A Documentary a Day Keeps the Psychiatrist Away

Most people are put off by documentaries and nonfiction books because they fear they will be educational, especially the mind-numbing kind of education they were exposed to when sentenced to 13 years of hard learning back in their K-12 prison days.  And yes, many documentaries and nonfiction books are as painful as classes back in high school.  However, and I mean a really big however, some documentaries and nonfiction books are mind blowing far out fun and entertaining – if you get off on learning about new things about this world and reality.  A good documentary should educate, but a wonderful documentary will entertain, and a great documentary will inspire.

As I have gotten older, I have become jaded to normal television entertainment.  It takes Breaking Bad quality to make me watch fictionalized television shows, so to fill up my old TV watching time I’ve turned to documentaries.  I’ve discovered if I can find the right documentaries I’m far more entertained than by watching 98% of fictional television shows.  More than that, I’ve discovered that watching a great documentary is uplifting for my mood, even if it’s about a depressing topic.  And the best documentaries inspire me with hope.  Documentaries can be elixirs for the soul.

For instance, last night I watched Touching the Wild on PBS Nature, about Joe Hutto spending seven years with Wyoming mule deer.  It took Hutto over two years of patiently following a herd of mule deer daily before they accepted him.  Eventually, he got to know them so individually that he named them.

Touching the Wild is about more than making friends with wild animals.  It’s an extremely profound philosophical work, about existence and death, about mind, language and intelligence.  One of the things that I’ve been learning from all of these documentaries is science is discovering that that animals are much closer to us mentally than we ever wanted to believe.  We are not God’s chosen creature.  We have no right to claim dominion over all the other creatures of this planet.  Nor can we claim our intelligence makes us superior. 

I am not a religious man, but this film was Biblical in its impact.  Strangely, I had seen Noah this weekend, and it makes you wonder if there was a creator, if he wouldn’t despise humans and want to wipe us out.  Christians babble on endlessly about being saved from sin, but I think it’s a childish cop-out to want to be forgiven.  We need to stop sinning to atone for our sins.  Watching Touching the Wild is like walking in Eden, we can blame the serpent all we want, but it is humans that are destroying paradise.

I was going to write this essay by listing dozens of great documentaries I’ve seen lately, but that would be too wordy I think.  I think instead I should tell you how to find great documentaries.  The highest qualities documentaries on TV are on PBS.  The next best source is streaming Netflix.  For instance I showed my friend Olivia Samsara yesterday that’s from Netflix.  She was blown away.

Cable TV has a lot of channels with documentaries and nonfiction shows, but most of its crap.  Sorry, but it’s true.  Some of it’s okay, but be careful.  The History Channel has such great potential, and sometimes it even has good shows, but all too often it has suspect information.  I wish it was peer reviewed by actually historians.  It would be great if actual Ph.D. historians had a chance to evaluate their documentaries in follow-up shows, because it would be enlightening to teach folks how they are being misinformed.  The History Channel has some good shows among the schlock, like The Universe, but they aren’t as well made as the science shows on PBS.  They tend to endlessly repeat the same animations and information.  Fox has redeemed it’s news division with Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, a 13 episode series currently appearing on Sunday nights, that would make Carl Sagan choke up with pride for his protégé Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Like I said, PBS is where it’s at, when we’re talking about documentaries on regular television.  Currently Wednesday nights are called Think Wednesday, that start with Nature and NOVA, and follow up a three part series called Your Inner Fish, based on Neil Shubin’s book of the same name.  Your Inner Fish should give creationists apoplexy and intelligence designers their worst nightmares, but for people who understand evolution it’s a thing of beauty.  If only Darwin could have lived to see it.

NOVA has been running a series on animal intelligence and last night show was about dogs.  Anyone who loves dogs should watch it, especially if you’ve wondered why your favorite pet knows when you are coming home.  By the way, if you have a Roku, get the PBS channel, and you can watch these shows if you missed them.  The Roku PBS Channel keeps current shows around for a few weeks like Hulu.

Throughout the week, PBS has fabulous documentaries.  Just take a chance and try some of them out.  They cover every subject you can think of, and more than you can’t.

The variety of documentaries at Netflix streaming is practically endless.  New ones appear faster than I can keep up.  If you add one to your queue, Netflix will recommend ten more on the same topic.  Often when I add one documentary, I’ll end up adding eight or ten because Netflix is good recommending more that fit my tastes.  And if you aren’t a documentary junky, you’ll be surprised by how many documentaries are being made each year.   Just look at four music documentaries I recently watched.  The variety of all documentaries makes the word diverse quaint.

I’m not much of a traveler, so documentaries are my lazy-ass way of traveling the world.  I’m also on the shy side, so documentaries let me meet people I never would in real life.  But you have to be careful, some documentary film makers are very persuasive, and it’s easy to be convinced into believing bullshit.  We’re so used to fiction, that we accept what we see on TV.  That’s bad.  Being educated can be thrilling, and it doesn’t have to be boring.

What you really want, is to be inspired.  And sometimes you’ll find inspiration in the strangest places.  I’m not into fashion, but I found the documentary on Bill Cunningham, a fashion photographer for the New York Times, who is in his eighties and rides a bike around Manhattan, as very inspirational.  That’s the best thing about documentaries – seeing stories about people who stand out in their effort to achieve their ambitions.  Quite often I watch shows about people that overcome so many obstacles that aren’t in my way and still do things I only dream about.  They make me want to be a better person.

If I’m feeling blue and watch an inspiring documentary, my mind and soul will be uplifted.  If I’m feeling tired and watch a great documentary, I’ll be energized.  There’s more to TV than cop shows and sitcoms, and before reality shows, there were documentaries – shows about the real reality.

JWH – 4/17/14

Possible Outcomes of Climate Change Politics

Most people believe climate change is happening now and we’re the cause.  Yet, there are millions of people doing everything they can to prove we have no problem at all.  These people are climate change deniers.  Of course, these folk feel they are right.  To these people I ask:  What if you’re wrong?  What happens if we follow your advice?  There are four possible outcomes.  If we follow your beliefs we will suffer two possible fates.  Are either of them good?

Global Warming True False
Do Something Save the World Save Energy
Do Nothing World Suffers Waste Energy/Pollute

Being a climate change denier puts you at risk of destroying civilization at worse, or promoting wasteful and polluting societies at best.  I don’t see how you can win either way.  Essentially you are litterbugs who don’t want to clean up your own mess, and even denies it exists.  All the things we need to be to protect ourselves from climate change involve virtuous personality traits, and all the things that go into denying the issue involve negative traits.

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Most climate change deniers are very religious, yet they are taking an ironic stand against being clean, accountable, disciplined, frugal, committed, cautious,  caring, moderate, cooperative, decisive,  temperate, pure, willing to sacrifice, industriousness, simplicity, and supporting many of the seven deadly sins instead – wrath, greed, sloth, pride, envy and gluttony.

Even if climate changers are right about global warming, won’t they end up being wrong anyway?

JWH – 4/12/14

How Close Can We Get To Each Other?

closeness

Aristotle claimed love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies.  Many people grow up hoping to find their soul mate, the other half of their being, but I’m afraid that’s just a romantic notion.  We’re all isolated souls.  We are singular beings surrounded by a vast infinite multiverse.  When we walk down the street, we feel the illusion of being a point-of-view several feet above the ground.  All of reality is what comes through our five senses.  When we meet another person, they are part of that outside reality.  The old saying that people are ships passing in the night is a beautiful analogy.  We’re lonely points of consciousness that occasionally collide, and we each live in a solitary universe of self-awareness.  My question is:  How close can we get to another person?

The biological urge to procreate drives us to get physically close, but even when we’re having sex, just how close are we to each other?  Sex implies zero physical distance, or even a negative distance if you count penetration, but is that the closest we can get to each other?  Getting naked might bring intimacy, but I’m not sure if it brings closeness of souls.  The old saying opposites attract has some merit.  It’s quite possible for two people to have passionate sex lives and not have anything in common emotionally or intellectually.

And how many aspects of our personality allow us to get close to another person?  The obvious, is we’re physical, emotional and intellectual beings, but is there more to consider?  The Autism Spectrum suggests we have a social awareness.  Is empathy different from social awareness?  That makes five ways.  How many more ways can we get close?

Sexual desire is a powerful force, like gravity, that pulls us together, but is the chemistry of love, the hormones of attraction, all that makes us want to get close?  Our modern society seems to be moving towards more and more isolation.  Does the intellect and ambition push us away from each other?  There are some people who get emotionally upset if they aren’t close to other people, and other people who need to spend most of their time alone.  Obviously the urge to be close is a spectrum.  But if we didn’t have a sex drive, would the urge to get close to another person be that strong?

What brings us closer together that’s not related to sex?  How powerful is common interests at bonding us?  Work brings people close.  Strangely enough, so does war.  Sports is a powerful social glue.  Art, music and literature link us in endless ways.  Science is an activity that twines us by learning the truth about reality.  Common causes and charity united people.  If you think about all of these factors, the overlapping element is focusing on something outside of ourselves brings us closer together. 

Isn’t that odd?  The thing that brings us closest are the things outside of ourselves.

Which makes me ask:  Is there anything inside our souls that we share?  Or is everything we desire, need and want, outside?  If two people are having sex, rubbing their genitals together, isn’t that also external, even though it feels so intimate and internal?  Sex has an illusion of being closer than any other activity, but is it?

Or, are you closer to another person when sharing a favorite TV show, or talking about growing up, or just fixing dinner?

JWH – 4/10/14

The Science of Faith

cosmos3

I am writing this in response to attacks on the TV show Cosmos by religious believers.  Cosmos represents a litmus test about the public’s understanding of science.  The series represents an overview of what science has learned in the last four hundred years.  Despite all the efforts of modern secular education, I think many of the ideas presented in Cosmos are new to a majority of the public.  Science and technology succeed in our society without the majority of the population even understanding it.

Cosmos represents a good consensus of what science knows about reality, and yet it is often in conflict with many people’s personal beliefs about how reality works because of their religious education.  Whether they accept it or not, science is in direct conflict with religion.

16_religionist_symbols

Religion is wildly popular  because people want to believe.  People want to believe because of psychological needs.  Religion is 100% hope for certain fantasies to be true.  Believers validate their beliefs by getting other people to share their hopes.  But, what if the faithful applied the rigor of philosophy and the discipline of science to their religion?  Truth about reality is revealed not through our personal desires, but through what works for all people.

Why are there so many different religions, sects, creeds, beliefs if they are true?  They can’t all be true.  Why is there little consensus among believers, and much contention and hatred?  Religious wars are infamous for their cruelty.  Now the faithful feel under siege by science.  And some even invent pseudo-sciences to defend their beliefs.  If their beliefs were an actual feature of reality wouldn’t they be universal and testable?

Instead of attacking science, or making up fake science, the faithful should apply science to their beliefs.  First, they should find the core beliefs they all share and develop a consensus as to what is true about God or gods.  Anything your religion believes that all the other religions don’t, should be immediately crossed off the list of things that are probably true.  If something is universally true, it should be universally believed by all people.  False beliefs can be infinite because we can imagine anything, but universal truths should be finite because reality only works one way.  What are the universal truths in religious beliefs?  If a religious concept doesn’t apply to all humans on Earth, or even all aliens on every planet in the multiverse, then it should be doubted.

Science works by seeking such universal truths, and this is why the faithful feel under attack.  Not only does science work in a consistent manner, with a fantastic track record, but it’s truth works the same for Americans and Chinese, for Russians and Iranians.  Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus can barely agree on anything amongst themselves, much less with other religions.  If the religious really want to prove themselves, they need to band together and make one religion.  The obvious reason why religion is false is because there are too many of them.

If you are a firm believer in any metaphysical concept, you have to consider it a desire on your part unless you can find consensus with others.  That’s why religious people are so big on converting new recruits.  Getting someone else to believe like you do, validates your own fantasies.  If you really want to believe in something that’s true outside of your head, you need to be more scientific.  Any belief you hold that isn’t shared by a majority of the other seven billion people on this planet should be considered suspect.  Science succeeds because it’s under constant suspect.  Ideas have to taking a beating and keep on ticking – by everyone.

Even if six billion believers get together and form an absolute consensus on Laws of Religious Concepts, it won’t necessarily mean these beliefs are true without additional proof.  If the consensus is there is one God and that God listens to everyone’s prayers, then you need to test this hypothesis.  Let’s say every day six billion people all pray for the same unique thing each day.  If the prayers are answered repeatedly over years, then you can assume your theory is correct.  If it is not, you will have to alter your theory to there is a God but he doesn’t listen to people.  You will need to find a way to test this hypothesis.

However, even without scientific proof, the beliefs of the faithful can never be considered real unless they find more consensus.  Religious minded people would help their cause if they sought agreement rather than constantly splintering into smaller groups.  You can’t beat science by altering the rules of science.  You can’t beat science by lying about it.  You can’t beat science by putting your head into the sand.

I can think of two beliefs that a majority of religious believers might embrace.  One, there is a creator.  Two, the Golden Rule.  And those two might still cause a lot of arguments.  But beyond that, there is little agreement among the faithful.  Which to me, means there’s little reason to believe them.

Instead of attacking science, the religious should embrace each other.  You can’t elevate religion by undermining science.  Religions have always succeeded by war – by killing the unbelievers.  If you want to prove your religion is true, prove what you believe, not what everyone else believes is false.  Science succeeds because it proves what’s true, what works.

My challenge to the faithful, start proving your beliefs work universally.  I’ll consider the first step towards that proof when all religions become one.

JWH – 4/7/14

Amazon Fire TV v. Roku 3 v. Apple TV v. Chromecast

Amazon just announced their Amazon Fire TV with a quad processor and 2GB of memory.  Since my Roku 3 only has a dual processor and 512MB of memory, I’m wondering if I should put a Amazon Fire TV in my Amazon cart.  The Amazon Fire TV also ups the Roku 3 with gaming, offering far more games than the Roku, or the Apple TV, plus it can use an option game controller.  See list of games and apps here.  I’m not really a gamer, but it’s a consideration.  My wife plays games on her laptop, so she might like it.  I need to see more gamer reviews before I spend $99 dollars to try it out.  But it’s a big advantage point for Amazon.

AmazonFireTV

[Click image to enlarge]

What really tempts me is the tech specs.  My Roku 3 has trouble streaming certain channels in primetime.  Now, this is most of all a problem with the Internet, and maybe even Net Neutrality, and not the Roku.  All of these devices are heavily depended on the speed of your Internet connection.  Recently upgrading to the Roku 3 did show that more CPU power does help, and more memory will too.  The Amazon Fire TV has a quad processor and 4X the memory.

Netflix streams fine anytime on my Roku 3.  But HBOGO and Warner Archive Instant both will crap out in primetime, frequently going to the reloading screen.  In the daytime, I get a HD signal with fast start ups and no stopping, but in Primetime, especially on the weekend, things don’t work as well.  I just wondered if the Amazon Fire TV with 2GB of memory could buffer that problem.  I’m not quite ready to order an Amazon Fire TV to find out, but I’m awful curious.  I don’t want to jump in right away, and because Warner Archive Instant and HBOGO are not listed for the Amazon Fire TV at the moment.

By the way, my streaming problem didn’t happen until a couple of months ago.  I’ve wondered if its because more people than ever are using streaming TV services, or has Net Neutrality issues popped up?  The quality of the TV picture on these devices is directly related to your Internet throughput.  But content can be interrupted by overwhelmed servers at the provider site, just like the Obamacare servers.  So I wouldn’t buy one of these devices unless you had at least 6 Mbps or better Internet.   Try Speedtest.net to check your speed.  Make sure you click the Begin Test and not any of the other buttons that trick you into buying stuff.  I got a 19.60 Mbps for download, and I still have problems on weekend nights.  I don’t think it’s the Roku or my Internet, but the content provider servers and peering deals.  Netflix pays its peering partners, so they get good throughput.

The big hold back – will Amazon Fire TV have all my favorite Roku channels?  One of many reasons why the Roku is superior to the Apple TV is the vast away of channels.  And the poor pathetic Google Chromecast is really a no show.  I didn’t send my Chromecast back, because my wife thinks she might have a use for it, but I haven’t found one yet.  To me, it was a one horse race until Amazon showed up.

My fear is Amazon Fire TV will be like the Apple TV, mainly gearing its content to what Amazon sells.  The Roku has over a thousand channels, and their numbers are growing fast.  They have Rdio and Spotify, which apparently Amazon and Apple do not.  Sure, most of those channels are crappy, but it does offer a tremendous variety, and crap is in the eye of the beholder. 

I don’t have cable TV and I don’t miss it because of my Roku 3.  Right now, it would be a step back in terms of streaming content, to switch to the Amazon Fire TV.  Over the years I’ve convinced many friends to try the Roku and they’ve all been very happy.  Some have even given up cable TV too.  I know a few people with Apple TV, and I’ve set up one for a friend, and it just hasn’t impressed me.  Because my Mac friends haven’t gushed about their Apple TV I assume it was ho-hum.  Even the guys at Mac Power Users podcast seem to prefer the Roku. 

I’m on my third Roku.  My first generation went to a friend who is still using it, and my second generation went to my wife’s apartment.  It’s going to be hard for me to switch, but not impossible.  I like new gadgets.  It’s still too early to run and buy an Amazon Fire TV.  I think I’ll at least wait until the Roku 4 comes out.

Which makes me ask:  How far can these internet TV boxes evolve?  The competition is obviously heating up.  What’s weird, is over the air broadcasting is heating up too, with new channels popping up from time to time.  Now, with internet TV, the competition to cut the cable TV cord is getting intense.

The one thing that cable TV has that most won’t give up is the DVR.  Internet TV could completely invalidate both broadcast and cable TV because it’s not time bound.  A Roku 3, Amazon Fire TV or Apple TV  do not have a DVR, but their channels work just like everything was already DVRed.  Instead of watching shows live over the air, I can watch them later on Hulu Plus or the PBS Channel on Roku.  So Internet TV boxes could be the wave of the future except for one thing – live sports.  Since I have no interest in sports, I’m good to go.  But I always warn people who ask me about the Roku, is if they love sports.  If they do, cable TV is still their meal ticket.

I’m mighty impressed with the Apple Fire TV specs and rollout.  I’m very tempted to buy one.  Susan has a Kindle Fire.  We are Amazon Prime users.  I keep my MP3 music at Amazon Cloud Music.  The world is dividing into Android v. iOS users, and in particularly, Amazon v. Apple as content providers.  The Amazon Fire TV runs on a customized Android OS.  Is there room for the Roku?

Here’s where the Roku has to go up to the plate and hit a few more homers to prove itself.  There’s still plenty of room to innovate.  Take the Rdio channel.  It’s bare bones.  Now the channels are created by the content providers, but Roku should help them improve with programming tool kits and standards.  I’ve even considered switching to Spotify because the Spotify Channel is better on the Roku.  However, I prefer Rdio’s software on the iOS and web.  Warner Instant Archive recently did an overhaul of their interface, but in many ways it was a step down.  The new look is slicker, but hides the content.  The apps on these devices are all still rather primitive.  Apple which is legendary for its Mac UI, falls down on the UI for it’s TV box.

Amazon gives their users voice search at the remote, which is a huge jump forward because typing in movie titles or actor names is tedious on the other streaming TV players.  Of course, Roku gives their users a headphone jack at the remote which is a very useful option.  I expect these devices to find plenty of ways to innovate and compete in the future.  I know most iPhone and iPad users assume they need to get Apple TV, but they really should consider the Roku or Amazon Fire TV.  It’s still too early to be locked in, especially at $99.

If you don’t already own a streaming Internet TV box, the choice now will be very hard to make.  I think Amazon wins on tech spec and slickness, Roku on content, and Apple for dedicated iOS users.  Because Amazon is an 8 million pound gorilla, and because Roku is not a household name, I’d bet that Fire TV will succeed like the Kindle Fire.

JWH – 4/3/14

Memorable Science Fiction Missing From Audible.com

I’ve been a member of Audible.com since 2002, and over that time I’ve watched as Audible’s library of classic science fiction has grown.  It’s been very impressive, and yet, there are many great science fiction books and authors that haven’t made it into their catalog.  I’m inspired to write this because of reading “Great Unsung Science Fiction Authors That Everyone Should Read” by Charlie Jane Anders at io9.com.  Our Classics of Science Fiction Book Club has been discussing this article, thinking up our own list of SF authors who have gone missing in action, or who we think young people should track down and try.

DemolishedMan1

I thought I’d look up on Audible to see if these authors are remembered, and list the number of audio books available.  You can click on the link to read about the author and their books at Wikipedia.  I only counted whole books in print at Audible, not single short stories.

These are authors we think deserve more attention.  Charlie Jane Anders was pretty good at picking writers that are mostly not in print at Audible.com.  That wasn’t her intention, but that’s how I used her list.  The book club picked a number of authors that Audible has done a bang-up job of remembering, like Edmond Hamilton.

First, Charlie Jane Anders lists these authors as deserving more attention:

Some of the authors we discussed at our book club.  I haven’t listed them all, because some were very obscure.

We had a few overlaps with Anders, but for the most part, our fond memories were for other writers.  Overall, Audible has lots of major science fiction novels it could still publish.  Especially, Alfred Bester or Samuel R. Delany, or even Michael Bishop?  However, I still give Audible.com an A+ for preserving classic science fiction.  Hell, they’ve published eight E. C. Tubb novels, and thirty A. Bertram Chandler books.  Some of these books haven’t seen the light of day since their original ACE Double publication.

Babel-17

The book club consists mainly of older science fiction fans from around the world that have a nostalgia for the science fiction they grew up reading.  We’re worried that some of our favorite books and writers might be forgotten when we’re no longer here to remember.  These aren’t necessarily our favorite writers, but the ones our faulty memories retrieved when we tried to remembered books we had mostly forgotten, but still remembered fondly.

I have to say that Audible.com is a great resource for old science fiction fans.

JWH – 4/2/14

Tim’s Vermeer–Art History Meets Technology

Penn and Teller’s new documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, is about Tim Jenison, founder of NewTek, a man with no drawing skills, deciding to paint a picture equal to one by Johannes Vermeer by using technology to aid him.  Jenison was inspired by David Hockney who wrote Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, which developed the Hockney-Falco thesis.  Basically, Jenison attempts to completely recreate a Vermeer to test this theory, and David Hockney appears in the film to judge his results.  Jenison decides to paint The Music Lesson, and goes so far as to recreate Vermeer’s studio in a warehouse, use the same handmade pigments Vermeer used, and grind his his own lenses to exclude modern technological advantages.   The film is about the years it took to prove a Vermeer like painting could be made using the Hockney-Falco like techniques.

I found the film dazzling for several reasons.  First, Tim Jenison is an inspiration for anyone with big ambitions.  Second, and most importantly, I loved seeing the Vermeer paintings blown up to the size of theater screens.  Third, the film shows just how tedious it is to paint a picture.  Fourth, it’s just so damn far out to see how technology works.  It really doesn’t matter if you believe the hypothesis or not, because the documentary is a wonderful example of how inventors works.

Here is the original Vermeer.  Click to see larger version.

the music lesson

Here is Jenison’s painting.  It’s different because the studio and models he used were different.

jenison-the-music-lesson

The trouble with the hypothesis is it can’t be proved.  We have plenty of contemporary painters who paint dazzling photo-realistic paintings that don’t use similar optical technology.  Tim’s Vermeer’s feat of invention just proves that photo-realistic painting can be painted by a non-artist using technology.  Essentially, Tim Jenison became a very slow photographic emulsion.

The hypothesis contends that beyond a certain point the eye can only see so much and the Vermeer paintings represent something beyond human capabilities.  I’m afraid they are misjudging the capabilities of the mind.  Just study Oliver Sacks.

Look at this video about Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to see, remember and draw.

 

Or look at what modern painters can do, such as Alyssa Monks.

monks_smirked_450

 

Or watch this painting of Morgan Freeman being made on an iPad by Kyle Lambert.

If you want to know more, please read:

JWH – 4/2/14

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