Sunday, May 30, 2010

The borderline case.

As with so much else, skeptical art is on a continuum. On one end there is pure skeptical discussion such as one might find in the skeptical enquirer or, one might argue, scientific publications. On the far other end is art which happens to also encourage critical thinking but doesn't have an agenda. Somewhere between there we transition between art and discourse.

I think I have found a borderline case: the comic Cectic is very much a skeptical comic, but I find that it specifically engages in discourse rather than being ant artful endeavor. However it does use art, it does engage in skeptical activism and one could argue that there is some artistic satire.

Overall I see it as a borderline case, it doesn't clearly fall on either side of the line it sort of sits in the foggy middle.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What I want to be when I grow up

I stumbled across this little gem yesterday. It's a creation of Clifton Burt based on a haiku by John Maeda. I found that it spoke to me on several levels.

Personally, this is what I am and what I enjoy being. I throw myself at projects and think about their implications and applications afterward.

What I love about this sign is how concisely it engages the viewer in a debate about order of operations and simultaneously extols active thought and reflection as a noble virtue. In science, the question is often raised about the value judgments and whether or not scientists adequately contemplate the implications of their work ahead of time. By specifically reversing the order and making it an ideal for which to strive, it makes us question its validity.

What I don't love about this is that it's not really a haiku. This has nothing to do with skepticism or art or anything like that. It's just a rant about the misinterpretation of an intricate art form upon appropriation. A haiku is a Japanese form of poetry with its roots in Zen Buddhism which focuses primarily on the contemplation and reverence of nature. Upon appropriation, western culture retained only the syllabic structure which is not only less important than the conceptual structure but also loses meaning when you change languages. I guess this does have some relations to skepticism. Every time I (and now you) see something someone calls a haiku, I think about how much can be lost in translation between language and culture and I think more critically about our imported culture.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Best optical illusions of 2010

Yes, there are awards for this. I, for one, am happy that there are. I was introduced to the awards last year and they're all fascinating, but not all art.

This year's winner managed to do both. They created a simple sculpture and made a wonderful little video to mess with your head.

I highly recommend taking a trip to the awards site to see the other finalists.

Escher Round 2: The chicken and the egg

I have been a fan of Escher's "Drawing Hands" since before I could pronounce skepticism. It's a paradox on paper in a very different way than optical illusions. It plays with reason rather than perception calling back to the problem of the chicken and the egg.

In most optical illusions our brains extrapolate and fill in gaps to make functional objects. In Drawing Hands, our brains very quickly see two hands with pens and then notice the logical impossibility of the hands drawing themselves. I love how this seems to have the same emotional effect as an optical illusion even though it's not our visual senses being confused, but our sense of reason.

This is, in my opinion, an excellent example of visual art that forces the viewer to question their own reasoning.

Summary: Awesome.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

It's All Natural

Pandamonium from the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe forum created this to put on a T-shirt.

It's the molecular structure of ethyl formate which is of course an organic compound.

Why? It's pointing out the rather frivolous contemporary use of the term "organic". Organic used to have two basic meanings: a form of matter that is or once was part of a living thing, and chemical compounds based around carbon. By these definitions, both cyanide and propane are organic.

This is a cute little reminder that definitions can vary and just because something says "organic" it doesn't mean its healthy. By placing a rather unpleasant chemical with the comforting term, attention is drawn to their relationship and (hopefully) generates a conflict within the viewer that needs to be internally resolved.

Thanks for making us think Panda.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Historically, artists have been commissioned to create portraits of living people for the purpose of glorifying that individual. They were rarely accurate and always carefully considered to present the subject in the light that was hoped for.

That being the case, let's have a look at some portraits of the icons of skepticism.

Darwin, the most touted poster boy of skepticism, has a couple of portraits but this is by far the most common seen. What does it say to you?

To me, I see thoughtful, humble, careful and conflicted. This man and his photographer chose to make him a thinking man. An intellectual, but not a rich man.

Let's move on to a contemporary artist. Eric Wall is an artist that I encountered on the SGU forums. He's a self proclaimed skeptic and has a gallery of portraits, many of which are of skeptical icons.
So what does this portrait of Kurt Vonnegut say? Same things. Thoughtful, Contemplative, humble, alone. Again I'm seeing an image of the lone wizened thinker.

How about a self proclaimed skeptic presenting himself? James Randy is a magician and very outspoken skeptic. I you haven't heard of him or his million dollar challenge check out the James Randy Educational Foundation

Here's the portrait that comes up most often for him.

This Is a little different than the previous two, but it shares elements. Again he looks thoughtful; He's well dressed but not ostentatious; no elegant decoration. The big difference in this one is that he's looking out and engaging the viewer. He looks like he's challenging you which seems to suit his purposes well.

So what's the moral? Skeptical portraits make their subjects look like thinkers. Shoking. :P

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Spoken Word and Conspiracies

There are two spoken word performances that I'd like to bring to your attention. They are both excellently crafted works of the English language, designed to illustrate how the human mind can create superstitions and conspiracies and presented at the prestigious Ted Talks.

I encourage you to watch both. They're subtly brilliant.

Friday, May 7, 2010

XKCD... apparently not an acronym

XKCD is a relatively well known and well loved webcomic in nerd circles. It's drawn and written by Randall Munroe. For the most part, the comic follows the antics of some very simple stick figures as they interact with technology and the modern world. Doesn't sound very funny but I highly recommend it.

Randal has a way of pointing out flaws in human perception and how we compartmentalize information. It's hard to explain without examples, so here are a couple.

Randall also comments extensively on the nature of science and some of its painful realities. I found the following comic to be an impressive discussion of what makes a good scientist in four panels and three colours.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Online Comics 1

So I'm going to talk a bit about skepticism in comics. I have two online comics in particular which cater somewhat to the intellectual crowd and also have a fairly skeptical outlook.

The first will be Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. It's been running since 2002 and for the most part its writer, Zach Werner, uses juxtaposition and irony to generate absurdist humor. Sometimes, though, he comes out with gems like these...

The artwork is simple but it effectively conveys his messages. The expressions, postures and gestures of his simplified characters are familiar and are easily recognized. In general, the artist puts familiar ideas into unusual context. The juxtaposition tends to result in a humorously absurd situation, but it also very effectively dismisses the argument being parodied.

Sure it's a straw man, but it's funny.