Archive for January, 2009

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Geek vs. Veg

January 20, 2009

If you’ve never read (one of my favorite authors) Neal Stephenson’s treatise on the concept of geeking out versus vegging out, you need to.

If you’re lazy, here’s a summary, transposed from Stephenson’s original Star Wars editorial to an equally explosion-ridden piece of celluloid:

If you watched Transformers and the whole time were saying,

“Though Michael Bay’s visual image of Optimus Prime is drastically different than the Generation One blue and red Autobot leader, allowing the venerable Peter Cullen to voice the character lends it a distinct air of the traditional 1980s cartoon portrayal of Optimus as the utilitarian, grizzled yet caring battle commander.”

then you were geeking out.

On the other hand, if you watched Transformers and the whole time you were saying,

“Woah, dude!  Giant fighting robots and explosions!  Sweeeeeeeeeet!”

then you were vegging out.

Now most likely, a significant portion of the people watching Transformers (or at least the ones near my age), did some sort of combination of the two.

This is an extreme example of the concept.  Obviously, it’s typically much more subtle than that.  It’s also much more diverse: one could geek out over the CG renderings, or because of a favorite actor, the musicianship of the score, whatever.

In a planetarium, the opportunity for both veg and geek is high.  Too far on the geek side, and you end up with a dry astronomy lecture with high bore potential.  Too far on the veg side, and you end up with something that’s pure entertainment with little to no educational content.

This isn’t to say that people won’t like something that is radically geek or ridiculously veg.  There are folks who might appreciate a straight-up astronomy lecture—they’re called astronomers.  Likewise, pure entertainment has its place—Laser Floyd anyone?

I truly believe that good entertainment needs to be a combination of the two houses, bi-partisan if you will, and educational entertainment especially needs to be a very cultivated blend of geek and veg.

For example, you could show the audience a still diagram of a solar system orrery to demonstrate the orbits of the planets, and that might get your point across just fine.  An image like that has high geek potential, because people that have the order of the planets memorized will be happy to see something that they’re familiar with.

Now, up the veg factor by animating that same image so that the planets revolve around the sun, tracing their orbital path.  Typically you’ll need a video or laser projector to carry something out like this, and if done right, it can look really spiffy.

Take another step: animate the image in three dimensions*, so you’re able to change the audience’s perspective.  Spin the orrery so that you can see it from the top, the bottom, the sides, etc.

Go further into veg-land by doing away with the proscenium that is the TV frame: blow up the orrery so that it covers the entire dome, with the sun at the apex and Pluto (yes, I include Pluto) with its tilty orbit at the edge of the dome.  This kind of image is really cool; the audience has to look around the theater to take in the entire picture.

Finally, you can take an orrery to its logical extent by breaking the laws of physics and actually flying the audience through the solar system as if they’re on a spacecraft, buzzing the planets as you go, maybe showing actual Hubble images of each, along with all the fixin’s like rings and moons and asteroids.

At this point, you’ve got major “Oooh!” and “Aaah!” generation going on—so much in fact that the audience may be vegging out so far that they’re too caught up in the scene, totally ignoring the announcer or not even listening to the narration, missing the entire point you’re trying to get across with the orrery demonstration to begin with.  Crossing that line can be easy with so many cool toys to play with.

When producing a show, I try to present a mix of geek and veg, like an oscillation between info and wiz-bang.  I also try to build up towards the first big presentation of a veg-worthy scene, so that you don’t “give it away on the first date,” so to speak—by the time I do a big nausea-inducing spin of the stars or a relativity-ignoring planetary flyby, the audience feels like they’ve earned it.

I also puncturate very important educational points or themes by going dark.  That is to say, if there’s something in the narration that the audience absolutely, positively must know when they leave my theater, I’ll kill all images and stop all movement, so that there are no distractions—they’re forced to listen without their minds wandering.

The next time you find yourself sincerely enjoying a movie or TV show, think about the balance between geek and veg, and how it can really make a difference in audience attention and reaction.

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Infurating God?

January 15, 2009

I just have to comment on this.  Some guy complained about a “Buddha statue” (i.e. a decoration at the tiger exhibit) at the Kansas City Zoo:

Engle, who said he and his family are Christians, said it was idolatry and “infuriating to God.”

(snip)

“We can’t have a cross or a nativity scene on public property,” said Engle of Overland Park, who complained to a zoo employee. “It is phenomenal to me that the zoo would put up Buddha statues.”

Mr. Engle missed a couple of points here…  Firstly, the Zoo is a private company, and can display whatever the heck they want, and secondly, IT’S NOT EVEN BUDDHA:

“I have seen them,” said Lama Chuck Stanford, executive and spiritual director of the Rime Buddhist Center & Monastery. “They are statues of Ho Tai, the patron saint of children in China and Japan. He is closer to Santa Claus.”

Durned foreigners and their beautiful heritage-rich flags!

Durned foreigners and their beautiful heritage-rich flags!

I worked at the KC Zoo’s education deparment a few years ago (one season with Lama Chuck’s daughter, cooincidentally enough).  In the African section of the zoo, we had the Kenyan flag on display, flying above the African-styled gift shop.

I came in after a weekend and noticed that it had been replaced with an American flag, which, uh, didn’t make any damn sense whatsoever.  I asked what the deal was, and it turns out that someone from the American Legion had complained about a foreign flag flying, so it was removed and replaced.

File that instance and this one under the heading of, “People Who Just Don’t Get It, and Probably Never Will.”

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Goodbye, Greg

January 14, 2009

I’ve started and stopped this entry four times now.  Apparently I’m having trouble putting exactly what I want to say into words, so I’ll instead just be to the point:

Greg Hawley, curator of the Steamboat Arabia Museum and therefore my boss during my short but treasured time as a tour guide there, a man I admired very much for his vision, perseverance, geniality, and cleverness, died on Saturday in a car accident.  He was only 50.

My condolences and best wishes go out to his family and the staff at the museum.

If you have never been to the Arabia Museum, I encourage you to visit; it is a venue like no other, thanks in no small part to Greg and his tireless efforts.

He was truly an exhibit unto himself, actual walking, talking history, vibrant and enthusiastic, and will be missed.

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My Definition

January 11, 2009

Spurred by a discussion happening on the Dome-L planetarium mailing list, I feel compelled to discuss my philosophies and observations behind the definition of the word “planetarium.”

Defining this industry seems like it should be pretty straightforward. I mean, even if a person has never been to a planetarium before, they still at least know what one is, right?

Well, not necessarily. As I’ve said before, I’m always amazed at the number of adults that have absolutely no clue what the planetarium is.

Partially the product of growing up in rural Missouri, I had long been an adult before I had actually ever visited a planetarium. It was the Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum in DC. I’m pretty sure the show I saw was Oceans in Space.

Even though I had never been to one, I still knew what a planetarium was: a specialty theater that showed astronomy programming.

Like a lot of kids in the ‘80s, I was very interested in space and science, and had aspirations of being an astronaut. I had been to see OMNIMAX shows, at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and loved the experience—strangely, I don‘t remember much about the actual shows that we saw, but I do remember the ambiance of the theater: the tiered seating, the big reclining chairs, the domed screen, the gigantic elevating film projector… It’s telling, perhaps, that I was more fascinated with the theater than I was with the content.

Thinking back to the what I was like as a kid, I’m sure that I would have absolutely flipped out over seeing a show in a planetarium. It would have been one of those experiences that I would have never forgotten.

I try to keep that in mind when kids tell me that this is their first visit to the planetarium—that this could be something they remember their entire lives. It’s not soley the show they watch, or the uniqueness of the theater, or the music or the fantastic imagery. It’s the whole package; I want them to take the happy memory of the experience of the planetarium with them when they leave.

Anyway, there’s been an argument raging off and on for months on Dome-L about digital projection technology and its impact on the quality and subject matter of planetarium programming.

Traditionally, planetarium show imagery has been done with a series of projectors working in concert: typically a star projector, slide projectors for images, and various speciality effects projectors for things like planets, the Moon, the Sun, comets, shooting stars, auroras, etc.

Most newer planetaria forego these mechanical projectors and instead use digital systems that project a video image across the entire dome. As you can imagine, this can be very versatile—you can project almost anything a traditional mechanical system could (including starfields and images), plus much, much more.

On the mailing list, there have been a few proponents of traditional planetarium projection– Actually, let me rephrase that: There have been a few opponents of full dome projection systems that are voicing their displeasure with the new technology.

This phrase, a direct quote from one of them, sums their viewpoint up nicely:

“If it doesn’t have a star projector in its center, it’s not a planetarium, it’s a movie theater.”

Suffice it to say, I disagree vehemently. In fact, I would go so far as to say (and did so in a response on the list) that fantastically ridiculous to say such a thing.

I won’t go longwinded and try to outline the reasons why I think it’s ridiculous (at least not in this post—most assuredly later I will), but after some serious pondering on the subject, I’ve revised my personal definition of planetarium, which was:

A planetarium is a theater that specializes in aerospace programming.

This is my stock response to people that come up to me in the lobby and ask what the planetarium is. It gets the point across nicely. But to get down into the nitty-gritty philosophy of exactly what a planetarium is, I present a couple of revisions to my definition:

  • “…specializes in…” does not mean “…solely presents…” In addition to star shows and aerospace documentaries, a planetarium can (and in my opinion, should) also branch out into other areas of science (history, geography, biology, physics, whatever—it‘s all related!) and also can do programming that is pure entertainment, like music or laser shows.
  • Also, “theater,” under my revised definition, means any kind of theater. Obviously this is somewhat of a gray area, as the definition of theater, beyond “a place with seats and a schedule of shows” can itself be difficult to pin down.

The real question then is, can a theater without a projection dome be a planetarium?

My answer is a resounding YES. A theater does not need a projection dome to be a planetarium! It helps, obviously, but give me a laptop with Stellarium and Celestia installed, a nice bright video projector and something to shoot it at, a laser pointer, a microphone, and darkness, and I could do a planetarium show anywhere.

Likewise, a theater with a projection dome isn’t always going to be a planetarium (and won’t always even attempt to be).

The point then, is this: A planetarium is defined by its content, not by its theater.

Every Planetarium is Different™, and whether a theater has older-style brute-force projectors, or newer-style digital projectors, the content is what defines the concept, not the shape of the theater or the age of the machines (or the people!) running it.

A boring show is a boring show, whether it’s done with a 30 year old star instrument or a 30 thousand dollar fisheye video projector, and boring shows will not leave first-timers with happy, excited memories of their inaugural visit to a planetarium. Content is what’s important, and good content will almost always make for good experiences.

Planetarium: a theater (any kind of theater) that specializes in (but doesn’t not necessarily solely present) aerospace programming.

That’s my definition, and I’m sticking to it.

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Pathological Urges

January 10, 2009

As a follow-up to my previous post about planetarium seating, I want to talk about some interesting occurrences that I’ve observed over my days in the biz.

They say, “It never rains, but it pours,” whoever they are. But strangely, they’re right, about some things at least.

For example: as I’m ushering people into the theater, I try to tell them that the best seats are in the back, but often I get caught up in taking tickets or keeping count of visitors or looking for people trying to sneak in food, etc., and people don’t always get the message.

Call it mob mentality (actually, there’s probably some other psychological phenomenon that explains it better, but I don’t know what it would be called), but every once in a while, every single person will be sitting in the first few rows, and will leave the back half of the theater totally empty.

In a movie theater, from what I’ve seen, most people filing in will turn toward the back of the house (typically the stadium seats nowadays). I personally think those people are crazy- -I much prefer to sit in the front, maybe the 4th or 5th row, because I like the movie screen to fill my entire field of vision, from one corner of one eye to the other of the other. But it seems to me that most people, if given the choice, will sit toward the back.

So I have no idea why, but every once in a while, people will migrate to the front of the planetarium.

Typically, kids are the ones that try to talk their parents into sitting in the front. If I can catch them before the show starts, I’ll tell them that the show is best seen from the back of the house, and if there’s open seats, they should think about moving back.  Most of the time the parent looks at the kids and says, “See, I told you,” as the kids look disappointed.

Speaking of kids, there are a handful of other pathological urges that seem to be exclusive to kids. Like stanchions.

For some reason, kids are fascinated by stanchions. Especially boys. They stand on them, they lean them back and forth, they pull and snap the tape (canvas tape- -no more of the ol skool velvet ropes for my theater). If I have a young school group that has to stand out in the queue for longer than a few minutes, I always, invariably have to go out after the show and reset the stanchions, because they’ll be twisted and nudged and totally out of place.

I’m pretty picky about my stanchions.

(ESPECIALLY WHEN PEOPLE TRY TO STEAL THEM, but that’s another post for another day.)

One more thing kids almost always do: they’re obsessed with trying to find me.

Before the show, when I do my intro spiel (which I do from the control room, which in my theater is in the back of the house) , kids will stand up and look around the theater, trying to figure out where I am. It’s as if they expect me to walk out in front of the theater to do my introduction (which I admit, is a pretty common-sense thing to expect, but it’s still funny).

Once the kids in the back of the theater figure out that I’m behind them, they’ll stand and point out to their friends and whisper, “There he is!”

What happens next is a whisper-fueled ripple of kids’ heads, prairie-dogging out of their seats to look back at the control room, which travels across the entire theater from the back to the front.

Now I don’t want to sound like an old fuddy-duddy about this and whine about those darn kids not staying in their seats, but the problem is, when these kids are all looking around and whispering and pointing at me, they’re not listening to my instructions.

It was so much of a problem for school groups, that I’ve taken to doing my intro spiel in front of them, then telling them to follow me with their eyes as I go to the back of the theater, through my secret door, and into the control room.

Then I say, “Now, that’s all you need to look at me! You don’t need to look back here any more! The rest of the show is going to be above you on the dome, so sit back down on your bottoms and don’t look back here any more!”

Okay, maybe I am an old fuddy-duddy.

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Where should I sit?

January 8, 2009

There are four typical seating arrangements in a planetarium theater:

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Dispatch: Eridian Birthday

January 6, 2009

erisdysThis is a Hubble Space Telescope image of the 9th largest known object in our solar system (besides the sun), and its moon.

Pluto, right?

Pluto, wrong.

It’s Eris, the largest dwarf planet, and Dysnomia, its moon.

I tell visitors that this is one of the reasons that “dwarf planets” as a new classification of planets was introduced–there are objects in our solar system that are bigger than Pluto.  Should that make them a planet?

Here’s a typical exchange that occurs when someone brings up Pluto/Dwarf Planets:

Me: Is Pluto a planet?

School Kids: No!

Me: What makes something a planet?

School Kids: It’s made of dirt!

Me: Ok, dirt– like it has a ground you can stand on.  But how about Jupiter, and the rest of the outer planets?  Do they have a ground?

School Kids: No?

Me: That’s right, they don’t.  They’re made of gas, that’s why they’re called “gas giants.”  So a planet doesn’t need ground.  If not, what exactly makes something a planet?

School Kids: It has to be round!

Me: Round like a circle?

School Kids: No, round like a ball, smart arse.

Me: Ah, then we call that “spherical.”  Ok, well, the Sun is spherical.  Does that make it a planet?

School Kids: Of course not, don’t be silly.

Me: So what makes something a planet?

School Kids: It has to orbit the Sun.

Me: But asteroids and comets orbit the sun, does that make them planets?

School Kids: No, it has to orbit the sun and be big.

Me: Bigger than Pluto.

School Kids: Yes, jeez!

Me: So our moon is a planet then, because it’s bigger than Pluto and orbits the sun.  Right?

School Kids: Uh… No?

Me: You’re right, the Moon is a moon, a satellite.  And it’s good that’s not the deciding factor, because there are seven moons in our solar system that are larger than Pluto: Ganymede, Titan, Callisto, Io, the Moon, Europa, and Triton.  So if they’re not planets, then what makes something a planet?

School Kids: Uh…  Just where are you going with this, wise guy?

Me: There are a handful of technical definitions for what makes something a planet or not, but to be perfectly honest, the only way to know for sure if something is a planet or not–a bunch of people get together and vote.

School Kids: Say what now?

Me: It’s true, the International Astronomical Union governs the naming conventions for astronomical bodies.

School Kids: So some dudes get to decide if something’s a planet or not?

Me: Dudes and ladies.  Pretty much, yeah.

School Kids: Far out, man.

Me: Word.

Ok, maybe that’s not verbatim, but fairly you get the idea.

Ultimately, the confusion surrounding the classifications of these things (dwarf planets, plutoids, TNOs, etc.) is just semantics: the words describing them don’t actually change what they are: small objects in the outer edges of the solar system.

Anyway, I digress.  A trio of astronomers scouring the sky for Trans-Neptunian Objects found Eris on January 5 of 2005, after studying photos taken in 2003.  (The sky is a big place to observe; often discoveries are made long after initial images are taken, because there’s just so much darn data to look at.)

The namesake of this dwarf planet is the Roman goddess of strife and discord, an appropriate association since Eris was one of the reasons the IAU decided to start thinking about new solar system classifications, an act that has led to a considerable strife and discord over the demotion of Pluto.

Astronomers love relating names like this, and Dysnomia is another perfect example.  Follow this train of geek-thought:

Eris was informally nicknamed Xena by the discovery team, and naturally Xena’s moon should be Gabrielle.  The meaning of “dysnomia” translates to “lawlessness” in English–And the character of Xena was played by actress Lucy Lawless.

And yes, that was totally on purpose.

I did make the mistake (once) of trying to explain this connection to a school group of 3rd graders in my theater.  Of course the teachers knew who I was talking about, but the kids had no clue.

I was half tempted to say, “You know, that amazonian lesbian couple from the syndicated psuedo-Roman TV show in the mid-90s…” but fortunately kept my mouth shut.