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It is the 50 year anniversary of the Apollo moon landing!  It is a glorious anniversary: the moon landing was surely one of humankind’s proudest moments to date! Human beings left the Earth and walked upon the surface of a different world and returned to tell the tale! Yet it is a bittersweet anniversary too.  Today we are too politically paralyzed, too indebted, and too subservient to world-bestriding monopolies to accomplish anything similarly stirring.  It is unlikely we could even repeat the same feat! The president talks of returning to the moon by 2024, but anybody following the affairs of NASA recognizes that this is not going to happen (even assuming the current administration remains in place to push these particular space priorities).

In 1967, the Apollo program, by itself, was taking 4 percent of total government spending.  That was an era when the USA’s GDP represented 38% of the total world economic output (it is around 24% today).  There are lots of cranks and bumpkins who grouse about such outlays, but that money was spent here on Earth and it yielded rewards far beyond the moon landing itself.  The communications, materials, and technology innovations which have changed so many aspects of life largely flowed out of the space program (and its shadowy military sibling programs).

Perhaps you are wondering why this is not a nostalgic & triumphalist post about an epochal human accomplishment.  Maybe you are also perplexed about why I am writing about budgets and GDP instead of, you know, about landing human beings on the moon (although there has not been a human on the moon during my lifetime).

This is not just an anniversary post, it is also a polemical post about current policy failures. We are not investing any such vast outlays in long-term, open-ended research today.  It is going to come back to haunt us in a future of reduced prospects and lackluster breakthroughs Fifty years hence, are we going to look back on 2019 and enthuse about an Instagram filter, or slight improvements in immunotherapy, or blockchain technology?

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Wikipedia blandly notes ” blue-sky projects are politically and commercially unpopular and tend to lose funding to more reliably profitable or practical research.” The real genius of the moon-landing was that the end result was so spectacular and stupendous that it upended this conventional wisdom.  U.S. politicians of the sixties had the genius to perceive that the Apollo program could bring us together, boost our national prestige, bankrupt the Russians, and yield enormous technological and scientific rewards all at the same time.

In 1969, it must have seemed like the beginning of a golden age of space exploration.  After our heroic moon conquest we would build nuclear reactors on the moon and then create space cities in domed craters.  There would be giant lunar rail guns, torus space stations, spaceplanes, and Mars missions (and my floating Venutian city).  Instead we have the moldering hulk which is the International Space Station and some worn out space planes in museums.  Our vision and our willpower faded as our greed grew greater.

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But it is never too late! Space is still out there, bigger than ever. The moon landing showed that the impossible is possible if we work together.  That’s still true too and it is something we should all think hard about as we look up at the night sky and make plans for what to do next.

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Lydia Ordering the Death of Her Sons (Loyset Liédet and Pol Fruit, ca. 1467–72), Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment,

Let’s take a break from parade floats, summer flowers, and ice cream artwork to renew our appreciation of all things Gothic.  Today’s post involves taking a step back in time to check out the footwear of yore–namely those astonishing pointy Gothic shoes which you see in medieval illumination (like the horrifying Game Of Thrones-ish painting above).  Those shoes don’t just exist in ancient artworks and period dramas, specialty cobblers still make them. Here are some photos of Gothic-style footwear which you can buy right now online!

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Long-toe Suede Poulaines from armstreet.com

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I like all of those, but that green pair is particularly splendid!  I would totally wear those if I was accepted into Hogwarts or dragged into a time portal.  But what is the story with those toes?  Why did lordly fops of the 12th-15th century wear these extreme pointy elvish-looking shoes?  The fashion spread throughout northwest Europe, but it originated in Poland (which was going through a sort of golden age) which is why such shoes are called are called “Poulaines” or “Crakows.”  The toes were originally filled with moss or other pre-industrial packing materials in order to hold their shape.  As the toes became more elaborate and more curved, architectural internal elements made of cork or leather became necessary so they would hold their shape.

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I wish I could tell you some satisfying tale of how the pointy toes poked venomous snakes out of the way or helped lords walk on tippy-toe over muddy peasants or something, however, the reason footwear looked as it did then, was much the same as now: namely impractical shoes betokened status. A vast pan-European network of conspicuous consumption existed in the high middle ages and it was a big part of how the elites “kept score.”

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So Crakows with their long poulain toes were apparently the Manolo Blahniks of their day.  I will keep looking for more to the story, but it seems like this might be a classic case of the things we do for fashion.  Don’t worry though, we are not done with Gothic shoes: there is more to come from eras much more recent and familiar.  Just stay tuned to Ferrebeekeeper and keep on your toes!

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Tiger Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

Here is another flounder artwork which I just completed.  A majestic Amur Tiger is “hiding” on the pink, purple, and green stripes of a lurking flatfish.  Something which has forcefully struck me about the popular understanding of flatfish is how many people are surprised at what successful predators flatfish are (I guess perhaps people unconsciously thought they were carrion eaters because they live on the ocean bottom?). Anyway, like tigers, flounders lurk in wait, blending in with their surroundings until the perfect moment and then “snap!” they grab up their unsuspecting prey.  Tigers are of course a beloved super charismatic animal which people think about all of the time (although flatfish make up an entire taxonomical order, I get the sense that people who aren’t anglers or ichthyologists don’t think about them quite so much).  Frankly our fascination and love haven’t helped the big cats all that much though: they are rapidly going extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching (mostly for moronic traditional nostrums).  This juxtaposed flounder sculpture hints at the sad fate facing the world’s brilliant animal predators.  It is also a study in the dazzling color and form of stripes!

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Today is Nunavut Day!  Long ago, on July 9th of the far distant year of…uh…1993 the Parliament of Canada established the territory of Nunavut, which was carved out of the catch-all Northwest Territories (a vast expanse of tundra, wilderness, and ice at the northern end of the Americas).  Nunavut includes most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago as well an innumerable northern islands–including some which are quite huge.  The region has an area of  2,038,722 square km (787,155 sq mi) meaning it is the same size as Japan, South Korea, Italy, France, the UK, and Germany combined, however Nunavut is rather more sparsely populated than these locations and has a total population of less than 40,000 humans (whereas the collective population of Japan, South Korea, Italy, France, the UK, and Germany totals approximately half a billion people).

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But we are not here to quibble about a variation of a few zeroes in population size. The important thing about Nunavut is its rich cultural heritage! This is reflected in the flag of Nunavut, which is what I really want to talk about in this blog post.

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Here it is! This flag was crafted in 1999 by an unholy process involving 800 hand drawn submissions from across Canada, a committee of Inuit elders and artists, and Queen Elizabeth II.  This improbable group collaborated to make a vividly unique and colorful  banner.  The red device in the middle of the flag is an inuksuk, a ceremonial land marker from Inuit culture, and the blue star is Niqirtsuituq, the North star.   According to Wikipedia “The colours blue and gold were selected to represent the “riches of land, sea, and sky”, while red is used to represent Canada as a whole.”  Apparently there is no explanation for the white (although a traveler in Nunavut at any time other than mid-July would probably not need an explanation for that particular color).

Although the flag is unique in its appearance and imagery, it has been criticized by vexillologists for having too many colors, having two bright colors as a background, and for the placement of the star.  Seemingly vexillologists are as vexatious as their name makes them sound.  Join me in the future to criticize their flag! In the meantime enjoy Nunavut Day and try to imagine the serene coolness of that vast northern land.

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Behold!  Here is the Tiara of Saitaferne, a crown of gold acquired by the Louvre in 1896.  The crown is wrought from a gold sheet and features gorgeous Greek youths surrounded by vines and birds.  A Greek inscription on the headdress reads “The council and citizens of Olbia honour the great and invincible King Saitapharnes.” According to classical lore, Saitapharnes was a Scythian king who menaced the Greek colony of Olbia (on the northern tip of Sardinia).  The colonists had to bribe him to leave with precious tribute, including this crown.  The crown was a sensation in France (and greater Western Europe) when it was purchased for 200,000 gold francs and precipitated much admiration for the matchless craftsmanship of antiquity.

Except…the object is a complete forgery.  It was made in 1894 by Israel Rouchomovsky, a master goldsmith from Odessa, on commission from antiquities dealers Schapschelle & Leiba Hochmann.  They told Rouchomovsky that the object was for a friend who was a classical archaeologist and they provided Rouchomovsky with detailed instructions as to how to make the tiara.

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Israel Rouchomovsky

When Rouchomovsky learned about the deceptive sale to the Louvre, he was aghast and he traveled to France to explain what had happened.  Museum experts refused to believe that he had wrought the crown, until he incontrovertibly proved that he was the responsible goldsmith.  The revelation led to disgrace for the Louvre’s experts but it made Rouchomovsky a sensation and he became an esteemed art nouveau jeweler in Europe.

The crown itself is now held in the Louvre’s secret archives of shame and and disgrace, but it makes periodic reappearances at exhibitions of famous forgeries.  Like the Meidum Geese (which snookered Ferrebeekeeper), the Tiara of Saitaferne raises difficult questions about the meaning of artworks and how their value is contingent on when and by whom they are made.  Such questions are becoming more prominent in contemporary art (which has become deeply fixated on political questions of identity and diversity) but, as you can see, the underlying issues are ancient.

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“Glove” (Wolf Silveri, ca. 2019) Photograph

As a known fish-themed artist, I like to keep an eye on what the world’s other fish-artists are up to (these are artists who draw/paint/sculpt fish…not artists who are fish).  A couple of day’s ago, the Washington Post ran a little miniature show of works by the photographer Wolf Silveri, who became fascinated by the melancholic seafood on display at the marketplace while he was buying dinner.  Silveri read that there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans within the next few decades and he wanted to create a disturbing series of unnatural hybrids to reflect this unnatural state of affairs.

Fish are the center of my art right now (albeit in an extremely different way) and I have a history of making works out of garbage too, so I am deeply intrigued by Silveri’s compositions.  Yet I am also less than perfectly happy: these poor sea creatures seem more like sad props than like complex protagonists (as opposed to certain flatfish I could name).  Also the works seem less surreal than slapdash–but maybe that is a hazard of the photographer’s super-realistic medium (although the show’s title “We’ll Sea” also seems a bit facile).  Anyway, it is unsurprising for an artist to carp about a more successful artist, so I could be giving these pictures less credit than they deserve.  Above all, anything that makes people passionate about the tragedy overtaking our oceans is worthwhile.

Let me know what you think.  I am going to go work on some flounder art!

Not only is this World ocean Week, but it turns out today is National Doughnut Day!  What a week…

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Pancreatic Doughnut (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015), Oil on Panel

Before I was a dedicated flounderist, the dominant subject matter of my painting was doughnuts (I felt that the torus shape represented the universe/infinity, while the tiny size and sugariness of the confection made it a perfect representation of the hedonic nature of human aspirations).  Like all artists who change direction, I still have a few doughnut paintings I need to finish up.  Who knows what will happen to them? It is unclear if they will ever be finished…

However, I also have some finished paintings which I never showed anywhere or did anything with: they just hang around on my walls perplexing me.  To celebrate National Doughnut Day, kindly allow me to present one of my favorite of these previous generation paintings.  This is “Pancreatic Doughnut” which I painted in 2015.  There is a sugary sprinkled doughnut, a cherry-dip ice cream cone, and a strip of super-fatty bacon (which is glistening with blobs of oil just like a real strip of bacon).  These problematically sugary items are joined by a sinister bottle of rum and an alcohol molecule which looks like a friendly corgi but is definitely something more problematic.

The real thrust of the painting is found in the Congolese Mangbetu knife…a sinister hook which is about to plunge directly into the diseased pancreas in the bottom right corner of the picture.  Yet all is not lost.  Above the pancreas, an axolotl floats serenely like a translucent white angel.  Axolotls seem to possess the secret of regeneration.  Perhaps the grim effects of all of that metabolic damage and gastroenterologic mayhem could be undone…if only we could focus our efforts and our research on the right things instead of desperately trying to trap each other with addictive fixations.  It’s a dream of course, but thus do all great things begin.

Happy National Doughnut Day!

 

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Are you afraid of Lyme disease?  The tick-borne illness has become a major health concern in the Northeastern part of America and in Western Europe.  As many as 365,000 people are infected every year, and the number is growing (as is the habitat of the ticks which spread the disease).

There was a perfectly safe and effective vaccine against Lyme disease which was available in the 1990s.  It was marketed as “LYMErix” by the pharmaceutical company which is now known as Glaxosmithkline, but which was then called something else (has anyone noticed how the names of pharma companies themselves mutate and get weirder and weirder? it must be a side effect of the industry, but it perplexes me as to what the exact mechanism is).  Three $50.00 shots were needed, but they protected against Lyme disease to a high degree of efficacy (by allowing the immune system to immediately target the proteins on the cell coating of the Borrelia bacteria).

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Unfortunately, just as the nineties contained the seeds of today’s political stalemate, it was also a time when the misbegotten anti-vaxxer hoaxes, lies, and misinformation were starting to go mainstream.  The sad fate of LYMErix was an early harbinger of the bad things to come.  The vaccine was properly tested, vetted, and approved through the FDA’s lengthy and comprehensive approval process, yet some immune specialists at the FDA voiced a concern that Lymerix could cause autoimmune problems.  Extensive research found that it did indeed cause such problems…in a small percentage of hamsters.

This news (which was breathlessly reported by the media) came at the same time as the Lancet’s infamous & discredited false articles about important vaccines.  Some LYMErix users came forward with claims of agonizing super arthritis which they believed was caused by the vaccine (although the FDA’s tests and surveys found the same rate of such symptoms in vaccinated and unvaccinated populations).

Nevertheless the damage was done.  The pharma company pulled the product from the shelves over the bad publicity and it is has not been available since 2002…despite extensive evidence that it was safe and effective (albeit expensive).  By now the vaccine could be made generically for a fraction of the price…but phara executives are disinterested since they would have to fight an expensive PR campaign for low profits.  In the mean time high profits and free publicity are available to pseudoscientific quacks who gets rich preying on the fears of poorly educated or credulous people who do not know what to believe.

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To say nothing of goddamn lawyers…

Like the story of the world’s best and most life-saving antivenin, I find this story infuriating.  The market is touted as godlike and infallible by (highly paid) economists, but here is yet another abject market failure (although I am happy to share out the blame to scientific illiteracy of anti-vaxxers and to scary and not-very-good journalism).   I do not necessarily have a solution, but it seems to me that if drug companies are not addressing actual problems like antibiotic resistant superbugs, deadly snakebites, and Lyme disease while at the same time they are actively promoting and profiting from the opioid crisis, perhaps their cozy relationship with government funded research, government regulators, and with lucrative patents needs to be rethought.  We are seeing more and more market failures in every business sector (because of regulatory capture, monopolization, and, lately, good-old fashioned graft), but the biomedical ones are particularly chilling.  It’s time to smash some of these companies up, nationalize others in the name of public health, and to pour a great deal more money into public research which has public benefits.  As things stand now, the government, universities, and philanthropists pay for research and pharmaceutical companies come along and benefit from it with duopoly/cartel practices.

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There is an upside to all of this though. You can get a safe effective and harmless Lyme disease vaccine for your dog.  A lot of the people I talk to desperately wish that the health services available for their pets were available to them for the same prices.  Here is another example where our furry friends have cheaper and better care…because of market successes! Why is everything so complicated?

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The Sole Seed and the Space Ark (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

A month or so ago, I wrote a heartfelt post about humankind’s relationship with other living things and why I feel that our ultimate destiny lies beyond the Earth.  I am still thinking about how to say that message with all of the grace and power I can muster.  Everyone paying attention to current trends fears for the future of living things.  As humankind’s appetites grow exponentially we are bringing terrifying changes.  Yet humankind’s knowledge and abilities are growing too.   I hope you will read the post…or at least its Biblical-themed follow-up concerning the art of Noah’s ark.  in the meantime, I made a sculpture shaped like a flatfish to try to explain my conception in the non-linear language of symbols (coincidentally, flatfish are my symbol for Earth life with its hunger and deep beautiful sadness and with a known tendency to desperately snap at baited hooks).  There is the tree of life sprouting anew out of a battered ark and spreading seeds upon the cosmic wind (or are those pink stars?).  Above the ark is a mysterious figure which may be a symbol of our “life instinct” and our need to disseminate ourselves (or it may be a shrugging cartoonish new human–who can say?).  Interred in the crypt beneath the universe is the inverse reflection of the life instinct: our Thanatos death instinct (for we take it with us always, no matter where we go).  It is pictured as a strange human/lamprey mummy-thing writhing its gray fluke in its cramped chamber.

The cosmic fluke has a perplexed expression.  Perhaps it is less sure than I about the wisdom of venturing out into the unknown.  Or maybe it is just hungry…like all living things.

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My uncle and my mother have a long-standing (and enormously frustrating) argument which is useful to revisit because it reflects a circle which the rest of the nation is trapped in. My uncle always says “The government is corrupt and wishes to control the market in unfair ways! We need to diminish the role of government so that people are free to pursue business opportunities and live a life of super-awesome freedom!” My mother says, “business concerns subaltern the government in ways which individuals are ill-equipped to understand or to counter.”  Then there is eristic back-and-forth about the market versus the state. Sometimes this is followed by interesting talk of K-Street lobbyists, environmental regulations, defense contracts, monopolies, and what have you. However, in the current political age it is more usually devolves completely (indeed, I am not even sure they are talking to each other in the era of Trump).

The argument frustrates me because I am not sure it should be an argument.  My uncle is narrowly right: the government is indeed unresponsive to obvious and pressing societal needs…but only because it has been captured by special moneyed interests with deeeeeeeeeeeeeep pockets.  The forces of monopoly and market capture are equipped with an infinite ocean of dark money, a bunch of anonymous Caimen Island LLCs (or is it supposed to be Cayman?), and armies of Ivy League lobbyists & attorneys.  They can easily spend all day, every day writing complicated legislation and explaining it to their favorite legislators (who also take campaign money and aid from the same anonymous backers).

I suppose another way to say this is: I agree with my mother. The government has been subject to regulatory capture at just about every level. Small businesses or individuals look to it for succor against the depredations or excesses of big business. Yet when the regulations come out, they are revealed to favor large corporations or influential insiders. This is often accomplished with rules which sound outwardly appealing but are actually fiendishly designed to destroy small competitors or diminish the common good.

I can already feel some of the audience getting bored or frustrated with this abstruse language so let me provide a couple of examples.  Back when I was a toymaker (circa 2007), the world’s largest toy companies were making unsafe toys in China.  Mattel and Learning Curve were particularly at fault.  These giants pressured their Chinese suppliers to make toys ever more cheaply and then turned a blind eye as to how this was accomplished (with lots of lead paint, as it turns out).  When the big companies were caught selling lead toys, my business partner and I thought the scandal would help smaller companies like us.

How wrong we were! The large toy companies blamed the Chinese manufacturers (who were doing what they were told to do) and then came forward with their own proposed consumer protection legislation.  Not only did the new rules mandate that each factory-run of toys would be extensively tested for lead and other hazardous materials, but the legislation also immediately phased out certain plasticizing chemicals.  This “industry-supported” legislation became the backbone of the consumer product safety act of 2008 and it was ruinous to small companies.   Fully testing a factory-run of toys cost about $15,000.00.  For Mattel a factory run is millions of units and $15k was negligible.  For small companies, a factory run was much smaller and $15k was most of the profit margin.  Additionally, the legislation allowed no time to sell through existing toys made with the old plasticizing compound.  The big companies knew the legislation was coming (having written it) and they used a different (although equally problematic) chemical.  Small companies were prohibited from selling their products.  Child safety advocates were delighted with the new rules.  The big toy companies used a scandal they created through unsafe acts to drive small companies under and to claim the (undeserved) moral high ground.

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My mother worked for the Department of Defense doing environmental clean-up and restoration and she saw different sorts of tactics.   The DOD used to have vast tracts of land under its control.  Often this was desirable land.

Real estate developers (or their dupes) would show up and say “The Defense Department is polluting such-and-such beautiful coastal rain forest!  They need to clean it up at full taxpayer expense!” As soon as this was done (at enormous cost), the base would be decommissioned.  The land would be turned over to cronies and crooked developers who would cut down the forest and sell the timber.  Then they would build shoddy (yet expensive) subdivisions and a tacky resort.  There would thereafter be no rainforest, polluted or otherwise.

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Vieques Island Resort, Puerto Rico

These private sector tricks can be understood and explained, but it takes time, resources and clever people.  Additionally the monopolists and insiders are running their own splashy PR campaigns which are perfectly tailored to appeal to voters and non-specialists who don’t necessarily have the time, bandwidth, or inclination to understand all of the complicated details of what is going on.

The current presidential administration is such a naked smash-and-grab by private interests that some of these tactics aren’t even necessary anymore. Yet regulatory capture is always out there–it is a form of corruption which we all need to guard against.  I suppose what frustrates me about my uncle’s argument is that it rewards the real malefactors (the vested interests) by blaming the government.  The government should represent all of us, but it is made into a sad puppet by clever oligarchs.  They are the true malefactors!

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