Roger Ebert, 70, passes away

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The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that Roger Ebert passed away of cancer today. He was a film critic whose body of work was both celebrated and vast; Ebert regularly produced reviews over the course of 30 years, sometimes writing about nearly 300 movies a year.

Ebert’s renown as a writer is widely known, but something particularly fascinating about him was his status as an early adopter of new technology. As the Sun-Times states, he invested in Google initially, and was one of the first notable personalities to be found on emerging social network Twitter. He was a man who recognized quickly and accurately the influence that digital innovation would exert over the ways we communicate with one another and, to an extent greater than any other critic around him, leveraged that into a wide c0ntinued readership. Yet he rarely seemed perturbed by the caveats that this increased degree of exposure, remaining mum about the occasionally infuriating Internet experience. A late-life shot across the bow at trolls and his well-documented war against people who believe video games are art were some of the only ruptures in an otherwise perfectly manicured online presence.

Ebert could be inconsistent and somewhat arbitrary, and because of his de facto status as the Big Dog Film Authority that opened him up to a lot of heat. But he also recognized that such is the toll that comes with the democratization of voice – not everyone is able right away to use it in a courteous manner, and not every authority figure that emerges is able to stand up to scrutiny when nearly everything they say is archived on the Internet. Good on him for nonetheless recognizing the value of a forum for open discourse and having the grace to accept the pitfalls that still come with that.

Drew Byrd-Smith – drewbyrd.blogspot.com

Our Gift

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We are, as far as we know, unique.

Through sheer probability, an entire universe exploded into being where previously nothing existed, and through an almost 14 billion year process of explosion and condensation, produced stars, asteroids, comets, planets, moons, and eventually us.

There is no known big-picture purpose for our existence. Random chance is all that is responsible for our being here roughly 80 years each. Knowing this, we spend our time here working to create, to experience, and to love. Our actions are a contribution; all our efforts serve to ensure that people who live after us have the same opportunity to experience life, whatever it may mean to each of them. This is our obligation. We are shepherds of this world.

When the time comes that we must die, there is nothing to fear or be sad about. Every life is a life worth living; for a brief moment in the cosmic timeline, the universe knew itself through each of us, and now we are returning home. This is the most beautiful thing I know.

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We shouldn’t bring back extinct species

Extinct Animals Should Stay Dead | VICE United States:

Stewart Brand and his team of mad scientists want to bring extinct animals back to life. While we’re at it, why don’t we have the Olympics on Mars? Why don’t I have a carbon-fiber toilet seat? Oh yeah, because those ideas would cost a shitload of money and everyone everywhere is broke. Surely it would be cheaper and better for the environment to preserve the flora and endangered species that we still have.

Money isn’t everything, of course. Some view de-extinction as a moral responsibility—to extend an olive branch to the planet that we’ve fucked up so badly. However, my glass has been half empty since before I even took a sip. And so, I see two possible outcomes.

First, there’s the absolute worst-case scenario: we bring back our extinct species, but since we hunted them to extinction, they seek revenge. Then there’s the slightly less-worse-case scenario: we make them live in misery, or even relive the misery of their original existence and cause them to go extinct again.

Scumbag humanity: bring back extinct species only for them to go extinct again because of the permanent damage to the environment caused by anthropogenic global warming.

The Universe is Beautiful

Some people say that the world is only beautiful because it’s God’s special creation. I disagree.

The universe as a whole is beautiful for many reasons, but the ones that stand out most to me are:

  1. There are approximately 100 billion galaxies, each with around 100 billion stars, give or take. Galaxies clump together in clusters and superclusters, which further clump together in galactic filaments, unfathomably large pillars of galaxy clusters stretching across the universe. Between these filaments is nothing. Absolutely empty space, the yawning void. These large-scale structures of the universe are so massive in scale that we can comprehend them only as numbers – they are unimaginably large.
  2. After the Big Bang, matter condensed and eventually formed stars. Those stars exploded, creating and then scattering denser elements across the universe. Eventually that re-condensed into our sun, and then into the planets in our solar system and through a long chain of very impressive chemical reactions, into us.
  3. There are more dimensions to the universe than we can observe, and as a consequence, the very fabric of spacetime itself bends and warps. As gravity stretches across all the dimensions and bends spacetime, it curves the paths along which light travels, in effect bending light around massive objects like galaxies; this phenomenon is called gravitational lensing.
  4. Had the physical laws and constants been ever so slightly different, it is very likely that none of this ever would have happened. The beauty of life is not that we are part of some greater plan, but that we are here at all.

 

The healing effects of taking in nature

How Nature Resets Our Minds and Bodies – Adam Alter – The Atlantic:

Nature restores mental functioning in the same way that food and water restore bodies. The business of everyday life — dodging traffic, making decisions and judgment calls, interacting with strangers — is depleting, and what man-made environments take away from us, nature gives back. There’s something mystical and, you might say, unscientific about this claim, but its heart actually rests in what psychologists call attention restoration theory, or ART.

This is why I love Berkeley’s campus. Everywhere you go there are trees and fields of grass and animals going about their business. I think I’m going to do more of my reading outside from now on.

Russell Brand on Drug Addiction

Russell Brand drug addiction

Russell Brand eschewed his traditionally humourous approach to sending a message in a very personal blog post detailing his struggles as a recovering addict.

The post is honest, that’s for sure, and it’s in your face about it.

In it Russell makes the case that it’s time we treat drug addicts as health patients rather than criminals.

“[T]he mentality and behaviour of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until you understand that they are completely powerless over their addiction and, unless they have structured help, they have no hope.”

For those of you out there who do not struggle with drugs (and I include alcohol under this label), the article offers compelling insights into the mindset of one who will stop at no costs to get their fix.

“The last time I thought about taking heroin was yesterday…

I cannot accurately convey to you the efficiency of heroin in neutralising pain. It transforms a tight white fist into a gentle brown wave, and from my first inhalation 15 years ago it fumigated my private hell”

Possibly the most insightful nugget was revealed while Russell explained his reactions to watching his past self smoke heroin on a video tape.

“ When I saw the tape a month or so ago, what was surprising was that my reaction was not one of gratitude for the positive changes I’ve experienced. Instead I felt envious of this earlier version of myself, unencumbered by the burden of abstinence. I sat in a suite at the Savoy hotel, in privilege, resenting the woeful ratbag I once was who, for all his problems, had drugs.“

You can read the full post over at The Guardian or you can catch Russell Brand talk about his recovery in his BBC 3 documentary, Russell Brand: From Addiction to Recovery.

Do the Chinese want to create a generation of geniuses?

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Chinese genetic researching firm, BGI (previously known as Beijing Genomics Institute) has been compiling the DNA of 2,000 of the world’s brightest individuals.

Vice reporter, Aleks Eror, recently had a chance to speak with NYU professor and evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller, about his experiences with the project.

What is BGI looking for with their microscopic library of genius genes? They plan to sequence them and identify genetic markers for intelligence.

Intelligence is an abstract trait, which makes this a monumental challenge.

Once they can identify the genetic markers, they can move on to ensuring soon-to-be parents have the most intelligent child they can out of their genetic possibilities.

Miller explains:

“Once you’ve got that information and a fertilized egg that’s divided into a few cells, you can sample one of the cells to figure out the expected intelligence if it’s implanted and becomes a person.”

And for those of us who have forgotten all our biology:

“Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilized in the lab with the dad’s sperm and the mom’s eggs.

Then you can test multiple embryos and analyze which one’s going to be the smartest. That kid would belong to that couple as if they had it naturally, but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids. It’s not genetic engineering or adding new genes, it’s the genes that couples already have.”

This is certainly a possible way for China to jump into–what it feels is–it’s rightful place in the global pecking order, though it could also go wrong as well. Time will tell though, because if you had any doubts about their desire to move forward, BGI just acquired Complete Genomics, a firm which possesses cutting edge human genome sequencing technology.

 

The Berkeley Student District Campaign

When Berkeley Redistricting Charter Amendment, Measure R, passed in November 2012 with 66% of the city’s vote, Berkeley was finally able to eliminate the 1986 district lines and redraw council districts to reflect updated populations. On Wednesday, March 13, a team of ASUC-affiliated UC Berkeley students submitted their own proposal which included a campus district outlined in purple below. As can be seen in the image, the student district includes south side housing, the Greek community, and residence halls. The Student District’s population is 90% students and will include over 12,000 UC Berkeley students.

Figure 1. Diagram with the proposed student district in purple

Berkeley’s council districts with the proposed student district in purple

Having a student representative on city council is important because not only is over 25% of Berkeley’s population students, but a student council member can help bring visibility to university policy issues.

“A student could bring a voice that’s been missing far too long,” said Cal student and former ASUC External VP Joey Freeman to NBC News. “There are issues like safety, lighting on our street, housing.”

Transparency with regards to local issues is very important because the average college student knows little of university and city policy. Greater awareness of city policies and student issues can lead to better communication between Berkley’s residential community and its student population. This isn’t the first time students have campaigned for redistricting; similar efforts in 2011 failed to pass. The redistricting proposals are expected to be evaluated by the end of the year, and if Berkeley students get their wish, a student may be sitting at the same table as Mayor Tom Bates as early as 2014.

The full proposed Student District bill can be found in its entirety here.

A new format for The Russell Bulletin

It’s been only two weeks since I revamped The Russell Bulletin and I’m already looking at ways I can change the site to make it a better experience for readers. There are three big changes that are going to be rolled out over the next few days that I think people will love:

  • Ads are going away as of now. The site does not yet have sufficient traffic to interest quality ad networks like Fusion, The Syndicate, or The Deck just yet, so Adsense was my default option. I don’t know about most of you, but I hate the look of Google’s ads – I shouldn’t have put them up in the first place. With that said, I won’t rule out ads in the future, especially if given the opportunity to feature those from the aforementioned networks.
  • I’m going to be integrating Tinypass into the site sometime this weekend. I don’t think that we produce enough content at this point in time to justify having a full-on paywall – even a “leaky” one like The New York Times or The Dish – but I do like the idea of enabling our readers to support what we do in an inexpensive and unobtrusive manner. For now the only “perk” subscribers will get is the satisfaction derived from helping a team of young writers pay for books and ramen through our work on this site, but as time goes on I’d like to start including new features like subscriber-exclusive longform posts or a podcast like Shawn Blanc’s Shawn Today.
  • Starting tomorrow morning, there will be a post “stuck” to the top of the home page of The Russell Bulletin that will feature the top news of the day. Instead of doing individual posts throughout the day on the same story, we’ll simply update this sticky piece to reflect new developments. I think that this would go a long way towards making this site useful for readers who don’t feel like scanning through news sites every few hours, as The Brief and Evening Edition have done. To keep readers engaged after they’ve caught up on the day’s events, we’ll still have our wonderful linked-list posts right below the sticky piece.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on these changes via Twitter (@humblemacaroni or @russellbulletin) or email to kylerussell@russellbulletin.com.

The United States will never turn into Greece

No, the United States Will Never, Ever Turn Into Greece:

To translate from stats-speak: our equation for non-euro countries tells us increasing debt by 1 percentage point of GDP only increases borrowing costs by 1.3 basis points. And that result isn’t even statistically significant. In other words, there is no evidence of a debt tipping point for countries that borrow in money they can print.

Yay for statistical evidence!