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Recommendations for September 16, 2012

There did seem to be kind of an incipient theme to this week’s links at one point, but that more or less fell apart. The first three, below, all have something to do (in my mind anyway) with the role of science in society, how it can still solve problems despite our apparent loss of faith in its ability to do so; the other two are just neat. Enjoy.
Interview: “Film without words: the 70mm story of life, death, and rebirth in ‘Samsara’” by Brian Bishop, with Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson
This is a (relatively brief) interview with the creators of the film Samsara (and before that Baraka, which is generally similar), now on limited release. I saw the film recently, and I definitely recommend it; if nothing else, they go to beautiful places and take amazing pictures of them. I am still sorting through my own reactions to the film;  I loved it as I walked out of the theatre, but upon reflection I have some (relatively minor) qualms. In particular, I felt that they set up a kind of crude nature/tradition vs. science/modernity dichotomy, which bothers me; I don’t need to be told that there are problems with a society that produces mountains of waste electronics and then sends them to Africa for children to pick through, but I also don’t think the answer to that kind of problem is for us all to become Buddhist monks. That formulation is not fair, because the filmmakers certainly did not intend to say anything that simple-minded— and maybe they didn’t mean to say anything like this at all. But it’s difficult not to read messages into this movie. Anyway, the interview I link to here does not say much about any of this, but it’s an interesting conversation about the thinking behind the movie as well as some of the technical aspects of making it. I’m also embedding the trailer here:
Articles: “Silk lasers: ‘Edible’ electronics move closer” by Philip Ball and “Why Wood Pulp is World’s New Wonder Material” by Will Ferguson
Two reports about ways of using old materials—wood pulp and silk— to do new things. Whenever I read a story like this, I go through a spectrum of reaction: first, I am excited by the possibilities the discover in question opens up, and awed by how the future seems to have snuck up on me; second, I am confirmed in my belief that the environmental issues we are facing right now will be dealt with by better technology, and better science— not by less of these things (see also my reaction to Samsara, above); and, finally, I think, “Why don’t I ever actually see any of this stuff? Where is it?” Perhaps journalists who cover these things are always more optimistic than they should be, or are carried away by the enthusiasm of people who have just made amazing discoveries, but they always make it sound as though I am going to see this kind of thing in Target next year. Anyway, scientists may soon be making car parts that are stronger than steel out of wood pulp and lasers out of SILK…so that’s pretty cool.
Article: “Ancient flower lives only on two Spanish cliffs, and uses ants to survive” by Ed Yong
Also filed under “science is neat and the world has more in it than you will ever know”: this short piece discusses an herb that grows only on two adjacent peaks in the Pyrenees, and requires at least two different species of ants to reproduce: one of the two species that pollinate it, and then another one that distributes the seeds across the peaks. This strategy of course makes the plant vulnerable to any changes in the number or behavior of the ants, and probably largely explains why its habitat is so small; one way in which it compensates for this complex dependence is by living for up to 300 years. I don’t have a lot to add to this information, but my point is kind of that it speaks for itself. 
Film: “Glory at Sea” by Benh Zeitlin
And finally, I recently saw the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is a remarkable film; it’s very, very sad, but also very beautiful and, in the end, somehow triumphant. This is a short film with similar themes and setting made earlier by the director of Beasts, Benh Zeitlin, and it has many of the same qualities. I recommend watching it in HD— it is a great looking film, if nothing else.

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