Thursday, October 22, 2009

The most beautiful Youtube video I've ever watched.

Get these left handed lovers out of your way
They look hopeful but you, you should not stay
If you want me to break down and give you the keys
I can do that but I can’t let you leave
The video below makes me weep, but I can't stop watching it.

Shot on the Canon 5D Mark II (same camera we used to shoot my feature, A Beautiful Belly) by filmmaker Jon Rawlinson at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan (the world's largest), the video features a simple wide-angle view of dozens of people watching the whale sharks, mantas, and other assorted rays and fish that inhabit the exhibit, all set to music by Barcelona.

I can't quite put my finger on why this video grips me so, but I find it both exquisitely beautiful and frightfully sad. There's the obvious level of aesthetic beauty — the incredible ballet of awesome aquatic wildlife set to haunting music — but the video somehow speaks of deeper spiritual truths. I've watched it again and again, and each time I experience something new.

See the mundane actions of simple human observers: a child more interested in playing with the retractable belt-stanchions that surround the exhibit than in watching the massive beasts held captive for his pleasure; a woman watching the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle through the low-quality viewfinder of her cell phone camera; a man turning to face a friend, mugging for the camera with "Tricky Dick" peace signs over his head; men in hats who stroll past, almost disinterested; the occasional flash of someone taking a photograph for posterity.

See the boggling multitude of ancient and other-worldly creatures in an endless dance of light and motion: 21,000 specimens swirling in almost 2 million gallons of turquoise water; manta rays that glide like angels and 20-ton sharks as gentle as guppies.

See the awe and arrogance of a staggering achievement of human engineering and aquaculture: we have conquered the unfathomable power of the abyss; creatures that haunted Magellan's nightmares now held prisoner like giant goldfish; eons of evolution reduced to an attraction for tourists, who'll no doubt exit through the gift shop.

The video represents the best and worst of human behavior: our wonder and lack of wonder; our love of nature and simultaneous desire to tame it; the astounding personal sense of freedom we draw from an encounter with the captives of our own imaginations.

I recommend you watch this in full-screen if at all possible. Let it load all the way to avoid unnecessary bumps in playback, and tune out the background chatter of your life. This video is amazing, and you deserve to be amazed by it: how could it possibly fail?

My congressman's smarter than your congressman.

I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Rep. Alan Grayson. The guy's arrogant, brash, and often tactless, but he's also one of the only Democrats in Congress who actually gets why we sent him there. The more Grayson steps up, the more I forgive him his faults and applaud his cojones.

Here he is schooling the GOP on their idiotic (and unconstitutional) legislative attempt to punish ACORN.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Two old guys with very different takes on gay marriage.

Pat Robertson is once again turning bigotry into an art form with the video below. "I don't really believe homosexuals want to get married," he says, they just want to destroy everything that impedes "their particular way of having sex."

Whether one believes gays deserve marriage equality or not, it is simply hateful to question their motives. Even if you believe gay marriage will destroy heterosexual unions (as absurdly irrational as that may be), it does not follow that the destruction of hetero marriage is the goal of the gay rights campaign. Can we at least be humane enough to assume that the group we're discriminating against wants exactly what they say they want?

To those ends, I found the video below at Current. In it an 86-year-old Republican WWII vet asks, what did he fight for if not equality for all? Very moving.

Cool infographic explains why you and I can't get along.

Found this via BoingBoing. It strikes me as a fairly balanced and accurate breakdown of liberal vs. conservative thinking. What do you think?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Vic Mizzy, composer of the "Adams Family" and "Green Acres" themes, dead at 93.

Caught this on Salon:
Mizzy has said that he didn't mind if people only remember him for the finger snaps at the start of the "The Addams Family" theme song. After all, he said "two snaps got me a mansion in Bel Air."

"A Glorious Dawn" by Carl Sagan (featuring Stephen Hawking)

I love this. Also, Carl Sagan sounds even more like Kermit the Frog when set to autotune:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Google Street View mission as buddy road-trip movie = hilarious.

Updated: Taking On Bad Biblical Archaeology.

This post was originally published on September 29th. See updated portion at the bottom.

An interesting little story has caused a stir in certain circles of the interwebs. An Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, allegedly published a report that archaeologists have discovered Egyptian coins bearing the likeness of the biblical Joseph (photographed above in his traditional technicolor dreamcoat).

I say allegedly, because unless you live in Egypt and can read Arabic, there's no primary source for this report. Instead, it comes to us translated via the Middle East Media Research Institute (or MEMRI) and has since been picked up by various Arab and Israeli news organizations and right-wing wack-job American bloggers. Meanwhile, the story has not been picked up by any reputable archaeology publication, the New York Times, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, or even Fox News.

According to the report, a group of researchers discovered the coins . . . wait for it . . . in the museum's vault. No word yet on where they really originated. Interestingly, while some American readers are fixating on the Joseph-ness of the coins (claiming them to be proof of the Bible's historical reliability), this was not the focus of the article. In fact, the article takes for granted Joseph's existence, focusing instead on the fact that the find proves that coinage was in use during Joseph's life, a time thought to be dominated by bartering.

Now, I love these kinds of stories because I find biblical archaeology exciting, but it doesn't take a scholar to see the numerous problems with this report. (Before I go any further with this, I'd like to point out that while seeking additional sources for this blog, I stumbled upon this wonderful blog entry by Todd Bolen, a biblical literalist who has dismissed this report using many of the same arguments I'll make here).

The first problem with the report is bad journalism. No dates are given (neither for the age of the coins, nor for the time of their actual discovery), and there's only one source for the story, a Dr. Sa'id Muhammad Thabet, the head of the research project that claims to have found the coins. Also, there's no clear photographs of the coins in question.

In addition to these critiques of the original Al-Ahram story, one should also consider the reliability of the source for the English translation. Of MEMRI, the UK Guardian's Middle East editor Brian Whitaker has said, "it poses as a research institute when it's basically a propaganda operation" and has accused the organization's co-founder Meyrav Wurmser of extreme Zionism.

The second problem with the report is that Dr. Sa'id Muhammad Thabet appears to have used the Koran to authentic the claims of his find. "This [find] prompted researchers to seek and find Koranic verses that speak of coins used in ancient Egypt," says the report, while no mention is made of scientific testing of the materials and only vague mentions are made of non-Koranic writings.

The third problem, already hinted at, is that the report itself is just generally vague and absent of hard facts. Here I'll lift directly from Todd Bolen's response on his blog:
A statement like this: “Some of the coins are from the time when Joseph lived in Egypt.” There is no time (singular) when scholars believed Joseph lived. There are various theories about when he lived. No credible source would make this statement without a discussion of when the “coins” date to and how we now know when Joseph lived.
I would only go further in pointing out that, to date, there is absolutely no archeological or historical evidence outside of Hebrew scripture (or the Koran) that Joseph ever existed as a real person. Not saying he didn't, only that we have no evidence.

And most suspect of all is where the report originated. As I already mentioned, the only media outlets to carry this story have been organizations for which it serves an agenda. No mainstream media or scholarly journals have reported on this supposed find. In response to this criticism, some may claim media blackout, that liberal atheists don't want the truth to get out. To this I have two retorts: 1.) Where's Fox News? Surely, their audience would eat this up. 2.) Does anybody remember the Jesus Family Burial Box?

The alleged discovery in 2002 of a burial box belonging to Jesus' brother became an absolute media sensation. Every news outlet carried the story, and it sparked numerous documentary specials and programs. The inscriptions on the box were later found to be a hoax, but there's no question that biblical archaeology makes great headlines, and the mainstream media isn't going to sit on a story that validates the existence of one of the great popular heroes of the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian faiths.

This would have been one hell of a story if it were real, but it's not. It is sad to see people so easily duped by their own need to find evidence for their beliefs.

Update, October 18:

Finally, some experts are weighing in on this story, validating my view from the beginning. Here are responses from Beliefnet, the Baptist Press, and World Coin News. Turns out there's no basis for believing the objects pictured below are coins at all, and they present no evidence of being associated with the biblical Joseph.
“The items appear to be scarabs or scaraboids,” said David Hendin of New York, an expert in ancient Judaean coins. “Sometimes archaeologists are under pressure to ‘discover’ something and get publicity to justify the funds they have spent on an excavation, but this one is so far off the wall, and supplies no relevant facts, that it is hard to evaluate."

Melody Made Easy: the Musical Genius of Elton John

It's no secret to those who know me well that I'm a big fan of Elton John's music. In the history of rock song-writing, only Brian Wilson, in my view, rivals Elton's gift for effortless melodic craftsmanship. Emphasis on the effortless.

It's a well-known fact that Elton never writes his own lyrics (he's most frequently worked with lyricist Bernie Taupin), but many people don't realize how quickly he works. In fact, the majority of his classic melodies were composed in a matter of minutes, which may account for how he managed to release ten albums of new material between 1970 and 1975.

Youtube is a virtual treasure trove for fans of Elton's classic period, with countless live performances from the 70s, early demos, unreleased tracks, and a multitude of interviews. Below are three videos I've found particularly interesting. In the first, Elton composes a song on the spot from a set of oven instructions. In the second, he performs a similar trick from the pages of a play. The final video, however, is perhaps the most notable. It presents rare interview footage from 1971, filmed before the release of Madman Across the Water, in which Elton demonstrates his songwriting process by performing a little ditty he'd knocked out just a coupla days earlier, a little something called "Tiny Dancer." Since the track had not even been recorded yet, this is the oldest existing performance of that song.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Smithsonian to launch human evolution hall in 2010!

This article clears up my summer plans for next year, announcing a planned human evolution exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (see artist's rendering of the exhibit above). This is the first time the museum has curated an entire hall dedicated to covering the six million years (or thousand, whatever) of human evolution. Color me excited!