Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Serenity of Home

Over the last couple weeks I watched the fourteen episodes of the single season of the celebrated, nay heralded, series Firefly (2003) and followed it up promptly with the capstone film Serenity (2005). Joss Whedon of Buffy, Dr. Horrible and Avengers fame was at the helm of this space-western series.

Wuh duh ma huh tah
duh fong kwong duh wai shung!!!
At the risk of offending Firefly devotees everywhere, my honest opinion of the series overall is that it was decent....ohhhkayyy, let's upgrade that to pretty good and all in all worth watching. (methinks I may want to set my self apart from the ubergeekdom masses, alas that's probably self-deceptive on my part)

I would sum up the Firefly series as a mad scientist's mix between The A Team and Buck Rogers with a pinch of Gilligan's Island and Bonanza thrown in for good measure. The ragtag sci-fi-fantasy crew members of Serenity, a Firefly-class transport spacecraft, perform a series of crimes salted with sufficient compassion, humor and self-aware aplomb to make the over-the-top gratuitous violence palatable. And yes, there is substantial nuance brought to bear, which will permit the true fans (Browncoats) to cite the facets of this show and its characters to support their devotion.

Personally, I found the series worthy for a couple reasons in particular. Foremost, the characters in the series create an imperfect family that in spite of their imperfections, find a way to stay together and support each other through thick and thin. Throughout the fourteen episodes (available on Netflix) the strength of their connections grow, ultimately creating a solid backbone for the rest of the show (antics, tropes and conflict) to anchor upon. They make Serenity their home in spite of their internal differences and their external challenges, which is laudable.

My second reason for appreciating Firefly is indeed there are many layers at work, often with imperfect grittiness. Which is to say, there are a number of topics developed in the show that would bear further discussion with a fellow fan. For instance, in the culminating film, the idea that eliminating evil from society might lead to unexpected (and dire) consequences is highlighted. Any artistic work which foments the deeper discussion of moral issues and the real world rates high in my book.

So yes, I recommend you check out Firefly, if you haven't seen the series already. By all means, acknowledge the plot holes, the scientific inaccuracies and unnecessary Hollywood violence for what they are. I think you'll find the connection the characters have in context with their predicament will merit further discussion, and perhaps in doing so you'll find a bit of solace yourself within your own circle of nerdy friends.

Home is Serenity.

(still..... can someone please explain to me why the Alliance (after a sustained and costly effort through the entire story arc) wouldn't bother to capture the still very dangerous and secret laden River when she is surrounded at the end of the movie!!! <<groan>> )

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Planet of the Humans

"Take your stinking paws off me,
you damn, dirty MEME!
Computer-generated visuals, particularly in movies, have created worlds which suspend our disbelief.  From the Wizard of Oz to Star Wars, we lose ourselves in the fantasy, in part to escape, but also in part to look at the real world through an abstract lens.  Perhaps such experiences permit us to attain a sensitivity to diverse perspectives that might otherwise go ignored.

In the most recent installment of the Planet of the Apes re-rebooted franchise, the film's tale, in spite of various flaws, was quite successful in illustrating one real-world phenomena: the fact that humans too often see other humans as sub-human.

Pick your favorite, real-world tragic rivalry, Palestinian versus Israeli, Black versus White, Blue Collar versus White Collar, Straight versus Gay, Old versus Young, Secularist versus Religionist, Republican versus Democrat....they each map quite well onto the (intelligent) Ape versus (sometimes not so intelligent) Human conflict conveyed in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  (fyi I intentionally randomized the firsts and seconds in the versus entries...order too often indicates favoritism)

So here we are in a veritable world of Spy versus Spy battles.  Each camp entrenched in some belief that labels the other camp subhuman.  These groups of people are sufficiently less-than-human that we readily ignore the three hundred civilians masacred in an insurgent attack yesterday, such that we barely blink when another trillion dollars is allocated to build the next installment of human slaughtering machines, such that we help ourselves to a second helping of ice cream while less educated human populations struggle to feed large numbers of unplanned offspring.

All too often complex issues bigger than ourselves and more distant than the local post ofice seem unpreventable.  Who am I to think my tiny blog will have any impact, let alone my vote come November.  In hard, cold fact, we each have to contemplate how we can best influence the world at large toward a balance of collective and individual goodness when it comes to these issues.

Still, I would propose we all can start by acknowledging the "We versus Them" paradigm is an inherited belief that has outlived its usefulness.  Such tribal thinking is how biological and cultural evolution (both indifferent mechanisms) slaughtered the genes and memes that favored NOT slaughtering other tribes.  I believe we are at a point where we've begun to transcend what evolutionary and cultural programming tells us explicitly to do.

The meaningful battle isn't Me versus You, it is the battle between Ideals of a Higher Humanity versus those of a Lower Humanity!

It's a war we must win on numerous fronts, if humans, apes AND all our biological cousins are to survive.... and thrive on our shared planet!!!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Amazing Movement: Evidence Based Decision Making

Magician, Skeptic, Star of "An Honest Liar" and
All Around Affable Human Being, James Randi (and me)
I am fresh back from Las Vegas where I attended this year's national centerpiece conference on skepticism: The Amazing Meeting.   For those untouched by James Randi's brainchild, this conference consisted of four days of serious discussions on science and evidence based thinking.  Additionally there were opportunities to socialize with celebrity skeptics, and numerous workshops and other fun events generally highlighting the skeptic movement, its progress and its challenges toward increasing evidence-based decision-making into our world at large. (in brief, a skeptic is someone who wants to discover and journey the path that is Reality, a reality that evidence supports; fictitious ideas are grand, so long as we recognize and treat those ideas as the fiction they are!)

The topics at TAM were varied and most were excellent.  I walked away with numerous bits of knowledge from various skeptics who host their own blogs (The Arizona History Chick,The Kazoo Sutra and Skeptical Medicine), podcasts (SGU), artists (manga artista Sarah Mayhew and webcomic artist Kyle Saunders) and great thinkers and personalities (Michael Shermer, Bill Nye, and James Randi to name a few).  The Interweb is your obvious path to find out more about any of these great people.

In addition to thought provoking sessions, there was plenty of time to meet, chat and laugh with skeptics from all over the world.  Perhaps some of the people I met are reading this blog right now.  I encourage my fellow TAM 2014 attendees to chime in and share their favorite moments at the conference.

...next week I'll be back with yet another mindful Goodness First topic...in fact, if you have a question or an idea for a topic on how we might move closer to a world full of greater Goodness,feel free to email it to me with "GF Suggestion" in the subject line and I will gladly respond, and perhaps make it the centerpiece of an upcoming blog post.

Peace out!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Christmas in July

I’ve always found it interesting that the Christian faith (and much of the secular western world) has religiously adopted the pagan ritual of tree decoration.  The ancient practice celebrates the spirit within those trees that thrive in Winter in conjunction with a Sun deity returning to begin warming the Land anew.  The fact that early Christian missionaries permitted their targeted pagan converts to continue this tradition alongside the belief that Christ was a god made flesh sacrificed for their moral good seems quite ironic.  In hindsight, this conversion technique of permitting people to continue celebrating their beliefs turned out to be a practical and effective conversion technique.

To this day come the chilly days of northern hemisphere Winter, people the world over bring inside their homes dying conifers or erect plastic facsimiles, or with environmental mindfulness decorate living trees outside to make dreary gray days a bit more colorful and cheerful.  The varied glittery objects, strings of light and popcorn, not to mention model trains at their base, artfully humanize an already beautiful tree.  

"The Sun is a Star!" 
--Anaxagoras, circa 450 BCE
Similarly, we as humans decorate ourselves with ethical ideas that we import from hundreds of cultures, often unknowing of their mysterious origins.  We select numerous and varied traditions from the families we grew up with, the countries we call home, the friendships we’ve cherished, the fictional novels and movies we’ve loved, and yes, even the religious doctrines we have either escaped from or continue to have faith in.

Ideally, throughout our lives we adjust our moral selves as we consider new ideas imported from our ever growing life experience.  We could simply trash the ones that no longer make sense given our accumulated wisdom and knowledge.  A better choice might be to hang them lower on the tree of the mind as a reference to what we used to believe, a recognition that many things are fact and many fiction, and that with integrity we as individuals and civilization at large can continue the tradition of updating our understanding of what is true, and perhaps laugh a bit at the fictions we thought were true in the childhood of our being.

In July right now, the southern hemisphere begins its Winter with Rio, in particular hosts the global soccer extravaganza that is the World Cup. The capitalist infused, sports crazed populace glitters like tinsel in the wind beneath a towering mountain with a Christ figure ornament built by humans, beneath a sky a bit too high in carbon dioxide for our liking, all wrapped within a galaxy of stars including one medium size star that laughs at our silly rituals. Perhaps we'll laugh back once Sol has fused her Hydrogen supply fully into Helium five or six billion years from now.

Perhaps. In the meantime, humankind has a chance to decorate the Cosmic Tree with much and ever more beautiful, progressive understanding!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Progress on the Creation Front: from Myth to the Age of Reason to Cosmos

Progress can seem evolutionarily slow on the human understanding front.  Ideas can be so powerful that they live on as ostensible truth for thousands of years in spite of evidence to the contrary (or sufficient lack of evidence to warrant looking elsewhere).  Human hubris, more specifically the belief that we know a thing entirely, can slow down further the approach toward truth (knowledge and wisdom both).

In my opinion, myths and other fictions have and do serve a purpose.  In modern times fiction allows us to explore ideas creatively; similarly, our ancestors benefited from the myths they created.  At their most joyfully productive, these myths encapsulate survival information and moral wisdom in stories which entertain (joyfully and scarefully) and thus are more easily remembered and then facilely accessed and brought to bear on real life challenges.  At their worst, the myths grew into religious and political power structures that organized populaces to march under, creating a (quasi) unified ethic that endorses the slaughter of their neighbors in biblical fashion. Often in disregard of  Goodness or Truthfulness, myths succeeded in assisting the next generation of humans to succeed reproductively and territorially.

Alas, Humanity has progressed modestly beyond its mythical influenced roots (and arguably the pure need to survive as a species).  Still, myths survive within our cultural and religious traditions.  As the civilization process continues, mythical deities and economic whims continue to battle our progressive efforts at understanding the world, how it works, where its going and where it came from.  To this end, I'll make two brief stops on our ongoing journey of understanding.  The first with Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, which I read recently; and the second with Carl Sagan's and Neil Degrasse Tyson's installements of Cosmos, the latter of which I recently finished watching.

Thomas Paine's Age of Reason surprised me very much which underscores the adage to never reduce a book to its cover art or title.  Frankly, Paine's book would be more accurately titled The Age of Reason and How I Debunked the Christian Bible Using 18th Century Logic and Replaced the Corrupt God Therein with my Own Vision of a God Creator Whose Word is Written as the Cosmos Itself Yet Remains Patriarchal, Almighty and Worthy of Worship Through Enlightened Human Moral Action.  It's not surprising that Paine's work influenced Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, particularly in making the leap that human rights are self evident.  Nevertheless, although I found Paine's ideas historically interesting, it felt like he was in love with his own Deistic preconceptions to the point he failed to see the flaws in his own anthropomorphic god visions.

Fast forward and we see how science in the past three hundred years has unraveled much on the physical truth front as the installments of the ongoing Cosmos TV Saga demonstrate.  Carl Sagan and Neil Degrasse Tyson arguably have been the most prominent spokespersons (salespersons?) for scientific awe in the last fifty years.  The Cosmos series both presented a chronology of scientific discovery and invention, and informed the era of engineering marvel where scientific applications dazzle us daily, not to mention have solved countless challenges indifferent Nature has set before us.  Such developments have spurred on such economic prosperity (on average) across the world that we often forget what an awesome world lies beneath.  The most recent Cosmos series successfully implements computer generated and artistic animation alongside thoughtful narrative to help us remember the amazing progress we have made in understanding the physical world.  Additionally, the series as a whole indicates how being better informed of the physical world enables us to implement the moral ideals we set for ourselves.

Peeking Beyond the Observable Universe?
Progress toward the future unfolds at the same rate it always has, one second at a time.  In ancient times, the human species creatively confronted the mysteries of the universe by inventing mythological and fantastical hypotheses of how the world works and how it began.  Moving past the kings that leveraged mythical god decrees from birth, the likes of Thomas Paine inspired us to flush the biblical baggage and replace it with iterative, improved idealism, idealism which ironically clung to first cause imaginings connected to an Almighty Powerful (usually Male) Designer of Physical and Moral Truth.  In this modern day, progress continues as humans further wield integrity alongside seasoned techniques of seeking and finding truth, leaving pat myth-based answers behind .  Together we step forward with daring
aplomb, looking inward, and outward, forward and backward, and yes, even prior to the Big Bang moment, while declaring with deep a joyful honesty "we don't know"......"yet!"