Daily Archives: September 3, 2017

476. Holiday Diary (Part 3) Astronomy, Astrology & Flat Earth Conspiracy Theory

In this episode I talk about visiting the fantastic Griffith Observatory and then ‘go off on one’ about Astronomy vs Astrology and ludicrous flat earth conspiracy theories. Includes various bits of vocabulary throughout the episode.

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Episode notes and transcriptions

Just before we start I just realised that I forgot to mention some of your responses to the episode with my Dad about cricket which was uploaded in August.

Cricket episode (#473) comments

In general, the responses seem to be along these lines: I love listening to you talk to your Dad, it’s always nice to hear his voice and his descriptions of things, but this was the most difficult episode of the podcast ever! You broke my mind! You destroyed my brain!

Hi Luke, I do really love episodes with your Dad, but this particular one, completely destroyed me. ;) Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to listen to your Dad, as always, and I liked the cricket related phrases, so I’ll cut you some slack for making my brain hurt a bit. Cheers!

 Holiday Diary part 3

Here we go with part 3 of this series which is based around some of the things I saw while I was away on holiday last month.

You should listen to parts 1 and 2 before hearing this, because that will put this episode in the right context. In a nutshell the context is that my wife is preggers, she’s got a bun in the oven. By the way, I just wanted to say that I chose to reveal this personal news because it would be impossible to keep it secret, right? For example if my uploading becomes a bit erratic when the baby arrives, you’ll understand why. Perhaps you can manage your expectations a bit if you remember that I’ve “got a lot on my plate“. Having a child will be wonderful but probably quite disruptive, but I certainly don’t plan on halting this project as a result. We went on hols to the USA for a “babymoon” (our chance to enjoy a fairly big holiday together while it’s just the two of us), we saw some really interesting things and it gave me inspiration to talk about some topics on the podcast.

What’s this episode all about?

In this one the plan is to talk about astronomy, astrology and flat earth conspiracy theories. I hope there will be enough time! Let’s see. If I run out of time, some of those things will no doubt turn up in the next episode.

I expect the main questions for this will be:

  • What is the Griffith Observatory and what did we see there? )And how do you pronounce Griffith Observatory?)
  • What is the difference between astronomy and astrology?
  • Is astrology a load of old nonsense, or is it all right?
  • What is the flat earth theory all about?
  • Why do people think the earth is flat?
  • Is the earth flat or is it round (I’m pretty sure it’s round or globe shaped)?
  • What words can you pick up from all of this to help expand your vocabulary, improve your listening and develop your English in general?

We will see as we go through the episode.

Vocabulary for you to learn (check the notes and script)

On the subject of the English you’re going to hear, I will try and define some language as it comes up, but also you should check the page for this episode. In the episode archive search for episode 476 (oh that’s this page- you’re already here). On that page you’ll see some notes and some transcriptions, and there you can see the words and phrases, see how they are spelled, copy/paste expressions to your word lists or flashcard apps and so on, or just enjoy listening to the episode.

Griffith Observatory and a hike in the park

There was lots of geology and astronomy on this holiday. The geology because of the National Parks and all the rock formations with their stories of history, and astronomy because we visited the Griffith Observatory (this place dedicated to observing the sun and the night sky). Also, in a hotel one evening while zapping between the many TV channels I came across a long interview with famous astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which was absolutely fascinating  and also quite mind blowing – as he usually is.

You can listen to that conversation with Neil Degrasse Tyson on the Nerdist podcast here

And then near the end of the holiday there was the total solar eclipse over some parts of the USA and every single person was talking about it. We didn’t see the full eclipse, but experienced some of it. So, lots of big things like the moon, the stars, the earth, our place in the universe and also the value of proper critical thinking and science in general.

We had a nice hike (not too demanding but not too easy) through Griffith Park up to the observatory. Hiking…

Walking up through the park we had views of Griffith Park and the Hollywood hills and the Hollywood sign. You get views over LA including the high-rise buildings in the downtown area.

It’s cool to be doing some hiking in what feels like the countryside and then to turn around and see the skyline of the city.

Hiking to Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory and Griffith Park are named after the man who donated the land (about 12 km squared) and paid for the observatory and theatre.

His name was Griffith J. Griffith. What a name!

Imagine calling your son Griffith Griffith!

Interesting bloke. Here’s the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s page about him:

“Griffith Jenkins Griffith (January 4, 1850 – July 6, 1919) was a Welsh industrialist and philanthropist. After amassing a significant fortune from a mining syndicate in the 1880s, Griffith donated 3,015 acres (12.20 km2) to the City of Los Angeles which became Griffith Park, and he bequeathed the money to build the park’s Greek Theatre and Griffith Observatory. Griffith’s legacy was marred by his notorious shooting of his wife in 1903, a crime for which he served two years in prison.”

Bequeath = to leave property to a beneficiary in a will

Bloomin’ heck, that escalated quickly!

(Find out some more about Griffith J Griffith – includes some reading from the Wikipedia page)

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Griffith_J._Griffith

Anyway, (despite that horrible crime) it’s cool that this guy clearly believed in the importance of having a space dedicated to teaching ordinary people about how the earth fits into our galaxy, how it interacts with the sun and the moon, and all that stuff.

Astronomy is fascinating, I think.

Astronomy vs Astrology (the difference)

Astronomy – the scientific study of stars, planets and natural objects in space

Astrology – the study of movements of stars and planets and the belief that these movements can affect the lives of humans on earth. So that includes the predictions written into horoscopes, the system of star signs and how they are said to dictate our personalities and the things that will happen to us.

I don’t believe in astrology.

How could the movement of stars and planets affect whether your boss will give you a pay rise or if you’ll have an awkward encounter with a possible lover?

Who knows, maybe our lives are totally subject to astrological forces out there and everything that happens has already been written in advance, but I don’t think there’s much reliable evidence for it.

But that’s not the point for people who believe in horoscopes. I think for them it’s not about looking for the most reliable theory to understand the universe. It more about finding the one that makes you feel right about yourself.

But I’m not buying it.

Rambling about ambiguous horoscopes…

Screen Shot 2017-09-01 at 16.47.27
www.astrology.com/us/horoscope/daily-extended.aspx

Screen Shot 2017-09-01 at 16.48.28
techasli.com/pisces-daily-horoscope-today-wednesday-30th-august-2017/

We’re not the centre of the universe. We’re part of something much larger than we can possibly imagine. (I sound like Obiwan Kenobi)

Sure, Saturn is a huge thing out there in space and it does have forces of gravity, probably radiation that come from it, but my iPhone probably produces more radiation than Saturn, because it’s so much closer to me than Saturn. I get it, Saturn is big, but it’s also very very far away. The mass of the table in front of me exerts more influence on me than the mass of Saturn at this distance.

And, if horoscopes can predict the future, why aren’t they front page news?

Maybe they don’t want to seem arrogant.

Yeah we can predict the future, we know what’s going to happen to the money markets, to the environment, to each individual person, but we don’t like to make a big deal out of it.

Horoscopes are never on the front page, they’re always printed in the middle of the newspaper, next to the crossword and the sudoku. “Yes, we know the future of your children, but let’s just print it down here in the corner next to these puzzles.”

Anyway, at the Griffith Observatory, it was nice to get a dose of space stuff – some astronomy. It’s great to see that this building is devoted to educating people about astronomy and that loads of people were there, families with their kids (even if they were annoying “Mommy look this is awesome!” etc) it’s good to see that these kids are being educated about science.

They have cool interactive models and presentations about the earth’s orbit around the sun, with live telescope footage of the sun itself (through loads of filters of course), the moon’s orbit around the earth, the way the moon and the sun together affect the tides in the oceans. It was really cool.

And the earth is round, by the way.

Flat Earth (Conspiracy) Theory – Some people still believe the earth is flat

These days Flat Earth theories seem to be quite popular again, especially on the internet.

I didn’t meet anyone or at least speak to anyone in the USA who believed in flat earth theory, but I’ve seen a lot of talk of it online.

There are quite a lot of youtubers and even famous musicians and celebrities who spread the idea that the earth is flat and that there’s a global (although I guess they wouldn’t use the word “global”) conspiracy to convince us all that it’s in fact round, or a ‘globe’.

Most of these people are Americans of course, because as far as I can tell the USA is the world’s #1 place for conspiracy theories.

I’m quite interested in conspiracy theories and I’m willing to hear the arguments. Some of them are fairly convincing (e.g I’m a bit sceptical about the official story of the JFK assassination but I don’t pretend to know what really happened) and other theories are completely ridiculous.

I think the flat earth theory is in the latter category.

Flat earth summary: www.livescience.com/24310-flat-earth-belief.html

I think it’s ridiculous believing the earth is flat because it means you have to also reject:
Pretty much all the basic understandings that we have of the way the world works, including the laws of physics, which are tested time and time again, scientifically (which means subject to the most reliable forms of objective testing and scrutiny possible). You have to reject the big bang theory, and even the basic law of gravity.

And you have to believe that all the governments, shipping and airline companies, scientists in different communities around the globe and in fact all those underpaid science teachers – you have to believe they are all part of a huge organised conspiracy to maintain the idea that the earth is round, when in fact it is flat.

What would be the purpose of doing that?

And anyway, it’s impossible! We’re just not competent enough to do that.

As a species we’re not even able to keep a sex tape secret, so what chance do we have of maintaining a lie that big?

I think we have to look at why people choose to believe in this kind of thing anyway.

I think it goes together with a general sense of distrust in authority, a feeling of individual empowerment that you get from believing something like that and the simple human ability to get stuck in a certain worldview and then block out anything that contradicts it, even if it’s rational evidence that has been proven over and over again.

I think once a person has invested themselves in a certain belief system for whatever reason, it’s very hard to get them out of it.

For example, you might hear a conspiracy theorist say “I believe the earth is flat and nobody can convince me that it’s not”.

That’s all you need to know really. They’re not interested in being convinced with evidence.

They’re more interested in pursuing their belief and maintaining it. Why? I don’t know. I think it’s an aspect of human nature that is very powerful and you can see it in lots of other situations too – like for example the way people end up getting involved in religious cults or the way people do very bad things because they believe they’re carrying out some kind of divine plan.

Flat earthers are not as bad as people like that, I suppose, but what would happen if the President came out as a flat earther? Then what? Would flat earth theories start to enter schools? Would more and more people start to believe it? If the flat earthers eventually outnumbered the scientific community, the round earth community, would flat earth become the dominant idea? Hundreds of years of history could be wiped out by a belief system like that. It’s actually possible, that’s the thing.

Let’s listen to a couple of YouTubers talking about it.

If you disagree and you think the earth is flat (which is very trendy at the moment by the way) write your ideas in the comment section. Why do you think the earth is flat? What’s your evidence? How do you deal with things like the laws of gravity or the fact that shadows are at different lengths on the ground in different places at the same time of day?

Thanks for listening! Leave your comments below with any thoughts from this episode.

Did you notice any good bits of vocabulary? You could copy&paste them into the comment section.

Cheers,

Luke

475. Holiday Diary (Part 2) Modern Art: Is it amazing, or is it rubbish?

Talking about some modern art which I saw while visiting several galleries in Los Angeles. Includes descriptions of different movements in modern art, details about some famous artists and their work, some thoughts about whether modern art is really amazing, or maybe just a load of pretentious rubbish! (Spoiler alert: it depends)

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Notes & Transcriptions for this Episode

Hi everyone, here’s part two of my holiday diary and in this one I’m going to continue describing things I saw and did on my recent holiday in the USA. The plan is not just to describe our trip but also to use it as a springboard to talk about some other subjects in a bit of depth, and in this episode that includes things like modern art (describing some different types of art from the modern period and giving my thoughts on some art work that we saw in a couple of galleries) astronomy and astrology, flat-earth conspiracy theories and probably some other things too, depending on how long this takes! It looks like this is going to be a series of episodes with what I hope will be an interesting variety of topics beyond just me talking about my holiday.

I’m recording this on the same day as I uploaded the last one. So I’m already seeing some messages coming in from people on Twitter and FB and stuff (in response to part 1), so thanks a lot for your kind messages saying congratulations for the fact that we’re going to have a baby.

Ok, let’s carry on!

Just to recap
We went to USA to have a blow-out before the arrival of our baby in December. A final trip just the two of us. Los Angeles via Montreal, then the canyons and Navajo Nation, then back to LA and home again.

Modern Art

Downtown Los Angeles
Tried to go to an art gallery called The Broad. This is a flashy-looking new art gallery. We went to see an interesting installation by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, but there was a huge queue outside – probably attracted by the installation, which is proving really popular. Apparently it’s called “Infinity Mirrored Room — The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” which is…

“a mirror-lined chamber housing a dazzling and seemingly endless LED light display. This experiential artwork has extremely limited capacity, accommodating one visitor at a time for about a minute” The Broad website.

www.thebroad.org/art/exhibitions/yayoi-kusama-infinity-mirrored-room

An installation = a work of art constructed within a space in a gallery.

We ended up in The Museum of Contemporary Art LA, just down the road from the broad.

Also went to LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) at one point during the trip.

Artists whose work we saw

We saw work by some celebrated artists from several important movements in modern art.

Including:

Pablo Picasso (Spanish, Cubism, surrealism – mainly in the first half of the 20th century and middle of the 20th century)
Jackson Pollock (American, Abstract expressionism – late 1940s)
Rothko (American of Russian Jewish descent, Abstract expressionism, 50s and 60s)
Franz Kline (American, Abstract expressionism, 50s and 60s)
Roy Lichtenstein (American, Pop art, abstract expressionism, 60s)
Andy Warhol (American, Pop art, most well-known stuff is from the 60s)

And lots of others too.

Movements in Modern Art

Here’s a timeline of art movements in history from www.dummies.com

www.dummies.com/education/art-appreciation/art-history-timeline/

I’m describing art movements from the early part of the 19th century.

Contemporary art = art being made now
Modern art = art from the modern era – late 19th Century and through the 20th century. Arguably we are now in the post-modern era
Cubism (n) = an art movement in which artists went away from realistic representations of things and instead used geometric shapes, different kinds of perspective, lines, as if objects could be viewed from a number of different points of view all at the same time. Things exist in a kind of prism of perspective and the way you or the artist looks at something, changes its form.
Surrealism (n) = an art movement in which objects or ideas are presented in a strange way, as if in some kind of dream or perhaps representations of the subconscious mind
Abstract (adj) = this concept refers to things that aren’t real or tangible, but which exist in the world of the mind or outside reality as we usually see it (e.g. not just illustrating a bowl of fruit)
Expressionism (n) = representing feelings or emotions rather than objects or things
Abstract expressionism (n) = the name of the post WW2 art movement that combined the freedom of expression from expressionism and the use of abstract forms
Pop art (n) = the name of another art movement, this one involved techniques, methods and styles from popular culture like product design, comic book style or photos of celebrities.

What do you think of contempary art, or modern art?

You might think:
“It’s just a bunch of colours or shapes!”

“Anyone could do that!”

“It’s just a load of pretentious nonsense!”

Very common reactions. I think like that too, quite often, especially if I think it’s not very good art.

What makes art good or bad?

You just know it when you see it. If it really doesn’t move you, please you or interest you, you might say it’s bad art, because ultimately it’s in the eye of the beholder – but not completely, because you also have to invest a bit of time and effort into it and also it helps to understand how the work fits into the overall history of art. You have to have some respect for it in order to start appreciating it as work, and ultimately then it can start to enrich your life in some way, but I think art is quite pretentious, which many people have a problem with.

What does pretentious mean Luke?

Something is pretentious (spell it) when it’s trying to seem important, clever or sophisticated, but it isn’t really.

E.g. talking about a work of art like it is the grandest, most important, most emotionally resonating work of genius in human history, and it’s just a blank piece of paper, or a picture of a willy or something.

I think it’s more than just a willy, it’s a statement about… blah blah blah…

So you might think modern art is rubbish.

Or maybe you’re a fan and you think “I love the way the artist plays with different forms and colours. It’s incredibly liberating and fascinating to experience it. I find it inspiring, moving and fascinating.”

It’s quite difficult to talk about art without sounding pretentious, to be honest.

I have mixed feelings about it. Only the really good stuff tends to move me. I mean, it’s rare that it works on me. But I do enjoy the experience of going around a good gallery, looking at work which has stood the test of time.

I also like talking about it. I like the way modern art or abstract art is so open. You feel like you’re interacting with it, but I always need to talk about it. It’s a chance to be totally open-minded and to try and put it into words.

But it’s not something I’m thinking about all the time.

I’m more moved by music (most kinds), acting, films, TV, books, photography (with real stuff in them – like people’s faces or moments in time captured) but when it’s right modern art can be great. Also it works as decoration, but it’s something you can also look closely at and let your mind wander. (wander like go for a walk, but also wonder meaning think about things, but “let your mind wander” is the right expression”.

Expressionism or abstract expressionism – what’s it all about?

This is just me having a stab at describing abstract art.

It seems to me that it’s about creating abstract spaces with no rules at all.

It’s a system with no external reference points (unlike films) it’s just a series of shapes or forms arranged in space which are designed to create certain emotions or feelings in you at a kind of elemental level, or gut level, or sensory level.

Sometimes thinking about it is what you’re not supposed to do, you just have to experience it. It can be something as simple as how it feels to experience these colours and shapes arranged in a certain way.

It could be the way the colours blend together, or certain forms stand out, or the basic gut reaction you have when looking at the canvas.

It’s supposed to be moving at a very natural level, just the interactions of forms in a physical space.

When you realise that it can be liberating and you feel like you’re entering into a conversation with the artist which is free from the constraints of language.

That’s the idea, but to be honest I often find myself getting absolutely nothing from it.

Art vs the art of nature (pretentious, moi?)

OK, so this is where I’m going to get really pretentious and talk about rocks like they’re works of art, but what are you going to do, sue me?

Some of these work of art were or are created in a way that seems to allow the hand of nature to guide the artist somehow, like Pollock who would often drip paint onto the canvas – he wouldn’t always touch the canvas with his brush, but would somehow involve an element of chance or nature in the way the paint splashed as it fell, combining his own judgement and an element of chaos in terms of how the paint ended up falling on the canvas.

The result is like looking inside the emotional space of the artist and you can feel his experience somehow in a way that you can’t put into words – at the moments of rage, passion, serenity or terror, or just the sense that he was experiencing a lack of control in his life or he was subject to emotions or experiences that he didn’t necessarily have a grip on, and yet experienced in the form of emotion. That sounds really pretentious, I know. But when you look at his work, you can choose to say “this is just bollocks” or you can decide that the guy clearly was very serious about what he was doing so there must be something in it. What was he looking for? Something to do with the balance of colours, the texture created by the many drops of paint and the overall sensory effect it creates.

It’s like entering a mood, and with Pollock that mood isn’t entirely happy.

I have the same feeling with Rothko. He managed to paint these pieces that look like just large blocks of colour, but as you stand in front of them and absorb them, the colours seem to blend slightly and become luminous or darker and you get this sense of depth or space and it fills you with a certain emotion. Often it’s a sadness, wistfulness or even a slight sense of stimulation. It defies description, it’s more of a gut feeling.

And by the way, looking at the real thing is far better than looking at a print or poster version in a frame on the wall of your house.

The real thing is a certain size, presented in certain conditions, proper lighting, you’re seeing the actual strokes of his brush or some sense of how he did it, you see the texture of the finished thing, which is important too.

Going back to Pollock – he would work on these big canvases on the floor and would start from scratch letting the painting develop as he added more and more layers but other artists took a different approach like Franz Klein who would plan his abstract work on a small-scale, just sketching it by hand, before recreating the sketch on massive canvases. What was a few scratched lines on a piece of paper becomes a huge striking piece of work. The effect is a bold mix of broad straight lines that combine in haphazard fashion. We kept thinking his paintings looked like close up images of plane crashes done in black and white, like the vague sense that it looked like a WW1 biplane had crashed. That’s not what they were of course, they were just lines, but the point is that the work has this dynamic urgency. They’re violent, bold and stark. Our brains just interpreted them as somehow like a plane crash.

Those are abstract expressionists.

There are lots of loads of other kinds of art, like pop art (Andy Warhol) which sort of consumed aspects of consumer culture with the idea that art could be mass-produced and that every day consumer objects could be works of art too if presented in that way, and I think we’re still experiencing the influence of that today with things like t-shirts with cool designs on them or the fact that we consume logos and brands as a form of art – on t-shirts, even on posters to decorate our homes. Pop art was also a comment on consumer culture – for example Andy Warhol’s famous work with lots of virtually identical screen prints of movie stars with different coloured backgrounds, or just a tin of Campbell’s tomato soup. It’s like examining everyday branded objects as works of art.

I don’t really understand it all, but it is fun to go to an art gallery, drink a load of coffee and then just stare at this stuff and see what it makes you think about and feel.

Anyone can do art, but to do it well is actually really difficult.

It’s not just a bunch of colours on a canvas, it is backed up by intention, technique and a general appreciation of the aesthetics of shape, colour and texture.

So, we saw some modern art, and it was pretty cool.

But honestly, the art we saw just could not be compared to the truly stunning works of nature that we saw later on in our trip in places like The Grand Canyon – objects and environments that had been formed by natural processes over millions of years.

It seems to me that from the point of view of the observer, the exact same forces are at work.

When you look at art or when you look at a mountain or a rock formation you get the instant emotional and intellectual reaction of seeing these incredible shapes, colours and textures, and you experience the wonder of imagining exactly how they were created and the story that they tell.

I must say I was blown away by the geology we saw on this trip, which I’ll describe in more detail later. It was so stunning that at times I was lost for words and it all resonated with us so much that it was quite hard to come to terms with it.

You might think – oh come on it’s just big rocks. And it is just big rocks of course, but I think we all find these things impressive and I’m just trying to capture that feeling in words.

So, I know this sounds pretentious or something, but literally every day we would arrive at a different location to be greeted by ever more impressive natural spectacles. After spending time in each place, doing some walking, getting quite hot in the sunshine, we would be quite exhausted at the end of each day and we’d have this stunned by stimulated feeling during dinner – trying to comprehend what we’d just seen. We also couldn’t sleep during the night. It was like our brains couldn’t rest until we’d somehow compartmentalized the things we’d seen.

The Grand Canyon is the biggest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s so big it makes you feel so insignificant, like a blink in the eye of history.

In some parts of these national parks you’re looking at geological formations that go back something like 500 million years.

And they’re so big that you feel completely dwarfed by them.

This was far more impressive than the modern art we saw, and it made the modern art just look like primitive cave paintings by humans trying to get a grip on the power of basic shapes and colours.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that nature is the most powerful artist out there.

And I say nature, because the whole story of nature is in these rocks.

The whole thing has been created by different natural forces over hundreds of millions of years.

It makes total sense that water, over such a long period, could erode the rock into these unbelievable shapes. That ice would break up the rock, forming bizarre shapes, that what was once a crack in the ground could become a huge open canyon with a river at the bottom.

So, nature is what formed these things, simply through the presence of certain elements on earth and the actions of the laws of physics.

Pretty mind-blowing stuff. But the modern art was a good way to get into the mindset of appreciating the aesthetics of things.

Let me know your thoughts on modern art. Is it amazing, or is it rubbish? Leave your comments below.

…and thanks for listening.

Luke

Want to see some examples of the art I described in this episode? Click the links below.

Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Room

Pablo Picasso (Cubist period)
Salvador Dali (Surrealism)
Jackson Pollock
Mark Rothko 
Franz Kline
Roy Lichtenstein
Andy Warhol

The Broad - we couldn't get in because of queues, but it looks cool

The Broad – we couldn’t get in because of queues, but it looks cool.

Andy Warhol - Marilyn Monroe screen prints from Pixabay.com https://pixabay.com/en/marilyn-monroe-andy-warhol-art-1318440/ Andy Warhol – Marilyn Monroe screen prints from Pixabay.com pixabay.com/en/marilyn-monroe-andy-warhol-art-1318440/%5B/caption%5D