Friday, February 19, 2010

It's Official: I Talk Good!

Last month, I gave my first public talk and it went very well. The talk, presented at the Anderson Public Library, was entitled "String Theory for Everyone." Local high schools, as well as Anderson University, promoted the event, and many physics students in both places were offered extra credit for attending. Afterwards I was swarmed with fans wanting pictures with me ... mostly so they had proof for their teachers that they'd showed up.

Still, it was a good learning experience. Among other things, it showed me the places where I need to streamline my PowerPoint presentation before my next talk, on March 12 to the Central Indiana Mensa group.

As a follow-up, though, I asked for a testimonial letter from the library's information services librarian, who helped plan and coordinate the event. As I try to get more and more of these talks lined up, it of course helps to have these sorts of things. So, here's the fine (though somewhat bureaucratically sanitized) letter that I finally received:

The mission of the Anderson Public Library is to inform, connect, engage, and empower its customers. Since quality library programming meets many of the library's goals, APL strives to present its customers with the best possible programs. Your "String Theory for Everyone" presentation included all of the elements the library looks for in a quality program. You dealt with the complicated subject matter in an informative way while patiently allowing our customers to engage you with questions. Furthermore, your commitment to professionalism and excellent communication allowed the library to easily facilitate this program for our customers. On behalf of the Anderson Public Library, I would like to thank you for your efforts toward making this program a success!

This is a very nice addition to my speaking portfolio. I hope to get engagements in the future on a wide range of topics, some of which I already have planned. If any readers of this blog would like to solicit my speaking services for your organization, just contact me directly.

Note: I have many friends who are educators, so before I get frustrated e-mails from my elementary school grammar teacher, I'd like to state that I am aware that the title of this blog post is grammatically incorrect. It was done intentionally for entertainment effect. Grammarian, calm thyself.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Avatar - First Thoughts

Amber and I finally went to see Avatar today (with thanks to Nana for helping out by watching the kids). Honestly, I've heard some mixed reviews about Avatar and wasn't feeling much need to go see it, but I got an opportunity to participate in an Avatar anthology ... assuming I can come up with a worthwhile essay subject. There's certainly a lot of great material here to build upon, so I'm hopeful. Now for my initial thoughts on the film:

First of all, Avatar is a visually stunning film. One of the most impressive that I've ever seen. Perhaps I'm jaded, but I honestly hadn't quite realized how impressive it would really be, even after seeing the promos. I thought, "I've seen cool special effects before. How much better could this be?" Well, I was wrong. It's frickin' awesome! I could just sit there and stare at the images for hours, especially the night scenes, set in a fluorescent forest. Very cool. It's so good that I would pay to go see this again ... but this time in 3-D at IMAX.

The characterization, on the other hand, had issues. Especially the major villain, the Colonel. He was a total caricature of the insane military commander who wants to decimate his enemy at any cost, even if that enemy isn't doing anything wrong. Most soldiers I know would balk at being ordered to decimate an innocent village for economic reasons, but I get what happened. Cameron was going for a mythic story, and in myths evil is clearly evil. Okay, I get it.

But the problem is that it would have been a far more compelling story if he'd gone another way with it. After all, the Earth is dying, and the material on Pandora could help. Instead of making the Colonel a bloodthirsty stooge for corporate interests, he could have been portrayed as a noble hero seeking to save his own dying race, but put in the unfortunate position of having to make tough decisions to reach that goal. The film could have made us, for just a moment, consider that maybe the Colonel's side is the one we should be on.

Joss Whedon made this sort of point in the DVD commentary on season one of Dollhouse, in reference to the episode "The Man on the Street." And I paraphrase: "When you have a situation where two people that you completely agree with disagree with each other, that's good television."

It would not have taken much work to make us believe that the Colonel's motivations were noble, even if those noble motivations led him to order an attack on the innocent Na'vi. Instead, though, he was eager to attack the Na'vi, considering them barely even human.

Are there people like the Colonel out there, in every military? Sure, there probably are ... but they don't make for an interesting story. Making the villain into a cardboard cut-out doesn't make the nine foot tall blue aliens look more realistic by comparison. Because of the extreme nature of science fiction, it's even more important that the characters behave in realistic and believable ways.

I'm sure I'll have more thoughts in the weeks to come, and hopefully they'll cohere into an interesting essay topic ... but for now, those are my thoughts on the matter, for what they're worth.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Silence of the Baby Chicks

As any parent can tell you, parenthood is an endless source of fascinating experiences which eclipse any experience that comes before children entered your life. Even the mundane act of watching a documentary can turn into a harrowing period of emotional turmoil, as I found out a couple of days ago while watching Food, Inc., about the industrial food system in the United States ... which ended with my son in my arms, in tears, and me turning the film off in the hopes that I'd have the time to finish it soon.

Food, Inc., is a candid look at the industrial food growing and processing institutions. The film begins with a general overview of the situation, and one of the scenes depicted is of hundreds, possibly thousands, of baby chicks being placed on conveyor belts. Some of them reach the end of a conveyor belt and fall off into boxes. The next clip shows workers in this factory (I don't know what else to call it) grabbing the chicks, with gloves covered in some sort of inky substance, and pushing them onto a device which looks, from what I can tell, like they're basically stapling the chicks' necks. I assume it's some sort of tagging or stamping system. It wasn't really clear, and the dialogue to which this backdrop took place wasn't specifically addressing the plight of these chicks.

My son was on the couch with my wife, while I was working on the computer. Finally, about five or ten minutes later, as they're showing the slaughtering of a cow, my wife decides we can't watch this while Elijah's still up. He's not actually watching this part, because he's laying on the couch with a blanket over his head, but it's still too graphic, in case he whips the blanket off of his head. I turn the television off, then come over to take him to bed ... only to remove the blanket and find that his face is red and covered in tears. (You know it's bad when he cries inaudibly, because it means he's not seeking attention.)

"What's the matter?" ask I, assuming he saw the butchering. "Did you see something scary?" He looked back up at me with big, wide, bleary eyes and said:

"I don't want them to hurt the baby chicks! Why do they have to be mean to them?"

He then reaches out to me, grasping for some sort of logic to a universe that has horribly betrayed him, but instead finding only my neck around which to wrap his arms.

I lift him up, but have no idea what to say. "You know those chicken nuggets you love so much? Well, sorry to tell you this, but ..." No, that wouldn't help things. As a parent, I have realized a truth which I never grasped in my younger days, and one which, as an intellectual, I still sometimes struggle with:

Sometimes knowledge isn't helpful. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Still, in short order, he stopped crying forgot about it ... but I didn't. I never will.

In many ways, Elijah is very sheltered. I expose him to a lot of ideas, a lot of books and subjects, but try to control the ways that he's exposed. For this reason, he's very innocent, even compared to some other kids his age. He lost a little bit of that innocence in that moment, just as when he saw a cat run into the street and get hit by a truck, or when he realized that he could hurt his mother and I by screaming "I don't love you" when we send him to his room.

It's necessary for children to lose their innocence, of course ... but it's a tragic necessity. I grieve each time it happens, as he travels the long and painful road from a boy into a man.  The son I held in my arms a few days ago will go away, and he will be replace by a son who does not cry for the baby chicks. He may well be appalled by seeing them handled this way, and wish for more humane (and healthier) treatment, as I do ... but he won't cry for them.

But now, every time I see a baby chick, I'll likely think of this experience, and I will weep inside. Not for the chick, but for him, for my son, and his lost innocence.

Recommended books on healthy eating,
hypereating, the food industry, and so on: