30 September 2010

Hell Is Other People:

I don’t believe in Free Will.
That’s not to say I’m a nauseatingly romantic believer in nebulous “Fate” either. I just don’t believe in Free Will.

Sartre said “Existence precedes Essence.” You exist before you are a person thinking on your own. You define yourself by the decisions made; you can constantly redefine yourself with new actions. One may think that I have just proven Free Will: “If I posses the capacity to define myself by my own decisions and actions, then obviously I am exercising my freedom to do that.”

You were not born into a vacuum.
The world is already populated with people, all of whom carry around their own sets of values. These people were making decisions and acting upon those decisions long before you arrived. When you arrived, some of these people projected their values onto you. (This could devolve into a Nature vs. Nurture debate, but I’ll leave that alone.) These values, both those forced upon you and those you forced upon yourself, give you a sense of responsibility, thereby effectively limiting your freedom.

When one realizes that the only thing keeping us from being Free is our self-imposed values, we could choose to abandon those values. Unfortunately, it is not that simple and most of us cannot do that. Our past defines who we are today. If I stand at the edge of a cliff, I could choose to jump off the precipice, or turn from the drop, and walk back home. I could fool myself into thinking that I actually posses the freedom of will to have a 50/50 shot of doing either. However, I don’t. Either because I don’t like heights, or I have a natural aversion to dying, the likelihood that I will turn around and walk back is much greater than the chance of my taking the leap. My self-imposed responsibilities keep me from being truly free to make that decision.

Considering the concept of Free Will in the light of concrete human experience is better than considering it in a vague academic sense. One could debate the Freedom in Choice all day long, but when presented with an actual decision, humans instinctively make decisions based upon their values systems and/or their past experiences.

Hell is other people because we continuously act upon each other, purposefully or not, and impose responsibility and judgment on each other.
There is no complete and total freedom. Claiming to live otherwise is claiming an inauthentic human experience.

There is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
–Albert Camus

All paintings are by Asher B. Durand (1796 - 1886), Hudson River School

What Is Art?

What is Art?

Once upon a time, we believed that art is a form of expression that separates us from animals.

Recently we've seen other primates create finger paintings and demonstrate awareness of "self," so this definition is outdated.

Some believe that art is the expression of the perfection found in nature. The perfectly proportioned spiral of a nautilus or moon snail is universally beautiful. The repeating pattern of the seeds of a mature sunflower proves that math and nature are one in the same, as evidenced by the Golden Number.

For those who may not know, the Golden Number (1.618) occurs throughout nature, and in humans as well. For some, this is proof of a Creator. For others, it is proof that math rules the universe; Order out of Chaos.

Creations by humans mimicking these natural forms are typically considered beautiful, and would therefore be considered art by most people.

The lines of the above paintings exhibit nature's perfection in perspective; the paintings were created using math. But not all art fits this mold.

Some people think that outsider art, such as that above, is beautiful in that it confronts the viewer with a radical departure from constraints imposed by Nature and Tradition.
It may be a splash of color and some random form, yet is considered art.

So what is art? [Note: The question is NOT "What is good art?"]

 Perhaps it is where the application of skill in creation is intended to be viewed by humans?
Pima Basket.

What about sculptures that were created for use by the dead in the afterlife?

What about "primitive" art created by humans to be seen only by the gods or the spirits of animals?

I put forward, for your consideration, the following definition:

Art is that which is created, and is perceived to be as such by humans.

23 September 2010

Marilyn Monroe a Size 16? Yeah, right.

One day after school when I was in 9th grade, I was rummaging through my mother’s old clothes from the 1970s in search of jeans. I finally pulled out a pair of bell bottoms, shook out any errant spiders, and tried them on. They fit! When I got them off again, I checked the size – they were a size 10. Now, at the time, I was a scrawny little nothing, weighing less than 110 lbs (which I recall because I was not allowed to donate blood that year). All my store-bought jeans were a size 3. But those size 3 jeans were based on late 1990s sizing, not historic sizes.

I've known some heavy women who make themselves feel better by saying, “Well, Marilyn Monroe was a size 16, so that just means our society’s standard of beauty has changed.” This is only partly true. A society's view of beauty always changes, but let's not sully Ms. Monroe's good name! And men have always preferred curves. Yes, Marilyn Monroe would be considered far too plump to be a super model, but I don’t know any men who think that Kate Moss is actually hot. So has society really changed that much since the 1950s?

Careful. You might break it.

Also, Marilyn Monroe was NOT a size 16 by modern women’s size standards. These women are fooling themselves, or reading stupid email forwards.

Exponentially hotter than previous pic.

The sizes worn by modern ladies are completely different than what our mothers wore. The only women’s clothing that has stayed constant in sizing are custom clothing (clothing made from patterns) and high-end bridal clothing (which I recently discovered).

I’m not trying to say that big women are not beautiful, or that skinny women are prettier (again, Anorexia = Not Hot).

Also, Auschwitz Victim = Not Hot.

I’m just pointing out that Marilyn Monroe was voluptuous, but she was nowhere near a contemporary size 16, and she’d probably cringe to hear women of today trying to compare her to a Lane Bryant model.

She's better than Auschwitz girl though, right?

22 September 2010

Beauty is Ever-Changing:

The ideal of a woman's beauty has always been dependent upon culture, but is also dependent upon time, since no culture is stagnant.

Here is a great video depicting artists' ever-changing representation of the beauty of women:

15 September 2010

Bias In The News:

Most people who know me know that I don’t watch television. Sure, once or twice a month I get really bored and will turn on Dead Like Me. I used to enjoy watching the news, but with how polarized and ridiculous it has become, I would rather read Texts From Last Night. I figure I’ll learn about the same amount.

We are all aware that national nws revels in half-truths and spectacle – Fox News should make a news segment on apologies [here and here]. What many may not realize is that the local news can be just as bad. However, what makes the fact-checking problems worse with local news is that most of the time, the local newspaper is the only newspaper in a given area. So when they publish a falsehood, there is no one on the other side to say, “Hey! That’s not true!”

Our local newspaper hates our mayor. I don't mean that they publish a couple of negative things about him. I mean, they actually make up things that lead to his recall election (that he won, interestingly enough). After reading some of this paper's drivel, I finally wrote a letter to the editor that will likely go unpublished. But if you dislike biased/inaccurate news, read on...

Dear Newspress,
I found the article "Our View" from September 2nd grossly inaccurate.
On September 1, your article by Mr. Allen says that '[University] says Bates’ grant didn’t come from the city’s funds.' But this editorial says they did: 'money from one of the grant programs the city, through the chamber, helped fund.' We are left to wonder if the money was from the city or not. Do your reporters even speak with each other? Here's another interesting bit, from the Sept. 1st article: 'The $5,000 in grant money was divided in half, with $2,500 being awarded to Bates and $2,500 to Ezzat-Ahmadi. [University] spokesman Gary Shutt said Bates had agreed to return the unspent $1,900 of his half of the money, and had already returned about $1,700.' So he's lacking only $200, according to the people who actually gave him the money and want it back. I'd say that's a legitimate source. One wonders why you're holding the Mayor accountable for his business partner's dealings in what appear to be a separate transaction. If grant money is first divided, THEN awarded, Mr. Bates has no control over where the other award goes. He doesn't work for University. If you have a problem with University's grant choices, you should logically complain to/about University.
I moved to your pleasant town one year ago from New Jersey. I've seen corruption in elected officials, and this isn't it. Your 'college student' mayor is working toward a Masters Degree. It sounds as if some of the reporters at this paper could try for some postgraduate work in communication with each other. Your undergraduate classes in sarcasm seemed to have paid off, though.

Hey, some of us like the mayor, and some don't for their own reasons, but one could at least hope that professional journalists could get their stories straight.

14 September 2010

What To Wear? (Not really historical, for a change)

One of my underlings* asked me to look at a dress she had picked out for a wedding.

“Laura, isn’t it so cute?”

“This is for a wedding?”

“Yes, my cousin’s wedding.”

“And why are you buying a black dress? Did you recently fall out of the white-trash tree?”

Recently, there was a story submitted to my new favorite site, EtiquetteHell.com, involving what one should/shouldn’t wear to a wedding.

There was a lot of bickering, but essentially some people felt that black was acceptable (even appropriate) to wear to a wedding, and others disagreed. I was one of those who vehemently disagreed, and even cited a Miss Manners article where she states flat out that black is suited for funerals, not for weddings. In fact, the only exception I can see is when the bridesmaids are wearing black – but then should the guests dress like the

But I don’t have the money for a new dress!

One of the lamer complaints was that a lady on a tight budget doesn’t have the money to shell out for a new dress for every event, so sticks with a black one. I guess there aren’t Salvation Army stores/Thrift Stores/the f-ing internet where they live. I just bought a new-with-tags floor-length formal that was originally purchased at Dillard’s (Lord & Taylor-type store for you Northerners) for over $120. Guess what I paid on eBay? $13.00.
Yeah, that was really tough on my pocketbook. Heck, my mother made one of my prom dresses, and the cost including the expensive fabric was around $60. Those people who whine that they can’t afford something non-black are lazy.

But I don’t have time to make a dress, or buy another one!

Yet you found time to buy the black one with the matching strappy heels. Hmm… Just go on eBay and fill in the search for your size/skirt length/price/etc. It searches for you. No brainwork is necessary. Amazon.com has free shipping for most of their stuff. Overstock.com offers 2.95 shipping for all orders.

But I look good in black, and hate wearing pastels!

So wear dark green, or burgundy. Duh. Not black.

Yeah... but you aren't Audrey Hepburn. She's allowed to wear black anywhere.

But it’s an evening cocktail party reception! I can’t wear a sundress there.

Of course not. Do what most people do: Wear your festive colors to the wedding at the church/vineyard/beach, then change before the reception. Again, I shouldn’t have to do your thinking for you.

Moral of the story: Miss Manners knows more than you. Don't argue with the woman. Her last name is "manners" for God's sake. And don't wear black to my wedding.

*I have two underlings. This was Underling A.

Do You Believe in Prophecy?

Most people have heard of Prophecy. In a religious sense, it typically means that some event or some person was foretold to come about.

Why does this matter?

Obviously to atheists it is nothing more than coincidence. To those seeking spiritual guidance, Prophecy is generally looked upon as Proof.

Proof, as we all know, is very important. Proof is important in Law, in Science, and in everyday life. It validates what we believe.

I swear I didn't key my ex's car. The ATM receipt and camera proves that I was on the other side of town.

Proof is often sought after in Religion, but seldom found. Religion tends to rely upon Prophecy as its Proof; in absence of Proof, Religion relies upon Faith.

Christians view the ancient ramblings of a couple of Jewish people as proof that Jesus is the Messiah. In the book of Isaiah, there are several passages that Christians interpret as a sign of divine Prophecy, include those about the virgin birth, and those about the Messiah's being rejected by the people. They have Faith that these are true. Non-Christians read these passages and either believe them to be too vague to be proof of anything, or mistranslations.

Others believe that Nostradamus was capable of Prophesy, and view Hitler and September 11 as Proof of that ability. Most of the rest of us agree that anything attributed to Nostradamus is far too vague to be considered as Proof of anything.

What would you do if a Prophecy materialized? What if this Prophecy came to pass within the lifetime of both you and the prophet? What if it were accurate down to the month, and verified by several outside unbiased sources?

Would you believe it?

What if I told you that it has already happened?

Most people forget about the American War of 1812, which was essentially a continuation of the American Revolution, but involved a lot more Amerindians. In the South, the War of 1812 also involved the Creek Wars which extended into 1814.

In 1811, a comet appeared in the sky. The Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, whose name means "shooting star," claimed this to be an omen for the tribes to listen to him. Tecumseh and his brother, known as the Prophet, traveled amongst the tribes, encouraging them to give up the European influences and return to their roots, as this would please the Great Spirit.

While in Mississippi Territory (today this is both Alabama and Mississippi), the men grew irritated with the hesitancy of some to give up white ways. (Remember, by the late 1700s, many Amerindians possessed black slaves and attended church. This was their new way of life.) The indignant brothers left the doubting tribes with this statement:

You do not believe the Great Spirit has sent me. You shall believe it. I will leave directly, and go straight to Detroit. When I get there I will stamp my foot upon the ground and shake down every house in Tuckabatchee.
[Pickett, History of Alabama, 514 - 515; B. E. Powell, "Was Tecumseh's 'Arm of Fire' the Comet of 1811?" Georgia Journal of Science 39 (1981): 87.]

This was in October or November. What is now called the New Madrid Earthquake struck the Mississippi River Valley in December of the same year. It was larger than the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Fransisco. It was so powerful that the Mississippi River was said, by many sources, to run backwards for a time. The aftershocks continued for months.

From the "Letter of Eliza Bryan," Lorenzo Dow's Journal, Joshua Martin Pub., John B. Wolff, Print., 1849, p.344:

On the 16th of December, 1811, about two o'clock, A.M., we were visited
by a violent shock of an earthquake, accompanied by a very awful noise
resembling loud but distant thunder, but more hoarse and vibrating,
which was followed in a few minutes by the complete saturation of the
atmosphere, with sulphurious vapor, causing total darkness. The screams
of the affrighted inhabitants running to and fro, not knowing where to
go, or what to do - the cries of the fowls and beasts of every species
- the cracking of trees falling, and the roaring of the Mississippi -
the current of which was retrogade for a few minutes, owing as is
supposed, to an irruption in its bed -- formed a scene truly horrible.

You can imagine that this somewhat startled the tribes.

Not only did other sources document this massive earthquake, but there have been scientific studies in our own time that have verified it.

Unlike other "prophecies," there was no mistaking what happened, and all parties, both past and present, Indian and non-Indian, agree on the event.

Do you believe Tecumseh's Prophecy? Or do you think it was a random coincidence? And if it was just a coincidence that he was able to prophecy not only the time of the event, but the nature of the event itself, to what else do you attribute it?

Other Sources:

Jay Feldman, When the Mississippi Ran Backwards..., Simon & Schuster, 2005.
America, History and Life, Vol 33, Issues 1-2, American Bibliographical Center, 1996.
Benjamin W. Griffith, Jr., McIntosh and Weatherford, Creek Indian Leaders, University of Alabama Press, 1988. Page 76 specifically. [from my personal library]
George Stiggins (1788 - 1845), Creek Indian History: A Historical Narrative of the Genealogy, Traditions and Downfall of the Ispocoga or Creek Indian Tribe of Indians, University of Alabama Press, 1989. [from my personal library, written by my ggggggrandfather]

Photographs of buildings in Oklahoma. The final is of the pre-restoration Big Round Barn in Arcadia, OK.

I Pray The Lord My Soul To Keep: The Black Death Changes Religion, in brief

Continued from the previous blog:

The first sweep of the pestilence in Europe created the most damage and mayhem. There weren't enough living people to bury the all of the dead, and those that were fortunate to be buried were laid in long trenches, stacked around 5 deep. Even with a foot or two of earth covering the corpses, the smell permeated the surrounding countryside.

From a contemporary source:

"Since they [plague victims] received no care and attention, almost all of them died. Many ended their lives in the streets both at night and during the day; and many others who died in their houses were only known to be dead because the neighbours smelled their decaying bodies. Dead bodies filled every corner.... Most of them were treated in the same manner by the survivors, who were more concerned to get rid of their rotting bodies than moved by charity towards the dead. With the aid of porters, if they could get them, they carried the bodies out of the houses and laid them at the door; where every morning quantities of the dead might be seen. They then were laid on biers or, as these were often lacking, on tables.

Such was the multitude of corpses brought to the churches every day and almost every hour that there was not enough consecrated ground to give them burial, especially since they wanted to bury each person in the family grave, according to the old custom. Although the cemeteries were full they were forced to dig huge trenches, where they buried the bodies by hundreds. Here they stowed them away like bales in the hold of a ship and covered them with a little earth, until the whole trench was full."

Boccaccio, Giovanni, The Decameron vol. I (translated by Richard Aldington illustrated by Jean de Bosschere, 1930)

Remember that the clergy performed two exceedingly important functions in early to mid-mediaeval society: The clergy administered to the spiritual requirements of the population, and also to the medical needs. The clergy was educated, and did not entirely consist of fundamentalists loyal only to the Church. The local monks and nuns concerned themselves with their fellow townsfolk, whom they usually viewed as their charges under God. They cared for the sick and for the dying, to ensure that if the person couldn't be cured, then the family had the peace of mind knowing the person would not be condemned to hellfire.

Due to the fact that nuns and monks worked directly with the sick and destitute, a large portion of their numbers died in the pestilence. The Church needed to quickly fill these vacancies, and the best candidates were not always chosen (by this point, the best candidates were mostly dead). Uneducated men were placed in positions of authority, with generally negative results. They couldn't read the Bible, they demanded more pay, and even stopped caring for and about the people they were sent to serve, instead leaving the practice of medicine up to God and prayer.* In subsequent flare-ups of the plague, some clergy deserted their posts. No wonder the people stopped trusting in their Church - the men and women representing God left them all to die!

There are some contemporary scholars that attribute the Protestant Reformation directly to this decline in the quality of clergy. True, right after the pestilence swept through Europe, we had the Great Western Papal Schism

(1378 to 1417) where there seemed to be popes everywhere. The people who had already lost much faith in their previously beloved Church were probably just shaking their heads in sadness and disappointment.

Was this mighty plague the result of the sins of the Europeans? If so, why did half the God-loving clergy die? The patron saints seemed to desert them as well. Flagellants began appearing in the street, naked and whipping themselves to atone for sins. This further disturbed the people, and lead to general unrest.

While early in the pestilence the common thought was that this was God's wrath against the people
(October 1348 Edict "Voice of Rama"), the tune quickly changed to remind the populace that God is so great, that we can't know what He is thinking.
Or they blamed the Jews.**

*Francis Aiden Gasquet, D.D., The Black Death in 1348 and 1349, (London: George Bell & Sons), 1893.

**Blaming the Jews for anything bad that happens is historically considered to be a fail-safe. In this case, many Christians (even powerful ones) stood up for the Jewish people, but were overwhelmed by the more powerful Christian leaders who were in deep debt to Jewish lenders, and the uneducated and scared population who was looking for something, ANYTHING, to explain the sudden death of half the population. All over western Europe, Jewish people were accused of poisoning the wells, air, other water supplies, or casting spells. As a result, there was a mass exodus of Jewish people to friendly Poland. (Unfortunately, that's where a whole bunch of their decedents would be murdered in the 1930s and 1940s.)