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This time of year, winter begins to drag on and I start to dream of the flower gardens of spring and summer.  Unfortunately, the garden is currently a lifeless grey ruin beneath a layer of frost (although I personally know there are some bulbs down there sleeping until April), so, in order to enjoy the beauty of flowers, we need some help from art…which is where anonymous master artisans of the Ching dynasty come in.  Above is an exceedingly fine famille rose tripod censer from the middle (?) of the Qianlong reign (the Qianlong emperor reigned longer than any sovereign in Chinese history from 1735 to 1796).  It features auspicious symbols like twinned fish and a lucky vase amidst an otherworldy garden of calligraphic vines and splendid pink and white florets…all against a backdrop of imperial yellow like some divine custard.  The censor’s amazing shape hearkens back to the ancient origins of Chinese ceremonial vessels and offers a glimpse of the shamanistic magics and animistic spirits (which are never far away from Chinese art), but its execution is pure 18th century ornate frivolity.  The fulsome garden and brilliant spring colors would not look out of place in a piece from the other side of the world from Rococo France, yet there is something more satisfying in the flourishes and rootlets and buds of this Chinese garden.  The brilliant colors will have to dispel the gray of winter and last until spring (but since they have been undiminished for more than 2 centuries, that should be no stretch.

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Earlier this week I wrote about the (alleged) crown of Montezuma.  The main element of that crown was not a gem or gold structural elements, but the exquisite iridescent emerald feathers of Pharomachrus mocinno, the resplendent quetzal.  These birds live in the rainforests of Central America from southern Mexico down across Guatemala and into western Panama.  They are solitary birds which generally eat fruit (which they supplement with small animals).  They are weak fliers and are preyed on by hawks, eagles, owls, and even toucanets and squirrels (it must be embarrassing to be eaten by a small mean toucan or a squirrel).

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Because of their exquisite feathers resplendent quetzals were associated with the flying snake god Quetzalcotl by various Mesoamerican civilizations.  Elite individuals of the Maya and the Aztecs did indeed wear headdresses made from quetzal feathers, and it was taboo to kill the bird.  Feathers were collected from captured birds which were set free (for quetzals do not flourish in captivity).  They were seen as symbols of divinity, freedom, and wealth (Guatemalan money is known as the quetzal).

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I wish I could tell you more about this jewel-like bird, but they quietly keep their secrets.  A myth of the conquest is that before Spaniards came to the Americas, quetzals sang beautifully and had plain breasts, but since that time their breasts have been red with blood and they have been silent.  They do indeed seem to be a stupendous visual phenomenon (like today’s post which is really about the pictures of this exquisite animal).

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Here are 2 troubling stories from opposite corners of the internet…and they are related in a way which is worth addressing.

The first concerns the new addition to the Federal Reserve Board, Marvin Goodfriend.  Goodfriend is a famous hyperinflation phobic.  He believes that quantitative easing (or any sort of monetary stimulus) in the American economy will cause the worth of money to deteriorate in one of those nightmarish economic breakdowns familiar to residents of Zimbabwe or the Weimar Republic.  This concept has been substantially debunked both by economic theorists with slide-rulers and by the real-world example of Japan which stagnated for decades thanks to thinkers like Dr. Goodfriend.  Yet Goodfriend obdurately refuses to admit any error in his models.

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“I solemnly swear I am up to no good”

Of course, it is possible that Goodfriend is a bad person who wishes for society to fail (his surname is suspiciously similar to what some shapeshifting demon might choose to best beguile foolish mortals), but the point of this post is not to castigate this one reactionary central banker.  We are using him as an example of a bigger problem which humans have.

The second story involves the horrifying story of the crazy Turpin parents who had 13 children whom they shackled, abused, and tortured for decades in private. The younger cohort of these pitiable children were “home schooled”, but the eldest child did attend public school where her classmates recall her as a sad awkward child who smelled funny, was smaller than everyone, and always wore the same threadbare purple outfit.  As you might imagine, if you ever were a child, these haunting peculiarities did not cause her classmates to ask what was wrong (indeed all of society failed to ask that germane question for 20 years), instead she was mercilessly picked on, taunted, and abused. Although the run-of-the-mill sadists of grade school probably didn’t register compared to the world class sadists who were her birth parents.  We know this about the little girl’s childhood because one of her classmates remembered her–and remembered picking on her and taunting her and wrote a heartfelt essay about it.  The internet has mercilessly jumped on this guy with wild abandon.  He has made himself a target of all sorts of anger and attacks.  It seems unlikely that a third-grader could have changed much: his admissions were brave and have aided the public discourse about what is clearly a deeper problem.  Yet in zeal to express their righteous anger over a social failing people have piled onto him.

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Primates have a weakness.  If any individual backs down they lose their status.  In the human world this means that those who admit failure or wrongdoing, are shunned and detested. This would seem to have a certain cruel logic, and yet the world is bewilderingly complex.  As one tries to impress one’s fellow primates, it is easy to make mistakes (like picking on a classmate or choosing an economic model which inflicts maximum damage to workers). If a person admits they are wrong, they give up much of their social status–the real cheese at the heart of our rat’s maze society.  But if we can’t admit to these mistakes and learn from them and change then all society worsens.

I picked on Goodfriend because he is in the news and because he will undoubtedly deepen the next economic crisis, which could be right around the corner (and because picking on people is a cheap way to gain status) but I could have chosen unrepentant & willfully ignorant characters much closer to the top of society. A certain president, for example, has never admitted he was/is/will continue to be wrong.  His ironclad refusal to ever admit mistakes in any realm seems to be one of the chief sources of his power–although punitive/ reactionary economic models and ruthlessly picking on the weak seem to help him too. There is a reason I chose these examples!

But we don’t want to get off track. We want to compare the person who was heckled by the entire internet for thoughtfully admitting a mistake made as a child versus a retrogressive hack who has ascended to craft world monetary policy precisely because he never addressed well-known problems with his worldview.  There is clearly every reason to never admit you are wrong!

If we can’t figure out what is wrong, we can’t fix things without solving a baffling puzzle, and then facing off in the court of public opinion against all of the people who obdurately refuse to admit or even see the truth because it would diminish their cachet.

That situation seems to in fact be where we all are. It is a paradox that those who never admit mistakes are given precedence over those who learn from their errors.  It is a mistake we are all making and we need to rectify it.  Except for me of course…I am a cunning essayist above such things.

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To my delight, I discovered that, against all odds, the crown of the Aztec Empire is (apparently) still extant.  Allegedly, the Conquistadors hung onto Montezuma’s original feathered headdress and brought it back to Europe where it found its way into the hands of the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family who put it in a scary museum somewhere in Vienna. However, as I tried to find out more about the crown of Montezuma, I ended up reading more about the Aztecs.  Now, I always regarded the Aztecs as a death-cult society built on top of a base of cruel slavery and vicious warfare.  The truth is more complicated.  The “empire” was really a grand alliance of three neighboring city-states from the Valley of Mexico. The Triple Alliance (as the Aztecs called themselves) conquered the surrounding tribes and kingdoms through war and political/cultural means, yet whenever this alliance took over a new region they left the nobility and social structures intact and “ruled” through extracting tribute and demanding other cultural concessions.  Their “flower wars” were not traditional wars of conquest familiar to say, the Romans or the French, but highly stylized affairs…however the (pre-ordained) losers were indeed sacrificed to appease the astonishing yet bloodthirsty gods of the Aztec pantheon.

We will come back to all of this later this week.  For right now, let’s get back to the crown of Montezuma II.  This beautiful item is remarkable in many ways, but, um, being “real” isn’t necessarily one of them (speaking of which, the original is pictured at the top of the post , and the other pictures are museum reproductions).  The provenance of this headdress (if it is a headdress) is highly disputed.  Not only does it not match the (questionable) illustrations we have of Aztec headdresses, but also the 16th century records about the piece have some holes .  According to lore the crown was seized during the conquest of Mexico (ca. 1520) and sent back to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.  The piece is then recorded in the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II in Ambras (near Innsbruck Austria) in 1575.  It became an object of fascination in the mid to late 19th century. Since it is made from delicate iridescent feathers (which fade over time) the crown was “restored” in 1878.  the European restorers used kingfisher feathers and restored it as a standard (a sort of flag as opposed to a “Moorish hat” (which is how it was recorded in the Grand Duke’s collection).

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The restored crown is over a meter in height and 1.75 meters across (4 feet by 6 feet).  it is crafted of layers of feathers, which seem to have conferred certain spiritual significance in the afterlife (and in the Aztec court, where special feather workers were kept to work with innumerable caged birds).  The layers of feathers are described in detail on Wikipedia:

“The smallest is made from blue feathers of the Cotinga amabilis (xiuhtōtōtl) with small plates of gold in the shapes of half moons. Behind this is a layer of Roseate spoonbill (tlāuhquechōlli) feathers, then small quetzal feathers, then a layer of white-tipped red-brown feathers of the squirrel cuckoo, Piaya cayana, with three bands of small gold plates, and finally two of 400 closely spaced quetzal tail feathers, some 55 cm (22 in) long.”

To conclude, I have written about a emperor’s crown which is not necessarily a crown for an empire which was not necessarily an empire.   Everything in this post is suspect. Our fundamental view of the Aztecs (who didn’t even call themselves that) seems as questionable as this imperial crown.  Yet, despite these very real questions, the crown of Montezuma today has become the focus of an intense political campaign to return the piece to Mexico.  Austria and Mexico exchange diplomatic statements about it and teams of scientists and ethnologists study the fragile treasure. Whether it actually belonged to Montezuma or not, the piece definitely seems to be an Aztec artifact of enormous significance and equally great beauty.   It is as splendid–or perhaps more splendid– as any of the other crowns I have written about, yet it is sad too, with its bloody history, its ongoing mysteries, and the contemporary conflict which swirls around it. The fact that it is made of fragile feathers of  long gone birds gives it additional beauty and pathos.

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Meanwhile…three quarters of a billion kilometers away, the Juno space probe continues its exploration of the gas giant Jupiter.   The probes orbit brings it to within 4,200 kilometers (2500 miles) of the cloudtops once every 53 days.  So far, Juno has made 10 such passes (out of a planned 12 before the mission’s end in July).  As the astrophysicists and planetary scientists work to make sense of mission data, NASA has made the raw image data available to the world.  Private citizens have used it to create these stunning images of the largest world in the Solar System.  Since I can’t even begin to explain the vast atmospheric complexities behind these swirling psychedelic wonders, I will leave them here without comment.  Marvel at our huge planetary neighbor with its marbelized super storms and spare a moment to thank Gerald Eichstädt & Seán Doran for putting these amazing pictures together.

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Today we’re blatantly ripping off some work from one of the Economist’s throw-away graphs.  Here is a somewhat peculiar little chart which shows the correlation between the color of new cars sold and the national mood of Great Britain.  The teal line correlates with the number of voters who are most concerned about the economy while the sea blue line correlates with voters who are most worried about Britain’s relationship with the EU (and/or the “Brexit”).  The real takeaway would seem to be that car color veers back to conservative black when people are anxious or worried about anything.

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I wonder though how the car-color graph would look against a long term graph.  I saw another chart (lost to time and circumstance) which charted the top-selling car color in the United States by decade.  In the seventies people bought brown/orange carr.  In the 80s they bought blue cars.  In the 90s the top color was green, and in the ‘aughts it was silver or white.  Probably in the ghastly teens the top color here has been black too.  I don’t know if this data is true, since I don’t have a methodology (or even a chart).  But it stacks up well against my parents car buying habits: they had a maroon station wagon in the seventies, a navy Jetta in the 80s, a teal pontiac in the nineties, a bronze Subaru in the aughts, and a black volt for the teens (although let’s not talk about the trucks–which were pea-soup, goblin’s gold, almond, dark red, sage green, navy, and deep brown).

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Here in New York, I have noticed that when the market is roaring, men’s dress shirts are pretty colors like french blue, lavender, and salmon, but when the market tanks they become gray, white, and pale blue (this may have stopped being a useful index when men stopped wearing dress shirts–polo shirts tell us nothing).  the larger point is that I suspect a meta-analysis of color would tell us all sorts of things about other indices and statistics…but i wonder whether the color choices come from consumers or if they come from marketers and advertisers who decide that everyone will want black or silver and create inventory accordingly.

 

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Back when I first moved to New York, I didn’t know how to cook very well, so my roommates and I ended up ordering out almost every night.  The profusion of infinite restaurants featuring delicious cuisine from everywhere in the world seemed like one of the city’s great features back then.  My favorite sort of take-out cuisine is Chinese, so we would order Chinese from New Panda Garden or Szechuan Delight at least once a week (and sometimes more).

Then one day, my roommate came back with a menu for a new place: Uncle Liao.  We had immense fun saying the name (which you should try) and we started ordering their sour pork cabbage delight—which was magically delightful. Coincidentally, according to a Chinese-speaking friend, “Liao” means “old” in Chinese—so their name was something like “Uncle Old” or maybe “Venerable Courtesy Relative.”  We ordered Uncle Liao all the time and poor Panda Garden closed (and Szechuan Delight was relegated only for the occasions when we had to have sweet and sour chicken, which they did really well).  But then a funny thing happened: the novelty faded from Uncle Liao and the food stopped seeming so delicious.  After a while my roommate picked up a “Red Hot” menu and soon Uncle Liao dropped out of the rotation.

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It is possible, of course, that their food became less good over time (indeed the internet tells me they closed a decade ago for gross health code violations), however I believe the whole cycle was illustrative of the human need for novelty.  After a while the most delicious food loses its special savor, and the most gorgeous ornaments look stale next to newer baubles.  We have an insatiable appetite for novelty–and it is this taste (not the need for sour pork-cabbage delight) which drives more of human activity and purpose than I ever would have credited.  Lately I see Uncle Liao scenarios everywhere: in media, in politics, in relationships, especially in the arts (which are afflicted by a real weakness for novelty even if the new work is stupid or inane)…yet even science and academia are prone to the “good because it is new” phenomenon.  I suppose this itself is good, since it drives change and innovation, but it is alarming too…our collective hunger which can never be sated which draws us to new things even if they are stupid or tasteless (or kind of too salty with too much MSG).   I don’t propose not trying new things (far from it), but we should be aware that they tend to overperform on the curve and most of them are destined for the back of the folder…or the landfill…or the “CLOSED” tab on the menu finder.

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Let’s take a moment to celebrate some good news!  Pedestrian deaths in New York City dropped in a meaningful way during 2016 (this refers to people killed by motor vehicles, not people who just keeled over while walking home with their groceries–but you probably already figured that out) .  This statistic runs counter to larger trends: at a national level, U.S. drivers have been killing more pedestrians than in years past, yet in New York, the level of people killed by motorists has gone down (as you can see in the following NYC table).

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The fall in pedestrian deaths is occurring as the subway descends in quality (which we will get to later) and as the streets are filling up with non-professional, unqualified livery drivers who use Uber and suchlike apps to connect with patrons, so I think it is safe to attribute the trend to Vision Zero, a campaign to make the streets much safer.  Kudos to Mayor DeBlasio! This is a real triumph for him, and I want to thank him.

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The basic hallmarks of Vision Zero are lowering street speeds within the city, increasing driver awareness through road designs pioneered in the cities of northern Europe (where it is much safer to walk or bike but where efficient automobile traffic also keeps goods and services flowing) and enforcing traffic laws with automated systems–particularly speed cameras.  Street signals were also re-timed so that it is more difficult to build up dangerous speeds and so that pedestrians cross roads ahead of turning cars. At first the changes were politically unpopular, but the fact that this is saving the lives of the elderly and children is winning over politicians who were initially opposed.  Bob Holden, a city counsel member, who has regularly opposed street changes, new bike lanes, and safety improvements went on record saying “You can’t argue with saving lives. You can never argue that that’s the paramount here…I was wrong, I want to admit that.” (this is really praiseworthy too: if we had more politicians capable of looking at evidence, admitting errors, and changing direction, everything would be improving in innumerable ways).

Of course bicycle fatalities in New York City have gone up, and, though I blame car drivers (who are, after all, the ones traveling through the most populous region in the country in  difficult-to-control metal death chariots which run on poisonous explosions), this may also be because more people are bicycling. Indeed more people are walking, driving, and bicycling overall–both in the city and beyond.  More Americans are killed every year in traffic fatalities than died during whole course of the Korean War (and during the apogee of car culture in the 70s and 80s that number was closer to all the American fatalities in Vietnam…every year).  Maybe taking a page from DeBlasio’s book and re-examining some systems and behaviors long taken for granted on the road would save more people than a whole host of new miracle drugs and super surgeries.  It is definitely worth thinking about!

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I have conflicted feelings about Ai Weiwei (arguably China’s most renowned contemporary artist). On one hand his work can be undeniably powerful. He and I went to the same art school (The dear old Art Students’ League of New York) and he is fearless: it takes true courage to stand as a gadfly to the world’s most powerful authoritarian state. Yet, on the other hand, his work partakes obsessively of Warhol’s solipsistic narcissism. Ai exemplifies the toxic studio system which has erased handicraft mastery from art (although, arguably, that very point is a big part of his work) and he has so blurred the lines between art and politics that I wonder if he is not a Chinese politician rather than a Chinese artist. I realize as I write this, that all of these “counter” points could be construed in his favor (and they are certainly the larger part of the reason he has found such immense international success). So my ambiguous feelings about Ai Weiwei probably have to do with my ambiguous feelings about art and politics: which are twin disciplines in a way which is not readily apparent at first. We will explore that kinship and tension later this year as we ask what the purpose of art is anyway (and what the purpose of politics is too—other than to aggrandize a bunch of hypocritical elites).
But, for today, I want to uncritically praise Ai Weiwei because I love the new series he has produced.
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Longtime readers know my love of Chinese porcelain—especially the justly famous cobalt glaze blue-and-white ware which was created in the Yuan Dynasty but flowered into its greatest glory during the Ming Dynasty. Ai Weiwei has used the techniques and style of Ming blue-and-white porcelain to produce a majestic series which exemplifies timeless beauty of the form yet with fully contemporary subjects. The resulting pieces are masterworks. They underline tricky questions about China, art, power, individuals, society, and coercion throughout the ages.
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Naturally they are produced by unknown artisans whom Ai Weiwei enslaved and exploited. But that dynamic also undergirded original Ming ceramic masterpieces (which were made by unknown artisans). Additionally, everything is made that way today. Look around your computer (and AT your computer) unless you are reading this in the far future or are an eccentric potentate, it was all made in a Chinese sweatshop. And the work, with its themes of refugees, escape, conflict, and striving, has a pathos and a human element absent from the courtly dragons, serene pine, and magical peaches of the originals.
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It is amazing stuff. Maybe he can redeem himself in my eyes for smashing a Han urn as a publicity stunt (although I am sure that where he is now laughing atop a pile of money as art curators genuflect before him, my good esteem may not be at the forefront of his concerns)

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It is bitterly cold and wintry in New York today. From Newfoundland to Georgia a winter super-storm is slamming the East Coast of North America (it goes by the amazing marketing name of “bomb cyclone”). As is frequently the case when I am dissatisfied with conditions here on Earth, my mind is wandering off to our sister planet, Venus, where temperatures are somewhat warmer.

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Back when I was a child in living in the countryside I had a lengthy bus-ride to school (this will get back to Venus in a moment). The elementary school library had a copy of The National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe, an astonishing Cold-War era tome of facts and fantastical musings about space. Somebody always checked that book out (indeed, it disintegrated before I reached puberty) and so it got passed around the school bus as we rode to Waterford and back every day. One of the fantasy illustrations which has stayed with me was the painting of the “oucher pouchers” by Roy Gallant (?). These (entirely-imaginary) alien creatures lived on the molten hot surface of Venus, which I guess is why they said “ouch.” They had a plated, heat-proof hide and they were spherical, but if they became too hot, they blasted off into the atmosphere via some sort of posterior rocket-propulsion system (which was of great amusement to the children).

Through the magic of the internet, I found the picture, and I see that the ‘poucher is eating an ill-fated space probe to Venus. They also have scorpion tails (for hunting or protection or goodness only knows). Long-time readers know of my obsession with Venus. I wonder if it started with this concept art (which was made to get kids interested in space). I am including it here so you can think of the molten surface of Venus and of what sorts of life could flourish there, but it is also as a reminder to myself to write more about our nearest planetary neighbor. In 2018 we need to be more imaginative and we need to explore farther (and if anybody is good at engineering we need to do better at that too). This illustration from my childhood is a fun reminder to look back to our childhood dreams in order to look forward to new horizons.

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