Monday 28 May 2007

Knowledge Pupates Part 2: how I left paganism for science

Part 2
(Read Part 1 here if you want to know about me as an arrogant youth).
I call this drawing Anthropomorphic Gestation. The caterpillars are gathered around the central one who seems to be coming out of human clothes. I feel it represents the mixed-up sense of the world of my early twenties: if I was an arrogant teenager, I was busy trying to be a very unusual university student, in a Fine Art faculty of many others all trying to be weird and unusual also.

I love books, and the ones I love I read over and over again. University was a heady time for me, and I was trying to soak the world in like a sponge, and figure myself out with each gem of fact that came my way. While taking a history of western art, a history of scientific discovery, and a humanities course of the renaissance, I was almost overwhelmed by the leaps and bounds of that age, in art, writing and science.

I was coming up against walls in magic I believed worked. Some of the coincidences still had me fooled, sure, (a popular book on astrology showed Gemini with a blue-fronted Amazon parrot, and I had one...) but I was finding holes. I had been impressing myself and other friends with The Celtic Book of the Dead cards for a number of years. I am no cold-reader, and sometimes it was almost eerie what the cards said. (Fantastic artwork on those things too.) Every once and a while though, I'd by stymied. Couldn't read the cards so they would make sense of the situation. And then I discovered one of my favourite artists, Brian Froud, had made a Tarot-style deck of his own. Anyone could make a deck. I simultaneously began to doubt diviniation by card-reading and wanted to make some of my own, with my own designs based on my renewed interest in science.

"(Percy) Shelley had been an inadmissable mix of species, like a baby bird who has been handled by humans and now carries their smell; ...His heart still embodied the appalling mix, and was therefore a tangible offense against the inherent separateness of the two forms of life."
Tim Powers, The Stress of Her Regard, 1989

Tim Powers is an author who writes about the historical, magical events that were never recorded. He does it incredibly convincingly. He uses pseudo-scientific concepts for magic to explain how Shelley, Keats & Byron could be plagued by lamia-vampires, and each of his books is a well-researched, historically accurate work of fantasy. Absolute dynamite. I thought this was great, reading about magic, and he explains things. The artistry of his writing left an indelible stamp on my thinking. I know it sounds very basic, but from these stories of Powers' vivid imagination, I realised that things could be figured out.

As I say, it was a heady time. I was studying Symbolist Art like Jan Toorop ("O Grave..." pictured below), Fernand Knopff, & Odilon Redon, the influences of which can be seen in my drawing above, (the Symbolist eye on the left chrysalis looking inward toward the soul, and the maiden soul erupting out of the weird rock-moon thing). I was reading David Brin's Earth and saying it changed my life, (even though I spent about 6 weeks pronouncing the word "paradigm" with a soft-g.) I was living with a blue-fronted Amazon. I was speaking fluent sign language. The martian meteorite ALH 8001 was being scrutinized. I began drawing trilobites.

Enter Richard Dawkins.

River out of Eden by Richard Dawkins slowly grew on me, "doing good by stealth". I began drawing images of Mitochondrial Eve, and re-read chapters again and again. The prose was so beautiful, and so clear at the same time. "...we shall follow it back through a time scale incommensurably older than the legendary Eve's thousands of years and African Eve's hundreds of thousands. The river of DNA has been has been flowing through our ancestors in an unbroken line that spans not less than three thousand million years."

Beautiful concepts, inspiring ones, and the best part is they are true. My mind was pupating.

In Part Three of Knowledge Pupates: A new painting! Fashion crimes!

Wednesday 23 May 2007

Page 3.14 profiles The Flying Trilobite

Page 3.14, the online editorial page of & Seed magazine, has an interview with me about my artwork and blog today!

Thanks to Virginia Hughes for taking the time!

Please check out this link, and keep your eye on the ever-changing content of Their finger's on the pulse.

Mythical Flying Trilobite, oil paint on shale, 2007. Copyright Glendon Mellow.

Monday 21 May 2007

Knowledge Pupates: how I left paganism for science

Part 1

With my birthday once again marching merrily toward me, I have been reflecting on how my mindset of memes has gotten me to where I am today as a skeptic in love with imaginative things. Knowledge pupates. It's a phrase I wrote on the bottom of the drawing to the left, when I gave this piece to a friend & co-worker. I've come a long way from my disorganised muddle of pagan ideas in my teen years. Over the next few weeks, I would like to indulge (it's my birfday!) in noting some of the mental roads I believe helped me travel to where I am now. I will continue to link from each part of the series on each post. Comments about other people's experiences are most welcome.

In my larval stage, (kids can be gross, it's an appropriate one eat a popsicle), I was raised mostly without organised religion. My father was raised under the United Church, and my mom's family was "high" Anglican. Our family heritage is mostly English-Canadian from my dad, and my mom's was a mixture of English, Irish, Jamaican & Panamanian, and both my parents were born & raised in Ontario, Canada. My mom became a single parent when I was 8 years old, and had always filled the house with books. My siblings & I had books on just about any topic in the house. Tons were about science, and many books, fiction or not, had excellent illustrations. I learned to read for pleasure at an early age. On one school project, I listed dinosaurs, Star Wars, the Muppets and dragons as my biggest influences.

We got a dog. I would take him for long walks, in any season, from hot summer to tall snow drifts and we usually went to a wooded park nearby. I'd sit under the creaking branches, and draw or read or think, while my dog enjoyed the air and the many things his olfactory system could sniff. Around the same time, when I was about 12, I began reading folklore & mythology, and began taking a "Saturday Morning Class" called When Knighthood was in Flower with an amazing teacher, who introduced himself as Salard of Eagle's Haven. Cool indeed.

Salard was a member of The Society for Creative Anachronism, and taught the class about the middle ages, and about sword-fighting. It was amazing, and coupled with my growing interest in celtic folklore, as well as teenage hormones beginning to run amok, I began to find belief in magic more & more appealing.

But for a society class, we had to do a project on "counter-culture" groups, and I focussed on modern witchcraft. I was disappointed with what I learned. Since most traditions had been oral, and since men did not write them down, much of modern witchcraft had been revived (or outright invented) by Gardener & Crowley. This was a bit of a blow. I wanted the real stuff. In my teenage arrogance, I assumed I could figure it out. (I was in a program for "gifted" students...we'd been taught to do research and critically think on just about everything, including pop music lyrics. Most teenagers would benefit from the teaching style in my opinion, but that would be a whole other post.) I kept looking for as many fairy tale books as old as I could find, and read everything voraciously. I looked for patterns, and saw significance in the number 3 as an element of change (ladders make a 3-way portal, I was convinced this would lead to change, not bad luck. I walked under a lot of ladders.) Most of the world's mythologies that I could find had the moon female and the sun male, except in ancient Japan, so I read what I could about the hero Raiko, and kept reading about Arthur & Cu Chulain and the Morrigan and her aspects.

I should have been paying more attention. The Society for Creative Anachronism was not about fantasy or the supernatural, it was about how people used to live. The classes Salard taught for the Board of Ed. were taught in a secular way, and the religious component was left out of it. (He's a fantastic blacksmith by the way...hit the link on his name).

Somewhere along the way, I decided I did not want to share a lot of these thoughts with others, even if they were people I could trust or assume to be like-minded. It was a private worship, taking place in the trees and the wind while spending time with my dog. I made up a few tiny rituals that never worked, and I did not repeat.

I had always been fidgety and liked to draw, and I found I liked to write. I worked on a book off & on for a few years of high school, and novel of vampires and magick that incorporated many of my ideas (it was called "Tears of Blood", and was full of high melodrama). A lot of the drawings & paintings were an impetus for the story. (At some point, I may be persuaded to post one.) The artwork of Alan Lee (below) was what first inspired me to develop my drawing and painting skills. Eventually I won an award in high school for the book, and I felt it had been a large part of my life.

And, one night in a flurry of creative outburst, I finished the thing. About another 60 pages, if I recall (it was about 300 hand-written scribble). It was cathartic. The book had seen me through major friendships, girlfriends, and my forming, pupating years as a teenager, and I had finished it. And although for a while I planned two more parts, they just weren't in me. It was an ending of one part of my life.

In Part Two of Knowledge Pupates: How a fantasy novel about vampires led me back to rationality! Parrots & Astrology! Eve & Richard Dawkins!

Saturday 19 May 2007

Asthma Incubus

I suffer from asthma. Lots of people do. I grew into mine, and it worsened a bit since I got older. Over the years, I have received a lot of advice on possible remedies for this from people using anecdotal accounts of "alternative" medicine.

This pencil drawing is a self-portrait I did a few years ago, called Asthma Incubus. In part, it was inspired by Henry Fuseli's classic Nightmare, (below, complete with swooning woman). I have often thought of the fractal growth of both lung bronchioles and tree branches & roots as sharing a common feature of providing oxygen and sustaining life. I wanted to show how it felt to have a symbolic demonic presence clutching at my chest. An incubus was a folkloric creature that sat on people's chests and either caused paralysis or suffocation. As a side note, I was also blacklight-sensitive blonde when I drew this.

I used to work at a coffee shop in the Beach area (or "Beaches"...a point of contention with the locals) here in Toronto. It's geographically a great area: a boardwalk, lots of parks, some streets paved with red bricks. Both my parents grew up there. It also has much higher incidents of asthma than some other areas of the city. Now, the beachers are a strange bunch. A running joke about the area is that a beacher is a WASP, who jogs while smoking a cigarrette and has a dog. In my experience, an inordinate amount of them are beguiled by alternative medicines and New Age-y experiences.

One case that comes to mind was a typical day at the coffee shop. I pulled out one of my puffers, as it was smoggy. One of our customers, a great person, suggested I start using phosphorus to treat it. I replied, "Thanks, I can ask my doctor about it, ". The customer then said, "Well...western doctors don't always trust things, you know, they only like what the pharmaceutical companies tell them. Don't worry, phosphorus is all natural."

Even back in my early twenties, I was still not the skeptic I am today. However, this was my health! I replied, "Thanks, but I should check with my doctor. What if it reacts with my other medications? Besides, mercury is all-natural too, but it's still poison." He shook his head, and went to sit down while I made the latte.

Another painting, from the Symbolist era which has long fascinated me is Ferdinand Hodler's fin-de-siecle masterpiece of dread, Night.

I believe that the medical profession makes mistakes, and I also believe it is at it's most successful time in history. I began seeing a respirologist about 8 years ago, and my twice-annual trips to the emergency room have stopped. We have tried a number of medicines, and I am able to be more active and sleep better. I know my own case is of course, anecdotal by its very nature of being one isolated case, but alternative medicine could do some actual harm. I'll trust my western-trained doctor, thanks.

I find the site The Skeptic Dictionary to be a well informed site for people looking into whether a claim has the double-blind, empirical evidence to back it up. There's a lot of unproven nonsense making people money out there, mostly riding on the placebo effect. I was impressed with the award-winning high-school essay from the Alliance for Science competition about why we should choose doctors who understand evolution. It's an important point. Read the essay, it will give you pause. The fight to keep evolution in schools is not just a topic pertaining to dinosaurs and early humans. It matters right now, for your own health.

Thursday 17 May 2007

But sadly, no trilobites...

Antarctic 'treasure trove' found, reported by Rebecca Morelle, BBC News

This story has some incredible pics of lifeforms no one knew were down there. What else lurks in the depths? And when will an ocean-going creature be named after Cthulhu? Follow the above link and check out the cephalopod pic.

Chances are it's not going to be trilobites. They did become extinct approximately 275 million years ago, so even a coelacanth-style, living-fossil comeback is not likely. But it would be nice. (Peace out, Richard Fortey.)


Wednesday 16 May 2007

Brief Book Review of...

The Agile Gene - How Nature Turns On Nurture by Matt Ridley

"Right now, somewhere in your head, a gene is switching on, so that a series of proteins can go to work altering the synapses between brain cells so that you will, perhaps, forever associate reading this paragraph with the smell of coffee seeping in from the kitchen...

"I cannot emphasize the next sentence strongly enough. These genes are at the mercy of our behavior, not the other way around."

This is the type of thought-provoking, clingy thought that sticks to your brain after Matt Ridley presents it before your willing eyeballs. This book is a history lesson on the nature Versus nurture debate, and Ridley deftly turns the debate on its side, and has nature chumming around with its pal nurture at every turn. The dichotomy is a false one. Most people realize this in their daily lives. It's immensely silly to think of peoples' (or pets', or vegetable gardens') lives and attributes as being soley because of their genetic heritage, or because of the environment.

To elucidate on the vegetable garden analogy, you would be hard pressed to find a gardener or farmer who says that the environment (amount of heat, rainfall, nutrients, and so on) doesn't matter. And you would also be hard-pressed to find a farmer who doesn't favour particular strains of seed, for their genetic superiority (larger crop, pleasant taste, abundant seeds) over others.

This is something lay-people like myself are very comfortable with. Where Ridley takes us next is deep into the territory of how genes function, and how our very behaviour is switching some on like mad, and affecting our brains, which in turn allows us to affect our environment. Ridley clearly marvels in in the sophisticated level which geneticists have achieved, and is eager for more. (The part about the genetically-modified fruit flies who are paralyzed when the temperature goes above 30C and fine again when it dips below 20C is astonishing, and Ridley expresses this wonder also).

If I have one quibble with Ridley's book, it is his description of an as-yet unidentified mechanism that allows our genome to express itself as clearly as it does. Since much of the exploration of genes is still being uncovered, Ridley dubs this mechanism the "Genome Organising Device" (GOD) in a tongue-in-cheek way. You can find clever puns and jokes in Ridley's writings from time to time, and at first this was funny. As the book went on though, I had to keep repeating in my head what "GOD" stood for so as not to lose sight of what he was saying. The clever name was carried too far.

As someone who speaks American Sign Language, I thought the discussions about gestures as related to ape grooming were totally fascinating. A lot of light is shed on how the genes express in the brain, the mind and in culture. More than once I was amazed at how lucky my wife is that she is a linguistics & psych major.

Over the last few days of finishing this book, I have found myself questioning my own thought processes differently, and it has been kind of quietly entertaining. When I am telling my wife an interesting story, how much of it is to impress, like a peacock's tail? The compulsion to share stories about my day, is that free will? Or is the compulsion to share stories determined by the minor genetic strengths that I focussed on as a youth, and sought to hone in my environment? Is the free will to be found not in the compulsion to speak, but in what I am going to say?

Matt Ridley shares with us an intellectual bounty.

May 16th 2007

Saturday 12 May 2007

Random News & Made-Up Hominid

-The Flying Trilobite is now on Fish Feet's blogroll!

Fish Feet is a fascinating site by Sarda Sahney, and she has added The Flying Trilobite to her blogroll. Sharks and Tyrannosaurs! Sweet!

-Next, may I introduce our drawing this evening, a made-up hominid I drew when I really felt like drawing some sciency (sciencish?) anatomy. Note the nifty cranial ridge for enlarged jaw muscles. It was fun to smudge the graphite for the skin on the lower left and draw really tight lines for the muscles next to it. Juxtoposition plays with you.

-While reading the May 21st 2007, edition of Maclean's today I note with sadness that The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins is sadly, no longer in their Top Ten Non-Fiction. Yes, lads & lasses, hang ye heads low. Lower. Ok stop.
Maclean's is kind of like Canada's answer to Time magazine, and I have been agreeing or disagreeing with their articles very strongly, which is what I look for in a magazine. The God Delusion hung on to a Top Ten spot for at least 28 weeks here in the Great White North.

-In other news, God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens has debuted at #1 on the Maclean's Top Ten Bestsellers, Non-Fiction. Way to carry that torch! Check out an exclusive excerpt here at Slate Magazine online.

-For fans of astronomy, I have been fascinated all week by a few pictures from the Cassini probe of a strange hexagon cloud system on the pole of Saturn. It's so creepily hexagonal, I'm sure conspiracy theories will run rampant over this. My vote is that the Saturnians are harboring weapons of mass destruction. Check it out over at the Jet Propulsion Labs' site.

Tuesday 8 May 2007

Ammonite Vs Trilobite

Recently, PZ Myers who runs the popular science blog Pharyngula ran a call for new entries to his popular blogroll. The Flying Trilobite is now one of Prof. Myers' multitude. (or at least will be far the new entries have not yet been added to the roll itself...see the announcement here.)

I thought it was fitting then, to display this painting I did last year of an ammonite attacking a trilobite. Y'see, Prof. Myers has this affinity with cephalopods...

This work is an oil on canvas, and hangs with a group of my pieces, including My Life With Trilobites. Quniacradone orange is one of my favourite earthy tones.

You might be thinking, "poor, cute li'l trilobite". The trilobite stepped on the ammonite's shell, and kinda scuffed it. The ammonite then snapped the trilobite's shell in half. "A shell for a shell", is the kind of prehistoric, savage morals these ancient creatures lived by. I'm so glad we are past that kind of thinking on this planet.

You may now roll your eyes.

Wednesday 2 May 2007

Sketch of Symbiosis Painting

This is a sketch I did after I painted Symbiosis. (I really need to go buy a scanner this month...)

Tardigrade lovers everywhere will probably be upset by how fleshy and solid the outer membrane of the l'l critter looks in this sketch, but I was just playing with the image a bit.

Since a friend introduced me to its benefits in high school, I usually draw using a Koh-i-Noor .3mm lead pencil, which I stock with HB leads. These require a pretty delicate touch, since the lead is so thin it breaks when you breathe. I drink a lot of coffee (I'm having some Bavarian Chocolate by Van Houtte right now) and I've learned to be steady enough not to bust my leads all over the place.

For paper, I like Strathmore's vellum-finish Bristol, and now they have a new "wind-powered" version not much more expensive than the original.

It's amazing to me all the things a tardigrade can do. Dry them out for 8o years, drop 'em in water and bingo, they start swimming again. With little tiny Rip Van Winkle beards.

It's true, I swear.

Tuesday 1 May 2007

Brief Book Review of...

Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey

Ok, I know this website has "trilobite" in the title, so it may seem like I am just a paleonerd gushing about an obscure thing few people like, but this book is one of the best science books I have ever read.

It doesn't read all dry and rhetorical like a textbook. It is more like a novel about the life of the authour, who happens to be in love with studying trilobites. More than once it actually made me laugh aloud.

Fortey describes how his days at work usually contain a ride in the Tube (subway) where he makes other passengers uncomfortable when they ask what he did that day (his answer: moved North America 600 km) or else he is so far into the Australian outback the dingos are friendly.

Some of the discoveries in it are just amazing. The eyes of the trilobites were the first we've found in the fossil record, and were made of hard calcium crystals, not unlike the Cararra marble of Michaelangelo's David. (I could be mistaken...if you are a geologist, please correct me.) Some trilobites have the outline of their delicate limbs and soft parts preserved in glittering fool's gold (pyrite!). Simply astounding.

This guy loves his job and his life, and it shows on every page. It's not a technical book, and it is easy to find the authour and his subject utterly charming. I mean, the search for trilobites starts off on a dark and stormy night in a rough Scottish pub. It's awesome.

April 22 2007
(Once again, I think the new edition of this book has a better cover...but it was hard to find online, so I posted this one instead. I have a one with a bluer cover than this, from Flamingo Press, div of HarperCollins, 2001. )

Brief Book Review of...

The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins

Dawkins is always at his best explaining evolution so simply, and with compelling examples. Really, I mean the echolocation of bats kept me riveted to my chair one evening, and I'll never greet the sight of one of those critters quite the same way again. If you want a jargon-free explanation of neo-Darwinist evolution, I would still recommend The Ancestor's Tale as a richer book. The Blind Watchmaker is fun and witty. Each page is a nugget of discovery.
March 30 2007
(re-posted May 1st...I decided to move book reviews off the side and into the main blog.)
I have to say, I like the cover of my Penguin 2006 edition a lot better than the one I have posted here. It's the greyish one with the bubble on the water. What's in the bubble? What made the bubble? Bottom-up emergent properties? Hmm...
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