Macbeth to make this famous speech?  What tone do you see in his words?  What is Macbeth saying in this monologue?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What's Old is New...

Giving this another try again.  The hardest part is trying to explain to the two people who follow my blog that I'm going to try starting this again after failing to keep up with it the last'm not going to.  New design and title are just in keeping with my new attempt.

Star Trek: The Next Generation appeared on Netflix instant queue last week.  Now I was a Science Fiction nerd growing up; my mom and I used to watch Star Trek and late-night episodes of Doctor Who together.  We'd take a rainy Saturday afternoon and watch Alien or The Thing or Star Wars while my Dad grumbled about it all being "unrealistic" (his standard for realism is the early 007 movies with Sean Connery as Bond).

When I went back to undergrad after taking a few years to grow up I learned that everything looks different to you when you look at it from an adult perspective.  I think grad school may have influenced my viewpoint in the same way, but that's a thought for another time.  The point is that Star Trek: The Next Generation looks an lot different from where I stand now than it did 15 or 20 years ago.

Going Boldly

The first thing I noticed in my return to The Next Generation was how truly clever the "Captain's Log, Stardate 43579.2..." opener is.  The typical rule in stage and film is "show, don't tell."  Whatever you can accomplish within the action should happen in the action.  Shows like Law and Order, that always take place in New York City can get away with an action intro followed by a witty one-liner from Lenny Briscoe, but an individual episode of Star Trek could be taking place anywhere in a vast, imagined galaxy.  Captain Picard tells us where the Enterprise is, what the crew is doing and who is likely to be featured in this episode, and introduces the main plot of the episode.  It doesn't feel out of place at all; the Captain making a log entry seems like a perfectly natural part of the story.  Having watched most of the way into Season 2 in the past week and a half, I can tell you that the best part about this trick is that The Next Generation uses it all the time!

I really wanted to give you some video examples, but I am having trouble locating the specific scenes I have in mind.  I'll give you two lines that occur in almost every episode that express the point:

The Enterprise is in a bad situation and has to get somewhere fast: "Warp 5 Ensign...Engage!" [Sound FX]

The Enterprise is in a bad situation and is under attack: "They are firing Captain!" [Camera Shake]

Further, the communication between the Enterprise and an Away Team often involves this sort of "telling" rather than showing on one side of the conversation:

"Picard to Away Team, Mr. LaForge has completed the modifications on the [technological marvel] so that we can attempt a [technobabble that means solve the problem]."

Think about how much they just told you without doing anything.  Splice in a shot of LaForge fiddling with some power conduits and you have just made a major breakthrough in starship engineering.  Splice it in right after Worf says "They are firing Captain!" , follow it up with "O'Brien to Bridge, Away Team onboard, sir." and finish it with "Warp 5, Mr. Crusher.  Engage!" and suddenly the writers have told you the story, rather than showing you AND it was still exciting and interesting.  How do they manage to use this trick over an over without use realizing it?

The answer might be that we are primed to accept it.  In previous episodes we've seen the other parts of the story.  We've seen Geordi running around in engineering and fiddling with complicated looking gadgets.  We've seen Riker, Worf, and Data on the planet solving the puzzles or having a phaser fight with Romulans.  We've seen the Enterprise moving at warp speed, or in a space battle, or orbiting a planet.  Once we've seen these visuals it becomes easier for the writers to move that scene into the background.  I think this is a major contributor to the two best things about Star Trek: The Next Generation; the amazing character development that they manage on more than 10 major recurring characters, and the amount of content they are able to fit into a 50 minute show.  Watch an episode if you don't believe me, you'll see that there's almost no wasted content.

Sure, not every episode is a masterpiece, but I'm consistently amazed by the subtleties that went into making it (at least in my opinion) one of the best T.V. shows ever.

Oh...and for my one or two loyal readers...more to come.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Being (Your)self

So there's this thing called twitter. Yes, I'm aware that twitter has been around for a while now, but I'm thinking about the 140 character limit thing that forces you to be succinct and post in only tiny snippets.

This whole twitter/blog thing brings up an interesting question about self-expression. We all hear about "online identities" and such, but I wonder about this idea of the character limit with relation to self identity. In a country that holds free speech sacred, and in which people flaunt and (in my opinion) often take that right for granted, it seems odd that people would flock to a service that limits the amount of expressing that you can do. I suppose you could make more than one post at a time, but that seems to defeat the point of the character limit.

I started thinking about what it might be like if this character limit got extended to the rest of our speech. For example, the population got to be so big that each person only gets a limited amount of expression. As if data was a limited resource or something like that. Seems like an interesting thing to think about.

Partly, I wonder about the twitter thing. It seems like you could share some really interesting and thoughtful snippets. On the other hand though, there's a lot of self-important idiots out there tweeting their way through life (check out which is the best thing to come out of twitter). Put those posts up next to the kinds of "tweets" that would be coming out of places like Iran and Pakistan and it's clear how much we can take for granted.