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To celebrate the season, here is a special Christmastime Sunday space post! Discovered in 1948 Comet 46P/Wirtanen orbits the sun every 5.4 Earth years.   The comet’s apoapsis (the point of its orbit farthest from the Sun) is out in the vicinity of Jupiter’s orbit, but the closest point in its orbit brings it to Earth’s orbit.  Unfortunately, because of the dance of the planets it only in relative proximity to Earth every 11 years, and even then, it is generally barely visible except to hardened astronomers.  The comet is also known as the Christmas comet because its periapsis (when it is closest to the sun—and thus, sometimes to Earth) is in December and because the comet has a distinct viridian tinge!

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This year, 46P/Wirtanen’s periapsis is unusually close to Earth.  Tonight, the comet will be a mere 11.4 million kilometers (7.1 million miles) from Earth.  That sounds like a fairly large distance but it is quite close, astronomically speaking:  only 10 comets have come in such near proximity to our home planet in the past 70 years!  Filled with excitement, I glanced out my window only to see that it is raining in Brooklyn and the sky is filled with clouds.  But don’t worry, the comet will nearly as visible for another week.   If you have an internet connection (and if you don’t, how are you reading this?) you can go to this link and find the comet in the sky from your location (that link is an amazing resource, so maybe hold onto it).

 

So why is this comet such a delightful color?  Comet 46P/Wirtanen is mostly melted—it consists of a solid kernel approximately a kilometer in diameter trailing a cloud of gases hundreds of thousands of kilometers long.  The majority of these gases reflect light in green wavelengths. Additionally, the comet is hyperactive—which, in this case, does not mean that overpaid physicians will prescribe it unnecessary medications so it can learn rote facts. In an astronomical context, hyperactive bodies are emitting more water than expected.

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Unless you are avidly examining the comet with a gas spectrograph, its color is likely to be a source of awe and reflection. Does the comet’s color reflect the seasonal green of Yuletide or is it an ironic reprimand for the envy and jealously which grip all of human society?  Is it the eye of a great sky panther or a kindly celestial sea turtle (hint: actually more of a ball of gas with an icy nucleus).  Whatever your conclusions, I hope you enjoy this close-up view of “the Christmas Comet” before it zips back towards Jupiter’s orbit. Season’s greetings to all of my readers.  I will try to find some special posts for this solstice week, before we all take a much-needed Christmas break.

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I have a confession to make: I have always though the classical Russian aesthetic of teardrops, ogee shapes, onion domes, and filigree was matchlessly beautiful.  If I had the money to commission a manor house, people would probably think it was a Russian orthodox church or Putin’s dacha because of all of the onion domes, candy-colored towers, and gingerbread fretwork. Unfortunately, such eastern majesty is a bit outside of my budget until we sell a few more flounder artworks, and so for now I must content myself with a seasonal gallery post of Christmastime Russian crowns and headdresses.

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Fortunately, crown-style headdresses are so much a part of Russian culture that there are all sorts of beautiful examples which fit the season perfectly. The high ornate headdresses miter-like traditional headdresses for women (kokoshniks/povyazkas depending on whether women are respectively wed or unwed).  There are numerous regional variants which are sadly beyond me (has anyone noticed has enormous Russia is?) however this article isn’t really about actual headdresses or history…or really about anything.  It is just a Christmas picture gallery.  So enjoy these amazing Russian Christmas hats.

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Of course, real crown aficianados are probably cursing me now for not really including any real crowns.  I have no intention of doing so (we will explore the crowns of the Romanovs at some other point) however I will include some of the astonishing headdresses of Russian patriarchs.  These archbishop’s caps look like they came from the Byzantine empire—and in a cultural sense, I suppose they did.  They aren’t actually hats for kings and princes, but they are hats for princes of the Orthodox church, and just look how magnificent they are!

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All of this winter headwear reminds me that we are quickly coming up on Christmas and the end of the year.  Prepare yourself for the some Ferrebeekeeper winter’s fun and Happy holidays (sorry I already missed Hanukkah).

I better wrap up before you realize I am pointing these things out because I think they are pretty but I have no real understanding about this at all.  I will have to see if I can find a real Russian expert to explain some of the finer points of exquisite headdresses.

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We have a lot to talk about this week, but, as a Monday treat in the December darkness, there is a lot of news (and, yes, inflammatory pseudonews) from outer space.  Let’s get down to it and proceed through this grab bag of tidbits.

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The big headliner is something which has been in the offing since 1977.  According to NASA, the Voyager 2 space probe has left the heliosphere, the protective “bubble” of radiation and charged particles which surrounds the entire solar system, and the craft is now proceeding through interstellar space.  The spacecraft is only the second probe with any working instruments to accomplish this feat (the first was Voyager 1).  Based on telemetry, it seems that Voyager 2 crossed the Heliopause on November 5th (2018).  This occasion gives us reason to look back at the stupendous accomplishments made by the probe during the main stage of its mission. As it traveled through the Solar System, the craft visited all four gas giant planets and discovered 16 moons in addition to mysterious phenomena like Neptune’s Great Dark Spot, previously unknown rings around Neptune and Uranus, and cracks within the ice of Europa.  Perhaps it will provide a few more momentous discoveries as it heads into the great darkness between stars.

A second astonishing space headline is the existence of a recording of the wind on Mars.  NASA’s InSight lander (which we have been following here on this blog) captured the audio a few days ago and the space agency released the clip to the world this past weekend. This is the first recording of sound from a different planet.  You can listen to it here if you want to know what another world sounds like.

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OK…those were great stories, but by now you are probably asking where is the pseudonews which was promised in the opening sentence.  Pseudonews is news-like material designed to evoke a strong emotional response. The stories are actually revealed to be conjecture, opinion, propaganda/public relations material, or just straight-up celebrity dreck. A cursory scan of the top media sights reveals that many—or maybe most–of the most visited and commented upon pieces are exactly this sort of fatuous puffery, so I thought I better throw some into Ferrebeekeeper to see what happens.  For some reason the world can’t get enough of this folderol so let me know what you think!

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The first of these newslike stories is actually pretty interesting…if it is true, and I can’t find much confirmation of that.  Apparently the Southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu has plans to launch an artificial moon in 2020 to obviate the need for streetlights in the metropolis.  This plan is theoretically feasible, in the 1990s the Russians launched the Znamya experiment, which showed that satellites could be used for reflected illumination.  Yet the Znamya experiment didn’t produce much illumination…and the costs (bot known and unknown) of such a solution as Chengdu proposes would be outrageous.  The idea is worthwhile as a fantasy concept about planetary scale engineering, but until we hear more details I am dubious.

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Speaking of dubious, let’s end this article which started with such promise on a truly leaden note.  Professional athletes in America are often famous dullards—these are, after all, adults who are paid astronomical sums for running around playing children’s ball games.  The ignorant, misleading, and inflammatory declarations of athletes are a constant source of amazement and disgust. Which brings us to the story.  Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors (a contemporary basketball team) has announced that humans never visited the moon.  This conspiracy theory is common enough around the country, which is filled with people who lack the inclination or aptitude to assess whether fundamental truths are true or not, but it still makes me angry.  Do big media companies print this stuff so that “Steph” Curry fans will turn their back on the great accomplishments of the space program during the 1960s or does CNN just want people to believe less in science in general?

Of course not, major news sites are reporting this “news” merely for clicks.  I guess technically I am too, although I would be stunned if any Stephen Curry fans read this blog (if you do, please go elsewhere), yet I also have a more noble purpose in talking about this stupid Curry story.  In our age of information saturation, it is becoming more difficult to evaluate news sources.  Educational failures in public schools and political dysfunction have combined with the information revolution to cause ridiculous drivel to proliferate.  The closest analogy I can think of is the era after the printing press became widespread in Europe and crazy tracts appeared everywhere causing wars, confusion, and mayhem (although this previous information breakthrough ultimately led to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment as well).  Society is working through another unruly adolescent growth spurt where we try to figure out how to build society-wide consensus out of all of the new tools and discoveries we have made.  The process is working out pretty unevenly so maybe we should stop publicizing the rantings of willfully ignorant and malevolent actors like Curry as “news stories”, even if they garner ratings. What’s next, a president who doesn’t believe that vaccines help people?  We will revisit these dark fruits of the information era soon, but first there is enormous news from right here on Earth.  Tune in tomorrow when we talk about discoveries made right under our feet.

 

Disturbing news from the world of workplace safety.  Gillian Genser, a 59-year-old Canadian sculptor, has been suffering from worsening pain, splitting headaches, and nausea for nearly a decade and a half.  She visited a range of specialized neurologists and endocrinologists, but none of them could pinpoint the nature of her malady which grew worse to the point that she was immobilized and suffered complete loss of hearing in one ear.  She was unable to distinguish up from down, forgot the names and faces of people, she knew her whole life, and discovered herself wandering the streets for no reason shouting profanities.   The doctors suspected heavy-metal poisoning, but Genser vehemently insisted that her materials were all natural.

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If you are an artist yourself, you are probably shouting—but this is clearly heavy metal poisoning!  And you are right: Genser finally was diagnosed with acute arsenic and lead poisoning after one of her physicians insisted on a blood test.  Yet Genser was not a painter (like me, sigh) nor did she cast in metals or use exotic glazes and stains.  Her only materials were silver and mussel shells which she polished agonizingly by hand.

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She obtained the blue mussels from a market in Toronto’s Chinatown and ate the mollusks with friends.  She then used the shells for her larger than life anatomical sculpture of Adam, the mythical first human from the Abrahamic faiths.  Sadly, whoever was providing the shellfish was obtaining them from water which was heavily polluted.  Mussels store metals in their shells, and Genser’s polishing, sanding, and shaping freed the trapped pollutants into dust which she inhaled (although eating 3 meals a week of mussel flesh probably didn’t help either).  The story is even more troubling when one reflects that blue mussels are an Atlantic shellfish and Toronto is at least 800 kilometers (500 miles) from the waves.

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Hey! Has anyone noticed that Toronto is apparently right next to New York State? Where were these mussels from anyway?

The moral here in not “don’t be an artist” or “don’t eat mussels” (although, come to think of it, those are extremely plausible lessons).  Instead everyone needs to be careful in the modern world to watch out for hazardous materials which proliferate in unexpected ways from novel sources.  Of course, this is hardly a soothing message since most of us are not chemists (much less endocrinologists) and it looks like even those experts can’t always see where problems are coming from.  Maybe the real lesson is that humankind’s vast numbers and sophisticated industrial society are fundamentally inimical to the web of life which sustains us.  Actually, that is an even less comfortable message…but, well, I am not a politician here to sooth you with lies.  We have learned how to protect ourselves from the natural world.  Now we are going to have to learn (quickly) how to protect the natural world from ourselves.

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Anyway, let’s take a look at the sculpture that caused such suffering for Genser (see the photos above from the artist).  It looks like the metal-poisoning started to fundamentally work its way into the sculpture itself—in terms of conception, execution, AND material (obviously).  Yet there is something oddly appropriate about the subject matter (Adam’s choices, after all, are a metaphor for humankind’s great metamorphosis from hunter-gathering beings to civilization-building farmers and crafters).  The dark armless statue with the alien face and the black glistening muscles and nacreous organs, seems to be a sort of manifestation of heavy metal poisoning.  The whole 15 year project has inadvertently become a performance piece about the pain of the world (just think of those poor mussels which can’t even move to escape their poisoned home waters).  I hope that the short-lived media burst helps Genser’s career, but I also hope she switches media as soon as possible.  While we are making wishes, let’s express some really heartfelt aspirations to be better stewards of the oceans.  They are the cradle of life…yet they are being sadly abused.

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If you have been closely following the affairs of the Andaman Islands, you will know that the North Sentinelese are back in the news of the world.  On November 17th, an American Christian missionary named John Allen Chau bribed corrupt fisherman to take him to the forbidden island in the Bay of Bengal.  As previously set forth in one of our most popular posts, the island is inhabited by the mysterious North Sentinelese, a stone age hunter-gatherer tribe of unknown language and customs which has spurned all contact with the rest of humankind.  The North Sentinelese are bellicose and territorial and they want nothing to do with our networked world of technology, trade, and toil.

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The natives, likewise, had no desire to hear John Allen Chau’s proselytizing, and they swiftly dispatched him with arrows and buried his body as quickly as possible (as is their known custom).   North Sentinel island is part of India, although the islanders do not seem to recognize (or even know about) their citizenship, and the Indian authorities have been trying to recover Chau’s body.  This strikes me as a grave error, since the islanders have demonstrated time and again that they do not desire visitors of any sort.  Jesus can worry about his missionary’s final arrangements, thus saving the Indian police from savage battle and saving the islanders from measles, flu, smallpox, or goodness-only-knows what outside disease or influence which they are woefully unprepared for.

Despite ample incontrovertible evidence that the North Sentinelese do not want to integrate into the modern world, there are always arguments about whether the Indian government is operating a “human zoo” (undoubtedly the Sentinelese have some choice descriptions of the interconnected pan-global hive organism that the rest of us are part of, insomuch as they can conceive of it). It strikes me that they have made their choices plain.  The worldwide fame/infamy which the North Sentinelese have gained in the last fortnight will quickly fade away, and we can go back to thinking of them as a peculiar alternate sect of humankind—when we think of them at all…

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There have been some stories bouncing around the world media lately which are highly germane to past Ferrebeekeeper posts (and to some bigger topics too).  We’ll get to them one at a time this week, but let’s start with the most exciting news:  today (11/26/18) NASA’s InSight lander touched down successfully on Mars at 2:47 PM Eastern Time.   The craft is the eighth human-made craft to successfully touch down on the red planet. It’s unwieldy name is a trademark agonizing NASA acronym which stands for “Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport.”  To put this in more comprehensible (yet less correct) terms, the lander is a geophysics probe which will examine the interior of the planet.  Of course InSight isn’t really geophysics since it is not studying Earth, but saying “astrophysics” misleads one from the lander’s core mission of assessing Mars’ internal composition and structure.

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The landing was a marvel of aerospace engineering since, in the span of about 6 and a half minutes, the craft was forced to slow from 17,300 kph (10,750 mph) to 8 kph (5 mph). Coincidentally, this was the first interplanetary mission to launch from California…from Vandenberg Air Force Base, where my paternal grandfather used to paint rockets back in the 1950s and 60s! Speaking of which, as always, I am taken aback by the extent to which our interplanetary probes resemble retro UFOs from 1950s science fiction.

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The craft landed on Elysium Planitia an enormous featureless plain famous for its dullness.  You may think “why didn’t they just send the poor thing to Kansas?” but since the craft is designed to examine the interior of Mars, its landing sight was not important (except to make sure the lander arrived in one piece).

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Now that the probe has finally reached its destination, it will begin to utilize a sophisticated array of instruments including a seismic wave reader, a subterranean infrared reader to monitor heat escaping Mars, and a sophisticated radio array to monitor the planet’s core (among other tools).

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It is easy to lose track of the many amazing Martian discoveries being made by robot explorers, but InSight strikes me as truly important since it offers to answer one of the most important question about Mars–how did it go from being a volcanically active world with oceans and an Earthlike atmosphere to being an inactive, desolate desert?  We’ll keep you posted as discoveries (insights?) come rolling in, but, for now, congratulations NASA!

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Lately I have been extremely fascinated by seeds.  Not only do I garden (remember when this blog started out sort of as a garden/musing blog?) but I am increasingly fascinated by the seed as a symbol of enormous unknown potential of the future.  This is a controversial and contentious way to look at things. Lately the anxiety-fueled news seems almost utterly pessimistic about the future (unless it is a glorified ad for an i-phone or a watch that tells your heart beat or some such tech garbage ).  I can certainly understand why thoughtful forecasters are downbeat: the California wildfire (and all other ecological news) is a wake-up call about climate change and the detrimental effect of our exponential growth species/lifestyle on the planetary ecosystem.

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Yet without hope and an objective (above and beyond selling more plastic junk and dodgy financial services to each other) what do we have?  Looking at my proposed long-term mission statement for humankind, I notice the word “seed” is the prominent object (and perhaps the most ambiguous & figurative word in an objective filled with ambiguity and uncertainty. Oh! I should provide that mission statement:

to bear the seed of Earth Life beyond this planet and upwards into the heavens

That’s, um, a big goal.  We’ll circle back to it in future posts (long-term and short term).  For now though, I want to show you a few actual pictures of seeds so that you start thinking about the future too…and because they are possibly even more beautiful than flowers.  Two of these images (the ones at the top and the bottom) are from the remarkable Rob Kesseler (robkesseler.co.uk) a master of microscope photography (I just ordered his book on Amazon, so hopefully he won’t care that I took two of his meticulously photographed and hand-colored images for this post.  The seed at the top is a Delphinium pergrinum (a member of the Larkspar family).  The iridescent seed in the middle of this post is a Portulaca (moss rose) seed as photographed by Yanping Wang from the Beijing Planetarium in Beijing, China.  The scary spiky seed at the very bottom is a Daucus carrota (wild carrot).  Seeds have not just been on my mind.  They are invading my art as well–so watch for them on a flounder near you!  We’ll talk more about this in the depths of winter when sleeping seeds will be on everyone’s minds.

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I realized that by devoting yesterday’s post to philosophical musings about the folly and sadness of the First World War, I failed to thank America’s veterans.  Although I am now a few days off-topic, it is never to late to offer tribute to the brave men and women who have served with such distinction in our armed forces.  Fortuitously, I noticed an obscure bronze plaque which is on the wall by the subway exit I take everyday out of the twisted warren of tunnels beneath Grand Central.  It looks like it is a hundred years old (indeed some of the print is hard to read) but its poignant thanks to the subway workers who left New York’s tunnels to go serve in overseas trenches remains undiminished.  It is also a fitting tribute to America’s citizen-soldiers who step between the world of the warrior and the world of the builder.  Check it out next time you are in Grand Central (if you can find it…or anything… and thanks again to everyone who has served in our armed forces or worked for the military.

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World War I effectively ended on 11 November, 1918 at 5:00 AM when Germany signed an armistice with the Allied powers.  We need a post to appropriately contextualize the end to one of history’s most disastrous chapters, but it is unclear where to start with such a huge and fraught historical subject as the Great War.

Let’s star on the ground, where a generation fought and died.

I am not going to write about the stupid global politics leading up to (and out of) the war.  Suffice to say the vainglorious aristocrats who ran Europe and the world ended up caught in a trap of their own making with no way out other than to bleed their countries dry while hoping for the best. You can read about the events leading up to the war on your own if you wish, but it is turgid stuff and, historians still disagree about the larger lessons (if any).

However a few great works of literature brought home the absolute horror of life in the trenches, and that is what we need to address. The war created a fundamental and inescapable trap for those who served.  It was a trap honed to razor sharpness by the circumstances–but it is familiar to anyone who must deal with bureaucracies or just with other people… and therein lies the horror.

So imagine being conscripted to be an infantryman to fight in France or Belgium.  After scant training your nation hands you a high-powered rifle, and then plops you into a muddy ditch filled with corpses, explosives, and corned beef  until one day you’re told to go “over the top” and charge into an impregnable fortified machine gun nest and certain death or contusion. Really think about the dread of such an order and imagine what you would do.

I am pretty sure you would rush into your death…not because you are a towering model of bravery (though maybe you are), but because what other choice would you have?  To refuse and be summarily shot by an officer? To shiftlessly loll around the back until your fellow soldiers noticed and decided you were worthless and arranged an accident? To go stark raving mad on the spot? Those things seem worse than being blasted to pieces by shrapnel and rifle bullets.  Likewise they seemed worse to millions of soldiers who knew pretty quickly what the true nature of the war was, but who had no way out other than to carry on in impossible circumstances.

World War I represents the full horror of human society.  Acting together, the rest of humankind can make you DO ANYTHING.  There is no resisting them.

Modern humans are like ants: we wither and die without our extended networks.  These networks are our glory–they provide us resources and information we could never obtain on our own–but, if they somehow go wrong, they are a prison sterner than any Alcatrez or Devil’s Island.  Imagine the worst moments of 8th grade.  Now imagine it with Howitzers the size of fortresses and poison gas and the worst boss you have ever had (except with power of instant execution over you).

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We would like to pretend otherwise but human society is often harmful and vicious. World War I perfectly demonstrates that problem. Everyone said “Huzzah! our brave boys will win the day with true bravery…but true bravery is no match for industrial machines and implacable logistics (and pig-headed politicians).  World War I was a perfect inflection point of the stupidities and horrors of preindustrial feudal society with the stupidities and horrors of modernity and machine-like hierarchies.

And then, after all of that, we didn’t learn our lesson.  It was only the first round of the two part drama of the World Wars.

Well…so far anyway

It isn’t as though nationalism and monstrous greed have vanished among  politicians and business leaders. Enormous machines and hierarchies become more enormous and hierarchical.  Politicans (and the rest of us) however have not grown noticeably.  Even if there were visionaries and geniuses who could prevent any more such disasters, the rest of us people would never let them.

So thank goodness the Great War has been gone for a hundred years, but we all need to remember it and to remember to work tirelessly at dealing better with each other…if we even can.

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There was a long line at the Brooklyn polls tonight and plenty of time to color in this little (barely) allegorical flounder which I drew in my little sketchbook I carry with me.  Afterwards I stuck my voting sticker next to the cartoon.  Let’s see what the returns reveal as they roll in… Ferrebeekeeper will be back tomorrow with more mollusks, cities, gothic artworks, farm fowl, and so forth.

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