The Mad Aardvark

Critical commentary on culture…

Archive for September, 2009

New Dinosaur Fossil and Unpopular Pandas

Posted by madaardvark on September 25, 2009

feathered_dino

Another fantastic find, this time in China. The fossil record keeps getting flushed out; controversies within the scientific community keep coming to an end. There had been some controversy about the evolutionary path of birds. Some scientists have pointed out that the fossil record did not support the idea that birds descended from dinosaurs, because feathered dinosaurs and birds existed together. This new find, a complete fossil of Anchiornis huxleyi, shows up long before birds and represents a ‘missing link.’ The new fossil shows up about 25 million years before the appearance of birds and the only other known feathered dinosaurs.

There is one thing about ‘missing links’ I would like to clarify, though: there is no such thing. Every creature represents a transitional form, so there will always be some kind of creature that existed between two forms. Those people (creationists) who demand more ‘missing links’ and ‘transitional forms’ between known fossils will never be satisfied.

MEANWHILE, also in China, the pandas are dying despite our efforts to save them.  Chris Packham, a British conservationist and wildlife television show host, suggested that it’s time to stop throwing money at a problem that isn’t getting any better.  Granted, pandas would probably be fine if human beings just fell off the face of the earth (just like a lot of animals would), but that isn’t going to happen any time soon.  It’s sad to say that I somewhat agree with Packham.  It isn’t a popular idea, and it really does say something about what we value and spend money on.

Here’s my question: how many people have donated money to preserve pandas, but wouldn’t donate money to support human beings that live in poverty?  What is more important?  I admit to not donating money to either.  My contribution isn’t going to prevent humans OR pandas from becoming extinct, and a few human deaths may actually preserve some animals in the long run.  In fact, if people are going to die, “then they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Advertisements

Posted in creationism, science | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Mini T-Rex is cute!

Posted by madaardvark on September 24, 2009

MiniTRex

I love the fact that we’re thinking about a 10 foot-tall monster as a ‘miniature.’ It makes the discovery of Raptorex more fun, and gives me the image of a tiny dinosaur park in my daughter’s sandbox.

In other news, I saw the new episode of Community tonight, and I still feel like it’s rushed. I want an hour-long show and more development. The secondary characters don’t feel real enough and there are too many for me to meet and get to know. Where was the psychology professor that was so important in the pilot?

Lastly, I think I’m going to try video blogging soon. As soon as I find quiet time in a household with a three-year-old and two incontinent cats.

Posted in science, television | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

CNN Monster Reports

Posted by madaardvark on September 20, 2009

…and I’m bowled over by CNN again.  We have a story about four or five teenagers from Panama, who find some creature alive (maybe barely) and kill it with rocks.  They dump the creature in the water and run home.  They come back some time later and take a few pictures of the thing.  Then they destroy the body.  That means, aside from the photographs and the unverifiable story, there is no evidence of what the creature may have been.  I smell a hoax.  How many other stories with as little support for its reliability as this would get airtime on an international news channel?

Posted in pseudo-science, television | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

midwest haiku

Posted by madaardvark on September 20, 2009

There is one red leaf,

Reminding that summer ends

And I’ll have to rake.

Posted in poetry | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Community Review

Posted by madaardvark on September 18, 2009

community_cast

I was pretty excited to see the new NBC show, Community, starring Joel Mchale.  I’ve found myself enjoying his wit on The Soup, despite how little I care about the shows that The Soup highlights.  Call this a guilty pleasure of mine; aside from his intelligent humor, watching the show doesn’t do much more for me than releasing tension at the end of the day.  But I do like Chevy Chase, despite the general opinion that he isn’t funny (at least anymore – suspiciously since he started to socially step out of line and call out the people in charge for sucking out).  There haven’t been many television shows on lately that I watch, especially during prime-time, so I was happy to find something that might be worth my time.

I was also interested to see a show that focuses on community colleges.  I have a dual perspective on them – I went to one years ago, and now I’m employed by three.  That’s the doom of starting a career in higher education; I’m only employed part-time, so in order to make ends meet i have to spread myself pretty thin.  but I digress.

It’s no secret that most people have a pretty low opinion of community colleges.  I can certainly show you the statistics to the downfalls of them.  A recent study that was sent to me by one of my colleagues pointed out that there are more drop-outs at the community college level than at major universities, despite the rumor that they’re diploma factories.  I’d attribute this not to a lack of quality of education, but instead to the general environment of community colleges.  Because of the usual proximity to the students’ normal environment, it’s easier to give up and go back to the normal life that’s so close.  Even working at a community college, I’ve found, is way too comfortable for me.  I’m fighting the urge to stay right where I’m at instead of pursue that PhD.

So that’s the context of my viewing of the show Community.  As a television show, it gives a good set-up for a group of characters that otherwise wouldn’t meet, thus setting the stage for not only awkward humor in interaction, but also for a unique environment in which the characters can learn from one another and grow together.  The group represents a good collection of ‘typical’ community college students, which makes for a nice group dynamic.  I don’t get the feeling that the choices in characters is forced, necessarily – just the dialogue.

The dialogue was a little choppy for that first episode, and I have a feeling that the show might not last long because of it.  There is a lot of room for growth, but the pilot felt rushed – the writers have to get the characters together fast so the show can continue.  I have a hard time believing that the characters in the show would agree to gather together by the end of the pilot, despite the events depicted.  I’m hoping the show sticks around long enough for it to find its groove, because I see a lot of potential.

As for the depiction of community college life, I don’t know.  The campus seems a little big; the buildings seem a little big.  There was at one point the suggestion that Joel Mchale’s character would be around for at least four years, so he can get a bachelor’s degree.  In the Real World, community colleges are small, two-year colleges that grant “Associate’s” degrees (or something equivalent) and the easy transfer of credits to the closest four-year university.  They are generally supported by the local city/county (the ‘community’) through taxes and donations, and helps said community by hosting adult education classes and city-ordinance support, such as driving schools for moving violations, or other community services.  So the depiction of community colleges in Community is a little wrong.

This, of course, is a Hollywood fudge.  NBC wouldn’t support a show where the lead character can expect to be off the show in two years.  Furthermore, having a large campus certainly gives the writers more leeway in setting and scope – in fact, some of the scenes feel like they were included to establish possible locations for future episodes.

But I worry that the show is either based on, or is pacifying towards, the ideas that people already have about higher education.  The past several years has seen the county doubt education and higher learning.  It seems that people only respect college degrees as they are immediately applicable to the beginning of a career, rather than the simple pursuit of knowledge.  In truth, the four year university I attended felt, at times, like a job factory, producing people who cared nothing about the education they were getting, as long as they were able to find work in business or computer programming upon graduation.  When the show blurs the line between community colleges and four-year universities, will that get confused in the minds of the people watching the show?  The show does a good job showing the drawbacks of “a school that has an express tuition aisle,” but that opinion could easily wash over to their opinion of higher education in general.  The whole point of the show, it seems, is that learned education is only important because of the piece of paper they give you at the end, and what you really learn are lessons from your peers about life.

Okay, granted.  Life experiences are really what make people complete human beings.  And it’s nice to watch a show that has everyone starting on what they (the characters) perceive as the bottom of their life.  Hell, the only reason I went to a community college was because I was not prepared to pay back the money I owed to the art college I went to for less than a year before dropping out of that (as an artist, I make an excellent writer), so that’s a valid perspective.  I just have a feeling that there is a general misunderstanding of what education is all about, especially what is required for a four-year degree.  There’s a big difference, and that’s a reason that community colleges are only accredited for two-year degrees.

You can watch the entire pilot at nbc.com.  Go and do it.  Not a waste of time.

Posted in television | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Theory of mind in literature

Posted by madaardvark on September 14, 2009

fiction

I had been reading Lisa Zunshine’s Why We Read Fiction, and I had some reservations about it.  I will have to explain what I perceive that the book is about, and what I imagine that the writer is thinking that I will understand from her perceived idea of who I am and what my background may be.

Why We Read Fiction was published in 2006.  There has been an increasing push in literary studies to draw outside disciplines into the discussion, and Zunshine follows suit by attempting to apply psychology’s Theory of Mind to literary analysis.  The idea behind Theory of Mind is that we have the capacity to imagine that other people are animated by other minds, and that we are able to understand people’s actions based on that imagination.  We are not privy, after all, to the exact thoughts or emotional state of anyone but ourselves, and it requires the ability to intuitively make abstract the subtle information that we receive from them (facial movements, body language, tone of voice, etc.).  Zunshine believes that this has an impact on how we read fiction, that we appreciate fiction because we enjoy the game of imagining hypothetical social situations involving imagined people.  It lets us stretch out brain muscles and get ready for the real thing.

I get troubled by a number of things:

1) Zunshine is writing from the perspective of a student of literature, so she makes no allowances for quality.  Her examples are Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway), Nabokov (Lolita, primarily for shock value), and Henry James (just name it).  Aside from a section at the end of the book about detective novels, she’s entering this conversation by using people who are experts at their craft and are generally encouraging people to respond a certain way, rather than letting people just wander into it.  I do not like the agency of the writers being removed in this fashion.  This is another postmodernist attempt to give the reader the power to do whatever they want with the text.  The closest I see Zunshine getting to quality and writer agency is by suggesting that getting James ‘right’ lets the reader understand a deeper nuance, and thus a richer Theory of Mind experience.

2) She suggests that it doesn’t matter if people are correct or not in their assumptions about the people in a work of fiction for them to enjoy it.  They could be completely wrong in their imaginings of what the characters are thinking, and they would still get something out of the reading, or enjoy the reading simply for the chance to play the imagination game.  I have to disagree.  By misinterpreting those fictional mental states in a work of fiction, the reader is often left confused and angry because the perceived mental states do not make contextual sense.  Again, we need some agency put in the hands of the writer, who, if they have done their job well, will guide the reader through the mental states accurately.  If a reader is not reaching a properly conceived idea of those mental states, either the writer is not doing his/her job correctly, or the reader is unaware of how those mental states could possibly be – either through mental deficiency or through a lack of…

3) …experience.  Zunshine makes no allowances for experience, which is necessary for a proper (or, at least, less likely to be incorrect) Theory of Mind.  The ability to imagine another mind is all fine and good, but that imagining must be based on experience and understanding of both ourselves and others for it to be at all accurate.  If it is habitually inaccurate, how could it evolve into a necessary component of modern human minds?  This, of course, goes back to my previous two points, suggesting that the writer must have the skills necessary to guide a properly ordered mind towards a believable outcome.

4) My final concern is less about content and more about delivery.  Zunshine relies on postmodernist language to deliver her message, which is confused, conflated, and contrived.  First, there is the invented terminology.  I don’t care if Zunshine coined this or the cognitive psychologists did, but I hate reading the word ‘metarepresentationality.’  Seriously, do we need a new word to suggest that I can imagine that someone else has a brain?  Second, and perhaps more importantly to me, I get tired very quickly of Zunshine’s reiteration of ideas by breaking it down into ‘plain old’ English.  I constantly feel like she is saying “HERE are the educated words I use to describe it to people who are LITERATE, and here are the words that I will use to explain it in simple terms, for simple people, like yourself.”  Make no mistake that I can understand her inflated vocabulary.  I read a critical work as though it was meant for me to read, as a peer, and I get offended by the suggestion that she has to dumb down her argument for me.  More likely, if she spoke plainly and directly, she wouldn’t have to explain herself a second time.  She even asks the reader, “why do we need this newfangled concept?”  Newfangled?  Is she intentionally using language that suggests I am an uneducated hick?  Or am I supposed to be on her side of the joke, laughing at the people who just don’t understand her genius?  I get offended because I find myself disagreeing with her, and her approach to any argument against her is to turn to this ‘local dialect’ speak.  Clearly, if you do not agree with her, it must be because you just don’t understand her argument, so she has to dumb it down for you.

She asks early in her work why we assume, in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, that Peter Walsh’s shaking is attributed to his mental state and not a physical ailment.  Her naswer is that we automatically assume it’s a mental state because that’s what we do with fiction.  The truth is this:

1) The passage came and went, and was never again mentioned.  The brevity suggests that it is a mental state and not a physical ailment because it is never mentioned again for the rest of the novel.

2) We have known people who have shaken due to emotional distress, or have shaken ourselves.  Knowledge and experience.  Parkinson’s disease is and was a rare thing.  Why would we assume the less likely reason behind something?

3) Woolf is a writer with serious control over her craft, and is writing a novel based on states of mind.  That is, the entire novel deals with what people think or feel while performing actions.  She guides us to that conclusion intentionally through her writing, because she understands what our experiences will imply to us, and she is very good at it.  We were supposed to conclude that based on what was written.

4) I am not an idiot, nor should we assume that anyone reading Mrs. Dalloway is an idiot, nor is Virginia Woolf.

…of course, here is a complaint of mine, for a nice rant to finish off this blog entry.  Poorly written works, including anime and Batman Beyond, have an underdeveloped Theory of Mind.  Simply having a Theory of Mind (or metarepresentationality ability) does not mean that it is developed healthily.  The people who like these works either do not care about the accuracy of mental states in the work or in other REAL people (such as anyone who liked The Dark Knight – the characters could never possibly exist mentally, let alone biographically) or are confused as to the general mental states of others (such as anyone who likes anime).  Good writing does not have to be High Art and Literature, but it does have to maintain a healthy Theory of Mind rather than rely on ‘making a point” and ignoring character development.  This rant will, from now on (thank you for that at least, Zunshine) suppliment previous rants I have had about misunderstanding characterization or motivation, because it’s damned important to the conversation and damned accurate.

Posted in Art & Literature, books | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Boo, Dude

Posted by madaardvark on September 7, 2009

boo_dude

So, let’s follow this train of thought from the station to the moment it hits a minivan and derails, okay?

So, I’m watching Paranormal State right now. This is my first time. I’ve seen a few clips on The Soup – a guilty pleasure I in no way defend myself on – and decided to watch an episode. The verdict is that there is no reason to watch another, ever. Watching it, though, did send my brain on a friendly run.
It was easy to laugh to myself at the thought of half-drunk frat guys hunting for ghosts, especially with my imagination of their dialogue. (“There’s a spirit here, bro.”) Then I laughed even harder when I remembered that masterpiece of independent cinema, Alex Winter and Tom Stern’s Freaked. In a scene (or two – I can’t quite remember) that parodied Winter’s involvement in the pop culture films Lost Boys and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure both at once, his Freaked character’s catch phrase was “Boo, Dude!” I thought, at the moment, that it was funny, because the things that one generation imagines as being laughable is turned into something that someone attempts with sincerity.
That’s all neither here nor there. What I started to wonder is, “where the hell are all the weird-ass independent movies?” They don’t have to be movies, of course. But there used to be something on the fringe that was strange and wonderful, a fun-house reflection of pop culture. It was a critique, but from the perspective of those who knew that they were hopelessly mired in it. The horrified, doomed and damned victims of pop culture quicksand looking around and asking why nobody notices. They used to be outraged that nobody is reaching for a rope or vine or something useful, but at the same time knowing full well that they aren’t doing much to save anyone, either, including themselves.
And I laugh, and laugh, and laugh, because I see a punch-line in there that nobody else seems to. And the things that are weird and frightening now lack substance, are only distant mythological threats that everyone believes in, and the real jokers are either dead and gone or are laughing in silence, throats raw and voiceless, or bound and gagged with tears streaming down their grinning faces, and Nelson, on his pillar, watching his world collapse.

Posted in movies, television | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Chupacabra on CNN

Posted by madaardvark on September 2, 2009

Okay, seriously.  When will they stop ‘reporting’ things like this?  CNN has to stop treating contemporary folklore as though it was factual news.

In other news, the guys with a bigfoot in their freezer stepped up to say that it was a big joke.  I’m of two minds about this.  On the one hand, I hate to see people perpetuate these ideas.  It just gets the crazies in an uproar and validates their belief systems, even if the claimants are obvious hoaxers making a joke or trying to make a buck.  On the other hand, this Andy Kaufman approach to the paranormal is kind of funny.  In the end, I think I’m a little upset with myself that I didn’t assume that they were doing it for a joke.  I still think they were more interested in money than humor, mostly because they didn’t really make it THAT funny.  They were just riding a little joke to see how far it would go and how big their names would get.  Final verdict then, after talking my way through it: they’re still idiots.

Posted in pseudo-science, television | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

WE ARE MUTANTS

Posted by madaardvark on September 2, 2009

Reported by BBC News, new studies show (link) that we all have between 100 and 200 mutations in our genes.  Mutation is a step necessary to evolution, even if none of the mutations in a single specimen (any one human being) go on to bec0me ev0lutionary advantages.

Mutations also are the reason we get cancer and any number of other diseases.  Basically, a genetic disease is a mutation in the genetic structure that has been duplicated, passed on over and over again.  Scientists hope that the information they have found will help eliminate unwanted mutations and help develop more understandings of evolution.

I follow science and scientific discoveries, but I am no scientist. So I pose a question.  Would the elimination of mutations serve to stunt out evolution?  Even if we’re attempting to control so-called ‘malevolent’ mutations, isn’t it a disservice to the evolutionary tract of the species to attempt to reign us in to a relative similarity to one another?  Or would we develop the ability to discern between positive and negative mutations?  Or would we only have to worry about the mutations that we have discovered, meaning we could filter out what we did and did not want in the future?

Because it seems to me that even malevolent mutations could, in certain circumstances, be beneficial to us if those mutations were tempered, reduced in severity, etc.  I think of a child with muscle mutations that cause him to develop musculature at an alarming rate.  Certainly having a 13 year-old Hercules means that he’ll die of a heart attack by the time he’s 35, but if that was taken in a smaller dose, wouldn’t it benefit us to have such a mutation?

Posted in science | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »