Monday, November 29, 2010

Beauty and our Humanity

This is an interesting TED talk on the human conception of beauty, and where it comes from.

Not surprisingly it comes from evolution. Any living thing that can exhibit a preference based on some form of stimulus would form the basis for the concept of beauty.

The punchline of the talk is that beauty is the appreciation of something done well. I have to agree with this, and it is not just limited to the art world. There have been quite a few instances in my life where I have observed engineering done well and it moved me to tears. When a complex project is undertaken which incorporates planning, work, effort and skilled manufacturing, and it all works as it should giving the results we expect, then it is a work of art. I have experienced the feeling of great joy when a system I have been a part of developing works. I don't know if others feel the same way, but I like a good, filled-in checklist that shows all of the tasks have been completed. There is an aesthetic to have all of the boxes filled, just so.

I have heard it argued from some that our humanity is diminished if we acknowledge that it is all a product of random chance and chemistry that is below our conscious selves. There is the sense that we don't deserve the enjoyment or appreciation we get if it is not sourced from a conscious action, be that from ourselves or from some deity that gets all of the credit.

Strangely enough, it does not lessen the joy I feel for things done well even if I do know that it is the product of evolution, and the automatic mixture of stimulus and brain electro-chemistry that gives the sense of pleasure or contentment. In fact, thinking about it that way is also a form of beauty; we are machines ourselves, so complex that we even have consciousness. Knowing the source of feelings in no way diminishes them.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Earthlings - it is who we are

I recommend viewing the movie Earthlings, which shows what most of life is like for animals that are used for human purposes. Some animals are not treated this way, but I suspect that most are. Be warned, it is not pretty, and probably NSFW. The film cannot get classification in Australia, so it cannot be publicaly broadcast.

“If I could make everyone in the world see one film, I'd make them see Earthlings” — Professor Peter Singer

Animal rights and treatment

Just posted this on Pharyngula, and reproduced here:
@Sal Bro #173
but I'm (genuinely) asking whether it's reasonable/possible to be able to grow the quantity/diversity of crops needed to sustain the population of the entire planet on a veggie diet.

Well, since you genuinely asked :) As a veg diet is more efficient (uses less resources such as deforestation, water, grains) then I would have to say that is possible. The global impact of livestock is documented in the UN FAO Livestock's Long Shadow report. Press release here.

Whether people will want to or not is another thing. In my experience most people don't think about where their food comes from, or how it got there. Or, in some cases, just don't want to know, or when they do know, use such justifications as "it tastes good" or "our ancestors did it that way, so we should do it too." The "it tastes good" seems like a poor justification for killing anything; it seems so fussy and petty that just because eating the animal gives the temporary stimulation of pleasure, that a life has to be cut short? To some that is a good enough reason, but it is not to me. My desire to enjoy a meal is not sufficient enough for me to kill something, especially as there are available alternatives. In fact, the meat-substitutes are so good these days that I know of vegans that refuse to eat them because they are too meat-like, and they really don't like that.

As for ancestors, if you go back far enough our ancestors ate raw insects too, and further back, just bacteria. Our ancestors engaged in cannibalism, ritual sacrifices, slavery and other things that we now regard as morally questionable, and there will be other practices that are common place now that will be rejected in the future (such things as DADT, bullying etc) but it takes a long time for social norms to be recognised and accepted as things that need to change by a wider population. I can hope that the eating of meat will go the same way, but I suspect it is a vain hope, as there are too many personal preferences and business interests in the way. Still, I can advocate for it, just as much as omnivores can advocate against it. However, the animals that are slaughtered have no voice that can be heard, or listened to, and they have to most to personally lose.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Just how bad can your day get?

Just to cheer up, this is just one of the ways that the world can end, at least for the vast majority of living things that are on this planet. According to my somewhat vague memory for these things, I read that this sort of event had occurred at least six times in the Earth's history. That is not as bad as it seems, as that is six times in the last four billion years.

The awesome amount of power shown is quite incredible. The asteroid diameter is larger than the depth of the atmosphere (ie: over 60km.) The impact area peels the crust off the Earth to a depth of about 10km. Note in this example that Japan is just peeled away, torn up and becomes just part of the debris cloud that falls back to Earth. The result of all of the superheated gasses and debris is a world-wide conflagration. All water is vapourised, so no liquid or solid water exists on the planet at the end. I am not sure of the last scene, as it shows the surface of the Earth with no clouds. I guess it is possible that after the fires have burnt out the atmospheric temperature may be too high for condensation, but I suspect that it is really more for dramatic effect to show no water, and the scale of the devastation is truly planet-wide.