“The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” — Carl Sagan

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by space. I never wanted to be an astronaut; I wanted to live in space. In high Earth orbit. On another planet. Or maybe among the stars.

All my life, I’ve loved science fiction: Star Trek and Star Wars; Asimov, Blish, Clarke, Heinlein, LeGuin; Kim Stanley Robinson’s near-future Mars trilogy. I’ve lived vicariously through the imagination of others.

Through it all, one man has been my guide. From Cosmos to Contact to Pale Blue Dot to The Demon-Haunted World, astronomer Carl Sagan has been there to patiently point to possible futures. Sagan’s relentless optimism inspired many geeks my age. When I feel depressed about the future of our species, I remember Sagan’s conviction that despite our flaws, humans are capable of great things. For me, Carl Sagan’s fundamental message was this: We, the human species, are awesome people.

I also remember Sagan’s sense of wonder. It infected me.

Apparently, his sense of wonder also infected Reid Gower (@reidgower on Twitter). Gower has taken it upon himself to make space exploration cool again. Last December, he produced this mind-blowing mock NASA TV commercial. He followed that in January with his first installment in The Sagan Series, an attempt to create the PR campaign that NASA should have made for itself.

Gower has taken Sagan monologues, combined them with contemplative music, and layered the audio over stunning video from a variety of sources. The results are inspirational, a sort of paean to space exploration. The first installment in The Sagan Series has been viewed more than 1.2 million times; the sixth part deserves at least that many hits.

Here’s the entire series.

Part Three: A Reassuring Fable

Part Four: Per Aspera Ad Astra (“Through hardship to the stars”)

Part Five: Decide to Listen

The most recent installment in The Sagan Series is perhaps the best of all. To commemorate the final Space Shuttle mission, Gower created “End of an Era”.

Part Six: End of an Era

These videos make me want a Carl Sagan fix. Maybe I’ll go home tonight and watch Cosmos again. Or read Contact. Or maybe I’ll simply go outside and look at the stars. (Speaking of which, I just posted six stunning videos of the night-time sky at my personal blog.)

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” — Carl Sagan

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Earlier this week at the New York Times Opinionator blog, David Bornstein wrote about new initiatives to match some autistic adults to jobs that suit them. The autistic’s mental quirks make it tough to find suitable jobs, and her difficulty with social situations can create conflicts in the workplace. As a result, adults with autism have trouble finding work, and when they do get jobs, they often have trouble keeping them.

From the Wikipedia: Autism is a disorder of neural development characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.

Bornstein’s article highlights the work of Danish entrepreneur Thorkil Sonne. When his youngest child was diagnosed with autism in 2000, Sonne and his wife were worried about his future in society. They wanted him to grow into a happy adult. Rather than leave things to chance, Sonne created a company that could help his son and others like him.

In 2004, Sonne started Specialisterne in Copenhagen. Specialisterne isn’t a charity; it’s a for-profit business designed to draw upon the strengths of its autistic employees instead of dwelling upon their weaknesses. Because folks with autism tend to be methodical, detail-oriented, and have excellent memories — and because they often prefer to work on their own — they make good software testers. Specialisterne employees help large corporations (like Microsoft, Oracle, and Nokia) hone their products.

Here’s how Sonne explained his philosophy to the Harvard Business Review in 2008:

You have to get the most from employees, especially when labor is scarce. Our sector is crying out for manpower, but Specialisterne has many job seekers knocking on the door. The key is to find situations that fit employees’ personalities and ambitions, not force everybody into one mold. That just causes stress, and workplaces already produce too much of that.

Specialisterne had $3 million in revenues in 2010 (and earned a small profit), but Sonne isn’t content employing autistic workers in his native Denmark. He wants to take the business global, to Iceland and Poland and Brazil and the United States.

Best of all, Specialisterne is giving purpose and employment to those who’ve been unable to find it in the workplace. The New York Times article highlights one 50-year-old man with Asperger’s syndrome who struggled for more than a decade to find a job. He could never find a place where he fit in. Now, though, he finally feels like he belongs.

Read more about Thorkil Sonne and his company in profiles from Wired and The Atlantic. Chicago-based Aspiritech does similar work in the U.S.

[The New York Times Opinionator blog: For some with autism, jobs to match their talents]


In a January article at the Newsweek magazine website, Seth Fiegerman named Grand Rapids, Michigan one of America’s “dying cities”. The folks in Grand Rapids weren’t amused. On May 22nd, 5000 awesome people in that town came together to film a monster lipdub set to Don Maclean‘s “American Pie”. This amazing video — which Robert Ebert declared “the greatest music video ever made” — features marching bands, fire trucks, motorcades, weddings, helicopter flights, and a bridge on fire.

This people of Grand Rapids are awesome:

Rob Bliss, who acted as director and executive producer, explained the impetus for the project:

This video was created as an official response to the Newsweek article calling Grand Rapids a “dying city.” We disagreed strongly, and wanted to create a video that encompasses the passion and energy we all feel is growing exponentially, in this great city. We felt Don McLean’s “American Pie,” a song about death, was in the end, triumphant and filled to the brim with life and hope.

This isn’t the first lipdub video to go viral on the internet; it’s just the one with the largest scope. Here are some other lipdub videos from years gone by:

As you can imagine, a stunt with the size and scope of the Grand Rapids lipdub video doesn’t just happen. It takes planning, hard work, and practice. Though the final video is one continuous shot, it took several attempts to get that one shot. Things went wrong in each take. The final video is the best of of the bunch.

If you’d like to learn more about the Grand Rapids lipdub video, here’s a four-minute behind the scenes clip that shows how it was made.


A decade ago, I bought a CD by the The Langley Schools Music Project. That album, Innocence and Despair, collected 21 songs recorded in 1976 and 1977 by students from the Langley School District in British Columbia. (The songs were recorded in a gymnasium!)

According to music teacher Hans Fenger, who organized this project:

I knew virtually nothing about conventional music education, and didn’t know how to teach singing. Above all, I knew nothing of what children’s music was supposed to be. But the kids had a grasp of what they liked: emotion, drama, and making music as a group. Whether the results were good, bad, in tune or out was no big deal — they had élan. This was not the way music was traditionally taught. But then I never liked conventional children’s music, which is condescending and ignores the reality of children’s lives, which can be dark and scary. These children hated cute. They cherished songs that evoked loneliness and sadness

Now, more than thirty years later, arts and music programs are being slashed from schools across the United States (and probably Canada too, I imagine). Sure, there are magnet schools for kids who really want to sing, but chances to do so in a conventional school environment are dwindling.

It’s a pleasure then to see the success that Gregg Breinberg has had with the kids of the PS 22 Chorus from Public School 22 in Graniteville, Staten Island, New York. For ten years now, Breinberg has been teaching fifth graders to tap their inner passion for song.

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In 1963, when he was 21, Stephen Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). At the time, he’d just begun studying theoretical astronomy and cosmology at Cambridge.

Though ALS usually kills its victims within just a few years (you may recall that Lou Gehrig himself only lived two years after being diagnosed), Hawking has lived to the ripe old age of 69. Over the past 48 years, he’s contributed important work to the study of the universe — and he’s served as an inspiration to other people suffering from debilitating diseases.

Earlier today, The New York Times published a rare interview with Stephen Hawking. Here’s an excerpt:

Q. I don’t mean to ask this disrespectfully, but there are some experts on A.L.S. who insist that you can’t possibly suffer from the condition. They say you’ve done far too well, in their opinion. How do you respond to this kind of speculation?

A. Maybe I don’t have the most common kind of motor neuron disease, which usually kills in two or three years. It has certainly helped that I have had a job and that I have been looked after so well.

I don’t have much positive to say about motor neuron disease. But it taught me not to pity myself, because others were worse off and to get on with what I still could do. I’m happier now than before I developed the condition. I am lucky to be working in theoretical physics, one of the few areas in which disability is not a serious handicap.

Q. Given all you’ve experienced, what words would you offer someone who has been diagnosed with a serious illness, perhaps A.L.S.?

A. My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit, as well as physically.

At the New York Times site, you can read the entire interview, play audio recordings of Hawking’s responses, and read reader comments.


What did you do when you were sixteen? I read a lot of comic books, watched too many music videos, and sulked because my parents wouldn’t buy me stuff. You know — standard teenaged angst.

When she was sixteen, Australian Jessica Watson did something awesome: She sailed around the world. Alone. Non-stop and unassisted. Watson left Sydney on 18 October 2009, sailed east through the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Indian Oceans, and returned to Sydney on 15 May 2010 — three days before her seventeenth birthday.

This being the Internet Age, Watson documented the journey on a blog and on YouTube. In one blog post, Watson explained why she chose to sail around the world:

When I first dreamt of sailing around the world, the first thing that caught my attention, was curiosity about whether or not it was even something that was achievable. It wasn’t so much the action and adrenaline parts that appealed to me, but thinking about all the details and finding ways to minimize the risks. I wanted to challenge myself and achieve something to be proud of. And yes, I wanted to inspire people. I hate that so many dreams never actually become anything more than that, a dream. I’m not saying that everyone should buy a boat and take off around the world, but I hope that by achieving my own dream, I’m showing people that it is possible to reach their own goals, whatever they might be and however big or small.

Now that I’m out here, I’m also finding that a big part of it is just about having fun and making the most of every day. And the other amazing thing is that it’s no longer just my dream or voyage. Every milestone out here isn’t just my achievement, but an achievement for everyone who has put so much time and effort into helping getting me here.

Also, I’d like to say that I’m not doing this to prove a point, but that wouldn’t be completely true. For almost 6 years my family lived on our motor boat travelling and based at different marinas on the east coast of Australia. When you live on the water, it’s sort of like an unwritten law that when another boat is pulling in, you stop to give a hand and take their lines. But being a ‘little girl’ meant that more often than not, my offer of help would be completely ignored, while the line was passed to the fully grown man next to me. I found this incredibly frustrating as I knew that I was just as capable of handling the lines as anyone else. I hated being judged by my appearance and other people’s expectations of what a ‘little girl’ was capable of.

So yes, I hope that part of what I’m doing out here is proving that we shouldn’t judge by appearance and our own expectations. I want the world to know exactly what ‘little girls’ and young people are actually capable of!

Watson’s YouTube channel includes a couple dozen videos chronicling her journey. Here, before she sets out, she gives us a tour of her 34-foot boat, Ella’s Pink Lady.

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Pearl Fryar, Unlikely Titan of Topiary

April 25, 2011

Photo by Duane Burdick To some people, a shrub is just a shrub; to Pearl Fryar, a shrub is a canvas. Fryar is an artist with plants. But he didn’t start out that way. When he bought his home in 1981, Fryar didn’t know anything about gardening. Still, he wanted to win Yard of the […]

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Ueli Steck, Speed Mountain-Climber

April 21, 2011

The Eiger is a wall of ice and stone in the Swiss Alps. It rises 3970 meters (13,025 feet) above Gindelwald. The north face of Eiger is also called Mordwand, or “the wall of death”. In the past century, at least sixty-four climbers have died trying to scale this treacherous slope. The western flank of […]

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Michael Moschen, Juggling Genius

April 19, 2011

Michael Moschen is one of the world’s most accomplished jugglers. Moschen is especially adept at contact juggling, a method in which the juggler doesn’t toss props into the air, but keeps them close to the body. When he was twelve, Moschen and his brother (and next-door neighbor Penn Jillette) learned to juggle from a library […]

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Ben Underwood, the Boy Who Could See with Sound

April 15, 2011

Ben Underwood was your average teenager. He liked to goof around with his friends, skate in the street, and waste time playing videogames. The only difference? Underwood was blind. In July 2006, People magazine published a profile of Underwood, the boy who saw with sound. The opening paragraph is awesome: There was the time a […]

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