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Japan is the land of the mascot (as noted in passing in the first ferrebeekeeper post about mascots). Not only do sports teams and companies and public safety campaigns all have mascots, in recent year the country has been gripped by a mania for Yuru-kyara (AKA yuru characters or “gentle characters”) little animated figures which represent every single city, municipality, prefecture, and village in Japan. The yuru characters are meant to represent some aspect of the culture of the place which they hail from: so a district famous for manufacturing aviation equipment might have a cute little jet mascot, whereas a farming village might be represented by a happy turnip. Some of the meanings are rather obscure (like the little berry boy which represents the Japan Self Defense Force Yamanashi Provincial Cooperation Office).
The most famous yuru-kyara become hugely popular and can be quite lucrative—for example Kumamoto, the beloved yuru-kyara of Kumamon brought in hundreds of millions of yen for the prefecture (and sold huge piles of Kumamoto figures and merchandise). Many of the others labor in obscurity (or are replaced by more likable mascots). Sometimes two figures will be in conflict: Funabashi City is unofficially represented by Funassyi a frolicsome “pear fairy” however the official Funabashi City yuru-kyara is Funaemon, who looks like an anxious and fussy bureaucrat.
You can check out all sorts of amazing Yuru-kyara on this website (thanks to my roommate Steven Sho Sugita-Becraft for the link!), but, unless you read Japanese, you might be hard pressed to figure out who they are and what they represent. I wonder if all the money-grubbing attention-hungry municipalities of America will ever adapt a similar scheme of crazy mascots (or are we just stuck with MacGruff and Mr. Yuck)?
My first job when I left college was working as an assistant curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—“the nation’s attic” where great hoards of objects from our collective past have been (and continue to be) carefully squirreled away for the edification of future generations. A miniscule percentage of the museum’s collection is on display and the rest gathers dust in enormous WWII era aircraft hangers outside Washington DC where all sorts of jackhammers, graphite urns, failed rocket cars, threshing machines, whalebone bustles, (and everything else) are stored.
On my first trip to the storage facility in Suitland, I eagerly ran up to the nearest Quonset hut to peek inside. The giant building was filled with pointy overly complicated machines which did not make any sense to the untrained eye. One typical device had been hauled outside to be cleaned. Looming in the sunlight, it looked like an extra from a Steven King movie. It was about 8 feet tall and was made of gray steel with big dangerous foot pedals and alarming fly wheels. A person operating the monstrosity would lean into a whirling maw of metal gouges, hooks, and razor sharp metal spikes. Since it dated back to the end of the nineteenth century, there were no safety features: a moment of inattention would cause the machine’s operator to lose various fingers, hands, or feet. I was transfixed—what amazing purpose did this hellish device serve? The senior curator and I shuffled through the index cards till we found its acquisition/accession code: it was a machine from a long defunct factory in Waterbury which was designed to make tiny metal buckles!
Whenever I lament the state of the contemporary world economy, I think back to that hulking buckle-maker and I imagine what it would be like to work on it ten hours a day (pretty much like dancing a complicated quadrille with a demon). Thank goodness that horrible…thing… is in a museum and my livelihood does not involve years spent slaving over it in fear and tedium! Today, automation becomes more and more prevalent and the majority of the world’s goods are being made by fewer and fewer people. Industrial jobs are being outsourced to poor workers in the developing world, but even in China, Bangladesh, and the world’s worst sweatshops, the excesses of the industrial revolution are gradually being tamed.
I am bringing this up because I want to look forward into the economic future. Even today, we could work 15 hours a week and have the same standard of living, but we don’t because, well… nobody knows. Your pointless job of ordering widgets, looking at meaningless spreadsheets, and pushing awful HR papers around will be gone in 50 years and belong in a museum’s never-looked-at storage room (along with that gougetastic buckle-maker of yesteryear). But what stupid thing will we be doing instead?
King Ludwig II of Bavaria reigned from 1864 to 1886—a period which saw the kingdom of Bavaria integrated into Bismarck’s unified Germany. Ludwig ascended the throne at the age of 18 after his father Maximilian II died unexpectedly of an illness. He was a strange figure as a king. Although introverted and shy he was also an extravagant aesthete with little taste for governing (although he enjoyed touring the countryside and conversing with everyday Bavarian farmers and workers). At first he was admired for being a romantic and tragic young figure, but ominous rumors piled up around the reluctant king and fate had dark plans for him.
Ludwig’s uncle was Wilhelm I of Prussia—destined to become the Kaiser of the German Empire. At first Ludwig tried to pull away from Prussian integration by siding with Austria, but he was easily outmaneuvered during the Seven Weeks War of 1866 and ended up allied with (and subordinate to) Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War. Ludwig II was initially helped out in his kingship by his grandfather Ludwig I (an infamously bad poet who had abdicated the kingship amidst a spectacular scandal concerning the Irish dancer/courtesan Lola Montez) but the former king died in 1868, leaving Ludwig II to capitulate to Prussian Imperial hegemony. As Ludwig II grew disinterested in affairs of state, he began to follow an increasingly inward and eccentric path.
The personal diaries and letters of Ludwig II reveal that he struggled to restrain his romantic feelings for other men and behave in accordance with the strict Catholic faith of Bavaria. He was engaged to a famous & beautiful duchess but he repeatedly postponed the engagement and finally called the wedding off altogether (apparently to spare his fiancée from a loveless marriage). The king was an ardent patron of Richard Wagner and he spent huge amounts of personal time with the spendthrift composer.
Ludwig II is most famous as an eccentric and maniacal builder. Calling on the Teutonic fantasies of Wagner and the absolutist opulence of Louis XIV, Ludwig commissioned multiple palace/castles. The greatest and strangest of his projects was Schloss Neuschwanstein, or “New Swan on the Rock castle”, a dramatic Gothic fortress with soaring fairytale towers, however he also commissioned Herrenchiemsee, a smaller scale replica of Versaille, and Linderhof Palace a chateau in neo-French Rococo style. Linderhof Palace was the only one of Ludwig’s palaces completed in his lifetime. It had novelty gardens of unrivaled opulence where Ludwig enjoyed being rowed around the fancifully lit grottoes of his water garden in a golden swan-boat. Lost in extravagant fantasies of being a swan knight, Ludwig became more a recluse and indulged in ever more solipsistic behavior.
All of this building cost phenomenal amounts of money and Ludwig’s indulgence in personal fantasies left him little time to deal with his ministers and courtiers. Despite the indignation of Ludwig’s court, his buildings were constructed with funds from the King’s purse rather than from the kingdom’s coffers (an important distinction). Strangely, the buildings served the traditional purpose of follies in Ireland and England and many peasants, builders, and artisans were employed in the construction projects.
Ludwig’s brother and heir Otto was ostentatiously and deeply insane. Bavaria’s courtiers and aristocrats began to wonder if it would not be best to have both brothers declared mad and locked away while a capable regent took over the important minutiae of integration and industrialization (and colonial empire—which Germany was beginning to dabble in). In the finest tradition of Gothic story-telling, the plotters turned to alienists, the psychiatric professionals of the day. By accumulating sordid (possibly fictional) tales, personal letters, and servants’ testimony, the aristocrats built up a case against Ludwig II as a dangerous madman. The ever-pragmatic Bismarck regarded the affair as a transparent frame-up, but neither he nor the Bavarian Diet nor the German Parliament acted to save Ludwig II from conspirators who proclaimed him insane and unfit to rule.
On the 12th of June 1886, Ludwig was detained (after an unsuccessful attempt at fleeing). He was placed in confinement at Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg, under thee care of the mental doctor Doctor Bernhard von Gudden. The next day, the two men embarked on a walk together through the Schloß Berg parkland beside the lake (both the king and the alienist declined attendants). Neither man returned alive. What transpired will never be known, but that evening a powerful storm swept the area. Desperate parties went out to search the lake and the surrounding forests for the two missing men. Just prior to midnight the searchers found the bodies of the doctor and Ludwig II floating in the lake. The king’s death was immediately ruled to be a suicide by drowning although the autopsy revealed no water in his lungs. Unreliable eyewitnesses (i.e. skulking royalists involved in various dodgy plots) reported that shots were fired however there is considerable disagreement about whether there were bullet wounds to the king’s corpse (which would indeed be suspicious). Gudden was beaten and strangled—presumably by the (mad?) king.
The whole affair was entirely mysterious and grim, but with the king gone, the people who had deposed him were free to carry out their agenda (within a larger context of German nationhood, of course). Work stopped on Ludwig’s castles. His mad brother Otto became king–but their uncle Luitpold held the true kingly authority (such as it was).
The world is different than it seems to be. Aristocrats and ministers of Ludwig’s time viewed him as a miserable failure as a king (if not an outright lunatic). Yet somehow he has emerged from the ruins of the German Empire with a higher reputation than the gifted statesmen who were his contemporaries. The castles which Ludwig created, which were seen as ruinous follies, have proven to be spectacularly lucrative as tourist destinations. His patronage of the arts has left a cultural stamp on Bavaria which is widely believed to have contributed to that state’s wealth (it is today the most prosperous German state). Bavarians speak of him fondly even today. Perhaps a bizarre closeted life of secretly dressing as a swan and a terrible violent end in a German lake were the inevitable fate of someone who, from the beginning decided to live in a world of dreams.
Hey! It’s the flag of Irsael: a blue Star of David on a white background between two blue stripes. What’s the story with all of that blue anyway? Well, like most stories involving Judaism, the story goes back a long, long way to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, where the high priests wore a robe dyed a deep midnight blue. In fact, this color, known as tekhelet, was a sacred color which appeared in temple hangings and in the twined fringes known as tzitzit which hang from the corners of Jewish prayer shawls.
The Tanahk (the sacred books of Judaism) are pretty specific about tekhelet. It is mentioned nearly 50 times and it is specifically and explicitly stated that the special blue dye must be made from a shellfish called chilazon (rather than from the less expensive indigo). And so it was for many lives of men. Unfortunately everything went wrong in the first and second centuries AD when the Roman Empire destroyed the temple, defeated a Jewish revolt and exiled Jews from Jerusalem. During this period of chaos and diaspora, the fine nuances of dyes were not of tantamount importance, and the way to make tekhelet were lost as was knowledge of exactly what sort of mollusk a chilazon actually is.
The Talmud demands that tekhelet be used for crafting the fringes of prayer shawls and it stipulates that counterfeit dyes must not be (knowingly) used. This has left devout Jews with a conundrum as to how to proceed. Since the Roman exile, Orthodox Jews have most commonly setteld plain white tzitzit, however there have also been several attempts to rediscover the mysterious chilazon and recreate tekhelet. In the late nineteenth century the Grand Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner researched the subject and proclaimed that the common cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, was the missing mollusk. The dye he created, however, did not seem to fit Talmudic descriptions and chemists later determined it was simply Prussian blue (although the holy man proudly wore his blue fringes, as did many of his followers).
Another Talmudic scholar cross referenced his ancient religious text with modern malacology texts and concluded that the chilazon was actually Hexaplex trunculus, a murex snail which is a close relative of Murex brandaris (the source of Tyrian purple). The dye which he created from the secretions of Hexaplex trunculus was also purple and thus did not seem to fit the bill. Only with the help of a chemist in the 1980s was it determined that the proper blue color could be obtained by exposing a solution of the snail slime dye to sunlight. So if you are an orthodox Jew (or a high priest of the Temple) you might want to look into getting some tekhelet clothing.
Is this a nightmarish future dystopia? No, of course not, it’s just Singapore, the authoritarian concrete & steel city-state on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Recognizing the manmade barrenness of land which should be a tropical rainforest, Singapore’s central planners mandated the creation of “the gardens by the bay” three gardens built on reclaimed land in central Singapore, adjacent to the Marina Reservoir. The centerpiece of the gardens is “the supertree grove” a series of artificial trees ranging between 25 metres (82 ft) and 50 metres (160 ft) in height. The artificial metal trees are rigged with water collectors and photovoltaic cells to mimic the function of real trees. They have also been festooned with living vines, bromeliads, flowers, and ferns to be green and living in verisimilitude of actual trees. Singapore hopes the strange structures will further mimic real trees and act as kidneys and lungs for the city—providing clean air and clean water. By day, visitors can walk through the ersatz trees on a walkway (perhaps to eat at a café on top of the largest), and, at night, the trees are the setting of a dazzling light show. Of course, the question remains: why didn’t Singapore use real trees? It seems the nation is extremely determined to make itself into an arcology—an artificial superstructure designed to support immense numbers of humans. Rebuilding natural ecosystems to be part of this great machine-city is a necessary step. I wonder when they will go ahead and just build a dome over the place.
The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia which is a city on the Black Sea near the Georgia border. The games will be the first winter games to feature medals competitions in “Slopestyle” snowboard and skiing as well as snowboard parallel slalom.
Of course the real competitions have already been held: namely the insane International competition to host the Olympics (which came down to a choice between Sochi, Salzburg, and Pyeongchang) and, more importantly, the competition to choose the official Olympic mascots. You will no doubt recall that the 2012 summer Olympics mascots were “Wenlock and Mandeville”, two cyclopean alien robot monsters.
In an attempt to end up with less appalling mascots, Russia turned to the time honored Russian solution of…democracy (?). Wow! The world really is changing. A list of vetted candidates was drawn up and submitted to the public for consideration. Some of the shortlisted design ideas included Matryoshka dolls, Dolphins, Bullfinches, snow leopards, hares, bears, a tiny anthropomorphized sun, and Ded Moroz (the Russian “Father Frost” who acts as Santa).
Zoich, the anti-establishment furry crowned toad (who was modeled after Futurama’s hypnotoad) was quietly omitted from the final list of candidates as was Ded Moroz, when it was discovered that, if he won, he would become the intellectual property of the International Olympic Committee.
A telephone voting competition was held between the final mascot candidates and the three winners (the snow leopard, hare, and bear) became the official Olympic mascots. Unfortunately the election was tainted with scandal when Russia’s elected leader and perennial strongman, Vladimir Putin announced that his favorite candidate was the snow leopard. Subsequent to this proclamation, an immense number of phonecalls were immediately tallied for the snow leopard, which has led to charges of vote-rigging (so maybe the world hasn’t changed so much after all).
The designer of the 1980 Moscow Games mascot Misha (a bear which nobody saw because of the U.S. boycott) has accused the designer of the Sochi bear mascot of plagiarizing his bear expression. Certain political groups have also darkly hinted that the bear was chosen because it resembles the mascot of the United Russia political party (which is the dominant force in Russian politics).
So it seems only the snow hare and the Paralympic mascots (a snowflake girl and fireboy) are untainted by controversy. I dislike admitting it, but to my eye, Putin was right and the snow leopard, although not native to Sochi, is the most compelling figure. They are all pretty cute, so maybe this whole democracy thing actually works (despite the ghastly results we have been getting lately in America).
Every day, major news outlets pick up a few trivial “offbeat” stories in order to pad out the international mayhem, barely concealed commercials, punditry, and celebrity gossip which constitutes the news. One such puff-piece in the news today features the story of a spa in Tokyo which is offering snail facials. Apparently credulous yet affluent Japanese women can pay to have snails crawl on their face for approximately an hour. The snails are fed on organic carrots and greens so that their mucous–and whatever else passes out of them–will be, well, organic.
There is a rationale behind this wacky beauty regime. Snail slime contains hyaluronans (aka hyaluronic acids), long unbranched polysaccharides found in animal tissues which promote healing and flexibility. Hyaluronans have been found to play a major role in wound healing and it is a major component of cartilage and skin (they are also implicated in the prevention of cancer—and malfunction of hyaluronan-producing cells is likewise implicated in cancerous mutagenesis). Cash-seeking dermatologists have long used hyaluronan as a “filler” to inject into skin to minimize the appearance of wrinkles and as a relatively inert ingredient in their creams and unguents, however recently hyaluronans made the news in an even bigger way with a fascinating, albeit erudite article about the longevity of naked mole rats. You can read the actual research abstract here, but ABC News more concisely summarizes the possible implications of the research by writing, “Last month, researchers at the University of Rochester wrote that naked mole rats’ super-long hyaluronan molecule actually tells cells to stop reproducing, which is why they think naked mole rats don’t get cancer.”
Unfortunately, whatever actual importance hyaluronans have in the human body (and whatever importance super long hyaluronans have for the doughty naked mole rat), it does not seem that being coated in snail mucous necessarily has much benefit. Dermatologists aver that, as the snail slime (which may be of dubious benefit anyway) simply lies on top of the dead waterproof dermis, it cannot have much if any magic mole-rat age-reducing effect. That still doesn’t deter desperate people who let gastropods crawl all over their face in a quest for eternal youth.
Happy 407th birthday to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn! The master’s peerless paintings and etchings show a unique understanding and empathy for the human condition. Rembrandt painted faces more expressively than any other artist–because of this strength, his works attain deep emotional complexity. To illustrate this, and to celebrate his birth, here is a masterpiece by Rembrandt which is in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid. The painting is magnificent! A pensive noblewoman (modeled by Rembrandt’s beloved wife Saskia) in resplendent jewels and silks takes a nautilus cup from a little page. Behind her stands a strange gray figure, half-visible in the gloom—an apparition? a servant? The painter himself? It is unclear. The painting itself is a mystery which has been discussed an argued about for centuries.
Rembrandt painted the work in 1634 (which we can see from his prominent signature and his inimitable style), but, uncharacteristically we do not know the title. The painting is either “Artemisia Receiving Mausolus’ Ashes” or “Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Cup.” If the first title is correct, then the nautilus cup which is dramatic focus of the painting contains the ashes of Queen Artemisia’s husband/brother, Mausolus, satrap of Persia. Mausolus’ immense tomb (constructed by Artemisia) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and gave us the word “mausoleum”. Yet the great tomb was empty: Artemisia had Mausolus’ ashes mixed into wine which she drank day after day until she had completely consumed his remains (the Greeks were fascinated by the fact that Artemisia was simultaneously the sister and wife and devourer of Mausolus).
However, if the second title is correct, then the seashell cup contains deadly poison. Sophonisba was the daughter of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal Gisco. Upon his defeat, she took poison so as not to endure the humiliation of being part of a Roman triumph. Nautilus shells allegedly had the magical power to negate poison (safety tip: this is not true at all). That Sophonisba would commit suicide with such a cup indicates the true moral of the painting: the real poison is defeat and slavery. Poison and a proud death are her antidotes.
So which answer is right? Or are they both wrong? Saskia’s strange diffident anxiety could be fitting for either story, yet her manner and dress are not those of a grieving Persian sister-queen. I favor the interpretation of the painting as that of the stoic Sophonisba. These are her last moments and the gray figure is as much an inhabitant of the underworld as a flesh-and-blood attendant. The strange whimsical garb is the fantasy raiment of vanished Carthage. But I could well be wrong. What do you think?
Lately I have been reading a series of science fiction novels which are set thousands (or tens of thousands) of years from now in the fictional world of the far future. In this imagined future, humankind exists alongside of sentient computers which have stupendous quasi-divine intelligence, vastly greater than that of people. The artificial minds regard humankind as a combination of parent, pet, and childlike ward–however, at the same time the supercomputers are controlled by (or at least work with) the world’s wealthiest citizens who use this considerable advantage to consolidate their hold on elite positions and rare resources. The book’s writer was (is?) a lawyer so many of the books’ problems involve lawsuit-style disputes over who controls what property in the face of complex rules and circumstances (some of which are hilarious: for example when two entities merge, they literally integrate together as a hive-mind superorganism). Many scenes involve the hapless human protagonists standing aside baffled as supercilious machines argue over their fate (in impenetrable jargon, of course)—a tableau instantly familiar to anyone who has ever dealt with lawyers. The work is tremendously entertaining and already out of print—so you will need an e-reader or a used book store if you want to find out what happens.
As with most science fiction, the series of novels reminds me not so much of the world of the far future (concerning which… who knows?) but rather of the present. We are currently living through a great revolution: every year our machines become substantially more powerful and more intelligent. Thanks to devices of all sorts, today’s world is ever more efficient which, in turn, makes the price of goods and services cheaper. Although it sometimes seems otherwise, production costs for just about everything keep going down (even though many industries are coming under the influence of cartels and monopolies). At first the growing utility of machines was only evident in industry where machines and industrial robots started performing the tasks of assembly line workers (to make textiles, refrigerators, automobiles, airplanes or such), but now computer programs are taking over for accountants, librarians, stock-brokers, and bookkeepers. Inhumanly precise robots can now even do the work of surgeons, sculptors, and pastry chefs.
Ostensibly we are all beneficiaries of this revolution. Economic and moral philosophers have talked about a “post-scarcity” society where all essentials are cheaply provided to everyone and the only premium is on luxury goods and services. It is reasonable to argue that citizens of the first world (and even in parts of the developing world) are entering such an economic paradigm: everyone has a pleather couch, a big screen TV, and all the corn-based junk food they can cram in their pantry. Yet somehow Netflix and Doritos lose their savor when nobody has a worthwhile job. Technological change and attendant globalization are causing tremendous inequality as labor becomes irrelevant and capital becomes more important. It is more than just a political canard that the middle class is disappearing.
Secretaries, factory drudges, and travel agents are beginning to seem archaic–like scribes and icemen. If such trends continue oncologists, soldiers, writers, radiologists, and actuaries will begin to disappear as well. Carefully combing the daily news, one increasingly reads about breakthroughs which allow computer programs and elaborate machinery to efficiently do white collar jobs. Here is an example article about how stock traders are being replaced by cold inhuman computers (which, strangely, still contrive to be more likeable than the traders). Soon the only people who will be productive will be the super-elites who own robotic factories, proprietary software, and energy production facilities (and consequently everything else).
Of course the hollowing out of the American middle class and the rise of the super billionaires is not only due to more effective technology. Globalization of world labor markets and the afore-mentioned cartels (and rent-seeking) are also factors. Expensive machines do not have all the jobs: it is cheaper to outsource light manufacturing overseas where inexpensive labor and minimal regulation ensure maximum profits. Yet, it seems the day is coming when society becomes so stratified that there will be few ways to enter the top echelon of society. Capital & equity will have meaning. Labor and innovation will be worthless.
Of course maybe I am being paranoid. Perhaps the machines will also usurp the leaders who stand at the pinnacle of social power/wealth (or the elites will otherwise be deposed) and we can all work two day workweeks and spend the rest of the time going to petting zoos and having online conversations with friends. Maybe the supercomputers will just kill us all off like we did with earlier hominids.
Again, who knows? We are talking about the future. But right now society is not keeping up with the pace of machine innovation. As a consequence we face all sorts of alarming class ossification, wage stagnation, unemployment, and political gridlock. Those of us who still have jobs should start to think about the ramifications of obsolescence in the face of ever-better machines–for that fate is coming. In the near future, travel agents won’t be the only ones who have lost their jobs to the march of progress. Unless you are the richest person in Venezuela or the Duke of Windsor, you will soon not have a meaningful job. Will you enjoy a life of empty leisure and fey entertainment like my housecat or will you be stuck working 65 hours a week doing some task which the economy deems to be beneath the dignity of machines?