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Artist's Interpretation of Sedna (Credit: Gemini artwork by Jon Lomberg)

After the discovery of Pluto in 1930, there was a long hiatus in discovering objects of comparable size. Then in 2003, a team of astronomers led by Mike Brown of Caltech discovered a distant icy sphere which was quickly heralded as “the tenth planet.”  Mike Brown announced the discovery on his website along with his team’s rationale for naming the object.  He wrote “Our newly discovered object is the coldest most distant place known in the Solar System, so we feel it is appropriate to name it in honor of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, who is thought to live at the bottom of the frigid Arctic Ocean.

It turns out that Sedna is only one of many similar snowball-like planetoids beyond Neptune.  In fact, Ferrebeekeeper has already described the dwarf planet Eris (named after the Greek goddess of Strife) which is the largest currently known Kuiper belt object.  Sedna was the first to be discovered since Pluto and it sparked a debate about such objects which ultimately resulted in Pluto’s downgrade to dwarf planet.  Sedna also has some unique features which make it remarkable in its own right.

The orbit of Sedna (red) set against the orbits of Jupiter (orange), Saturn (yellow), Uranus (green), Neptune (blue), and Pluto (purple)

Sedna takes 11,400 years to complete its orbit around the sun and its bizarre highly elliptical orbit has given rise to much conjecture among astronomers.  Although some astronomers believe it was scattered into a skewed orbit by the gravitational influence of Neptune, other astronomers believe it originated in the inner Oort cloud and was never close enough to Neptune to be affected by the giant’s gravity.  Some scientists speculate that its lengthy orbit may have been caused by a passing star (perhaps from the sun’s birth cluster).  A few theorists have gone one step further and conjectured that Sedna is from a different solar system and was captured by our Sun billions of years ago.  A final school contends that Sedna is evidence of an unknown giant planet somewhere in the depths of space (!).

A photo of Sedna taken from a powerful telescope on Earth

We don’t know much about Sedna except that is probably 1,200–1,600 km in diameter and that its surface is extremely red.  After Mars, Sedna is one of the reddest astronomical objects in our solar system.  This color comes from the profusion of tholins covering the methane and nitrogen ice of which the little world is formed.  Tholins are large, complex organic molecules created by the interaction of ultraviolet light on methane and other simple hydrocarbons.  It is believed that early Earth (prior to obtaining an oxidizing atmosphere) was rich in Tholins and they are one of the precursors to the rise of life.

Sedna Statue (from GTA Inuit Art Marketing)

Like the Arctic landscape, Inuit mythology is austere, cruel, strange, and beautiful. Just as the dialects of the Inuit language differ based on geography, so too many of the sacred stories of the Inuit share the same elements yet also vary from one region to the next. One such story is the myth of Sedna—the goddess of marine mammals, the frozen depths of the sea, and of the spirit’s realm below.  There are many versions of the tale.  Here is my favorite.

Sedna was a beautiful giantess.  Her great size was a hardship for her father, who had to spend most of his time hunting in order to feed himself and his daughter. However, because she was so lovely, she had many suitors.  Sedna was proud of her looks and her strength, so she rejected every suitor as unworthy of her.

One day a well-dressed stranger came to visit Sedna’s father.  Though the visitor’s clothes were opulent and his language was cultured, he kept his hood pulled down so that his face remained in darkness. The stranger talked of his great wealth and the life of ease which Sedna would enjoy if she were his wife.  Then he appealed to the father’s greed with gifts of fish, animal skins, and precious materials. Since hunting was bad and his stores were running out, Sedna’s father felt he had little choice but to comply–so he drugged his daughter and presented her to the stranger.  As soon as she was loaded on his kayak the elegant stranger paddled off into the frozen ocean with unnatural speed.

When Sedna came around to consciousness, she was in a great nest on top of a cliff.  The only furnishings were dark feathers, fish bones, and a few clumps of skin and fur.  The elegant stranger cackled and threw back his hood.  He was none other than Raven, the capricious trickster deity who had arrived second in the world, soon after the creator had shaped it.  Raven kept his beautiful stolen wife trapped in his nest and he fed her on fish (although she kept her ears open and listened to his magic words).

In the mean time, Sedna’s father became unhappy with the bargain he had struck.  He set out on his kayak to find his daughter and rescue her from the mysterious suitor.  Night and day he paddled, till finally he heard her cries for help intermingled with the howling winds.

Sedna’s father arrived while raven was off pursuing his other ventures, and Sedna quickly climbed down to his kayak so they could start back to the mainland.  They paddled hard, but before they could reach land, Sedna spotted a distant pair of black wings in the sky.  Raven had returned home to his nest and found his bride was missing.  In anger at being cheated, Raven called out magic words of anger to the sea spirits.  The winds rose to a gale and huge waves pounded the kayak.

Sedna's Bounty (Mayoreak Ashoona, 1993, lithograph)

Lost in terror, Sedna’s father cast his daughter into the ocean to placate Raven and the water spirits.  Despite the storm and her father’s imprecations, she clung to the gunwale of the kayak.  Then, in fury, her father pulled out his flint knife and hacked at her fingers.  Sedna’s first finger came off and, amidst blood and saltwater, was transformed into narwhals and belugas. Her father hacked off her second finger which transformed into fur seals and ringed seals.  Finally the knife cut through her third finger which transformed into the great walruses.  Unable to grip the kayak with her maimed hand, Sedna fell into the sea. Rather than submit to her raven husband or her greedy father, she let herself sink beneath the waves down to the icy bottom of the ocean.

The Legend of Sedna (Sraiya, ca. 2010, pen and ink)

Beneath the waves she found Adlivun, the Inuit underworld where spirits are purified before they wander on to other worlds.  With the help of her powerful new children she made herself ruler there.  Her legs gradually changed into a mighty tail.  Her humankind ebbed from her and was replaced by divine power and wrath. Sedna is still worshiped as the underworld god by Inuit peoples.  She hates hunters both because of the wrongs she suffered at the hands of her father and because they continue to kill so many of her children—the seals, whales, and walruses.  From time to time she raises a terrible storm to drown seafarers, or she gathers together all of the marine mammals within her long beautiful hair where the hunters can never find them.  It is at such times that the shaman must travel down into Adlivun to beg with her and to praise her beauty and strength. Only then will she reluctantly let the storms abate and allow all of the marine mammals to go back to the coasts–where they are again in danger from Inuit spears.

Playful Sedna by artist Kakulu Sagiatok

Heidelberg Castle and the Hortus Palatinus

Frederick V, the elector Palatinate and briefly crowned King of Bohemia was not a very successful ruler…but that is not the only thing that there is to life.  Frederick had a happy marriage and he was an ardent lover of gardens. When he spent a winter in England romancing Elizabeth Stuart (the daughter of King James I of the United Kingdom), Frederick was himself courted by several visionary gardeners and engineers.  In 1614, Frederick commissioned one of these men, Salomon de Caus, a Huguenot hydraulic engineer and architect, to design an epic garden around Heidelberg Castle as a present for his new bride. The garden which de Caus designed, the Hortus Palatinus, or Garden of the Palatinate, was accounted to be the finest Baroque garden in Germany.  Some awe-struck contemporaries went farther and called the garden the eighth wonder of the world.

Elizabeth Stuart (Nicholas Hilliard, ca. 1610)

Since the ground around Heidelberg castle was steep, the builders had to cut and level great terraces for the Hortus Palatinus.  Once they had carved a huge “L” shape around the castle, no expense was spared in furnishing the gardens.  Exotic plants were collected from around Europe and the world (including tropical plants such as a full grove of orange trees).  Gorgeous flowers and fully grown ornamental trees were planted amidst sumptuous statues, grottos, fountains, and follies.  Great knotted parterre mazes led the wandering visitor through the sprawling grounds where costly novelties abounded. There was a huge water organ built according to the design of an ancient Roman text, clockwork cuckoos and nightingales which sang musical pieces, and an animated statue of Memnon, a Trojan warrior who was the son of the goddess of the Dawn. Among some circles it was whispered that de Caus was a mystical Rosicrucian and he had coded secret magical wisdom within the repeating octagonal motifs of the garden.

Historic view of Heidelberg, Germany and the Hortus Palatinus

By 1619, the Hortus Palatinus, was the foremost Renaissance garden of northern Europe, and it was still not finished.  To quote Gardens of the Gods, Myth Magic and Meaning,“Heidelberg was the scene of a brief idyll of enlightenment, culture, learning, and toleration.” The young king Frederick and his pretty English bride would romantically dally in the garden he had created for her. Then everything went wrong.  Frederick V went to war with Ferdinand II and lost badly, a conflict which began the Thirty Years war.  The garden was never finished.  Instead it was destroyed by Catholic artillery who then used it as a base for destroying the city.  By the time that Frederick’s son was restored to lordship of the Lower Palatinate, the region was in ruins.  The garden was never rebuilt—it remains a picturesque ruin to this day.

The Hortus Palatinus Today

Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) in Nunavut,Canada (photo by Mark Carwardine)

Today we feature one of everyone’s favorite animals–the great toothwalkers of the northern oceans, the mighty walruses (Odobenus rosmarus).  Adult Pacific male walruses can weigh more than 2,000 kg (4,400 pounds) and grow to lengths exceeding 13 feet.  The huge pinnipeds live in vast colonies ringed around the Arctic Ocean.  Females separate themselves from the fractious males in order to protect their calves from the squabbling and dueling of the bulls.  The tusks (which can grow to 1 m (3 ft 3 in) in length) are also used by both genders to leverage their great weight out of the water—hence the name “toothwalker.” The word walrus comes from the Old Norse word “hrossvalr” which means horsewhale.

(photo by Max Smith)

The distinctive face of the walrus is a mass of large coarse bristles properly known as vibrissae.  Like the barbells of a catfish, these vibrissae are extremely sensitive tactile organs which help the walrus find shellfish on the dark and turbid ocean bottom.  Walruses are capable of diving deep to find the invertebrates they like to eat.  Scientists have recorded dives of 113 meters (371 feet) which lasted for about 25 minutes.  Once the walruses have located a food source to their liking, they dislodge their prey with jets of water and then suction up the creatures.  Apparently they are most partial to bivalve mollusks, snails, sea cucumbers, and crabs, but in extreme circumstances they can hunt large fish or even smaller seals.

Walruses can sleep in the water, their heads supported by an inflatable pouch which allows them to bob comfortably in the choppy near-freezing water.  Additionally they change color with the temperature—their surface skin can be pink, as blood rushes near to the surface when they are hot, or they can turn grey brown when cold.

Walrus colony. Source (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

All pinnipeds, including walruses, are in the order Carnivora where they seem to most closely share a common ancestor with bears back in the Oligocene. Walruses are the only species in the only genus of the family Odobenidae.  Once the Odobenidae were a sprawling family with at least twenty species spread across three several subfamilies (the Imagotariinae, Dusignathinae and Odobeninae), but something went wrong and walruses are all that’s left of the saber-toothed seals.

Polar bear attacking walruses (from the BBC's series "Planet Earth")

Walruses’ only natural predators are polar bears and killer whales, but even the world’s largest land predator and the most formidable ocean predator find adult walruses intimidating.  Except in extraordinary circumstances the huge predators only hunt calves or weakened walruses. Predictably, humans are the walruses’ main problem.  In the 18th, 19th, and 20th century immense numbers of walruses were killed for blubber, skin, meat, and ivory.  Today this commercial exploitation has ended and worldwide populations have rebounded somewhat–though certain geographic areas remain depopulated.

Perhaps because they move ponderously on land and because their whiskers suggest comic uncles, some people underestimate walruses. I have been fortunate enough to see a young adult walrus in captivity (he was orphaned as a pup and would have died if not taken in by an aquarium) and it is a mistake to underestimate these animals.  The walrus (whose name was Ayveq) was as large as a midsized truck, yet he could move with shark-like speed but ballet-like grace in the water.  Bull walruses come into maturity at the age of 7, but they don’t usually get to mate with cows until they are 15 or so and have bested many competitors in savage sword duels with their tusks. Ayveq had access to a harem of walrus cows from a much younger age, and his comic attempts to understand himself and his relation to the females was a source of much surprised astonishment among aquarium-goers.  As a peripheral point, I neglected to mention that male walruses have a uniquely large baculum which can measure up to 63 cm (25 inches)—larger than that of any other land mammal.  The apparatus supported by this bone is similarly oversized.

A tame picture of Ayveq the Walrus (he liked to mush his face against the glass)

Ayveq could produce a remarkable series of shrieks, grunts, whistles, bellows—apparently communication is important in the teaming masses of walrus colonies. Whether drinking herring through a straw, mugging for a crowd, or using his back flippers to amuse himself, Ayveq was always remarkable. His death saddened me considerably and I could not write about walruses without mentioning his extravagant personality.  Knowing Ayveq also left me convinced that walruses might be perverts but they are also highly intelligent and gregarious beings.  This conviction is born out by the painstaking work of biologists and zoologists who are just beginning to recognize how complicated walrus society is.  It is no wonder, that so many poets, artists, and musicians have referenced the remarkable tusked creatures.

The Walrus and the Carpenter from Alice in Wonderland (Walt Disney)

Chuck Yeager's X-1 Test Plane

It has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper has presented a post about color.  Therefore, to liven up the gray monotony of midwinter, today’s post features one of the most vivid colors out there.  International orange is a brilliant deep orange which is in widespread use throughout the world. Strangely enough, this eye-popping color was created and adopted for practical reasons.  International orange (a dark orange with hints of red) is the contrasting color with sky blue (pale blue with tinges of green).  The military and aerospace industry use international orange to make planes and personnel distinct from their surroundings.  Many famous test planes have been painted international orange including Chuck Yeager’s X-1 (above).   The color is also commonly used for flight suits, rescue equipment, and high-visibility maritime equipment.

 

Thanks to the high contrast of the color against the background, crews were more able to track the progress of test craft against the sky.  Additionally, if something went wrong, rescue and recovery became easier if the craft stood out against the sky, ocean, and land.

The Golden Gate Bridge

Aside from its use in spacecraft and supersonic test planes, international orange also makes tall structures stand out against the skyline (and therefore protects against accidental collision).  A darker “architectural” version of the color is instantly recognizable as the orange of the golden gate bridge.  The Tokyo Tower was painted in international orange and white in order to comply with safety regulations of the time.  The bright orange of both structures has become an integral part of their recognizability and appeal.

The Tokyo Tower

Although it is not branded as such, the natural world also has a use for international orange and a surprising number of poisonous creatures can be found in similar shades. Bright orange makes the creatures visible and advertises their toxicity to potential predators.  It is funny to think that tiny frogs and huge towers share the same color.

Oophaga pumilio (Strawberry Poison-dart Frog)

Brackenbury Stove

Winter is a season when it is best to be reading a book beside a hot stove.  Not only are stoves appealing because they are hot–most wood stoves and fire places are also designed to look good. Wood-burning stoves made of cast-iron are among the last devices regularly manufactured in classic gothic-revival shapes (perhaps because the industry is small and specialized enough to charge premium prices for elegance).  Many of these stoves appear as though they loaded fuel into themselves and then walked out of the nineteenth century on little cast-iron legs.

To get through the winter (while simultaneously adding to Ferrebeekeeper’s “Gothic” category), here is a gallery of attractive gothic stoves.  Some of these are classic stoves from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but a surprising number are on sale now.

Four o'clock stove (ca. 1840-1860)

Gothic Fire Basket

Carron Gothic Revival Cast Fireplace

Handmade green gothic chimenea

Little Cottage Stove by Country Kiln

Dimplex Compact Electric Stove

Dimplex Rectory Fire Stove

Gothic Revival Mantle from Strawberry Hill Manor

GM Iron Antique Stove

Jotul F100 multifuel stove

Lady Gay Parlor Stove (ca. 1870s)

Panadero Gothic 400 Stove

Red Wolsey Stove

Warmland Gothic Multifuel

There is something surprisingly comforting about these stoves.  Just looking at them makes one think of warmth, shelter, and relaxation. But, with their stern arches, angular faces, and red flames, they also seem hungry, sinister, and hot.  This odd juxtaposition must go back a long way for humans who have bedded down beside wood fires for thousands of generations as we crept further into lands too cold for our tropical blood.

These pictures are good for showing the sculptural/architectural beauty of these various stoves, but they are not quite as good at evoking the proper feeling of warmth and security.  To get that sense you should imagine a dark shadowy study with the warm orange glow of embers cast across the room.  Outside the wind howls over frozen forests and fields of ice but you don’t have to go out there.

Jøtul F 500 Oslo non-catalytic clean burn woodstove

Of course you might be reading this from some southern clime, in which case you don’t need to worry about winter’s chill at all. Have a big tropical drink and go to the beach.  You can sit in the sun and reflect on how much I envy you.

Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year! Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It’s time for dumplings and fireworks!  This is the year of the Water Dragon—an auspicious year (if astrologers are to be believed).  Since being born in the year of the dragon is regarded as fortunate, Chinese demographers are projecting a larger than normal number of births this year.  If you are looking to have children maybe you should hold off on the partying and go work on that right now.

The dragon is the de facto symbol of China (and has been so for a long, long time). The mythical creatures appear everywhere in art, architecture, clothing, advertising, and even drawn indelibly on people (as above). Snarky political cartoons about currency manipulation represent China as a dragon in the same way that the United States is always shown as Uncle Sam or an eagle.  Five clawed dragons symbolized imperial authority during the era of the emperors. Even in pre-dynastic China the dragon was a central symbol. Dragon statues have been discovered from the Yangshao culture (seven millennia ago).

A Chinese porcelain blue and white 'dragon' jar. Ming Dynasty, Jiajing period (1522-66). Photo Gibson Antiques

Although symbolic of power, strength, and good luck, Chinese dragons are also inextricably linked to water sources.  In various myths, dragons represent control over oceans, rivers, lakes, and ponds.  They are also linked with stormclouds, rainfall, floods, and rainbows. Some scholars and folklorists believe that the concept of dragons was originally based around actual aquatic animals like saltwater crocodiles (which ranged along the Chinese coast in ancient times), large snakes, and huge catfish.

Bronze Dragon from the Summer Palace, Beijing

Because they are composed of features from various real animals, Chinese Dragons perfectly suit the themes of this blog (which has a history of admiring chimerical creatures). Dragons have the body of a serpent, the claws of an eagle, the legs of a tiger, the whiskers of a catfish, the antlers of a deer and the scales of a fish.  According to legend, back in the depths of time, the Yellow Emperor, a semi-divine magician, unified China and became the first emperor.  The Yellow Emperor’s standard was a golden snake, but whenever he conquered another fiefdom he would add the features of their heraldic animal to his own.  As the emperor’s army conquered more and more of China, the snake acquired antlers, talons, fish scales, and barbels.

The Yellow Emperor (Illustrated by Blue Hsiao)

People born in the year of the dragon are supposed to embody a mosaic of noble traits.  Dragons are said to possess intelligence, energy, self assurance, passion, and courageousness. Allegedly water dragons combine these virtues with patience and understanding. I’m not sure how much faith I put in astrology, but I certainly hope this year combines some of these good things.

Gung hay fat choy!

Synodontis schoutedeni catfish (Credit: Oliver Drescher)

So what’s so amazing about catfish?  So far, Ferrebeekeeper has describing all sorts of different variations of these fascinating fish. From the giant truck-sized catfish of the Mekong, to the infinitesimal (yet horrifying) candirus of the Amazon, to the deadly poisonous schooling catfish of coral reefs, to catfish that live underground or in gardens, we have seen a seemingly impossible variety of the irrepressible whiskered creatures. But, aside from their variety, hardiness, and interesting appearance, catfish represent an extraordinary apogee in sensory ability.  They are able to apprehend their watery realms in ways that might as well be supernatural or alien to us.  Catfish have honed familiar senses—taste, smell, touch, hearing, and sight–to outrageous extremes. Yet they have additional senses—electroreceptivity, pressure sensitivity, and possibly other senses–that we are only starting to understand.

Channel catfish, Ictalurus punctatus

Let’s start with catfish’s sense of taste: catfish, unlike us, are not limited to tasting things with their tongues.  Their entire bodies are covered with taste buds.  To quote catfish expert Dr. John Caprio of Louisiana State University, “Catfish are swimming tongues…You can’t touch any place on a catfish without touching thousands of taste buds. To use an analogy, it’s as if the tip of your tongue grew out and covered your body.”  Catfish can literally taste the water all around their bodies and the mud they are swimming over.

Red-tailed Catfish, Phractocephalus hemioliopterus (Photo by Chad Cullen)

Beyond their powers of taste, catfish have a bloodhound-like sense of smell. With astonishingly sensitive olfactory pits near their nostrils, Catfish can smell certain compounds at one part per 10 billion parts of water. The sense of smell does not merely help them while hunting and seeking food, catfish use smell to identify other individual catfish and to maintain a social hierarchy.  A catfish has an elaborate picture of its watery realm, the denizens thereof, and of the history and interaction of these inhabitants based on smell.

Catfish Barbels

Catfish’s scale-free skin is unusually sensitive to touch but that is not the end of catfish’s ability to feel what is going on around it.  The most distinctive feature of catfish—their 8 barbels (whiskers) are literally organs for touching.  Like a blind man’s cane, each of these barbels can touch the substrate or whatever is moving in front of the catfish.  Not only are the barbels covered with taste buds and feeling nerves, the whiskers also vibrate with water disturbance and provide a sense almost like hearing—although catfish also have multiple hearing organs.

Black Bullhead Catfish (notice the prominent lateral line)

Vibrations travel well under water and most fish have excellent abilities to sense sound, but catfish have evolved some additional auditory features.  The swim bladder of a catfish (which the fish uses like a submarine ballast in order to rise and fall through the water column) is connected by a series of small bones (the Weberian apparatus) to the hearing apparatus (otoliths) inside the head. Catfish are therefore able to hear sounds of a higher frequency than other freshwater fish.  Catfish can also sense extremely low-frequency sounds thanks to a different hearing system—a series of small pores running along the fish’s lateral lines. Within the pores are infinitesimal hair-like sensing apparatuses which respond to the slightest water displacement. Using lateral line hearing, a Catfish can sense animals scuttling across the rocks on the bottom of a river, predators swimming above them, and even fishermen walking on the shore. Perhaps most remarkably, the low frequency sensors which catfish have in their lateral lines seem to give the fish the ability to detect seismic activity.  The Chinese and Japanese are said to have used the creatures as advanced earthquake detectors (which probably gave rise to the myth of Namazu, the Japanese earthquake catfish).

Although some catfish have small or underdeveloped eyes, the majority of catfish species can see extremely well. Additionally catfish possess a tapetum lucidum—a layer of reflective tissue at the back of the eyes which allows them to see keenly in low-light conditions (cat owners will recognize the tapetum lucidum as the flashing green glow of feline eyes).

Catfish in an Aquarium (further documentation required)

Finally catfish can sense the electrical discharges within the nervous and electrical-muscular systems of living things (in fact the electrical catfish goes a step beyond and uses electricity for hunting and self-defense).  The cells responsible for electroreception are found grouped together in tiny pits along the catfish’s head and along its lateral line.  Although electroreception has limited range, it is a powerful sense which can allow the fish to sense animals hidden beneath the mud or otherwise camouflaged.

A catfish’s life must be exciting—awash as they are in complicated overlaying sensory perceptions.  Their abilities to perceive the world have taken them farther than other fish. According to the Tree of Life web project:

Catfishes are a species rich and exceptionally diverse group of fishes ranking second or third among orders of vertebrates. The Catalog of Fishes (Eschmeyer, 1998 et seq.) database treats 2,855 species of catfishes as valid. About 1 in 4 valid species of freshwater fishes, 1 in 10 fishes, and 1 in 20 vertebrates, is a catfish.

Several hundred more species of catfish have been discovered since the above paragraph was written.  Paleontologists have even discovered fossils of catfish on Antarctica (the only continent where they can not currently be found living). Catfish are basically sentient sense-organs.  They have diversified and thrived by being able to discern what is going on in the world around them (and they have probably enjoyed the experience).

Ancistrus Bristelnose Catfish

Here is an enigmatic painting by an enigmatic artist.  Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) did not start painting until he was in his forties—around the time his wife Clémence Boitard died.  The couple had six children but only one survived to adulthood (the rest died as infants or succumbed to childhood disease).  Rousseau made his living with a dull career as a toll collector. Later, when he was working as an artist, detractors belittled him as Le Douanier “the customs officer”.  He never visited the tropics or saw a jungle, but painted from illustrations, taxidermied animals, and Parisian hothouses. Initially ridiculed as childlike and flat, Rousseau’s works commanded the attention of a new generation of modern artists like Picasso, Matisse, Delaunay, and Brâncuşi, all of whom were influenced by him (as were several succeeding generations of artists).  However, just as his work began to gain traction, he died.

The Snake Charmer (Henri Rousseau, 1907, oil on canvas)

Commissioned by Comtesse de Delaunay,  Rousseau’s painting The Snake Charmer (above) was finished in 1907.  The painting features strange snakes made of empty space gliding out of a fecund jungle towards a nude musician also composed of darkness.  A spoonbill stares at the scene with a crazy empty smile.  Behind the figures, a green river ripples under the tropical sun.  Rousseau was not trying to titillate his audience with an exoticized picture of an oriental snake charmer (like the exquisitely crafted picture below by the great French salon artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose work was the pinnacle of French art a generation earlier).

The Snake Charmer (Jean-Léon Gérôme,1870, oil on canvas)

Instead of Gérôme’s ethnic stereotypes and off-putting eroticism, there is a sense of true menace and mystery in Rousseau’s painting.  Within the lush strangling wall of plants there are tendrils of nothingness which move in obedience to some otherworldly music. The universe is not the place we think.  Rousseau painted The Snake Charmer two years after Einstein’s “year of wonders” when the Swiss physicist, then working as a lowly patent clerk, conceived several radical theories which fundamentally changed how we look at space and time.  Whether, by accident or by design, The Snake Charmer captures some of the uncertainties that were winding their way through art, politics, and science in the era just before the first World War.   Unlike many other paintings from that era, Rousseau’s work has stayed fresh and disturbing.  Whenever we think something is certain, we start to see the alien serpents of oblivion wound up in the landscape, belying what we think we know.

Hmm...

I seriously contemplated joining the nationwide protest against internet censorship by blacking out my blog for a day.  As far as I understand them, the SOPA and PIPA bills are flawed bills, which, like most congressionally mandated regulation, necessitate huge unwieldy compliance requirements.  This benefits giant corporations (which can afford whole wings of lawyers, testers, and bureaucrats) while effectively crushing smaller players.  As a toy manufacturer, I recognize this strategy!

However there is a self-crucifying element to today’s internet strike which reminds me of melodramatic high school logic: “If adversaries want to hurt me or take advantage of me, then I’ll hurt myself worse!”  Yeah, that’ll show ‘em.

So instead of blacking out my site, I am advocating a more direct strategy.   All American voters should utilize our democracy more intelligently and simply vote against all incumbents this year. I know that most of my American readers are somberly nodding their heads and thinking, “That’s right, everyone else should vote out the crooked elected officials whom they have stupidly chosen…but not me. My elected officials are greedy and self-serving–but they do look after this district and they are better than the alternatives.”   This article summarizes  how most American voters feel exactly that way.  Argh!

Opinion: Everyone else's incumbent versus my incumbent

Reality: Everyone else's incumbent versus my incumbent

To illustrate my point, here is an anecdote involving my grandmother, who is one of the toughest & most all-American mavericks I know. Grandma ran a bar in the small wild town in West Virginia where my family is from. She kept a .357 under the bar and a profane quip on the tip of her tongue and generally exemplified all-American concepts of personal freedom.

Yeah!

When I was in high school I remember talking with Grandma about the county sheriff of that era.  Grandma thought the sheriff was both incompetent and crooked.  She gave me a long (and compelling) list of reasons to believe these claims.  Appalled, I inquired how the sheriff obtained his job.  She said he was elected!  Problem solved!

No!

“Just vote against him, Grandma,” I earnestly advised.

“That’s impossible!” she snapped.

“Well is the other guy even more corrupt?” I asked (my mind boggling at the concept of such a bad cop).

“No, he’s a republican,” she replied.

Just fill in the blanks differently and that is how everyone feels.  We have all been carefully districted and gerrymandered into such a shape that it is almost impossible for the candidate from the other party to win in your district. It’s supremely difficult for a lot of us to even think about voting for the other candidate.  But if we all did we would suddenly have a congress full of socially progressive republicans and fiscally conservative democrats

I don’t know a great deal about my current congressional incumbent, Yvette Clarke,  because I just moved.  All I can say is it looks like she takes most of her donations from public sector unions, lawyers’ associations, and health care professionals and…you know what, that’s enough for me.  I want her out.  And I have long disliked New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer–his staffers never even wrote back to me about toy legislation. They could have at least sent me a photo and a sticker (although both NY Senators just got reelected in 2010 so it’ll be a while before I can vote against him again).  Courageously join me! You don’t have to shut down your website.  Just vote against whoever is in office during the election of 2012.  Most elected officials probably don’t even know what an internet is, but they have heard of voters. We’ll have internet freedom in no time flat.  Or even better, we’ll be free of the wretched clowns who are ruining the country.

Or maybe the elected reflect the electorate...

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