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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.

tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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I live in the city (as does more than half of humankind), and I love the colors, forms, and manic creative energy of this coral-reef like false ecosystem which we humans have built for ourselves.  As much as I love cities, though (especially my beloved home of Brooklyn), I feel like they could be ever so much better.  Cities tend to be terrible places for non-human lifeforms (with a handful of striking exceptions like pigeons)…and most urban places are also pretty unhealthy for the human inhabitants as well.  Not only are cities engineered with minimal interest in ecology but the structure of cities comes to mirror the social problems of the societies which create them (almost universally this involves an elite caste leeching away the vast majority of resources through a rigged hierarchical system they have devised).  Technological and agricultural problems also etch themselves indelibly into the structure of cities. Thus we have the deadly smog-choked car-culture cities of 20th century America…the human sacrifice temples of MesoAmerica…the desicated & starved cities of the desert…the slave cities of the ancient worlf…and on and on.

In many times and places, clever and driven people have tried to solve these problems by planning out entire cities beforehand.  Obviously, all cities are planned at some level, but this generally involves multi-generational building and lots of half-completed projects, strange work-arounds, and odd organic muddles where unexpected or unintended factors override the planners’ visions (insomuch as they planned for anything other than immediate utility). Thus, the great cities like Shanghai, Paris, London, Singapore, Tokyo, and NEW YORK are the collaboration of innumerable minds working together (often at cross-purposes) across many different eras. The end result betrays a lot of compromise and muddling though.  I am not talking about that sort of thing right now.  Instead I am talking about cities which are the result of a single monomaniacal vision.

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Here is a straightforward example of a planned city from Northern Italy in the late Renaissance.  This is Palmanova, a star-fort community built by the Venetian Republic in 1593.  The city was made possible as a result of the Venetians’ great victory at Lepanto in (a battle which also spawned a lot of the best battle paintings) and the designer, Vincenzo Scamozzi, made sure to incorporate the great military innovations of the late 16th century into the plan.  Palmanova was located near the Slovenian border–the eastern front of Christendom’s great war with the Ottoman Empire–and the community is therefor built within a nine-pointed polygon made of earth and mortar to protect the inhabitants from the artillery of the day.   Additionally, the city was designed with Thomas More’s recent literary hit “Utopia” in mind so that artisans, merchants, soldiers, and farmers would be housed in a style which placed them on an equal social footing (although the Palace of Provveditore is somewhat more, um, palatial than the ordinary residences).  The town’s cathedral is near the central plaza and, despite its baroque beauty, it has a shortened campanile so that enemy gunners could not easily focus on it.

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But things went a bit awry for Palmanova right away.  Despite the new city’s elegance and the lofty ideas of the founders, nobody wanted to live there. By 1622, the Venetian planners who had created Palmanova were forced to pardon criminals and offer them free building lots in order to populate the town.  Building slowed to a snail’s pace.  The focus of international conflict changed, and Venice’s glory receded.  The full plans were not completed until between 1806 and 1813 (when the Napoleonic wars brought renewed relevance to fortifications).

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Palmanova is hardly a failure.  You can live there today and aerial photographers dote on the place.  Yet it didn’t usher in a new era of egalitarian polygonal fortress cities either.  The factors which the planners saw as most important were superseded by the rapid pace of progress or they were proven to be matters of baroque fashion rather than universal values.  To address the concerns of today we would not build this sort of place (although I find it strikingly beautiful and I admire the style and the idealism of its planners). Later this week we will look at some more planned cities from history which didn’t have the same sort of success.  Maybe if we focus on some of these real world examples we can think about what would improve the cities of tomorrow.

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While summer lingers here with us I wanted to write a quick post about vinoks, the floral crowns of the Ukraine.  Floral crowns are nearly universal, but the vinoks descend from a long lineage of Greek and Byzantine flower crowns which were worn to denote purity (and eligibility) among maidens.

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(Instagram/Treti Pivni)

A group of floral artists and photographers calling themselves Treti Pivni (which means “Third Rooster”) are working to repopularize the vinok in the modern world (and to breathe fresh life into ancient Ukrainian cultural traditions.

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I can’t speak to the authenticity or meaning of these crowns, but the beauty speaks for itself.  I hope you enjoy them.  If so seek out the Third Rooster…er…Treti Pivni.  They are out there right now agonizingly inserting strands of wheat into wreathes for the delectation of the world.

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