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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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Happy New Year! Welcome back to Ferrebeekeeper.  We’ll talk about the perils and sweet promises of 2018 later this week.  It is a year which offers much…assuming we can prevent complete political meltdown, war, and pestilential horror (and can manage our empty & overheating economy into something more useful). There is another election coming (thank goodness).  Innovation,experimentation, and exploration, though woefully underfunded, still continue.Here at the old blogstead, I am adding some new topics and leaving behind some older themes which are played out. Also, for my professional life, I am planning a big new art project and some exciting shows. So keep watching for details on all of these things!

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But first I want to start the year with a homily from my grandmother.  Grandma Ferrebee is (locally) famous for her kindness and generosity, but also for her earthy wit and her grasp of the barnyard fundamentals which underlay the (thin) veneer of society. Additionally, she ran a beer hall in rural West Virginia for decades so beneath the affable exterior is the cold steel required to run a small business of any sort, much less one with a lot of drunken hillfolk running amok.  I didn’t always appreciate her bucolic wisdom when I was younger (the scatological nature often struck me as unseemly) yet lately this fable seems uniquely apt. Here it is (paraphrased):

Once upon a time the organs of the body became embroiled in a noisy contest concerning which organ was preeminent and controlled the body.

The brain said “I am the seat of intellect and I direct all of the conscious and unconscious nervous impulses.  The limbs do what I say and the body responds to my commands. I alone can apprehend the future and create lofty abstruse thoughts of things beyond rude physicality.  I properly and truly rule the body.”

The heart then replied “I am the seat of emotions.  Your fears and joys…your hatred and yearning comes from me.  I am synonymous with love–eternal and sublime! Plus, on a more literal level, I pump the blood which make all of the organs function.  The heart is the center of a person and I am the most important organ.”  

Then, before any of the other organs could say their piece, the ass stopped working: the system filled up with shit and the whole body died.

It’s…uh..pithier when Grandma tells it with her West Virginia twang and her knowing looks, but I think I have conveyed the fundamental message.  It is a message we need to think about in our “United” States. This red/blue rubbish is useful for pundits, but poisonous for a functioning nation.  Our political parties of increasing furious ideological purity are becoming like some autoimmune illness. Ayn Rand Republicans who believe that a healthy and robust society can exist without a thriving middle class and contented workers (to say nothing of scientists, creative professionals, and technocrats) are deadly con-artists misleading us into disaster

Likewise democrats who split hairs over esoteric social manners, and carp forevermore on status conveyed by hereditary victimization left over from bygone eras have lost sight of the future as well.  We have a motto about how things are supposed to work.

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It is a dangerous time for our nation.  I am writing here about The United States, which I know best, but all of the great democracies are afflicted by a wave of strife and malaise…indeed the whole world is convulsed by change so rapid that only authoritarian nations are dealing with it at all (mostly by pilfering the till and building Potemkin cities).  We can talk about the larger ramifications of this in the coming year, but first we need to talk and listen instead of shouting slogans like we are in the cultural revolution or something.  Democracy is not inferior to whatever China calls its brand of oppressive authoritarianism, but we need some reforms to make it work right. And we need to be patient and compassionate with each other while this process happens.

Above all, we must remember that, just like in the story, society needs people of all sorts in order to function. The nation needs both the sharp-eyed riflemen from Kentucky and the shrewd-minded accountants from Montclair. The states are deeply heterogeneous but stand beside each other through any crisis–structural, cyclical, or natural. We are not the “Fiscally Independent and Selfishly Aloof States of America”. Our name is much finer than that. We need the brain and the heart (and everything else) to work together if we are going to move forward…or even survive (for with a vastly greater population, our margins for error have shrunk).  Also we need to go back and think symbolically when we look at this story and not just put the ass in control.

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Every year we close out the year with obituaries.  I feel like the main-stream media does a pretty good job of memorializing the entertainers and showbiz folks who have passed away, so, although I loved Tom Petty, John Hillerman, Roger Moore, and John Hurt (and too many others), I will leave it to someone else to eulogize them.  Additionally, I have had less time to blog this year than I would like, so please don’t be upset if I miss a great and important scientist, algebraist, or artist.  That is what the comments are for!  I also tried to include some eminent scholars and artists from East Asia (since it feels like our counterweight cultures are divided by a gulf of misunderstanding and we overlook the cultural work being done there).  I was saddened to see how many astronauts from the golden first age of space exploration passed away.  Humankind becomes ever more insular and parochial: we squander our resources on useless giveaways to monopolistic companies and crooked oligarchs (who blow their money on status objects or remove it from circulation).  These days we barely even explore the heavens (much less travel there).  I wonder if there will ever be another generation of heroes to walk the moon or orbit the Earth once these figures from fade away.  At any rate, here is a brief list of 2017 obituaries to make us think about the brevity of life and the true nature of accomplishment:

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Zhou Youguang (January 13, 1906 – January 14, 2017) was a scholar who invented Pinyin, a system for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese (a language which does not fit easily into the Roman alphabet).  So excellent was his work that  Pinyin was officially adopted by the government of the People’s Republic of China in 1958.  Pinyin has now largely supplanted the Wade-Giles system and is the method by which Chinese is known to Western scholars or input on Roman keyboards.  Zhou Youguang lived through the dramatically changing China of the Qing Dynasty, The Republic of China, The Second World War Invasion by Japan, and The People’s Republic.  He was “sent down” during the Cultural Revolution and was critical of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

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George A. Romero (February 4, 1940 – July 16, 2017) was the masterful director of terrifying zombie movies which were thinly veiled allegories for the problems of contemporary society.

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Kim Jong-nam (May 10 1971 – 13 February 2017): this unremarkable man was the eldest son of the genocidal sociopath Kim Jong-il,the late dictator of North Korea.  Kim Jong-nam was murdered in Singapore at the command of his brother (by means of poison, in a plot worthy of dark fantasy literature).  While Kim Jong-nam’s death is of no consequence in itself, it speaks to the criminal nature of the North Korean regime and foreshadows countless deaths to come at the mercurial will of their fat cruel tyrant.  There are two stories of why Kim Jong-nam was disinherited: in one story he was cut out of the family business for trying to sneak into Tokyo Disneyland (but insiders whisper he was exiled and ultimately murdered for favoring reform).

David Rockefeller (June 12, 1915 – March 20, 2017) was the last surviving grandson of John Davison Rockefeller Sr. (a 19th century tycoon who built the Standard Oil Trust and thus became by far the richest individual of America’s gilded age).  There was a point in the 1970s when David’s brother Nelson was Governor of New York and then Vice President of the United States, and yet David was reputed to be more powerful and connected.

Sir Nicholas Winton (May 19, 1909 – July 1, 2015) was a swordsman, banker and stockbroker who rescued of 669 Jewish children, from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia by means of paperwork wizardry, networking, and money-raising.

Sam Shepard (November 5, 1943 – July 27, 2017) was a playwright and actor who applied the Beckett’s absurd style to themes of family, violence, and substance abuse and thus carved out a uniquely American theater style.

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Hugh Heffner (April 9, 1926 – September 27, 2017) was a controversial publisher whose magazine “Playboy” was famous for cultural articles, progressive editorials, and reproductive advice which challenged America’s puritanical mores.  The magazine was however more famous for lubricious pictures of naked women and espousing a hedonistic (sexist?) lifestyle.  This legacy, and the distasteful…extravagance…of Hugh Heffner’s private life made him a polarizing figure, but he must be mentioned (and honored) because of the debt which generation after generation of pre-internet era adolescent boys owe him.

Richard Francis Gordon Jr. (October 5, 1929 – November 6, 2017) was an American naval officer, chemist, and astronaut.  He is only one of 24 people to have flown to the moon (although he didn’t get to walk on it).  Later he helped design the space shuttle and served as Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints.

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Bruce McCandless II, (June 8, 1937 – December 21, 2017) was a U.S. Navy officer, pilot, and NASA astronaut who made the first untethered free flight in space.

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Wang Panyuan (c. 1908 – December 22nd, 2017) was a famous Chinese/Taiwanese painter who brought together classical Chinese painting with expressionism.

 

 

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Merry Christmas!  I decorated the house up all beautifully with my tree of life and with all sorts of seasonal lights…but then I couldn’t find my digital camera.  I’m afraid you will have to get through Saturnalia/Yule/Christmas with these somewhat blurry images.  I hope Santa brings you what you want (or Hanukkah Harry…or Saturn…or Mithras).  We’ll do some year-end wrap-up next week, but for right now I am going to drink some egg-nog and draw some festive flatfish!  Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper!

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My office has moved to Midtown (across from Grand Central…more about that later), but I think I like the concrete canyons of Downtown better.  The streets down by Wall Street feel like I always imagined New York felt like when I was little (although so do the brownstone streets of Brooklyn).  Downtown also has unique holiday decorations–those jagged star/explosions.  Whenever I see them, I imagine Batman has just punched the lamppost and an audible “Bap” or “Kapow” is forthcoming.  I guess they are supposed to betoken universal peace or some such thing, but it sure looks like Batman went on a rampage.  Indeed, the whole downtown area sort of has the brooding gritty melancholy of Gotham…especially on foggy or wintry days.

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