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Let’s talk about the most difficult lesson I encountered in class in grade school. To be honest, I feel like I never really mastered it…or perhaps the lesson is still ongoing.  It might not just be me…

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“These are the times that try men’s souls…”

Although I had no natural affection for numbers, I was always successful at middle school because I read everything insatiably and yet still wanted to know more about existence.  School isn’t really set up to sate this desire (except for the IB program, which is amazing and would solve all of America’s problems in a generation if only it were adopted everywhere).  Sadly, success at school generally involves the same sort of things which bring workplace success: showing up on time, giving people the answers which they want to hear, and completing tedious busy-work tasks.   But, back then, I was competent enough at doing those things, because I knew it was mission critical to getting into a good college–which was the ultimate culmination of existence.

All of that is backstory for explaining the most difficult lesson I ever had in grade school. It is one which I still struggle with, because it involves some paradoxes at the heart of knowledge, meaning, and success.  It also bears on life’s true lessons (the fact that I was a bookish twerp lacking popular esteem was probably the true lesson of middle school, but it was extracurricular, whereas this particular failure was enshrined in a report card). Back in the 1980s I had a blithesome free-spirited art teacher.  She was a good art teacher and I still recall the assignments she gave (copying a bird exactly by means of a grid; making a random squiggle and then expanding it to be a drawing; watercolor on a wet paper; exactly copying a piece of money).  Her opinion was also valuable to me, as I am sure any good student (or 15-year-old boy with a pretty teacher) will understand.

Now I worked harder in art class than at any class because I loved it, but a lot of students regarded it as a sort of free period where they could chat, flirt, and maybe doodle a bit if they felt like it. Back in those days I was still smart and hard-working. At the end of the semester, it was time for grades, and the teacher gave us a last strange assignment: give yourself the grade which you feel is appropriate.  Now I was a 15 year old lad, but I had read enough fables to recognize a trap. “This must be a lesson in how to behave with modest decorum!” I gave myself a B plus, because, although I tried extremely hard (much harder than the louts who spent every class socializing), and although my drawings were better than most everyone else’s, I had never succeeded at the level which I wanted.  I could see every feather out of place on the sea eagle I drew (and the overworked beak with an unsatisfactory little hook).  I can still see that sea eagle, damnit.

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The oafs (who didn’t even complete the art assignments!) naturally gave themselves perfect marks.  I assumed that the degree to which I had tried (which was substantial) and my abilities as compared to my classmates (also substantial) would be recognized by the teacher who would correct everything into a familiar bell curve.  This was an unwarranted assumption.

The final report card revealed that the teacher gave us all the same grade we had given ourselves.  The teacher said: “art is about what you think of yourself!” My horrifying B+ became a finalized part of my permanent record! The oafs all got A pluses which they are probably still savoring (in workcamp, prison, General Electric, or the White House) to this very day.

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Anyway, I survived that 9th grade “B” in art class.  Thanks to my parents’ profound generosity and to my love for reading and writing (which was probably also a gift from my parents), I ultimately got out of school with a “golden ticket,” a degree with general honors from the University of Chicago!  Of course, instead of becoming a crooked hedge fund manager and basking in the world’s envy, I ripped up my ticket and I live as an insolvent artist.

“Art is what you think about yourself.” It is a terrible definition of art.  Yet it somehow passes muster in New York’s contemporary art scene which is more self-involved than a Kanye West song.  I have tried to master that sort of pure self-involvement (just look at this essay), yet I still can’t think of art as merely a solipsistic musing on self-identity (nor as a badge of hierarchical status).

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Success in America is defined as making a huge amount of money.  It is humorous how often people cite this completely inaccurate definition to explain things: “Oh it was my job” or “We made a great deal of money” as though this has anything to do with wisdom or knowledge or what is useful or right.  Society is having a great deal of trouble comprehending what is wise, useful, and right. I blame our education system (though perhaps I should instead blame artists…or myself).

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Last week, the world met Bing Dwen Dwen, the official mascot of the 2022 Winter Olympics.  He is one cute winter sports panda!  I think the hosts of the upcoming winter Olympics did a fine job selecting him, however, when I wrote that post, I shamefully overlooked his companion mascot!  At top up there is Shuey Rhon Rhon, a sentient lantern child who  represents the 2022 Paralympic Games.  According to the IOC press release “the name signifies warmth, friendship, courage and perseverance.”

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A panda and a lantern may not seem like the world’s most natural mashup, yet they really are both emblematic of Chinese culture without being quite so nationalistic as classic 80s mascots like Misha the Bear and Sam the Eagle, who always seemed a bit like he was about to narrate how a bill becomes a law (“it passes the house and then is killed by Mitch McConnell…Screeee!”)  Shui Rhon Rhon also has some nice fancy detailing, although the more I look at her, the more troubled I am by her timid demeanor and lack of a mouth.

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The lack of a mouth might not be completely about social control though.  The 2022 Olympics will take place in mid February…which is also the season of Lantern Festival (Yuan Xiao Festival), a holiday which celebrates deceased ancestors. Like the Olympics, The Lantern Festival aims to promote reconciliation, peace, and forgiveness.  Yet, because of the holiday’s nature, the lantern girl has a dash of the other world to her (the dancing, flickering flames inside lanterns are famously symbolic of spirit).

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In lavish Hindu weddings, the bride and groom are (unofficial) royalty for a day. This beautiful Mughal crown from the late 18th century is probably a wedding crown for a groom. Manufactured from a solid piece of cast silver with gold leaf upon it, the piece features peacocks which, among other things, were sacred to Saraswati (wise goddess of patience kindness and compassion). The birds represent protection, good luck, and prosperity for the newlyweds. Of course 1780 was a long time ago, so it is also possible that this crown is actually a votive crown for a long lost statue of a veda (a Hindu deity). Each god in the Indian pantheon is associated with a “vahana” a special sacred emblematic animal which they ride. The peacock is the vahana of Kartikeya, god of war. So is this a wedding crown or a religious crown or something else entirely?  Objects come down through time stripped of their original purpose, but it hardly looks like a sacred war object to me.  Whatever purpose it serves, it is a lovely example of northern Indian silversmithing and a wonderful work of art.

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Ok, I’ll admit it, maybe I still have some “panda-monium” in my system from Tuesday’s announcement about the 2022 Olympic mascot, Bing Dwen Dwen, an adorable panda wearing some sort of ice hauberk.  To follow up on that post, here is a picture of a baby panda in China which was just born with white and gray fur.  What’s the story here?

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Now everyone knows that pandas are black and white (except for the red panda, which is really a whole different sort of animal), however it turns out there are a couple of mysterious off-color giant panda clans out there in the bamboo forests. Apparently a family from Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding sometimes has gray and white cubs.  Pandas from the so-called Gray family look wise beyond their years at first but then turn to normal white and black as they grow into adulthood.  Here is Chengshi, another gray-and-white cub born a few years ago who matured into a lovely black-and -white goofball.

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However, the Gray family of color-changing gray pandas is not the most dramatic clan of differently colored giant pandas.

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This is Qi Zai, the world’s only captive brown and white panda.  Qi Zai is from the distant Qinling Mountains in Shaanxi, where a subspecies of brown and white pandas appropriately known as Qinling pandas are known to reside.  Qinling pandas are rarely spotted in the forest fastnesses of their remote home.  The pandas are reputedly somewhat smaller (and more sensitive) than their black-and-white relatives.  Zoologists are still arguing about how to classify the brown and white pandas (are they a true sub-species, or just an unusual family), but it seems like they are certainly the rarest of the rare.  It is is estimated that only 200-300 exist in the whole world.

Boy, this has been an intense week for astronomy news. First there was the largest neutron star ever discovered (it would take an eighth grader nearly an hour to bicycle a distance equivalent to its diameter!), then there was the story about Tabby’s Star gulping down exoplanets and pulverizing a moon (Ferrebeekeeper didn’t post that one, but you can read about it here) and now, today brings reports of another extra-solar mystery object akin to the mysterious Oumuamua which caused such a sensation back in 2017.

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C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) in the middle of the image: Note the faint tail!

Back in August 30, 2019, Gennady Borisov, an amateur astronomer from Ukraine, spotted an unknown comet which has been dubbed “C/2019 Q4 (Borisov)”.  Not only is the comet traveling at the blazing speed of  150,000 kilometers per hour (93,000 mph), it also has a hyperbolic orbit (meaning the object is not bound to the solar system) and it is approaching from a strange angle which in skew to the planar disk of the solar system.

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At present the comet is far away from Earth and yet approaching on a path which puts the sun between us and the object (astronomers don’t like pointing their telescopes into the sun for some reason), however the mysterious object should approach as close as Mars at which point we will be able to learn more about it.  Right now all we know is that C/2019 Q4 (Borisov) has a diameter between 2.4 and 15 kilometers (1.5 to 10 miles) and doesn’t seem to be from around here.  Whereas Oumuamua zipped through before we could get a good handle on it, we should have a chance to properly study this comet. Since comets (unlike strange asteroid shards) are volatile, we should be able to get a sense of its composition by studying the makeup of the tail.  Stay tuned for more news about this peculiar object!

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What with all of the excitement over nine sided Venetian citadel-cities and neutron stars, we have been ignoring a big fuzzy lovable (and carefully-orchestrated) component of contemporary life: mascots.  Fortunately, the planners of the upcoming Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics have made no such oversight and today (or yesterday in China?) they unveiled the Olympics mascot for 2022–a roly poly panda named Bing Dwen Dwen (pictured above).

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Of course a professional ursologist (which is hopefully someone who studies bears and not just some sort of hissing urologist) might be perplexed by Bing Dwen Dwen’s oblong shape and strangely albescent color.  This is not because he is a mutant bear or incorrectly rendered: Bing Dwen Dwen is encased in a full-body carapace of hardened ice (presumably to represent how cold and hard winter sports are).  Likewise, the blood-colored heart on his paw is not to remind you that even the most adorable panda can be dangerous (which is true, by the way), but rather to represent the hospitality and bighearted generosity of the People’s Republic of China.  Awww!  Bing’s face is wreathed in fine lines of pure color which represent racers whipping around a track and advanced digital technology.  To quote the official Olympics website, “The newly launched Olympic mascot resembles an astronaut, embracing new technologies for a future with infinite possibilities.”

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Oh my goodness, how can it be SO cute?

The Olympics website also generalizes that pandas are deeply loved by people from all over the world…which is surprisingly true, actually.  I think China made a good choice by selecting a supremely popular animal which is the exemplary archetype of all things Chinese. Leave the alien metal blobs for confused and divided nations.  Let’s give an enthusiastic round of applause to the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and Jilin University of the Arts, which chose Bing from a vast pantheon of 5800 aspirant mascots.  These Olympic mascot contenders were submitted by designers from around the world who hoped to participate in the Winter Olympics without sliding face first down an ice mountain.  I wish I had known about the mascot contest: what could be more representative of winter sport than an armless flounder?  But I guess I will save that idea for when the winter games are held in Antarctica (which may soon be the only place cold enough for winter sports).

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Ferrebeekeeper is baffled and alarmed by neutron stars (here is a post about them from back in the day).  A factoid from that post summarizes what makes these super-dense stellar remnants so disconcerting: a 1.27 square centimeter cube of neutron star material has approximately the same mass as all of Earth’s 7.7 billion human inhabitants (although the tiny cube of pure neutrons presumably lacks the same lively personality).  It is almost impossible to conceive of such a material…which is why we are reporting today’s space news! Astronomers at the Greenbank Radio telescope in West Virginia (pictured above) have discovered the largest known neutron star 4600 light years from Earth.  The star is known by the unlovely name J0740+6620 and it has 2.14 times the mass of the sun packed into a sphere with a diameter of 25 kilometers (to contextualize in instantly familiar terms, 25 km is the distance from Hell’s Kitchen to JFK airport).  This particular star is a rotating neutron star—a pulsar–which emits two radio beams from its poles as it rotates at hundreds of revolutions per second.  lies at the upper theoretical limit of how large a neutron star can be without collapsing into a black hole.

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The star was discovered by luck as astronomers researched gravitational waves (which are vast invisible ripples in space time).  Because the neutron star has a white dwarf companion, astronomers were able to precisely calculate the star’s mass with some fancy math.   The mass of the white dwarf distorts spacetime around the neutron star to a degree which causes the pulsar’s radio beacons to be delayed by tenths of millionths of a second.  Astronomers measured these delays (the phenomenon is known as “Shapiro Delay”) and calculated the mass of the neutron star accordingly.

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We have been talking about planned cities of the past and of the future.  Almost every urban culture in history has fantasized about how to make cities better, and some civilizations have actually put these ideas into practice (or tried to do so). But when it comes to crafting cities in the mind and then actually building them in the real world, nobody rivals China.  From the 12th century BC through the present, the world’s most populous city has, more often than not, been Chinese.  Densely populated urban environments are a defining feature of Han culture. And during all that time, strong central authority and hierarchical planning of all aspects of society has been an equally prominent aspect of Chinese civilization.

As you might imagine, such a mixture has left a long history in Chinese letters. The Kao Gongji (Kao Gong Ji) was written in the late Spring and Autumn period around 500 BC (although the oldest surviving copy only dates to 1235 AD).  The book generalizes about may different sorts of practical skills and trades, but it reserves special attention for how princes should build their capitals.

The style of these ruling cities is as imperious as you would imagine: The Kao Gongji dictates a walled palace/administrative nucleus in the center of a large capital city.  This pattern was common in many early states particularly in southern China.

To quote the book directly:

“When the builder constructs the capital, the city should be a fang (a four-sided orthogonal shape) nine li on each side with three gates each. Within the city are nine longitudinal and nine latitudinal streets, each of them 9 carriages wide. On the left (i.e. east) is the Ancestral Temple, on the right (west) are the Altars of Soil and Grain, in front is the Hall of Audience and behind the markets.”

 

This idea (which literally placed the king/emperor squarely at the center of all aspects of society) was put into practice in the ancient capital of Luoyi, and it manifested again and again in the layout of China’s other capitals.  Indeed, although the Mongols and the Qing had moved beyond such rudimentary urban plans, the fundamental concept is even present in Beijing.

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Saudi Arabia…the name is synonymous with corruption, sexism, waste, despotism, and vicious religious fundamentalism of the most cruel and benighted stamp.  Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11th attacks were Saudi nationals. One could almost wonder why this kingdom is so closely allied with the United States of America.  Yet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman does not just dream of the glories of the past, he dreams of future glories as well.  One way or another, humankind’s age of fossil fuels will soon come to a crashing end. When that happens, Prince Salman, wants his subjects to have something other than petrochemical riches to fall back on.  For all of the Crown Prince’s faults (cough, murdering and dismembering progressive dissidents), planning for the future is what a worthwhile leader should be doing, and I am impressed by the grandeur of this monarch’s plans.

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Behold the City of Neom! A futuristic wonderland of architectural marvels, Neom will be designed based on a synthesis of ecological and technological design (rather in the mode of Singapore’s artificial supertrees). Staffed by incorruptible and tireless robot laborers and security forces, the city will be powered entirely with renewable energy.  The economy of the city will be based around research, technology, and creativity.  Neom will be under its own tax and labor laws and have an “autonomous judicial system” out from under the shadows of the current criminal justice system. Because the city will be constructed from scratch, there will be ample scope for visionary breakthroughs in transportation and infrastructure.  Some of the wilder ideas being bandied about include flying cars, cloud seeding, dinosaur robots and a giant artificial moon!

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Neom lies at the confluence of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel.  The physical location is also between the golden desert and the rich coral reefs of the Red Sea.  It is also a meeting place of Asia and Africa.  The empty desert could indeed be a fitting place to construct a of towering dreams and miracles which would make Sinbad reel in astonishment…and yet…

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…An especially cynical person, might suggest that Neom is a ludicrous confabulation dreamed up as cover for failed social policies, misallocated oil wealth, and a genocidal war of aggression in Yemen. Perhaps by carefully reading this post, you have intuited that I am dubious concerning the House of Saud–which supports the most reactionary and extremist Wahhabi clerics, who, in exchange, prop up this aging kleptocracy from their pulpits minbars.  Well I don’t love the ideals of Saudi Arabia insomuch as I understand them (although I have quite liked the individuals I have met from there), but I do like the concept of Neom.  Could it be built without relying on slave labor?  Could it be built at all?  The current financial plans involve a massive half-trillion dollar IPO of Saudi Aramco, and it seems unlikely that will happen soon based on the oil market (and the post-Kashoggi toxicity of the Saudi government to investors).

But true reform requires audacity and the ability to dream big.  Neom is a giant astonishing dream!  I would love to see it come to fruition (and pull Saudi Arabia out of its retrograde spiral). But that is going to require A LOT more than pipe dreams, stage lighting, and kleptocrats scratching each other’s fat backs.

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Success will require international cooperation, actual social reform, and the ability to learn from failures and change course.  It will require learning, studying, and innovating far beyond what is happening anywhere right now (much less in a place seemingly designed to prevent any actual scientific or social progress).  Building Neom will require Saudi Arabia to rethink some of the foundational choices made at the time of independence from the Ottoman Empire…and it will also require the United States to rethink some of our bad habits vis-a-vis the kingdom (and to give up some of the snotty bigotry which is all too evident even among the most enlightened blog writers).  But these things are possible with bravery, near-infinite hard work, and unflinching self scrutiny. Call me, Salman, I will give you my true support.  Don’t expect me to meet you in Istanbul though.

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Last week we checked out the planned city of Palmanova which was built by battle-hardened Venetian egalitarians who were planning for an Ottoman invasion (which never materialized).  Palmanova is shaped like a nine-pointed star and while regular polygons are stylish and exceedingly geometric, if you are like me, you might find them a bit too geometric.   Why couldn’t they build cities in the shape of some magnificent animal like a quoll or a rhinoceros?

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Juba, South Sudan

Well you are in luck! They could very well build a city in the shape of a rhinoceros!  The nation of South Sudan came into existence in 2011 as a direct result of the Second Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1983 to 2005 (that war followed the First Sudanese Civil War which lasted from 1955 to 1972…but I am going to elide over some of the history of Sudan so that we don’t become overwhelmed by despair).  South Sudan is a young nation which faces a lot of problems…one of which is that the capital Juba was built for the convenience of the British army (and the Greek merchants who supplied the army) and it hasn’t really proven very suitable as the capital city of a modern nation state.   The most likely outcome is that the capital will be moved to Ramciel, which is closer to the center of the country and not quite so arid, but urban planners came up with a fascinating alternate proposal to build a whole new Juba in the shape of a mighty rhinoceros.  Here is the plan:

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Now obviously, it isn’t right to build perissodactyl-shaped cities just because you can (although cities certainly used to be designed around horses).  The citizens of South Sudan also have needs which are more urgent than the need for a vanity project in the middle of a site which has already proven problematic.  Yet the sheer nuttiness of the proposed rhinoceros Juba, makes me a bit sad that we are unlikely to see it.

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Of course the fact that it is unlikely doesn’t mean it is impossible.  Like the new Indonesian Capital City, the capital of South Sudan is currently in administrative flux. I will keep you updated on the what happens with the move to Ramciel (nothing worth speaking of has happened so far) or of the rhinoceros, if anybody shows up with backhoes and starts scraping it out of the arid plain.  In the meantime, let us wish the very best to the founding fathers of South Sudan as they try to make their troubled new nation prosperous in a time when deserts are becoming hotter and drier.  And speaking of desert cities, tune in tomorrow when we see what other directions city planners have taken to deal with this challenging environment.

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