Songs for Aliens

The 'Golden Record' from the Voyager probes.
The ‘Golden Record’ from the Voyager probes. From NASA:

James Gleick’s fantastic “The Information,” appropriately, aims to be encyclopedic. It explores the science and technology of information from an ambitious array of angles: computer science, quantum physics, genomics, encyclopedias themselves, telecommunications … even old-old-school signaling via flames atop periodic towers.

For that reason, it particularly suited my (bad) reading habits of spreading attention amongst way too many titles and genres at once, and taking sometimes years to finish a book. That was the case with “The Information” (which, trust me, is fascinating, and will absolutely keep the attention of even slightly more disciplined readers).

That also makes it hard, at least for me, to write a comprehensive review of the work, which lends itself more to pulling on threads. For instance, one thing that’s stuck with me is Gleick’s inclusion of the so-called ‘Golden Records’ launched aboard the Voyager spacecraft in the ’70s.

The communication of information takes up a large portion of the book, with Claude Shannon playing a central role. Shannon founded the field of information theory by defining communication mathematically as the conveyance information amidst noise. Much of the rest of the book proceeds from or references these initial insights of Shannon, which makes the project of the Voyager probes particularly interesting — in that they are an attempt, even if a somewhat whimsical one, to communicate with alien beings about whom we know absolutely nothing.

I, and likely you, have heard of the Voyager records before. If you haven’t, they are gold-plated phonograph records containing images and sounds of Earth: a message in a bottle to whatever minds might exist out there in interstellar space to find them.

From "Rick & Morty"
From “Rick & Morty”

“The Information’s” larger narrative illuminates, I think, the real message that these records would or could send to any little green beings: the presence of a pattern created by an intelligence. The records contain various images from Earth, including of people eating, scientific diagrams, and photos of insects and animals. They include bird and whale songs and other Earth sounds, like thunder and surf. Should any aliens properly decipher the symbolic instructions on how to play the records, the beings will also hear greetings in 55 ancient and modern languages.

And there’s music: classical pieces from Bach and Beethoven, folk music from Azerbaijan, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” and more. As do most references to the Voyager records, Gleick’s sections focuses mostly on the music. This seems the correct, even the obvious, choice to me, and I suspect to most people. Why? Well, trivially, these are records, and we mostly associate records with music. But that choice itself of a phonograph, prototypically associated with music, just betrays the thinking of Carl Sagan and the others behind the recordings: Music was the core content, the first thing they thought of.

Again, this seems the obviously correct choice. Music has been called the universal language, after all. It communicates across nations, because it does not rely on particular languages or vocabularies. It can communicate an emotion, or at least something aesthetic, to any human being who hears it. Do we expect this to be true for aliens as well?

I don’t think that’s it. I doubt many people, certainly not the scientists behind the Voyager curation, believe that some creatures of a form and biological history we likely can’t imagine will respond emotionally like we do to Bach (or Berry). But the focus on music still makes sense. And that’s because music, of all of our art forms, is most nakedly a designed pattern. It’s the form of art, really the form of any human expression, that best blends abstraction and meaning: It is something like pure information, made into an aesthetic object.

Despite the now-long history of abstract visual art, most people still think of painting and photography as representative forms. These pieces are intended to display some object in the real world. Literature’s abstract expressions — poetry and Modernist narrative, for instance — are minor forms for most people. But music as a collection of tones with almost no relation to the natural world, artwork that makes no attempt to represent that world, seems the basic form. This is what we think of as music.

That, aside from the emotional response it invokes, convinces us that music is a universal language.

This rocks (Kandinsky)
This rocks (Kandinsky)

It also makes music the ideal message for the Voyager probes, particularly in Gleick’s telling. Realistically, we can’t expect aliens to gather much from pictures of insects or humans. What could an alien make of the image of a grasshopper? To them, these may look simply like weird blobs. Maybe they’ll recognize the pattern of a body plan. Maybe not. But in the music, even if they get nothing of the artistic or emotional “meaning,” they will most certainly see the pattern — the evidence of design. Because that is what music is; the pattern is the point.

And that’s the main message of the Voyager records. The chances of communicating the meaning, as perceived by humans, of the recordings to other beings is very small. But the chance of communicating evidence of intelligence is much greater. Music, a repeating pattern with motifs and changes, carries that message most strongly: the message that a message is present. The message of an attempt to make a message.

Here, music serves as the ideal medium both for the Voyager’s attempt at alien contact and Claude Shannon’s conception of a message: information that is valuable purely as information, divorced from meaning.

I wondered, however, as I was thinking about this while reading “The Information,” how universal this conception of music — of patterned sound — really is. Why do we naked bipeds so naturally conceive of patterned sound, amongst our other sensory experiences, as abstract and informational? I wonder if it’s because sound occupies a sort of midpoint in our senses. With the highly detailed information we get from sight, we perceive clear, real-world objects. Touch, for most people, communicates more diffuse information (the blind, it could be argued, learn to perceive touch in more detailed ways).

Sound is somewhere in-between. We associate sound with particular objects, true — but we perceive sound as “coming from objects,” not as “being the objects,” as we do with sight. And yet sound is information-rich. We’re used to thinking of sound as carrying information “about” things but traveling out from the objects themselves. Perhaps this is why the sounds that we ourselves make evolved into symbolic language — or perhaps the causation goes the other way (or a bit of both).

This is a terrible movie, but cool image, from Warner Bros.
This is a terrible movie, but cool image, from Warner Bros.

Might aliens, or might other Earth species should they become intelligent, consider other sensory information the ideal abstract form? Might intelligent wolves, with much more highly developed senses of hearing than us, think of sound as a more concrete medium, like we do with vision? Might bats? Might that hinder their use of it in symbolic, abstract ways?

Beyond the species-specific features of sound/music, might Earth’s physical properties influence which medium seems more ideally abstract? Maybe there’s something about how sound waves travel on Earth that led to the evolution of creatures that communicate via spoken language, that consider sound the ideal repository of the abstract. On a planet with no atmosphere, which yet somehow managed to evolve a (to us) bizarre form of intelligent life, sound would likely play a different role. Maybe even a planet with a much thinner atmosphere, one which carried less information on sound waves, would evolve creatures with different attitudes toward sound and music. From the opposite perspective, perhaps on a planet with low light levels (maybe a thick, ever-present cloud layer limits sunlight), creatures would get their most-detailed information from sound, and more abstract information from vision. Perhaps, to them, painting would have always been mostly abstract. Perhaps to this society, the “natural” and “obvious” medium of interstellar communication would be pictures.

Sound is also temporal, however, in a way that other sensory information is not: You get pieces of sound information in sequence. That makes it highly useful as a record of information, and of patterns. Still, though, other creatures might perceive arrangements of colors as a more natural way of conveying sequence.

Of course, all that likely doesn’t matter for the Golden Records. As I described above, the most important message is that there is a message. And the medium, of course, is not really sound: Sound has been translated into phonograph grooves. The pattern can translate among whatever medium you’d like. I’m just going through some questions I found interesting. But it’s also fun to think about some hypothetical alien race translating the phonograph grooves of Bach into that species’ own abstract, symbolic language of color shades (for example). In that case, we would have taken our own evolved response to the physical features of Earth and used our pattern-making instincts, contingent upon our psychology and our planet’s atmosphere, to create some new meaning for some bizarre beings. If we got a message back from them, perhaps we would turn it into a song.


In ‘Inconvenient Truth 2,’ Al Gore’s Doin’ Work

His greatest role ever.
His greatest role ever.

Al Gore, the climate crusader, is back. Well, that guy never really went away — he’s been tilting at that windmill, so to speak, for decades. But Al Gore the movie star is back, with the arrival of “Inconvenient Truth: The Sequel” (aka, “Inconvenienter Truth: The Republicans Strike Back,” aka “Inconvenient Twoth: Two Inconvenient, Two Furious,” aka “Son of Inconvenient Truth”).

The update to 2006’s climate change warning alarm played in previews a couple weeks ago. And I, never one to miss an opportunity to do the absolute least I can for an issue, watched a movie for climate change, and therefore deserve praise. (Send praise in the form of checks.) I caught the preview screening at AMC River East 21 in Chicago.

The movie, set for release on July 28, comes at, it’s safe to say, an interesting time for climate activism. Previews, on June 6, arrived five days after President Trump, continuing his streak of undoing Obama’s efforts but accomplishing little else, announced that he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.

The movie spends a great deal of time on the accord, and I imagine the bulk of the film was made under the assumption that a President Hillary Clinton would continue President Obama’s efforts to meet the Paris agreement’s goals. Some of the most interesting bits of the new film detail, in live recordings, Gore’s telephone diplomacy. This, at least as the film portrays it, saved the Paris agreement. Gore is shown listening to the concerns of India, the last major holdout, who asked why India’s masses should be barred from the advantages of cheap, fossil-fuel-based energy after the West benefited for centuries. This is quite reasonable. Why, indeed, should countries like India forgo any of the benefits of coal when the United States’ current quality-of-life advantages stem from years of spewing the CO2 that will, disproportionately, harm countries like, for instance, India?

Gore is shown hearing these concerns and — wisely, even compassionately — not arguing against them. How could he, really? Instead, he devises a solution: He calls up some of his high-power tech buddies (include some dude name Elon) and proposes that they give, gratis, solar technology to India so that the country can both meet climate goals and provide cheap energy to pull its citizenry up into a middle class. The film shows the nitty-gritty, seat-of-his-pants efforts by Gore to make the calls, give the necessary flattery (“you can be the corporate partner that saves Paris”) to get it done.

And it works. The solar panel gift is made, and India, the holdout, signs the accord. Now, I don’t know your feelings about Al Gore. You may find all this to be a bit too much like hagiography. I’ll admit, even for me, a Gore admirer, there was a twinge of embarrassment to see Gore’s own movie paint him as the hero like this. And we all know that documentary creates its reality nearly as much as fictional works do. So is “I helped invent the Internet” Al just grossly kissing his own ass here?

Perhaps, in part, but not “just.” The scenes — which are actually quite dramatic and gripping — show that the work can be done. I think the point is to give audiences hope, to show that hard work, diplomacy and coalitions even with (gasp!) capitalists can get the job done.

This is both interesting and important. Audiences concerned about the climate (along with open-minded people interested in a free movie) need encouragement, even a road plan, not a story of woe. Because, especially given Trump’s recent and likely future moves, there’s enough despair out there.

That’s not to say the documentary ignores the challenges, though I feel it downplays them. Along with the Al Gore heroics (Goroics), the most salient part of the movie for me was a brief aside in which Gore hears from NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman about a new challenge to climate efforts: Opponents of low-carbon efforts have been pursuing a new strategy, Schneiderman says: claiming that these efforts will tank the economy.

As I noted, the movie spends little time on this, but I think it’s of outsize importance. Climate opposition has mutated before, and it is doing so again. It used to be that those with oil-related interests (let’s be honest) claimed the world was not heating up. Some people still do that, but largely, the evidence of hotter and hotter years has pushed the arguments in a new direction: It may be getting hotter, but we can’t be sure humans are the cause. Now, the virus of climate denialism may have mutated again. Climate action will steal your pension and your job, they say now.

It doesn’t matter if this is true. Al Gore and like-minded climate hawks have marshaled facts, statistics and earnest nerds wearing very serious eyeglasses for decades. Meanwhile, no matter what scientists say, and no matter what the thermometers say, oil interests will find a new argument, a new rhetorical turn — the opposition will mutate again.

It’s insidious, and it’s been maddeningly effective. It’s also an argument for why Gore’s approach may not be the best one. Slideshows with alarming statistics may always be vulnerable to bad-faith rhetorical constructions and spin.

But a harder thing for moneyed interests to argue against is, well, money. The growing economic feasibility of clean energy, particularly solar, has countries around the world investing in renewables instead of the old, dirty fuels. Gore’s Paris diplomacy, significantly, depended largely on his contacts in the tech business world. The U.S., despite Trump’s personal animosity to anything and everything Obama did, will likely follow the money, too.

That, along with the impressive outpouring of climate support from U.S. states and cities after Trump’s announcement, should hopefully keep activists going. Wonky, stiff, widely disliked by the right, Al Gore continues to do what part he can, as the movie shows. Many others will have to do theirs.

Speaking of which, here’s one thing you can do: Check out the #BeInconvenient pledge here:


Feeling OK: Re-Experiencing Radiohead

This is what you get.
This is what you get.

I came of CD-buying age (and, slightly before that, cassette tape-buying age) during the era of the quickly meaningless “Alternative” craze. Here was a time when underground and indie bands were getting signed by the boot-loads, all (according to now-established rock-n-roll lore) due to the punky genius of one Kurt Cobain.

I was into Kurt, of course. “Nevermind,” I’m happy to say, was one of my first three CD purchases (alongside Pearl Jam’s “Ten,” unsurprisingly, and, slightly more surprising, whatever the first Presidents of the United States of America album was). I considered, in early high school, dyeing my hair, letting it grow and stopping washing it. I did not do this, but I considered it. This was really the extent of my teenage rebelliousness.

At that time, you could be into stuff like Nirvana and Soundgarden (RIP, Chris Cornell) and the like and consider yourself “alternative.” But that stuff had become the most mainstream music around (perhaps after hip-hop, at the time). Naive and sheltered as I was in my small-town upbringing, I thought myself punky and artistic, like Kurt, for listening to his band and others like them. This was a lot easier to believe growing up in a small town in the ’90s. The internet was a pretty rudimentary place back then, and we didn’t have a record store in Iowa Falls (I think there was a used CD store, but not, you know, a record store, a “High Fidelity” sorta place). As for radio, I remember hearing a lot of White Snake. We did, at one point, get access to an alternative station, as everyone did at the time, ours called 107-dot-5 (107.5, the Dot!). No college station, though. You had to head all the way down to Iowa City for that (or, I guess, Ames … but not really).

So, to really find true underground, indie music … I didn’t really have an option.

That’s why I started getting SPIN magazine. This, teenage me decided, would help me truly become underground. Yes, SPIN magazine. Don’t laugh too hard. I did the best I could.

And it was in the pages of SPIN that I first heard of a little band that would never make the mainstream, that would forever labor in obscurity, and they were called Radiohead. It was a little review of their new album, called “OK Computer.” I remember it being not even a full page, maybe just a sidebar. This could be the fog of time, but I can picture it pretty clearly. Radiohead was not a big deal at the time. “Creep,” of course, had been all over the radio (107-dot-5 played the hell out of it, I’m sure). I’d never really heard “The Bends,” so this review was my introduction to the band. The description of a bunch of introverted, literary, college-educated weirdos who made strange, sci-fi-inflected pop opera referencing Kafka and “The X-Files” somehow appealed to me, a nerdy, writerly teenager. Strange, that.

Both “The Bends” and “OK Computer,” which I got as soon as I could after that, quickly became among my favorite albums. For a long time, “Karma Police” was my clear favorite song, with the sequence of it preceded by “Let Down” qualifying is among the most powerful musical experiences I’ve had.

But, as frequently happens with music that affected you powerfully in your teenage years, “OK Computer” dropped off my playlist. I think I just listened to it too much, and it was linked too strongly with a particular time period for me. I have no desire to go hang out in my high school lunch room, or get turned down by some 17-year-old for the prom, so why would I want to listen to my emotional soundtrack for that period?

This weekend, I listened to the entire album straight through for the first time, perhaps, since high school. Apparently, there’s this thing called “Classic Album Sundays,” where music journalists and other rock nerds get together and discuss classic albums before listening to them on high-end audio equipment. This Sunday, the Chicago franchise spun “OK Computer” at Saturday Audio Exchange.

I don’t know if it was the audio equipment — better than anything I’d ever listened to Radiohead, or anyone else, on — or the caffeine (they served free coffee, no alcohol), or the experience of listening intently with a couple rooms full of people, but it was like the album hadn’t aged. Or I had de-aged. That is to say, it FELT as powerful as it did way back in 1997. That sequence in the middle of the album, with the operatic endings of “Let Down” and “Karma Police” back to back, left me shocked.

I don’t think this would happen with other old music. Were I to listen to “Nevermind” again, for example, I think it would be fun, but not revelatory. In fact, I know that for a long time now, I’ve not really been able to connect to that music I once loved. It’s too teenage. It’s, to be honest, a little embarrassing.

I expected my re-experience of “OK Computer” to be that way, too, at least a little embarrassing. But it disentangles itself from the adolescent schmaltz of teenagehood a lot better than other stuff from the era. Is it the comparative complexity? Somewhat. Particularly listening on that high-fi sound system, you hear things you missed in past listens, as many of the event’s attendees said. Radiohead stuffs in layered sonic elements like “30 Rock” stuffs in jokes (another piece of popular art that rewards multiple returns).

But the themes and the imagery of “OK Computer” are very contemporary, too, despite the passage of two decades: dystopian political visions, sci-fi modern existence, Kafka-esque anxiety. That album’s still able to take the ugly things of the surrounding world, and aestheticize them beautifully.

The anniversary re-issue comes soon. At this point, calling Radiohead, for years the biggest band in rock (if there even is such a thing anymore) “alternative” is pretty hilarious. But at least I can say this: For as big and bloated a brand as they’ve become, at least Radiohead earned it. They’ve recorded some stunning stuff.

Why I Went to Israel, or The Wilderness

Wilderness outside Jerusalem, February 2017
Wilderness outside Jerusalem, February 2017

In February, I went to Israel. I’d been saying I wanted to do this for years, ever since a friend moved there (but subsequently returned to the States), so I’d kind of taken for granted that this was a tremendous thing to do. I figured other people would get it.

So, I wasn’t expecting friends to ask, sometimes a bit incredulously, why I had gone. This even happened with some friends I know to be wander-lusty travel enthusiasts, or to have been so in the past. I guess it’s because of the perceived Christiness of a trip to Israel, the though that you’ve got to be something of a religious nut to go there. I don’t think it’s about the perceived danger, either, as it’s now been a few years since the suicide bombs were in the news.

I’m not a religious person. That is to say, I’m not a believer. Never have been. I’m too skeptical, too turned off by the anti-science nonsense that tends to go along with believing — and, perhaps most importantly, I was not raised with it. My family never went to church. (It would have been difficult to pick one, between my mom’s Catholic upbringing and my dad’s Hindu family. Anyway, neither of them was religious in adulthood.)

So, I didn’t go to Israel to “connect with my faith,” technically speaking, nor am I Jewish, so I didn’t have that reason for visiting. But the trip was indeed making a connection, or re-connection. You can’t grow up in the Western cultural tradition without absorbing something about the enormous resonance of a place called Jerusalem.

When I went to Ireland and England on literature-related programs in college, people didn’t ask why. The reasons were clear. For one thing, these are just places you go on trips, places many people go.  And as a reader/writer — well, duh. You go to the places Dickens wrote about. You go to the place where Shakespeare staged his plays. It makes sense.

Moreover, for an American, it is a reconnection, and a hugely resonant one. Here is where so many of our stories, and so much of our history comes from: our fairy tales. Our legends of knights in armor. And our Shakespeare. I remember the thrilling feeling, when I went to the British Isles, of being in the place — the actual place! — the green fields and the winding city streets, that had always been a site of imagination before.

Traveling to Israel was that same feeling — but even deeper. Here are the places — the actual places! — where the stories of the Bible take place. Now, you may consider these stories just as or nearly as fictional as those told by Dickens and Shakespeare. And you’d have some reason for that. But the difference is that the people who told them believed them, and the people who read them, for centuries, believed them.

Here is the place where people heard the voice of God.

Say what you will about the scientific reasons for this — did Paul suffer an aneurysm on the road to Damascus? — when you come to Israel, you’re walking the landscapes that spoke to people in that voice, and what they heard remains a foundational component of our culture, preserved in a certain best-selling book and in liturgies passed down through the ages. It’s an amazing thing.

Travel can involve a certain amount of pressure and anxiety. You’re supposed to experience something, feel a certain way, take the right thing away from what you’re seeing or doing. You go to the Grand Canyon, and you wonder if you’re sufficiently awed. How much time should you spend looking? Are you really present? How do you ensure that you are?

Such a reckoning with the Grand Canyon is relevant to what I’m saying here because my most resonant experience in Israel happened in this sort of place — in the natural sublime, you might say.

Toward the end of my trip, I took a day tour into the Palestinian territory. Initially, this was an effort to at least do something to acknowledge and learn about the experience of Palestinians under occupation, as a friend who’d gone there on Birthright suggested. (This is, perhaps, the topic for another post.) But the experience I most remember from that tour came not at the wall in Palestinian territory, not at the birthplace of Jesus at the church in Bethlehem, not at the site in the River Jordan of Jesus’ supposed baptism — but while traveling between cities in the hills outside Jerusalem.

Our bus stopped at a high point along the winding highway we were following, and the guide let us out to take a look around. Here, he said, was “the wilderness” described in the Bible. It was a broad expanse of sandy hills, stretching all into the distance. They’re of a height, really, somewhere between hills and mountains. It’s desert landscape, with the desert’s beauty. In the distance, you can spy Jerusalem. It’s the sort of natural beauty that you might observe for a few moments, and take some pictures to post, which I did.

But I knew there was more than that. Here was that travel anxiety: How much time should I spend with this natural beauty? What am I supposed to feel here? So I took a moment to reflect. Here, I thought, standing apart from the tour group as everyone else filed back onto the bus, was where the prophets, where Jesus — or those like him at the time — looked across the landscape and heard the voice at the heart of our culture. And you look over that landscape, you can feel it: These mountains look the way the voice of God must sound.

You don’t have to be a believer to experience this. This “voice of God” is culturally shaped. I experienced this because I’ve been raised in the Western tradition. I’ve read, or perhaps experienced via cultural osmosis, the stories of Jesus in the wilderness. I’ve been trained, at some level, to hear the wilderness of Jerusalem speak like this. Were I raised in the Native American tradition, for example, maybe I’d feel the same thing in the New Mexico desert.

But, for those raised around cathedrals and churches, this is the place. It is the actual place. It is not a piece of nature that resembles the  sites of these ancient stories.

This is where that man walked, where people like him walked.

I did a thing, then, I’d never done before. I waited to make sure the tour guide wasn’t watching (just in case), and I picked up a rock, a small piece of the land. I found a pocket in my backpack for it. It’s on a shelf in my apartment now.

It’s a cheesy thing to do, I know, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. It still doesn’t, really.

Mind-Body Problems: Stoppard Writes Brains

Chicago Sun Times. Spike charmingly tells Hilary why she's wrong.
Chicago Sun Times.
Spike charmingly tells Hilary why she’s wrong.

“The Hard Problem,” Tom Stoppard’s latest work, playing at the Court Theatre on the University of Chicago campus, is about consciousness … and, also, the 2008 financial crisis. And some gender politics handled not all that well, I don’t think. The show got me thinking, though probably not about the things you might expect, or that Stoppard intended.

First, let me say that this play succeeded in providing a good time at the theater. It was well-acted and hit some of those emotional soft spots you look for in a dramatic production. The play, which follows main character Hilary and her fellow researchers as they explore the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, worked best for me when those traditional dramatic moments burst through Stoppard’s talky scientific/philosophical exploration:

This happens, for example, when the resident jerky guy/stand-in for uncompromising scientific materialism, Spike, blunders into telling Hilary, “You’re just an animal, but you can’t accept it” — and she bursts, backstage, into tears. The insult here, on one level, is clear — calling someone, particularly a woman you’ve just slept with, an animal is pretty rude — but Spike (later, Spencer) had already been plenty rude, with little offense taken by Hilary. (She’s used to this sort of guy, it seems.) But in her response here, there is mystery, suggested by the sudden depth of her emotional reaction, a revelation of the deeply buried human fear that there may be something terrible, or terribly diminishing, at the core of being human.

Similarly, later, Hilary’s touching, one-sided familial reunion (I’m trying not to spoil anything here) is moving — not least because it surfaces amidst the murky waters of impersonal philosophical/scientific argument. I don’t know if this was Stoppard’s (or this particular production’s) intention: to make the human elements sparkle by setting them against colder discussions. That can be an effective method, but based on the Stoppard interview in the playbill I read, and the extent to which he stuffed the play with the science talk, I kind of doubt it. It would also suggest that Stoppard intentionally made the ostensible main point of his play pretty bad.

Because…it’s not terrific. Imagine if you’d read a few popular science books and articles on consciousness over the last few years, and then had some characters loudly repeat those points on stage. That’s what Stoppard does here, and he gets credit for writing an intellectual play for that. The work fails to explore those ideas in a very intellectually thrilling manner. You have, for example, the jerky Spike character pompously explaining the prisoner’s dilemma, because Tom Stoppard also took an Intro to Psych class freshman year, just like you. Only he thinks it’s impressive to keep bringing it up now. The prisoner’s dilemma also, in case you weren’t impressed enough by Stoppard’s cleverness, comes back around to basically structure how the characters finish out their stories.

Isn’t that clever??

Not really, unfortunately. It felt like bad network television, or an equally bad Christian Slater movie or something, when an early bit of dialogue gets repeated later, solemnly, to demonstrate DEPTH and THEME and ART — and you just feel insulted as a viewer.

More interesting, because more open to interpretation, was this production’s treatment of the body side of the mind-body problem. In a play centered on such a heady, abstract subject — a play, which is to say, that’s so much in the head — this production strikingly emphasizes Hilary’s physicality. She moves like a dancer, or the yoga practitioner she is later revealed to be. She wears light, loose, dark pants and tops that still emphasize her athletic, feminine form. And from the opening scene, where she moves fluidly and, well, sensually on the stage’s floor, here representing a bed, her body is a site of expression. She raises her arms lithely over her head; she moves at the waist, Latin-dance style.

In a play so much about the mind, why pay so much attention to Hilary’s body? There’s the uncharitable interpretation: Hilary has been sexualized, because that’s what male authors tend to like to do to their female leads. Because the emphasis on Hilary’s body doesn’t come solely from the production. It’s there in the text, too. Her relationship to the male scientists in the play is primarily sexual: She is an object of desire for both Spike and her later mentor/boss. Spike, in particular, seems mostly interested in her body (though, to be fair, Stoppard does go out of his way to make sure you know Spike’s trash). And Stoppard did give her yoga practice a role by including a yoga teacher character and a scene in which Hilary engages in her practice with that teacher (and is, tellingly, assumed to be coming onto the yogi by the teacher’s lesbian partner).

But I think the play, both as written by Stoppard and produced by Court, is doing more than that. Hilary’s embodiment, her physicality, I think, is part of the play’s rejection of Spike’s materialist perspective, seeing it as inadequte. Consciousness is an experience — it is a physical experience. And it remains a mysterious physical experience. Hilary’s experience of her own body, the sensual way in which she inhabits it — not as an object of desire (not always, anyway), but her personal experience of living inside of it, her clear enjoyment of its ability to move and express — cannot be reduced to equations. Similarly, neither can her experience of familial love be so reduced. These are the mysteries at the heart of the play that tug at you when they surface: The animal that can recoil in horror at its own animal nature. The truths that can be experienced by practice, by physical practice or emotional entanglement, and remain inaccessible to rational probing.

Here, Stoppard succeeds. So, perhaps I should be more charitable about the “bad” scientific-argument prose I snarked at above. Or perhaps I’m just jealous of an author with enough fame to intentionally write badly about science, and profit by that.

Naomi Klein Tries to Change the Climate Story

by Michael Dhar


“If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.”

That’s Don Draper, “Mad Men’s” nihilistic ad genius, revealing at least part of his method. (A distillation that would reappear, slightly paraphrased, in the words of his protege, Peggy Olson, several seasons later.) In the series, when most everyone else obsesses over the details — stymied in trying to change behavior via argument — Don and Peggy just sweep the arguments aside. Instead, they talk about something simpler and more elemental. They reach the public by ignoring the facts, and simply telling a better story — “better” in the sense that it accesses a more powerful psychological pressure-point. A simpler one.

Don infamously employed that method during the series pilot, when he tackled the problem of cigarette advertising in an era of health warnings, proposing the simple line, “It’s toasted.” All the cigarette companies battling against the dampening influence of health warnings with their own counterarguments get nowhere. Mentioning the warnings only makes customers think of the warnings, Don says. So he changes the conversation. “It’s toasted.” Talk about something else — a warm emotion, conjuring agrarian, wholesome imagery. And the story changes.

That seems to be Naomi Klein’s approach with her new documentary, “This Changes Everything,” which premiered Tuesday. Klein and director Avi Lewis appeared at the screening at Music Box Theatre in Chicago, which I attended (the film is narrated by Klein and inspired by her book of the same title). Klein makes her narrative ambition pretty clear, repeating at various points in the film that she’s not interested in the usual ways of talking about the environment. In the opening, Klein says she cares little for what she considers the familiar narratives of saving the polar bears from intractable human nature. Instead, she wants to unravel the narrative imposed, she says, by scientists 400 years ago: the narrative of human domination over nature.

Not to get too tangled up here, but Klein’s really talking about changing two stories: She wants to change the narrative under which modern society lives (no small ambition). And she wants to change the story that climate activists tell themselves about what they’re doing. No longer should eco-warriors see themselves as educators about parts-per-million and the harm basic human nature does to charming mega-fauna. Rather, environmentalists should view themselves as storytellers, undoing the damage of a particularly caustic narrative humans have been telling themselves for centuries.

Klein’s not the first to suggest climate communication is broken. It’s been clear for a while now that facts haven’t worked in climate change efforts, as psychologist Adam Corner wrote in 2013:

“The scientific and economic cases were made [in 2008]. Surely with all those facts on the table, soaring public interest and ambitious political action were inevitable?

The exact opposite happened. Fast-forward to today, the eve of the IPCC’s latest report on the state of climate science, and it is clear that public concern and political enthusiasm have not kept up with the science. Apathy, lack of interest and even outright denial are more widespread than they were in 2008.”

It should be fairly obvious, even without Corner’s (and many others’) analyses, that the fact-based approach hasn’t worked. The percentages and modeling and “red lines” of climate science have been clear for decades; all that changes is the percent-certainty about risk predictions (inching ever closer to 100). But, as Corner wrote, scant progress has been made in either legislation or public opinion (though that does seem to have improved lately).

Corner advises climate workers to focus on ideas that resonate with people. Klein’s solution on that front is to frame climate change as the end-result of a mistaken narrative. She ties that overall story to a method of action, too: one that should be familiar to anyone who’s followed Klein’s work. The film spends most of its time portraying the mass-protest actions of usually poor groups opposing fossil fuel industries: villagers in India fighting a coal mine, First Nation peoples suing over a tar sands plant in Canada, and etc. Eventually, it comes out that Klein is really talking, again, about her familiar old object of critique: capitalism. Though she roots the story of human domination in Royal Society-era science, the villains of Klein’s film are industrial capitalists. The people hell-bent on dominating nature today may be telling the same story as some old scientists, but they’re doing it because of a rapacious capitalist system.

Klein seems to want to turn the climate change movement into Occupy Wall Street for trees — “Occupy the Planet,” maybe. In doing so, she says, she wants to inspire more hope for change than the standard environmental narratives do. The passion and the occasional success of the mass protests the film portrays, when combined with the right uplifting music, may certainly inspire some hope in the activists whom I suspect are Klein’s intended audience. She must know this movie won’t change the minds of climate change deniers or even provoke political moderates to action. Anti-capitalist agitation is unlikely to do that. But the activists and potential activists who’ve given up hope? Maybe she can convince them their actions can accomplish something.

That’s a worthy aim. I have to say, though, as I listened to Klein say how she found the standard environmental messages uninspiring, and then link her own message to anti-capitalist sentiment, I felt a bit of hope drain away. Good news! Klein says. We don’t have to change intractable human nature!

We just have to overhaul the dominant global economic system.

Once we do that, we can save the climate from destroying our species.

So, it’s all no big deal, really. Part of the conflict in Klein’s presentation arises because she’s really saying two things regarding climate change and capitalism. On the one hand, there is the deep, revolutionary implication of blaming capitalism for the end of the world: The global system must be overthrown if we are to save ourselves. On the other hand, the film points to investments in clean energy and protests of individual coal mines as the way forward. Germany has invested in solar energy because the people demanded it. That’s cool and all, but it is a mere nibbling at the edges of the capitalist system. If Klein truly believes that humanity’s narrative error is enacted via capitalism, if capitalism is guilty to its core, then investing in businesses that manufacture solar panels seems like a rather weak response.

I think, though, that even as she is talking primarily to activists — to help them better reach everyone else — Klein also has at least two types of activist in mind: the revolutionaries who agree with her that capitalism must go. And those who want to save the world without tackling the gargantuan task of remaking it. She just wants to give, to everyone who wants to help, something to do.

As in everyday life, inaction frequently leads to despair. Often, you just need to get up and do something, anything. If you don’t like how you’re feeling, change what you’re doing. Klein’s pep talk of a film may amount to the advice: “Just get out and walk around the block once. See how you feel.”

Drones Shoot Insects Now

by Michael Dhar

Let them mate.
Let them mate.

From somewhere high in the sky, we could hear the gentle buzzing.

“What new insect hell is this?” we wondered. Some even said it aloud. Pa, he spat upon the earth, dried and dessiccated from the infestation. Because the bugs also sucked all of the moisture out of the ground somehow? I don’t know, they were pretty bad. They might have done that. Let’s just say they did that, too.

But Pa, like most spitting men, knew what was up. “That’s no infestation, that,” he said, pointing to the sky with an arc of spit, the way he always pointed. “That there is our salvation.”

We squinted to where his spit had indicated: A weird, angular seabird seemed to be spilling two black trails of particulate, one from either wing. And it had no beak to speak of; on its nose, instead, a set of propellor blades buzzily chopped the air.

This was no bird — this was some sort of propeller-based superhero, a Propeller Man if you will. “Propeller Man!” I said, in my simple way, pointing at the sky with a finger instead of an arc of spit, for I was not yet a man.

“No,” Pa said, expertly spitting at the object. “That’s a drone. And those? Those are bugs it’s spitting out. Bugs to save us all.”


That’s pretty clearly the way things probably go down on farms all over the Cotton Belt from time to time, as the USDA has adopted a somewhat bizarre method of combatting “pink bollworms.” These are the larva of a thin, grey moth, and they live to eat cotton. The critters have been mostly eliminated from the United States, but to tamp down the occasional flare-up, the USDA sicks drones on the bugs — drones armed with other bugs.

Yes, if the specter of pilotless craft eyeing you down the caverns of every big-city alleyway and from high above any large-scale protests isn’t unsettling enough, now the drones shoot insects. Admittedly, the idea of a drone firing weaponized insects to fight off the bugs eating our crops is kind of cool, in an X-Files, future-dystopia sorta way.

But it gets even weirder/cooler/unsettling-er: The “good-guy” insects we’re firing at these larvae? Just adult versions of those same insects. No, they’re not devouring their own young. (It’s not quite that weird/cool/unsettling.) It actually involves a bit more strategy. See, these moths have been altered, irradiated into sterility. (As you can see in this delightfully school-instructional-video-esque clip from the USDA posted by Mother Jones.)

Blissfully unaware of their impotence, the nuked moths shot from the drone overwhelm the moth dating websites in the targeted cotton field. All that hot moth-on-sterile-moth action, of course, produces no offspring. So the moths die out.

It’s a tricky little gambit tacked on top of the already-weird method of drone-mounted insect cannon: Instead of attacking the moths, we give them what they (think) they want: mates. We give them so many fruitless mates that their mating is ineffective. It’s like a DoS attack. But in another way, it’s “all-natural.” No pesticides involved. Drone-assisted organic agriculture has arrived.

So, growing up, what kind of future did you imagine? Hoverboards and the Cubs winning the World Series? Or pilotless flying robots spewing altered insects to outgame nature’s prime directive? Truth and fiction, as they say.

Cool Pope Runs Afoul of America’s Religion


One of Cool Pope’s early U.S. emissaries

The cool pope’s in town, guys. He thinks atheists can be good people! He admits capitalism’s flaws! He wants churches to aid the poor and refugees! And he sees combatting human-caused climate change as a moral and religious mission — something he reiterated on the White House lawn as his most excellent adventure in America continues.

“It seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to a future generation,” the awesomest pope ever said, whipping off his wraparound Ray-Bans. Proving that even Cool Pope (TM) can pander to the local audience, he quoted one of America’s favorite sons to rope into one’s particular worldview. “To use a telling phrase of the Reverend Martin Luther King, we can say that we have defaulted on a promissory note and now is the time to honor it.”

Added Cool Pope the First, “Anyone here go to GEORGETOWN!?”

But it’s all still cool, because unlike, say, when Fox News broadcasters invoking Dr. King to say that Black Lives Matter protestors should behave differently, climate change action seems like something the Reverend would have actually supported. Yet and however, such pro-science proclamations from Buddy Pope have upset many religious leaders in the U.S.

That was glib. The reflexive disapproval by many U.S. conservatives of Good-Guy Pope’s statements on climate change seems, superficially, like anti-science religiosity. People upset about climate science seem to walk and talk like anti-evolutionists, those who oppose what Darwin wrought because it opposes their understanding of the Bible.

In both cases, opponents of a politicized area of science must go through some weird contortions. They live in a world defined by science and technology, but cannot accept a core finding of modern science. Thus, in the case of anti-evolutionists, you get Intelligent Design, an attempt to distort the logical-scientific enterprise so that it somehow arrives at the preconceived notions derived from religion.

Climate-change deniers commit similar deformations of science and logic, but here the preconceived conclusions are not religious. Sure, you can derive Bible-based arguments to oppose climate action — e.g., God gave us this planet to use, and so drill (baby, drill) we must. But the major reason for climate-change denial is economic. Fighting climate change means thinning the wallets of fossil-fuel companies. It does not, primarily, commit sins against the teachings of the Bible. It commits sins against the tenets of unfettered capitalism.

So Pope Kick-Ass’ statements on a warming planet anger many American conservatives not because he’s a religious figure denying religious teachings in favor of science — but because he’s a religious figure denying capitalism’s teachings in favor of science.

The way the religious right has yoked Jesus to Adam Smith still surprises me sometimes. Here, we see, arguably the most powerful living Christian figure in the world rejected by the most political of Christians in a country, attacked by those same Fox News broadcaster — because he’s not capitalist enough. Christianity was a Jewish religious co-opted by Rome. It now, here at least, seems like a Roman religion co-opted by Goldman-Sachs.


Words Cannot Capture the Holy-Shitness of This Moment

by Michael Dhar

Grabs from BBC YouTube video of Bug Blue Live in which presenter Steve Backshall has to interrupt an interview because a blue whale has surfaced nearby

This guy gets really excited.

But it seems justified. The man totally geeking out over nature in the above video is Steve Backshall, a British naturalist and television host. In this clip, he’s hosting a program for British television called “BBC Big Blue Live,” when that very same “big blue” occurs in a very much “live” fashion. Having just asked a whale expert, “Is this a remarkable moment in time?” (first rule of journalism: ask leading, yes-no questions), the moment in time turns, in fact, remarkable. I challenge you, can you be so snarky as to not smile when that profusion of piping, British enthusiasm declares that a real big blue has surfaced to say hello?

I like this video not in spite of Backshall’s outburst, but because of it. It invites the viewer to imagine the experience of seeing this creature. The emotive force of Backshall’s reaction may not exactly convey what the experience feels like, but I think it inspires the viewer to attempt to imagine it — to put some mental and emotional effort toward conceiving of him or herself in the presence of such a gigantic animal. What must this be like to cause such an outburst?

What that work of imagination, it becomes something more than simply estimating a thing of great size. It becomes an experience of something sub-verbal, an appreciation of the natural sublime: the natural world, so large and awe-inspiring, that it is failed by words. The thing about this gigantic animal is that it cannot be adequately described linguistically. Of course, it can be measured. And Backshall uses his words to do that — it is bigger than any dinosaur; it would be longer than his ship were it to swim up alongside it.

But those are merely words. The *experience* of seeing this whale is in his voice. It is unusual, clearly, to see a grown man emote like a toddler in the presence of a really cool fire truck. One response to seeing this on the Internet would be to toss a snarky grin, and comment accordingly. Another is to see it as evidence of something powerful being experienced, and to wonder at what that must be like.

On the one hand, “This thing is a really big thing,” is an exceedingly boring fact to learn or experience. Some things are bigger than other things. I am aware if this fact. But part of what makes a blue whale so intense, at least for this man (and many others), is that it is living — not only huge, but also alive. It does what we do — breathes, moves, eats, fears, communicates, dies — feels its own mass shift and turn in the cool water. And it does all this at a size that is nearly incomprehensible to us, at a size that leaves this experienced TV broadcaster nearly breathless.

So, that’s what I found myself thinking about. It’s by no means the only way to try to understand what Backshall experiences here, but one way in is to wonder at another experience: the whale’s. What can that be like, to own a body like that, to *be* a body like that? It is a mysterious and transformative question. Maybe that’s what Backshall was experiencing as he went all adorable on national television: a mysterious kinship with a creature that is yet alarmingly alien. His outburst was him expressing the energy of that collision. The presence of that mystery.

Of course, maybe he was just excited because he likes whales, and this was going to be a good moment for his TV show. But I do sense a real desire on his part to express the inexpressible. And simply by making the attempt — and failing — he may have succeeded.

Lucky Professor Gets to Quit

by Michael Dhar


“Marketing” and “branding” sound like dirty words if you’re a scholar or an artist. I take that back — actual dirty words are awesome if you’re a scholar or an artist. “Marketing” and “branding” sound like compromised ideals if you’re a scholar or an artist, which is much worse than crudely referencing sex or taking the lord’s name in vain. (That just makes you a “cool professor.”)

They’re pretty uncomfortable words to most of us, but something we must generally accept — in the same way most people hate networking, yet still print up business cards. But those academics and artists who hold university positions can set themselves apart; academia is separate from — above, really — all of that. Which is why the resignation of Alice Dreger, in protest of Northwestern University privileging academic branding over academic freedom, must be celebrated as an act of courage and conscience.

Anyway, that’s the press release I might have written were I Prof. Dreger’s publicist (or branding manager, say) . Of course, academia is not separate from marketing — universities must sell themselves, as well. They need brands to attract suckers (I mean, undergraduates). Academic researchers must sell their projects to get funding. Artists must contrive those horrible artist statements. And Alice Dreger’s very act of anti-branding is itself a brilliant act of branding. You see, Dreger has written a book on academic freedom and scientific controversies. Her resignation is priceless press, and it seals her brand as a warrior for intellectual independence. (The book is “Galileo’s Middle Finger” — she’s a cool professor — available now on Amazon!)

To be clear, I don’t suspect any underhanded dealings here — no invented outrage so that she could courageously resign and sell more books. The facts of the incident seem clear: Dreger, a medical humanities and bioethics professor (formerly) at Northwestern, guest-edited an issue of the university’s Atrium magazine, which included an essay about a consensual blowjob between a nurse and a patient. Northwestern said that essay violated the university’s “branding agreement” with the medical school, and had the issue taken down.

That act of censorship inspired the resignation of Dreger, who said, “Academic freedom is always going to cause brand problems. A brand is very much about something specific, and a university has to not be.”

Well, that’s great! It’s just pretty funny how all this rebellious, anti-branding activity bolsters Dreger’s personal brand so perfectly. This quote, from Greg Lukianoff of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), is just priceless:

“I am proud that Alice was willing to take this stand for free expression and academic freedom, and I strongly recommend her book, Galileo’s Middle Finger.

I’m sure he means everything he says there. But I can also just see him holding up a copy of the book at the end of that quote, a big Coca-Cola smile on his face for the cameras.

Because rebellion, of course, is a brand, too. Just walk into any Hot Topic or review youth popular culture since forever (or, at least, the ’50s). Anti-branding is a brand, too. Just look at how well Adbusters and the like have sold the anti-corporate lifestyle.

Anyway, I would like to say fuck Northwestern (I’m a cool professor!) for their act of prudish censorship. But, concomitantly, congratulations to Prof. Dreger on the tremendous ad campaign that fell into her lap. She should be OK — as she has said, she was relatively free to resign her post, because she has income from the book and scheduled appearances. So hopefully that resignation will sell some books. More people need to read about Galileo, anyway.