Thoughts on “Cosmos”

I just finished watching the first episode of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s revival of the classic Carl Sagan series. Now, on one hand, I’m a fan of the classic “Cosmos.” I’ve liked everything I’ve seen from it. It has a unique way of blending together the big with the small, the old with the new, and the abstract with the concrete. On the other hand, I’ve never actually seen the whole series. While I’ve had it on DVD for years, I’ve only watched maybe half the episodes.

So I came into the new “Cosmos” as an interested party, a fan of the old series, but not an expert. I have a preexisting love for Sagan and Tyson, and less fond feelings for producer Seth MacFarlane and the Fox network in general. But I talked up the show before it aired and made sure to watch it right when it aired.

There was a lot to like about the show. The effects were gorgeous, light years beyond the simple animations and computer effects of the original series. Tyson made complex ideas accessible, and gave a lot of little tastes and hints about huge, mind-blowing ideas, which people could easily find out more about on their own. There’s a lot about the methodology of science, and how our knowledge builds up over time. The “cosmic calendar” metaphor works better than the 24-hour clock metaphor Tyson employed in “Origins.” There’s no sense of apology or embarrassment or uncertainty about basic (but nonetheless controversial) science, like evolution or anthropogenic climate change or the age of the universe or the big bang.

There was a lot to dislike, too. I worried a bit, given Seth MacFarlane’s involvement and the way he’s used “Family Guy” as an unsubtle way to beat viewers over the head with his personal atheism, that “Cosmos” would be similarly blunt on the topic of religion. There’s a time and a place for that sort of thing, but “Cosmos” shouldn’t be it. More time should be spent kindling that ‘religious’ awe for the natural world than explicitly attacking believers. The new “Cosmos” managed to disappoint me in both ways in this regard; on one hand, it had a lengthy (and at least somewhat ahistorical) animated digression on Giordano Bruno, characterizing him as a lone heliocentrist scientist against the oppressive church. I was skimming along with the Wikipedia article on Bruno during the segment, noting places where the storytelling glossed over or twisted facts for the sake of narrative. On one hand, it painted Bruno as a man whose religious ideas drove him toward scientific truth, and whose idea of God was more expansive and awesome than the contemporary orthodoxy; on the other, it made him into a scientific martyr, right down to showing him ascending into the heavens in multiple visions, arms outstretched and knees bent in a crucifixion pose. Later, as Tyson went through the history of human history, specific mention was made of the “births” of Moses, Jesus, Buddha, and Mohammed, at least two of whom were likely never “born” at any point in history. Somehow the show managed both to bend over to accommodate religion, and to attack the church and give science its own Christ figure.

I realize that the show was limited in scope, and couldn’t go into detail on everything, but I really wish there were even a couple more lines to indicate why some scientists believe in a multiverse or what current research has shown about the origins of life. I hope the latter question will still be addressed in a future installment, but this episode’s brief treatment of it made it sound like it’s still a complete mystery.

To get to the nitpicks, I’ve always thought the Ship of the Imagination was the cheesiest part of the original “Cosmos,” and while the effects here are better, the idea still feels kind of out of place. Tyson has a history of picking at science mistakes in movies like “Titanic” and “Gravity,” so it’s weird to see him helming a show that depicts the asteroid belt and Kuiper belt as such densely-populated regions of space. The amount of commercial interruption was ludicrous, but more ludicrous was the commercial for “Noah” right in the middle, showing off similarly expensive and pretty special effects in service of a much less evidence-based story. The animated segment, in addition to its other flaws, looked like a cross between a five-year-old Flash animation and ten-year-old cel-shaded cartoons, very out of place in the otherwise space-age show.

Overall, I have high hopes that future episodes will have tighter foci and greater depth, but this first installment was a pretty mixed bag.

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Disappeared for a Reason

When I was a kid, I watched an assload of Unsolved Mysteries, and one of my wife’s preferred background-noise shows now is Disappeared (and a myriad of other Dateline-type true crime shows). While the late Robert Stack was just as likely to talk about alien abductions or ghost sightings, the series did often talk of unsolved murders, abductions, and disappearances, the latter of which is Disappeared‘s raison d’ĂȘtre.

So a question occurred to me this morning, while the latter show was on: what if some of these “disappeared” people are in the Witness Protection Program?

I imagine the chances of that are pretty slim, but with all the hundreds or thousands of people who get profiled on these shows, it seems like eventually that number is going to come up. Then, suddenly, you’ve got the original names and faces and circumstances of disappearance and other vital information of two people in hiding broadcast on national television, almost certainly with some number or organization to contact if you have information about their disappearance. Seems like that would be an absolute nightmare for anyone in Witness Protection.

And I don’t see a way around it, either. It’s not like the US Marshals can provide a list of names to Investigation Discovery and say “don’t do episodes about these people,” can they? Wouldn’t that be like making a hit list, saying “these people are still alive and in hiding, contrary to what the people who want them dead believe”?

It’d be interesting to know if this has ever happened, or how they prevent it, but I suspect a lot of that information might be kept secret.

Answering a Challenge

Akusai and I have been conversing quite a bit lately over GMail Chat about the recent skeptic infighting. Yesterday’s exchange was very odd, with an unintentional one-upping of overextended metaphors. The end result had Akusai literalizing “grassroots” and me coining the term “Joe Everygay.” As a challenge, Akusai said my next analogy should involve the Transformers. Well…

At least they color-coordinate well.So, there’s this faction of Autobots called the Protectobots. As their name implies, their role is mainly to protect people. Their alternate modes are all rescue vehicles–a MedEvac helicopter, a fire truck, a police car, etc.–and they combine to form the giant robot Defensor.

Now, the Protectobots are useful, don’t get me wrong. They’ve successfully defeated the brutal Combaticons, and they’re one of the few early Autobot combiner groups. But mostly, their utility is in defense (as the name implies), rescue work, and cleanup. It doesn’t help that at least two of their members are pacifists, which has caused friction in the past (like when Defensor was left with only one arm because pacifist medic First Aid refused to fight). They may be great if you’re a wounded Autobot or a human trapped in a burning building, but they aren’t much use at actually driving off the Decepticon invasion.

On the other hand, you have the Dinobots. As their name implies, they turn into dinosaurs (sort of; I mean, I’m pretty sure pteranodons aren’t technically dinosaurs, but you get my drift). They’re strong and loud and not particularly subtle, and they can often be found taking on significantly larger enemies with little regard to whether or not they’re outclassed. Much gooder! But not more gooder enough!They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed, but they’re certainly the heaviest, and they’re loyal to a fault–at least, to whomever happens to be strongest. In a fight, you want the Dinobots on your side–and you want to stay out of their way.

Most Autobots fall somewhere along the spectrum between these two groups. Warpath is a loud and energetic little tank whose eagerness to fight far outstrips his ability. Perceptor is a thoughtful scientist whose capabilities in battle are limited by his microscope alternate mode. Kup, Ironhide, and Optimus Prime are all old warriors, willing to fight when necessary and preferring diplomacy when possible, but always striving for peace and an end to the Decepticon menace–which is ultimately the goal of all Autobots, whatever their role happens to be in the war.

If all the Autobots were pacifistic Protectobots or battle-hampered scientists like Perceptor, the war against the Decepticons would have been lost ages ago. Things would be similarly dire if all the Autobots were as blunt and unrestrained as the Dinobots–sure, the Decepticon forces might be damaged, but so would everything else around them. Were all the Autobots to rush in like Warpath, not thinking ahead or considering the odds, a well-crafted Decepticon plot could wipe them out just as effectively as wiping out the pacifists. The Autobot army needs both groups to function–but moreover, it needs members with versatility: Blaster‘s boombox alternative mode is mostly suited to communications and entertainment, but he is able to use that in an offensive manner when necessary; Ratchet might be a medic, but he’s no slouch with a gun. Some Autobots are able to use their specializations offensively; some Autobots are just able to move seamlessly from defense to diplomacy to offense as the need arises.

Altogether, they make a pretty effective team. The Dinobots and their ilk can charge in, attack and distract and occasionally demolish an enemy; the Protectobots can clean up and attend to the bystanders, ensuring that any collateral damage is minimal, and the rest of the Autobots can assist one, or the other, or both, or work in totally separate areas on different problems. The Protectobots would assist no one by insisting that the Dinobots be less aggressive, and the Dinobots would get nowhere by trying to make the Protectobots take the offense. The team’s effectiveness comes from their differences in focus, specialty, attitude, and strategy, and from the willingness and ability of most members to support and assist with any plan of action. Those who would lead the Autobots would do well to recognize and accept this state of affairs, and to realize that it’s foolish to try to apply the same tactics, strategy, and soldiers to every situation.
Also, skeptics can turn into cars. True story.

How’s that for an analogy?

Minor things

First, this column at Slacktivist is amazing.

Second, tomorrow is Wednesday, January 27th. At 10:00/9:00 Central is the mid-season premiere of Psych on USA Network. I’ve been planning to write up a full post about Psych for some time, but every time I pop in one of the nifty DVDs I got for some recent winter gift-giving festival, I get a little distracted. I hesitate recommending the show only because it sometimes feels like it’s targeted directly at my weird ’80s-reference-based sense of humor, and I don’t know if that works for many people. It certainly doesn’t work for a lot of the people who hear my weird ’80s-reference-based attempts at humor. In any case, the relevance to this blog is that Psych is one of the best skeptical shows on TV. Now, it’s not hard science or skepticism like Mythbusters or anything; it’s more skeptical in the vein of the original Scooby-Doo. For those who don’t know, it’s a mystery series following a fake psychic detective who works with a somewhat credulous police department. The protagonist is hyper-observant, which serves him both in the over-the-top psychic pantomime and the whole mystery-solving routine. Despite having some potential rooting in woo-woo, the show has tackled “real” psychics, ghosts, mummies, and other “paranormal” topics without ever giving credence to the supernatural. In the end, it always turns out to be the dude who owned the abandoned amusement park.

To recap: tomorrow night. Catch it!

Finally, I never quite managed to write up my review of They Might Be Giants’ newest album, the absolutely incredible “Here Comes Science.” Had I done so, I would have mentioned that my only real problem with the entire album was that their video for the song “Put it to the Test” used the word “theory” when they really meant “hypothesis.” See for yourself:

Simply fantastic. If you like science and quirky music, the album comes highly recommended, and you should pick it up. If you don’t like quirky music, then the album comes highly recommended, and you should pick it up for your kids!

Gosh, this post comes across sounding like a commercial, doesn’t it? I hope my corporate paymasters are paying attention.


1. If you don’t know already, They Might Be Giants recorded a song in the ’80s called “Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas).” It was a cover of an educational song from the ’50s, and they rerecorded it for “Here Comes Science.” The cool part is that, recognizing how much we’ve learned since 1951, the next track on the album is a follow-up called “Why Does the Sun Really Shine? (The Sun is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma).” Not only do they update and correct the earlier tune, but they manage to work the line “that thesis has been rendered invalid” into verse.

“And you draw the line at intelligent breasts?”

So, there’s this new Reebok commercial for their EasyTone shoes, which supposedly help work out your butt as you walk. It seems to me that shoes which leave you more tired after walking than you would normally be are defeating some of the point, but whatever. Here’s the ad:

Oh FSM, it’s been way too long since I watched any Coupling. Anyway, my second thought upon seeing that commercial is this: who’s the audience? I’ll admit, I was enthralled, but I don’t think I’m going to go out and purchase any butt-toning shoes for women, and while Reebok does men’s EasyTone shoes as well, you’d never know it from the commercial.

Presumably, the commercial is for women, but I have a hard time imagining that many women would be likely to have the same reaction to the commercial I did. Not only is it quite sexualized and objectifying, but it portrays even a woman’s individual body parts as jealous, catty, and shallow. How does that appeal to any woman?

Is it just ridiculously tone-deaf and poorly targeted, or do I understand women even less than I previously thought?

And I thought “A Haunting” was bad

I was flipping channels when I stumbled on a show called “Scary…but True” on the Chiller network. I’ve managed to catch quite a bit of “Unsolved Mysteries” over the last several days, and I’ve heard more than a little gobbledygook about the coming apocalypse in 2012, but this show might be the dumbest thing I’ve seen in months. It’s essentially Teen Ghost Hunters, with a liberal application of spooky narration and “Blair Witch Project”-inspired camerawork and ‘acting.’ The apex of stupidity: a kid spent the night in a haunted firehouse, was awakened by a noise, and went upstairs to investigate with his infrared camera. He was freaked out by a “grinning face,” which he even zoomed in on with his camera! It was…a piece of fabric, draped over something, and one section of the folds looked vaguely like a Comedy mask. He later said that this convinced him that ghosts were totally real, or something. It’s one of the lamest and most obvious bits of pareidolia I’ve ever seen on television, and it’s played totally straight.

If you happen to get Chiller, try to track down this show. It’ll make you real hopeful about the younger generation.

What the fuck, Discovery Channel?

You know, I realize that the Discovery Channel isn’t exactly a bastion of critical thinking and good science. It’s pretty much “Mythbusters” and the occasional special, and then everything goes downhill. Much like the History Channel, which seems to be about ghosts, Nostradamus, UFOs, “Bible history,” and conspiracies any time it’s not Nazis.

But “A Haunting”? Really? I’m watching their notoriously unreliable Urban Legends show, which is bad enough (interviewing “self-proclaimed Psychic Twins” about mistaken identity? Really?), but then this dreck comes on. Now, I’ve heard about “A Haunting” before–it’s the show that tells hour-long “paranormal” anecdotes entirely through voiceover, dramatization, and interviews with the anecdote presenters–and I knew it was terrible, but I had no idea.

And this is speaking as someone who grew up on “Unsolved Mysteries;” at least they told multiple stories per episode, some of which may have had some element of truth. This? This is ridiculous. It has an opening segment that would be better suited for “The Outer Limits” (or better yet, “Tales from the Darkside”) and sound cues stolen directly from “Torchwood.” A kid gets scared at night in the woods surrounding his house, and he’s “a very logical person,” so it can’t possibly be something normal. Gosh, strange noises and sights in a house surrounded by forest? I would never have expected such a thing. They hire a priest, a “paranormal investigator” who goes on about gravity and vortices and “impossible,” and then a “respected psychic” who tells them that their house was the site of several murders, where bodies were kept in the crawlspace until they could be buried. It seems to me what they need is an exterminator, a babysitter, and a psychiatrist. The “logical” kid is our token skeptic, but if the reenactment is any indication, he’s jumpy and dumb. Oh, and he saw “orbs of light in the trees.” Fucking fantastic.

I came into this episode in the middle (I was on the phone for the beginning), so I can’t say much about it, but it’s pretty clearly written by someone who’s seen “Poltergeist” and “The Amityville Horror” a few too many times. Oh noes, things stackeded in middle of room! I must haz a ghosts!

Sigh…it’s a trainwreck, and I can’t look away. If it’s on again tomorrow, I think I may liveblog it. Because, you know, I’m a glutton for punishment.

On an unrelated note, why is Discovery Channel using “Gimme Shelter” to advertise their show about going into space? Specifically the line “war, children, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away”? I mean, it’s catchy and upbeat, but you really ought to listen to the lyrics before you use the song.

I’ve been playing a lot of “Rock Band” lately with some friends, and let me tell you, it’s weird as fuck to sing that song. It’s a little hard to belt out Mick Jagger’s upbeat “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away” several times in a row.


Edit: Another episode of this crap showed up while I was doing dishes. Not even a token skeptic in this bunch. We have a family who hired the Nick and Nora of paranormal investigators–a “religious demonologist” and his ancient clairvoyant wife–and their student, a worthless fucking tool who claims to believe in ghosts “the way most people believe they’re breathing air. It’s not even a question.” The family is beset by the most mundane of hauntings, with strange creaking noises and a “loud crash” that “couldn’t be natural.” I suppose “falling branches” are now an impossibility. Daddy has a bad dream where he’s covered in bugs, and it “felt so real,” therefore ghosts. Gosh, if I’m stressed and easily scared, I can’t possibly expect to have (ridiculously common) nightmares. When the five-year-old started choking, our worthless tool decided that the proper course of action would be prayer and salt and threatening the ghosts with Jesus; I don’t know, I think my first inclination would be the goddamn Heimlich Maneuver.

But the best bit is when Nick and Nora decide that they need to do an exorcism, but first they have to get permission from the Vatican. Oh great, not only is there an imaginary threat, but there’s imaginary bureaucracy. The whole bit reminded me of this example of imaginary protocol:


I think two hours W.O.O. would be appropriate punishment for these dipshits too.