Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Cold Culture War

(image taken from Mayakovskya)

(image taken from Rochester University)

Earlier this month, the filmmaker and I embarked on the prolonged subway-trek from my neighborhood, Crown Heights, to Harlem, to attend the annual yuletide party of Patricia Thompson, to some better known as Yelena Mayakovsky, professor and feminist theorist, though, profoundly more famously daughter of revolutionary Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. She has for much of her life been living and teaching in Manhattan, and has apparently been hosting this event for years. The filmmaker had made her acquaintance while assisting an interview shoot for a new documentary on Mayakovsky himself; it was a classic, almost comedic, almost cruelly coincidental day where all went awry, and, thankfully, his easy charm assuaged her cantankerous attitude about the whole affair. After smoothing over the morning hiccups and placing her at ease, the two shared easy conversation on philosophy and speculative fiction, leading to her extending an invitation to the party. As we rocked and ambled past station, past station, we joked, nervously, at how we truly had absolutely no idea what to expect. Convening in some type of lounge within her community, our closest conjectures were either a salon-type set-up of her academic colleagues and other aging New York intellectuals, or a sort of retired elderly happy hour. With plans to attend another holiday party later that evening, back in Crown Heights, at the home of two of my closest friends, I had worn a rather bodacious black sheer blouse, with pronounced sleeves and rhinestone buttons. My lips were painted. As we crawled nearer and nearer our northern destination, the mystery, I felt increasingly anxious and self-conscious about this wardrobe choice, in a place where, surely, I would already be remarkably conspicuous.

Walking in the cold to this lounge, gulping in cold air, tainted with the glow of brightly tinted Christmas lights and cheap take-out Chinese joints, we learned that we would arrive before the documentary director, frantically searching for an elusive parking spot. We entered with giggling trepidation, then felt an awkward calm. The guests were a true amalgamation, though it was immediately obvious that the predominance were affiliated with the Russian-American Cultural Alliance, an initiative spearheaded and supported by our gracious hostess. Any qualms concerning my bold outfit dissipated, as I spied a sea of Russian women donning animal-printed tight knits, glitter, gold, and fur. An older woman in a wool Christmas sweater played piano while two curvacious opera singers, swathed in sequins, crooned. Our first course of action was to snatch a cup of cheap red wine, our second to mingle. A complete lack of fluency in Russian impended our opportunities to network and make new friends, though, it was not a complete deterrent. Sipping our drinks, we discussed the Mayakovsky project, in its infancy stages, and the immigration of Russian literary traditions to the States. One middle-aged gentleman we met, like myself, considers himself a poetry dilettante. Cheers, we said, and drank for the memory of Mayakovsky.

Following the requisite drinks-before-dinner social hour, as the buffet was placed, Patricia-Yelena gave a speech to the group. She thanked her family, friends, colleagues, for joining her, for celebrating, and she then spoke a bit about Russian heritage in America, continuing to share and relish in their traditions, their culture, continuing to recognize and commemorate their contributions to literature, science, philosophy, the arts. She made a few comments, which I fail to recall verbatim, but which, essentially, can be paraphrased as such: Russia is one of the only countries with whom the United States has shared three-hundred years of peace, of absolutely no active military aggravation; Russia must stop being perceived as the enemy. Again, more was said, and more elegantly, however, that statement was emphasized, the importance of cultural alliances underscored in the wake of a strong propagation of any and all that is Russian demarcated as other, as foreign, and as foe.   

A handful of days ago, the filmmaker and I were wasting away with some television, zombie-zoning to the hilarious and popular show Eastbound and Down, a type of slapstick-satire, which leans to the absurd and offensive a bit more heavily than the highfalutin and profound. Without divulging too much of the plot unnecessarily, in the third season, the used and deservedly abused pitcher-protagonist, an older man who loves American beer and the original American sport, after crawling his way back from public school shame into the baseball minor leagues, is confronted with an abominable and rather familiar adversary: a young, strong, Russian alternate pitcher. Albeit a rather goofy one, the conflict becomes a very classic battle of archetypes, the most prominent, naturally, being that of American versus "other." And, as has been popular for decades within a variety of media, what better way to succinctly portray this notion of otherness than a widely stereotypical Russian caricature? 

Despite the well-worn trope, the various scenes involving generic, quasi-maniacal, and easily despicable Ivan made me laugh. When the laughter waned, though, these situations, in light of my experience at the holiday party, an experience mostly of an observer and of feeling outside, begged some contemplation on how cultural consciousness and popular media portray the foreign, the role of non- or even un-American, but how is it done without, seemingly, inciting offense? In other words, which nationalities, which religions, which various categorizations of other are appropriate to mock and to satirize and which, in the more than vague and nebulous realm of political correctness, are off limits? To survey television and film alone, from beloved cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle to the James Bond franchise, leveraging the Russian stereotype is fine. Despite, or perhaps, in spite, of the history of peace shared between the United States and Russia lauded by Patricia-Yelena, the Russian, sometimes arbitrarily named Vladimir or Boris or Ivan, sometimes left nameless, remains a staple foe. 

Wherever one falls on the spectrum of political cause and possibility of the Cold War, on the one end Russia posing a plausible and veritable threat for military aggression, on the other end a mutually fabricated conflict perpetuated by propaganda and supporting both political agendas, it cannot be argued: there has been no overt confrontation between the two nations. Is there antagonism now? Or is continued use of Russian memes and traditions, whether sincere or some comedic bastardization or distillation, a type of homage to their role in American and global development? As the Winter Olympic games approach, the penultimate event of globalization and yet continued fervent nationalism, with many eyes critiquing host nation Russia, I am curious to see how the us-them, hero-villian phenomenon plays.     

Friday, December 6, 2013

Fragments of South Africa

After spending the majority of a day crowded on a plane, rocketing south, across a terrain of latitudinal and longitudinal grid, our party arrived in Johannesburg, gathered to celebrate the imminent wedding of a mutual dear friend. I was the youngest, in both years and experience; it was my first time to this wild and vast continent, rife with violently beautiful history, the land-loins from which sprang our species. I was flooded with these trite emotions. Mitochondrial Eve, sauntering with sass and trepidation on her two legs. An ancient and ancestral land. Immediately, we began jocularly alluding to the acclimation to African time, more than a slowing pace, an entire philosophical shift that I did not entirely comprehend. I feigned. The air was dry and warm and I gulped it in greedily; it seemed older and more pure than the frenzied winds of developed home.

After coffee and air, we rented a car at the airport; our companion Peter, white-haired, seasoned, British South African returning home, drove, navigating the seemingly infinite stretches of black tar pushing away from the center of the city. He warned us of the dangers of the road; racing speeds, rhomboid Volkswagen buses jammed with a cacophony of bodies, the convenient and cheap commute from the corrugated iron communities to work. Many of the people travel hours to and from, he explained, risking their lives in these tenuous jalopies. When a tire blows out, a frequent occurrence, the numbers left dead or ravaged is horrifying. There are those piled deep in the vehicle, other vehicles swerving to avoid collision, slowly ambling pedestrians everywhere. We should not drive much past dark, we are warned.

Eventually, as we leave the city limits in our dust, the highway thins to two lanes. Two black lanes stabbing across a tableau of stunted rolling mountains, tree and rock meeting the sky in asymmetrical patterns. Rock formations and vegetation foreign to me, a phylogenic cousin to the hills of the American west. Exhaustion dissipates, the weight from almost fifteen hours in a cabin in the sky gone, as I gaze out the window. Each new place, new city I visit brings this type of fascination with it; here, the visceral excitement was a deluge. Amidst the natural beauty, the gas stations, the scattering of hand-built communities, wooden taverns, naturally unnatural with the green background of forest.

In this province, the economy is tourism and paper; there is a spread of quaint bed and breakfast farms, including one belonging to the uncle of the bride, and, deeper in the hills, a menacing paper mill. While touring the day after the wedding, alcohol-groggy but rested, we pass this industrial encampment, spewing noxious fumes that permeate the area and loom in our nostrils for miles. In those speeding death-trap buses, the people head here, this epicenter of employment for the locals. Across the road, a bar, dark and old.

The societal division is so stark it is painful, almost surreal. Born and bred in a place of diversity, in every sense of the popular moniker, I found this gap unpalatable. Things are so much better now, many commented. I believe them, but I cannot fathom this before they so happily move beyond, this history unforgettable.

 A pharmacy in a tiny town, joined by a single restaurant, a single grocer, a chocolate boutique, and a bizarre art gallery; here we stop to stretch our legs and buy more insect repellant. My fear for the mosquitoes turned out to be greater than the actual threat, the chemicals purchased back home at a sporting goods store unused. On one wall, a series of photographs were taped and labeled: Snow, 2005. A sprinkling of white barely covers the grass. 

 Anthony, a young and shy man, waits on his for dinner and breakfast at the small inn. His movements are steady, slow, assured, but modest; he has bulk and could present and clear the dishes with an opulent prowess if he so chose. I believe him to be a boxer. Anxious to learn more about him, I attempted a few questions, inane and common, before deciding to follow suit, fall silent, relish the cool air of the evenings. 

After the wedding, we spend some days on safari, living ruggedly glamorously in the bush, romanticizing the open expanses of untouched habitat, seeking animals like cheap thrills. One night we spend, backs arched, necks craned, gazing into the abyss of stars, looking for the Southern cross, disagreeing, unsure, each of us connecting rhinestone dots in the sky to draw one of our own.

(image taken from The Daily Mail)

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Giver

Throughout last year, I participated in a volunteer project, called Dear Successful Stranger, where adults from around the world became pen-pals to a class of sixth grade students in rural Dumas, Arkansas. Designed and organized by their young teacher, sent to an area that I assume can be described as a mundane maelstrom by Teach for America, her objectives were elegantly simple and beautiful: to enhance the technical writing and reading comprehension skills of her students and, more importantly as well as more elusive, to broaden their sense of global perspective and sharpen their desire for education. A once devoted volunteer to a number of incredible causes, I was immediately interested, interested in spending my time giving to what I knew to be a beautiful endeavor and interested in learning about a new person, having the opportunity to hear their story and to share mine in return.

The innovative teacher provided some helpful initial guidance to the batch of strangers writing, for our introduction letters; while she did provide a background on her students' general reading level, prepping our expectations, I still did not fully understand what I was getting myself into. I was assigned to two young girls, whose ability to write coherently, and read, were even more remedial than I originally was anticipating, even given their teacher's brief history. Our barriers to correspondence were grand: technical ability and education, comprehension, age, geography, socioeconomic circumstance. I was challenged. And the challenge was a powerful one. I wanted to write in a compelling way to these girls, I wanted to engage them and impart knowledge. I wanted some of my words to touch them, tickle their neurons and their sense of wonder, be something almost visceral for them. Perhaps this was idealistic or naive or both, but those were the sentiments of the mission.

When I browse back through our letters, as usual, I am critical and think about how I could have done better, worked harder, poured forth more and more and more. But I am also proud of myself, and proud of my two students. I write profusely, for a living, for pleasure, for catharsis, for exploration. My writing has taken many forms and mediums, depending on the intent, the audience; these letters were some of the most difficult for me. I wanted to balance honesty and realism with hope and optimism; my innate cynicism had to be tempered. More concretely, I had to constrain, consciously, my vocabulary, my sentence structure. I was forced to really move outside of my own head and preferences, which is what drives more acute sensibilities and technique in writing. It was a challenge, but the reward was vast, afforded the opportunity to glimpse brief moments of these two young girls' journeys. 

At the end of the year, at the start of the annual summer languish, each student sent their stranger a recommendation for a book they would like to read. I happily ordered the selections for my two girls, but then also wanted to share with them one of my absolute favorite novels when I was their age, The Giver by Lois Lowry. Unfortunately, the story, symbolism, and themes may be lost on my girls, at least now, but I hope it is a book the keep, try to read later, and cherish.

(image taken from Film School Rejects) 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Its Hour Come Round at Last

(image taken from The Guardian)

(image taken from Bibliojunkie)

For our summer reading, before sophomore year of high school, the class was assigned three different staples in what was generally categorized as world literature: Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya, and, what would become my favorite of the group, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I was fifteen years old, born and raised in a, relatively speaking, predominantly white and homogeneous community; while I could certainly easily identify South Africa, India, and Nigeria on the map, thanks to a Cold War-era globe discarded in my basement, where the Soviet Union loomed, formidable and frightening, in pale pastels, I had little to no concept on the rich sociopolitical and artistic history of these places. They were, quite simply, without the pedantic and often patronizing associations, completely exotic and foreign to me. Despite being an avid reader, voraciously devouring even assigned school texts with a greedy fervor, these books were ones that I was unlikely to select on my own accord. Mostly because of the element of unfamiliarity. I did not know the titles or the authors prior to being delivered the required summer reading list from my new school.

That summer, while reading about lands far away, in both geographic space and physical time, I was preparing for a less glamorous, but not insignificant, journey, the transition from a small, exclusive private school for girls, where I had endured a successful but miserable freshman year, and the large, inclusive but prestigious public school, where all of my friends from childhood had funneled. Excited to be rejoining my peers and my friends, I was also apprehensive. On a more microscopic scale, I would be entering a new world, in some senses, equally foreign in its social, political, and historical forces and dynamics, as the lands about which I was reading. Not a place experiencing monumental strife, in the throes of imperialization, the first steps of a coerced globalization, but, still, a place of psychological and physiological strife. Where children were trying to become adults, to maneuver who they were as individuals and who they would be, or could be, to others. Nervous as I was confronted with this very real and present problem, I dove into the literary worlds of our assigned books.

Okonkwo, the protagonist of the clenchingly beautiful Things Fall Apart, is the first character I can, still today, recall encountering as a young woman who I simultaneously loathed and felt such a deep sympathy towards. His unbelievable pride, stubborn and unrelenting, like the locked jaw of a pit bull, wild and willed, that cannot budge and open no matter the circumstance, was inspiring and terrifying. To see this man with such resolve, such conviction, sometimes morally guided and rational, sometimes deranged and irrational, moved me. I wanted to shout and beat him with my fists when he abused his wives, his children, and I was furious; at the end though, at his ultimate demise, refusing to yield to the invading Western ideologies, I wept. In other works of literature, I had confronted complex and in some cases unlikable characters, but generally, they had been shifted to a less prominent role in the narrative; they were not, metaphorically, necessarily the hero of the tale. Okonkwo and I, this powerful man, a leader in his tribe, with acerbic anger, little patience, a steadfast and sometimes myopic, but strong, mind, we were so different, and yet, from the weaving of the words, I felt I knew him. I felt I understood his decisions by the end, even those that I had found, initially, so abdominal. 

At that point, I had barely ever left my home state, let alone the country; other than seeing it, curved along my antiquated globe, Nigeria was not a tangible place to me. In this book, in Achebe's character, flawed and so marvelously human, I was transported not only into a world so contrary and unlike my own, but into a fictional body so contrary and unlike my own. I remember in the first few weeks of class after that summer, September still hot and suffocating, my peers complained about the choice of books; the pain and the turmoil that they were forced to contend with, the ugliness that introduces itself to so many others when they first come, naked and screaming from between the legs of their mother. From a literary perspective, the books were challenging, but from a cultural perspective, they were, for some, unbearable. Despite their protests and the occasionally stagnant collective conversations, I enjoyed the time we spent on each text in class, the time spent lingering on this man Okonkwo, still strange and alluring, still infuriating, still so pathetic and so awesome.

At a similar juncture in my personal, emotional, and academic life, the book was again assigned; once again a summer reading assignment, this time just before embarking on my days at university. It was the one book that the entire student body was intended to read prior to congregating on campus, forming friendships and other more strategic alliances, prior to attenuating to the flows of weekly ritual. Chinua Achebe came and gave a lecture, an experience that is beyond compare. He seemed old and fragile then, in physical frame, but commanding and sage; there was no doubt that the brutal Okonkwo, his triumphs and his trials, sprang from the mind of this man.

I sincerely hope in large and small towns, cities, communities, in this country and others, this book continues to be assigned, to be recommended, or, better yet, to be discovered among a stack of many at the library or a dusty used book store, and continues to be consumed with an equal sense of fascination, for what lays beyond, before this time and after this time, for the sense of past and of future, of here and of there, but also for what lays within. The power of narrative, of words, as Achebe showed me at an early age, has no bounds.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Reversible Evolution, or, Tessellating Rhetoric

(image taken from Threading on Thin Ice)

(image taken from Strange Paths)

Earlier last week, I stumbled upon a titillating headline for a popular media article on some interesting new research in evolutionary and behavioral biology: the article proclaims evidence had been compiled illustrating "reversible evolution" in a phylogenetic mapping study of dust mites, in which certain species of the lowly, despised creatures that plague homes across the globe had evolved from free-living organisms to parasitic living structures to free-living once again. Additionally, the headline announces that these findings contradict  a "deeply rooted biological principle," known as Dollo's law, a hypothesis generated over one hundred years ago by French-Belgian paleontologist Louis Dollo. In the article, Dollo's law is described as such: "evolution is not reversible."

Obviously, such charged and potentially misleading diction as reversible and irreversible evolution immediately baited my interest, as a perpetual student of biology, of behavior, of evolutionary psychology, of the history of science, and of issues of science literacy and its iterations in popular media. After reading the superficial explanation of the dust mite study and the purported implications on evolutionary theory, based on some flimsy assumptions from Dollo's law, my interest was ignited further. To invoke Dollo's law, without appropriate historical, philosophical, or scientific context, is lazy and potentially dangerous, no matter the intentions. While digging deeper into this concept, to find the context that the popular article lacked, I stumbled on this book chapter by Stephen Jay Gould.  Importantly, and articulately, the meditation outlines the history of biology, and the milieu in which Dollo was writing and espousing his ideas, and more specifically, outlines the paleontological approach and outlook that steered his entire perspective on evolutionary laws and their functions. Critical to note, as a paleontologist, Dollo is studying phylogenies and the evolution of specific morphological traits retrospectively, in the fossil record; by stating that the development of a particular morphological trait in a specific environment is irreversible, he is setting a precedent that convergences of adaptive traits between organisms and their ancestors are discernible, and therefore, as Gould highlights, "paleontology is a worthwhile endeavor." 

Gould also elegantly explains, with illustrating examples from Dollo's own writings, that Dollo never proposed a dogmatic, unyielding irreversibility for all evolutionary events; rather, his tenets should be understood as organisms never return exactly to a former state, and vestiges of its arc of morphological development remain, allowing for the creation of phylogenies. Again, his postulates are hinged on the defense of paleontology as a productive and fruitful exercise, and outright acknowledge the incomplete nature of the fossil record. Now, as then, even with advancing technology and broader understanding of critical biological, biochemical, and physical forces, the arcane, puzzle-piece qualities of floral and fauna fossils can inhibit and prohibit a complete, and confidently accurate, picture of what occurred historically. And therein is the beauty of continued research and continued fervor for truth and understanding; there is always more to learn. 

The study in question, with the dust mites, is also retrospectively analyzing their evolutionary trajectory, but, unlike Dollo and his contemporaries, the research team has the entire field of genetics, as well as collaborative networks of genetic data samples from various laboratories, as an ally and a resource, and, not inconsequentially, as fundamental understanding and context. What I found that the article also lacked, in terms of detail and nuance, was also outlined by Gould in his portrait of Dollo and his evolutionary ideas: the notion of complexity and that a precise, exact reversal of complex traits does not occur, as this would require, it is now understood, the individual organisms, and thereby a population, to meticulous retrace a long series of particular biochemical, genetic, behavioral, and environmental steps, which interact and do not enact exclusively of the others, in a systematic order. While, certainly and rightly, the evidence that a parasitic organism, whose ancestors had been free-living, has evolved to be free-living once more is exciting and fascinating, it must be understood that this occurred from a confluence and a network of genetic and environmental circumstances. As the Huffington Post article may suggest, this was not some single step, which happened suddenly and without cause. In a country where even the most basic premises of biology are misunderstood and misconstrued, notably the basic definition of the theory of evolution by natural selection, such a cavalier reference to Dollo's ideas disappoints me.

After I read the initial account of the dust mite study, once my anger and frustration over the disregard for specific and meaningful jargon and historical context subsided, I did some research to try to glean more information. Spending a few hours, in between teleconferences and various tasks at work, I found over a dozen articles, all essentially written with the exact same words, as though each were just slight variations of the same press release, printed over and over, shifted slightly in form, a journalistic tessellation. General scientific rhetoric repeated across various news sites and popular blogs, like some sycophantic soundbites. So, the guilt of incomplete or misleading reporting lies with many. 

Perhaps coincidentally, the universe working in synchronistic ways, a few days later, I idly followed some furious Twitter dialogues from a series of my favorite science bloggers and science writers, apparently in response to lectures at a evolution and communication conference, many about the peril of perpetuating, among lay audiences, the notion that evolution is directional, as though moving in particular paths, because this can easily be mis-translated or processed as progress, or regress. One prevailing concern, relevant to this dust mite story, was the visual depiction of phylogenetic trees, which, inherently, branch out or branch down, either way connoting a path or a track. For those familiar with reading such schematics, although the subconscious inclination may be to view them as directional, they are understood to, instead, be tools and, well, mere schematics, rather than veritable representations of precise mechanisms of evolution. Naturally, they are created as accurately as possible, given available conclusive evidence, but, it seems, those fluent in biology know how to infuse some flexibility and some perspective in their use.

As someone who has worked in journalism and media before, I understand the constraints under all reporters, predominantly time and space, and to a different extent, audience. For those writing about scientific research, these pressures are further exacerbated; they, themselves, have a limited time to synthesize and interpret this new information, digest it and be able to regurgitate it for the masses, and be able to do so within word count and with enough compelling pull to, hopefully, maybe, draw the eye of those who could care less about dust mites and how they are now living. There is a not insignificant preponderance of journalists and media types in my social circle; not one of them formally studied a physical science, and life has surely taught me this is not a coincidence. So, while the demons of time and space must be reckoned, there should still be a commitment to integrity, to an objective portrayal of new and exciting research. Like evolution, the barriers to scientific literacy, solvency, appreciation, wonder, engagement, are not linear; our problems here in objective presentation and critical engagement with new fields of research, and with new as well as historical scientific postulates, are cyclic. And we will continue to re-trace our steps, perhaps not precisely, without further education and further demand for context, detail, and more astute explanation.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Brief History of Time, Briefly

(image taken from Georgia Tech)

(image taken from Tennessee Lawman)

(image taken from Art Observed)

I was recently vacationing in London, visiting a dear friend from university who has been living on that side of the pond for the past few years; she took up residence as a curatorial graduate student, immersed herself in the art and exhibition milieu, and even found the time to snag and subsequently foster a positive, committed relationship with a dashing British artist. While there, her beau performed at a temporary installation at King's Cross, Black Maria, a structure and series of programs designed and curated by Royal College of Art professor and artist, Richard Wentworth. The sculpture and performance space, named the Black Maria, a broad and sweeping allusion to the famed film studio of inventor and gangster Thomas Edison, as well as to the still prevalent slang for British police vehicles, a concept that has been repurposed and reinvented across geographies and chronologies. Simple sand-colored wood, unadorned and naked, the structure was immediately reminiscent of a tree house or a fort, a fantasy cavern for children, simultaneously real and visceral and yet somehow also a bit of an illusion. Perhaps purposefully, Edison and his brutish ways in invention monopolizing were not deeply addressed in Professor Wentworth's introduction. 

Patrick, the boyfriend, for his performance, reads a single line from each page of the infamous text A Brief History of Time, a philosophical and scientific meditation of theoretical physics, seeking to elucidate and explain the force that impacts us all, to us all, scientist and layman alike. He is a seasoned and entertaining performer, sure of his voice and his pace and his tone, confident but not pompous, self-conscious in a manner that is meticulous to audience and space, and willing to be playful and infuse some humor, comedy from truth, without relying on kitschy tricks or a slap-stick tone that would ultimately cheapen his subject or his perspective. His fastidious and precise gleaning ultimately creates a languid lyricism from Hawking's articulate and poignant description and musings, one that maintains the integrity of the content, the notions of time, physical and biological and cosmic and spiritual, while successfully sculpting into a format both fresh and unique. Between crouching on the new and impermanent wooden amphitheater bench, like a small child in a game of hide-and-seek, triggering a recess of my nostalgic hindbrain, and the riveting flow of Hawking's words, strung together anew like small pearls scattered, collected, shuffled, I enjoyed the performance immensely. His poetic, performative oration preceded a film debut, also, ostensibly, concerned with scientific themes, specifically the impact of human contagions and general human existence on the environment, and the ability to now create virtual environments free from such contamination; this piece, less subtle and less playful, and notably less textured, I did not enjoy, save for the accompanying live chorus. Singing in soft harmonies, while featuring almost robotic guttural gesticulations, the group showed discipline and prowess that the film lacked.

Although, in this case, I found Patrick's reappropriation and molding of now iconic scientific material on time to be both engaging and beautiful, reverent to the inherent beauty of Hawking's mind and explanations, his work invariably sparked a cascade of textured thoughts on how visual artists interpret scientific theory, principles, research, and data in their work, whether an accurate portrayal or a direct lift, or whether contorted and made anew in some sense. Having attended a university with prominent visual arts and architecture programs, and having forged either close friendships or social relationships with many of these artists and architects, I have discovered that there is a pervasive, albeit generalizing, attitude that science, or perhaps more appropriately "Science," as an entire and vast field, is something quaint, potentially irrelevant, and while a veritable source for neat facts or fonts of inspiration, is not a subject area that need be understood by creatives. For a liberal arts institution, replete with armies of purportedly intelligent and intellectually curious beings, the either ignorance or active disdain towards understanding a huge field, labeled as unnecessary for their particular output or academic agendas, was, simply, shocking. Unfortunately, of course, this attitude is not reserved for artistic or creative types alone, and is ashamedly and rather unabashedly adhered by multitudes of people who decided grade school biology or chemistry or physics was not for them, and a life blind to entire areas of knowledge, understanding, illumination, and intellectual satisfaction deemed acceptable. Whether academics in certain social sciences fields, whose work would benefit immensely from a consilient approach that incorporates or at least takes into consideration certain fundamental scientific and biologic principles, particularly those that, to date, data supports guide human nature and behavior, or whether it is lawyer and politician types, or media establishment journalists, this cavalier attitude is detrimental and fosters a myopic societal outlook.   

This harangue is wildly general, and perhaps inappropriate to link so closely with my friend's performance, which was not overtly guilty of a narrow approach, and was a performance I admired deeply. As academic specialties become increasingly extreme and fragmented within particular fields, and as access to immense amounts of knowledge, information, and public dialogue, some more accurate and discerning than others, it will be fascinating to see how the traditional liberal arts approach to education evolves. With regard to visual and written arts, I also am curious to see what synergies emerge, and what deficits remain. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Voice(s) of (Misinterpreted) Reason

A number of weeks back, my older sister forwarded me this article, describing a recent study examining the impact of a forum of reader comments on how other readers perceive, interpret, and ultimately assess digital media articles on science and technology; essentially, the group seeks to further understanding of how new media tools in journalism, knowledge exchange, and dialogue impact scientific literacy. Using an objectively written article describing and outlining general uses for nanotechnology as the fundamental piece, the investigators added a string of realistic, but fabricated reader comments; one group of tested readers saw what was described as "civil comments and the second "uncivil" comments. Curiously, it is unclear, at least from this overview, how cogent the experimental comments were, how comparable with regard to diction and syntax, and so forth, details that interest me greatly. Ultimately, and unsurprisingly, the research indicated that the tone of the comments sculpted and influenced reader perception of the information, regardless of prerequisite "knowledge of science"; again, for a more critical assessment, I am curious as to how this was measured and to what level of rigor and accuracy. 

Though the details provided in the overview are scant, the broad findings reported quite general, and the numbers within the study itself surely small, the implications therein for the evolution of journalism, reporting, and the digital community are vast. In this ever-shifting semiotic milieu, an already textured and complicated concept, that of context, both real and constructed, has new dimensions. The paradigm of triangular-interface, author-text-reader, becomes author-text-reader-reader dialogue, which can be further skewed or distorted, in the very literal senses of those words, through the lens of a community manager. So, not only is the reader ingesting and processing and reassembling pieces of information from an author, who may or may not be reporting accurately about a specific subject, scientific or otherwise, the reader also sifts through a deluge of possibly provocative or compelling or wrong or insightful comments, potentially drawing from only the primary article to which they are appended, but likely pulling in pieces from the mind and experience of their authors. This exchange is then, at least on a predominance of popular and reputed media outlets, facilitated, shepherded, and refereed by a community manager, whose own perceptions and experiences will ultimately and invariably impact how the discussion is mediated. 

Theoretically, the democratization of knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge, and of discourse concerning that knowledge is fascinating and welcome; realistically, and as a staunch proponent of freedom of speech, of discourse, of exchange it is painful to admit, it can be a frightening prospect. In a landscape where certain basic principles of science are still continually questioned, after decades of evidence collected and verified with controlled process, or, worse, denied and refuted with wanton rhetoric or with obstinacy, where education values are often institutionalized and mass-manufactured in a single-size approach, where a genuine inquisitive nature in the natural and scientific world can be unfairly squashed or suffocated, further leverage for uninformed, or misunderstood, or misinterpreted, voices can be significant. 

This research is soon to be published in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, and, obviously, for a more comprehensive and authentic response to some of these thoughts, I need to start there. In the interim, I briefly broach some related points that may be discussed in this particular paper, or perhaps should, and warrant some type of independent literature research on my end: whether the mediation of a computer or other technological device was significant, other than as a tool whereby these conversations are already playing out; in other words, does this study perhaps say more about powers of independent thinking, syntheses, analyses, and reasoning of those who participated? And to what extent are those participants representative of this particular society, or other separate societies experiencing parallel quandaries in scientific literacy, communication, and new media? In light of this type of research, then, what are the viable solutions that neither quell freedom of speech but can potentially effectively moderate exchange in particular forums? Are such solutions necessary, or is this a challenge each man and woman should acknowledge, and embark upon, for themselves?

(image taken from This Is The House That Lars Built)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Darwin Day

Today is Darwin Day. In this endlessly fascinating and intricate time of relative easy access to seemingly infinite amounts of information, at least for those in socioeconomically established nations with reasonable political freedom, information in the sciences, in philosophy, in art, in literature, a time when exchange of knowledge has never before been so immediate nor so textured, yet the central tenet of biology remains brutally and incredulously attacked, it is not only fitting to commemorate this day, it is critical. Despite the volumes of sound scientific evidence, compiled and synthesized according to rational and controlled observation and process, and despite the vehemence of the science community and its advocates, the theory of evolution and its vehicle natural selection, its plausible and predominant mechanism, remain packaged and contextualized as objects of contentious debate in the sociopolitical and cultural media-arenas. The frequency with which I see not only vitriolic and uninformed strikes against the basic, elegant, and accepted biologic phenomenon, but basic explanations or cursory details ignorantly misconstrued in purportedly reputable media sources, is unacceptable, appalling, and frightening.

At an admittedly embarrassing pace, I have been reading Consilience, by famed sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson. Born and raised in a rural and incredibly Baptist southern town in Alabama, in a section I read the other morning, he gives little pause to design by an intelligent deity, the contending theoretical foe to evolution, and some of his reasoning and prose is both frank and glib. Essentially, he argues, the God of Old and New Testaments of the Bible, the God who so many in my country proclaim designed this world and all in it a few thousand or so years ago, is mysterious and awesome and powerful, sometimes angry, sometimes merciful, but never tricky. If, for those who read the text absolutely literally and refuse to conceive the narrative as possible allegory, this God wanted humanity to believe that they were designed specifically in his image and the world shaped in only seven days, it seems unnecessary and strange that he should imbue this world with an exorbitant about of information and clues to confound that creation story, and that support biological evolution and Darwinian natural selection. It would be surprising, in the least, if evolution and all the data collected to support the theory were a whimsical prank.

I have heard, from other texts and other sources, the contrary argument, that such solid data and evidence were placed here specifically to serve as tests of faith. I, and Dr. Wilson likely as well, would argue that if this were so, this test is so holistic, so intrinsic to every aspect of how every living organism interacts with other living organisms, how every unit of biochemical reaction interacts, based on what has been observed and understood for decades and generations, that it is impossible to dissect from our physical realm. It would be the perfect test, too perfect for the perceptions and the reasoning of the human mind; a test designed such that we could, based on our senses and our conscious interpretation, we could only fail. So, a test rigged and dishonest.

The image of the tree of life carries significant phylogenetic meaning and symbolic mythology. This particular tree was designed in the nineteenth century by prolific biologist and taxonomist, and artist, Ernst Haeckel. The illustration is strong, steadfast, true, and it is beautiful. Its branches may be sheared, and its trunk may be hacked, by ignorance blissful or chosen, but the tree will continue to stand.

(image taken from Brain Pickings)


I have been writing since I could first hold a pencil, or a crayon, or a pen, or whatever effective implement was closest at that moment. Poems, nonsensical song lyrics, short stories with personified rabbits as characters. I have been writing about science, mostly medicine, professionally for the past four or so years; meanwhile, I have been writing various personal projects on digital platforms, at least extensively, for the past five years. Over the past number of months, more now than I can quickly tally, I have been frustrated. Frustrated with my own lack of creative output, something that has become a comfortably stagnant inertia, frustrated with the lack of intellectual engagement with some of my current professional projects, and frustrated with, at the most general, issues of scientific dialogue, knowledge exchange, and the media. How both new research, and established scientific theory, are contextualized in contemporary culture and the ramifications of these contexts, both subtle and significant.

These plaguing frustrations are not completely mutually exclusive nor completely overlapping, but they are importantly interconnected in that these areas are how I spend my time and how I exert, or wish to exert, my neural capacity. And lately, I am not satisfied. I procrastinate, I indulge in the decaying and the mundane; in many ways, allow a sort of mental stagnation to soothe and numb me. Or, perhaps worse, allow a near incessant stream of inner monologue commentary on these very frustrations go neglected or forgotten. Taking the proverbial grab-my-own-bootstraps-approach has, in past experience, been most successful in shaping my circumstance and my own sense of fulfillment; waiting for fate often leaves much to be desired. Simply, I need to write, and to commit thoughts into organized writing, more, and not merely to earn my salary.

So, the creation of a new project for myself, one to hopefully satiate those near carnal needs to create, to write, to interface intimately with issues of import, whether they be viral or arcane. My plan is to document thoughts, feelings, rants, theses on my passions, science, the arts, hauntology, evolution, nostalgia, the future, semiotics, and the points at which these passions intersect, in a longer, hopefully more coherent and organized, format. A place for consilient synthesis between the left and the right. Writing with the purpose of both processing and supplying analysis, and perhaps even some interesting meaning. Not to supersede or serve as substitute to other creative works, such as my prose poems, my idle discussions of a story book for children, my fiction, but, ideally, to complement them, fortify them, infuse them with nuance or added dimension. While all of my writing projects are primarily for my own sanity and thriving life-force, the opportunity to share and to potentially foster discussion is always exhilarating; thus, a public and open forum.  Welcome.

(image taken from Art Duh)