Archive for the 'Uncategorized' category

Look here

Apr 06 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

I'll probably be posting over here again more often. Not much science to chat about lately.

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To dearest CFI and 'the secular movement'

Jul 05 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

It's hard to take any of you seriously as intellectual activists when you indulge in high school bullshit. You should lobby the Science Channel for a reality show. For realsies.

Links via John and ERV. Very, very entertaining, particularly the post that starts: "Dear Rebecca, Fuck you."

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I don't write about science anymore

Jun 20 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

...but I want to.

For the past four years, we've been bouncing around the eastern seaboard, and toward the end there, I just wanted to be home. Heather and I have had a recent tragedy that brought us back, and this time, we're staying. I love my home, I love DC, love Maryland. Hopefully we're here to stay.

It's been tough to keep working beyond my dayjob at times. This impermanence, I think, has fostered some interesting ideas for fiction, for telling stories about people, but hasn't given me the stability I had in college for studying, for absorbing more technical ideas and writing. It's something I've grown to miss.

There's a wonderful groundedness that comes from taking new research, pulling from old and spinning it into a clean essay. It's a sharp contrast to the tepid apathy of this age, where ideas have become a kind of currency, assigned a material weight, proposed for acceptance as something that can be measured and held. We want to pin them to our lapel with a flourish, a great red feather, this idea of self, identity defined by this concept or our perception of it. It is with the utmost importance that this idea - the defining idea - is handled with care; only apt fingers - knowing hands - can draw from it the will to stand in a courtroom and demand respect.

But a demand for respect is always inherently a request. The affirmation is sought from an established entity, which adds a fascinating undercurrent to these interactions: if we were truly defined by an idea, would we seek such an approval? A demand is not a request; we demand things by actions, not words. Demands are not things that are sanctioned by others, they are done. Art demands attention and acceptance by its existence. The greatest artists do not request approval to create, they do so with courage to cut deep into themselves and smear the inner beauty, love, anger, hatred, disgust, selfishness, despair over their canvas. The demand to see, to hear, is made by the boldness or subtlety of the piece itself, the skill of the artist to manipulate our senses. It's an argument that seeks no response.

To see ideas treated without such regard is puzzling. We continue to spiral deeper into splintered subculture, siphoning down into tiny minorities seemingly only compelled by the shared acknowledgement of contrast, a shade of a hue. By starting with a wide cultural category, one can trickle down into outlying areas where the subcategory defies its super-category and crosses over into another camp entirely. What a grand star chart you could create with the categorization of identity-defining ideas.

Willingly, we walk fields of post-modernist apathy in These Uncertain Times. I marvel at the depth of despair in some, the depth of ignorance in others and those tiny, peripheral flickers of hope. Blink and they're gone. We're headed somewhere, but I don't think anyone knows where it is. The internet is rife with accusations of intellectual dishonesty and calls for reason, rationality, but the reality is that even most fervently demonstrative of these virtuous human beings is as deeply hypocritical as those they demonize. There are some things in life that are only worth a smile and a shrug. The point is, you have to keep walking.

To find stability again, enough stability to delve into something tangible will be a relief from the ether of creativity. I never said it was a heavy ether, mind you, but enough to compel me to continue writing about people, about ideas, about feelings and irrationality and hands and slips of memory, of sense. To write creatively is a compulsion; to write about nature, about reality - that is work. My saving work.

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Smithsonian backing censorship

Feb 03 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

The Washington Post and several other newspapers published articles this week on the recent backing of a Smithsonian official’s decision to pull a piece from an exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery when conservatives from Congress and the Catholic League freaked the fuck out (NYT):

The regents did not recommend that the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, G. Wayne Clough, step down, as some critics of the removal had called for since he decided to pull the video, called “A Fire in My Belly,” by David Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch).

The four-minute video outraged the Catholic League and several members of Congress for its depiction of ants crawling on a crucifix, which they interpreted as sacrilegious and, in the words of Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

The board of regents have created a "troubling precedent" as officials from the Hirshorn have openly stated. I don’t care how they have it worked out: this is plain and simple censorship and Clough should have lost his job, not been supported. Admit the error, can the administrator and move on.

But here we are, with board-backed censorship. They've stated that it was a mistake, but have fallen short of restoring the exhibition to its initial extent. Can the Smithsonian institution be fully trusted in the future? The public funding argument is a smokescreen. We pay into public funds for expert officials to make decisions about where it’s spent, not the Catholic League or even worse, Republican politicians. The percentage is irrelevant.

This is bigotry poorly masked by outrage over blasphemy. It’s difficult for me to grasp exactly what’s sacrilegious about ants crawling on a crucifix. Ants aren’t exactly notorious carrion animals like flies, not to the extent of being typical symbols of decay. Even so, if the crucifix was covered in carrion insects, Christ’s body was supposedly hanging and decaying in the hot sun for hours and then in the tomb for days. Catholics wept in cathartic ecstasy over the realism of The Passion of the Christ, but suddenly draw the line at the realism of the infection and consumption of decaying flesh?

Besides, the Bible seems to be cool with ants in general. From Proverbs:

Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.*

But it’s not really about that, is it? It’s about homosexuality, really, the fact that the prejudicial ground conservatives have been inhabiting safely is slowly being eroded by recent legislation and the time to capitalize on permissible bigotry and the suppression of civil rights is being shortened. They’ll take what they can get, ride the religious sensitivity wagon for a bit to have the exhibit disrupted, only to turn around and whine about mosques at Ground Zero and the Liberal Support of Religions That Are Not Christianity.

So here’s the Smithsonian, encouraging this sort of behavior over such a trivial matter. The image isn’t even thematic; it’s a nuance, a brushstroke in a larger portrait. The Smithsonian seems to claim that a thoroughly presented explanation of the piece would have provided context and assuaged the anger. I doubt it. We’re talking about worldviews, and once you start pandering to one, you make exceptions across the board. Art isn’t strictly about sensitivity. Art is, and we react. As soon as we lose that distinction – the honesty – we lose everything valuable about it.

I grew up the DC area. We were at the Zoo or on the Mall at least once a month, so the Smithsonian Institution has played a big part in my education through the years. This debacle is disappointing, to say the least.

Bill Donohue and the Catholic League released a statement today. They aren't satisfied (surprise!), even though they supposedly got what they wanted:

Speaking of the artist who made the ants-on-the-crucifix video, the Smithsonian's John W. McCarter Jr. said, "I believe, in his mind, that [the video] was not sacrilegious." Did he stumble upon the diary of David Wojnarowicz? Has he been channeling him? McCarter also asks us to consider the possibility that the video "might have been very deeply religious?"

McCarter's subjectivism is unwarranted. We know some things about the artist, and what we know is that he branded the Catholic Church a "house of walking swastikas." So why is it so hard to connect the dots? Isn't it obvious the artist was a raging anti-Catholic bigot?

Donohue is saying that Catholics (more specifically, the Catholic League) are the only authority on the interpretation of their iconography and should be given the final say. That's not how a pluralistic society works. That's not how culture works. Ideas aren't pure. They aren't under special protections for certain groups. There is only subjectivism when it comes to religion and culture. It's not unwarranted; it's exclusive.

If a man like Wojnarowicz can insult Christians the way he did, knowing full well his sentiments on Catholicism, and he is still given the benefit of the doubt—even to the point of entertaining the fiction that his video is "very deeply religious"—then it is obvious what is going on.

If you don't want to see reinterpretations of your beliefs, of culture, then either look away or try to understand where they come from and maybe gain a new insight on how others perceive your traditions. Wojnarowicz went through a special hell in his lifetime and Christian bigotry, obviously, was a big part of his anger toward the Church. Homophobia isn't particular to Christianity, but Wojnarowicz was obviously most touched by those traditions. If he had experienced bigotry from the Muslim or Jewish communities and expressed it, I'm sure there would have been equivalent outrage. My opinion certainly wouldn't change. I don't know how the Smithsonian would have handled it.

Bigots complaining about bigotry. Clough and the board should think long and hard on how this was handled and make sure it doesn't happen again.

*It’s fun to quote the Bible out of context. Also, I like how this quote, when pasted into a Google search, returns headers like “What does the Bible say about money management?”

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Know Your Biomes VI: Temperate Grassland

Apr 20 2007 Published by under Uncategorized

Not a breath of air stirred over the free and open prairie; the clouds were like light piles of cotton; and where the blue sky was visible, it wore a hazy and languid aspect.-Francis Parkman (Photo: Mongolian grassland)

Perhaps no where else on the planet can you find a better example of the rise and fall of ecosystems and the rise and fall of human cultures than on the North American prairie. So much of American history has taken place on the Great Plains: the emigration of nomadic peoples from Asia, their domination of the Plains and probable partial responsibility for the loss of most of the large vertebrates (the American lion, American cheetah, woolly mammoth, etc.) the eventual beginnings of agriculture, followed by the arrival of the Europeans, who removed and replaced the Native Americans with greater influence over the land.

Though the temperate grasslands in North America are the most familiar to westerners, they are minuscule compared with the vast expanse of flat land stretching from Eastern Europe to the foothills of the Himalayas. Areas in the southern hemisphere are also representative, like Patagonian steppes in South America and the grasslands in New Zealand.

Like the tropical savanna, the temperate grasslands are mostly treeless due to the influences of drought, fire and large, pounding herds of grazing animals, though small copses can be found near streams and lakes. Precipitation is relatively low; the grasslands typically receive about 25 to 100 cm of rainfall per year, mostly during the summer, the height of the growing season. The tangled roots of grasses, some reaching over two meters in length, form a thick sod, keeping the fertile, slightly alkaline "black soil" (black because of the high organic content) from washing or blowing away.

The untouched prairies are beautiful in the growing season, exhibiting the notable diversity of life of these areas. In North America, 300 different plant species and three million individual insects may live on three acres; up to 70 species of those plants may be seen flowering at the same time.

Mammals have evolved to fill niches seemingly based on their size: Wild horses and Saiga antelope roam the plains of Eurasia in large herds, just as the bison do in North America. Though most of the large predators are gone, packs of wolves still prey on the herbivores. On a smaller scale, many prey animals have gone underground. The pika of the Tibetan Plateaus live in burrows not unlike those of North American prairie dogs, trying to stay out of the jaws of fleet predators like the Tibetan fox.

The Tibetan fox (Vulpes ferrilata)

It is impossible to describe temperate grasslands in the modern age without mentioning human influences. These areas are being reduced exponentially all over the world, valued by agriculture for the rich organic content of the soil. Unfortunately, much of the nutrients of the soil has become greatly reduced, as much as 35 to 40 percent in some areas, leading industry to rely more heavily on artificial fertilizers, which hamper growth in the world's waterways. Flying over the midwestern United States is enlightening; we have geometrically rewritten the future of one of the Earth's most unique and most beautiful areas.

Next in line? The temperate forests.

This post is part of a series of Basic Concepts: Ecology (Intro, Biomes I, II, III, IV, V). For the entire list of Basic Concepts in Science, visit Evolving Thoughts.

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