Saturday, May 29, 2010

Causation or Coincidence?

First, thanks to those of you who left comments or sent private messages after my last post, A Minor Medical Mystery.  I really appreciate it,   And I want to quickly acknowledge that this is far from the worst that could happen.  As I understand it, kidney stones are generally not that serious of an illness, the pain is about as painful as pain can get, but that's about it.  And on that score, things have improved, as I haven't experienced the worst of the pain in the last couple of days.

On Thursday morning, I was checked by an urologist, the stone should pass at some point, and I have to drink lots of fluids, and take Tamsulsin, which increases the flow.  With all that, well, you might say a river runs through me!  Oh, and I have painkillers to take, as needed.

But, here's the interesting part, or at least mildly interesting.  In my previous post, I mentioned how the emergency room doctor characterized getting this kidney stone after a colonoscopy as a "bizarre coincidence" and how my family physician was of the same opinion.  But in a comment Michael left on A Minor Medical Mystery, he said, "The stuff that you take to clean out your system can have an impact on the kidneys," and he is quite right, indeed.

Specifically, my urologist said that the preparation for a colonoscopy involves draining the water out of your digestive track, along with washing everything else out), and that dehydration leads to kidney stones.  In fact, he said that this is the kidney stone season (did you know kidney stones have a season?  I didn't), as it's been quite hot in the area lately, up into the 90s, and that results in people getting dehydrated as well.  I haven't been out that much, though, so it's really about the dehydration from the colonoscopy preparation, which no doubt pushed whatever was already forming in my kidney past the tipping point.

Of course, this is not to say that there's any proof that the dehydration from cleaning out my digestive system caused the kidney stone problem I encountered a few hours after my colonoscopy, just that it's a possible explanation for this not so bizarre coincidence, and a reasonable explanation for it.

Part of the problem in pinpointing the connection is that, rather than simple cause and effect, we have cause and side effect, where the side effect occurs in a system other than the one being acted upon.  We also have cause and indirect effect, where there is one or more intermediary effects, in this instance colonoscopy causing preparation (which came before the colonoscopy itself, but was required for the procedure, so a case where the cause precedes the effect), preparation causing dehydration, dehydration causing stone.  The problem of dealing with side effects and indirect effects comes up quite frequently in media ecology, as we try to understand how changes affects systems (e.g., technological innovations affect social systems).

When folks work from a non-scientific approach, they sometimes dismiss the possibility that anything can be a mere coincidence.  In one sense, this fits in with an ecological approach, all things are interconnected.  But in terms of linear cause and effect, that's not the case, which is why post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy.  For those unfamiliar with this, the Latin phrase basically means after this therefore because of this, in other words, because one event came after another, the earlier event must have caused the later one.  Certainly, we expect the cause to precede the event, so temporal sequence is part of the story, but it's not the whole story when it comes to causation, as there must be a direct link between cause and effect (or a series of direct links in a chain of causes and effects).  Assuming that there is a direct link when there isn't is, in general semantics terms, assuming that it's a statement of fact when it's only an inference.

Put another way, researchers will caution that correlation is not causation.  By the way, when there's correlation without any necessary temporal sequence, say when two events happen simultaneously, that sort of thing is associated with another logical fallacy, cum hoc ergo propter hoc, with this therefore because of this.  Again, the fallacy is believing that there is causation involved, or even some direct interrelationship, rather than simply coincidence, that is, simply a temporal relationship of co-incidence.  Or synchronicity.

For example, I said above that "you might say that a river runs through me," and that was meant as a humorous allusion to the book and film title, A River Runs Through It.  I made that little joke before checking to see what new films have been added to the Starz On Demand cable television service for this week, and when I went to check, I kid you not, the 1992 Robert Redford film A River Runs Through It had been added to the line-up!  Did I somehow cause it to happen?  Did some kind of supernatural force line the two events up in time?  Or is it mere coincidence?

Another, different kind of example.  Today, my mother called me up.  She was upset, because she was watching TV, and a commercial came on for one of those law firms saying to come and see them for getting compensated for various medical conditions.  I've seen them before, no doubt you have too.  Well, she saw one that I had never seen or heard of before, one where they included on their list of possible causes for legal action, if your kidneys have been damaged by a colonscopy!  There is at least some element of coincidence in her seeing this commercial at this time (and I reassured her that what I have is a stone, not kidney damage (as least I hope not)).  But apparently there is enough of a causal relationship to merit malpractice suits, and advertising time!  And quite a few hits on a Google search as well!

Proving causal relationships is always problematic, which is why the cigarette companies were able to get away with denying that tobacco causes lung disease for so long.  It finally took a collective cry of BULLSHIT! and some legal and legislative action to get them to own up to it.  On the other hand, there's a psychological syndrome that's not all that uncommon where people genuinely believe themselves responsible for something they couldn't possibly have caused, say someone is looking at a stranger on a city street, and that person gets hit by a car, and the onlooker thinks that he somehow caused that to happen.

Or, on the lighter side, one of the silly amusements we engaged in, as I recall from my misspent youth, was to put on an album that we liked, turn on the television with the sound off, and enjoy the random connections that could be made between the music and the moving images.  I vaguely recall watching figure skating with some rock album on, and the synchronicities had me and my friends in stitches.

One thing such practice that diffused through the social networks a bit after my time was that you could watch the classic film, The Wizard of Oz, with Pink Floyd's trippy album, Dark Side of the Moon playing, and you'd see remarkable coincidences.  My guess is that this didn't really come up until after the movie came out on video, which would have been around 1981 or so.  It probably also followed the introduction of the Compact Disc in 1983, as vinyl would require flipping the album over, whereas the practice is to set the CD on repeat (it plays three times through to the end of the movie).  I think we can consider it an early form of the mash up or remix.

For a rundown on all of the synchronicities that come up, check out The Darkside of Oz -   For a more balanced account, take a look at the Wikipedia entry on The Dark Side of the Rainbow.  And to see for yourself, at least through the first third of the film, take a look below, courtesy of the good people at Google:

My thanks to Chad Calease, who brought this video to my attention via Twitter.  Chad's website, thinfilms, and his thinfilms blog, are worth checking out.

So, what do you think?  For my part, I can see being in college and checking this out with a group of friends, everyone inebriated and finding it absolutely amazing, and hilarious.  Context is everything! But now, watching it on my own, sober and older, it's just, meh.  Cute, but the coincidences seem few and far between, and not all that much.  What really amazes me is that some people actually believe that Pink Floyd deliberately recorded The Dark Side of the Moon, which came out in 1973, long before CDs and home video, to sync up with The Wizard of Oz in this way.  Causation?  Or the Pink Floyd ergo Oz hoc fallacy?

But it's no coincidence that someone came up with the idea of commercializing what can arguably be termed a "folk" practice, that is, a practice that originated from people, as a form of play and creative expression.  And so, we have for your convenience!  And not only do they sell a DVD of The Dark Side of Oz sync, but twenty other syncs as well!  All for $189.99!  The perfect gift for any occasion (check it out by clicking here)!  They also have a groovy page of Sync Links you might want to check out, if you're into conducting further research on the subject.

As for me, I'm stuck with the dark side of the kidney stone, drinking lots of liquids, which means that I'm constantly running off to see the wizard, if you know what I mean...

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A Minor Medical Mystery

Okay, so this probably is not worth of an episode of House or one of those New York Times Magazine columns, but I thought I'd share it with you anyway.

So, I underwent a colonoscopy on Monday morning, not one of my favorite medical procedures, but an important one, as you no doubt know.  Actually, the procedure itself was not bad at all, as they gave me Valium intravenously, so I was knocked out before it began, and didn't wake up until after it was all over.  In fact, I woke up feeling rather refreshed, albeit a bit light-headed.  But no, the worst part of the procedure was being limited to clear liquids, broth, and jello the day before, taking powerful laxatives to clean out the system, and fasting from midnight on.

This wasn't my first colonoscopy, but it was the first in some years, so I was a bit nervous about it, both the process and the outcome, but fortunately I came out with a clean bill of health, no polyps or anything, just some minor irritations in a couple of places, nothing out of the ordinary.  They did take some routine biopsies which I'll check on next week.

After it was over, my wife picked me up, as the Valium they gave me made me officially a DWI for the day.  We grabbed some breakfast at a diner, then headed home, and feeling pretty exhausted at the time, I went to take a nap.

I woke up a couple of hours later on the right side of my lower abdomen, a bit hard to pinpoint the spot as it felt like it was way inside, not on the surface, and the pain got progressively worse, until it was so agonizing that I told my wife to take me to the emergency room.  Which she did, also calling the gastroenterologist, actually a group practice, to let them know there was a problem.  I had been told that some pain and discomfort could occur after the colonoscopy, but this was pretty bad, much worse than anything I could imagine in the aftermath of the procedure.  So we got to the ER, and of course once you're there you wait and wait and wait.  And while waiting, the pain went away, so I said let's just go home, and we did.

That, you may have guessed, was a bad move.  As we were driving back, the pain started to return, little by little, and after we got home it got worse and worse until I said we have to go back to the ER.  So we did.  At this point, I was in agony, but you know how it is with these medical bureaucracies, they still had me wait my turn on their waiting list.  At least, they did until I started to throw up.  That got me in.

Once I was situated in the ER, one of the doctors from the gastroenterology practice was there to check on me, and he determined that I did not have internal bleeding (I was afraid that was what was going on), and said it was probably the somewhat routine discomfort that could occur following the procedure, and that it would probably go away in a few hours.  But just to be on the safe side, he ordered a blood test, to check for infection, and a CAT scan of my abdomen, to make sure that my colon was not leaking air internally (which would be a very serious problem).

To put things in a temporal context, the first trip to the ER was at about 5 PM, the second at about 7 PM.  So, during and after this examination, I am still experiencing intense pain.  I'm on one of those mobile hospital beds in the corridor because there are no little rooms available, I get the blood drawn, and I'm hooked up to an IV drip (this being my second IV piercing of the day).

The pain eventually subsides again, and I'm waiting and waiting, and then I get two bottles of chalky liquid to drink for the CAT scan.  I'm told it takes an hour to take effect, but it took a lot longer to get me in for the CAT scan, which they took at about 11:30 PM.  While I'm waiting outside of the X-ray suite, the pain returns, gets worse and worse while the CAT scan is going on, and as they wheel me back to the ER to wait for the results.  As I'm in agony, they finally take pity on me and put me in one of the little ER rooms, and give me some pain killers via the IV. 

So that helps, and the pain subsides again anyway, and I'm back to waiting.  Actually, I was asked several times by one of the nurses if I had the CAT scan yet.  I mean over and over, she was asking, did they actually wheel you to the room?, did you get the injection? (something to light up the chalk in the liquid they gave me, whatever it was creates an uncomfortable sensation of warmth/heat throughout the chest and abdomen), etc.  Seems they couldn't find CAT scans.  That really did wonders for my anxiety, as you might imagine.

Well then, finally, at 2 AM, the ER doctor comes to see me, and tells me that they did find the results of my CAT scan, and figured out the problem.  And that it had nothing to do with the colonoscopy!  He referred to it as a "bizarre coincidence" that the source of my pain was a kidney stone, a small one about three millimeters.  This was a discovery that the various medical personnel were marveling at!  Again, not as dramatic as the medical mysteries you hear about through the mass media, but certainly blog-worthy wouldn't you say?

Had I not been so tired at that point, I should have said, Doctor, you must be kidneying me!  Sorry, I know that's bad. 

Anyway, I can't help but wonder it there was some connection somehow, like maybe all the fluids I drank on Sunday somehow loosened it up, but who knows?  In any event, I have heard that the pain caused by a kidney stone is among the most intense pains you can experience, and I have to say that this does seem to be the case.

So, I went home with some prescriptions for painkillers (Oxycodone and Ibuprofen 800 mg) and for Tamsulosin to increase the flow (as in Flomax), and now it's just a matter of letting the kidney stone pass.  I had one really bad pain episode today, and one other that was not so bad.  I'll be seeing my urologist on Thursday morning, and have a previously scheduled appointment with my family physician for tomorrow.

So, how long will this go on?  No one knows.  Talk about your pass-fail tests!  I'll just be taking it one day at a time for now.  I hope you understand.  In the meantime, here's the song that comes to mind from all this:

I would not feel so all alone...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Art of Facts

I think I'll just post a poem here tonight, one that I posted not too long ago over on MySpace.  This one draws on some of my background in general semantics and related areas, especially Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's analytic philosophy.

In everyday usage, when we use the word "fact" we assume that it refers to something that is true.  I remember when the humor magazine National Lampoon used to run a feature called "True Facts" back when I was an undergraduate, and I thought they were being redundant in an attempt to be funny. 

But in graduate school I learned that a fact, or more properly a statement of fact is a descriptive statement, otherwise known as a proposition (as in, I propose this to be true...).  The point is that this sort of statement is not necessarily true, it is just a statement that can be tested to determine whether it is true or false (or for generalizations, following Karl Popper's philosophy of science, a statement that can be falsified, as no statement can be proven to be unequivocally true).  It is a statement about which we can gather evidence in order to make such a determination. 

By way of contrast, a statement that may be true or false, but we do not have access to the information we need to determine which it is, is called an inference (as in assumption, as in, when you assume->ass-u-me).  A statement that can never be tested in this way is either some sort of judgment or statement of opinion or value or statement, or it is a statement of definition, an axiomatic statement.

Getting back to the facts, the key point is that they can be either true or false, and when I learned that, it actually explained a great deal about Ronald Reagan's political discourse, as he was constantly citing facts that were, in fact, false, but still were facts.  Of course, this is not uncommon among politicians in general, but Reagan was especially gifted in this respect.

But this is getting very heavy, where my intent was to treat you to a bit of light verse, so let's let go of logic, and get down to the art of facts:

The Art of Facts

Facts are facts,
and that is that,
when it comes to facts.
Facts are factual,
and that is all you need to know,
that facts are actual,
except when they are not.
Actually, facts are satisfactory,
except when they are not.
Facts are de facto actual,
and it is factual to say
that facts are artifacts,
and artifacts are artificial.
As a matter of fact,
facts are manufactured.
Facts are manufactured in a factory.
Factor that in, if you please:
Facts are reasonable facsimiles,
manufactured rather matter-of-factually,
artifacts manufactured artificially.
Go tell your factotum,
it won't matter,
and that's a fact.
And factor in that new factory odor
because facts are olfactory,
and facts can be putrefactive,
when artifacts are no longer active.
Now, don't strain your faculties,
but there are facts that are true,
and facts that are false,
and facts somewhere in-between.
You see, facts have many facets.
There are facts that benefit benefactors,
and facts that abet malefactors.
Mainly, facts may be multifaceted,
indeed, they may be manufactured to be,
that's the artifice of facsimile.
Facts are fickle.
Facts are feckless.
Facts are fractured.
Yes, it's a fact,
and that is that.
Now, focus on the factors that make up the facts,
de facto factors that fact you all up,
just the facts, ma'am, just the facts,
just the facts, all the facts, and nothing but.
Focus on the facts now, focus all up.
Focus all up. Focus all up.
Facts will unavoidably focus all up.
The faculty for factors will focus all up.
Manufactured artifacts will focus all up.
Factually speaking, facts focus all up,
because the facts will factual up.
Factual up. Factual up.
Fact you. Fact you.
Fact you all up.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bagging Gift Wrap in a Paperless Society

Back in February, I posted an entry entitled Online Writers at Fordham University, which was about my Writing for Online Media class, where the focus was on having the students do their own individual blogs.  You can check them all out from the links on that post, or on the side column a little bit down from here.  And I have to say that I am absolutely impressed and proud of the work my 17 young bloggists did in my class, kudos to you all!

But in this post, I do want to single out one of the blogs, because of a post that involves me, and got me to thinking.  The blog is by Sarah Romeo, and it's called The Gift Wrap Blog.  Now, you may be surprised to hear that one of my students devoted her blog to the topic of gift wrapping (they were asked to pick their own topic or theme), I know I was, but hey, why not?  And it actually turned out to be a very well done blog, albeit one that branched out somewhat into the larger topic of gift giving.

Anyway, as we were going over the individual blogs in one class, and discussing this particular one, it occurred to me that Sarah might want to consider the topic of gift bags.  Indeed, given her emphasis on careful selection of paper, and the skillful folding of the wrapping paper around the gift, I thought she might want to write a post criticizing or even denouncing the use of gift bags as a lazy and thoughtless alternative to gift wrapping.

So, Sarah did pick up on my suggestion in a post dated April 23rd, and entitled, Gift Bags: Lovely or Lazy? There, she wrote:

I have recently been accused by two trusted academics (my blogging professor and my mother) of being anti-gift bag. "Do you hate gift bags?" they asked me. "Because you never blog about them, and you always emphasize the importance that coincides putting effort into wrapping. You must detest gift bags."

Now, I am honored to be in such company as Sarah Romeo's mom, but I must protest the misquoting here, as I never accused Sarah of being a hater, even of gift bags (she is one of the nicest students I've had the pleasure of teaching), although as her instructor I do applaud her use of hyperbole to make for a more interesting post than it would otherwise be.  Yes, I'm being schizophrenic, but that's because I'm wearing two hats here at the same time, and if the medium is the message, then wearing two hats will result in a split personality.

Now, let me confess that I have used gift bags, it's true, and whenever I have, I was well aware that it was the lazy way out.  I actually do pride myself on being able to wrap gifts, even irregularly sized ones, although to be perfectly frank they don't always come out in a manner that Martha Stewart would approve of.  But they do get wrapped, and they do look okay at the very least.

But this whole issue piqued my interest as a media ecologist, so the first question I would ask is, when did we start using gift wrap in the first place?  My guess would be that it's a fairly recent development, as packing also is fairly recent, and I would guess that it was connected to the development of a method of manufacturing paper from wood pulp in the late 19th century (before that, paper was made from linen).

But that's just guess work, so I decided to Google it, and found a site called, A History of Gift Wrap, featuring a short essay on the subject written by Mac Carey.  Here's an excerpt:

The technology did not exist to mass produce a decorated, foldable, paper until the 1890's, when developments in printing presses allowed colored ink to be printed fluidly on stiffer papers. A rotary system developed that allowed the printed paper to be rolled onto cardboard rolls or cut into smaller sheets. The printed gift wrap industry took off at the turn of the century. Hy-Sill Manufacturing Inc., founded by Eli Hyman and Morris Silverman, became the first American gift wrap company in 1903. Wrapping paper's biggest name, Hallmark, stumbled upon the gift wrap market by accident. In 1917, the Hall Brothers's typical offering of green, red, and white tissue paper had sold out in their Kansas City, Missouri store a few days before Christmas. The resourceful owner, Rollie Hall, had sheets of decorative envelope liners shipped over from a manufacturing plant. He placed these large patterned sheets on top of a showcase and sold them for 10 cents each. The decorative paper quickly sold out. The next year, the sheets sold for three for 25 cents, and again they quickly disappeared. The brothers began printing their own Christmas wrapping paper, and soon gift wrap sales rivaled their greeting card department.

Carey goes on to note the great skill required to gift wrap a present in those early days, because scotch tape did not become available until the 1930s!

So, putting it all in context, gift wrap is a product of industrial age print culture, and related to the practice of packaging products that only started to happen in the 19th century, and mostly in the 20th.  No doubt, it also had much to do with the production and use of cardboard boxes, another 19th century development (see Cardboard -- History).  And I would imagine that gift wrap was a response to mass production, a way to personalize a gift that is otherwise impersonal in that it's one of numerous identical items produced in a factory.

So, is it any coincidence that as we've moved from a typographic-industrial culture, the era of McLuhan's mechanical bride, to an electronic culture and information society, we see the relatively recent introduction of gift bags as an alternative to wrapping paper.  Gift wrapping requires skill and patience, which fits in with the delayed gratification associated with literacy; gift bags are lazy, and coincide with the desire for immediate gratification associated with television and other electronic media.  And as we are moving into a paperless society on account of the spread of electronic, digital technologies, it makes sense that our interest in and fondness for all kinds of paper, including wrapping paper, declines.  That is, it is no longer seen as a necessity in relation to gift-giving, but is relegated to a highly specialized sort of art form.

Admittedly, this is a minor development in the grand scheme to things, but it is very much a reflection and symptom of the changes in media and technology that we have been undergoing, as the old media environment gives way to a new one.  And this kind of speculation, I might add, lighthearted and fun, is very much a part of the media ecology intellectual tradition, especially as it existed in the old media ecology program created by Neil Postman, Terry Moran, and Christine Nystrom.

As for my student, Sarah Romeo, as it turns out, she doesn't hate gift bags, and in her post she gives four good reasons why she likes them.  Of course, Sarah is a product of this new media environment, you know, the one that has blogs in it, even blogs about gift wrapping (as Marshall McLuhan noted, the content of a new medium is often an older medium).

So, just remember that you can't look a gift wrapped horse in the mouth, and as for this post, let's bag it!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Yesterday's Day After Tomorrow, Doris

I have fond childhood memories of Doris Day singing Que Sera Sera, this mainly from The Doris Day Show which ran on television from 1968-1973.  Although it fell on the wrong side of the generation gap for baby boomers like myself, the song captured a child's point of view and a sense of "go with the flow" that was not entirely at odds with the youth culture of that time.

Actually, the song itself goes back to 1956, having been written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, and originally appearing in Alfred Hitchcock's classic film The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which Doris Day starred opposite James Stewart.  Here are the lyrics:

When I was just a little girl
I asked my mother, what will I be
Will I be pretty, will I be rich
Here's what she said to me.

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.

When I was young, I fell in love
I asked my sweetheart what lies ahead
Will we have rainbows, day after day
Here's what my sweetheart said.

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.

Now I have children of my own
They ask their mother, what will I be
Will I be handsome, will I be rich
I tell them tenderly.

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future's not ours, to see
Que Sera, Sera
What will be, will be.

Admittedly, a bit corny, yes, but very sweet nonetheless.  But that's besides the point.  The point being that there's nothing corny or sweet about this mash-up that samples Doris Day's signature song, and is itself entitled Que Sera.  The artist is listed as Wax Tailor, which good old Wikipedia identifies as the alias of "French trip hop/hip hop producer, Jean-Christophe Le Saoût."

The music is okay if you like that sort of thing, certainly interesting and skillful, but what really caught my eye, when one of my MySpace friends shared this video with me, is it's use of edited footage from the restored version of the great silent science fiction film, Metropolis.  I think the production values here are excellent, and well worth a view:

What is truly magnificent about this video is the irony it achieves by juxtaposing Fritz Lang's visions of futures passed, a vision of the future that says more about 1927 Germany that it does about any future period that was or yet may be, with the lines from the song that say, whatever will be will be, and especially, the future's not ours to see

The history of the future is not about the future, it is about the present day that was imagining a future to come, and that imagination tells us about what people at that time were hoping for, and what they feared might come to pass, what they valued and what they despised.  Images of the future are not prophecies, they are distorted reflections of the present, that is, of the time in which they originated.

Man, all this time talk gets me all tensed up and out of sync!  So, anyway, it's a cool video, don't you think?  And as an added bonus, here's a little source material for you:

Que sera, sera, the most important thing to know about the future is that we cannot know it, that it is unpredictable and uncontrollable, and it's hubris to think otherwise.  As corny as that song may be, it taught me an important lesson about what it means to be a human being, fallible and limited.  And that is what I call a Day's work!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Brothel Without Walls

That's how McLuhan characterized photography as a medium, as a brothel without walls!  Well, perhaps then turnabout is fair play, as it seems that a Canadian photography festival is turning into a kind of McLuhan with walls.  Here's the write-up from the Toronto Star's website:

Marshall McLuhan's writings, which explored the effects of mass media on the public in the 20th century, resonate through the works showing at this year's Contact photo festival, the world's largest event of its kind. (April 30, 2010)

This is from an entry entitled Photo festival focuses on McLuhan, which accompanies a short video narrated by art director Bonnie Rubenstein:

Here's an article on the same subject from the Canadian Press, courtesy of Yahoo!Canada, written by Victoria Ahearn, also dated April 30, and entitled,  Contact Photography Festival focuses on Canadian media theorist Marshal McLuhan:

A shot of a seductive pair of legs is among the images kicking up attention at the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, which begins Saturday in Toronto and is billed as the world's largest event of its kind.

The gams are seen standing in white knee-high stockings and tan heels as part of German artist Josephine Meckseper's "Blow Up" photo series, depicting models in retro undergarments. It's showing at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.

Contact artistic director Bonnie Rubenstein says the photos — particularly the one of the legs — are poignant as they're very similar to those in the 1951 book "The Mechanical Bride" by late Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan. His writings inspired this year's festival theme: pervasive influence.
"I actually don't think that the artist was aware of that," Rubenstein, who curated the MOCCA exhibition, said in an interview. "But it's common for a work to be contextualized in an exhibition in a way that the artist didn't imagine.

"I think it's quite fascinating for everyone to go back and look at Marshall McLuhan's book because I think it can tell us a lot about what images say in today's society."

McLuhan's theories surrounding the effects of mass media on the public resonate through the works in the month-long festival, now in its 14th year.

 I interrupt to interject a point I should have made earlier--McLuhan did not identify himself as a theorist, and did not want others to do so, often noting that theorists have something to prove (specifically, their theories and hypotheses), whereas all he wanted to do was probe.  Anyway, back to the article, and the question of why McLuhan, and why now?

Organizers put the focus on McLuhan after discovering that this year marks the 30th anniversary of his death.

"The issues he identifies around photography appear all the more relevant in the age of digital communication and the Internet," said Rubenstein.

Contact organizers expect over 1.5 million visitors to attend this year's festival, which features over 1,000 artists in more than 200 venues.

"The Mechanical Bride" show at MOCCA, which also includes works by renowned celebrity and fashion shooter David LaChapelle, is one of the three primary festival exhibitions, all of which take their titles from McLuhan's writings.

At the University of Toronto Arts Centre is "The Brothel Without Walls" show, which includes images from acclaimed Vancouver author and artist Douglas Coupland.

And in "Through the Vanishing Point," at U of T's McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology, the media theorist's presence is constructed in his former seminar room by Canadian artists David Rokeby and Lewis Kaye.

"Marshall McLuhan is part of the way we negotiate and think about media in the modern world," said Canadian artist John Armstrong, who co-created images for the MOCCA exhibit with his longtime collaborator, Paul Collins.

"I think we're a little proud that he's Canadian."

As well you should be, and more than a little! Oh, and for an interesting little essay that takes "Brothel Without Walls" as its title, written by Christine Rosen, and addressing the rise of Photoshop and the decline of writing, here's a nice link for you:  Brothel Without Walls.  Rosen brings in media ecologists Daniel Boorstin, Susan Sontag, journalism scholar Mitchell Stephens, and popular writer Steven Johnson, as well as McLuhan.  And here's a quote from the essay that's especially relevant for this post:

Marshall McLuhan, the Sixties media guru, offered perhaps the most blunt and apt metaphor for photography: he called it “the brothel-without-walls.” After all, he noted, the images of celebrities whose behavior we so avidly track “can be bought and hugged and thumbed more easily than public prostitutes”— and all for a greatly reduced price.

 So, what do you think he would say about all of the digital images available for free here on the web?

Monday, May 10, 2010

In One Year and Out the Other

One extensional device used in general semantics is called dating.  That is, by attaching a date to whatever it is we're talking about, we can remind ourselves that there is always a temporal context involved, and that context is constantly changing.  Simply put, it reminds us that things change over time.  Lance Strate(2010) is not Lance Strate(1980), I've changed in numerous ways, some for the better, some not.  The United States(2010) is not the United States(1776).  The dollar(2010) is not the dollar(2000).  And so on.

You get the picture, right?  So, dating can be very useful, but it begs the question, how do we date things? Now, if I were to ask you, what year is it?, no doubt you'd answer, it's 2010, of course!  But of course, that would be the year 2010 on the Christian calendar, which is supposed to indicate the number of years since the birth of Jesus, although Christians now believe that dating to be inaccurate.  

Of course, even if you are not a Christian, you have to use this system of dating to function in the western world, and we all pretty much go by this calendar without thinking much about it, reifying this representation of time, viewing it as what time actually is.

Being Jewish, however, I am reminded that there are other systems of dating, although the reminders do not come all that frequently.  If you were to ask me what year is it on the Jewish calendar, I think I'd know the answer, but I wouldn't be sure unless I could look it up (I just did that now) and checked to see that it is currently 5770.  For most of us, the question doesn't come up very often, mostly around Rosh Hashanah, but otherwise we use the same calendar everybody else uses, and typically, we don't think twice about it.

Many of us even use the designations BC and AD, even though the abbreviations have a religious meaning that does not reflect our faith.  BC stands for Before Christ and AD for Anno Domini, which means In the Year of Our Lord.  Since we don't believe in Jesus Christ, let alone consider him our lord, using BC and AD forces us to make a declaration that goes against our beliefs.  From a traditional standpoint, that is a very serious matter indeed, although from a modern standpoint, we might use BC
and AD without attaching very much significance to the terms (in general semantics terms, we of necessity learn to take control of our semantic reactions).

There is an alternative used by non-Christians, however, and I remember first encountering it when I was a child in religious school, in the Jewish history textbooks we were given.  Instead of AD, we can use CE, which typically stands for Common Era, but also has been taken to mean Christian Era, and Current Era.  And for BC we substitute, quite naturally, BCE, which stands for Before Common Era, or Before Christian Era, or Before Current Era.

Actually, it's BCE that's the most useful of the two, as we typically do not use AD and therefore do not need to substitute it with CE.  So, it's good that BCE so closely resembles BC, as that helps to avoid confusion among those not familiar with these alternate designations.

Interestingly enough, the phrase "common era" was first used by Christians, although the formal substitution for BC and AD is traced back to 19th century Jewish scholars.  But today, BCE and CE are used by members of other non-Christian faiths, by atheists, and even by some Christian denominations.  For more on this, take a look at the Wikipedia entry on Common Era.

As you might imagine, the question of whether to substitute BCE/CE for BC/AD  in public schools and government documents can be controversial.  In fact, just recently, the progressive organization, Media Matters for America, reported on how Fox News, in their zealous defense of Christianity, made a federal case out of just this sort of thing.  The item, itself dated May 4, 2010, is entitled:
Fox hammers White House for not insulting Jewish Americans

And they begin by quoting the Fox News headline: 

White House Omits "in the Year of our Lord"

The Media Matters report goes on to relate

Placed in the context of a network that has consistently denounced perceived slights against Christianity as the result of political correctness and secularism run amok, the message is clear: Those godless Marxists are at it again.

But if you click through the image, you discover a report about how the White House has not included the phrase "in the year of our Lord" in a proclamation... declaring May as Jewish American Heritage Month.

Seriously, what is wrong with the people at Fox?

How can they honestly have a problem with the White House removing that reference from a proclamation celebrating Americans who don't believe Jesus was divine? Is it actually their position that the White House should be actively seeking to insult the people they are trying to honor?

Apparently, Fox has decided that America is a Christian Nation, and the rest of us are just visiting here.

Mind you, we're not even talking about the use of AD here, but the actual use of the formal phrase, "In the Year of Our Lord"!  And for a proclamation for Jewish American Heritage Month!  Is it really possible that no one at Fox News sees the irony in this?  What more can I say but, Oy Vey!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Word High

You may remember me mentioning Peter Schmideg from my previous posts, This is Not An Animation! (Or Is It?), and Dualities.  For some time now he's been experimenting with computer animation as an art form, mostly through gifs, but lately branching out into Flash animations.

So, his latest creation is a Flash animation based on a poem I posted on MySpace earlier this year, called "Word High" (what can I say, it seemed like a good idea at the time).  Like a number of my poems, it involves wordplay, starting with a play on semantics (in this instance, not so much general semantics as a more specific variety), and linguistics.   So, I suppose I might as well share it with you here on Blog Time Passing as well:

Word High

Some antics
make 'im grin, or grim, but would a
gram mar
'is thinkin'? Would the wages of
sin tax
'im so very utterly? Indeed,
sin own 'im,
rest his soul.
Ant own 'im,
and bug, and worm. Remember when 'e
ate a mole? Oh, gee!
And you sez,
Dick, shun Aries!
Rambo's a bad sign!
And I sez, 'e can't 'ear us, 'e's
deaf. Finishin'
it all up, so get in that fancy
vogue cab. You leery?
Don't be!
Thus, soar us,
ever higher, never mind you shootin' up that
morph—holy geez,
man! Listen to the
phone, it ticks,
it taps. Don't
dial, Alex,
it's too risky, man! They'll have the
ax sent
over, and then... kaput! That's just how the
English languish

Well, okay, I never said it was anything for you to shake a spear at, just a bit of light verse, spot of fun, bowl of chip chips and cheerios, and all that tommy rot.

But in the spirit of making lemonade out of lemons (or is it a mountain out of a molehill?), Peter has turned this bit of tomfoolery into a work of art, so please, go check it out, like, right now:

Note that Peter has dedicated this animation to Steve Jobs, which I think is great, and if Steve happens to like what he sees, I expect to be handsomely rewarded by Apple, Inc.  I think a grant or fellowship might be in order, at the very least.  Until then, let me recommend browsing through Peter's Illumination Gallery for some animation high, and then meet me back here later for some more word high time passing.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Form and Technology

When I teach about Marshall McLuhan in depth, I explain that there are three main steams of thought that he synthesized:  

  1. the study of language and symbols
  2. the study of art and perception
  3. the study of technology and media (in the traditional sense of mass media, but especially in the sense Innis used it to refer to the material basis of communication)

And, while this is true in regard to McLuhan's intellectual development, going back to Alfred Korzybski and general semantics has helped to crystallize for me the fact that two of the three streams, language and symbols, and art and perception, are very closely related, and indeed could well be conflated.  For Korzybski, the two are covered under the heading of abstracting, which refers to the ways in which we take information out of events that we experience.  Perception is a relatively lower level of abstracting, while language takes us higher.

Technology and abstracting are not parallel terms, however, and the more common word used in media ecology circles is form.  And thinking about technology and form led me to the following thoughts about media ecology:
Media ecology involves an integration of two somewhat different areas of study.  

On the one hand, there is the study of technology, its history and its influence on history, the philosophy of technology, the relationship of technology to the human person, as an extension of the body and mind that we become alienated from, and no longer recognize as extensions of ourselves, and as shields, environments, or membranes that we place between ourselves and our environments, so that in so doing they become our new environments.  On the other hand, there is the study of form, including perception, art, signs and symbols, and language. 

Technology is about the extension and outering of the inner being into the environment. Form is about bringing the outer world into the inner being, not physically, but in the form of information, creating a worldview or construction of reality, an inner environment that in some way maps the outer world, that is more or less structurally coupled and consistent with the outside environment. 

Technology and form are both aspects of a process of mediating, a mediating between the inner and outer world.   I use mediating following Korzybski's example in referring to abstracting, with the understanding that McLuhan was in fact actually referring to a processmediating, as opposed to a medium as a thingAbstracting fits well in reference to form, but does not adequately represent our capacity for acting upon and altering the environment.  Mediating, in my view, better represents both form and technology, and our transactional relationship with our environments. of

 I suppose you could say that mediating is the messaging?  But please don't, it just sounds awful!