10:23 Challenge 1984 Aesthetics Alastair Reynolds Alban Berg Albert Uderzo Alexander Nehamas Antikythera Arrugas Art Asterios Polyp Asterix Babylon 5 Bernd and Hilla Becher Bible Bill Viola Brad DeLong Bruce Sterling Buddhism Carl Sagan Center for Inquiry Charles and Ray Eames Charles Burns Charles Yu Cheryl Morgan Chris Mooney Chris Ware Círculo Escéptico Clarkesworld Comics Committee for Skeptical Inquiry Cristóbal Vila Cyberpunk Dan Nadel Darick Robertson Dario Robleto Darryl Cunningham David Mazzucchelli David O'Reilly Dmitri Shostakovich Ed Docx Einstein on the Beach Engaget Eric Brown Errol Morris Etérea Studios Fantasy Fractals Frank Stockton Frankenstein Free Will Gary Wolfe Greece Hans Rosling Hergé Hiraki Sawa Hiroshi Sugimoto Humor Ian Bertram Iliad Jaq Chartier Jason Yungbluth Jennifer Bartlett John Baldessari John Martz John Scalzi John Sculley Jorge Luis Borges Jose Pérez Joseph Lambert Joyce Carol Oates Jules Feiffer Julia Galef Justin Whitaker Karl Stevens Kasimir Malevich Ken Dahl Komar & Melamid Language Lord of the Rings Luis Alfonso Gámez Macintosh Marcel Duchamp Margaret Atwood Mary Shelley Massimo Pigliucci Math Maurizio Cattelan Michael Benson MoCCA Modern Times Museums Nancy Fulda Nancy Kress Neil Gaiman Neil Tyson NK Jemisin NYRSF Optical Illusion Orson Scott Card Paco Roca Pascal Girard Paul Hornschemeier Paul Kurtz Pepo Pérez Phil Moriarty Philip Glass Philosophy physics Plato Podcast Post-modernism Quay Brothers Rage Comics Ray Bradbury Realism Religion Rene Goscinny Richard Dawkins Richard Feynman Robert Rauschenberg Robert Wilson Roger Ebert Sam Sykes Samuel R. Delany Science Science Fiction Sean Carroll Secular Buddhist Association Shaun Tan Sixty Simbols Skepticism SMBC Star Wars Statistics Steampunk Steve Jobs Steven Pinker subBlue Tara Donovan Tatiana Plakhova The New Yorker Theodore Sturgeon Tim Minchin Timothy Callahan Tintin Tom Gauld Tomas Saraceno Transmetropolitan Ursula K. Le Guin Video Vija Celmins Warren Ellis Watchmen Wikileaks Will Eisner William Gibson Wine Writing X'ed Out XKCD

Marketing a Clown: The Guggenheim's Cattelan

I read Dan Nadel's incisive review of the Maurizio Cattelan show at the Guggenheim several days ago, and wasn't sure what to think. Having seen the show now with my own eyes, I am inclined to agree with his somewhat jaundiced view.

But I don't think the problem with the show lies entirely in Cattelan's work. Cattelan is first and foremost a clown: a provocateur by pratfall and sight-gag. "La Nona Ora", the famous sculpture of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite, is the kind of thing one would expect to see in a ten-second scene out of Monty Python's Flying Circus, or animated in the Simpsons.

Others of his pieces refer to the 'hanging' of artworks, to artworks as taxidermy, and make mild commentary on social themes such as race. It's very much gag art; funny for all that, entertaining as modern, ironic clown should be, but essentially light and ephemeral. Perhaps that's why it works as well as it does, hung before us like a mothballed circus wardrobe.

No, the real problem with the show isn't the work itself; it's the introduction by the curators Spector and Brinson.

So much of what's wrong in the art world nowadays is in the writing: overamped, overwrought prose that either obfuscates or sells. In this case, it sells. "This Work is Very Important!" it tells us. So, the silly piece involving the Pope is described as "incendiary" and "notorious". JFK in a coffin is "eleagic". And his work overall is described as "deadly serious in its scathing critique of authority and the abuse of power". Really? Where? Not in this exhibition, anyway, nor in his prior ones, from the sound of it, such as his decision to make a show out of a locked door with a "be back soon" sign, or his idea to steal another artist's work and pretend it was his own. Silly gags? Yes. Profound statements about authority and the abuse of power? No.

Basically it's a light and humorous show, and light humor is popular. There's nothing wrong with that: we all need a little clowning in our lives. But please, let's not mistake clowning for profundity, nor cloak its essential modesty in marketing bombast.


XKCD on Jobs

A pretty remembrance:

xkcd: Eternal Flame



Steve Jobs 1955-2011

He will go down in history as one of the greatest technology visionaries and businessmen in history, along with people like Ford and Edison. Perhaps the greatest of all.


A Short Film About Time

Mechanical clocks and watches are some of the most beautiful instruments made by human hands. But it's rare to see behind the scenes.

Here's a neat ten minute piece, filmed in the seething heart of time central in New York City. It hearkens back to the Brilliant Glass/Reggio film Koyaanisquatsi.


Uderzo Retires from Asterix

Albert Uderzo, co-creator and long-time artist of the Asterix and Obelix series, has decided to retire. The books that he drew with co-author Rene Goscinny are some of the pinnacles of comics. Filled with wordplay and ancient trivia, they are a wonderful introduction to history both Roman and modern.

I consider the series to have ended, for all intents and purposes, with Goscinny's death in 1977. More recent volumes, of which there have been many, seemed stale and lifeless compared to the bright sparks in each of the early stories. Comparing the before and after shows how comic art is first and foremost narrative.

For all that, Uderzo's formidable comic artistry made reading Asterix a joy.


Escépticos: a Chat with Gámez

Last Sunday I sat down at the bustling Astor Place Starbucks in Manhattan with my good friend Luis Alfonso Gámez, science journalist extraordinaire, founder of the Spanish Círculo Escéptico, consultant to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and prolific blogger. He posts for CSI a series called ¡Paparruchas! (Stuff and nonsense!) as well as his own, world famous Magonia, the largest skeptic blog in the Spanish language.

Pérez and GámezWe chatted about his new project, which promises to be a blockbuster. It's series for ETB2, Basque public TV in Spain. Called “Escépticos” (Skeptics), it's directed by filmmaker Jose Pérez, and stars Gámez. It consists of thirteen episodes, the pilot of which aired last January. The other twelve were filmed over 34 days last spring, by a team of eleven with another nine in post-production. They will be televised between September 26th and the end of December, one episode per week. Each will be 38 minutes long, aired without commercial interruptions at around 9:45 pm on Monday nights. Gámez told me they were filmed in a high definition format and should be HDTV ready.

The January, 2011 pilot dealt with claims that the Moon-landings were a hoax, a theory that smolders at the edges of reasonable society. The other twelve paint a broader brush:

  • Alternative Medicine (Acupuncture, reiki, reflexology)
  • Astrology
  • Electromagnetism and Health (Cellphones and antennas)
  • UFOs
  • Genetically Modified Organisms
  • The Occult (Tarot, palmistry)
  • Homeopathy
  • Miracle Products (Cosmetics, tonics)
  • Anti-Aging Treatments
  • Superstitions
  • Religion and Science
  • Climate Change

Gámez said their intent is to investigate a range of topics, with some being ‘hard’, such as climate change, religion and GMOs, and others being ‘soft’, such as UFOs, the occult and miracle products. Viewers will easily grasp how science-based critical thinking deals with light topics, which should help clarify how it works with the more profound.

Gámez said he hoped Escépticos would be made available in schools for free. Meanwhile, each episode should be streamable soon after airtime. The internet was a great boon for the pilot: it had more viewers over the internet than on air, the most ever online for ETB, perhaps for all of Spanish TV, with over 80,000 downloads to date.

Making clear their interest, ETB2 won't be running ads during the show, but it is running ads to publicize each episode. It has contracted with an advertising firm which Gámez believes to be pre-eminent in Basque Country. They will run new ads as each comes out, highlighting the issue raised in that episode.

The first ad is already available, on alternative medicine. (In Spanish, but generally understandable since "Placebo" is a word in both English and Spanish):

Escépticos is a show designed for viewing by all ages from ten on up, with rapid pacing. The longest scene is perhaps a minute and a half. Gámez felt the show was livened up by Jose’s brilliant use of footage from old movies and background popular music.

Gámez viewing a homeopathic analysisIt’s a show first and foremost about science. For interview subjects, Gámez decided to focus on scientists local to the audience, within about a 150km radius of Bilbao, both to make it easier for the team, and to give viewers a sense of local ownership. But this created its own problems. Gámez told me that not all the locals were happy with the show's approach.

There is a significant anti-antenna lobby in Basque Country, one that believes that cellphone antennas cause illness, and that scientists and skeptics such as Gámez have been bought by multinational corporations. Members of the lobby sent messages threatening him and put threatening notes in the home mailboxes of several local university scientists. This made it nearly impossible for Gámez to find an expert willing to talk on camera about the issue: five leading researchers either refused to appear altogether, or refused to answer questions that dealt with cellphone antennas.

Representatives from the anti-antenna lobby themselves also refused to appear on camera. Gámez told me that he had agreement from their lawyer to do an interview, however it fell apart after the lawyer noticed one of Gámez’s skeptical blog posts on the topic.

At one point Gámez felt the program on electromagnetism might not be filmable, but fortunately deep contacts among local scientists eventually bore fruit.

With luck, this thirteen-part series won’t be the end of Gámez's skeptical forays on TV. In future, he said he hoped they could deal with issues such as nuclear energy and life beyond death, as well as investigate more deeply topics that could only be touched upon in the present series. The fountain of skeptical material is nearly bottomless.

“I’ve had the good fortune to participate in this project since its inception. It’s been a privilege because the team is extraordinary, and Basque television hasn’t vetoed a single thing we’ve done. To be able to speak about God, cellphone antennas and miracle products is difficult. Fortunately, Jose and I have complemented each other in the project; we have the same point of view. The program is intended for all the public to watch and learn from, not only skeptics.”  -- Luis Alfonso Gámez

The Trailer (in Spanish):


Another tidbit:

Escépticos is the first program on Basque public TV to have been unanimously approved by all members of the station’s review board. They felt that it was a program that had to be done. It will be the first skeptical program in the over fifty year history of Spanish TV.


Science Denial Comic

Here's a wonderful, short didactic comic on recent social and political science-denial movements, by Darryl Cunningham. It's short and pithy, one of the best examples of clear thinking I've seen. All the better that it's in a visual medium like comics; I hope it gets wide distribution. You should read the whole thing!

And while you're at it, don't miss his piece on homeopathy!

Tips of the hat to Tom Spurgeon and Gary Randolph.



'Arrugas' the Film is Finished

Paco Roca's wonderful comic Arrugas is now completed as a film. It has its first review out in the Spanish newspaper El País: "Arrugas is now a film. And what a film," writes Gregorio Belinchón, under the title, "'Arrugas', an exceptional comic, an outstanding film."

He also notes that the film ends with a "treasure": a song by 101 year old Rosa Lema, suffering from senile dementia, discovered by the sound engineer in one of the residences they visited.

I'm hoping it makes its way across the pond sooner rather than later.


Steve Jobs at Stanford

In honor of his all-too-premature retirement from the CEO position, here's Steve Jobs's Commencement Address to the graduating class at Stanford University back in 2005. It's profound and moving, and worth fifteen minutes of your time.


End of an Era

Shed a tear for the last flight of the Space Shuttle fleet. They were never great platforms for science, nor did they become the cheap, workhorse transport that they were supposed to. But for all that they served as indefatigable platforms of inspiration for millions. They kept our eyes looking skyward, on to bigger and better things.

Here's to hoping that the near future holds a more self-sustainable program of space transport. There's a lot of promising technology rattling around out there, surely most of it quixotic, pie-in-the-sky stuff, but there's only one way to make it work. And that's by trying.

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