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Re-Connections
September 14, 2007 8:38 PM   Subscribe

Re-Connections [1 2 3 4 5 6 7, YouTube]. Interviews with James Burke at the 25th anniversary of his landmark series Connections and The Day the Universe Changed. [Previously]
posted by McLir (27 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
James Burke is very cool. Thanks for the post.
posted by kuatto at 9:10 PM on September 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


I <3>Connections!

*dusts off leisure suit*

posted by cowbellemoo at 9:19 PM on September 14, 2007


[IB's wife]

James Burke is a cool guy. He delivered the convocation for my high school. If I recall correctly, it was called "Do Lemons Whistle?" and began and ended with a roll of toilet paper. My high school crush at the time came to the address dressed as James Burke. I remember thinking that was the coolest thing ever. Thanks for this.
posted by InnocentBystander at 9:26 PM on September 14, 2007


InnocentBystander: "He delivered the convocation for my high school."

Goodness! What high school did you attend?
posted by McLir at 9:37 PM on September 14, 2007


I R TEH JAMES BURKE FANBOI. Thanks for the link.
posted by foobario at 9:59 PM on September 14, 2007


His whole concept of following a chain ov inventions/events through history as they build on one another really broke open the subject for me as a youngster, and I've read a lot more history, with much greater interest ever since then. Love his stuff.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:59 PM on September 14, 2007


One thing I always liked about the original series (and forgive me if this is mentioned in the video because I've yet to watch it) is that he wears the same clothes through all eight episodes. They shot it all over the world, with footage for different segments on the same day and it was the only way to keep any sort of continuity when he walks from one room to another in two adjacent shots filmed months apart in different countries.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:39 PM on September 14, 2007


(er, make that all 10 episodes)
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:40 PM on September 14, 2007


I watched some of the Connections episodes for the first time a few months ago and I kind of don't get it. The connections he draws are really tenuous, and he only ever skims the very surface of whatever subjects he talks about.

Like, he'll have one character go to some town, and then another person will also be in the same town at the same time, but they'll never meet and will in no way influence each others work, but somehow, that's a connection.
posted by empath at 10:57 PM on September 14, 2007 [2 favorites]


Thanks for posting this.

I can't think of anything that enlightened me as much as The Day The Universe Changed.
posted by Ickster at 11:04 PM on September 14, 2007


I <3 Connections. A truly excellent show.
posted by heatherbeth at 11:07 PM on September 14, 2007


empath:

I feel kind of silly saying this right after my fanboy post above, but I kind of feel the same way as you about Connections. Obviously, I'd strongly recommend The Day The Universe Changed.
posted by Ickster at 11:08 PM on September 14, 2007 [1 favorite]


There may be a time component to people not "getting" Connections. I first saw them as a wee lass when they first came out, and again a few years later as a marathon with my folks. Back then it was a new and fascinating look at things from a different angle. I look at them now, and see the tenuousness (sp?) that empath mentions, but I still like them.

Connections 2 and 3 were tighter, as was The Day The Universe Changed.

At any rate, if James Burke or Carl Sagan is on, everything stops, and by dog, that's what we're watching tonight!

More to watch! Thanks!

one of my fav bookmarks
posted by lysdexic at 11:44 PM on September 14, 2007


I found the problem was that a connection is not a cause, but often masqueraded as such in the programme, at least in the sense that if this had not taken place, that would not have been invented, etc. etc. So while it might be true that air conditioning is connected to the design of suits of armour (to make one up) it doesn't actually mean anything much
posted by A189Nut at 2:17 AM on September 15, 2007


Having been a big fan of The Day The Universe Changed, I've gone back to Connections, and I'm presently about 2/3 of the way through the first set of episodes.

Rather amusingly, the actual connections are much stronger and more plausible in the Day the Universe Changed. Connections is still interesting, but the threads are, in many cases, so gossamer thin that it's just an hour of interesting little historical factoids. But they don't stick in your head very well, because the connections don't make sense; A doesn't really lead to B, which doesn't really lead to C, so you end up forgetting all three.

DTUC is way, way better. The stuff it presents sticks a lot better because, while wildly disparate, you learn how this thing over here and that thing over there got combined into a third thing that changed everything... a day the Universe changed.

Basically, he got better as he went along, so don't measure all of his work by the first season of Connections.
posted by Malor at 3:18 AM on September 15, 2007


I just realized something I hadn't consciously known before: the theme music from The Day the Universe Changed sounds like the kind of music Miyazaki Hayao uses in his movies.
posted by jiawen at 3:55 AM on September 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


For all its flaws, Connections is worlds better that the traditional "shit happened" approach to history.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:42 AM on September 15, 2007


I was a big fan of Connections when I was a kid.

As an adult, I read some book by Burke - maybe Web of Knowledge or something like that - that just seemed asinine. The main thrust of the book seemed to be that, in the future, there will be no need for experts in any field, because if you know how to use toilet paper and you need electricity, you'll just start on a "toilet paper" web page, click on a link to "plumbing", click on a link to "pipes", then "lead", then "uranium", and now all of a sudden you should be trusted to build a nuclear reactor. The book really seemed fundamentally absurd.

But I still remembered being a big fan of Connections when I was a kid.

Then, later, I got a chance to see an episode of Connections again. And it made me realize that I'm not a kid anymore.

The show didn't suffer the exact problem that the book did, but it was nonetheless highly flawed. It all seemed to fit together so well when I was a kid; now it seemed like he was shoehorning tangentially related items as if they were root causes, through the entire episode.
posted by Flunkie at 6:23 AM on September 15, 2007


he wears the same clothes through all eight episodes

I've heard them/him called "The Leisure Suit of Wisdom".
posted by gimonca at 8:40 AM on September 15, 2007


The connections he draws are really tenuous, and he only ever skims the very surface of whatever subjects he talks about.

Burke is a nice gentleman, I'm sure, but the show sucks. What made kids and people with little historical background like it was the fact that he made history seem exciting. Burke obviously enjoyed it.

For all its flaws, Connections is worlds better that the traditional "shit happened" approach to history.

Unless, of course, you want to learn something about why things actually happened.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:58 AM on September 15, 2007


I think the true value of Connections lies almost entirely in its first and last episodes, where the focus isn't so much on the historical linkages as it is on the rate and nature of progress. The part I remembered most vividly as a kid, and still appreciate the most to this day, is the part in the last episode where Burke lays out four possible courses for future scientific progress, and why they're all equally treacherous and fraught with dangers. And remember that the series began with an analysis of the 1970s blackout that darkened the entire eastern seaboard of North America, then segues into a what-if? scenario asking what you would do to stay alive if the power went out one day and never came back on.

This may all sound incredibly pessimistic, but my point is that there was an extra dimension to Connections that doesn't seem to exist in Burke's more recent work. Aside from the primary thesis that progress is not the product of straightforward development, there are secondary themes: the rate of progress is increasing; the ability of any single person to understand it all is decreasing; more complex systems are also far more vulnerable to a single failure; because we rely on those systems for life support, a single failure in a system can have catastrophic results.

The fact that coal tar and insuring sailing ships may not actually have had much to do with the invention of polymers doesn't really affect this view of progress (and indeed, even Burke himself acknowledges the tenuousness of some of the links he makes—the point isn't that A led directly to B led directly to C, but that each subsequent invention drew on the work of a great many others in an unpredictable fashion). Compared to the final statement of The Day the Universe Changed—that all we have to do to change ourselves is to change our view of the world—I still find Connections resonates a lot more with me.
posted by chrominance at 9:06 AM on September 15, 2007


Eerie how much MetaFilter is parrallelling my own web-surfing these days.

I find Connections an antidote to the "great man" theory of history by showing how many people at many places and times contribute to scientific progress.
posted by Rarebit Fiend at 9:13 AM on September 15, 2007


re-Connections isn't done as well as I might have hopped, but it is pretty interesting stuff nonetheless..

Rather amusingly, the actual connections are much stronger and more plausible in the Day the Universe Changed. Connections is still interesting, but the threads are, in many cases, so gossamer thin that it's just an hour of interesting little historical factoids. But they don't stick in your head very well, because the connections don't make sense; A doesn't really lead to B, which doesn't really lead to C, so you end up forgetting all three.

One of the things he mentions in the interview is the literary structure. He designed the series as a saw tooth pattern in time, where you begin in the ancient world (or as far back as you can get), follow a chain to the modern world throughout an episode, and then you use that point to jump back to the ancient world again and follow another chain forward. Then he talks about the difficulty of constructing a chain of connections that fit that requirement.

He doesn't go into The Day the Universe Changed, unfortunately, but.. The thing about that series is, in a sense it is just one episode of Connections, but blown up to an entire series.

The Day the Universe Changed is about the best television I've ever seen, and by far the best of James Burke. Connections is also pretty extraordinary, but the later Connections series are just good TV.

The Day the Universe Changed tagline should be:
James Burke proves 1 + 1 = 3. Then, he blows your mind.
posted by Chuckles at 9:49 AM on September 15, 2007


The main thrust of the book seemed to be that, in the future, there will be no need for experts in any field,

Yes.. In an anthropological sense, his analysis is brilliant. However, it has nothing much to do with the way creators are thinking when they go about their business 'on the ground'.
posted by Chuckles at 9:58 AM on September 15, 2007


Or at least the way creators think they are thinking :P
posted by Chuckles at 9:59 AM on September 15, 2007


I loved the episode that I think was in Connections 3 where he started in India talking about textiles or something, then he ran around the world about thirty times, and ended with a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. That was classic! What a punchline! First time I saw that I was on the floor laughing my fool butt off! Then he went from corn cobs to the Smithsonian! Crazy Awesome! What an intellectual roller coaster the Connections series is! James Burke is the ultimate Rant Master! Nobody weaves a story like he can! There are not enough exclamation points on the planet to be worthy of James Burke! I could do this all day!
posted by ZachsMind at 1:44 PM on September 15, 2007


Unless, of course, you want to learn something about why things actually happened.

You get a lot closer to that with Burke than you do with the typical (U.S.) high school history course which is all Great Men inventing Important Stuff and winning Major Wars, all of which happened on Significant Dates.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:19 PM on September 15, 2007


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