Miss Piggy on FOX News

A few weeks back, Eric Bolling on FOX News ridiculously accused the new Muppet movie of containing a secret liberal agenda meant to “brainwash” our kids. Thankfully, the Muppets addressed this at a recent press conference in London…

Happy Friday everyone!

Happy Birthday Mozart!

I was reminded earlier by George at Euzicasa that today is Mozart’s birthday, and I think I’m not alone when I say that he is among my favorite classical composers, and that I wish him a very happy birthday.

To this day, I remember my first experience of a Mozart opera. I was 12 years old and traveling with my grandparents in Europe. We were in Salzburg and they took me to see a performance of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), performed in the famous Salzburg Marionette Theatre. They had introduced me to opera the previous year with Madame Butterfly, and I had loved it, but this was an entirely different experience. The voices were amazing, the production was beautiful, and the marionettes, well, I forgot that I was watching puppets after about the first ten minutes. It made me fall in love with opera and with Mozart, and that love has not diminished one bit over the years.

My daughter and I waiting for "Mozart Under the Moon" to start.

Now I’m trying to instill that same love in my daughter, and although she’s still a bit young for opera, she’s certainly not too young to enjoy the music of such a marvelous composer. Just last year I took her to her first concert, “Mozart under the Moon,” and we both loved it. It was the night of the “supermoon” and it was an outdoor concert featuring “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” and several other pieces (a gorgeous moon and brilliant music, how can you go wrong?). Its been nearly one year and she still asks to return, and whenever she hears classical music at home or on the radio, she calls it “concert music.” Needless to say, as soon as she’s old enough, we’re hopping a plane to Salzburg to watch the marionettes bring Mozart to life.

I was able to find this series of clips from the Salzburg Marionette Theatre’s performance of The Magic Flute. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything out there that showed an entire scene with decent quality, but at least this gives you a small taste of how magical the experience of watching it was. That Queen of the Night scene was downright breathtaking.


Thirty Authors Discuss God

I’m too sick, and my head too fuzzy with medication, so instead of attempting to construct coherent sentences, I’m going to let thirty others, who are known for their eloquence, speak about a subject that comes up in this blog every now and again… religion, and its counterpart, skepticism.

Dr. Jonathan Pararajasingham, a British neurosurgeon, created a series of videos regarding the debate between belief and atheism. The first two videos feature academics and theologians discussing both belief and disbelief, with the aim illustrating his central argument that “the more scientifically literate, intellectually honest and objectively skeptical a person is, the more likely the are to disbelieve in anything supernatural, including god.”

In the third video of the series,  which I came across on this site, Dr. Pararajasingham compiled video of thirty renown authors discussing atheism. My favorite has to be Ian McEwan (starting at 9:28), although Douglas Adams and Christopher Hitchens are pretty outstanding, too.

Here are the authors included in the video, in order of appearance.

1. Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Science Fiction Writer
2. Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate in Literature
3. Professor Isaac Asimov, Author and Biochemist
4. Arthur Miller, Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright
5. Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate in Literature
6. Gore Vidal, Award-Winning Novelist and Political Activist
7. Douglas Adams, Best-Selling Science Fiction Writer
8. Professor Germaine Greer, Writer and Feminist
9. Iain Banks, Best-Selling Fiction Writer
10. José Saramago, Nobel Laureate in Literature
11. Sir Terry Pratchett, NYT Best-Selling Novelist
12. Ken Follett, NYT Best-Selling Author
13. Ian McEwan, Man Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
14. Andrew Motion, Poet Laureate (1999-2009)
15. Professor Martin Amis, Award-Winning Novelist
16. Michel Houellebecq, Goncourt Prize-Winning French Novelist
17. Philip Roth, Man Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
18. Margaret Atwood, Booker Prize-Winning Author and Poet
19. Sir Salman Rushdie, Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
20. Norman MacCaig, Renowned Scottish Poet
21. Phillip Pullman, Best-Selling British Author
22. Dr Matt Ridley, Award-Winning Science Writer
23. Harold Pinter, Nobel Laureate in Literature
24. Howard Brenton, Award-Winning English Playwright
25. Tariq Ali, Award-Winning Writer and Filmmaker
26. Theodore Dalrymple, English Writer and Psychiatrist
27. Roddy Doyle, Booker Prize-Winning Novelist
28. Redmond O’Hanlon FRSL, British Writer and Scholar
29. Diana Athill, Award-Winning Author and Literary Editor
30. Christopher Hitchens, Best-Selling Author, Award-Winning Columnist

(And sorry for the awkward grammar, I blame the pills for the cough).

The Wisdom of Bertrand Russell

One of the benefits of being sick with this miserable cold has been that I’ve only had the energy to read and not do much else. Last night, after deciding to go to bed at an unusually early hour, I looked at my shelves and decided that Bertrand Russell would make for good company on the plague ship (as I have now re-named my bedroom), and provide a nice counter-point to the darkness of the German Romantics that I’ve been reading too much of lately.

I first read Russell in high school; it was his essay, “How I Write.” I remember liking it, but the stronger memory is of my literature teacher getting into trouble for assigning that reading. It was a Catholic school, after all, and Russell was not known for being kind to religion. That incident only served to pique my interest all the more, and by the time I started college, I had read a substantial amount of his work, including last night’s read, Why I Am Not a Christian. 

By the time I first read him, I must have been in my junior year of high school, and I had certainly already started to question my faith. As I previously wrote, that process of questioning started in the early eighties after watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. A question that always plagued me during those early years of questioning, however, dealt with morality. As someone raised Roman Catholic, morality was something relatively external; there were a set of rules you lived by, and if you transgressed, you were a sinner. If you had no religion, how would you know what was good? I found my answer in Russell, before I was even able to crack the spine of the book, in the preface.

The world that I should wish to see would be one freed from the virulence of group hostilities and capable of realizing that happiness for all is to be derived rather from cooperation than from strife. I should wish to see a world in which education aimed at mental freedom rather than at imprisoning the minds of the young in a rigid armor of dogma calculated to protect them through life against the shafts of impartial evidence. The world needs open hearts and open minds, and it is not through rigid systems, whether old or new, that these can be derived.

Needless to say, a thorough reading of the book and its many essays (especially “What I Believe”) drove the point home that morality, true morality, did not have to come from a preset set of rules, but that it was and should be something internal. According to Russell, morality sprang from a confluence of love and knowledge, or as he states, “love guided by knowledge.”

So this morning, as my daughter watched her cartoons and I ran around the house singing the Spiderman theme song (thanks Marc), I remembered a BBC interview with Russell that I watched a while back. There was a part of it where he was asked what he would say to future generations, what hopes he would have for us and our children. I was lucky enough to find the exact clip, and here it is. Everyone must watch this.

The full interview can be found here, and is definitely worth the watch. He is a beautiful mind and a beautiful man. “Love is wise, hatred is foolish.” Indeed.


Wagner according to Anna Russel

Ever since I watched Melancholia, with Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde playing in the background, I seem to be surrounded by German Romanticism. Just this morning I finished reading Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther with my AP European History class, yesterday morning I  wrote about Ernst Haeckel and his links to German Romanticism, and last night I fell asleep reading a little Schiller.

Now German Romanticism can be a relatively dark and foreboding place, with themes of longing prevailing, and happy endings incredibly rare. Isaiah Berlin, in his Roots of Romanticism describes the German Romantics’ embracing this atmosphere of “sturm und drang” because of the belief that there exists an “insoluble conflict” in the world, where “conflict, collision, tragedy, death – all kinds of horrors – are inevitably involved in the nature of the universe.”   He later writes,

This sudden passion for action as such, this hatred of any established order, hatred of any kind view of the universe as having a structure which calm (or even unclam) perception is able to understand, contemplate, classify, describe, and finally use – this is unique to the Germans.

From the 2009 performance of the Ring Cycle by the Seattle Opera.

Then just the other night at our faculty post-holiday party, I got into a conversation about Wagner’s the Ring Cycle (best known for its “Ride of the Valkyries”) with the school’s choral director. Der Ring des Nibelungen is a four-part trilogy that is truly epic in its scope. A typical performance normally unfolds over the course of four nights at the theatre, and takes approximately 15 hours to complete. It’s a story of heroes, gods, and other mythical beings in a narrative that can rival anything written by Tolkien. It epitomizes yet another part of German Romanticism, namely pull of mythical heroes and nationalism.

During the course of that conversation with the music teacher, Anna Russel’s brilliant comedy routine about the opera came up. I remember first hearing it on NPR years ago and staying in my car to listen to it in its entirety, despite the fact that I’d already arrived at my destination. She took one of the most lengthy and complex operas and laid it bare with incomparable wit and style.

So here she is, removing some of the “sturm” from the German Romantics.


The second and third parts of her performance can be found here.

Please turn off your cell phones…

Not only is his playing absolutely beautiful, but his reaction to the ringing phone is just priceless.

Slovak musician Lukáš Kmit responds to a ringing phone by improvising his own version of the Nokia ringtone. Filmed at the Orthodox Jewish synagogue in Presov Slovakia. Recorded by GREATMILAN in July 30, 2011.


A Heaven for Atheists?

This little clip is from one of my favorite BBC shows, QI. It gave me a pretty good laugh this morning, so I thought I’d share.

Every year, as we approach the Enlightenment segment of my European History class, we talk about Pascal’s Wager, and although many students have often expressed frustration at the limitations of his either/or proposition, and several, especially the Catholics, have pointed out the “mind-reader” problem, never has anyone proposed this brilliant third option, and I’ve taught some pretty bright and witty people.


The Curious Character: Richard Feynman

"I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there."

There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician. —Hans Bethe

It seems as if, once again, the week is developing its own theme. It began with Stephen Hawking’s birthday on Sunday, followed by the release of Lawrence Krauss‘ new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing. And a couple of days ago, while looking something up for yesterday’s Shelley post, I happened upon a collection of four Richard Feynman videos. On Friday morning, the Richard Dawkins site featured a link to a series of videos on Open Culture titled “The Richard Feynman Trilogy: The Physicist Captured in Three Films.”  According to site,

It’s another case of the whole being greater better than the sum of the parts. Between 1981 and 1993, documentary producer Christopher Sykes shot three films and one TV series dedicated to the charismatic, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988). We have presented these documentaries here individually before (some several years ago), but never brought them together. So, prompted by a post on Metafilter, we’re doing just that today.

In keeping with the spirit of the celebration of these great scientific minds that we’ve been looking at this week, I want to share this collection of videos with you. When we listen to them, be it Hawking, Krauss, or Feynman (or any of the others for that matter), we can’t help but be reminded to always stay curious and to never stop thinking. We should watch them and remember to have and live rich intellectual lives.

The first film is “The Pleasure of Finding things Out,” and I’ve included it here. In it, Feynman talks about his excitement about science and scientific discovery. When speaking about the film,  Harry Kroto (winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry) stated that,

“the 1981 Feynman [production] is the best science program I have ever seen. This is not just my opinion – it is also the opinion of many of the best scientists that I know who have seen the program. It should be mandatory viewing for all students whether they be science or arts students.”

The other two films (and one television show) can be found here, and they include “Fun to Imagine: Jiggling Atoms,” “The Last Journey of a Genius,” and lastly  “No Ordinary Genius.” I spent a large part of last night watching them, and I recommend you watch, too, as you find the time.

There are also a series of short videos titled the “Feynman Series” by the creators of the “Sagan Series.”  In these Feynman discusses Beauty, Curiosity, and Honors. These are short excerpts of his longer videos, and are also well worth a look.

Moreover, many of his writings and lectures have been compiled and published by his associates or students, such as Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! What Do You Care What Other People Think?, and Classic Feynman. The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a collection of his Caltech lectures, is surely one of the most noteworthy. He’s truly a joy to read.

Stay curious and enjoy!

Good music, great message…and a Rube Goldberg machine.

Last month, soon after my still-distressing break-up, an old friend sent me a link to a video, promising that it would cheer me up. She was right, it was one of the first things to really make me smile.

The song is titled “This Too Shall Pass” by the always creative OK Go.  Once it starts, the video is impossible to stop watching, more so if you’ve ever had any interest in Rube Goldberg machines… and this is an insanely elaborate one. According to an article on wired.com that explains how the machine was made,

For nearly four minutes — captured in a single, unbroken camera shot — the machine rolls metal balls down tracks, swings sledgehammers, pours water, unfurls flags and drops a flock of umbrellas from the second story, all perfectly synchronized with the song. A few gasp-inducing, grin-producing moments when the machine’s action lines up so perfectly, you can only shake your head in admiration at the creativity and precision of the builders.

Regarding the message of the song, well, the message was the right one at the right moment, with its refrain of “Let it go, this too shall pass.” I still listen to it daily when I run.

So here it is; good music, an uplifting message, and an incredible video that may as well be an art installation…

Click here for a series of “behind-the-scenes” videos on the making of “This Too Shall Pass.” Definitely worth watching.