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Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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Writers Make Sense Out of Chaos

Question: Do you think our culture is getting better or\r\n worse at telling stories?

Robert McKee: Oh, in terms\r\n of the skill of executing stories, I would say we’re getting better.  \r\nThat’s one thing.  Okay, I think it’s clear.  For example, I mentioned \r\nthe series, “Damages,” and in fact there was just an article in New York\r\n Magazine the other day about “Damages” and the brilliant way in which \r\nthat series does something that really has never been explored quite \r\nthat way before.  They use flash-forwards as hooks.  They give you \r\nglimpses of the future, but only glimpses, and so they put you in a \r\nstate of semi-dramatic irony.  You know more than the character knows. \r\nThe character’s going to die.  Okay, you know that.  This character is \r\ngoing to die.  Then you go and flash-forward to the death, all right?  \r\nAnd now you watch... you go back and you watch them in the present.  So,\r\n you know what he doesn’t know.  You know he’s going to die, but you \r\ndon’t know how or why he’s going to die.  And so, and you don’t know who\r\n did it, who killed him, and so forth.  And so there’s lots of hooky \r\nquestions and curiosity, but it’s also a bit of dramatic irony.  That’s \r\namazing.

When you see it, you wonder why hasn’t this been done \r\nbefore?  So, in terms of executing stories, I would say that the \r\ntechniques are better than ever.
In terms of the content of the\r\n stories, that’s another question.  And in terms of what these stories \r\nare about, the depth to which they bring their characters, I would say, \r\nno.  The stories are more shallow overall.  And that’s a huge \r\ngeneralization.  But post-modernism itself, by definition, means \r\nshallowness.  It means a satire of the techniques of writing.  Okay?  \r\nCalling attention to the techniques of writing, and that, of course, \r\ndivorces you from the content by the very nature of it.  And so in this \r\npost-post-modern world, or wherever we are now, I would say that as a \r\ngrand generalization, that the content of stories are not the quality \r\nthat they were in the 50 golden years from the 1920’s to the 1970’s on \r\nstage, page and screen, every where in the world, especially the \r\nEnglish-speaking world, the films, the plays, and the novels of that \r\nperiod were magnificent in content.
And so we’ve learned to be \r\nmore clever, more experimental, and more skilled, often, in the telling \r\nof stories today, but I can’t say that the content is what it used to \r\nbe.
Question: Are you optimistic about the future of \r\nstorytelling?

Robert McKee:
I never lose faith in \r\nstory, film may come and go as an art form, and art forms have come and \r\ngone.  Opera, more and less, came and went and then just gets revived \r\nendlessly.  There’s very little cutting edge opera today.  There are art\r\n forms that rise up and dominate a period of time in human history and \r\nthen recede.  And so film goes though that and recedes.  So what, \r\nbecause there will always be story.  And the medium of the future, I \r\nthink, is television.  But certainly the novel and the theater is still \r\nalive and well, for the most part, despite some pretty mediocre \r\nstorytelling.
And so, the art of storytelling, the art of \r\nstory, I never worry about.  People will always tell stories and they \r\nwill tell really great stories and beautiful stories.  But the medium of\r\n the future, the medium that writers choose to do what is the best work \r\nin the future that changes.
Human beings... a great critic said\r\n once, Kenneth Burke said, “Stories are equipment for living.”  Human \r\nbeings need storytelling in order to make sense out of life, in order to\r\n live as well and civilized as a human being can. And so they will go to\r\n the storyteller for meaningful emotional experiences that they cannot \r\nget from life, and then it’s just a matter of which medium the \r\nstorytellers of the future choose to dominate that period in time, and \r\nthen that too will change in time.
\r\nDo we need stories more today than we used to?

Robert \r\nMcKee:
The time that people spend in stories created for them by a \r\nstorytelling artist today compared to 50 to 100 years ago, it’s triple \r\nor quadruple what it used to be.  Do they need it more?  Maybe.  You \r\ncould make an argument that the disintegration and relativization of \r\nvalues in contemporary society is so blurring that people desperately \r\nneed stories to help them make sense out of life because what we are \r\nused to agree upon nobody agrees on anymore.  Society is, it’s obvious, \r\nbut is so splintered and so split.  I mean, there’s a spectrum that runs\r\n from "I am my brother’s keeper" to "Every man for himself" and we call \r\nthat liberals, and on the right conservatives.  And this argument over \r\nare we our brother’s keeper, or is it every man for himself, has never \r\nbeen more ugly and fragmenting of society.  And so people are clustering\r\n now, depending on their position on that spectrum, of caring or not \r\ncaring in such ways that they cannot even talk to people who are \r\nanywhere else on that spectrum.
And as a result, there is more \r\nchaos in daily life and then throw in the great recession and a few \r\nother chaoses like wars, and people are desperate.  And they need \r\nstory.  Yeah, I think you could make an argument.  Now, are they getting\r\n the quality of stories, comic or tragic, that would help them live \r\nthrough this really ugly period in history?  Probably not.  But the \r\nwriters do their best.  Because the writers are just citizens too, you \r\nknow? And they’ve got no necessarily more philosophical, psychological \r\ninsight into this than anybody else. So the writer has to be a \r\nphilosopher of a kind today that they’ve never had to be before.  They \r\nhave to make sense out of a kind of chaos that no one ever confronted \r\nbefore.  I mean the worst thing that, you know, a hundred years ago, and\r\n the worst thing that could happen is that you die.  So, people told \r\nstories about how to live well, live meaningfully if you could, or \r\ntragedy.  But death was the worst thing.  Well, there are far worse \r\nthings now.  Far worse things.  And people are literally in living \r\nhells.  They’d be better off dead, all around the world.  The suffering \r\nin the Third World today is of an extreme that the Third World has never\r\n suffered before because, generally speaking, in the Third World people \r\ndidn’t starve to death, they could farm.  But even that in many ways has\r\n been lost and for a lot of reasons.  But yeah, the world is in a worse \r\nstate than I know from history, and people would probably say, the Black\r\n Plague was the worse.  But I don’t think so, because people understood \r\nthe Plague: You get sick and you die.  Who can understand the banking \r\nsystem?  Who can understand love?  Who can understand parenting?  I mean\r\n these are things people thought they knew; they don’t know anymore.  \r\nAnd so the Plague at least was clear.  It was terrible, but it was \r\nclear.
The problem for people today is confusion in a world \r\nthat should make sense.  In a world in which you have more communication\r\n than ever, makes less and less sense than ever.  And so you need \r\nstorytellers to make sense out of that chaos, but it’s as I said, it’s a\r\n chaos of a very different kind today, and the writer struggles.

We spend more time than ever consuming stories. Do we need them more than we used to?

Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
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White dwarfs hold key to life in the universe, suggests study

New study shows white dwarf stars create an essential component of life.

NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)
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  • White dwarf stars create carbon atoms in the Milky Way galaxy, shows new study.
  • Carbon is an essential component of life.
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"Forced empathy" is a powerful negotiation tool. Here's how to do it.

Master negotiator Chris Voss breaks down how to get what you want during negotiations.

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  • Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss explains how forced empathy is a powerful negotiating tactic.
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  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
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How to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE before it’s gone

Unless you plan to try again in 6,800 years, this week is your shot.

Image source: Sven Brandsma/Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Comet NEOWISE will be most visible in the U.S. during the evenings from July 14-19, 2020.
  • After July 23rd, NEOWISE will be visible only through good binoculars and telescopes.
  • Look in the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper after dusk while there's a chance.

UPDATE: NASA is broadcasting a NASA Science Live episode highlighting Comet NEOWISE. NASA experts will discuss and answer public questions beginning at 3PM EST on Wednesday, July 15. Tune in via the agency's website, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, LinkedIn, Twitch, or USTREAM.

Before last evening, July 14, 2020, the easiest way to see Comet NEOWISE — the brightest comet to zoom past Earth since 1977's Comet Hale-Bopp — from the United States was to catch it about an hour before sunrise. Now, however, you can see it in the evening, where it will remain for until the 19th. This is a definite don't-miss event — NEOWISE won't be coming back our way for another 6,800 years. It's the first major comet of the millennium, and by all accounts, it's unforgettable.

NEOWISE just got back from the Sun

Comet NEOWISE is named after the NASA infrared space telescope that first spotted it on March 27th. Its official moniker is C/2020 F3. It's estimated that the icy comet is about three miles across, not counting its tail.

NEOWISE is now heading away from our Sun, having made it closet approach, 27.4 million miles, to our star on July 3. The heat from that encounter is what's given NEOWISE its tail: It caused gas and dust to be released from the icy object, creating the tail of debris that looks so magical from here.

As NEOWISE moves closer to Earth, paradoxically, it will be less and less visible. By about July 23rd, you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it at all. All of which makes this week prime time.

An evening delight

star constellation in sky

Image source: Allexxandar/Shutterstock/Big Think

First, find an unobstructed view of the northwest sky, free of streetlights, car headlights, apartment lights, and so on. And then, according to Sky & Telescope:

"Start looking about one hour after sunset, when you'll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness."

It should be easy to spot since it's near to one of the most recognizable constellations up there, the Big Dipper. "Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right." Et voilà: Comet NEOWISE.

Says Sky & Telescope's Diana Hannikainen, "Look for a faint, fuzzy little 'star' with a fainter, fuzzier little tail extending upward from it."

The comet should be visible with the naked eye, though binoculars and a simple telescope may reveal more detail.

You may also be able to snap a photo of this special visitor, though you'll need the right gear to do so. A dedicated camera is more likely to capture a good shot than a telephone, but in either case, you'll need a tripod or some other means of holding the camera dead still as it takes a timed exposure of several seconds (not all phones can do this).