Friday, January 31, 2014

What am I raising?

My 11-year-old son Ben has a friend spending the night.

Friend: my Mom said I have to start getting ready for bed at 10.

Ben: Well, she's not here.

Lake Superior's Ice Caves

The cold winter in America's midwest has been good in a few ways; for example, it has frozen Lake Superior solid, allowing people to visit the famed ice caves of the Apostle Islands for the first time since 2009. Photos by Andy Rathbun; more at This is Colossal.




A Depressing Take on the Future of Higher Education

New York University professor Clay Shirky thinks the "golden age" of higher education is over and professors should learn to live with the new reality:
Of the twenty million or so students in the US, only about one in ten lives on a campus. The remaining eighteen million—the ones who don’t have the grades for Swarthmore, or tens of thousands of dollars in free cash flow, or four years free of adult responsibility—are relying on education after high school not as a voyage of self-discovery but as a way to acquire training and a certificate of hireability.

Though the landscape of higher education in the U.S., spread across forty-six hundred institutions, hosts considerable variation, a few commonalities emerge: the bulk of students today are in their mid-20s or older, enrolled at a community or commuter school, and working towards a degree they will take too long to complete. One in three won’t complete, ever. Of the rest, two in three will leave in debt. The median member of this new student majority is just keeping her head above water financially. The bottom quintile is drowning.
As to what colleges should do about this, Shirky admits to having no clear plan. But he dismisses as a fantasy the notion that state governments or anyone else is going to bail out the colleges with lots of cash:
I’ve never seen anyone explain why this argument will be persuasive, and we are nearing the 40th year in which similar pleas have failed, but “Someday the government will give us lots of money” remains in circulation, largely because contemplating our future without that faith is so bleak. If we can’t keep raising costs for students (we can’t) and if no one is coming to save us (they aren’t), then the only remaining way to help these students is to make a cheaper version of higher education for the new student majority.
Nor is cutting administrative overhead likely to do much:
Last fall, NYU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors proposed reducing senior administrative salaries by 25%, alongside a ‘steady conversion’ of non-tenure-track jobs to tenure-track ones ‘at every NYU location’. The former move would save us about $5 million a year. The latter would cost us $250 million.
Like Shirky, I see America on its way back to the educational world of the 1920s,  in which only 5 or 10 percent of young people go to a "traditional" four-year college where most courses are taught by tenured professors. What to offer the rest is a hard problem that we should be giving more attention to.

It occurs to me that one solution would be to go even farther along the path of the adjunct-staffed college, in which most teaching is done by part-timers like me who do it because they love it. The few remaining full-time faculty would focus more on recruiting adjuncts and advising students how to put together an education from online courses and the various courses offered by adjuncts of varying quality. It certainly would not be ideal, but what is the alternative?

Sappho Speaks

Sappho, ancient Greek poetess best known for things other than her poetry, wrote a lot of poems. But only one survives intact, along with substantial parts of four more. Make that five; this papyrus belonged to a collector who had no idea what was in it, so he took it to papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink of Oxford, who recognized it. No translation has been published yet, but it seems to mention two men who were said by much later writers to be her brothers.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

27-Year-Olds Today

Back in 2002, the Department of Education began following 15,000 high school sophomores to find out how they made the transition to adulthood. In 2012 they handed out massive questionnaires to all these folks, and they have now published the results. The Atlantic has an interesting summary. If they stayed on the traditional schedule, these folks would have graduated from college in 2008, just in time for the big crash and the start of the Great Recession. The chart above shows how much education these folks have gotten by 2012. The researchers asked them all as high school sophomores how much education they expected to get; almost exactly half said they expected to get bachelor's degrees, so 17% have fallen short of their goals in the department. Money had a big impact here; of students whose parents were in the top 25% by wealth, 60% had bachelor's degrees, vs. only 15% of those in the poorest quarter. It also helped a lot to go directly into college. Of those who did, 11% have master's degrees and 42% bachelor's, so more than half finished their undergraduate work in a timely fashion. Of those who waited more than 13 months, only 6% have finished a bachelor's degree.

Interesting chart showing how far they live from where they were going to high school in 2002.

Overall, 49% are single, 28% are married, and 23% cohabiting with a romantic partner. Only 23% live with their parents.

And one more, showing how much money they earned. At the time of the survey, 69% of this cohort were working more than 35 hours a week;  40% have spent time unemployed since 2008. Across all education groups, 80% say their finances are stressful. Interesting.

Nonviolence and Gun Ownership

Historian Nicholas Johnson explains the “what and why” of Negroes and the Gun: The Black Tradition of Arms:
This black tradition of arms takes root early and ranges fully into the modern era. It is demonstrated in Frederick Douglass’s nineteenth century advice of a good revolver as the best response to slave catchers. It is evident in mature form in 1963, when Hartman Turnbow of Mississippi fought off a Klan attack with rifle fire. Turnbow considered this fully consistent with the principles of the freedom movement, explaining, “I wasn’t being non-nonviolent, I was just protectin’ my family.”

The black tradition of arms has been submerged because it seems hard to reconcile with the dominant narrative of nonviolence in the modern civil-rights movement. But that superficial tension is resolved by the long-standing distinction that was vividly evoked by movement stalwart Fannie Lou Hamer. Hamer’s approach to segregationists who dominated Mississippi politics was, “Baby you just got to love ’em. Hating just makes you sick and weak.” But, asked how she survived the threats from midnight terrorists, Hamer responded, “I’ll tell you why. I keep a shotgun in every corner of my bedroom and the first cracker even look like he wants to throw some dynamite on my porch won’t write his mama again.”

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755-1842) rose to fame as the court painter of Marie Antoinette, which seemed like a good career move at the time but led to certain problems later. Not least, her identity was so defined by her association with the unserious queen that posterity has had trouble taking her seriously, too. She had talent, yes, but she often put it in the service of the precious and adorable. Consider this Portrait of Lady Perceval (1804) -- it is lovely and full of life, but it hardly seems to belong in the era of Napoleonic grandeur and Byronic brooding.  She would have done better in our unserious age.

It probably didn't help that she looked like one of her own creations. Self-Portrait in  a Straw Hat, 1782.

Self portrait, 1790. According to the Getty:
Vigée Le Brun's father, a portrait painter, died when she was twelve, so she taught herself to paint by copying the paintings of established masters in collections around Paris. Later in life, after studying the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens, she adopted his technique of painting layers of brilliant color on wood panels to achieve animated, polished, and supremely attractive portraits of European royalty and aristocracy.
She painted Marie Antoinette and her children no less than 30 times.

Above, the notorious Lady Hamilton, whose hobbies included seducing admirals and having her portrait painted in the guise of various wicked women from myth and history (1791).

When the Revolution came, Vigée Le Brun fled into exile and became a wandering artist, painting portraits of royalty and nobility across Europe. She went first to Rome and then to Russia, where many leading nobles sat for her -- La comtesse Skavronskaia (1796). The pillow is an intriguing touch.

Portrait of Princess Belozersky, Detail (1798)

Here is a fascinating historical item: this is no maid, but the Queen of Prussia, Luise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wife of Friedrich Wilhelm III (1801). This was the height of Romantic naturalism, when the most stylish women wore their hair down, their dresses loose and their hearts on their sleeves. With huge pearls, so nobody really mistook them for maids.

Anna Ivanovna Tolstoy (1795).

Prince Ivan Baryatinsky (1796).

And a self-portrait with her daughter (1786). When she returned to France in 1805, after 13 years of exile, she remarked that "her only true happiness has been in painting."

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Peacemaking Monks in Kiev

As the conflict between the protesters and the government of President Yanukovych surges back and forth, leaving more than 50 corpses, several Orthodox monks have stationed themselves between the two sides, trying to prevent further violence. Rather than trying to engage with either side, they just pray. At one point they chanted the Easter service: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. . . .”


Archaeology in Patterson Park and the Battle of Baltimore, 1814

I've just started working on a job I am very excited about, trying to relocate the earthworks built around Baltimore in 1814 when the British attacked the city -- you know, Francis Scott Key and the bombs bursting in air and the star-spangled banner yet waving and all that.

The earthworks in Patterson Park were built by militia and citizen volunteers in August and September, 1814, in response to the British invasion of the Chesapeake. The work may have begun when the first British landings were made, but it was pushed forward after the American defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24. On September 12, the British landed about 4,000 soldiers and marines at North Point and these men advanced along North Point Road toward the city as a force of frigates and bomb ships made their way across the shoals off Sparrow’s Point. An American force tried to block their way at the head of Bear Creek, but in the Battle of North Point the British pushed them aside and continued marching on the city. On the afternoon of September 13 they arrived in front of the earthworks and got a look at this formidable position, bristling with cannon and manned by several hundred regular soldiers, several detachments of sailors and marines, and about 10,000 militia, along with 110 cannons.

The British hoped to attack Baltimore from land and sea, but to get ships into position to support the land force they had to pass Fort McHenry and the adjacent barrier of sunken vessels and chains. When Fort McHenry held out under the intense bombardment of September 13-14, the British land force was left without naval help. The British land commander, Major General Robert Ross, was killed at North Point, and his replacement, Colonel Arthur Brooke, anguished about whether to attack the city. If I took the place, he wrote in his diary, I should have been the greatest man in England. If I lost, my military character was gone for ever. In the end, he decided not to risk it. The British turned back, and the Americans claimed the victory.

The naval part of this battle is well commemorated at Fort McHenry, the land fighting much less so. Most of the North Point battlefield has been developed, and the city’s defenses swallowed by its growth. However, one section of the earthworks, including a key bastion, was in what is now Patterson Park, and they were visible as recently as 1907 (above).

An even better clue to finding the earthworks (since the ones by the pagoda might be later reconstructions) is this map of a Civil War regimental camp made in 1862. In this image the earthworks are clearly marked as being from the War of 1812; a square behind them is labeled "Magazine of 1812."

Our plan is to use remote sensing (magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar) to map out the buried earthworks as best we can, and then dig trenches by hand to expose a few cross-sections. We also hope to pinpoint that magazine (which would have dug to a depth of six feet or so) and see what was thrown in it after the battle. We will make an attempt to find remains of the militia camps, but given how much has happened in the neighborhood since 1814 this is a long shot. Maybe some of the officers were sticklers for regulations and insisted on digging latrines. We will be working on Saturdays this April and we welcome volunteers.

Our historical research will be directed toward learning something about the 10,000 men who were behind those earthworks. They came from all over Maryland, some even from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware. With so many names to work with we ought to be able to find a few dozen for whom we can write little biographies, men who left letters or diaries or lots of other records, or whose memories were later written down by family historians. So if anybody who reads this knows about an ancestor who was part of this battle, we would love to hear from you.

All of this is tied to the 200th anniversary of the battle coming up in September, and we hope to get in the news and generate a lot of public interest in the event and its remains. Our client is Baltimore Heritage, a small nonprofit devoted to historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization; funding for our work is coming from the American Battlefield Protection Program of the National Park Service. You can follow the project on a blog being run by Baltimore Heritage here, and I will also be posting regular reports.

The NIH Worries about Bad Science

Francis Collins, head of NIH, and Lawrence Tabak, one of his top deputies, have published an editorial in Nature complaining of “a troubling frequency of published reports that claim a significant result, but fail to be reproducible.” It is interesting to see that the heads of big science funding bodies are aware of these problems and starting to think about ways to combat them:
Factors include poor training of researchers in experimental design; increased emphasis on making provocative statements rather than presenting technical details; and publications that do not report basic elements of experimental design. Crucial experimental design elements that are all too frequently ignored include blinding, randomization, replication, sample-size calculation and the effect of sex differences. And some scientists reputedly use a ‘secret sauce’ to make their experiments work — and withhold details from publication or describe them only vaguely to retain a competitive edge. What hope is there that other scientists will be able to build on such work to further biomedical progress? . . .
Exactly. But as I have argued, the biggest obstacle to reform is the meritocratic nature of the scientific world and of our society more broadly. In a world where more people want to be research scientists than there are jobs for them, there has to be some way of deciding who gets the good slots in the system, and the measure we use is journal publication.
Perhaps the most vexed issue is the academic incentive system. It currently over-emphasizes publishing in high-profile journals. No doubt worsened by current budgetary woes, this encourages rapid submission of research findings to the detriment of careful replication. To address this, the NIH is contemplating modifying the format of its 'biographical sketch' form, which grant applicants are required to complete, to emphasize the significance of advances resulting from work in which the applicant participated, and to delineate the part played by the applicant. Other organizations such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have used this format and found it more revealing of actual contributions to science than the traditional list of unannotated publications. The NIH is also considering providing greater stability for investigators at certain, discrete career stages, utilizing grant mechanisms that allow more flexibility and a longer period than the current average of approximately four years of support per project.
This is an interesting change; perhaps if researchers in their 30s can get seven or eight years of funding rather than four they will do more careful work and not rush their publications. But they will still face the "publish or perish" test eventually, so we'll have to wait and see if these measures make any difference.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Celts to Vikings 2014

Met my students for the first time tonight. It went pretty well, although I talked too much. Combination of nerves and inadequate preparation, I guess; plus I was thrown off by missing my first class and starting a week behind.

We set some of our themes for the class: barbarians and Romans, especially, and my notion that medieval Europe results from the fusion of their worlds;  and we began our exploration of Europe's two different models of male-female relations and the status of women by reading some Roman texts on famously virtuous women.

Next time I will slow down and push my students to talk more.


The Pope's Doves, or, Hopes for Peace in a Savage World

So the pope and two schoolchildren released two "peace doves" from the Vatican balcony.

But Rome is a tough place for tame doves. The first was promptly attacked and bloodied by a gull.

The second suffered the same fate at the hands of a crow. More pictures and video here.

Snow Leopard

Caught by a camera trap in northern Pakistan. More at National Geographic.

Copernicus vs. Ptolemy, or, Today's Fact about How Science Evolves

Physicist Frank Tipler:
Many have even claimed that Copernicus was not superior in predictive power over Ptolemy. I myself decided to check this claim, by looking at Tycho's notebooks. I discovered that between 1564 and 1601, Tycho compared Copernicus's predictions and Ptolemy's predictions with his own observations 294 times. As I expected, Copernicus was superior. So Copernicus' theory was confirmed as experimentally superior to Ptolemy long before Galileo. 
I suppose you have to have read a lot of history of science to be as awed by this discovery as I was, but I really must have read in a dozen places that Copernicus' theory was not any better than Ptolemy's at predicting where the planets would be seen. (To be accurate it required the refinements introduced by Kepler, who showed that orbits are elliptical and the speed of planets increases as they near the sun.) But if it really was better, even if not perfect -- and Tycho Brahe was the most accurate naked eye astronomer in history -- that puts its rapid acceptance among astronomers in a completely different light.

The Recovering Libertarian

Scott Parker has written an essay about how and why he stopped being a libertarian. Some interesting passages:
I found my way to libertarianism in my teen years when I began reading some of its introductory texts and was attracted to the internal consistency of its policies. If you accepted that the individual was sacrosanct and the government’s only role was to protect the individual, everything else pretty much followed. Unlike mainstream liberalism and conservatism, which were constantly engaged in negotiations between social and economic freedoms, libertarianism was systematically clean and neat. So much so that I quickly stopped concerning myself with how ideas played out in the world. The ideas themselves were enough. . . .

It felt good to be libertarian. I could win political debates (to my satisfaction) by applying the internally consistent reasoning I so admired to any issue. My reluctance to compromise was a virtue that straightened my posture. I took my rigidity as a sign not of narrow-mindedness but of integrity, the consequence of careful advancement from first principles. This particular kind of coherency put me self-satisfactorily and peacefully to sleep on many nights.
I think this is a big part of libertarianism's appeal, as it was of communism's: it has an answer for everything, reasoned out from simple first principles. To a certain kind of mind this is much more appealing than trying to sort through the mess of real problems.
But the truth an ideologue is at pains to accept is that no life can live up to ideology. We are a messy species living messy lives. And we are lucky for this. The intellectual libertarian wants the world to be the kind of ideal world it never can be. He (and it’s often he) is unable to live with ambiguity and compromise. The beautiful (it is a kind of beauty) logical edifice of libertarianism is built on the faulty premise that this is the kind of world that is built on logical edifices.
I like this last line; the human world is indeed an illogical world, and no sort of pure logic will ever untangle it. What we need instead is compassionate empiricism.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Famous Last Words

Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.

--Ludwig Wittgenstein

Helmets and Shields of the Renaissance

Say what you want about Renaissance princes, they had lovely toys. Medusa shield of Charles V.

Burgonet of Guidobaldo II della Rovere, made in Milan around 1533.

Parade shield of Henry II of France, c. 1555.

Lion helm made at Milan, c. 1550.

Engraved portrait of Henry II of France at the Age of 28 by Niccolo della Casa, 1547; sadly, that lovely suit of armor does not survive.

Henry VIII's famous fool helmet, made by Konrad Seusenhofer, c. 1513.


Parade shield depicting Emperor Charles the V at the Battle of Mühlberg, made in Milan around 1570.

Helmet of Charles V, by Filippo and Francesco Negroli, Milan, c. 1545.

Yet more of Charles V's gear, also made by the Negrolis, this set from 1533.

Fox-faced helmet of Emperor Ferdinand I, made at Innsbruck by Hans Seusenhofer and Leonard Meurl, c. 1528.

The 2014 Edge Question: What Scientific Idea should be Retired?

This year's Edge question is not as interesting as some earlier questions, but I guess they can't win every time. I found a few answers interesting; except as noted, all the text is quoted from these authors' replies:

Altruism (Tor Nørretranders)
This concept is rooted in the notion that human beings (and animals) are really dominated by selfishness and egoism so that you need a concept to explain why they sometimes behave unselfish and kind to others. But the reality is different: Humans are deeply bound to other humans and most actions are really reciprocal and in the interest of both parties (or, in he case of hatred, in the disinterest of both). The starting point is neither selfishness nor altruism, but the state of being bound together. It is an illusion to believe that you can be happy when no one else is. Or that other people will not be affected by your unhappiness.
Knowing is Half the Battle (Laurie R. Santos and Tamar Gendler)
Children of the 1980's may fondly remember a TV cartoon called G. I. Joe . . . Following each of these moralizing pronouncements came the show's famous epithet: "Now you know. And knowing is half the battle."

While there may be some domains where knowing is half the battle, there are many more where it is not. Recent work in cognitive science has demonstrated that knowing is a shockingly tiny portion of the battle for most real world decisions. . . . The lesson of much contemporary research in judgment and decision-making is that knowledge— at least in the form of our consciously accessible representation of a situation—is rarely the central factor controlling our behavior.

Me: this horrible idea goes back at least to Socrates, and despite 2400 years of contrary experience I still see versions of it all the time, e.g., if only people had more information about nutrition they would eat better.
Information Overload (Jay Rosen)
There's no such thing as information overload. There's only filter failure.
Large Randomized Controlled Trials (Dean Ornish)
It is a commonly held but erroneous belief that a larger study is always more rigorous or definitive than a smaller one, and a randomized controlled trial is always the gold standard . However, there is a growing awareness that size does not always matter and a randomized controlled trial may introduce its own biases. We need more creative experimental designs.
The Uncertainty Principle (Kai Krause)

Mental Illness is Nothing But Brain Illness (Ian Gold and Joel Gold)
That a theory of mental illness should make reference to the world outside the brain is no more surprising than that the theory of cancer has to make reference to cigarette smoke. And yet what is commonplace in cancer research is radical in psychiatry. The time has come to expand the biological model of psychiatric disorder to include the context in which the brain functions. In understanding, preventing and treating mental illness, we will rightly continue to look into the neurons and DNA of the afflicted and unafflicted. To ignore the world around them would be not only bad medicine but bad science.
Habitable Zone (Dimitar D. Sasselov)
Me: amen to this. The notion of a "habitable zone" assumes all life in the universe will be like earth's, which is a dreary failure of imagination.
Rational Actor Models (Susan Fiske)
The idea that people operate mainly in the service of narrow self-interest is already moribund, as social psychology and behavioral economics have shown. We now know that people are not rational actors, instead often operating on automatic, based on bias, or happy with hunches.
Sadness is Always Bad, Happiness is Always Good (June Gruber)

Left-Brain/Right-Brain (Sarah-Jayne Blakemore)
This is pseudo-science and is not based on knowledge of how the brain works.
The Self (Bruce Hood)
It seems almost redundant to call for the retirement of the free willing self as the idea is neither scientific nor is this the first time that the concept has been dismissed for lacking empirical support. . . . . Yet, the self, like a conceptual zombie, refuses to die.
String Theory (Frank Tipler)
Me: The anti-string theory forces are sensing blood these days.
Common Sense (Robert Provine)
We fancy ourselves intelligent, conscious and alert, and thinking our way through life. This is an illusion. We are deluded by our brain's generation of a sketchy, rational narrative of subconscious, sometimes irrational or fictitious events that we accept as reality. These narratives are so compelling that they become common sense and we use them to guide our lives. In cases of brain damage, neurologists use the term confabulation to describe a patient's game but flawed attempt to produce an accurate narrative of life events. I suggest we be equally wary of everyday, non-pathological confabulation and retire the common sense hypothesis that we are rational beings in full conscious control of our lives. Indeed, we may be passengers in our body, just going along for the ride, and privy only to second-hand knowledge of our status, course and destination.
The Universe (Seth Lloyd)

Science is Self-Correcting (Alex Holcombe)

Cause and Effect (W. Daniel Hillis)
The cause-and-effect paradigm does not just fail at the quantum scale. It also falls apart when we try to use causation to explain complex dynamical systems like the biochemical pathways of a living organism, the transactions of an economy, or the operation of the human mind. These systems all have patterns of information flow that defy our tools of storytelling. A gene does not "cause" the trait like height, or a disease like cancer. The stock market did not go up "because" the bond market went down. These are just our feeble attempts to force a storytelling framework onto systems that do not work like stories. For such complex systems, science will need more powerful explanatory tools, and we will learn to accept the limits of our old methods of storytelling.
Mouse Models (Azra Raza)
A recent scientific paper showed that all 150 drugs tested at the cost of billions of dollars in human trials of sepsis failed because the drugs had been developed using mice.
Statistical Significance (Charles Seife)

Simplicity (A.C. Grayling)

Collapse of the Wave Function (Freeman Dyson)
According to the rules of quantum mechanics, the motions of objects are unpredictable. The wave-function tells us only the probabilities of the possible motions. When an object is observed, the observer sees where it is, and the uncertainty of the motion disappears. Knowledge removes uncertainty. There is no mystery here.

Me: This seems remarkably clear and straightforward, so much so that I am wondering how this got to be the subject of raging debate. Is Dyson leaving something important out? Anyone out there know?
Certainty (Richard Saul Wurman)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Immigrant Success, or, You Can't Have Everything

Except for the children of millionaires, the most successful people in America are immigrants from India, whose family income is twice the national average. (They also have the lowest divorce rate.) Chinese, Korean, Caribbean and West African immigrants are also doing quite well. As Jewish immigrants did before them. Why? Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld:
It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.
You remember Amy Chua as the original "tiger mom." But  here she is just presenting data, not giving advice, and the data is very interesting.
It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it’s precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control — the ability to resist temptation — and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment. Ironically, each element of the Triple Package violates a core tenet of contemporary American thinking.
Absolutely. We hate the whole idea of ethnic groups feeling inherently superior, yet the data shows that people from such groups are more successful. Our whole paradigm for mental health is built around escaping from feelings of inadequacy, and yet such feelings motivate people to work hard and succeed:
Each of the three traits has its own pathologies. Impulse control can undercut the ability to experience beauty, tranquillity and spontaneous joy. Insecure people feel like they’re never good enough. “I grew up thinking that I would never, ever please my parents,” recalls the novelist Amy Tan. “It’s a horrible feeling.”
So there you have it. Raise your children to be happy and confident and they will, on average, earn less money and go less far in their careers than the children of immigrants who instill a deep insecurity and a painful need to be worthy of the family.

Ryan McGinness, or, The Cosmic Giggle

Ryan McGiness was born in 1972 and grew up in Virginia Beach, surfing, skating, and sharing his peers' obsession with brand names and hot trends. He studied design at Carnegie-Mellon and then went to New York to become an artist. And he is succeeding famously, with major shows and installations all over.  (Black Hole/Pearl White, 2010).


I discovered him because of a huge multi-panel work in the new atrium of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which carries the title Art History is not Linear (2010).

He has a thing for images that communicate something -- recognizable bits of the global visual culture. He calls these "units of meaning," and most of his art is collages of these images thrown together in ways that he vaguely hints mean something more than the sum of their parts. According to his web site, he
pulls from signage, advertising, and the graphics of the skate world from which he comes to make bold and expressive works that play with symbols, text, and meaning.
(Destiny vs. Ambition, 2008)

The Richmond Times-Dispatch called him an "info-age Warhol"; curator John Ravenal of the VMFA says he "plays with the boundary between high and low culture."  He says that his overlapping images represent our mental world, and our need to extract information from an effectively infinite web of competing signs. (The Cosmic Giggle, 2013)

I am not sure what to make of these. They are different and not boring, but they don't really speak to me. (Spiral Dynamics of Evolution, 2013)

They have, I might say, the virtues and vices of our age: they are exciting, colorful and information-rich, but they are also busy, crowded, a little garish, and shallow; they try to make up for their lack of clarity and depth with a dazzling display of knowledge and graphic prowess. But they are interesting.  (Everything is Everywhere, 2013) Many more on his web site.