Sunday, June 24, 2012

To Boldly Go...

The space probe Voyager 1 has traveled since 1977, soon reaching the end of our solar system and entering outer space. That's not a void, but a constant storm of cosmic rays, from which the sun's magnetic field protects us. Whatever it really is, space is not empty.

NASA reports that Voyager 1 is reaching the end of our solar system. This is indicated by a dramatic increase in cosmic rays hitting the probe. The last month has seen a 9% increase, whereof the last week counts for 5%. It's shown by the figure below.

We tend to regard outer space as utterly empty, except for those billions of galaxies, visible to us as little white dots in the pitch black vastness. But ever since the Big Bang, space is more like a battlefield, where tremendous powers interact with spectacular consequences on an unrivaled grand scale. Space is neither empty nor still, but quite the opposite.

Actually, it would be more correct to describe our solar system as a peaceful little haven by a stormy sea. When Voyager 1 leaves this haven, the magnitude of that storm will be evident. The NASA illustration below gives a colorful glimpse of what's to be expected. And Voyager 2 is soon to follow.

Considering the insignificance of our solar system in this great tremble, it might be even more accurate to describe it as a soap bubble thrown this way and that in the wind, before popping.

The first Star Trek movie, released a couple of years after Voyager 1 took off, plays on the idea of what might happen to such a probe in deep space. Whether that's a good guess or not, one can but marvel at the implications of what is about to take place.

V'ger of the first Star Trek movie.

For thousands of years, mankind has regarded itself and its habitat as the center of the universe – well, the whole of the universe. It's just during the last few centuries that we've realized how great the universe is, and how peripheral we are in it. The perspectives are truly mind blowing. We're yet to take it all in.

We tend to smile at the misconceptions of past generations, but I'm convinced that we're not that much closer to the truth. We've observed a lot of manifestations of the universe and its components, we've even gotten far in describing it all mathematically – but we're yet to find how it all matches up. The big jigsaw puzzle of science is yet to reveal the picture. It will look quite different from what we assumed.

In spite of all that science, I still believe that it's through our imagination that we can come the closest to an understanding of the universe. Maybe our imagination and the way it works is a mimesis of sorts of what processes really lie behind the existence and dynamics of the cosmos and everything in it.

So, Voyager's voyage may be one from the world as we believe to know it, into one that changes it utterly and completely. So far, we've moved from a geocentric to a heliocentric perspective. That's still just a corner of a corner of a corner. Time to get cosmocentric.

Whatever that is, it's worth another movie.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Facebook Makes No Difference

Facebook is an anomaly. Scientists have discovered that the most influential ones on it are not the young “hip” ones, but those in their thirties and above. Imagine. So, we should no longer hope to die before we get old.

In our modern world, it's generally assumed that cultural change and social mentality is highly influenced by each new generation in its adolescence. At least that's what advertising and the entertainment industry insist.

The big study (presented in New Scientist) found that single men over 31 years of age have the greatest influence over their Facebook friends.

The difference in influence is quite significant. For example, people over 31 are 51% more influential than those below 18, singles are as much as 113% more influential than those in a relationship, and men 49% more influential than women.

Strangely, men even have more influence over women than other women do. On the other hand, the women have 46% more influence over men than over women, and they are overall 12% less susceptible to influence than men are.

What's revealed here is really nothing new, but the old patterns proving to survive in spite of the Internet revolution. As they say, age before beauty. It also remains a man's world, somewhat.

Why singles should be so much more influential than those in a relationship is more of a riddle. This might be a new thing, where the single status may be regarded as a mark of independence and integrity? Or the explanation could be found in other social habit differences between singles and couples.

Exactly how the Internet and the world opened by it will affect our habits and mentalities is something we're just beginning to ponder. The future is a mist. But the above mainly suggests that to a large extent it will be pretty much like the past. We may change our tools and equipment with lightning speed, but ourselves we don't change that quickly.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Game of Words

I'm far from the only one enjoying the TV-series Game of Thrones, waiting impatiently for season 3 to commence. I bet that this excellent fantasy drama would have pleased even its foremost inspiration: William Shakespeare. In the midst of all the spectacular scenes, its foremost quality is that of words, words, words.

The plot is full of devilish scheming and full-scale wars, its main characters struggling frantically to stay alive. Still, the real entertainment lies in the comments they make on the way. When they speak, I listen and ponder.

Shakespeare sure knew how to create a story full of love and hate, as well as both gruesome and glorious deeds, but what makes his plays shimmer is the dialog. The characters say such beautiful and wise things. They can, because Shakespeare allowed them all to be intelligent and thoughtful, whatever roles they played in the drama.

It's as simple as that. When the characters are permitted to have brains as well as sensitivity, the dialog comes alive. Every playwright should comply. Of course, that demands of the playwright to be at least equally equipped.

In the case of Game of Thrones this was already accomplished by the writer of the books on which the TV-series is based: George R. R. Martin. I haven't read the books, which are in the excess of a thousand pages each. Where would I find the time? But a friend who has done so assures me that the splendid dialog is a prominent trademark of theirs. No wonder, then.

On film and TV, usually, the dialog is seen as merely one of the instruments by which the plot is unfolded. That's not enough. Nor is it realistic. While we live our lives, we reflect and comment on it. We try to grasp its meaning and significance, try to make sense of it all. That's human. So a play has to reflect that. Any story must.

In order for these reflections to be interesting to the audience, they have to come from characters worth listening to, whatever happens to them. That's the Shakespearean way.

Some ten years ago, I was triggered to write a screenplay about the blessings and horrors of love in a medieval setting, and I decided from the start to stick to the simple principle of allowing the characters a dialog that would get me listening, and not cut it short. I loved writing it and I loved the result.

If you wonder, the screenplay, called Chastity, is still waiting to be turned into a movie. But in the meantime, dramas like Game of Thrones make the wait bearable. But what to do while waiting for season 3?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Counter Acting

The arts contain numerous paradoxes. That's particularly true for the art of acting. Those who master it know to play on the opposite of what is called for, thereby enhancing it, as if real acting is counter acting.

It's a well known trick in the trade that to play drunk, you shouldn't just slur and stumble. Instead, you play it as somebody trying very hard not to do that – but failing. Those who are drunk pretend to be sober and think they can get away with it. So, playing drunk is to be miserable at playing sober.

The same is true for several of the most heartfelt emotions, like love, jealousy, fear, disappointment, despair, and so on. Someone falling in love initially tries to hide it. In jealousy we try all we can to overcome it, to be indifferent. With fear we fight not to be overcome by it. Actually, there are few feelings that we just go ahead and express willingly. Especially not the strongest ones.

In all these cases, the actor has to excel in counter acting, pretending the opposite, pretending not to have the feeling at hand. That makes it believable and intense.

Also playwrights must be aware of this paradox. And they are. In dialogue, what is being said is between the lines, not on them. What's spoken is often the very opposite of what the character feels or would like to express. Otherwise the drama loses its tension, well, its drama.

It says fundamental things about what it is to be human and how we really relate in our lives. It's kind of sad, but there it is. Our species seems to be one of awkward confusion. Life could be easy, at least most of it, but those big brains of ours make everything a mess, which takes a lifetime – at least – to sort out.

The catharsis, which is the true goal of every drama, is to realize that and thereby learn to live with it. Although we're rarely able of cutting through the fog in our own relations, on stage or on the screen we get to see others fail just as miserably. In doing so, they make the fog transparent. We understand.

It doesn't solve much, but it makes us grow.