“Cosmos” and Neil deGrasse Tyson, communicating astrophysics to a TV audience

IT'S ALL CONNECTED

IT’S ALL CONNECTED

“Have YOU seen ‘Cosmos’ yet???” has been one of my most commonly asked questions for the last week or so.

Astrophysicist, author, and all-around science advocate Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts “Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey,” a new installment of Carl Sagan’s 1980 “Cosmos” series.

My favorite episode of the four thus far is “A Sky Full of Ghosts,” in which Tyson explains perfectly to viewers that space and time are really two sides of the same coin, that most of the stars we see have already died, what black holes actually are, that gravity is the uniting force of all corners of space, and the fact that we can see certain stars at all is proof of the age of our universe.

I dare you not to be in total awe after this episode, of the science and of the effects and animation that carry you through Tyson’s mind-blowing journey.

He also debunks creationist views of Earth’s origins in every episode with so little effort and emphasizes the history of scientific discovery that have led us to what we know now. His enthusiasm for the scientific is infectious, as is his reverence for the things science has not yet figured out.

And finally, the show has proven to me that there is room for mass media and science to collide because we’re all innately curious, and curiosity is one of the driving forces behind our efforts to make sense of the starscape and our place in it.

 

The focus on “virtual reality” concerns me…

Screen Shot 2014-04-06 at 12.14.56 PMIn class last week, we watched some video demonstrations of Oculus, the virtual reality goggle developer recently bought by Facebook. One wearer virtually rode a roller coaster, and another shopped online in a virtual store.

What do those two things have in common? Both are framed as some technological advancement, but neither solve a problem.

My question when I see complex technology being used purely for amusement: With the enormous knowledge we now have about these technologies, why aren’t we doing more helpful things with them? There seems to be an increasing population with the knowledge and training to solve massive problems through technological development focusing on virtual reality and “concept startups.”

Of course, I know that many are doing useful things. We’re using technology to advance medical research, prevent disease, and solve our global energy crisis. But there is so much more work to be done, in those areas and in hundreds of others.

Increasingly, it’s so clear to me that simply because we can do something does not necessarily mean that we need to focus our finite amount of energy and resources on it. We have an actual reality that requires a lot of work. Can’t we focus on—and more importantly, fund—the widespread solving of problems, rather than increase our focus on innovation simply because “we can” and because “the graphics look cool”?

Suey Park and the Twitter Activist Revolution

The first part of this article explains the gist of the recent #CancelColbert hashtag that trended on Twitter in response to the show’s racism-cloaked-as-satire tweet, thanks to online media champion and activist organizer Suey Park.

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Suey Park

Months ago, Park started the #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag, which trended and led to a huge social media following and a growing online activist coalition, of sorts.

Following Park’s work for a few months has changed the way I thought about online activism.

I now see that comparing it with other types of activism is becoming irrelevant. Online social media activism can be a powerful force to be reckoned with, standing completely on its own. Online work shapes conversations and awareness, and changing the conversation is an influential political act.

I’ve watched Park’s work and the work of those who have supported her become incredibly successful at bringing people to the table to talk about issues they may not have felt they could talk about otherwise.

My favorite statement about the unique role unconventional media platforms play in engagement came from the always on-point site Black Girl Dangerous. BGD creator Mia McKenzie’s site tweeted:

Black Girl Dangerous offers a poignant reframing of media makers who work outside of mainstream platforms, which includes Park and the hashtag activism work she’s done. People who publish without connection to mainstream media are so often talked and thought about as “fringe commentators” or as people who don’t have a more heavily funded platform and, therefore, have to publish unconventionally.

Because of the work of Suey Park, Black Girl Dangerous, and so many other online activists, I’m seeing the less “mainstream” work of people who self-publish and utilize social media as reaching and empowering the audiences whose voices need to be heard most vitally.

Twitter activists are engaging people directly, stepping around the barriers to reaching audiences that mainstream media outlets inherently have and lessening the distinction between those who publish and those who receive information. It’s more than an alternative; it’s a powerful platform all its own when intelligent, hard-working people use it strategically.

And let’s be real: the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and tons of other major outlets have been publishing articles about Park’s activism. New media methods are reaching mainstream audiences. We should all be paying attention.

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Shared Celebration: a Fine Use of Texting

I come from a basketball family, and I was raised with a set of strong NCAA men’s basketball allegiances. Always root for the University of Kentucky, West Virginia University, the University of Dayton, and Notre Dame. Always root against Duke.

Hatred of Duke basketball was especially ingrained in me as a kid thanks to my growing up in Chapel Hill, but that wasn’t the true cause. The Anyone-But-Duke rule stems from a lethal combination of my extended family’s eventual proximity to Durham and Kentucky’s 1992 buzzer-beater loss in the final game of the tournament, which Sports Illustrated called “the greatest basketball game of all time.”

According to my family and Kentucky fans everywhere, that publication may have been correct, but the game’s ending was the worst. I was prenatal when that game was played, but I learned as much in the years that followed, hence the anti-Duke stance that prepped me so well for attending UNC.

So all of this leads to an eventful March on years like this one, when UNC, UK, and UD all made it to the madness, and especially sweet was today’s UK win, which allowed them to advance to the Final Four next weekend.

I occasionally voice my discontent with texting and constant carrying of cell phones, but technology has been my friend throughout the tournament thus far. (Thanks for that free streaming, NCAA, even though I have some serious issues with you.)

I was of course cheering on UNC whole-heartedly through the first two rounds, but when UK was the only of my teams left to cheer for today, I streamed the game on my laptop in Davis library and texted my mom and aunt to celebrate toward the end.

a lovely "basketball + cell phone" stock photo, for your viewing pleasure

a lovely “basketball + cell phone” stock photo, for your viewing pleasure

No one in my direct vicinity had nearly as much invested in the game as I did, so celebrating and sharing the experience of a major win was heightened by my cell phone. It would have been isolating to be silently cheering at my laptop in the stacks, but texting my aunt as she watched in an airport bar in Nashville and my mom who pulled off of the highway and into a sports bar in Greensboro to catch the end of the game made our all-caps celebratory text exchange into its own experience.

I think it’s healthy to be critical of continual technological “advancement,” but reflecting on my celebration today, I’m a bit more critical of my own critiques of tech.

Miss Representation: media coverage of women politicians

Miss Representation (which is now streaming on Netflix) covers an array of issues, and the whole thing is worth watching. If you’re like me, you’ll re-watch it a few times, and you’ll want to break it down and take it apart piece by piece, especially the part 41 minutes in that digs into the gaping gender disparity in politics.

After a long and all too familiar sequence of political commentators disparaging the credibility of female politicians based on looks and gender, Pat Mitchell, who is the president and CEO of Paley Media Center and the former president and CEO of PBS, says:

“There’s probably no more powerful influence on the way we view power than the way media treats power, and media treats power as defined by men because it has been, throughout our generation and the ones before, generally defined that way.”

Interviewees in that section of the film goes on to explain that writing articles about a politician’s looks or insulting a piece of clothing she wore is not only irrelevant and objectifying, but it also trivializes that individual, making her appear less powerful or credible.

At a panel I attended last year, former NC senator Ellie Kinnaird’s final words to the audience, nearly all of whom were women, was to run for office. She brought up the fact that women are often not asked to run for office as persistently or as frequently as men are, so she encouraged us to tell the women leaders that we knew to consider running.

Media is perpetuating the image of what power and intelligence looks like, and with its often embarrassing coverage of female politicians, it affects what we imagine politicians can hope to be in the future, as well. If we see strikingly few female politicians holding public office and watch as so many media organizations follow their careers in a horribly sexist way, how are we supposed to see a future when it will be desirable for more women to pursue public office?

The best we can do now—and absolutely must do—is encourage women to run and demand that the press will fairly cover their achievements and actions and than it will stop visually dissecting bodies and discounting logic as emotional defeat.

“Broad City”: the most hilarious show about twenty-something-year-old women figuring out life in New York yet

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the glorious Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer

I started watching Broad City last night, and I cannot believe I did not start watching it sooner. This show focuses the best friendship of two women living in New York in their early twenties. And it does that without feeling like any other shows that may feature a similar description. And it’s hilarious.

(Also, in keeping with the show’s theme of finding round-about ways of getting things when money is tight, shout-out to the sister of the friend of the friend whose Hulu Plus account I’m currently using for this particular binge-watch….whoever you are, you’re the best.)

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In awe of your generosity ❤

Rather than ramble about why I like the show, here is a short list of reasons why you, too, should love Broad City:

-Ilana and Abbi’s terrified reaction to having to venture into the Upper East Side—not Harlem—is SPOT. ON. Ilana calls it “a horrible, vapid wasteland.”

-It’s actually laugh-out-loud funny.

-Lines like, “You’re so anti-racist sometimes that you’re actually really racist.” They really hit the liberal-arts-educated-but-still-trying-to-be-young-and-edgy nail on the head with that one.

-Despite doing a lot of positive things, the show is not self congratulatory.

Ilana’s outfits.

-New York appears as both completely fascinating and disgusting, both of which it actually is.

-It’s still funny.

-Lincoln, Ilana’s dentist non-boyfriend.

-And his endearing conversations with dogs.

-Abbi and Ilana’s experience with the accountant. (Particularly poignant because I was doing taxes five minutes before watching that episode.)

-The characters get to experience actual joy, even when their lives aren’t exactly representative of classical success. They’re resilient and find ways to get happy anyway. Y’know, what actual people do everyday!

Now, go forth and watch!

Now, go forth and watch!

White-washed Children’s Books and Single Stories Leave Kids Lost, and There’s a Way Out of It

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The New York Times recently published an incredible opinion piece by Walter Dean Myers about the lack of people of color in children’s books.

In a particularly poignant passage, Myers describes the way his voracious love for books turned into a problematic relationship:

“As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the “black” representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

Books did not become my enemies. They were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable. I stopped reading. I stopped going to school. On my 17th birthday, I joined the Army. In retrospect I see that I had lost the potential person I would become — an odd idea that I could not have articulated at the time, but that seems so clear today.”

This passage made me think of another writer’s perspective. One of acclaimed author Chimamanda Adichie’s incredible TED Talks about, what she calls, “the danger of a single story” is something I’ve returned to many times when I’m writing.

She details her upbringing on a university campus in Nigeria, where she read mostly British books. She began to realize, like Myers, that the lives she read about were not her own, but it didn’t even occur to her that books could be about experiences like her own until she finally read some.

She talks about the stories she began to write as a child:

“I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather—how nice it was that the sun had come out. Now, this, despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather because there was no need to.”

Adichie uses her own life to illustrate the need for a diverse spectrum of narratives to choose from, a wide variety of voices to be heard. The danger of the single story, she explains later, is the potential for a complete misreading of a group based on the idea that one story can perfectly represent all people with somewhat similar experiences or similar identities.

Drawing on the clear pictures Myers and Adichie present of this problem, I break down the need for representation of a wide variety of racial identities in children’s books—and diversity in the media as a whole—into two major points:

1. People belonging to marginalized groups need to see more people with experiences like theirs reflected in the media. We see media images, both consciously and subconsciously, as models for our own lives. When the only people we see in media who are like us are minor characters, are not protagonists, are one-dimensional, or are altogether absent, we can begin to see ourselves in the same light.

2. People belonging to dominant groups need to see more people with experiences unlike theirs reflected in the media. By gaining the ability to relate to people who are not just like us, we also gain understanding. We learn to understand lives that are not lived identically to our own, and by doing so, we become more empathetic people, less likely to write off those who we don’t immediately understand.

Kids of all races and ethnicities are being slighted by the current imbalance. The children’s book issue is an indicator of the much wider media representation problem, and it’s an important indicator. Books are some of the first exposures to media we have, at a crucial time when we’re learning about society, about who we are, and about what we can one day become.

Myers writes about finally reading a story that spoke to his experience, saying:

“Then I read a story by James Baldwin: “Sonny’s Blues.” I didn’t love the story, but I was lifted by it, for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew. By humanizing the people who were like me, Baldwin’s story also humanized me. The story gave me a permission that I didn’t know I needed, the permission to write about my own landscape, my own map.”

When publishers support children’s books about non-white characters, about characters who defy gender norms, about characters who have dynamic abilities and emotions, about all kinds of family structures, etc., those publishers are giving kids validation.

To borrow Myers’ analogy, the more kids receive that permission to be and appreciate themselves, the more people may be able to end up, one day, comfortably moving through the world according to their very own maps.