Saturday, December 20, 2008

Carl Sagan day 2008, and an update

Well, today is the 12th anniversary of Carl Sagan's passing, a date which was commemorated on this blog by blog-a-thons in 2006 and 2007Ann Druyan and Nick Sagan have both already put up posts to mark the occasion, both pointing to a recent NASA video on the new Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowship (also discussed in an ETFF interview with Ann Druyan broadcast last month to commemorate Carl's birthday).

I'm sure that some of you are wondering why I haven't done a blog-a-thon this year, and why you haven't heard anything Sagan-related from me in a while.  Basically, what's up: no, I haven't fallen off the planet, and haven't abandoned Sagan-related stuff.  Basically, the blog-a-thon was originally intended to be a one-shot event, and only afterwards did I decide to try to repeat it a year later, and possibly annually.  And while there were some great posts in the 2007 blog-a-thon, I came to realize that doing an annual event wasn't the best way to go to keep the Sagan fans in the blogosphere connected, since a year in blogosphere time is a very long time to go between updates.  After much consideration, I came to the conclusion that the best way to do something regular and Sagan related would be to have something closer to the "blog carnival" format, where there would be a new installment every couple of months or so, and have a theme each time in addition to the basic Sagan one, to give a fresh "handle" to write about.  I haven't been able to iron out the details in time for today, but I do have plans to do so.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Beatrice Gross, RIP

I am saddened to find out that Beatrice Gross, an author/educator who, together with her husband Ronald Gross, co-edited several important anthologies on education, including Radical School Reform (1969) and The Children's Rights Movement: Overcoming the Oppression of Young People (1977), and were called "the Bonnie and Clyde of education" (Stan Isaacs), passed away last month, according to obituaries in Newsday and Great Neck Record.

The contributors to Radical School Reform (see the full table of contents on WorldCat) are a virtual Who's Who of education reformers of the 1960s and 1970s, including Sylvia Ashton-Warner, George Dennison, Joseph Featherstone, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, Paul Goodman, James Herndon, John Holt, Herbert Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, George Leonard, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. The book was favorably reviewed twice in The New York Times, by John Leonard and Harold Taylor, and the paper's archives also include the Grosses' article about Montessori education, "Let the Child Teach Himself" (New York Times Magazine, May 16, 1965).

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Ann Druyan special on Equal Time for Freethought

Today, to mark Carl Sagan's birthday (he would have been 74), the WBAI radio program Equal Time for Freethought broadcast a special interview with Sagan's widow and collaborator Ann Druyan (the half-hour interview was originally intended for a fund drive show in September, but not aired in its entirety until now). An audio permalink will be added to equaltimeforfreethought.org soon, but for now, it can be found at the WBAI archive here and also temporarily in WMA format here.

The main news is NASA's establishment of a Sagan Fellowship to study exoplanets (planets outside the Solar System), but the conversation ranges from the profound (how to communicate the wonder of science) to the quirky (an extended discussion of what Sagan ate for breakfast). Check it out!

Cross-posted to Celebrating Sagan.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Quote of the Day

Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm's 1969 essay "Reflections on Anarchism" (collected in 1973's Revolutionaries, currently in print in a 2001 edition by New Press) is mostly a by-the-numbers Marxist, largely dismissive take on classical leftist anarchism (and needless to say more than a little befuddled at anarchism's revival at the time); he treats the movement as romantic and quixotic (quite literally, saying it's no coincidence that classical anarchism's last hurrah was in the land of Cervantes), and intellectually lightweight: saying that Kropotkin is the only "anarchist theorist who could be read with real interest by non-anarchists", due to his scientific work, as opposed to mere artists like Pissarro and Signac (and presumably the likes of Herbert Read, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Wilde), and whose substantial ideas are redundant with those on other strands of the left. But at one point, the essay suddenly goes in an unexpected direction:
It is possible to construct a theoretical model of libertarian anarchism which will be compatible with modern scientific technology, but unfortunately it will not be socialist. It will be much closer to the views of Mr Goldwater and his economic adviser Professor Milton Friedman of Chicago than to the views of Kropotkin. For (as Bernard Shaw pointed out long ago in his pamphlet on the Impossibilities of Anarchism), the extreme versions of individualist liberalism are logically as anarchist as Bakunin.
Not to mention Karl Hess or David Friedman. What's really funny about Hobsbawm seeing anarcho-libertarianism as suitable for the modern world is that he's known (some would say notorious) for usually taking a Whig-history approach to left movements, seeing them as more advanced the closer they are to Marxism and then Communism; in fact, it is for just that reason that he dismisses the classical anarchist movement, and Civil War-era Spanish anarchism in particular (see here and here for anarchist responses to Hobsbawm on Spanish anarchism), as quixotic and doomed to failure.

See also Jesse Walker on Hobsbawm ("Obviously there's nothing to admire in the distinguished historian's pro-Soviet politics, but I like a lot of his work nonetheless, flaws and all.")

Thursday, October 23, 2008

AOL Hometown shutting down, and taking a bit of bronze with it

Well, with the announcement that AOL's Hometown service is shutting down by October 31, one of the truly old school web hosting sites from the early days of the Web, up there with GeoCities and Tripod, and all of the websites hosted at URLs "hometown.aol.com", "members.aol.com" and "users.aol.com", will be going the way of Xoom into the land of dead bits.

The shutdown is pretty abrupt; the formal announcement was only posted on September 30, and according to it, if webmasters don't back up their website files by the 31st, they'll simply be gone. All Hometown pages have one of two prominently placed banners atop the pages announcing the shutdown, one of which says "AOL Hometown is Closing its Doors. Find out how to BACK UP AND SAVE YOUR FILES before we say goodbye for good." and the other stating that "A Blogger is Always Prepared. DON'T GET LEFT BEHIND. Learn how to BACK UP & SAVE YOUR INFORMATION now." (despite the service predating the takeoff of the blog format by several years). And of course, many websites originally at Hometown have long since moved to other hosts and URLs. But when one considers that many vintage websites haven't been maintained in years, the banners' warning will often go unnoticed.

In particular, Hometown was a popular hosting service in the late 1990s for the early wave of fansites devoted to pulp hero Doc Savage. The two most prominent of these were Chris Kalb's The 86th Floor (for the uninitiated, that's a reference to Doc's headquarters being situated on that floor of the Empire State Building) and the long-gone (outside of the Wayback Machine) Jeff Sines's Doc Savage Unchained; other Doc Savage sites that are still up on Hometown include Jim Gould's Doc Savage Collection, the Doc Savage Convention Center, the Doc Savage Game Center, the Doc Savage 75th Anniversary page, the fanfic "The Steel Hammer", and the Wold Newton Chronicles. It makes me feel old (at least in Internet years) that I first saw these sites all the way back in high school, around 1999-2000 (I first got into Doc Savage when a high school classmate lent me some of his old Bantam Doc paperbacks).

Highlights of The 86th Floor include circa-1999 rumors of an upcoming Doc Savage movie starring a pre-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger as the title character, a clever way of choosing either a 1930s or 1960s "look" for the webpages using a background image that reflected the appropriate decade's depiction of Doc, and a quote that captures the excitement of the first wave of Web technologies: "In the 1930s, Doc Savage was a state-of-the-art adventurer. Today's net-savvy fans would have to agree; They can download wav sound files, rare images ... and now Acrobat files!" Chris Kalb also used Hometown to host a personal page and a network of pages devoted to the "hero" pulp genre: a general introduction to the genre, and sites devoted to particular series, including G-8 and His Battle Aces, Operator #5, and The Spider (supplanted by a newer version that escaped from Hometown).

The Doc Savage Unchained site, meanwhile, was notable for being the first Doc fansite with a complete cover gallery (of both the pulp magazines and paperback versions), and for being the home of the Doc Savage webring (a common way of linking similar-minded sites in those days). Also, the links page includes several more early Hometown sites.

I've concentrated on the Doc Savage pages as the ones I'm most familiar with, but I'm sure there are a lot of great AOL Hometown pages that I don't know about; if you know of any, leave a comment or an email!

Monday, October 13, 2008

modern school reunion 2008

Today is the 99th anniversary of the death of anarchist, freethinker, and education pioneer Francisco Ferrer y Guardia, which sparked the international movement which was founded to carry on his ideas. Since I covered the basic background in my original Modern School post two years ago, I will link to that rather than repeating myself.

Instead, I will concentrate on the 36th annual reunion of the Friends of the Modern School, held on September 20 at its usual location at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. As usual, it functioned as a social reunion for alumni (mostly of the Stelton school and colony which was near New Brunswick), but this time, the proceedings were enlivened by an unusually large group of interested outsiders.

Author Perdita Buchan spoke about her book Utopia, New Jersey: Travels in the Nearest Eden (which has appeared previously on this blog) which allots a chapter to eight utopian colonies in the Garden State, including one for Stelton. The Emma Goldman Papers project's and the Kate Sharply Library's Barry Pateman followed up his talk from two years back on Emma Goldman with a similarly scrupulous and informative look at another, far lesser-known anarchist personality connected to the Ferrer movement, Hippolyte Havel. Havel never completed a full-length book (although he did pen the pamphlet "What's Anarchism"), and so is best known for his short biographical essays on Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre that are preserved in their collected essays, but he was interesting in his own right, with an eccentric personality masking a thouhgtful mind, and Pateman has read many of Havel's uncollected periodical works and vouches for their value. And a third event was a panel on "Free Schools of Today", with people from a variety of schools with similar approaches, including Mary Lois Adshead, from Marietta Johnson's School of Organic Education and longtime resident of the single-tax colony of Fairhope, Alabama, who has recently moved to the Garden State herself (and changing her blog from Finding Fairhope to Finding Myself in Hoboken, including her take on the event); Alan Berger of the Brooklyn Free School in NYC; Isaac Graves from the Albany Free School and the Harriet Tubman Free School in Albany, NY; and several people from the newly opened Manhattan Free School. The Alternative Education Resource Organization's Jerry Mintz was there as usual, but also brought a van full of alternative-education people with him, and there were also people from the Beehive Collective. Plus, the mix of insiders and outsiders made the conversations particularly lively. As Dale Burns put it in the Education Revolution e-newsletter, "There was a common idea, an inspiration, a current which electrified the air: the idea of education in its truest form, that learning should be about the learner and the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next. The Modern School was a community in which a school was interwoven, a place where living and learning went hand in hand. A place someone could learn as much or as little as they were comfortable with, where generations could interact freely and neighbors could be depended upon. This is the essence of the Modern School."

Also, the other projects of the Friends of the Modern School continue to move along: last year, they published Recollections from the Modern School Ferrer Colony, a collection of personal accounts by Victor Sacharoff and other Stelton residents (available from AERO here); they continue to maintain the marker at 79 School St., Piscataway, NJ, put up in 2005; and they hope to complete an anthology of writings about the modern school which was left unfinished by the late Paul Avrich. Jerry Mintz has also transfered his recordings of some of the reunions to DVD (such as the 2007 one).

Friday, September 19, 2008

Nancy Wallace, RIP

I am saddened to find out, from Patrick Farenga on HoltGWS.com, of the passing of Nancy Wallace, a pioneering homeschooling parent and author going back to the very early days of the modern homeschooling movement.

It seems just yesterday that I discovered in the NYPL stacks (largely due to its provocative title and its introduction by John Holt) Wallace's wonderful 1983 book Better Than School: One Family's Declaration of Independence, in which she recounted in a charming, readable manner her experiences homeschooling her children, Ishmael and Vita (at the time, 11 and 7 years old, as depicted on the cover) in New Hampshire and Ithaca, NY, at a time when the homeschooling movement had yet to gather its current legal and organizational status. I can attest that, as Farenga puts it, her "prose was full of gentle insight". (I will definitely put up a review when I get the chance.)

Farenga describes his and Holt's perspective on their longtime, mutually supportive relationship with the Wallaces (which is depicted from the other side in Better Than School), includes some excerpts from Wallace's writing (from Growing Without Schooling magazine, Better Than School, and a subsequent 1990 book Child's Work: Taking Children's Choices Seriously) and reveals that Ishmael and Vita, whose intense interest in music is described in detail in Better Than School, now have a successful musical career, playing together as a violin/piano duo in NYC.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Bookchin and Bugs Bunny: found at last!

One of the more (in)famous examples of anarchist humor is the original pamphlet cover of Murray Bookchin's famous 1969 essay "Listen, Marxist!", which criticized Marxist groups like Progressive Labor Party that were part of the sectarianism which was pulling apart SDS. The cover lampooned the propensity of Marxist books to put a succession of faces on the cover to correspond with their hyphenated ideologies by including the faces of Marx, Engels and Lenin — but then adding Bugs Bunny to the mix. This was mentioned in my original RIP for Bookchin posted here in 2006, and also by Jesse Walker and Eugene Plawiuk — and Todd Gitlin in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage:
SDS's 1969 convention, its last, met in the cavernous Chicago Coliseum, amid a veritable counterconvention of reporters (excluded), FBI agents (equipped with long lenses on the third floor of a vacant building across the street), and hundreds of police milling around, in and out of uniform, snapping pictures. Of the fifteen hundred delegates, perhaps a third were controlled by PL. Perhaps another third were divided between the Weathermen and their short-term allies, the upholders of a rival version of a Revolutionary Youth Movement — RYM II for short, in the arcane jargon of the time. (Among the RYM II supporters was a Bay Area faction passing out a pamphlet called The Red Papers adorned with portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin.) The remaining third were baffled newcomers, dazed rank-and-filers, and other tendencies casting anathema on all the leading factions—most inventively a grouplet of anarchists passing out Murray Bookchin's corrosive pamphlet Listen, Marxist! with its cover pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Bugs Bunny. The rest of the organization—tens of thousands of national members, and who knew how many members of individual chapters —voted with their feet and stayed away. So did almost all the old and middle-period hands of SDS. Reports filtered back from Chicago as if from another planet— or rather, from a moon in orbit around one's own, for that bone-white light, that silver deathliness, had the familiar look of reflected light.

The funeral had its farcical aspects. To score points against PL, the Weathermen-RYM II coalition trundled out Third World allies; representatives of the Young Lords, Brown Berets, and finally, of course, the Black Panthers, whose Illinois minister of information in the course of a diatribe against the "armchair Marxists" of PL suddenly launched into a celebration of "pussy power," proclaiming that "Superman was a punk because he never even tried to fuck Lois Lane." (The anarchists' Bugs Bunny cartoon turned out more realistic than they could have imagined.)
(I especially like the way Gitlin swings around for an unexpected second mention of the cover.)

But as famous as Bookchin's prank is, it's also one that's more often talked about than actually seen. I remember, when writing the RIP in 2006, looking all over the Internet to try to find a scan of the fabled cover, to no avail. But it turns out that subsequently and with little fanfare, NYU's Tamiment Library put up a scan of the Bugs Bunny cover as part of their Flickr collection of scans of anarchist material from their archives (in keeping with the theme, Mickey Mouse also appears).

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Betty Boop, er, cartoon

Today's New York Times weekly roundup of political cartoons includes this one by Rob Rogers which includes a reference to the Fleischer Boop-oop-a-doop girl as a representative starlet of her era. What's next, a cartoon about unions that refers to Disney's Alice Comedies?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Framing the sky

While leafing through George Lakoff's new book, The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics with an 18th-Century Brain, I was quite happily surprised to discover that an entire chapter was devoted to promoting Peter Barnes's idea of a "Sky Trust" as a means for fighting air pollution.

So, what exactly is a Sky Trust? Peter Barnes (entrepreneur of Working Assets fame) has been promoting the idea of trusteeship as a way of managing common natural resources for quite a while now, including in his excellent 2006 book Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons (read it online right now!) It's hard to imagine dividing up an atmosphere into conventional units of private property, but by creating a private, non-for-profit trusteeship that "owns" the entire atmosphere over an area, giving everybody in the area a non-transferable share in ownership and charging those who pollute or damage the air (and redistributing the revenues to the participants), the economic value of the air can be dealt with in a way that discourages pollution and abuse while also preserving the integrity of the common resource. All of this works in a manner similar to the Alaska Permanent Fund, or the single tax of Henry George, in a way that is consistent with market principles.

As global warming becomes a major issue, finding a way to deal with air pollution becomes an ever more urgent matter, and the sky trust is a rigorous yet simple way out. And it's not hard to see why liberals would find it appealing. Perhaps surprisingly, however, Lakoff also finds the means as well as the end congenial, in fact specifically stating that the sky trust is desirable because it maximizes the use of market principles and encourages entrepreneurship (to the point where even babies are participating, since everyone gets dividends from birth on) while minimizing the role of government and thus being immune to lobbying, and being administratively simple without creating the sort of bureaucracy spawned by regulatory administration.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Carl Sagan in the zeitgeist

Jim Lippard recently devoted an excellent post to a thorough takedown of Zeitgeist: The Movie, a weird, conspiracy theory-centered movie that's been spreading virally online (it can be viewed on Google Video in its entirety) for the past year. This is pretty pitiful even by the very low standards of CT movies like Loose Change or America: Freedom to Fascism (both of which Zeitgeist borrows directly and heavily from); as Lippard puts it, Zeitgeist is a "piece of pernicious nonsense" which is "almost entirely garbage, dependent on crackpot sources". Plus, it's heavily dependent on video and audio footage "borrowed" from other sources, and crude and cheap motion graphics, to fill out its running time. But I find it interesting, almost despite myself, for two reasons:

1: It juxtaposes conventional CT subject matter in its last two-thirds (about 9/11 and the Federal Reserve) with a first third about the origins of Christianity, which echoes (in a confused, Dan Brown sort of way) some traditional freethought views, with quotes from Robert Ingersoll and George Carlin. In fact, it apes Brian Flemming's documentary The God Who Wasn't There so closely that there were even rumors that it was made by Flemming! (Although this section is filled with errors that aren't in Flemming's original, and Flemming has specifically said that one of the reasons he got interested in the area of Jesus-myth revisionist scholarship was because it was unlike the culture around CTs, which he researched for his previous movie Nothing So Strange.) Even though it really never attempts to explain the connection between its three thirds apart from just putting them side by side, as Jay Kinney puts it in his review:

Exactly how all this fits together is left to the viewer’s imagination or, presumably, the film-maker’s hash pipe. Are those who manipulate Christianity for control purposes in cahoots with the Bankers, and were the Bankers in on the 9/11 caper?

Although there is some parallel to the way that the Aaron Russo-style CTs about the Fed and the income tax in the final third of the movie echo the more reputable libertarian critiques of those institutions; in fact, Lippard cites both Bill Woolsey's Liberty magazine article "Who Owns the Fed?" and Sheldon Richman's series "Beware Income Tax Casuistry". This, in turn, brings to mind how little overlap there is between those who hold unconvetional views on religion and on monetary systems, with some exceptions like the Robert Anton Wilson-influenced Douglas Rushkoff (who, in fact, has commented on the parallels between Zeitgeist and his work, with some reservations about "the agitprop nature of its assertions").

2: It includes a brief clip of Carl Sagan in Cosmos at the end (1:56:47 in, to be exact), after the CTs are exhausted and the tone switches abruptly (to quote Kinney again: "Incongruously, after spending nearly two hours trying to scare the bejeezis out of its viewers, Zeitgeist ends on an oddly upbeat note, telling us that Love — not Fear — is the answer, We are all One"), in which Sagan lays down a call for planetary unity: "The old appeals to racial and sexual and religious chauvinism, to rabid nationalist fervor, are beginning not to work. A new consciousness is developing which sees the Earth as a single organism, and recognizes that an organism at war with itself is doomed." (Adding to the WTF factor is the fact that the shot is letterboxed, cropped from its original full screen ratio to widescreen with most of Sagan's lower body missing.) JHB readers know I'm interested in any and all forms of Sagan's influence, and there's something to seeing it in such an unexpected place; after all, the chance of a CT movie quoting Sagan is, well, about the chance of one quoting Ingersoll. Or as James Randi Educational Foundation forum user boloboffin put it far more colorfully in the forum thread devoted to the movie, "OMG, they used a clip of Carl Sagan at the end! Sweet Sufferin' Jeebus."

UPDATE (6/28/2009): I've received an email asking for the specific source of the Carl Sagan quote, and decided to clarify my somewhat vague reference. The quote used in Zeitgeist is from the 13th and final episode of the TV series Cosmos, "Who Speaks for Earth?" (which is freely viewable on Hulu here); the quote appears 24 minutes into the episode. A somewhat different version of the quote also appears in the corresponding chapter of the book version of Cosmos, on page 332 of the oversize illustrated edition and page 275 of the text-only edition (the latter of which can be viewed on Google Books); it runs as follows: "The old exhortations to nationalist fervor and jingoist pride have begun to lose their appeal.... A new consciousness is developing which recognizes that we are one species."

Friday, June 06, 2008

Is this blog worth $50?

A couple of days ago, I received an email offering to buy my blog for $50. I turned down the offer, but I've got to say that amount is far more than I've ever made from my blog, and I wonder just how much I'd have to be offered to sell it. Throw in a few zeroes at the end, and who knows....

Anyway, I needed something to write about to get back in action after the longer-than-usual lull, and that might as well be it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Time Warner's The Earth Day Special (1990)

Earth Day may be unrivaled among holidays in the nobility of its sentiment, but when it comes to pop culture, its impact is somewhat lacking. Even Arbor Day has an associated Charlie Brown special, but Earth Day? Well, maybe not quite. Back in 1990, the holiday took quite a bite out of pop culture in a celebrity-packed video tribute produced and presented by Time Warner.

When I found an old VHS copy of the special, the back cover blurb made it an imperative to check out:
A fun-packed salute that makes a world of difference.

The biggest stars of the '90s take on the biggest story of the '90s in this informative blend of entertainment and cause. Rich in comedy, song and reports on the state of the planet, The Earth Day Special captures the excitement and commitment of Earth Day 1990 — and shares tips everyone can use to help solve the most urgent crisis the world faces today.

Mother Earth (Bette Midler) is ailing and it's up to folks in Anytown USA to help her recover. So Harold Ramis joins the Wastebusters. Robin Williams busts everyone up with one-liners, then plays straight man to an uproarious corporate weasel (Dustin Hoffman). Dr. Carl Sagan talks facts, Morgan Freeman talks trees and Rodney Dangerfield talks about the "ideal date" (organically grown). Rhea Perlman shanghais Danny DeVito into watching The Earth Day Special — and it opens Danny's eyes to the polluting ways of pals Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and Rick Moranis. Plus, Christopher Lloyd drops in from the future, E.T. drops in from outer space and over 40 other celebrities — including Bill Cosby, Kevin Costner, Magic Johnson, Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand — drop everything to aid Mother Earth.

Nothing so important was ever so much fun!
The summary gives an idea of just how many 1980s/1990s era celebrities appear (and there are even more than are listed), which alone makes it worth checking out for fans of unusual ephemera from that era, but the presence of a little-known Carl Sagan appearance elevated it to a must-see.

The special starts with what the credits call a "Galaxy Intro", in which the camera zooms through outer space accompanied by a somewhat Cosmos-like narration — no coincidence, since the segment turns out to have been written by Sagan and Ann Druyan:
We have searched the skies for signals. Our spacecraft have explored dozens of exquisite worlds in the family of our sun. But as far as we've looked, there's only one place in the entire universe where the miracle of life exists: our own planet Earth. Life is so rare and precious. We must safeguard, protect, and cherish it.
Then the scene shifts to the "Anytown", while an Earth Day procession winds through the town square. The cast listing includes a lengthy array of celebrities, and the working definition of "stars" is a bit, well, flexible, since Bugs Bunny, E.T., The Muppets, Porky Pig, and Tweety Bird are all listed as part of the cast. Sure enough, outside the parade, Bugs, Tweety, and Porky all appear in fully animated form in a Greg Ford-scripted sequence, with variations on their signature lines ("I did! I did see a Mewyl Tweep!").

Robin Williams starts telling a bunch of jokes. Oddly enough for an Earth Day celebration, nature is the butt of most of the jokes, but when he says that Mother Nature is the sort of parent who can't say no, he crosses a line; Mother Nature appears in the personified form of Bette Midler, to set him straight. Not only is she not too happy about being poked fun at, but she's already ailing from environmental damage. Collapses from illness, she's rushed to the emergency room of the nearest hospital, where she is looked after by none other than Doogie Howser, M.D. (!)

While Midler's Mother Earth is undergoing medical treatment, the stage is set for a series of short, mostly self-contained segments involving various celebrities.

Meanwhile, a layer of meta-narrative is added by having the entire proceedings being watched on TV by Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman. (When DeVito treats the proceedings as if they're just another TV show, betting "I give you 2 to 1 she [Mother Earth] bites it", Perlman ripostes, "If she bites it, we all bite it!" Adding to the meta-fiction, some segments occur when DeVito tries to switch channels, only to find that every show on the air from Cheers to The Cosby Show to Married with Children has some sort of environmental spin to it, with the Huxtables trading quips about how to incorporate energy conservation into their daily routine and Rodney Dangerfield appearing on a game show where being the potential date partner with the most eco-friendly plans earns him some respect. When it turns out that Jeopardy!'s categories are "Acid Rain", "Garbage Overload", "Deforestation", "Global Warming", "Toxics", and "Ozone Depletion", DeVito exclaims, "I can't get away from this stuff!"

The big genre franchises of the 1980s aren't neglected, either. In order to show the future impact of environmental devastation, Back to the Future's Emmett "Doc" Brown appears — and yes, he rides in on the DeLorean! In one of the few cases where the crossover potential of the special is realized, he barges in to the emergency room in order to share his knowledge of the future with Doogie Howser, in a true meeting of pop culture "doctors". To represent the Ghostbusters movies, Harold Ramis appears, but not quite reprising his role of Egon Spengler, instead playing that character's "brother" Elon, who works for "Wastebusters". Elon's job is also a bit less glamorous than his more famous brother's — "Our job at Wastebusters is to identify industrial polluters, track them down, and humiliate them" — and sure enough, he accosts Martin Short as a sleazy corporate lawyer from "Diversified Industries" (with Short reprising his SNL character Norman Thurm, who apparently doesn't have a little-known sibling). As for E.T., he shows up in a pile of garbage outside the hospital and produces a book called A Practical Guide to How You Can Save Earth by the people of the Earth for the people of the Earth which he gives to a bunch of kids. And no, I don't have any idea why one of pop culture's most famous aliens was chosen to produce a book "by the people of the Earth".

Sleazy corporate lawyers are something of a recurring theme; in a segment featuring Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams, Hoffman's lawyer ("I can always argue the other side") out-Thurms Thurm, tricking Williams's Everyman into admitting that pollution might not be so bad after all.

In a segment directed by Jim Henson himself (who passed away only weeks after the special aired), Kermit the Frog and other Muppets discuss the effect of pollution on animals. The Muppet Wiki has a complete transcript of the segment, accompanied by numerous screenshots, to supplement its detailed entry about the special in general.

And no movie from that era would be totally complete without a rap song. The special's one features rappers like Will "Fresh Prince" Smith and Ice-T, and lyrics like "Every time you put a paint can in the trash can, you take a piece of the world from the next man".

And last but not least, the Carl Sagan segment! Surrounded by an attentive audience in Anytown, and working from a script written by Sagan and Druyan themselves, Sagan goes into full Cosmos explainer mode, taking on global warming, ozone depletion, and acid rain. The scientific principles at work behind those three phenomena are discussed in as much depth as the brief segment run time allows, adding scientific heft as well as entertainment value to the proceedings. (Sagan is also one of the scientific advisors listed in the credits.)

Long out of print on VHS, and with almost as much time elapsing since its production as between it and the first Earth Day, the special has definitely faded into obscurity over time. More surprisingly, it has received almost no attention from the array of nostalgia websites devoted to ephemera from 1980s and 1990s pop culture, of which it would seem to be the perfect example. The range of celebrity cameos gives a real flavor of pop culture at that moment in time, the science holds up pretty well (that's what you get for getting Sagan on board), and while it definitely has its cheesy elements, it has aged far less badly than some of the contemporary attempts to cross over entertainment with serious issues.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

new Education Revolution blog

Well, my pal Jerry Mintz has finally created a brand-spanking-new blog for his organization, the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO), to supplement AERO's website, his personal site, and his various email-based announcements and mailing lists. Mintz/AERO has done a dizzying array of education-related things over the years: penning the book No Homework and Recess All Day; publishing Education Revolution magazine; running an annual conference; preserving Modern School history ... and simply doing a lot of the raw, exhausting work involved in keeping various education reformers in touch with each other, helping people start schools, helping schools improve themselves and become more "alternative", and the various other stuff involved in keeping an education reform movement alive and moving.

So far, the blog has three posts: the first is a simple announcement post where he says, "I still barely understand what a blog is, but I’m about to find out!"; the second links to and reposts an article Mintz wrote for USA Today last month; the third posts an interview Mintz did for the television show Joy in Our Town. The latter two, in particular, give a sizable sample of Mintz's style and approach.

AERO, incidentally, is indirectly responsible for me starting this blog. In mid-2005, I had been mulling over starting a blog for a while, but hadn't done anything yet. And then, during the 2005 AERO conference, I was chatting with a teacher from the Olympia Free School, who was at the same time typing up an entry on his laptop for his school’s blog (at the time, it was called "Free School Field Days"; the current form of the school's blog is here). As I saw him typing away in the Blogger interface, it just struck me how easy it was, and so I decided to stop stalling around and just go ahead already — and started this blog shortly after getting back home from the conference.

One of the rules of the blogosphere is that it's very self-referential; bloggers like to blog about other blogs with reference still other blogs ... so AERO's will probably be getting a lot more attention from other blogs. It'll motivate me to blog more about education-related issues, too (although I make no promises!)

Welcome to the blogosphere, Jerry!

Monday, March 03, 2008

new science fiction on Project Gutenberg: Frank Herbert's Operation Haystack

Yet another public domain science fiction short story whose eBook I helped produce makes its debut on Project Gutenberg. Originally from Astounding Science Fiction May 1959, with illustrations by H. R. van Dongen, joining Herbert's "Missing Link", posted last October. Yes, that Frank Herbert, and yes, it's really public domain ... 'nuff said!

one of H. R. Dongen's illustrations for the tale

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Cartoon Dump

As Beavis and Butt-Head would say, "Huh-huh, huh-huh, somebody keeps taking a dump in Manhattan."

Defends Adult Diapers from the Beavis and Butt-Head episode 'Blood Pressure'


more Defends Adult Diapers from the Beavis and Butt-Head episode 'Blood Pressure'

Cartoon Dump, that is — a twisted parody of childrens' shows of yesteryear combining live comedy and so-bad-they're-good old cartoons, created by animation historian Jerry Beck and Frank "TV's Frank on MST3K" Conniff (MST3K's Joel Hodgson has appeared in at least one CD installment in the past).

CD had previously existed as a live show in L.A. and a set of online episodes, but on January 8 the show came to the East Coast for the first time; and there will be new shows on February 19 (this Tuesday) and March 11.

The January show was really fun. The premise is much like the online version: Erica Doering plays the host, Compost Brite, of a warped cartoon "children's show". She's a perennially cheery and perky character with an optimistic outlook; as the old joke goes, if you gave her horse droppings as a gift, she'd say "Wow, a pony!" And she needs it, since everybody else is completely neurotic, and full of problems that would never see the light of day on a real kiddie show. The most depressed of the supporting characters is, naturally, Frank Conniff's Moodsy the Clinically Depressed Owl. Although he wears a brightly colored anthropomorphic costume, he's also alcoholic and suicidally inclined. And of course, Compost Brite always tries to extract kiddie-friendly lessons about things like sharing and making a difference, even if she's really just driving Moodsy into even deeper depression. For instance, in the third online episode, after watching an atrocious Bucky & Pepito episode, Moodsy says, "There was something about that cartoon — the harsh, barren landscape; the empty, faceless characters; the overall tone of sorrow and regret — it was like a snapshot into my soul." and Compost Brite replies, "Well, I hope your soul said CHEESE!!!"

Unlike the online version (and presumably the LA version, where the online episodes were filmed) which takes place beside a dumpster, this version has no set. So, stretches of live comedy alternate with bad cartoons chosen by Jerry Beck (who introduced the cartoons and the show as a whole, but didn't act in the comedy segments). Contrary to what one might think based on Conniff's MST3K role, the cartoons are presented without any MST3K-style riffing or commentary while they're running, but the abundant laughter from the crowd is accompaniment enough (it alone makes them work much better than the online version).

The venue is pretty cool, too: a combination of comedy club and eatery, with a bar that's separate from the performance area, which doubles as a restaurant. Each of the menus features a picture of somebody who's performed at the club, such as Sarah Silverman (one of many famous comedians who have performed live there). The food is good too (if a bit pricey).

The cartoons themselves? Jerry Beck has really drawn on his vast experience to dig deep into the bottom of the animated barrel. As a result all the cartoons are really old (Jerry pointed out that they're actually old cartoons, in case anybody thought they were modern ones like the Ambiguously Gay Duo made to look old), obscure (they make the crummy formulaic cartoons that air on Boomerang look good) and cheaply and poorly designed and animated (one particularly bad sequence stood out, in which the villain and his henchman dance to celebrate their evil plan of turning people to stone; it's hard to explain in words, but the drawings just didn't flow the way they should). They do tend to be lame rather than actively painful, but still definitely provide a lot of unintentionally funny moments. And the premises are as hilariously lame as one would hope for. For instance:

Mighty Mister Titan (also in the first online episode): an exercise superhero. Really! He does jumping jacks and the like (with 4 or 5 drawings per rep) while enjoining us to join along; some of the exercises are performed in equally jerky fashion by a tip-dispensing stick figure named Tipso.

Super President: a DePatie-Freleng production (!) about, well, a superhero who's also the president of the United States. I'll just quote the show's intro for his awe-inspiring powers:
His power was born in a cosmic storm! Every molecule charged with might! Powers that enable him to change his molecular structure to steel! To granite! To whatever the need requires!
The Adventures of Sir Gee Whiz On The Other Side Of The Moon (also in the sixth online episode; since only one pilot episode of the series was ever produced, this is identical to the version the show used): This time, in one of the last pieces of animation that Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising ever produced (!), the main character is not a superhero, but a leprechaun (voiced by Ising himself) who lives on the moon who takes a little girl (who is so poorly designed that her face looks more like that of a blowup doll) there. One of the biggest laughs came from one of the "aliens" on the Moon, who doesn't exactly put the Selenites of H. G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon to shame, Señor Ropo:

Señor Ropo the selenite


Here are the six episodes so far of the online version:
And more info:

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hey, I'm on the radio!

Last Thursday, the NPR show The Bryant Park Project did a nine minute segment on dorkbot-nyc's meeting the previous day. Segment producer Ian Chillag interviewed me at the meeting, and a small snippet from me made it into the very end of the segment; I quote William Gibson's "The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." (which I misattribute to Bruce Sterling) as a way of explaining the way ideas show up at dorkbot before they percolate to the larger culture. The quote, and a mention of me, also made its way into the online summary of the segment. (When Rocketboom covered dorkbot in 2006, a small portion of my head could kinda-sorta be made out for a few frames of a crowd shot; not quite as good.) Also, the presenters and Douglas Repetto are also interviewed; and some of the theme songs also appear.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Contact on TCM's 31 Days of Oscar

Contact (and Men in Black) featured in the TCM lineup

On Sunday, February 24th, Turner Classic Movies will be airing Contact as part of this month's "31 Days of Oscar", in which Academy Award-winning movies are showcased.

Check out the TCM Movie Database entry for the film. Sean Axmaker provides an excellent overview of the film, from the production history to the issues and themes involved; Sagan is described as "one of the most effective spokesmen for the advancement of science and space exploration in the world", and the entry also includes a quote from Ann Druyan:

"Carl's and my dream was to write something that would be a fictional representation of what contact would be like," explains Ann Druyan, Sagan's wife and collaborator. "But it would also have the tension inherent between religion and science, which was an area of philosophical and intellectual interest that riveted both of us."
Each night's worth of movies is organized by a specific decade (all the way from the 1920s to the 1990s and 2000s); it so happens that immediately before Contact on the schedule is a somewhat different 1997 alien contact science fiction film, Men in Black. Saganites have mixed opinions on the merits of MIB; Keay Davidson in his biography of Sagan dismisses it as a dumbed-down "mean-spirited bloodbath"; whereas pop-culture-savvy Nick Sagan slipped in an homage (or more precisely, an homage to an homage) to it in his short story "Tees and Sympathy":
I thought that was clear. The reason why I’m wearing a black suit and sunglasses is because I’m homaging Men in Black.
And Phil Plait answers the question of how "a skeptical, UFO-bashing, aliens-aren't-visiting-us-and-excoriating-cow- you-know-whats scientist-type guy" can enjoy the film in his review:
I loved this movie.

Surprised? "What's a skeptical, UFO-bashing, aliens-aren't- visiting-us-and-excoriating-cow-you-know-whats scientist-type guy going around saying he loves a movie whose very premise is that not only do aliens exist, but live among us?" you are asking yourself.

Well, the movie is awesome. It rocks. I laughed all the way through it. It's funny. It's also satirical, poking gentle but firm fun at the whole UFO and alien subculture.

(Also, for all the differences in tone, note that both films use a shot consisting of an extended zoom out from Earth to outer space to comment on humanity's place in the universe.)

(Cross-posted at Celebrating Sagan)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors on DVD today

No, it's not a little-known spinoff of Cosmos based on Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan's book of the same name, but a 1964 Soviet film by Sergei Parajanov that inspired the name of the Sagan/Druyan book! I know nothing else about the film (it's not even a documentary as one might think, but fiction), but it's Sagan-related enough to take note of here. Some quick links to stuff about the film:

Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King on Henry George

From the Georgist Progress Report website, here is an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.'s final book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community, in which King supports a guaranteed income rather than conventional welfare programs as the most direct means of dealing with poverty; he includes a quote from Henry George's Progress and Poverty:
The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature, and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves, driven to their task either by the lash of a master or by animal necessities. It is the work of men who perform it for their own sake, and not that they may get more to eat or drink, or wear, or display. In a state of society where want is abolished, work of this sort could be enormously increased.
Aside from the question of work motivation, the point is that levels on inequality or equality income levels translate, via purchasing power, to levels of consumption of goods, and therefore dealing with the former directly is more direct and effective than dealing with the latter.
We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.
Compare to Milton Friedman and George Stigler's point in Roofs or Ceilings?:
The fact that, under free market conditions, better quarters go to those who have larger incomes or more wealth is, if anything, simply a reason for taking long-term measures to reduce the inequality of income and wealth. For those, like us, who would like even more equality than there is at present, not alone for housing but for all products, it is surely better to attack directly existing inequalities in income and wealth at their source than to ration each of the hundreds of commodities and services that compose our standard of living. It is the height of folly to permit individuals to receive unequal money incomes and then to take elaborate and costly measures to prevent them from using their incomes.