Monday, May 28, 2012

Dangerous ideas (3)

In future it will be possible to scan your ideas before you enter an aeroplane in order to prevent that you’ll make an attempt. It works only, of course, if you got your intention before you went into the plane and not when you were already there. And it works only if what they “see” in your brain is really a dangerous idea and not something else that looks like it but what is in fact completely innocent or just very positive. But before the big brothers who are watching us have perfected brain scanners far enough, they’ll have to resort to more traditional means and they do. So recently an FBI agent and a Dallas police officer spoke with philosophy and religion professor Adam Briggle of the University of North Texas about specific materials in a syllabus for one of his courses on civil disobedience. In his syllabus Briggle had included an article that supports “monkey wrenching,” an act of sabotaging equipment performed by activists to stop projects they deem damaging to the environment. Briggle himself believed the FBI agent and officer were only seeking information. “They told me they are acting proactively and preventatively to smell out any signs of trouble for any potential eco-terrorist strikes revolving around the gas drilling issue on the Barnett Shale,” Briggle said. But have you ever heard of a chemistry professor being questioned by the security police because s/he explained how to make explosives? It seems that teaching chemistry is of another order than teaching philosophy, certainly if this philosophy is about civil disobedience. Or what to think of a political science professor who treats in his courses what nazism and anarchism stand for?
It’s true, Briggle propagates civil disobedience and he is also an activist. Moreover, he counsels his students to break the law. “Just the unjust laws,” as Briggle said. But in view of this, Briggle does nothing else than what people like Gandhi, King and many others did, who are the heroes of today. But apparently the authorities still see civil disobedience as a kind of continuation of terrorism and violence, and for them it is only a matter of degree. For what other reason would security officers have for interviewing Briggle about his course in civil disobedience and ask him during the interview whether he had heard anything about improvised explosive devices? (They repeatedly said that there is a difference between protesting and violence, indeed, but isn’t this actually a way of expressing that for them there isn’t?) But in fact, security officers and others who see civil disobedience and non-violence as dangerous are right: these are “dangerous” ideas for they might be effective. So there are good reasons to question a philosophy professor, even when he stays within the limits of the law and basically does nothing different than what, say, a chemistry professor does. However, it’s just one step to repression and controlling our minds.
Source and quotations from:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Virtual addiction

Once I wrote a blog in which I presented the results of a study by Susan Greenfield that the Internet can make us insensitive to what we do to others. On line we do not see the emotions we arouse in others when we hurt them, and in the long run this can make that we get less empathy with what we do to others, also outside the world of the Internet (see my blog dated April 25, 2011). In this sense the Internet creates first its own virtual world, and then this virtual world can change the real world. But there is more in this world of virtual social relations. I wonder whether it has anything to do with another effect of the Internet: that Internet relationships keep us insatiate. I think that everybody knows the phenomenon, if not from personal experience than from hearsay: people are addicted to Facebook, Twitter or another social network. They use it continuously at home, in the train, at work. When they are using a computer, they have it on the background and they check it every now and then, if not more often. The more “friends” they have the better it is. The essence of how it works in the brain is this: When we connect with people in real life, our brain produces the hormones oxytocin and seratonin in, what we could call, the social connection circuitry in our brain. These hormones are a reward for us and make that we calm down and finally become satisfied, even to that extent that after visiting a conference, for instance, we tend to avoid other people for some time. However, when connecting with people on the Internet, we tend not to get these hormones, with the result that we just want to have more virtual social connections. As a consequence we can become addicted to social network websites. (see David Rock, “Are Our Minds Going the Way of Our Waists?
So far, so good and if that was all there is, it needn’t to be bad. Why would it? The problem is, however, that things never come alone. And besides that, if we do one thing, we cannot do something else, and as Rock points out, too much social seeking is not good for us. With Facebook or another website on the background when working, there is the risk of constantly being distracted, which will lead to a lesser quality of our work, and a drop of our IQ of, say, 15 points. However, I wonder whether the latter is really what happens: I guess that the score on the IQ test is worse; not the IQ as such (and who knows; maybe the social IQ is increased). But what makes me relate the fact that Internet contacts can make us feel insatiate and therefore addicted to them on the one hand and the possible loss of the feeling of empathy in Internet contacts on the other hand is this, and I think it is worrying: What if both go together? I mean, people become blunt when hurting others on the Internet and they stay insatiate when doing this. Then, eventually, they might become addicted to virtual hurting. But is this typical for the Internet? Isn’t it so that these things also happen in real life? That’s true, but the difference is that in real life generally it is easier to control and stop persons with “bad habits” than lonely agents in a virtual world, especially when everybody has the means of access to this world.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The art of photography

Pinhole camera

In my last blog I told that I take pictures with a pinhole camera. I think that most readers of my blogs don’t know what such a camera is. It is the simplest camera you can imagine. It’s not more than a box with a very small hole in it (the pinhole), which can be opened or closed with a shutter, and with a film or sensor in it (but most pinhole cameras still use film). There are more complicated types, but most pinhole cameras are like this. You can buy it or you make it yourself. In mine you cannot change the diaphragm (size of the pinhole). I open and close the shutter by hand and I use my watch for measuring the time that the shutter must be open for making a photo (which is a matter of several seconds).
Photos taken with a pinhole camera are a bit blurred and also moving people and objects are always vague. So photos taken with a pinhole camera do not meet the standards of a good photo. Why then make such photos in this age of digital cameras that allow you to make technically perfect photos? Well, my reply is another question: Why still make paintings in this age of photography?
I think that my answer has everything to do with what people consider beautiful. Beauty is not an objective experience. It is subjective; and there is no accounting for tastes, as is often said. Yet, there is something objective about beauty. When I have an exhibition of my photos or when I present them on an art market, it’s just these photos taken with my pinhole camera that attract attention. Why? I think because they have a shade of beauty that cannot be imitated by an ordinary digital or analogue camera. Beauty in photos (and beauty in general, but that’s not what I want to talk about here) has nothing to do with technical progress as people often seem to think. Nowadays, with these technically perfect cameras, everybody can make good photos, they say. Is that true? I doubt it. Even making a technically perfect photo with a simple digital pocket camera of good quality still seems to be a problem for many people. And is it the technical quality that makes a good photo a good photo? Then all photos taken by Cartier Bresson could be considered rubbish now, for instance. But they are still considered as top photography. Why? Because what is photographically good is in the eyes and the minds of the makers and the beholders and not in the technical quality (whatever this may mean, for isn’t it so that also the idea that a photo must not be blurred is nothing but a subjective opinion?). Technical progress is not the same as progress as such, let alone that it is implicitly good and beautiful. To take a photographic example, there are many photographers who make photos with digital cameras of top quality and next they use photographic filters (in Photoshop, for instance) to make them look like analogue photos made on film! Why not simply use an analogue camera then? No surprise that today we see a revival of analogue photography. For in the end the art of making a good photo has nothing to do with using the most up to date techniques but everything with choosing the right means for expressing what you want to express. Sometimes simple or old-fashioned means are the best for it. It’s an open door* and everybody knows, it’s true, but many people tend to forget it.

P.S. I have planned to buy a good digital camera, too. They have so many advantages (as they have disadvantages as well).

* Dutch expression for an obvious point.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The art of travelling

Fumay sur Meuse - photo taken with pinhole camera

Montaigne loved travelling, albeit only because it gave him the opportunity to ride his horse. Usually he travelled for practical purposes. For his work (he has been a judge); for political missions in order of the king; for visiting friends; because he had something to do in Paris; and who knows for what other reasons. In 1580 Montaigne decided to make a long journey without a special purpose but only for the pleasure of travelling. The travel would last more than one year and five months and it would bring him to Northern France, then to Basel, Augsburg and Munich, to Florence and to Rome, before he was called back to Bordeaux, where he had been appointed mayor. Montaigne did not travel alone but with a company of friends, his youngest brother and servants, although he was “the leader of the gang”. But it had a big influence on his trip, for had he travelled alone, maybe he would have gone to Krakow in Poland, or to Greece, as he wrote in his diary, or to another place far away. But his fellow travellers were against it. This didn’t imply that he passed only well-trodden paths and visited only famous towns, for Montaigne did not look for tourist attractions that everybody knows. As Stefan Zweig writes in his essay on Montaigne: “when a place is very well known, he preferred to avoid it, because other persons, too many of them, had already seen and described it” (from the French edition: Montaigne, PUF, 1982, p. 105). Even more, he also avoided his compatriots abroad, for he knew them already well. No, when Montaigne travelled, he looked for what was different, for what was unknown to him. And he didn’t do it for rejecting it and for experiencing how superior his own way of life was. On the contrary, he was curious to see how other people lived and what their solutions for the daily problems were, hoping that he could learn from them. So, once he regretted that he did not have taken his cook with him, so that he could learn new recipes.
And why not? When I talk with other people about travelling, they often say: “Have you seen this?”, “Have you been there?”, when I tell them that I have recently been to Nancy or Oslo, or have made a tour through Hungary. They name a certain place or church or way of art that is famous there, if not well-known to “everybody” in the world, and are surprised if I say “No”. What kind of traveller am I, I see them thinking, that I failed to go there? That I failed to see what is “really” valuable? And yes, I must admit that I failed to see it and a lot more. But I did not fail to see what they failed to see: odd and ugly places that are really not worth a visit when you need not to be there, places that really are not “worth the detour”, to quote the words of the Michelin guides. Places where daily life takes place but that are just for that reason interesting to visit. And places beautiful in their simplicity and because they are just there, often full of details, which would make them “worth the detour”, if everybody knew about it. However, do not misunderstand me. I do not say that what others visit and like to see is not worth the visit. What I want to say is that there are also other ways of travelling; ways that are as valuable as looking for the sublime (or lying on the beach, to mention another thing). I am working on a photo project, which is photographing towns along a river with the river with a so-called pinhole camera. Once I followed a part of the Meuse, a river that begins in North-eastern France and ends near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. But when you want to make a picture of a town with the river you must be on the opposite bank in most cases, for most towns are only on one side of the river. And this trip brought me to many little but often beautiful towns, known almost only to its inhabitants, like Schayn, Yvoir, Chooz or Fumay. It brought me to places where a normal tourist would never come, like the industrial area of Herstal near Liege, or in the bush across a town the name of which I have forgotten. And I enjoy it.
(Some photos of the photo project can be seen on