1)  Can trash be used to create art?  Does the selection, arrangement and titling of the composition elevate trash into meaningful art?

2)  Given that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), what IS creativity anyway?

3)  Is it counter-productive to insist that college students write original work?  Are our notions of plagiarism outdated (

4)  If an artist constructs a “new” song entirely from fragments of other songs (remixed music), is the new song an original work of art or just theft?

The type of artwork that raises these questions is assemblage, which is produced by the incorporation of everyday objects into the composition and which can be 2- or 3-dimensional.

Literary artists use assemblage, too, which is a text “built primarily and explicitly from existing texts to solve a writing or communication problem in a new context (”  Here is an example by Christian Verdun, a depiction of President Lincoln’s assassination, which took 3 years to create from magazines found in dumpsters:


To really appreciate the care with which the texts were selected, zoom in on this closeup of Lincoln’s head:

Paradox closeup resized

Photo credits:

1)  Nr. 5. 70x40x18 cm (28x16x8″), Assemblage · 01.11.1968 by Werner Stürenburg (  (“Das ist Kunst” = “This is art”)

2) and  The latter’s flash version enables you to zoom in nicely.


assortative mating


If you’re white and you don’t have any black friends (or vice versa), it’s okay.  Really!  Jimmy Kimmel’s “Pedestrian Question” segment ( asked people on the street if they had friends of another race, and it was interesting to observe the guilt of those who don’t.  There is nothing to feel guilty about, though.  Selecting same-race friends probably has nothing to do with racism.  It sounds very similar to a well-known biological phenomenon known as assortative mating.

Positive assortative mating occurs when people “choose to mate with persons similar to themselves (e.g., when a tall person mates with a tall person); this type of selection is very common (EB).”  We’ve all seen this: the tall marry the tall, the short marry the short, the handsome marry the beautiful.  People choose spouses that are similar regarding  “religious beliefs, physical traits, age, socioeconomic status, intelligence, and political ideology (Wikipedia).”

If you’re an engineer, you may want to think twice about marrying another engineer, however.  Some have suggested assortative mating may play a role in the number of children diagnosed with autism. Autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen is studying the prevalence of autism in children born to Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates. The research aims to see if there is a correlation between assortative mating in high functioning MIT graduates, who may fall on the autism spectrum, and rates of autism in their children. Baron-Cohen has found a correlation between rates of autism in regions of the Netherlands where a high concentration of people work in IT and engineering (Wikipedia).

Interestingly, redheads AVOID marrying redheads (which is negative assortative mating), adding fuel to the fiery claim that over the coming centuries redheads will become extinct (EB).  As it turns out, the “Redheads are dead” hysteria was more heat than light:

Photo credit:

assault and battery


Does American society really need laws against sexual harassment?  What about the Violence Against Women Act?  It seems that laws written specifically for women as a political interest group are not only unnecessary but unjust.  Consider the Britannica’s definition of the long-recognized crimes of assault and battery:

Assault is an attempt to commit battery or an act that causes another reasonably to fear an imminent battery.

Battery is the unlawful application of physical force to another.  No minimum degree of force is necessary to constitute a battery. A mere touch is sufficient. Force need not be applied directly.  It is battery if one strikes a person’s cane or horse, administers poison or drugs, or communicates a disease.

These concepts are found in most legal systems and together with manslaughter and murder are designed to protect the individual from rude and undesired physical contact or force and from the fear or threat thereof.

I am not a lawyer, but it seems that physical forms of sexual harassment (e.g., inappropriate touching) are already covered under battery laws.  Likewise, any form of violence against a woman should also be covered under existing laws.  So why do we have redundant laws specifically addressing women?

The simple answer is political pandering to a particular bloc of voters.  I think it is a dangerous trend for the government and the law to start singling out particular demographic groups for favorable treatment.  If violence against a woman receives a heavier punishment than violence against a man (which I suspect is the case although I haven’t looked it up), then whatever happened to the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution?

Another thing that is a dangerous trend is the increasing federalization of crimes, as illustrated by the Violence Against Women Act.  I believe (but have not verified) that for most of our history, most felonies were handled at the state level, including rape and murder.  Now, however, there is a longer and longer list of felonies that the federal government gets involved in.  If a felony is committed in California, the people of California, with greater knowledge of local circumstances, are far more likely to administer justice than people thousands of miles away in D.C.

Unfortunately for advocates of freedom, few politicians would be willing to vote against a bill called The Violence Against Women Act.  Who wants to be accused of favoring violence against women while trying to squeeze abstract arguments about justice into sound bites?  It would be easier to squeeze Kim Kardashian into a swimsuit.

What about sexual harassment that is verbal only? I think the right to speak our minds freely, even if we are offensive, should be non-negotiable.  After all, what has been the greater threat historically, hurt feelings or oppressive governments that force silent obedience?  Isn’t it obvious what the priority should be?

(Image credit:


For about two centuries, the Assassins specialized in assassinating their religious and political enemies. These killings were often conducted in full view of the public and often in broad daylight, so as to instill terror in their foes. Assassinations were primarily carried out with a dagger, which was sometimes tipped with poison.  Assassins were trained in both the art of combat and in the study of religion, believing that they were on a jihad and were religious warriors.

The Assassins were a secret order of Nizari Ismailis, a branch of Shīʿite Islam, that formed in Persia and Syria in the late 11th century (EB).    Some claim that the Assassins were controlled by their first Grandmaster, Hassan-i Sabbah, by being drugged with hashish.  The name Assassin might be derived from “hashashin.”

Marco Polo tells of how Assassins were recruited.  After being drugged, the Ismaili devotees were said be taken to a paradise-like garden filled with attractive young maidens and beautiful plants in which they would awaken. Here, they were told by an old man that they were witnessing Paradise and that should they wish to return to this garden permanently, they must serve the Nizari cause.

Another story goes that Hassan al-Sabah set up a trick to make it appear as if he had decapitated one of his hashashin and the “dead” hashashin’s head lay at the foot of his throne. It was actually one of his men buried up to his neck covered with blood. He invited his hashashin to speak to it. He said that he used special powers to allow it to communicate. The supposed talking head would tell the hashashin about paradise after death if they give all their full hearts to the cause. After the trick was played, Hassan had the man killed and his head placed on a stake to cement the deception.

I was struck by how little things have changed.  Terrorists today

– are reported to use drugs before committing their acts of terror

– are promised paradise, complete with virgins (Or is it grapes?

– claim that they are religious warriors on a jihad

The major difference is that Assassins targeted religious, political and military leaders, whereas today’s terrorists attack common people.  (There is probably a tactical debate within terrorist organizations about which is more effective in the long run.)

(Source for most information: Wikipedia)



“In parts of France, most notably at Argenteuil, asparagus is customarily grown underground to inhibit development of chlorophyll. This white asparagus is prized for its tenderness and delicate flavour. In classic French culinary nomenclature, the word “Argenteuil” denotes an asparagus garnish.”

This makes me wonder what other vegetables could be grown underground and how they would taste.  It would be an interesting project to systematically grow every vegetable underground and see what happens.  Would adding things to the soil change the taste much?

Photo credit:

(Who knew? Asparagus has flowers!)

Asnyk, Adam (1838-1897)

It’s always interesting to find poets and novelists influenced by science.  Here is a poet obviously influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution:

“[Asnyk’s] cycle of 30 sonnets, Nad głębiami (“Over the Depths”), was published in 1883–84. In it he stresses the evolutionary character of nature; the struggle for survival is shown not as the law of the jungle but as a mutual interdependence and cooperation between human communities. Deprived of independence and doomed to a political death, Poland, according to Asnyk, would be reborn sooner or later because it refused to commit ‘spiritual suicide.'”

I think it would be interesting to create a science textbook that contains art and literature inspired by scientific principles.  Why not educate both sides of the brain?

Asilah, Morocco

It’s almost comical how often certain cities or countries are conquered.  Such victims tend to be at the intersections of two continents (E.g., in Turkey or the Middle East) or on a key trade route (which is usually the same thing.)  Look at the sad tale of Asilah:

Unknown: Fell to the Romans

Unknown: Passed to the Idrisids

11th century: Attacked by Normans

972 AD until 1471: Dominated by Marinids

1471: Conquered by Portuguese

After 1578: Taken by Spaniards

1589: Ceded to Moulay Ahmad al-Mansur

1692: Conquered by Moroccans

1829: Bombed by Austria because it was a base for pirates

1911: Occupied by Spaniards.

1956: Returned to Morocco

There are several lessons here.

One, geography is historical destiny.  The Caspian Report has excellent videos explaining how geography explains much of Russia’s current behavior (

Two, I started thinking about how seldom borders of major countries have been violated in the past 70 years.  I count at least 10 wars between England and France from Medieval times until the 20th century (  In the same period there were at least 3 wars between England and Spain.  However, In recent times, excluding the World Wars, things really seemed to have calmed down.  There seems to be a consensus about most borders, and most conflicts today seem to be wars inside of borders (civil wars) rather than across borders.  Is this really a trend, or am I just kidding myself?  If this is a historical trend, why?  Have nuclear weapons cut down on cross-border wars, or is there more to the story?

I also wonder about the borders created in the Middle East after World War I.  They seem rather arbitrary.  Would the world have been better off if the map of the Middle East corresponded exactly with various ethnic groups (e.g., the Kurds in northern Iraq having their own country)?  I think the key question is this: Do ethnic groups ever truly assimilate or will there be no rest until they have their own nations?  It would be an interesting project to create a world map where the borders correspond with major ethnic groups.