Thursday, March 3, 2011

I'm moving

So to all my loyal followers... Okay so nobody reads this but me anyway and I haven't posted in six months.

After much work (on the part of other people) the Mad Art Lab has launched.

It's a group blog that talks about science, skepticism and art. I've moved my discussions over there and will be posting regularly.

Come visit. It's a fun place.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tim Minchin - The Other End

So a couple of posts ago I threw up a terribly offensive video of a Tim Minchin song about the pope. I've looked into him a bit more and he's a little bit brilliant.

I wanted to put up what I think is his best skeptical piece. It's a poem and it's sort of on the opposite end of the pope song. Have a listen.

Why do I think this is brilliant? Well it does a couple of things really well. It draws you into the story before you even know that you might be offended. As general Akbar might say, it's a trap. Next it's clear that Tim is the asshole in this story. He's explaining his internal struggle to be polite before the dam bursts. Finally, the arguments he puts forward are both funny and cogent. I think that those two things together will make people happy enough with them to consider them jovially.

What does it mean to consider something jovially? Well I just made it up. We know what it is to consider something seriously. It involves a furrowed brow, pacing and a lot of thought. In general most people try to avoid that sort of hard work and just go with their gut instead and justify it later.

Considering something jovially is what you do when someone throws something clever at you. It's a quick process where you try to come up with a clever retort to keep the witty repartee going. More often than not you'll think of the clever thing hours later but to me that means the happy thought has been rolling around in your head without making any enemies for a while. If I'm right, that means these sorts of thoughts have the capacity to make you question your beliefs and reorganize your thinking because they sneak in under the guise of being funny.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Manga Artist on Skepticism

Tired of hearing my opinion? How about another artist?

Many thanks to Skepchick for pointing me to this.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Origins of an Icon

I've been trying to do this post since I started this blog but there is a problem with an iconic image and the internet: There are thousands of versions of it and it's bloody challenging to find the original. I'm finally reasonably confident that I have found it, though.
The image is of course the March of Progress. It's that ubiquitous parade of apes from a chimp like creature up to modern man. So pervasive is this image that I found a half dozen purported to be the original under the names Ascent of Man, Descent of Man, and Evolution of Man. It was most commonly credited to Charles Darwin himself.
After much searching I have come to believe the the original was titled March of Progress and was a fold out created by Rudolph Zallinger in 1965 for a Time-Life book called Early Man. It is shown in full below.
Does that look a little odd? Well I said it was a fold out. This is what it looks like folded in.

Is that more familiar now? How about a more carefully selected verion?
Hey that looks familiar... what if we got rid of that detail and made it a two tone graphic?
Almost there. Now all we need is a short witticism and we have one of a hundred T-shirts or a thousand comics. So stunningly effective was this image in describing the ancestry of the human species that despite its inaccuracies*, it has become synonymous with evolution. Visually, it quite literally means evolution and anyone can use it to jump past any written discourse on the concept of heredity or speciation and jump straight to their message or, more often, their punch line.

*I'm wallowing in my own personal little hell for citing Wikipedia as an authority on something.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Yay for viral videos - NSFW

A friend posted this on Facebook. It is not at all safe for work, children, the elderly, or anyone really.

This is what I'd call the extreme end of a spectrum. I thought Greydon was heading that way but he retains dignity and restraint at least as far as name calling goes. So what is the purpose of a song like this one? I think it's pretty obvious: Cheap laughs.

It's a fart joke. It will seem distasteful and offensive to some; it will elicit furtive giggles from those on the fence; it will bring hearty guffahs to those in general agreement of both the message and the sensibilities which allow a song to be made primarily of curse words.

Now how is this toilet humor skeptical artwork? Well, it's a musically arranged poem about the apparent disconnect between the tenets of the catholic church and their reactions to reports of child abuse committed by come members of that institution. Hidden within all of the profanity is a desperate plea for people to think about this issue and question the moral authority the pope is supposed to wield.

I personally don't think it's a very effective message for one pretty simple reason: Anyone who stands on the side of the church on this issue was too offended to listen before the first verse started. Those who really needed to think stopped thinking the second Tim said "pope".

The only people that this will appeal to are already onside. He's preaching to the choir and making them all smug and assuring them that they're completely right in their mindset.


You laughed too didn't you?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Greydon Square

I have something that on the surface is something of a walking paradox. When you think of hip-hop what pops to mind? Pimps, hos, benjamins and rollin' in ya escalade? Yeah, me too. Isn't it nice to have a stereotype smashed up sometimes?

Greydon Square is a black American army veteran hip-hop artist. Get that image in your head. Now read the following exerpt from his song "A Rational Rap"

To battle me you need to reason clearly
Now I'm not sayin fear me
But at least be versed in punctuated equilibrium theory
Grand unified fields, quantum mechanics and dark planets
With logic that's sharper than a blade of d'Artagnan's
To destroy arguments of creationists who cant stand it
Then they try and hit me with the wager
Who? Pascal's wager. Who? Pascal's wager.
Now that's a fool's bet
And against the intelligent it's used less

How's your worldview doing? He's a graduate student in physics and an extremely outspoken atheist and skeptic. Now I'm not a hip-hop fan but I can appreciate this guy for what he's creating. It's clearly his preferred art form and he's wielding it with both graceful skill and brutal clarity. He's as blunt and forceful as the old school rappers speaking out against oppression and poverty but he's dangerously intelligent and his message is that science, skepticism and atheism are important.

I don't know how I feel about the atheism bit. I'm still a bit of an agnostic which he's clearly not thrilled with:
"I been sayin it since agnostics people been playin the fence"

But overall it's interesting, intelligent and I have to thank him for breaking a bias for me.

Thanks Greydon. Good luck with your music, your message, and your studies. If you really want to screw people up, get a Nobel prize and rap your acceptance speech ;)

Monday, July 26, 2010

George Hrab.... difficult to critique

So in my perusing of the internet I've come across a skeptic/podcaster/musician by the name of George Hrab. His podcast, Geologic is bizarre and entertaining and has little or nothing to do with geology.

George has recently released an album called Trebuchet which is available on Itunes, at CDbaby and very conveniently as one of his podcast episodes. I encourage you to give it a listen.

The album definitely has a skeptical bent and a comedic feel to it but I have run into a terrible block as I try to critique it and discuss it here: I don't like it. I don't have a good reason for my distaste for it. I can't even put into words why I would have Johnathan Coulton's babies and Hrab doesn't even raise my blood pressure. I don't know enough about music to comment meaningfully on the skill of the artist in that regard. The lyrics seem fine enough but they don't catch me so I'm unwilling to invest the time to really analyze them so I find myself with a problem. I can't give meaningful critique to something I don't personally like. So instead, I'll criticise criticism.

In my opinion, good criticism requires good skepticism. A critique should be able to isolate variables and take the piece being examined on using clearly defined criteria and to eliminate bias as much as possible. In my experience, this is not at all how art is critiqued.

Most movie review, musical opinions and artistic critiques that I've encountered are based on post hoc rationalizations. That is, the critic feels something about what they are seeing or hearing and then comes up with reasons for their feelings after the fact.

I point you to two very disparate movie reviewers for evidence: The famed Roger Ebert has a ton of short reviews on the Chicago Sun-Times; Next there is Movie Bob who has some more comedic ones on The Escapist. I'd like you to pay attention to their respective A-team reviews. It's a pretty successful summer action flick and from the reviews, it's like there are two different movies. Ebert clearly hated it and Bob clearly loved it. What comes after that is their justification of their feelings. Both have compelling arguments for why they think the movie is good/bad but they can't both be right can they?

Obviously human opinion varies and people are going to have their own ideas about what makes something good or bad. My argument is that if you're going to critique something (especially professionally) you should be honest about it. State clearly what is based on your personal feelings and what is objective analysis. Realize that your feelings are influencing your reasoning and account for that.

I want to see Ebert to a review that goes something like this:

The cinematography was well done, though fairly typical for a film of this genre. The score was well composed and fit the piece extremely well. There were some extremely creative uses of prostheses and make up which could inform the practices of the rest of the industry. The story was well composed and was carried well by the script. The performances by all of the actors was exemplary, conveying believable emotion and giving character to each role. I hated every minute of it and would have rather have spent that ninety minutes doing differential calculus while salt was being poured on my open wounds.

Why do I think this is better that what we get? Because it clearly admits the feelings of the critic and reviews the movie based on its merits anyway. Can this be done fairly and regularly by humans? Probably not. Would the reviews be more entertaining and marketable if they did? Almost deffinitely not.

Oh well.

Good luck with your album George. Hopefully I'm in the minority.