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Archive for March, 2016

I first started drinking beer in the middle of 2013 after we went on a trip to Vienna and Prague. Before that, I thought it tasted bad and couldn’t understand how people acquired a taste for it.

But after trying good beer in the Czech Republic, I understood why people drank it – some of it tastes pretty good!

Not all beer, though. A lot of it tastes bad, and there’s a lot of it I don’t like.

I’ve noticed that my tastes have evolved over the last 2.5 years. Things I used to like I don’t care for anymore, and a few things I didn’t like I now like a lot better.

When I first started drinking beer, after a few months I gravitated towards the dark ones – stouts especially. And I started off liking the lighter ones like Stella Artois and Heineken but I moved away from those pretty quickly.

But over the past year I have moved away from dark beers almost entirely except for the occasional bock. And I have moved towards the German styles of beer – kolsches especially, but also golden and blonde ales. Those are lighter in color.

I don’t know how my styles have evolved so quickly. I currently have a stout sitting in my fridge and I have little desire to drink it. I think to myself “Man, I wish that were a Zywiec (a Polish beer) or a Canoe Paddler (a kolsch made by a company in Wisconsin).”

Who knows what the next two years will bring to my taste buds?

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I’ve wanted to post this for a while.

Below are two cartoons with contrasting views of war. One has a romantic view that the sacrifice of our soldiers was worth it. The other… less so.

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Following up from my last post on why we should study art I thought I’d talk about something that has become more relevant to me: Abstract art. If you don’t know what I mean, here’s a couple of examples.

The first one is by the American artist Jackson Pollock painting around the middle of the 20th century:

 

 

Now, if you’re anything like me a few weeks ago, you’d probably look at the first painting and say to yourself "What’s that supposed to be? Is it some sort of those ‘magic eye’ and we’re supposed to find the hidden message? It looks like a bunch of random splatters of paint on the canvas. How is that art?" This one, White on White, is by Kazimir Malevich, a Russian artist who completed it in 1918:

 

Once again, if you’re anything like me – without any background in art history – you would say "Well, I guess it’s a couple of white rectangles with one at an angle. So what? I don’t see the aesthetic appeal in it. I mean, it looks okay. But nothing special. I much prefer things that look like actual things." If you said anything like that to either of the two pictures, that’s exactly what I would have thought.

As I said in my other post, I used to not understand abstract art, and I thought it was stupid. Now, I still don’t quite understand it, but I no longer think it’s stupid.

Why do I think that?

Because now that I have studied art, I realize that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s relative to the period of time that came before it – at least in European art. Successive periods in art are defined by what came before it, and as a counter-reaction to what came before, and what’s going on in society at the time.

So let’s go back to medieval art. Below is a picture that was common in the middle ages. Back in the day, nearly all art was produced because a wealthy patron wanted it. Most medieval art was two-dimensional on a flat surface, like below, and at least in western Europe it usually told passages from the bible because in those times, religion played a major role in people’s lives and most people were illiterate. Art was a tool for learning for people who couldn’t read. You can see in the below that the picture is not "realistic" compared to what comes later (i.e., later in this post).

 

 

 

The Renaissance is where we see a revolution in the way scenes are depicted (the Renaissance is a term that refers to the rediscovery of classical times, that is, Greece and Rome). I don’t have time to go into it (mostly because even I don’t know all the techniques) but you’ll see how everything now exists in three dimensions. In Raphael’s The School of Athens, notice how the scene is depicted as more realistic. Figures in the foreground are interpreted as being closer to the viewer while people in the background are interpreted as being further away:

 

 

Even though we take it for granted, the big shift you’re seeing is one of perspective. Renaissance artists would use a ‘vanishing point’ off in the distance and then draw people along it, moving them up or down to create depth. For example, look at my little stick figure diagram below. Which characters are closes to the audience? Which ones are further away? The pixels are the same distance away from your eyes but you can "clearly" see that the ones that are bigger are closer while the ones that are smaller are further away. Furthermore, from what angle are you, the viewer, supposed to see the picture from? You’re not center on, but looking at it while you are standing on the right with your eyes looking to the left:

 
Simple_perspective

 

To see what a shift this is, just go and do a simple web search for medieval art and then for Renaissance art. This perspective shift that I talk about above for medieval art (composed during that time, not after) is either missing or minimized.

The next major art movement is Baroque Art, and it is a counter-reaction to the Reformation. It is characterized by much more emotion in the picture (from its human subjects depicted in it), as well as movement. Baroque art has other characteristics, but I don’t have time to get into them. The below image shows the story of Daniel in the lion’s den (from the book of Daniel in the Old Testament). Look at the raw emotion on Daniel’s face, he is clearly (?) in fear, or awe, or something or other. Whatever it is, he doesn’t have a straight face.

 

Another characteristic of Baroque art is its lack of clearly-defined lines. Take a look at the background behind Daniel and among the lions. There are shadows everywhere and it tends to blur together the rocks, and even the lions in the back are less clearly defined. You don’t see that so much during the Renaissance.

The term Baroque comes from a translation of a Portuguese term meaning ‘misshapen pearl’, and it wasn’t a term of endearment. But gradually people came to accept it.

 

Skipping ahead many decades and a couple of smaller movements and we get to the Age of Enlightenment, and the Neoclassical Era. This is the time period where we find many of the great writers that the founders of the United States borrowed heavily from – John Locke (natural rights), Baron de Montesque (separation of powers), the need for a strong government (Thomas Hobbes). The Age of Enlightenment and the Neoclassical period was ushered in by the scientific revolution and a callback to the rational times of Greece and Rome, after the Renaissance did it the first time. But the neoclassical era’s art was focused on science and rationality.

The Oath of Horatti by Jacques-Louis David is one of the most famous paintings in neoclassical art. It’s a throw-back to Roman times and the general spirit of the times is rational thought. This is the period of time where writers we associate with the Age of Reason – Voltaire, Beccudia (prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment) – were most active; the American Constitution borrows heavily from this period. The art also reflects this. This is also the period where the Industrial Revolution really took off in full force in Europe. England was first, and later on followed by France, Italy, and Germany (though not necessarily in that order).

 

 

We in the west like to pride ourselves on how we use Reason, but the Age of Reason came to and end with a very strong counter-movement called the Romantic period. Romanticism is still popular today and we can see it everywhere, especially in art. The Romantics rebelled against the stale lack of taste characterized by the Industrial Revolution. Think about the movie Star Wars – the Empire is cold, mechanical, and emotionless and they are the Industrial side. Meanwhile, the rebel alliance is driven by ideals and they represent the Romantic side.

Romantic art tends to minimize its human subjects and greatly play up ideals, emotion, and nature. The Industrial Revolution (and neoclassical era that accompanied it) tended to create new technology but degrade the countryside. Consequently, the Romantics sought to idealize nature. The Sea of Fog is one of the Romantic period’s more well-known paintings. It shows a person in the middle of the picture gazing out, but the person is not the focal point of the picture. Instead, he is gazing out to the true focal point – raw, untamed nature.

 

  

 

This is a recurring theme in Romantic art, but it was a pretty big movement and nature was not the only characteristic of that time period. I’d say maybe 1/3 of the time period contained nature. It was a lot but by no means everything. Above all, Romanticism idealized emotion over reason. For all the progress the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment made, it was rejected strongly by the artists and society eventually followed.

Whew.

I go through all of these art history movements (more quickly than they deserve) to show you how art has evolved. Each movement is a reaction to its preceding movement, and they reflect what’s going on in society at the time as well. Art makes much more sense, or at least is more fun to appreciate, when you understand the context in which it was created. And one big thing that happened in the middle of the 19th century was the invention of photography.

This was a turning point in art history. Whereas before artists used to create paintings that were realistic, after photography came along, artists knew that they could no longer compete with photographs. Realistic paintings were out, and using color to convey emotion was in. Artists decided to use color and created new art styles to convey the emotion of contemporary society, or of themselves. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Even today, our artists use color to depict emotion:

 

Leaving the present and coming back to the 19th century, two big movements in using color to depict emotion were Impressionism (which depicted an ‘impression’ of the actual image):

 

 

… and Post-Impressionism (I don’t yet really know what the difference is, but I do know that Vincent Van Gogh was part of this era).

 

You still know what’s there in the picture, but the artist has moved away from a realistic view of the world and is instead using color and painting technique to depict something else about the picture. "If you want realism, take a photograph" says the artist. 20th century art movements continue this move away from realistic depictions of the subjects. Expressionism, Dada, and Cubism are all parts of this counter-movement that was itself a reaction to technology. The White-on-White painting above was painted during World War 1, a time of massive social upheaval. Russia was getting clobbered during the War, and then they experienced the Bolshevik Revolution. In response, the artist painted the picture of two white boxes. They are not the same shade of white, they are off white. They also don’t have clearly defined edges but instead are fuzzy edges (my term). The picture is not necessarily supposed to be something, but instead could be the artist’s reflection on the disjointedness and instability of Russian society during that time.

I think.

That’s the problem with abstract art, I don’t know if I’m reading into it something that’s not there or if I am getting it right. But maybe that’s the point?

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Why study art?

A few weeks ago, for some reason I don’t fully understand, I started learning about European art history. My entire life I had zero previous interest in learning about the history of art. Sure, I enjoyed looking at images and I knew what I liked, but I couldn’t have cared less about the story behind it.

But then I read about a book about European history and art. I didn’t think I would care about the art part, but I did. In fact, I soaked it up like a sponge and I’ve been reading about it and watching YouTube videos (some on Khan Academy) a lot of the past few weeks.

I’ve noticed how my opinions have changed, even over the past few weeks. I used to not understand modern abstract art, and I thought it was stupid. Now I still don’t understand it but, but I no longer think it’s stupid.

So why study it at all?

I study it because it teaches me to be a good observer. Why do I like what I like? what details did the artist put into the picture? And why did he or she do it? Before, I couldn’t have told you. And I still can’t… not entirely, but I’m better than before. But by observing and paying attention to the details in a painting, it trains me to observe and pay attention to the details in real life.

Thus, I study art to get the context of a painting, as knowing the full context trains me to be a better observer.

Below is a picture entitled The Third of May, a painting by Francisco Goya of Spain, completed in 1814.

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You can see the original here.

Now, before when I was just looking at the painting, I’d say “Hmm, well that seems interesting” and gaze at it for 10-15 seconds and then move on. But no more. What do I notice now?

(Before I continue, I am cheating. This is one of the paintings they analyze on Khan Academy so I am remembering this off the top of my head).

First, it’s important to understand the context. During the Napoleonic era, France had invaded Spain. Some Spanish rebels led a resistance and the next day, the French military put down the revolt. This painting commemorates that, and it is the time period in which the painting takes place. It takes place on May 3, one day after the rebellion.

The next thing I notice is the structure of the painting itself:

  • It’s painted with depth. Prior to the Renaissance, paintings were “flat”, that is, in two dimensional space.  You can go here for an example (I’m not putting the picture here because I don’t want to divert attention away from the focus of the above picture). By contrast, in this painting, we can see the town way off in the background in three-dimensional space, the artist is using a technique to give depth that was popularized during the Renaissance.

  • The soldiers on the right are depicted in the shadows while the victims being executed on the left are in the light.

  • The victims on the left of the painting are also trapped in front of a hill. There’s no where for them to run.

  • The scene is depicted as taking place at night.

Next up is the social commentary that the artist is making:

  • The perpetrators in this scene are shown without their faces visible, a common motif in art to depict aggressors, a lot like this.

  • The look of fear is evident on the man whose arms are in the air. However, the artist is depicting him not as a victim in retaliation for leading or participating in a rebellion, but as an innocent victim – either he wasn’t involved or he was involved but the cause he was leading was a just one.

    How do we know?

    First, the man is dressed in white which is a another motif of innocence that is common in art.

    But second and more important, the man has his arms up in a pose that you would see on the image of Christ that you would see on crucifix. The theme in the Christian story is that Christ was an innocent sacrifice who was unjustly executed by an oppressive regime.

    And third, to cement the fact that Goya is drawing an exact parallel between the innocent Spanish resistance and that of the innocent Christ, if you look close-up on the palms of the man with his hands in the air you can see “holes” in the palms of his hands. This is similar to the image of Christ with holes in the palms of his hands on the crucifix.

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Thus, it is clear from the picture of the innocent man in the Christ-like pose that Goya is drawing a parallel between the Spanish resistance and the French putting it down, likening it to a justifiable movement where the ringleaders were sacrificed unfairly.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

All of that analysis wouldn’t have been possible without learning about art history, and now whenever I see a picture I try to look at it and do a quick analysis (actually, it goes pretty slow because I have to consciously analyze it).

It’s my hope that learning about art gives me a more well rounded point of view and that what you see is often just scratching the surface of what’s really there.

 

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Ugh.

I don’t like talking about politics. Everything I write now will be wrong in a year. Or maybe even in a month. And I also have my own biases that I know I can’t see through. I’ve said to myself that if you have 100 friends on Facebook who talk about politics, only 1 or 2 are worth listening to and the rest are wasting electrons. The odds that I am one of those two are small that I shouldn’t be wasting time on my blog.

But I’m still going to talk about it because I have been interested in politics for over 25 years.

These are my thoughts at this exact moment.

Right now, the Republican presidential nomination is led by Donald Trump, an over-the-top reality TV star who has expressed viewpoints that many people would consider contentious. For the rest of the people who don’t, I only have to ask “What’s wrong with you?”

But as bad as Donald Trump is as a candidate, whenever I talk to my liberal friends, they express hope that maybe he’s not as bad as he pretends to be, and all his talk is just that – talk. They may be right, but my concern is that all his talk is not just talk. After all, if the Republican nominee becomes the President of the United States, his party has control of both Congress and the Senate.

But it’s not that Donald Trump is currently leading in the primary that has me concerned, it’s that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is second. To me, Ted Cruz is the worst candidate in the race. I dislike him more than any other candidate on the Republican side. out of the four candidates left from the Republicans, Ted Cruz would be my 25th pick. I just can’t stand the guy. He’s the only guy that I would leave the country if he were elected [1].

I don’t follow politics closely enough to have an informed opinion, all I have is a not-all-that-informed opinion. And my not-all-that-informed position is that he is a hardcore ideologue.

What do I mean?

Ted Cruz is one of the hardest right-leaning candidates in the US Senate, let alone the presidential race. My impression of him is his obstructionist stance against everything President Obama has tried to pass legislatively. That’s okay, but he’s so far to the right it’s hard to take him seriously.

  1. For example, his stance on climate change (that it isn’t real, or isn’t caused by humans) stands in the face of 97% of scientists. In other words, his position is not on the side of science and that’s because if climate change were real, it would require massive government action. But since he’s against massive government action, he has to deny climate change as a reality so he can resolve his cognitive dissonance that there was a problem that he stood in the way of (i.e., he’s opposed to something that’s not a problem is more palatable than he opposed finding a solution to a serious problem). He has to deny climate change because he is an ideologue.

  2. His economic stance is also ideological. He is opposed to increasing the minimum wage because of his belief in markets. Yet many economists say that raising the minimum wage is good for the economy because it puts more money in the hands of low wage earners who immediately spend it thus increasing the velocity of money in the economy, as opposed to concentrating it in the hands of a few people who keep it parked in their bank accounts and don’t do much with it. While that’s their right to do it, politicians have to balance economic growth, ensuring everyone has a fair chance, and retaining your money. Ted Cruz will have none of this, his position is too ideological.

  3. He’s also against Obamacare and would repeal it. I don’t fully understand the law but what I do know is that (a) it hasn’t affected me, (b) more people have insurance now than before and that’s a good thing, (c) I’ve read a little bit about it and it’s actually cleverly designed, and (d) it’s small potatoes compared to public health care in every other developed country.

    Politicians like Cruz always say that they will repeal the bill and instead pass all sorts of other solutions like allow insurance companies to sell insurance over state lines. Yet study after study shows that this does not help; in the US we will have more people without health insurance than before if Obamacare is repealed, and the people who are hit worst by this are the less well off. Yet Cruz stands behind this because he is ideologically driven.

Thus, my problem with Ted Cruz starts with his denial of reality which is driven by his ideology combined with the fact that while in the Senate he has done everything in his power to push that agenda. People who cling so tightly to ideology don’t change their mind regardless of reality. Instead, they pick and choose what they want to believe so it conforms to reality. We all do this, but Cruz is auditioning to be the President of the United States. It matters that he is an ideologue and is not persuaded by science and data.

The second thing that Cruz does that irks me even more is his polished finish and his appeal to the evangelical community. He goes into church events, thanking God for his success so far and how he is the candidate that shares the concerns of the evangelical community.

But to me, he comes off as a used-car salesman with a slick exterior hiding a sleazy beneath-the-surface interior. He convinces ordinary people that he is on their side and is fighting for them, and his cause is in agreement with divine principles. Yet the positions he advocates – denial of climate change, repealing bills designed to help poor people without health coverage, not assisting the people at the lowest rungs of society – ring hollow. That’s what you think is Christian? To me, it sounds more like the confluence between ideology and masking it with religiosity.

I try to take a neutral stance on all the other candidates. The United States system of government is good in that it separates powers and ensures that no one branch of government can become too powerful. My friends on Facebook bring up counter-examples. I just roll my eyes. So at least I can cling to the belief that this guy would not be that bad because he’d hopefully moderate his positions in the face of reality.

Yet at the same time, politics in the US has become more and more polarized, and one political party would hold all three branches of government plus have the ability to tip the balance of the Supreme Court.

And when I picture Ted Cruz winning the Republican nomination – maybe – I cringe. When I imagine him winning the Presidency – maybe – I cringe even more. And I wonder why he is the second most popular candidate on the Republican side? Is politics really that ideological? The tech geeks promised us that the Internet would allow us to become enlightened luminaries, all clinging to liberal ideals. That definitely has not happened. If anything, it’s sparked the opposite effect of people circling the wagons and retreating back to their corners.

Man, this is getting under my skin. It shouldn’t, but it is. And I know I shouldn’t be taking it so seriously.


[1] I don’t mean to say that I would actually leave the country. I think it’s now become a really funny joke that when people are worried that their opposing candidate will be elected, they are so illogically fearful of this that they say they will leave the country, but no one ever does. So I wouldn’t leave the country either, but I say this as a parody of my friends who say they will, as well as all the others who say they will also but never do.

I don’t want to take politics too seriously, but it keeps sucking me back in. I was sucked in during the 2004 campaign, too.

 

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