30 October 2012

Three beautiful films

Here are some screenshots from three films with a colour palette that I find very appealing: muted and earthy, almost monochromatic, with rich, warm accents. Their compelling effect is produced through a combination of the skills and aesthetic sensibility of the director, cinematographer, production designer, art director and costume designer. This is of course an entirely subjective experience, but there is something about the colours and textures in the following pictures that deeply moves me. They project humility and honesty, and a raw imperfection that one can sympathise with while being inspired by its quiet, unassuming beauty.

Hopefully you get the same vibes as I do (click on the pictures to enlarge them).

From John Hillcoat’s Lawless, with cinematography by Benoît Delhomme, production design by Chris Kennedy, art direction by Gershon Ginsburg and costume design by Margot Wilson.

From Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door, with cinematography by Agnès Godard, production design by Carlos Conti, art direction by Laurent Ott, Filippo Pecoraino and Monica Sallustio, and costume design by Mariano Tufano.

From Yôji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai, with cinematography by Mutsuo Naganuma, production design by Mitsuo Degawa, art direction by Yoshinobu Nishioka and costume design by Kazuko Kurosawa.

These two photographs by the American photographer Jack Delano (1914 – 1997) have a similar feel.


23 October 2012

The photography of René Maltête

I recently came across a collection of photos in the pages of Milk magazine that captivated me with its humour, wit and serendipity. The photographer was a Frenchman named René Maltête (1930 – 2000). Though less well-known than his French-American peer Elliott Erwitt, Maltête had the same eye (and timing) for spontaneous, funny moments that were only immortalised on film thanks to the pairing of good fortune with the adroit touch of the photographer. It’s a kind of photography that really impresses me – and inspires my own approach – because of its emphasis on the subject matter, rather than technical polish or elaborate contrivance. Photographs taken by Maltête or Erwitt are never trite.

Some of Maltête’s best work (click to enlarge):

"You are the majority"

Genetics 101

"The seven deadly sins"

More of Maltête’s delightful photos can be viewed here.


18 October 2012

Why it’s important to debunk ‘harmless’ nonsense

Recently Newsweek published a fluff piece about neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s near death experience in which he claims to have visited heaven. I don’t know which confounds me more: that a (supposedly) reputable magazine should peddle such flagrantly religious propaganda as though it was serious, objective journalism, or that a medical professional conversant with the human brain can be so ignorant of its neurological flaws and biases.

Sam Harris and Steven Novella both exposed Alexander’s feel-good anecdotes for what they really are: post hoc rationalisations and selective memories coloured by his Christian beliefs. ‘Proof’ of heaven they certainly are not. Novella’s critique got a response from someone who thought that skeptics like him were targeting “topics or elements of human culture that are neither harmful nor unhealthy”. It’s a common gripe; skeptics are a bunch of curmudgeons and wet blankets who unnecessarily pick on people’s silly but harmless beliefs just to feel superior to the superstitious peasants. Novella replied with a blog post defending the skeptic’s interrogation of so-called ‘harmless’ beliefs, like Alexander’s belief in an afterlife. He writes:

The major unstated premise of this criticism [against skeptics] is that a claim or belief must have direct demonstrable harm in order to be harmful. A further unstated premise is that the belief itself is the only subject of concern. […]
What I think does matter is the intellectual process – how do people reason and come to the beliefs that they hold? A harmless but flawed belief is likely to be the result of a flawed thought process, and it is that thought process that I think is important. The same intellectual flaws are likely to lead to other false conclusions that do have immediate consequences.

Novella makes a good point; the actual false or flawed belief may be inconsequential, but the sloppy thinking that leads to forming such beliefs can just as easily result in beliefs that are harmful. Or if not strictly harmful, then conducive to ignorance. Referring to Alexander’s particular case, Novella writes:

The story that Alexander tells, coming with the authority of a Harvard neurosurgeon, promotes misconceptions about the nature of brain function and coma. I have to frequently deal with families of loved-ones who are in a coma, and I can attest to the fact that having significant misconceptions about brain function can be a significant impediment to making rational health care decisions in those difficult situations.
Further, it is extremely helpful in understanding the world in general to know something about how our brains construct the model of reality that we have in our heads, and how that construction can be altered, even in significant ways. That is the real lesson of Alexander’s experience, one that is missed if we instead grab for a pleasing fiction.

Generally speaking, skeptics like Steven Novella and Sam Harris are not simply being mean when they aim to burst people’s bubbles. The justification for debunking harmful beliefs may be obvious, but as Novella argues, debunking harmless ones is just as important, albeit for less direct reasons.


17 October 2012

Good news from the UN

Advocates for freedom of thought and expression have a reason to celebrate: the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has failed to gain UN support for its call to outlaw blasphemy and insults to religion. Muslim member states of the OIC have been pushing for a UN-backed ban on blasphemy for almost 14 years. They suffered a serious setback last year when the UN General Assembly omitted any mention of outlawing “defamation of religions” in a statement condemning religious intolerance.

But after all these years, the OIC has finally given up trying to ‘legitimately’ gag those who criticise or mock their faith. Of course, it’s those horrible American and European spoilsports who stymied the OIC’s plan to silence all criticism of religion (and by ‘religion’, we know the OIC means Islam), whether valid or odious, eloquent or crass. Its Turkish secretary general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, is apparently unimpressed by Western notions of free speech:

The long dispute highlighted differing views of free speech in Western and Muslim countries. Ihsanoglu said Western states had a “strange understanding” of free speech if it could be abused to hurt and insult others.

Well Mr Secretary General, us Westerners believe that no one has the right to not be insulted, let alone the right to expect the state to punish those who have given offense. This is a fundamental aspect of free speech. It is your understanding of free speech that is truly strange; one is free to express oneself except when one offends others for totally arbitrary reasons. How can such a conception even be considered free speech? Your country’s prime minister also seems to share your peculiar understanding.

Ihsanoglu may wring his hands over the potential abuse of free speech, yet blasphemy laws are just as susceptible to abuse, with arguably more sinister consequences:

But while editorialists and religious leaders have renewed calls for a worldwide blasphemy ban, few national leaders have actually ended their rhetorical reactions with that demand.
One who did at the United Nations last month was President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan, whose own national blasphemy law has come under increasing criticism at home and abroad as open to widespread abuse against minority Christians.
Ihsanoglu, speaking at the conference on a panel with Pakistani opposition leader Imran Khan, encouraged countries with blasphemy laws to apply them against insults to Islam, and then quickly added: “not particularly the one in Pakistan”.

I find it quite telling how Ihsanoglu isn’t very keen on the logical conclusion of enforcing blasphemy laws.

The creator of Jesus and Mo weighs in with this cartoon:


16 October 2012

Workshop on naturalism

I am a naturalist, in the philosophical sense; I believe that there is only one realm of existence subject to the laws of nature, which can be discovered and studied through observation, reason and the methods of science. Conversely, I do not believe in supernatural things like gods, ghosts and mystical forces that ignore the laws of nature. It goes without saying that naturalism is opposed to ideologies like religion, pseudoscience, mysticism and superstition in general.

A group of scientists and philosophers are meeting at the end of this month for a three-day workshop to discuss naturalism. It’s going to be held at a rather pretty location, The Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Some big names will be participating: Richard Dawkins, Patricia Churchland, Steven Weinberg, and my two favourite bloggers, Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution Is True) and Massimo Pigliucci (Rationally Speaking). Here’s an overview of the topics they will be discussing from the ‘Moving Naturalism Forward’ website linked above:

  • Free will. If people are collections of atoms obeying the laws of physics, is it sensible to say that they make choices?
  • Morality. What is the origin of right and wrong? Are there objective standards?
  • Meaning. Why live? Is there a rational justification for finding meaning in human existence?
  • Purpose. Do teleological concepts play a useful role in our description of natural phenomena?
  • Epistemology. Is science unique as a method for discovering true knowledge?
  • Emergence. Does reductionism provide the best path to understanding complex systems, or do different levels of description have autonomous existence?
  • Consciousness. How do the phenomena of consciousness arise from the collective behavior of inanimate matter?
  • Evolution. Can the ideas of natural selection be usefully extended to areas outside of biology, or can evolution be subsumed within a more general theory of complex systems?
  • Determinism. To what extent is the future determined given quantum uncertainty and chaos theory, and does it matter?

One noticeable absentee is the neuroscientist and writer Sam Harris. Given his controversial views on free will (we have none) and morality (it can be determined by science), Harris seems an obvious choice for this workshop. Perhaps his schedule doesn’t allow him time to participate (he’s writing another book at the moment), although cynics may suspect that Harris was snubbed by the organisers.

The workshop is closed to the public, but it will be recorded and the video made available online at a later date. I’m certainly keen to watch it; some of the participants famously disagree on certain issues (Coyne and Pigliucci occasionally snipe at each other from their respective blogs), so you can bet that a few of the debates will be… feisty.