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How to Tell a Story

Question: Do you have a strategy for storytelling?

Jonathan Ames: I don’t know about strategy. I know that whenever I get on stage, normally I don’t memorize the stories I tell, but I do, do an outline, or the headlines. It’s kind of, how I believe, Spaulding also worked. And I would know the headlines, the stories from my life, and then I could improv my way along as I checked them off in my mind. But I don’t know if it’s turning everyday moments, but just being honest about one’s neuroses. People would really identify, or just being honest about one’s insecurities. I think a lot of people are afraid to speak in public. I’m lacking that particular gene or something. I have other fears; I don’t have that particular fear. And I also, at some point in time, whenever I would get on stage, or before I get on stage, I would try to take a breath and just remember, I want to entertain these people. I want to give them something, and I would try to open myself up, literally, physically and otherwise. And let me just show these people a good time. Because then it was about that and not about me doing well, or you know, ego, or something. I mean obviously ego is always involved, you can’t quite get away from it, It’s like trying to get away from a shadow.

But if my impulse was to give and to entertain, I think that always helped the performance.

Question: How did you become involved with storytelling?

Jonathan Ames: I got started as a performer in the fall of 1990. I was at an artist’s colony in News Hampshire called the McDowell Colony and I was struggling, as I mentioned earlier to write my second novel. And I would be in this cabin all day long, not writing, sitting in front of this enormous fire that I would make for myself, sweating and just wearing my underwear, and then I would have dinner at night with the other artists and I found that when I talked at the dinner table, people were laughing. I had also found this when I sometimes attended support groups, that when I talked people laughed, even if I was talking about the most painful things going on with me. So, a lot of people at the artist’s colony would give readings at night, or have open studios with their paintings. And I decided to have what I called an Old Fashioned Night of Storytelling at this beautiful old library that was at the colony.

I had built a big fire and I sat in the care and everyone at the artist’s colony gathered around about 30 people and I gold like three stories from my life. Someone at the colony was impressed by this and told someone else about it and then that person then had me perform and at another artist colony I went to months later. Then that person then had me come to a café and perform in New York in I think 1991. And I hadn’t yet moved to New York.

And then in 1992, someone who had seen me at that café, it was called Skep Café, I believe somewhere near Thompson Street in like Soho, she now was the booker for the Fez Performance Space that had just opened up in the Fall of ’92, where Jeff Buckley would go on to perform quite a lot. The Charles Mingus Band. And this woman had seen me a year before and I hadn’t performed in whole year. And she said, “I’m putting shows together, would you want to come and tell some stories. So I told a story in part of a group show, I believe, in the fall of ’92 at the Fez, and then starting in ’93 began to put on my own shows there several times a year until 2005, until it closed. At one time, I think – I know it sound name dropping, but Jeff Buckley and I were the two people who had performed the most at the Fez in a certain time period. I also was working the door there to bring in extra money.

But I would put on these shows and I would have friends do music and odd acts and then I would always end the show by doing 30 or 40 minutes of monologues. From that, that led to me having a one-man show at PS 122 called Edipussy [ph]. Because of all the shows I did at the Fez, when the Moth, a storytelling group started up, they asked me to be a part of it. So basically, in New York, my performing career kind of began in the fall in ’92, and then really in earnest in January of ’93 when I put together, I believe, my first show of my own at the Fez. I had been doing monologues and getting on stage and sometimes acting pretty steadily from ’93 till now, 2009, sixteen years.

Recorded on: November 4, 2009

In his long career as a storyteller, Jonathan Ames has learned a thing or two about how to entertain. A few quick tips: don’t memorize your lines, and always be honest about your own neuroses.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
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The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

NASA releases first sounds ever captured on Mars

On Friday, NASA's InSight Mars lander captured and transmitted historic audio from the red planet.

NASA
Surprising Science
  • The audio captured by the lander is of Martian winds blowing at an estimated 10 to 15 mph.
  • It was taken by the InSight Mars lander, which is designed to help scientists learn more about the formation of rocky planets, and possibly discover liquid water on Mars.
  • Microphones are essentially an "extra sense" that scientists can use during experiments on other planets.
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Changing the way we grade students could trigger a wave of innovation

How students apply what they've learned is more important than a letter or number grade.

Future of Learning
  • Schools are places where learning happens, but how much of what students learn there matters? "Almost all of our learning happens through experience and very little of it actually happens in these kinds of organized, contrived, constrained environments," argues Will Richardson, co-founder of The Big Questions Institute and one of the world's leading edupreneurs.
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