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I’m sorry I missed blogging about Earth Day this weekend (it was yesterday).  The day always strikes me as a dark combination of scolding and corporate greenwashing (to say nothing of the abusive narcissistic murderer who started it, but, alas, the concerns it focuses on are all too real. I need to get back to writing about humankind’s ever-growing burden on the planet in earnest.

But for right now I am going to back away from these huge unsettling issues and feature some springtime images from my garden and neighborhood.  I am a flower gardener, and while I have some doubts about the flower gardener’s ecological niche, I know it keeps me sane.  The flowers also remind me to love nature and esteem the natural world (not that I would ever feel otherwise). Also, it is a discipline which necessitates patience and the ability to change course when faced with problems.  Anyway, enough sententious thoughts: it has been a long winter, let’s see some spring flowers!  The magnolia at the top of the post is across the street from my house. It is hard to tell from the picture, but the house behind it is slightly pink, and seeing the tree in full flower in front of the house during the violet hour of dusk is breathtaking in a way which the image (and these words) completely fail to explicate.

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Now, here is a picture from the back garden—this is the hellebore and the bleeding heart with a couple of volunteer Don Quichotte tulips from years ago next to them and a little viola in the foreground. Years ago I planted this hellebore which has barely survived for 5 years before suddenly flourishing into this magnificent specimen plant.  There is a peony to the right, but it is too early for it to be more than just some tender fronds poking up.  The hellebore, the magnolia, and the primrose are really just the garden overture.  The big acts are soon to follow, but, after a long gray winter even these flowers have me giddy with delight.  I will feature more plants as they bloom—especially the splendid cherry tree, but for now let’s just enjoy the lovely blossoms.  We will also keep working on a way to preserve their home (the ecosystem of the planet) so that the springs of the future will be equally verdant.

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Have you seen photos of Venus?  When the planet is observed in visible light it looks like a big bland ecru ball (see above).  Put a whiteboard and some plastic rolling chairs on that puppy and you would have a corporate conference room in some awful suburban office-park.  Yet ultraviolet imaging of Venus paints a somewhat more interesting picture of swirling bands or darkness in the heady acid atmosphere of our sister planet.  But what does that mean?

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The dark bands turn out to be the result of sulfur compounds (carbonyl sulfide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide) and other yet unknown chemical compounds in the upper atmosphere of Venus.  On Earth these sulfur compounds are hallmarks of life…or of volcanic activity.  Some scientists are provocatively asking whether extremophile bacteria could have a place in the temperate upper atmosphere of Earth’ closest planetary neighbor.  The bacteria could use the rich sulfur and carbon clouds as building blocks and the UV (and other EM radiation!) bombardment of the sun for energy.  Perhaps, they muse, these dark bands are something akin to algal blooms in Earth’s oceans.

More than a billion years ago, Venus enjoyed a period of prolonged earthlike climate with surface water and an atmosphere which was not so hellishly heavy and hot.  But something went hideously awry and runaway greenhouse effect created a terrible feedback loop which changed the planet’s surface into the monstrous place it is today.  Apparently the igneous/volcanic processes of Venus are rather different than those of Earth, so it was probably not all treeferns, friendly dinosaurs, and bikini-clad aliens even before the runaway greenhouse phase melted away the old surface of Venus, but perhaps bacteria (or analogous lifeforms) could have evolved and escaped the catastrophe by moving into the upper clouds (which, as previously noted here, have temperatures not unlike those of Earth’s surface).

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My guess is that Venus is lifeless as a jackhammer (though, like a jackhammer it can give the alarming appearance of life), yet even if this is the case, we should know more about all of this! What happened to Venus’ original surface? Was there ever life there?  What is going on with its volcanoes and internal geology?  What is the composition of the clouds of Venus? Is there anything there other than strange sufur compounds and esoteric hydrocarbons formed from the mixture of sulfur, carbon dioxide, and UV radiation?   Once again, our nearest neighbor is beckoning.  We need to move forward with sophisticated atmospheric probes (like VAMP) and NASA should collaborate with Russia on their next Venus mission (it looks like our governments are closer than ever anyway).  For some reason, popular imagination disdains Venus, yet the questions there seem salient, and the possibilities for a nearby Earth-sized world of unlimited energy and resources seem, well, unlimited.

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This past Friday/Saturday was the annual Pratt Drawathon, a 12 hour event which is one of the highlights of the New York City art year. I should clarify:  the event is not a highlight of the New York art world year. The drawathon is not a place where elite moguls drink wine from airport cups and buy multi-million dollar status-items to embellish their hegemony.  The drawathon is, instead, a draftsperson’s event where Pratt students and other people who love to draw get together and draw all night. Mostly the artists are young fashionable 18-20 year olds with fluorescent hair and strange stylish raiment who struggle away at capturing the likeness of the models within the media rubric of whatever undergraduate project they are currently working on.  Yet the greater New York art ecosystem knows about it too; so you also find peculiar outsiders dressed like janitors who draw like Raphael.

This year, I worked for 9 hours at my spreadsheet-themed dayjob and showed up to squeeze in among the miscellaneous artists and do some pencil sketches to stay limber as an artist (it is also nice to draw naked people sometimes instead of allegorical flatfish).  After midnight the event also features pizza, caffeinated beverages, and live drummers to keep everyone’s energy up. But alas, this year my energy was flagging and my back was sore as I squirmed on the drafting stool. I was feeling sorry for working all day and drawing all night. That’s when I a model I hadn’t seen before came in and gave me a new jolt of energy…not because they were a 19 year old beauty unstained by time’s cruel tutelage (although such models indeed participate in the drawathon), but for the opposite reason.   A man older than John McCain came in and then held stock-still for heroic long poses.  Holding perfectly still sounds easy in theory, but as anyone who has been to Methodist church can tell you, it is exceedingly difficult in practice. Yet the heroic model easily stood like a statue in the airless room.  At one point the man jumped up on a teetering bar stool and stood with his feet close together balanced and motionless for twenty minutes as the assembly gasped and begged him to be careful and not to fall and break something.  “You better draw fast then!” is all he said.

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Not only was this strange muse indefatigable and brave, he was also generous.  After the pizzas arrive the event loses its coherence until about one o’clock when the proctors dragoon it back into shape.  There are always some artists who wolf down their pizza and wait impatiently for things to get started.  The model (who was named Mike) came in and said, I’ll pose until things get started again, if anyone wants to draw.”

One has to be impressed by the fortitude and bravery of anyone who can pose nude in front of strangers at all (I am not sure I could).  To jump into such a career later in life is to truly overcome the prejudices of society and the indignant dictates of the aching spine. Mike seemed like he was having a great time.  He was friends with the models and the artists. Even more, he was a friend to art (though I am, naturally dissatisfied by my drawings…speaking of which,  I am sorry I cut off his feet on this last image–my scanner is only letter-sized).

So am I saying that my hero is a weird naked old man? I guess I am. The combination of strength, fortitude, generosity, and bravery are hard to gainsay.

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I am sorry that these pictures don’t do him justice, but my back was tired from sitting in a comfy office chair all day.   It’s a reminder that life is short, but opportunities are more diverse than you think.  And it is a reminder to get to work! If Mike can pose 12 hours straight, from dusk till dawn, all of us can get out of your comfortable ruts and accomplish anything.

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I have been working on a personal animation project (more news to follow) which involves the mysterious color-changing master of the muddy ocean bottom–the flounder.  Regular readers will know that the pleuronectiformes have been my leitmotif for the last couple of years, and sadly, the whole order is woefully under-represented in cartoons: the only flounder anyone knows is Ariel’s annoying sidekick “Flounder” and he was a sergeant-major fish (Abudefduf saxatilis). What a bait-and-switch!

Unfortunately this test gif isn’t quite what I was aiming for.  Animation turns out to be ridiculously hard: how on earth did anyone ever make “Snow White” or “Spirited Away”?  Yet despite the deficiencies,  I think the work conveys some of the great flatfish’s unfathomable grasp of the secrets of the deep.  Kindly let me know what you think.  I desperately need everyone’s help on this project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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