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We are coming up on the Yule season and that means ornamental conifers!  As I was putting up my traditional tree of many animals, it occurred to me to see if there were any spooky Gothic-themed Christmas trees.  And, oh indeed…there are so many Gothic themed trees and ornaments out there!

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Although at first these dark trees might sit wrongly with traditionally minded revelers, a moment of thought will reveal that Gothic trees are quite appropriate!  Not only is the Christmas tree an ornament for the darkest & hardest time of year (Winter Solstice) it is also an ancient relic of pre-Christian Europe when pagan folk venerated trees.   Furthermore the idea of Christmas trees, like the ancient Goths themselves, originated in Germany and Scandinavia.  For years, pundits have been worrying what happens when marketers put up their Christmas decorations earlier and earlier. Maybe this is what happens: a reversion to druidic darkness.

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Here are some Gothic trees—some are “goth” in the modern punk rock sense, while others are pagan, macabre, ironically twisted, or just winsomely slender.  In case this is making you anxious, it’s all in seasonal fun!  Also I threw in some beautiful Gothic-revival Christmas trees to evoke feelings of Victorian opulence!   Enjoy the gallery and the holiday season (but don’t worry, we’ll have more appropriate seasonal fare next week).

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Eek!  I mean...cool crystal thing!

What a cool crystal thing!

Gothic Revival Christmas!

Gothic Revival Christmas!

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I guess, it's sort of spooky...

I guess, it’s sort of spooky…

This one might be slightly photoshopped--although cats do love Christmas trees!

This one might be slightly photoshopped–although cats do love Christmas trees!

What?

What?

Dammit, there isn't even a tree in this! Is anyone paying attention?

Dammit, there isn’t even a tree in this! Is anyone paying attention?

Traditional Victorian Gothic Revival

Traditional Victorian Gothic Revival

Skinny Christmas Tree

wchristmastree-5tumblr_mxwuwe2NJR1svgz44o3_500And Here’s a really good one for the dramatic conclusion.  It has a touch of the cosmic–and it’s also a shout-out to tree worshipers everywhere).

 

 

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Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China


I don’t usually post about business because I understand it very little and like it even less, but events on the other side of the world merit a brief mention (also I can’t think of anything truly worthwhile to write about today). The SSE Composite Index is a stock market index of all the shares traded on the Shanghai Stock Exchange (well actually all A and B shares).  Since June of 2014 this index has shot up by 40% pushing it to heights not seen for 3 years.  The news is all the more baffling considering that a consortium of experts agree that nothing in the actual Chinese economy supports this rampant bull market. Sophie Yan from CNN Money describes the Chinese economy in somewhat bleak terms: “factory activity is at an eight-month low, the real estate sector is shaky and the economy just saw its worst quarter since the financial crisis.”

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So why are stocks surging upward with no relation to the real news?  Well, America’s economy is doing better than it has for a long while and China sells a lot of goods across the Pacific Ocean.  Also ordinary Chinese small holders seem to finally be digging up jars of coins and investing them in the stock market (the average Chinese householder has been wary of investing savings in institutions or businesses for obvious historical reasons).  But, it seems obvious that the real answer is that this is a speculative bubble.

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Like I said at the top, I do not understand business: perhaps secret unknown market forces are privy to information which nobody else knows about…or maybe the rules of human economics have been eternally suspended.  However barring those potentialities, the SSE is full of froth and is about to pop (in fact, on Tuesday, AKA yesterday, the index shed 5% in a day…and then bounced back).  I wonder how high it will go before it falls and I wonder how far the fallout from a correction will go.  Our own market seems a tad frothy too…but Americans have a proud ability to willfully ignore what everyone else in the world is up to.  Whatever happens, it should be an interesting few months for volatile speculative craziness in Shanghai.

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Protesilaus is a figure from Greek mythology.  As one of the suitors of Helen of Troy, he was party to the binding alliance between Greek warrior-kings which pulled them all into the Trojan War when she was stolen by Paris.  Protesilaus was a king in Thessaly (long a rumored haunt of wild magic, and sorcery run amuck).  He brought forty ships full of warriors to the campaign…but there was a problem which nearly foundered the entire Greek effort before it even got started: a dark prophecy stated that the first Greek warrior to leave the boats would also be the first Greek warrior to die in the war.  When the war fleet reached the beaches of Troy, nobody wanted to set foot upon Trojan land and incur the prophesied doom.  So all the fearless warriors set quaking in their boats.

Finally, Protesilaus had enough of this pusillanimous behavior and he leaped to shore (even though he was newly married and had much to live for).  Sure enough, in accordance with binding laws of war narrative, he was killed by the Trojan hero Hector during the first foray of the war—and the prophecy was thus fulfilled (although it should be noted that Protesilaus killed four men before dying at the hands of the greatest Trojan hero—so he went down as a fighter).

Laodamia voor het schilderij van Protesilaus (Pieter Serwouters naar David Vinckboons,1626, engraving)

Laodamia voor het schilderij van Protesilaus (Pieter Serwouters naar David Vinckboons,1626, engraving)

When his widow Laodamia heard about this, she went mad with grief.  Since the two were newlyweds when the war broke out, their love was in its first flower and burned hot and wild. The Gods admired the bravery of Protesilaus and they took pity on his distraught widow.  For half an hour, the hero was allowed to return from the underworld to the mortal world to give a more thorough farewell to his wife. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly) Protesilaus’ brief return from death—followed by a permanent return to the land of the dead–unhinged Laodamia completely.  She commissioned a beautiful lifelike sculpture of her dead husband and proceeded to treat it as though it were him.

Her father, baffled as to how to proceed in the face of these terrible happenings, decided to destroy the statue by casting it into a raging fire, but Laodamia could not be parted from her husband a third time and she leapt into the blaze and was burned away.  His traumatized subjects built a lavish tomb for him and nymphs planted elms upon it.  According to the poetry of antiquity, these trees grew to be the tallest in the world, yet when their tops were high enough to come into eyesight of Troy, the leaves died back and withered away (for the bitterness and sorrow of the dead hero remained even when he and his wife were gone).

Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)

Sarcophagus with scenes of Protesilaus and Laodamia (Roman, second century AD, marble)

In the business world it is considered terrible to be the first person to do something truly bold and new.  Business leaders pay lip-service to innovators, but, in truth, business schools teach that ideas should be tried out by others first.  Wang got nowhere, while the wily Steve Jobs took the best parts of his ideas and made an empire. There is a race to be second.  The world’s leaders know not to be brave, but to be sly and calculating.  This is prudent counsel (and has been so since before there were stories of the Trojan War), but I wonder if the world might not have more innovation and invention, if the first movers were not punished so brutally.

Artist's conception of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon

Artist’s conception of the New Horizons spacecraft flying past Pluto and Charon

More dramatic news from the far reaches of the solar system: NASA’s probe New Horizons has awakened from its nine year hibernation and is powering up to approach Pluto!  Although it sounds like “New Horizons” is a boy band, NASA gave up on trying to launch every saccharine teenybopper act into the Kuiper belt (although that is a laudable goal): instead the probe is named after the fact that New Horizons is the first human spacecraft to explore the dwarf planet Pluto and its little moons Charon and Hydra. Launched in January of 2006, New Horizons set the record for the highest launch speed of a human-made object from Earth.  The grand piano-sized spacecraft has spent the intervening years hurtling through the darkness of space–although it has periodically come to partial wakefulness to check in with mission control and to snap some dramatic flyby photos of famous locations along its trip (like this photo montage of Jupiter and Io).  The craft also used Jupiter’s gravity well to increase its velocity.

Composite image of Jupiter and Io as photographed from New Horizons (NASA)

Composite image of Jupiter and Io as photographed from New Horizons (NASA)

Since the time the probe was launched, astronomers have discovered two new miniature moons of Pluto: Kerberus and Styx.  This means that New Horizons mission planners were forced to assess the possibility of a catastrophic collision with unseen debris or dust left over from these satellites. Computer models suggest that the likelihood of such an accident is remote, but, just in case, NASA has added two dramatic contingency plans for the mission. In one emergency plan, the probe’s satellite dish acts as a dust shield, in the other, the craft drops dangerously close to Pluto, where atmospheric drag has presumably cleared the surrounding space of particles.  These worst case plans will almost certainly not be needed, although we will learn more as New Horizons gets closer to the dwarf planet.

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After flying past Pluto next July, New Horizons will hurtle into the Kuiper belt where NASA hopes the probe will rendezvous with an icy Kuiper belt object so that we can learn more about these enigmatic leftovers from the creation of the solar system.  The coming 7 months should be filled with excitement as we learn more about the Pluto system!
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The Wichita State University muscle-bound bundle of wheat

The Wichita State University muscle-bound bundle of wheat

It seems like it has been a particularly long week, so how about we unwind for the weekend with some humorously bad mascots.  Ferrebeekeeper already presented a post on farmer mascots (of which there were a surfeit in this great breadbasket land of ours).  Today we concentrate instead on characters who literally are agricultural products: these mascots are just straight up agricultural commodities.  This seems like a weak concept for a dancin’ frolickin’ becostumed embodiment of team spirit, yet, once again, the rich imagination of bored small-town teams does not disappoint.   Check out these strange beings:

Captain Cornelius of ISU

Captain Cornelius of ISU

Bennie the Bean, the mascot for the Indiana Soybean Alliance

Bennie the Bean, the mascot for the Indiana Soybean Alliance

Custom Handmade Chinese Cabbage Mascot (in case you want to advocate Bok Choy)

Custom Handmade Chinese Cabbage Mascot (in case you want to advocate Bok Choy)

This sunflower mascot is from a hospice...so I have no idea what to make of that :(

This sunflower mascot is from a hospice…so I have no idea what to make of that…

The famous Idaho potato

The famous Idaho potato

The Delta State University Fighting Okra is naturally from Mississippi

The Delta State University Fighting Okra is naturally from Mississippi

The Hillsboro Hops

The Hillsboro Hops

This angry ear of corn is from Concordia College in Minnesota

This angry ear of corn is from Concordia College in Minnesota

Most of the rice mascots I found were...problematic, but, since it is my favorite staple food, here is the Miami Rice Pudding Mascot (?)

Most of the rice mascots I found were racially problematic, but, since it is my favorite staple food, here is the Miami Rice Pudding Mascot (?)

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts doesn't actually have any sports teams, but they do have a Fighting Pickle.

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts doesn’t actually have any sports teams, but they do have a Fighting Pickle.

Yeesh, those are some rough symbols to rally around.  I’ll do some hard thinking this weekend and see you back here on Monday.  In the meantime here is an anonymous corn to see you off.

[Presented without comment]

[Presented without further comment]

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Drop everything!  Pantone (a private corporation which specializes in standardizing color palettes for different industries and companies) has announced the color of the year for 2015.  The special color for the new year is…Marsala, a deep dark red named after Marsala, the fortified Italian wine which in turn is named after the port of Marsala.  I guess I was really on top of trends when I blogged about burgundy a couple of weeks ago, since burgundy is a similar color with a similar provenance (although burgundy is a purer—and prettier– dark red which lacks the earthy brown notes of Marsala).

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According to Pantone’s fulsome press statement, Marsala is a perfect color for…well everything:  “Much like the fortified wine that gives Marsala its name, this tasteful hue embodies the satisfying richness of a fulfilling meal, while its grounding red-brown roots emanate a sophisticated, natural earthiness…This hearty, yet stylish tone is universally appealing and translates easily to fashion, beauty, industrial design, home furnishings and interiors.”

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Other self-proclaimed culture-makers and arbiters of taste are less satisfied with the hue.  NYmag.com felt the tone evoked Olive Garden (a mid-range restaurant franchise which makes coastal elites shudder and drop their caviar spoons) and…um…feminine sanitary goods.  The Atlantic talked about fraternity bathrooms, 70’s institutional carpet, and mystery meat with plenty of offal mixed in.  Clearly Marsala inspires strong visceral feelings (ha) and synesthesia, even if it does not necessarily make everyone want a new Marsala Maserati.

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I was a big fan of last year’s color “radiant orchid” which was a lovely mid-tone pinkish purple (for the record, tastemakers liked radiant orchid too and thought it betokened “economic recovery”).  I think burgundy is prettier than Marsala (which I would probably call “brick”), but the 2015 color evokes garden paths, bound books, farm equipment, trilliums, and, yes, delicious chicken liver, so I like it well enough.  It seems like my family even had a Marsala-colored Chevy station wagon when I was growing up in the late seventies.  I doubt I will be buying an all Marsala wardrobe or a Marsala blender, but the color is very pretty…for some things.  And, as ever, if you despise Marsala (or if its Olive Garden notes cause the stock market to crash) there will be a completely new corporate-chosen color of the year in 2016.

You would not believe how hot the back seat of this thing could get...

As an aside, you would not believe how hot the back seat of this thing could get…

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Orion, the giant hunter, is one of the oldest figures in Greek mythology.  He is mentioned in the most ancient surviving works of Greek literature (well, aside from linear B tablets).  There are various contradictory myths about his birth and about his death (indeed, he seems almost to be from a pre-Ionic generation of gods and heroes), however out of this mish-mash, there is a rough consensus: Orion was an earth-straddling giant, the son of sea-god Poseidon.  Alone among gods and mortals, he found romantic favor in the eyes of the exquisite virgin goddess Artemis, but, because of this affection, her jealous brother Apollo murdered him by means of a giant supernatural scorpion.  Artemis was bereft, but together with Zeus, and with her contrite brother, they hung the giant in the sky as an eternal memorial and as a challenge to future heroes (and as an unspoken threat).  During winter, Orion is arguably the most recognizable constellation from the Northern hemisphere.

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There is a famous myth about Orion before he met Artemis and his doom.  The king of Chios was attempting to bring agriculture and viniculture to his island people, but the howling of lions, bears, wolves, and other wild animals kept him up all night (this is one of those troubling myths about the distinctions between uncivilized hunters and civilized farmers).  The king promised Orion the hand of his gorgeous daughter, Merope, if the hunter could remedy this problem.  Night and day, the giant huntsman slaughtered wild beasts until the island was free of big (loud) predators, yet, when Orion applied to the king to wed his promised bride, the recalcitrant monarch kept complaining he could hear nonexistent wolves.  Orion was wroth at the broken deal, but the crafty king plied him with flattering words and with wine, wine, wine by the barrel until even the giant was overcome and passed out in a drunken stupor.  The king then had his bondsmen blind Orion, who stumbled off into the ocean (which, by the way, he could easily walk upon because of his paternal heritage).  Orion wondered here and there across the Mediterranean, lost, until at last he heard the hammers of workshop of the great smith Hephaestus.  The kind god took pity upon the blinded giant and lent one of his shop Cyclops to sit on the great hunter’s shoulder and lead him to a cure.  With directions from the Cyclops, Orion strode due east until he came to the place of the dawn, whereupon the radiant light of the morning sun cured his blindness.

Landscape with Blind Orion Seeking the Sun (Nicolas Poussin, 1658, oil on canvas)

Landscape with Blind Orion Seeking the Sun (Nicolas Poussin, 1658, oil on canvas)

There is a reason I am bringing up the godlike giant Orion (whose likeness hangs so magnificently in the winter sky). And there is likewise a reason I am telling this story of perfidy and blindness at the hands of a greedy king.  Tomorrow at 7:05 AM EST, the American space agency NASA will launch its new Orion spacecraft from America’s principal spaceport at Cape Canaveral.  Orion is a crew capsule designed for deep-space missions—to take humans to the moon (or a comparable destination).  After decades, we are again building vessels which can carry humans into beyond near-Earth orbit.

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For tomorrow’s unmanned test flight, Orion will ride a Delta IV heavy rocket into orbit, but for actual manned missions, the capsule will sit atop the planned SLS (space launch system) rocket, a behemoth built for leaving Earth.  The capsule will rise to 14 times the height of the International Space Station (which hangs near the Earth) and then reenter Earth’s atmosphere at a blazing 32,200 kilometers per hour (20,000 miles per hour). Although it is designed to hold 4 astronauts for a 21 day mission, during its test flight, Orion’s crew will consist of symbolic items such as one of Cookie Monster’s cookies, poetry, a rubber duck, and a piece of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Artist's conception of Orion Spacecraft in orbit

Artist’s conception of Orion Spacecraft in orbit

It is high time we return to manned space exploration! The business and political masters of the United States have been busy building monopolies and gaming the financial markets rather than working on science, exploration, and progress.  We have been blundering around blind for too long.  It’s time to start crafting some long term space goals and working diligently towards them.  Orion is a small step, but it is a small step closer to my fondest dream of colonizing the inviting skies of Venus.

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A purple clam pearl discovered by a Virginia woman in her bucket of clam shack clams

A purple clam pearl discovered by a Virginia woman in her bucket of clam shack clams

Ferrebeekeeper has rhapsodized about Atlantic clams (which grow to fabulous old age) and we have written about pearls—the nacreous sort which come from oysters and the big orange ones from Melo gastropods.  However did you know that ordinary clams can also produce pearls?

A collection of quahog (clam) pearls in front of a polished quahog shell

A collection of quahog (clam) pearls in front of a polished quahog shell

This fact has been much in the news this week because a Virginia Beach woman bought a sack of clams from Great Machipongo Clam Shack in Nassawadox and discovered an extra consonant—er, I mean a rare clam pearl.  The clams were farm-raised littleneck clams which were about two years old (before they were harvested and cooked, I mean).  When the unsuspecting woman bit into one, she found a 4.5 carat lavender pearl.  The gem is slightly acorn-shaped and lustrous with alternating horizontal bands of lighter and darker purple.

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National media outlets (which are having a slow week, I guess) are playing up the clam pearl’s value, which could range as high as three thousand American dollars.  The estimation may not be incorrect.  The classic compendium of pearl information The Book of the Pearl: The History, Art, Science, and Industry of the Queen of Gems (Kuntz, 1908) informs us that:

Pearls also occur in the quahog, or hard clam (Venus mercenaria), of the Atlantic coast of the United States. Although these are rare, they are generally of good form, and some weigh upward of eighty grains each. They are commonly of dark color, purplish, ordinarily, but they may be white, pale lilac, brown, and even purplish black or black. Fine dark ones have a high retail value. They are often referred to as “clam pearls.

I kinda like the quahog pearl—like precious Melo pearls, it reminds me of an alien planet or an exquisite elfen turnip. However if they cost $ 3K apiece you all probably should not expect to get any in your stockings from me.

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Oba Adémuwagun Adésida II ( photo taken in 1959)

Oba Adémuwagun Adésida II ( photo taken in 1959)

Hey! Have you in any way been affiliated with or interacted with the internet in the last two decades? If so, you have probably received a heartfelt plea for assistance from a deposed/dispossessed/dispirited Nigerian prince.  This famous email scam requested a small amount of money upfront in exchange for a big chunk of the royal treasury once the hapless royal heir ascended to his (grammatically shaky) throne.  Since Nigeria is a federated republic (and since this was, to reiterate, a scam), nobody ever received the royal payola.  However there is a kernel of historical truth within the confidence trick: Nigeria was once an assortment of kingdoms, emirates, and tribal lands which was annealed together by the British.  Each of these principalities (or state-like entities) had a ruler, and, although they were stripped of legal power during the colonial era, the various eclectic potentates have held onto ceremonial, spiritual, and cultural authority.

Yoruba Ade

Yoruba Ade

All of which is to say, there are no Nigerian princes, but there are prince-like beings, each of whom has a different set of royal regalia.   These “crown jewels” take the form of thrones, statues, “magical” items, and royal outfits…including sacred headdresses.  The Yoruba people (who constitute the majority of Nigeria’s ever-increasing population) vested particular authority in ceremonial “crowns” known as ades.  An ade is a conical beaded cap usually decorated with beads and faces.  The kings of the Yoruba people styled themselves as “obas” (an oba being a sort of combination of king, high priest, and chief).  The symbol of the oba’s authority was his ade—his crown (or for a high obas–the “adenla” which means “great crown”).

Beaded Crown "Ade" (ca. 20th Century; Glass beads, cloth, thread, and basketry)

Beaded Crown “Ade”
(ca. 20th Century; Glass beads, cloth, thread, and basketry)

Obas were the powerful rulers of the Yoruba and their ades were the ceremonial font of their authority.  This power was connected to the numinous world of spirits, gods, and orishas (which this blog has glanced upon in talking about voodoo—the syncretic new world religion based on Yoruba spiritual concepts). To quote the British Museum’s culturally suspect (but nicely written) website:

Beaded and veiled crowns…are traditionally worn by those kings who could trace their ancestry to Ododua, the mythic founder and first king of the Yoruba people. The crown is called an orisha, a deity, and is placed upon the king’s head by his female attendant. Powerful medicines are placed at the top of the crown to protect the king’s head and thus his future. The veil that covers the king’s face hides his individuality and increases attention on the crown itself, the real centre of power. The birds decorating the crown represent the royal bird, okin.

Originally ades had long beaded veils to conceal the faces of their wearers, but European ideas about royal headwear influenced the makers, and many more recent examples of the craft resemble European crowns.  The beautiful beadwork and impressive otherworldly artistry of ades has made them popular—so some of these examples may be constructed for the tourist trade.  Nevertheless, the Yoruba ade is a very impressive sort of crown.  Here is a little gallery of online images of ades.

Yoruba Ade Oba (by ÌMÒ DÁRA)

Yoruba Ade Oba (by ÌMÒ DÁRA)

Yoruba Beaded Ade (Oba's Crown) from Southwest Nigeria (Barakat Gallery)

Yoruba Beaded Ade (Oba’s Crown) from Southwest Nigeria (Barakat Gallery)

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Ade Olójúmérìndilógún, (with 16 faces) from Formação da Cultura Yoruba

Ade Olójúmérìndilógún, (with 16 faces) from Formação da Cultura Yoruba

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Chief's hat from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria (ca. 1940)

Chief’s hat from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria (ca. 1940)

 

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