My 2 cents on Francis Collins

The National Post newspaper here in Canada I read both print and electronic formats of. It is the only paper up here that generally recognizes the culture wars and plays both sides. There is a regular columnist who is a priest, and they carry pretty much any article Christopher Hitchens writes for Slate.

A little while back they launched the Holy Post blog to round up their rationality vs religious articles. "Get down on your knees and blog" is the tagline. Funny, but I'll stand, thanks.

Regarding Francis Collins' recent appointment to the National Institute of Health in the 'States, it didn't take long before they trotted out NOMA and paraded it around like it's new, obvious and a smart thing to say.

My response to Stackhouse's article:

For myself, as someone raised without religion, the problem is trust. Though his scientific endeavours in the past have showed rigor and good management from what accounts I have read, I find it very hard to trust the intellectual stamina of someone who converts on the spot to Christianity because of a beautiful frozen waterfall.

The religious impossibilities that so many people believe in while still being able to understand the natural world are examples of compartmentalizing.

But Collins' waterfall conversion is absurd. It's like he began believing in the Invisible Pink Unicorn because it started snowing.

He looked at the beauty of the natural world and it wasn't enough. He had to paint the scene with specific, irrelevant ideas to accept his feelings.

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Things I don't blog about

...and maybe I should. One of the sessions I learned the most from at ScienceOnline'09 was the Nature Blogging, moderated by Kevin Zelnio and GrrlScientist. When the discussion became an open question of what type of blogs do you most enjoy, in many ways it became about blogging in general, and not just nature and/or/vs. science blogs.

So, to veer away from the question of nature blogging, here are a few things I don't blog about, and maybe should once in a while.

-My family life. Last October for our fifth wedding anniversary, my wife suggested we drive up to the Scenic Cav
es near Collingwood Ontario. It was a beautiful autumn day, and it the hike and views were terrific. I admit to an unexpected bought of claustrophobia going through one narrow passage: I backed out! Michelle made it through. Next time, perhaps.

Michelle is a big supporter of my artwork and burgeoning illustration career.
I'm a lucky man to be married to someone who so thoroughly 'gets' me.

Our nephew has also had a large impact on my life. I seem to be one of the major 'male' influences in his life, and I take that responsibility seriously. I don't believe it's completely fair to post pictures of him all over the place when he's too young to consider the impact, so usually the pictures are when his back is turned. I've identified him before as Obi-Wan, and later, Dr. Jones. Perhaps at the moment he's Bruce Wayne.

Some time maybe, I'll be able to ask Michelle to guest-b
log here on The Flying Trilobite. Would that be fun?

-My walk to work. There's a spot in Trinity-Bellwoods park where you get this clear view of the CN Tower between two trees. I've often thought how great it would be to do a photo essay of the the view of the trees and world's tallest free-standing structure (until two years ago, anyway) as they change with the seasons.

-Star Wars.
Why? Well, this is in part because of the Science Fiction in Science Blogs session hosted by Stephanie Zvan. Why not?

I was three years old when A New Hope came out.
When I was 9, my mother gave me all three "Art of" books for the trilogy. I think they, along with the book Castles by Alan Lee are major inspirations for why I am an artist. I really don't care what trash-talkin' people have to say about the dialogue, directing, plot holes - for me Star Wars stands as a pinnacle of human imagination. I like Jar-Jar. Every scene, every costume, every alien is the result of artists with unbridled creativity challenging their minds and their technical skill. For pure visual aesthetic alone, Star Wars is tops.

With the Clone Wars series and the movies on dvd, my nephew is a huge fan. So I have an excuse to keep playing with 3 3/4" figures. Below is a picture of Han Solo's birthday party in the cantina, with my nephew in attendance. (I Photoshopped his face over Obi-W
an's body.)

-Gothy archetypes. I've had this idea to sketch some of the gothy "looks" that have remained part of the club scene here in Toronto for the past ten years. Not specific people, just certain styles that seem to be perennially present in the dark spectrum of Toronto. I keep toying with doing this.

The young goth-try-too-hard. The Victorian top-hat-and-velvet. The vaguely H.R.Giger-esque jeans-and-t-shirt guy. The Betty Page. The goth b-boy.

The closest I've come to so far is mentioning some of the fast music I listen to while painting.

-Being a Bright, and an atheist. You may not be able to tell from my actual posts (though there's plenty of evidence in my sidebar), but I'm an avid read
er of many of the "New Atheist" books and blogs. The National Post paper here in Canada seems to address the culture war (though not by name) more than any other, and I follow the damage done in the name of religion on a daily basis. I try to balance this with plenty of reading from the other points of view, but I have yet to be persuaded that religion does more good than it does harm.

This ties into every aspect of my life. I try to bring a skeptical, curious worldview into everything I do. I'm still searching for a way to bring it into my painting more directly. So far it either becomes satire or horribly depressing, and with the world of science inspiring me, not as appealing. We''ll see if a couple of things in my sketch book make it out this year.

-Art tips and techniques. This I think I'll start doing, and soon. The second session I helped to moderate at ScienceOnline'09, along with artist-biologist Tatjana Jovanovic-Grove was about how to put up decent images online. There are already plenty of great sites about art online (Gurney Journey, Leslie's Blog and Lines and Colors spring to mind[edit: who can forget the tips at Heather Ward's?]), but perhaps I'll be able to contribute something here as well. Mainly, I like blogs that have a focus, but break the wall now and again to show some other aspect of the author's life. Maybe this post is enough for a whole year of breaking the wall. Maybe not.

Art in awe of science remains.

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Fake bomb at R.O.M. as art object

An art student from the Ontario College of Art & Design planted a fake bomb sculpture on November 28th outside the Royal Ontario Museum has certainly inflamed passionate opinions on all sides. He sure did inflame mine too. This trilobite almost shed a carapace over this art project.

There is coverage at the National Post
here and here. Some from Toronto Star here. Opinions rage here. A couple of quotes from a student in support of the project can be seen at the end of the Toronto Star article here.

The basics seem to be this: a student, last name Jonsson, made a film for class showing a woman walking into the ROM gift shop, and an apparent bomb going off. This video was subsequently uploaded onto YouTube. Later, he planted a fake bomb outside the museum with a note on it saying "this is not a bomb". He called into someone at the museum and said, "Listen, there is not a bomb outside the museum". The fake bomb was apparently wooden dowels painted to look like metal pipes, bound together with batteries, wire and a motherboard.

An AIDS research fundraiser was disrupted by the hoax, possibly costing them an estimated $100 000 in donations, and traffic was of course tied up while police sent a robot to have a closer look at the not-a-bomb. Jonsson later said he had no idea a fundraiser was going on.

There are some quotes in the media about support from some of the students toward Jonsson's project. Some have said that "art is what makes you think". Or that he had recontextualised (non-explosive) objects in the manner of Duchamps' urinal.

Okay, my thoughts on this. I went to a heavily conceptual university art program too, and I am a passionate lover of the sciences, and of the ROM in particular. So sure, what I say is critical and coming from my particular background.

You want to call it art? Fine. It's art. There. The whole production is art. Kind of been-there done-that derivative shock art, I'd say, but go ahead and say it's art. The definition of art is as ephemeral as the definition of religion, or what constitutes "good" music. To a large extent, in the post-modern realm, art is in the eye of the creator and sometimes the beholder, though the beholder is often increasingly irrelevant in the naval-gazing world of post-modernism.

But I believe this young immature shock-auteur is still responsible for his actions. Two things I learned in university are 1) the value of research, and; 2) to tailor your artistic creations to your audience, and accept their reactions.

The first point is I don't (bloody well frickin') care if he knew there was a fundraiser or not. I read how he says it in the news as though he is trying to absolve himself of being responsible for an event he was unaware of. Well, he should have done his research before picking that day, at that time, and that end of the museum to do his project. He cannot be absolved when he didn't do the research. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, and neither was ignorance of what was happening inside the museum.

There is an absurdity to Jonsson's claim that he was unaware of what event was going on. He has made statements about how he was surprised by the police's overreaction to the art event/hoax. But they did not know what was going on with the bomb-shaped object! It is the same as his statement. He cannot claim to be unaware and by implication not responsible of the fundraiser and then disingenuously claim that the police overreacted when they were not aware! Poorly thought-out hypocrisy.

That is the second point. Who was his audience? His classmates and professors? It ended up being the police and emergency services, participants of the CANFAR fundraiser and the rest of the downtown core. He needs to accept the audience's reaction.

I hope in the end he does some growing up, perhaps sentenced to some community service helping roadside bomb survivors from the armed forces. And I hope the ghost of Rene Magritte kicks him in the backside for recontextualizing (ripping off) the "This is not a bomb" statement from Magritte's "C'est ne pas un pipe" Treachery of Images series.

You want to call it art? Fine. You put it out there, now face the rabble and be responsible.

The Golden Compass hullabaloo

The Golden Compass movie coming out on December 7th sure is causing a lot of hullabaloo here in Ontario. (Spoiler alerts!)

I am a fan of this series, called His Dark Materials, written by English author Philip Pullman. Here are some quick points about all this.

The Books
The Golden Compass is the first of the three books. The title was originally Northern Lights when it was first published in England, in 1995. They've won several awards. There is more at Wikipedia, and at Pullman's site. The sequels are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

The story starts out in a parallel universe, at Oxford. There are many differences with that reality and our own, the most striking that people's souls exist outside their bodies, and are called daemons. (You can view my damon here; there's a little quiz at the movie site to figure out your own. ) The daemons can change animal shapes until a person reaches puberty, and then they stay in one form for the rest of the person's life. They tend to be opposite the gender of their person, (except a few peoples', presumably gay? It is not explained.) The daemons can talk, and it is considered a breach of the highest order of personal space to touch another person's daemon.

The golden compass in question is an alethiometer that the heroine of the story carries. An alethiometer is incredibly difficult to read, and tells a person the truth.

The heroine of the story is a precocious and mouthy girl named Lyra, with her daemon Pantalaimon, who travels to the cold North to rescue her friend who has been kidnapped by a group called The Gobblers. The Gobblers at first sound very much like an old wives tale to keep children near home, and turn out to be very real and despicable.

The controversy in Ontario
Some Catholic school boards are reviewing whether or not to remove the books from the shelves, following complaints, seen in this article in the National Post. All of this is apparently a normal process. For a book that won the Carnegie Medal. For a book that has presumably been sitting in the library for about 10 years. While in review, students have to ask for the book at the desk. And you know how much kids love to ask for stuff from authority figures.

PZ Myers on his Pharyngula blog has brought up the major complaints with the Ontario schools for pulling the books. Namely, why stop there? PZ has his mad on, and takes the issue of censorship on books to task.

My thoughts on the issue
On the face of it, why should a religious school be expected to stock books espousing a different way of living? Easy. They already have the books. I don't know when they got them, but The Golden Compass was published in North America in 1996. It has won awards for children's literature, and the dubious distinction of being singled out by the archbishop of Canterbury as being adequate for teaching about opposing views to Catholicism in religious classes. Why pull them from the stacks now? Because there is a movie and a video game?

Atheism, fantasy and skepticism
It's a strange thing about these books. Are they really atheist in nature? By the end of the series, we do meet the powerful being known as the Authority who tyrannizes the afterlife and started many biblical legends. Is it the all-powerful God? Hard to say. The Authority 'has no clothes' by the end, and very little power above some of the other characters who do his bidding (Metatron) or challenge him (Lord Asriel). Where all these dimensions come from is not discussed in detail.

These books are fantasy. There are plenty of sci-fi elements, like dark matter and multiple dimensions, but also things like witches flying on tree branches and astrology-like predictions from the golden compass itself. It is not as though the books are about Lyra showing the witches that their incantations do nothing without medicinal ingredients, or that she proves that the daemons are just imaginary friends and everyone has gotten carried away. Skepticism and debunking are not present. Attacking authoritative tyranny over life and death are certainly Lord Asriel's goals, but the point of view is Lyra's.

His Dark Materials have magic and adventure, and an unlikely hero triumphing while trying to save what matters most: her friends. Kids should read them if they like, and make up their own minds about talking polar bears, the nature of their conscience, and where the universe came from.

Edit: The National Post, which carried a below-the-fold front page story about all this in the weekend edition, also carried a massive flyer about the upcoming Golden Compass movie. It unfolds into a poster, Chapters/Indigo/Coles will give you movie snack coupons if you spend money in their's huge. It's great. It flopped out and dominated the other flyers. Nice giant pic of Iorek the polar bear-blacksmith. The Post's story was largely uncritical of the issue, and tried not to come down on either side.