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Hans_Memling_PassioneThis amazing painting is by Hans Memling a Netherlandish master of German birth who worked in Bruges during the late 15th century.  Memling painted the work around 1470 AD for a Florentine banker based in Bruges (that’s the banker’s donor portrait down there in the lower left corner).  The painting is most important for illustrating that extremely rich financiers can commision whatever sort of work they like from gifted middle aged painters in their hometown, be it medieval Bruges or, say, contemporary Brooklyn, however, the painting is also astonishingly a still painting with modality: like a sort of 15th century movie.  Instead of telling one scene from the passion of Christ, the painting tells many stories from the death and resurrection of Jesus in the same larger scene.  By moving around the painting and “reading” it, the whole story becomes evident (I especially like how ancient Jerusalem looks like a slightly exoticized version of Bruges).  Since WordPress hates art, you can only blow it up to a certain size here, but it is well worth going to Wikipedia and looking at a larger version where you can pore over the exquisite details of Memling’s craft (and contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and his execution).   For such an intricate work, the original is rather small–less than a meter wide.  Memling excelled at painting complex pictures of entire cities like this, yet despite the ornament and pageantry, the real focus never leaves Jesus as he is hailed and then denounced by the mob, judged by politicians, tortured and executed, and finally risen as a deity.  Despite its intricacy and scope this is a rather human and intimate work.  Memling seems to have known the fickle back-and-forth of society, so one can find all sorts of reticent retainers, devout followers, haughty lords, and confounded strangers in this work.  It is a reminder that the the antagonist, and the supporting characters, and even the setting of the passion are humankind–the story is meant to represent all of us.  Even Jesus, the son of man, is human until the last instance when he is revealed with his halo and scarlet robes of godhood.

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Once again, the hours of the day have flown by me.  In order to illustrate this point I am going to feature some beautiful antique timepieces from the 16th century, the first century of watchmaking.  The first watches originated in 16th century Germany.  A hundred years earlier clockmakers had invented the mainspring movement, and by the 1500s, there were clocksmiths with sufficient skill to miniaturize this apparatus into miniaturized timepieces meant to be worn.  This first generation of “watches” were really more like pendant clocks meant to be worn (how much else does Flava Flav owe to reformation-era Germany?).  These pendant watches only had an hour hand (often behind a heavy lid of glass or crystal).  They needed to be wound twice a day and they were not very reliable (sometimes losing multiple hours in a single day), however they became popular with the aristocracy because of the eternal love of novel cutting-edge technology and because they were human-made portable accessories which moved on their own—a wonder in that age.

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The first generation of watches were heavy and ostentatious—more like mechanical jewelry than modern chronographs.  The disk shape familiar in personal timepieces for the last half millennium was not yet standard (or even achievable) and so all sorts of novelty shapes prevailed.  Thus the first generation of watches featured all sorts of gilded ticking eggs, books, astronomical bodies, animals, fruit, flowers, insects (look at that crowned queen bee watch!), body parts, and religious symbols. These are a bit strange to modern eyes but they are also refreshing in our age of ubiquitous sleek black tablets. I suppose these are really the great great great grandparents of all of the personal devices which define this era. Yet looking at the strange clunky shapes of these precious odd mechanical survivors is refreshing too.  Imagine if your mechanical death’s head was off by several hours and didn’t beep intrusive emails at you all day!

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More information has come in concerning last week’s fatal incident involving an autonomous car and it is not good.  That robot car just straight up murdered the poor woman walking her bike across the road: it didn’t even try to stop.  The human “back-up driver” onboard was also utterly useless (although this might actually be a pretty accurate representation of how people will be once they get in one of these things and start watching Netflix or writing opinionated blog posts or whatever).

Now Uber is far from my favorite company.  I dislike their creepy name (with its third Reich overtones) and their extraction-based business plan of squeezing drivers/franchisees as hard as possible while avoiding all meaningful oversight and liability.  They perfectly exemplify the MBA’s “heads I win-tails you lose” mentality and it doesn’t surprise me that they have botched things so badly right out of the gate.  Additionally, the homicidal actions of their sloppy robot have made it harder to ignore the voices questioning what sort of autonomous future we want for the roads.  So maybe it is a good time now to heed those voices and brainstorm about the things we want from autonomous automobiles!  Here are some of my requests to the powers that be, just jotted down as loose notes:

1)      Non-monopolistic: We need more than one or two big companies making these transportation units, or we are going to all be held hostage by their cartel.  The big company will make the decisions about national (or international) transportation priorities and the rest of us will all be dragged along for the ride (as it were).  We already had this model in the middle of the 20th century when automobile companies ruthlessly dominated infrastructure/land-use planning and suppressed other modes of transportation or city planning.  It worked barely…for our huge growing country, but those days are gone and now we need…

2)      Trains trains trains: America has one of the finest freight rail networks in the world, but our light/passenger rail is terrible.  China has leapfrogged us completely.  In the Middle Kingdom, you can make a trip from Beijing to Shanghai (a little farther than New York to Chicago) on a high speed train in a bit more than 4 hours.  During peak hours the trains run every 5 minutes and cost about 80 dollars.

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3)      Ability to recognize things:  An idea which has come up is that robot cars won’t be able to recognize humans with lidar/radar/sonar and suchlike electronic sensors alone.  Pedestrians and bicyclists will need to wear beacons to avoid death by Uber (domestic animals and wildlife will obviously be out of luck).  This is unacceptable! Back to the drawing board, tech guys—your cars will have to do better than this

4)      We need these cars to be tamper-proof.  If hot-rod teenagers can hack the things and make them go 300 miles an hour over washed out bridges, then the technology will not be sufficient to keep riders safe from tampering or to keep car companies safe from litigation, or to keep the roads safe at all.

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Cars are all made in some robotic factory anyway—the price comes from setting up the automated equipment.  This means that there is not much price difference between making a super luxury car and an ultra-economy model (they are both twisted into shape from the same steel and wires).  The fact that the luxury car costs 4 or 5 times as much as the hatchback is because some MBA guy decided people would pay that much more for increased status.

One of the biggest problems with our roads are the extent to which they reflect status.  Somebody driving an expensive car often takes liberties and chances with other people’s lives which make it apparent that they really think they are worth many times more than the underclass nobodies they are crushing.  Will robot cars reflect this dynamic?  Traditional car companies must be desperate for such an outcome (they make a lot of money with luxury models), yet I hope we have a more egalitarian result.    If the future consists of giant robot tank/limousines going 200 miles per hours with carte blanche to knock anyone off the road, we might as well keep the dangerous broken system we have.

I have been enthusiastic about robot cars and I continue to believe they offer astonishing new realms of freedom, leisure, and opportunity for all. I can move to the country! Grandma can go shopping whenever she wants! But after looking at the inhuman mess which big companies have made out of the energy industry, the medical industry (shudder), the aviation industry, or the telecom industry, it seems like corporations might need some guidance from the rest of us.

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So, the super massive ulti-mega-omnibus funding bill passed today (despite a last-minute executive tantrum) and the bill is…good?  This goes against all of the doom-and-gloom scenarios which dominate the news (and this blog), and it is unpalatable to praise any product from the 115th Congress of the United States of America, but, despite the president’s recommendation for massive cuts to fundamental scientific inquiry, Congress coughed up a LOT of new money for science.

I know you are all smart, so let’s get straight to the numbers. For its annual budget, the NIH received 3 billion dollars more than last year (an 8.7 % increase). The National Science Foundation got a $295 million budget raise (3.9 % increase).  The USGS received a $63 million budget (6%) expansion, while Congress increased the budget of the NOAA by $234 million (4%) to $5.9 billion.  The Department of Energy received a whopping 16 percent raise of $868 million dollars: their annual budget is now $6.26 billion (obvs. we need shiny new nuclear weapons…but maybe there is some money for fundamental nuclear research in there too). Even the EPA kept the same budget as last year and experienced no cuts.

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Best of all NASA gets a much-needed lift.  To quote The Atlantic (which was the source of these numbers):

Nasa will receive $20.7 billion, $1.1 billion more than the previous year. The space agency’s science programs will increase by about 8 percent to $6.2 billion and its planetary-science program, in particular, by 21 percent, to $2.2 billion.

Of course, the biggest slice of the pie goes to the military, however a lot of Defense Department money ends up going to research too… although I would be happier if, instead of building manned aircraft appropriate for the Cold War, they spent more money on blue sky research and moonshot scifi stuff like wormholes, grasers, super robots, and railguns.  But that research (and more) is in there too…somewhere…so hooray!

I have been marching around with a pitchfork and a torch demanding that Congress be defenestrated…but this budget unexpectedly satisfies my most cherished demands.  Maybe if there were more blueprints like this I could swallow some more tax give-aways and religious idiocy and what not.  When I am having political arguments, I always say I will support any stupidity as long as there is more money for fundamental scientific research.  This government has really pushed just how far such a bargain extends…and yet they came through in the end.

Of course, there may be some people who cry out that all of those millions and billions could be given to impoverished communities (Democrats) or to needy multi-billionaire plutocrats (Republicans), but ensuring scientific research and keeping Visigoth hordes from swimming the ocean and sacking our cities are the two things the government MUST do to ensure there is a future….and they have done that.  The future generations who will have to pay this leviathan $1.3 trillion tab, might actually get something for their money: a yet-unknown equivalent of the internet, the capacitor, the moon landing, or the wonder vaccines of yesteryear. At least the government is trying to fulfill humankind’s most fundamental aspiration—to know more about the universe and how it works so we don’t destroy ourselves (sadly, this great quest, as construed by the powers-that-be, involves building tons of super-weapons with which to destroy ourselves, but nobody said life was easy).

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Of course it is a tumultuous time and I may be saying a very different thing next week, but for the present the seed corn for the crops of the future has been stowed away.  I am pleasantly surprised to say “Good job!” to our elected officials.

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I have been excited to start blogging about my spring garden as it awakens from the uncharacteristically frigid Brooklyn winter of ’17/18…and although the tulips are starting to sprout up, we have had a nor’easter “bomb cyclone” EVERY week for as long as I can remember (admittedly, winter is robbing me of memories of warmth, light, and joy).  Anyway here is a picture of my garden on March 21st…the second day of spring.  Hmmm…it is pretty (surprisingly so: my point-and-click photos don’t do it justice), but it is not especially springlike yet.  We will revisit this vista soon, I hope, as the world comes back to life.  In the mean time I hope you at least enjoy the snow photos.

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igardenflounderHere are two more little flounder doodles which I make during the spare moments of the day.  The one at the top is a garden flounder which makes me think of spring…but with some sort of automated gardening machine that looks like a bug sitting atop of it.  Below is a post-apocalyptic fluke in the middle of the desert badlands of the grim future.  I have no idea what it means.  Maybe these have something to do with that perplexing German flounder fable about what we really want.

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RIP to the first victim of an autonomous car.  Details are still coming in, but it seems like an Uber robot SUV being tested in Tempe, Arizona killed a woman who was walking her bicycle.  Well, I guess technically some rich guy was already killed while incorrectly operating his semi-autonomous Tesla, however today’s accident feels more real to me and, judging by headlines, to everyone else as well.

I used to be deeply in love with the idea of cars.  They represented power, freedom, and status…until I tried to drive one and realized A) I am terrible at it; and B) it is profoundly easy to hurt or kill someone with a car.  American society is designed to normalize this in all sorts of ways… to such an extent that most people don’t even notice our rising traffic fatality statistics.  In Holland, if you kill somebody with a car, no matter what the circumstances, it is a real problem, but in America, even if you pretty much straight-up murder somebody through volition or grotesque incompetence, the police will come and rationalize a way it was the bicyclist’s or pedestrian’s fault and give you a hug and a root beer sticker. (If you kill more than six people you get a free foot-long hero sandwich!)

The deep indifference of the authorities is born out by the numbers: in 2016, 37,461 people died in traffic-related accidents in the United States.  If 40,000 people died in a war or by gun violence, society would be up in arms (so to speak) and we would be having a national conversation about how to improve things (editor’s note: in 2016, 38,000 Americans were killed by guns. What sort of dark carnival are we running over here?).

America is too spacious for us to ever be free of automated carriages.  I live in New York because, despite the cars, I can bicycle here (barely) and because there is a 24-hour subway (also barely…thanks a lot, Cuomo).  But beyond the coral-reef lifestyle of America’s one worthwhile city there is too much distance to cover.  Even if we were all Lance Armstrong (and we’re really not) we would still need motors to get around.

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We have decided not to invest in effective national mass transit. Likewise, we are not redesigning roads in ways which have been proven to make them safer in Europe and Japan (safer for motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike).  Our only hope of diminishing the carnage and damage wrought by our 1950s/60s era national transportation system is effective robot cars.  This won’t work if we take the lamentable current state of transportation as something to aspire to.

So, although today’s headline was scary and terrible, we need to keep looking at the bigger picture. We are fixated on the person tragically killed by a robot car because it is novel and garners attention (look, here I am writing about it too), but the real headline should be the hundred people who were killed in the United States today by normal human drivers.  Of course, that is the same story every day so nobody remarks upon it.   So Uber (and Google, and Tesla), get your act together.  Break down the data and figure out what went wrong and fix it.  Why didn’t your car stop (they are supposed to have faster reflexes than any person)?  Also, why was the “car” a giant hulking tank to begin with?  What is wrong with robot cars that are adorable little soft alien bug cars, like the Japanese are working on?

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Robot cars are coming and I believe they will be glorious, but a lot more work is needed…and more imagination and creativity are needed too.  So let’s slow down for a moment, but then speed up.  Think of the one person killed, but think of the hundred too.

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A really quick post today:  here are two interesting flags from Taiwan.  Above is the flag of the Taiwanese police and below is the flag of the Taiwanese Coast Guard.  Since these agencies are charges with keeping the peace, the emblem on their logos is a pigeon/dove.  Although the bird’s official police styling gives it an authoritative edge, I like the fact that it is still a dove.  In America, as you might imagine, the police have stars and eagles on their flags/logos/devices (although I guess there are suns and a dragon in the mix in these Taiwanese flags).  I wonder what the Taiwanese police badge looks like?

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One of the things which has surprised me most about this blog is how popular crowns are.  Currently Ferrebeekeeper’s most popular post (in terms of traffic) is about the crowns of ancient Egypt.  Because there are sooo many examples from practically every culture and timeframe, crowns are my go-to subject when I can’t think of anything to write about.  In addition to a dazzling rainbow of visual styles from all history, crowns showcase the strange vicissitudes of history.  Many crowns are steeped in stories of murder, cunning, and circumstances so peculiar they seem like something out of fiction (indeed it is the coronal outlier which sits harmlessly on a velvet pillow in a museum or cathedral for centuries).  Yet people’s interest in these jeweled hats supersedes the fascinating historical tales behind individual crowns . When I wanted to write about catfish mascots or mollusk mascots I had to search the edges of the internet, but went to write about “royal” mascots I was overwhelmed by material—dancing queens, comic kings, playing cards, whiskey brands, tattoos, and all sorts of royal iconography on every sort of consumer good.  Clearly even in our democracy, people are drawn to the symbolism and stagecraft of royalty.

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Now, obviously, I want people to click on my blog posts and then enjoy perusing them!  Yet I have always tried to be deliberately impertinent in how I write about crowns  because I find their innate meaning to be troubling and I find the objects themselves to be almost as silly as they are impressive.  Examples of crowns as high-status/royal items go back to the dawn of civilization, however the Greeks crafted an explanation of the meaning of crowns from within their religious/mythological symbology.   Allegedly the sparkling points of light are meant to indicate a corona—a halo of light which indicates divine favor or divinity itself (this same idea was appropriated by the Christian church as a visual shorthand for saints, apostles, and angels).

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So crowns (objects built by human hands) are meant to convey some sort of heavenly/supernatural status. It is indeed a telling combination: however it doesn’t reflect the divine right of kings but our species tendency to self-abasement in front of hierarchical authority.  Primatologists (or their subjects) would understand this intuitively: put a shiny thing on your head to appear taller and more dazzling.  This need for hierarchy allows us to organize and do amazing things, but it makes us susceptible to terrible leadership mistakes.  To quote Sir Terry Pratchett  “It seemed to be a chronic disease. It was as if even the most intelligent person had this little blank spot in their heads where someone had written: “Kings. What a good idea.” Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees.”

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I hoped that by writing about crowns I could deconstruct this concept a bit.  Crowns are always being usurped by con-men, stolen by knaves, walled up inside cathedral storerooms, or melted into ingots by misguided revolutionaries.  Although they are exceptional works of craft (and made of rare expensive materials), their history shows them to be anything but supernatural!  They don’t reflect on a king so much as on his subjects who are inclined to take him at his word when he puts on a ridiculous spiky golden hat and says he is better than everyone.

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I hope you enjoyed those three allegories of human destiny.  By the way, the first fable is from the peculiar 2006 film “Apocalypto”.  The movie begins when a rainforest shaman gathers the hunter-gatherers of his village around him and tells them that myth. Then the little society falls under the boot of the Mayan empire and the real fireworks start.  The second story is from the King James Bible (the second and third chapter of Genesis).  I properly attributed the magic flounder story to the Brothers Grimm.

 If I asked what these stories have in common, my ex-girlfriend would be quick to answer “misogyny”: women act selfishly in the second and third stories and don’t even appear in the first one! Who writes this stuff? Mel Gibson, Biblical Patriarchs (or God?), and the Brothers Grimm? Pshaw!  She always had a point about men’s use of language and eagerness to make women take the fall for their actions (and she still does: look at me use her as a straw-man), however, the gender dynamics truly are of secondary importance in these stories.  In each tale, all human protagonists are really “humankind”  and, throughout, it seems we are out for nothing less than godhood.

The idea that human existence is a multi-generational struggle for apotheosis is an appealing concept!  Indeed, that is essentially the linear “upward” narrative that western historians and scientists are always accused of telling.  The march upwards narrative has been useful for us: we need to get back to it… but we have to ask some pointed questions about what exactly “godhood” means in global scale macro context.  Upward to where? The idea of super-powered alien gardeners with ultimate magical power (or, you know, omnipotent flounders) is clearly another symbol.  But a symbol for what?   Could that silly fisherman not ask for a comprehensive explanation of gravity…or, better yet, ask what the flounder wanted?

A very legitimate reading of each of these tales is “You may have everything you want, but don’t aspire to Godhood.” Man’s attempt to master and surpass the abilities of every animal only leads him to want more…to the point of undermining the life-giving ecosystems of earth itself.  This is a familiar story…out the window  in our world of rampant consumerism, crony capitalism, and mass extinction.

In the Eden story, humankind’s attempts to grasp God’s knowledge results in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise into a world of constant struggle and death.  No longer are we pampered children in a garden of plenty: we have to be farmers, clerks, and soldiers struggling for some venal king or CEO who always wants a bigger palace. Our drive for knowledge and self-mastery is constantly undone by our self-defeating need for social ascendancy.  Yet without social ascendancy we are unable to grapple with problems of planetary scale engineering which we will soon need to stay alive (much less to move onward to other worlds).  This is a paradox.  Look what happened to the United States (in case you are reading this essay on a blackened parchment found in some ruins, we have been shamefully taken over from within by a risible strongman who loves pomp more than the pope himself does).   Trying to grasp the powers of the creator will not work unless we can master ourselves.  Doing so always requires political struggles which supersede the important things (science and engineering…and the underlying creative animus which gives context to fundamental knowledge).

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Although…there are literary critics who argue that the flounder gave the fisherman and his wife what they asked for with the last wish.  When last seen in the Bible (in the New Testament), God had come to Earth as a poor human.  Perhaps the fisherman and his wife are happy enough as ordinary garden-variety humans. We can’t go back to the garden of Eden and live as dumb happy subordinates…or can we?  I sure spend a lot of time arguing with fundamentalist Christians and with utopian left-leaning environmentalists about why we need space colonies.  There are a lot of people who don’t want to move forward anymore.  In their vision, we can put aside some of our gifts and just exist?  I am maybe mischaracterizing this, but it sounds ridiculous to me: we are like a shark.  If we stop moving for any length of time we’ll just die.

So why do we need a space colony anyway?  It is perilously close to the religious vision of heaven: living in the sky in a magical city where everyone exists in perfect harmony.  Did I escape the hegemony of Judeo-Christian hierarchies only to try to recreate that hierarchy with science and engineering (that is a very legitimate reading of contemporary society too).

I don’t have the answers to these questions and I see the plastic detritus and toxic waste of our struggles blotting out the natural world we depend on. Maybe we can hook the flounder one last time and ask for an explanation (that is what my weird art is about, by the way).  Or maybe we must trudge on from Eden as best we can, looking for a paradise which will never be more than a mythical archetype.  Yet I like snakes, and I didn’t see the serpent’s words as inherently untrue.  Also, from a literary perspective, why would God even create such a tree, if we weren’t supposed to eat of it. A divinity that wanted obedient little children forever could have done things very differently.  Growing up is hard and sometimes involves painful disagreements with your parents (and some people can’t do it at all).  But here we are, with the strengths of all of the beasts, and the knowledge of good and evil.  We must throw down our strongmen and false gods (gods are all metaphors, people, for goodness sakes!) and reach farther and think deeper than ever before. Eden is lost, but our arms are growing longer.  We can reach forth from here, to other worlds, or we can squabble like children for petty status objects until we destroy ourselves with the foolish struggle.  Metaphors or no, all individual humans are going back to the mud anyway, but while we are alive we can redeem ourselves: we can save the earth (and all its lovely animals) and we can give our children everything, if we can just ask the right thing…

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