Tag Archives: really important stuff

If you get addicted, it’s not my fault.

15 Mar

I suck at science. Ok, that’s not true. I suck at math, which in turn makes it difficult for me to do science-type stuff. But I like science. I just don’t get a lot of the technical how-to-get-shit-done bits. Sometimes I wish I understood it more so I didn’t feel like people have to dumb it down to talk to me about cool science stuff, especially when it’s something I think is really interesting. I hate that feeling. That being-the-reason-that-the-conversation-is-being-reduced-to-the-lowest-common-denominator kind of feeling. But it’s necessary in this case, in this realm. I know that’s a bit of a contradiction, but still. It is what it is.

Which is why I’m a huge Radiolab fan. If you don’t know Radiolab, unearth your NPR love from wherever it’s been hiding and go look that shit up because it’s freaking awesome. And then come back and read the rest of this. I’ll wait here.

Doo doo dooo…(That’s my “waiting patiently” whistle. Didn’t really come across, did it? Gotta work on that one. )

Freaking awesome, right? For those of you not playing along: Radiolab is a badass radio show out of New York (WNYC) hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. (They’ve got a sort of good cop/bad cop, deadpan guy/fall guy dynamic dynamic going on. Superfun.) Did I build it up enough at the beginning for you to know it’s about science? Because it’s about science. But they never say that it’s about science. I mean, you could say it’s about anything, really: philosophy, language, storytelling, the human experience, blah blah blah. But at the bottom of it all, it’s a show about the science that backs all those other things up. Which is odd, but I give them props for not being too niche or pigeonholey. Basically it’s radio theater (or theatre, if you prefer) meets documentary journalism. It sounds weird, I know. Hear me out.

On the show they take an interesting question or concept and look at it from a couple of different angles, not so much through technical bullshit (although there is a little of that just to get the listener up to speed), but through good storytelling. It’s the best possible way to get into the guts of these ideas, especially for laypeople, which I assume most listeners are. Because this stuff is really cool. And I wouldn’t have ever heard about it otherwise. If it were just people talking and oversimplifying it would sound like every other boring documentary out there. But I’m big enough to admit that when I don’t know much about something, making it fun makes it way more interesting. On a similar note, every episode of Radiolab gives me like ten more books to add to my list (which is a monstrous thing of OCD spreadsheet beauty, let me tell you).

Besides the happyfun learning time you get, Radiolab is extremely joyful to the earholes. Jad Abumrad is a musician, so there’s a sort of symphonic, through-composed feel to every episode (he’s also a winner of last year’s MacArthur Genius Grant – major street cred). Like I said, it’s basically radio theater. Little one-act plays, full to brimming with fantastic sound production – cool loopy stuff, great music, voice effects, etc. Supremely listenable. There’s definitely something to be said for relying on both economy of language and auditory artistry to get a point across (“auditory artistry” sounds like a horrible dubstep band, by the way, so if your horrible dubstep band needs a name please feel free to use that one). I think this combo is becoming a lost art in some ways. Besides your standard NPR fare (Prarie Home Companion, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, This American Life) and all those hateful political talk shows, there’s not much going on in the radiosphere these days. I will say as a caveat to that point, though, that there are some cool kind of retro-radio-show-style things happening on some fun podcasts that I’ve discovered lately (i.e., The Thrilling Adventure Hour). So maybe just the delivery mechanism for listeney awesomeness is changing, not the desire to make it.

Still, you’ve got to admit that it’s pretty ballsy to dedicate one’s self to radio at this point in the culture game. Before television ruined us as a nation, we could listen to a good old fashioned story and think up good old fashioned pictures in our good old fashioned brains. And so it was for a thousand thousand years. Now it’s almost gone. We live in a Twitter society, you know? Tiny bits of mental effluvium leak out of us all the time and we’re obsessed with absorbing the brain dribbles of others. Our attention span is about 140 characters. Which is sick and sad, but I feel like it’s an inevitable evil at this point, so just hang on tight to the sides of the handbasket and enjoy the ride to intellectual hell, ok?

Check out all the full-length episodes and a metric ton of short podcastlets at radiolab.org. You will not regret it.

Me Getting All Worked Up About Scifi Again

23 Feb

Long ago and far away I wanted to go to graduate school. There are surprisingly few things that one can do with a non-terminal English/Literature degree, so most of  us end up as retail shlubs, possibly in horrible corporate bookstores because it‘s something nominally connected to our field and we think it’ll make us happy but then it doesn’t even though we get a bomb-ass discount and then we have epic breakdowns and move to California to be farmers and live off the grid. Sorry. That’s just my whole life story. Anyway.

At first I wanted to be a librarian, but libraries are dying (no offense, librarian friends, you do good work, I just didn’t want to end up a hybrid between an IT person and a museum curator). And you have to be really quiet in a library so I wouldn’t be able to talk about books all day anyway. Which made me think maybe I could teach. I’m not particularly good with little kids and teenagers are demons so I’d have to teach college. And colleges are rife with bureaucracy and self-righteous young people. They wouldn’t let me talk about the books I want to talk about all day either, probably. Them and their galdurn curricula.

So I decided not to go to grad school. Because clearly all I want to do is talk about books all day. I just want to own a bookstore. Is that too much to ask?  And I don’t have to go to grad school to do that. Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s the worst possible time to try to start a small business. Worse still to hang all one’s hopes and dreams of possibly achieving a glimmer of happiness on owning a store in an industry that’s on its way out. But still. You gotta have goals. Amazon and e-books have killed off all the big chain stores (except that one, you know, the Evil Green-signed one) so used bookstores will probably have a small boom before society kills them off completely. Right around the time Americans forget what books are and stop reading anything. Maybe I can still have a shot. Don’t step on my dreams, man! (Quick side note: if you bought an e-book reader because you thought it would be greener than buying paper books, look seriously into the fucked up electronics production industry vs just buying used books. If we have to use a buzzword, I’d rather “repurpose” old books than contribute to the pollution caused by making new microchips and batteries. Just give it a thought.)

What was I saying? Grad school. If I did go, I’d want to major in science fiction. Wait, hear me out. I’ve yet to find a program that exists, besides those schools where you can build your own major. There aren’t many of those with anything past a bachelor’s. (But if you know of a super obscure one that I might have missed, let me know.) Because scifi is important. Not in a curing-cancer-and-ending-poverty kind of way, obviously. If entertainment had that kind of power, America would still rule the world. (Sorry kids, but the tech nerds in Asia own our asses because we’re lazy and watch too much reality tv. Ooh, harsh.) No, in an anthropological, sociological kind of way, science fiction has shaped our culture. We have ion drive engines because of Star Trek. Our space program was started and run by people who read pulp scifi novels at the height of their cheesy popularity in the 1940’s and 50’s. You can’t tell me with a straight face that people who work in laser labs don’t ask themselves, at least once, if Greedo shot first. Because it’s really interesting stuff. That’s the definition of scifi, isn’t it? Technically? “Really interesting stuff”? I could look it up in the dictionary, but I’m pretty sure that’s verbatim. Urm.

Why, then, is scifi so frowned upon? Maybe not “frowned upon.” Thought less of? I got a BA in literature and the only scifi books I had to read, out of hundreds, were War of the Worlds and Brave New World, and those only because they’re political satire. Not that that distinction counts them out of being scifi, per se, but if Huxley could see the world after Prozac he’d go into a soma coma, is all I’m saying. Also, Wells was an anti-Semite, if that’s worth anything to anyone. We could use scifi, especially literature, to our advantage, if it wasn’t looked at as stupid fluff by most people. You know, like the way I look at romance novels. Snob.

But as a book person, let me tell you, having a genius IQ counts for exactly shit in this country if you can’t do math. (I was good up until tenth grade chemistry. Then I started feeling dumb. At this point if I can balance my checkbook I call it a win.) Mathy-sciency people rule the world, whether we acknowledge it or not. Every redneck mouthbreather in the world has a smartphone in their pocket, right? All those little things add up. So booknerds are kind of left behind, stranded in our useless piles of archaic paper history. I can’t say “Oh, well, Aristotle tells us that society can be saved with grammar” and be taken seriously. But one astrophysicist brings up Asimov and it’s all “Fuck yeah! Robot revolution!” Because science matters. More than that, science is cool. Science got us to where we are. Science will save us from ourselves. But what are we, really, but our words? We have no history without documentation of one sort or another. They even say “before written history.” The history of science is a kind of historical record of the ways in which we view the world. There are some old ideas that we now look at as quaint, but at the time those people were working just as hard and were just as strong in their convictions as any surgeon or engineer or chemist doing cutting-edge stuff today. Quarks may be just as bogus as the flat-earth model, but it’s the ideas that keep us going. Where reality and imagination meet, you get some really important, innovative ideas. The world, culture, society – it’s all based on “what if?” That’s science. That’s literature. That’s art and music and technology. That’s being human, right?

And science fiction is the artistic representation of that. It’s the place where those groups can come together, that liminal space that’s open to anyone. Where ideas are born. There’s beauty and terror there. Nightmares and dreams in equal parts. Maybe we’re deluding ourselves. Maybe science fiction makes us think we’re better than we are. Maybe someday an After Common Era scientist will find a copy of The Matrix and say “Awww, how precious. They thought they could win.” But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Too much hope is better than not enough. Science fiction gives us hope (man, I tried really hard to work around that sentence, but I couldn’t find a way to do it). There’s a lot of fear and destruction to be had, as well, but that’s just human nature. We’re scared little mammals, at heart. I think the awesome thing about scifi is that we, as a human race, can look ahead together at what we could accomplish. Maybe that’s just me being sappy because I’m a fangirl, but that’s ok. I’ll take it. An intellectual sap, me. I’ll just be over here reading Contact for the fifth time, wishing I could do calculus in my head.