Sunday, April 19, 2009

Peep Diorama

The Washington Post recently had their 3rd annual peeps diorama contest. It consisted of over one thousand artistic renditions of peeps placed in human-like situations. See the gallery slide-show here.

The kitschy Easter marshmallow treats, dressed for the Washington Post contest like humans and placed in culturally resonant context, are surprisingly entertaining. I can't quite put my finger on it. And I hesitate to spin too much interpretation as to overkill the impact of the art. But I can't help but mention in passing of how it speaks to something unique about human perception; to the smallness of our existence pitted against the grandness of our imagination; to our ability to laugh at ourselves; and to the way that inspiration sometimes comes from such strange unpredictable sources - as in this case, from Just Born, a traditional candy manufacturer in Pennsylvania.

On a tangential note, I'm reminded of Virginia Postrell's thesis that there is less of a dichotomy between substance and style than modern society would have you believe. Our modern economy strives to tailor products to willing consumers; and it does this in an infinite number of different ways. The traditional intellectual view is that such is the result of society's vain materialist excesses. Yet it's easy enough to criticize the establishment when you're talking about other people's tastes in general. But in reality, true value is created when you buy a product that is particularly suited to your needs and tastes.

This forms the argument of Postrell's light 2004 book, The Substance of Style, which suggests that people of modern Western society are more developed, sophisticated, and enlightened than our social critics would have us believe. This isn't so much in spite of our materialist nature; rather, in one sense, it's exactly because of it.

Beauty afterall is truth, and truth beauty; and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And though you've probably heard those 2 cliches a million times, they fit together quite well to form a line of inference. In the meantime, I entreat you to view beauty and truth from the brown-speckled eye of the peep.


Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)another peep on the wall, 02/09/2009, by specialkrb; (2)Cover of Virginia Postrell's 2004 book, The Substance of Style.
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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Thru Fragments of Cinema: Southwestern Sunshine

The new movie Sunshine Cleaning is a real Southwestern film: Comedy, drama, slice-of-life, it can’t quite make up its mind, but it all kind of fits together. It’s well-made, but more than anything it made me miss the Southwest.

It’s weird how some places can carve themselves into your heart. It might have been the time and circumstance under which I was in the Southwest. There’s always an understanding that life is an inward journal – that when you experience some new place you’re finding something about yourself. But it is strange how places - being external - can etch themselves upon your personality as if they were people themselves.

That’s how Santa Fe hit me, for the few years I was there. Growing up in the East, each summer we visited one portion of that part of the country for a week, but living in one of them was completely different. I expected that after living in any given city – particularly in America – that after some time, it would just be the same as every other city. Maybe I had that impression from Kerouac’s On the Road - in which lively characters impetuously zigzag across America, searching for something, settling in, getting restless, and moving on, and devouring the American highways in the process.

That might've been a misread of On the Road. To my surprise Santa Fe never quite wore in as I expected it to. The sunsets were one of the first things I noticed. You could see far over the land. The flat dessert and lack of buildings was somehow easier on the eye. I expected to get used to the sun setting. But so many evenings it was completely unique and beautiful as if it was God’s blank canvas. Its wonder might have sunk in some, but never completely.

Around then it struck me – at first explicitly through conversations with people from that side of the county - that America’s landscape is one of its prominent characteristics. At the time I was accustomed to conceptualizing America as a political construct, delineated by Democrat, Republican, and GDP. It was as if it never occurred to me that it was a country as well. The diversity of the American landscape really is one of its most beautiful and unique features.

There were other more subtle differences out West. No one was quite so worried about being on time. Where I grew up, mileage markers on the side of the highway are often posted every tenth of a mile; makers out there are posted every mile. Driving on the interstate you might see signs for your final destination when you have over 500 miles to go.

It’s not bad just different. You learn that sometimes there’s something to be said for a lack of precision. Afterall, when you're in the desert there’s no need to mark the highway every tenth of a mile . Things seemed different when the horizon appeared endless. There was a different sort of beauty. I noticed a different sort of beauty to women as well.

Sunshine Cleaning captures a small piece of that: the wind-swept prettiness of the lead; the way the plot doesn’t wrap up perfectly, but still feels adequate; the loose connections between the characters.

Other films capture the Southwest too. Or, it’s not that they capture it, but they depict it, and think like it. These sorts of films have solidified in my mind as belonging to their own genre. Paris, Texas remains my favorite, which includes more panoramas of the scenery. The Tao of Steve is another. They’re not all great films. Others like Off the Map have struck me as too loopy. Sometimes the Southwest was as well. It’s just open, that’s all. Even Scorsese’s classic Casino gets at it.

I visited Las Vegas once and was awe-struck by how this area of lights, entertainment, and mischief seemed plop in the middle of desert. But I guess where else are you going to put it?

Centered around gambling – you can lose your lifesavings all at once if you’re so inclined - the city almost has a magical feel, until you stay out late a couple of nights and see the intensity of some of the losing ones. You can see it in their eyes. It was uglier in the smaller hotel-casinos located in neighboring Death Valley. There you don’t even have any of the lights and show. And the whole casino would be empty at 1am except for sometimes one or two desperate gamblers who are still pissing away all they’ve got. That side of it all made me feel dirty for just being there.

The city lies opposite – figuratively, and almost geographically - of the Mormon Salt Lake City. It’s almost as if it's there so that when the Utah citizens feel a bit too religiously pure they can soil themselves a bit, or when the gamblers are too in a rut then can cleanse themselves a bit among the Mormons. It’s probably not really like that.

Still though the most impressive aspect of the city is its location – as if an oasis of bubbling human life and distraction and sin in the middle of an infinite nowhere.


Media(in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Promo from the 2009 film Sunshine Cleaning; (2) Jack Kerourac, 01/13/2008, tompalumbo; (3)Santa Fe 2, 08/22/2007, by Javier ST; (4)On the road...., 12/17/2008, by Spejo Blano Negro; (5)Highway sign; (6)Hammock IV, 07/09/2008, also by tompalumbo; (7)Vegas at Night from the Sky, 07/15/2006, by Starr Gazr.

Video: (1) Trailer for the 2009 film Sunshine Cleaning; (2) Trailer, from AustralianRoadShow channel, for the 1984 film Paris, Texas.
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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Lateral Transmissions: Creationism & The Scientific Tower of Babel

A few days ago I ran into the grocery store just to pick up some milk. I realized I could also use cereal, and juice, and a few other items. Since I hadn't picked up a bin, I stood at the checkout line straining to carry each individual item, looking like a buffoon. If I'd have just picked up a bin, it all would've been much easier to carry. It would’ve saved me so much energy. And you know, I do this all the time, which merely doubled my feeling of buffoonery.

On the ride back, I was chewing on a creationist argument (that an anonymous had posted here at Scientific Blogging) linking God’s creation of the world to the laws of thermodynamics. The argument seemed to rest on a loose and anthropomorphic interpretation of “energy” as something more akin to “life-energy”.

That’s an understandable mistake. “Energy” can be ambiguous. We have a subjective sense of energy, but then there’s the more objective scientific construct. In the grander scheme of things, picking up a bin in the grocery store wouldn’t have created new energy in the world. But by allowing me to optimize my muscles in accordance with the laws of physics, I would've saved energy; and for all practical purposes, I would've created it too, at least for myself, because then my muscles would've been less tired. I might’ve used the energy for some other purpose.

The flaws in creationist arguments lie in this type of confusion between subjectivity and objectivity. We’re all grateful for human life. This is a subjective feeling, though it's present almost universally. But there’s a desire to then frame the origins of life in a manner that’s as magnanimous as our gratefulness for it. Science, on the other hand, is explicitly built upon a strict separation of subject and object.

Creationism's objective/subjective mistake is understandable. The desire to commit it is as tangible as my feeling of “creating energy” had I simply grabbed a bin ahead of time at the grocery store. Afterall, to me that energy is quite real, and I could’ve spent it any number of more productive ways. But the act of picking up a bin is in no way magnanimous, or of a degree of grandeur proportionate to its subjective value to me. In this sense, the creation of life may be as "arbitrary" as the action of shifting multiple grocery items into a bag.

Beyond Creationism

The paragraphs above account for creationism's starting points or axioms, which almost always stem from man’s subjective amazement of being alive, sometimes explicitly sometimes implicitly. The rest of the creationist account can be summarized in the words, “From this, it follows”.

Herein lies the deeper mistake, which is significant because it’s shared by science as well. Godel’s refutation of logic set the most important tenant for contemporary philosophy. He proved that any completely logical system is inherently either non-complete or self-contradictory. “From this” it rarely does follow, but even if it did follow, and completely logically at that, then we still have little assurance that the account is correct.

Volumes of theology are filled with the rigid application of logic on top of these sorts of religious axioms. Parallel to this in Western intellectual history is the confusion of rhetoric for logic. Going back to Ancient Greece, Socrates commonly refuted his peers by asking questions like, “What are your definitions? And how does your argument follow from them?” He would then poke dialectical holes either in those definitions, or in the inferences that were made atop them.

This sort of debate appeared so solid that it stuck for centuries. The enlightenment championed the use of reason over all else. And logic, it was assumed, was an integral part of reason.

Ever since Godel’s theorem, logic has quietly slipped out of mainstream thought, leaving a void that has yet to be adequately filled. This is partly responsible for the rise of empiricism and the need for researchers to dirty themselves with collecting data – which is likely a step in the right direction, but these data are still analyzed using similar logical systems that aren’t immune to Godel’s diagnosis. Results to empirical studies are often given an undeserved air of objectivity, as if they were irrefutable. But fundamental errors are still often made, and they can be drastic. I elaborated more on some of these concrete errors in this comment (at the Chatterbox), and in a previous post.

All of which is to say that science starts with more objective and thought-out axioms than religion, but its flaws in logical deduction might make it just as - or only a little less - wrong in the end.

The Scientific Tower of Babel

Look at history from the rule of the Church to communism. The former rule was based God, the latter based on carefully thought-out central planning. The Soviets went so far as to embrace a scientific precision in their flavor of communism, individually setting prices for up to 24 million different items. Communism was worked to almost an exact science, and it all worked in theory – and beautifully in theory some said - not unlike some of the scientific theories we have to today. Its axioms vastly differed from religion’s, as did its glorified intentions. But both failed – and drastically, and with blood on their hands – for similar reasons.

The stakes in science today are certainly milder, but each year science plays a larger role in society and policy. The difficulty in modern day science is that there’s no funding for dissenters, which leads to a lack of proper reflection. Much of science is marred by confirmation-bias, often unchecked by the peer-review process, which has just as many holes as science itself. Without the restraints that other business endeavors have, accountability is quite difficult, and experts simply argue that the scientific results justify themselves. The picture is eerily similar to that of creationism, especially when you look at basic science, which is less chained to real world results. The more I look at it, the more I've come to question its correctness. For now it certainly seems like the most logical method to advance mankind's knowledge. But I can't shake the suspension that - similar to pedestals formerly held by religion and logic - a large portion of the scientific endeavor might prove to be an understandable mistake.

Arguments from both sides of the creation/science debate – and when you look at the rhetoric used, it really is creationism vs. science – are partisan and acidic, with each side claiming higher ground. I’ve come to the point where I unquestionably side with evolution and science.

But I admit unease, however, when I turn back to look at modern-day science in and of itself. It’s not that it’s “just a bunch of theories”; it’s our awkward pursuit of science; the basic assumptions that are often left unquestioned; the centrally dispersed funding (which artificially steers science in this or that direction); the non-role of dissenters (and the lack of meaningful dialogue that it creates); and in some cases, I guess it is just a bunch of theories. In compiling all these factors, I worry that we maybe building our own scientific tower of babel. And while I in no way presume to have the solution, a suitable place to start might lie in an attitude of humility, not unlike the sort characteristic of the pious Christian.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photos: (1) 2005_062_17, 01/16/2006, by chuckp; (2) thε allεgory oƒ Camεra & Obscura . . , 09/23/2007, by Jef Safi; (3) Portrait of Godel, 1906-1978; (4) 2009/365/4 Non-Euclidian Geometry Snow Paths, 01/04/2009, by cogdogblog; (5) I had to stop and look up..., 11/27/2006, by Jasmic; (6) cheese making, 11/25/2008, by cdine; (7) The Tower of Babel, 1563, by Peter Brueghel the Elder.

Video: (1) Music video, 08/24/2007, by steffi51, music by the band Godspeed You Black Emperor from the song "Terrible Canyons of Static" on their 2000 album, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.
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