non-fiction

Asymmetric Inspiration: Interstellar’s Heroes

interThis weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in the theater. A visually brilliant, at times emotional and utterly breath taking venture into space; while finding a deeper spiritual connection between humanity.

I left the theater wishing I loved math more.

I’ve had an on-again-off-again love for physics. Mostly easy to digest popular non-fiction works on physics, but on occasion wandering into the harder theory side of the field. Yes, math is a big part of that. Interstellar made math and scientific curiosity traits of the heroes, women and men of different races, rather than devices for destruction.

The silence of space is unnerving. Its celestial violence is jarring and absolute. The warping of light or its complete avoidance is mind numbingly scary, yet beautiful. Not because its flashy or visually menacing as many movies portray space, but because you understand the physics, the overwhelming and unfathomable powers concealed in these black holes or worm holes. Like the monster concealed in the shadow, the terrible power lost in blackness of space is equally as riveting.

Surely Nolan’s film is not perfect and it does seem to borrow inspiration from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact. Yes, you do rebel against some of the climactic devices, straining what you understand about the theoretical physics of black holes. Then again, worm holes don’t exist so we’re allowed a level of creative license, especially if the bulk of the movie treats the perils and wonder of space exploration tonally realistic.

At times I was amazed at the broad efforts the actors and script exerted on my intellect and emotion. In these moments I was reminded heavily of the fantastic PBS series Closer to the Truth. I HIGHLY recommend this series as it not only delves into physics, but religion and consciousness. It just so happens to include interviews with Interstellar’s theoretical physicist and producer Kip Thorne.

But Interstellar works because the most heroic people in the story are not muscle bound, gun totting badasses but thoughtful, intellectual and adventurous astronomers, physicists and engineers. And that alone makes the film worthy of inspiring, or aspiring to, greater creativity.

Interstellar makes me wish I was a bit braver. And a lot better at math.

Antiquity of Heart Break: Archaeology in Zones of Conflict

duraI’ve had a life-long passion for archaeology. Perhaps it was my love for Indiana Jones as a child that piqued my interest, but all I know now is that history buried in the ground or occulted in forgotten enclaves continues to fascinate me to this day. It is with a heavy heart that I read about the modern plunder or destruction of archaeological sites in zones of conflict.

Perhaps no greater current example of this is in Syria where one of antiquities greatest cities, Dura Europos, has been looted as war roils on. If you are not familiar with Dura Europos it is perhaps one of the greatest cross-road cities of antiquity that brought together Roman, Christian and Jewish history on a plateau in Eastern Syria. The importance of Dura Europos cannot be overstated. It’s loss, destruction or defacement at the hands of zealots or iconoclasts would be a truly tragic cultural heritage event.

The world sat by in 2001 when saw the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan were destroyed. We continue to see similar destruction of cultural heritage sites in the Middle East and around the world without so much of a whisper of public outcry.

In our modern age we have the ability to immediately empower social movements or calls for justice through social media. Yet even cause celebre human rights movements flourish in the first few days of social media empowerment, yet quickly whither when the short attention span meets the idea of putting words, or hashtags, into action. I would call for a social media campaign to protect these cultural heritage sites, to rally the public to the news of desecration and destruction. but when human suffering garners a two week interest online, what passion will a few old rocks and sculptures inspire in the public?

For more on the looting in Middle Eastern conflict zones check out this well-rounded article.

21st Century Greenland Mining: Self Reliance Meets Reality TV

Americans, for all their environmental and ecological instincts and preservationist dreams, still posses a remarkable capacity for ruthless plunder in the name of self sufficiency and personal determination.

The ideals of toil and earning a place at the banquet table of prosperity is a deeply American trait, nurtured often at the expense of the environment.

Yet in Greenland the idea of broadening mining and drilling divides the country as the nation wrestles with competing ideas of economic self sufficiency versus environmental harmony. A motivating piece to this debate comes from Greenland’s continuing dependence on economic assistance from Denmark.

Curiously, we Americans have a perspective on this foreign discussion and its formed by “reality” television. In recent years a program called “Ice Cold Gold” has broadcast the adventures of a group of American prospectors working their way across Greenland in search of fortunes.

This curious idea of self determination by drill, pick ax or shovel is what led to the plunder of many of America’s natural resources since our earliest days as colonies. New England forests were coveted and cleared to become masts of English ships. Gold was hacked and flushed from California by the ton. Some look back on the old process of exploiting the lands of North America by drilling, digging and cutting with soul quivering shame. While others believe the earth is ours to command and cull in order for our survival and prosperity. To get the latest and greatest cell phone, rare earth metals are needed and some believe they rest beneath Greenland. While others, like the Ice Cold Gold team see Greenland as a new mineral rich Colorado of the past and do not shy away from controversial opinions. Greenland remains unexploited with mineral and gem resources potentially available to feed the world’s insatiable hunger for things shiny and precious.

Meanwhile as some of America brings its brash and abrasive energy to Greenland, there is a third group looking at mining as nowhere near an economic panacea. Comprised of specialists from within Greenland’s mining community, a committee was assembled and determined that small scale, limited time frame resource explorations would help shore up Greeland’s economic base. However, according to a report, resource mining would not provide a long term independence from Denmark’s financial aid.

So as Greenland struggles to find an economically viable and independent future, modern American prospectors dig away under the glare of camera lights in search of fortune and fame.

Movable Type and the Witchcraft Craze

witches_624Starting this month and through early 2015 the British Museum will exhibit the portrayal of witches and their craft in artwork. The show will feature artists ranging from Durer to Goya and their interpretations of witches that haunted the night and cavorted with the Devil.

The exhibit piques my interest for several reasons as it returns my thinking to the idea of the advance of the printing press and the growth of belief in witchcraft. With the creation of the movable type, books became more widespread and could immediately influence populations. While the ability to read and write, literacy, varied from nation to nation there were always literati that could help disseminate new ideas. These new books also provided the first opportunity for widespread artist portrayals of the unholy acts ‘witches’ were accused of.

365px-Die_Hexe_(Albrecht_Dürer)The infamous misogynist witchcraft treatise Malleus Maleficarum saw its first printing in 1486. By 1520 the work by Kramer and Sprenger was reprinted 14 times. Until the late 15th century ecclesiastic prosecutors had little central guidance on how to deal with witches until printing ideas and procedures more readily. The Malleus became the most well known guidebook of witch prosecution. The consolidation of European witchcraft views also came as works like chapbooks and pamphlets filled with sensational tales became more widely consumed. One such example was the case of the Chelmsford Witches, their trial and its sensational content, was printed for a wider audience than that which lived within ear shot. In the case of Matthew Hopkins, England’s self-proclaimed Witchfinder General, produced The Discovery of Witches in 1647 and his colleague, John Stearne contributed his tales of witch-hunting in 1648’s A Confirmation and Study of Witchcraft. The ideas spread in salacious and sensational ways were given credence by clever addition of “facts” such as in the case of the Malleus which tacked a Papal Bull on it’s introduction as pseudo-sanctioning.

MatthewhopkinsIn a span of five centuries ‘witches’ were either women deluded into thinking they were flying in the night, according to the Canon Episcopi, or simple practitioners of low magic; to devil cavorting heretics. It is this shift from harmless low, village magicians or healers to heretics that thrust witches into the forefront of public imagination. With the creation of the printing press, the stories, images and rules engraved the heretical activities as fact and punishable by torture or death. While it would be simplistic to claim the spread of printed materials caused the witch craze, what it did do was make “evidence” readily available and illustrated by images that thrilled and terrified.

witches

 

© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.

 

Asymmetric Creativity: John Cleese

ministrysillywalksI am a fan of the illustration blog, Muddy Colors. For artistic inspiration alone its a great site, but from time to time the idea of inspiration and creativity is added to the conversation. This week a Muddy Colors contributor posted this video from Monty Python veteran John Cleese. In the over 30 minute long lecture, Cleese provides some amazing and insightful ideas about how creativity works. Throughout I laughed and nodded at Cleese’s insights into the nature of creativity, techniques for encouraging it.

What really rung with me occurred at roughly the 30 minute mark when Cleese talks about humor, explaining the laughter comes “at a moment when you connect two different frameworks of reference in a new way.” That is the essence of Asymmetric Creativity, the ability to have two entirely different frameworks or ideas meet and produce a new or unexpected result. Such as reading about religious ecstasy, finding a reference to the origins of consciousness and creating a science fiction short story set in 2030. That is Asymmetric Creativity.

Here is Cleese’s lecture in its entirety.

 

Asymmetric History: Drowning Culture

In the rush to preserve river valley flora and fauna ahead hydroelectric dam construction mankind’s cultural impact is often ignored and often lost. Here is an excerpt of a paper I wrote on Drowning Culture.


Modern protests against nature altering construction projects- in particular river halting dams- generally center on the defense of a geographical feature, saving a species of flora and fauna, or guarding the river itself. Historically, dam opponents and dam builders have overlooked or completely ignored a vital aspect of the landscape: mankind’s cultural artifacts, settlements and cemeteries clinging to river valleys around the world.

Traditionally, the dam construction debate rallies defenders of plants, animals or natural features. Rarely, if ever, has cultural heritage been weighed in these heated debates. The roots of this historically significant problem are entangled in the nature of human exploration. Whether cutting timber or damming a river to create a hydro-electric plant, developers often define the natural world as virgin or unspoiled by mankind. As we see time and again, in North America and around the world, mankind is a proxy term for civilized peoples, ones with technology and determination to shape the future. The very language of progress ignores or devalues the cultures of native or indigenous peoples that lived and thrived in the lands coveted for development.

Mankind’s culture is tied to river valleys even though it may not be obvious to all, according to a report from the World Commission on Dams. An international effort to study and assess the economic, environmental and social effects of dam building, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) possess a unique authority on the controversial subject. Without hesitation the report authors state that large dams, in particular, “have had significant adverse effects on this heritage through the loss of local cultural resources… and the submergence and degradation of archaeological resources”. It is incongruous that the dam is also considered by the WCD to be “our oldest tool” in controlling water, while also drowning ancient cultural artifacts. The detritus of earlier civilizations can take many forms from structures, tools, butchered animal remains and burial sites. The evidence of cultures lost to dams litter history, as the WCD authors explain, ” In most cases no measures have been taken to minimize or mitigate the loss of cultural and archaeological resources”.

In the case of Washington state’s Grand Coulee Dam, Native American burial sites submerged by the dam were relocated by the tribes, but only after waters receded enough to expose the burial grounds. Most famously when the site of the Egypt’s Aswan Dam was selected, the entire Abu Simbel temple complex was carved up and moved to higher ground, in order to prevent its loss. When planning for the large Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, Chinese developers chose to submerge  nearby ancient carvings and building an underwater museum, instead of proactively preserving the site.

Viewing the river valley as a natural place outside the culture of man, a place of detached admiration, implies mankind does not belong there and therefore should not long for a connection to it. Scott Russell Sanders captures man’s connection to place, and its importance, in his work After the Flood, “A footloose people, we find it difficult to honor the lifelong, bone-deep attachment to place. We are slow to acknowledge the pain in yearning for one’s native ground, the deep anguish in not being able, ever, to return” . By constructing a dam, building a housing development of cutting a countryside to lay a highway, we permanently sever our connection to our collective past. The language and act of building in the wilderness becomes an act of redefining history, ignoring a richer collective history in favor of writing a new one. Techniques to protect cultural heritage sites are at hand, according to WCD recommendations, but still very much ignored. Not every valley shelters irreplaceable cultural heritage, but we will never know unless we slow down, acknowledge the entire spectrum of potential loss, whether natural or manmade. Like Sanders, perhaps we should slow our pace, look past the winding river, its fertile shores and through its dense verdant vegetation in order to find those arrowheads. To see and save our collective past.


© Copyright site content Asymmetric Creativity/Kevin Cooney (asymmetriccreativity.wordpress.com) 2014-. All rights reserved. Text may not be used without explicit permission.