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This post is really the second half of yesterday’s snowstorm post. After I realized how pretty the snow in the backyard was, I decided to put on all my winter gear and walk around the neighborhood. For reasons which elude me entirely, I live in a really beautiful neighborhood (well, I know why I live here, I just don’t know how I continue to do so). The majority of the houses were built during the first twenty years of the twentieth century and they have an outstanding grace and style which modern houses lack in every way (although my landlord and I can both vouch that these magnificent old homes start to fall apart somewhat during prolonged cold weather).

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I am a painter rather than a photographer, but who wants to set up an easel in a billowing snowstorm? For that matter who wants to stand on the sidewalk to paint an elegant old house? Architectural paintings are not my métier as a fine artist! However today I think the monochromatic winter landscape helped smooth out some of my weaknesses as a photographer…

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Sadly, as always with my photography, I don’t feel like I really captured the dark beauty of the blizzard or the decrepit splendor of this part of Brooklyn. Still the pictures are worth looking at just to appreciate the lovely houses of Ditmas Park. Also, with any luck, we have said farewell to this sort of snowstorm for a good long time. Hopefully you are looking at these photos in the tropics or in June and the snow provides only a frisson of wintry intensity rather than weary resignation which all New Yorkers feel as the winter of 2014/2015 draws onward toward its conclusion.
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My Back Yard, March 5th, 2015

My Back Yard, March 5th, 2015

It’s March! As spring takes hold across the United States, I thought I would show some pictures of my garden as the first tender shoots begin to… argh! [indecorous remarks withheld by censors] Well, OK, it looks like winter is going to be here a bit longer. I guess it’s pretty in a cold majestic way, right? We can learn to live like this with no hope or resources…or does anybody maybe want to trek south like in “The Road” and build a New New York somewhere closer to Cuba?

Winter Garden 2

Winter Garden 3Well, anyway, here are some winter pictures of the Ditmas Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. I know it looks like something out of a darkly beautiful Russian fairytale, but I assure you, there is a dynamic city somewhere behind all of that snow and ice. We’ll check back on spring in a few weeks… In the meantime maybe read some Tolstoy and sacrifice some more sheep to the dark gods?

The street out front, March 05, 2015

The street out front, March 05, 2015

A Human Holding a Small Limpet

A Human Holding a Small Limpet

We live on the threshold of an era of stupendous nanomaterials! In the near future, molecules will be engineered to be harder than diamonds or stronger than steel…yet these miracle materials will also be workable and light.

Artist's Conception of a Space Elevator--one of the miracles which should be possible through nanotechnology

Artist’s Conception of a Space Elevator–one of the miracles which should be possible through nanotechnology

Well, at least that’s what they keep telling us. In practice our best nano-materials do not seem capable of besting nature in the truly important categories—like hardness, tensile strength, or elasticity (or, if our synthetic materials are superior, they prove difficult to build into structures which fully exploit their strengths). A case in point comes from the lowly yet resilient limpet. Limpets are marine gastropods (snails) which have shells without visible coils. Actually, the name “limpet” is an informal common name—scientists have a very different way of characterizing these mollusks.

Common limpets (Patella vulgata) adhering to tidal zone rocks

Common limpets (Patella vulgata) adhering to tidal zone rocks

Limpets cling tenaciously to rocks at the tidal line by means of a muscular foot designed to create suction. They also produce an adhesive mucus which helps the foot adhere to whatever surface the limpet wishes to cling to. They carefully scour their ocean rocks for nutritious algae with a radula—a tongue-like rasping organ covered with teeth. Limpets have been of note to humans principally as a metaphor for resilience…or as a nuisance. Yet scientists experimenting on a common limpet, Patella vulgata, found that the little snail’s teeth had greater tensile strength than spider silk. Indeed, limpet teeth are the strongest known material in the natural world and approach the tensile strength of our strongest carbon fibers. With these teeth the little snail can (and does!) chew through rocks.

A (horrifying) microscopic picture of limpet's teeth

A (horrifying) microscopic picture of limpet’s teeth

The secret to the limpet’s mighty teeth is a miracle of molecular design in its own right. The cutting portion of the teeth are composed of fibers of goethite (a sort of iron hydroxide named after the great German poet). These fibers are under 60 nanometers in diameter—a size which allows them to be tremendously strong. The teeth are technically a composite–since the tiny goethite fibers are held together by chitin, a natural polymer (which the exoskeletons of insects are made of).

This evil henchman was the best character.

This evil henchman was the best character.

Technically there are human-created carbon fibers stronger than the astonishing teeth of the limpet, but these fibers can only be utilized in certain configurations and fashions–so the limpets’ teeth are of very real practical interest to materials scientists. Engineers are already working on duplicating the little snail’s teeth for mining and cutting equipment…and for human dental uses. Perhaps we really could someday have some of the powers of Jaws, the lovable hulking henchman from seventies James Bond movies. With our synthetic chompers we could bite through rocks and steel cables. Uh, wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Year-of-the-SheepToday is Chinese New Year! Happy Year of the Ram! This is a controversial zodiac year—at least during this era. For one thing, it is unclear whether the ancient Chinese character representing this year’s zodiac sign should be translated as ram, sheep, or goat. Although sheep are herded in the northwestern grasslands of China, they are far less prevalent than goats. Throughout the rest of East Asia the distinction is clearer: Vietnam celebrates the year of the goat; whereas Japan is emphatically in the sheep camp. However in China, the exact animal varies by region. Here at Ferrebeekeeper it is sheep week, so we are going to go with sheep—but we are going to say “ram” (a horned adult male sheep) so that everyone recognizes we are dealing with a horned caprid of some textual ambiguity.

Can't we all just get along?

Can’t we all just get along?

There is an additional problem: in contemporary China the sheep is regarded as one of the worst of all zodiac signs. The virtues associated with a sheep personality are not currently en vogue in venal laissez-faire China. People born in the year of the ram are said to be gentle, compassionate, kind-hearted, and artistic. These were not necessarily considered bad attributes in classical China, but in today’s mercenary world of slippery business deals they are equated with weakness. The newspapers are filled with articles foretelling a dearth of newborns in 2015 as expectant mothers skip having babies to wait for more predatory zodiac creatures.

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The trouble has been compounded by the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, an unpopular communist-appointed mandarin who has been attempting to quell the restive island by a wide variety of techniques. His most recent attempt to quash conflicting voices was a New Year’s exhortation to be more like the biddable sheep. Leung stated:

Sheep are widely seen to be mild and gentle animals living peacefully in groups…Last year was no easy ride for Hong Kong. Our society was rife with differences and conflicts. In the coming year I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep’s character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.

The phrasing takes on a particularly sinister bent considering that Leung Chun-ying is universally (and completely unofficially!) known as “the wolf”. His new year’s speech was cartoonishly in keeping with this sobriquet.

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

Politics and zodiac nonsense aside, I would like to speak a word for the rams (who must be feeling uncharacteristically disliked as their year begins). Finding joy in beauty self-evidently means a life filled with joy and beauty (abstracts which blunt shiny business people often are incapable of grasping). Likewise loving people have love in their lives. Speaking of which, I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be just as many babies this year as ever! I hope lunar new year finds you eating dumplings and pomelos with your loved ones. May everyone find kindness, beauty, and peace in the Year of the Ram!

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The Birth of Jesus: Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1304-1306, fresco)

The Birth of Jesus: Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1304-1306, fresco)

It’s day two of sheep week! Yesterday’s post got pretty involved with practical and useful aspects of sheep, so today we are veering wildly to the opposite extreme—sheep in art. There are lots and lots of sheep in art from cave paintings of ancient prehistory to Babylonian murals, right up to wild abstract rams by Andrew Wyeth and elegant empty sheep skulls by Georgia O’Keefe. It’s hard to choose from so many beautiful works, so we are going to concentrate on a founding legend from the history of art itself. In art history, there is a point when the anonymous artisans of the middle ages give way to the great named masters of the Renaissance. It is the point where the history of western painting usually starts (although obviously, in reality, there were all sorts of ancient Roman, medieval, and Byzantine antecedents). The point when art becomes the discipline we think of today (with genius masters struggling in their Brooklyn garrets when they are not posting little blog articles about sheep) is usually considered to be the career of Giotto. Giotto lived from 1266 (?) to 1337 and popularized many of the bedrock principals and tropes underlying artistic painting from the early Renaissance right up until the First World War (when painting, like humanity, got all messed up). I put one of his nativity murals at the top of this story to show his use of perspective and shaded forms—innovations often attributed to Giotto. The great art historian Vasari grandiloquently summed up the view that painting originates with Giotto by writing, “In my opinion painters owe to Giotto, the Florentine painter, exactly the same debt they owe to nature, which constantly serves them as a model and whose finest and most beautiful aspects they are always striving to imitate and reproduce.” Gosh.

Cimabue observing the Young Giotto (Gaetano Sabatelli, 19th century, oil)

Cimabue observing the Young Giotto (Gaetano Sabatelli, 19th century, oil)

So where did Giotto come from? Vasari provides that story too. One day the great artisan, Cimabue was passing through the farmland of Tuscany when he saw a lively little shepherd boy surrounded by his flock. The child was scratching pictures of the sheep on a rock with the earth, charcoal, and sticks at hand. The pictures were so beautiful and lifelike that Cimabue was stunned. He went immediately to the shepherd’s master and begged for the privilege of taking the boy as apprentice and teaching him painting (which the astonished yokel immediately granted). Giotto’s genius flowered in Cimabue’s shop with the proper materials and subjects at hand.

Giotto and Cimabue (José María Obregón, 1857, oil on canvas)

Giotto and Cimabue (José María Obregón, 1857, oil on canvas)

The story is dramatic and beautiful. It is like a classical myth or miracle from a saint’s life. Sadly, like classical myths and medieval hagiographies, the story of Giotto’s origin is almost certainly false. Most contemporary art historians don’t even think he studied with Cimabue!   But who cares? This is a myth about the founding of painting. It doesn’t have to be real.

Cimabue und der junge Giotto (Clemens von Zimmermann, 1841, oil on canvas)

Cimabue und der junge Giotto (Clemens von Zimmermann, 1841, oil on canvas)

Not surprisingly many painters have painted renditions of this subject. Aside from Giotto’s actual painting of sheep, I have used these works from throughout art history to illustrate this strange little tale (I’m sorry if you were fooled into thinking this post was going to be about Giotto’s, you know, art—I guess we’ll have to address that some other time).

Giotto and Cimabue (T. de Vivo ca. late 1700s early 1800s, oil on canvas)

Giotto and Cimabue (T. de Vivo ca. late 1700s early 1800s, oil on canvas)

So according to Vasari, western painting grew organically from the Tuscan land and sprang fully grown from the Giotto’s raw genius. That it was a shepherd who had this revelation and that his first (known) subjects were sheep also seems to have symbolic significance. Does this equate artists with Jesus (something Vasari clearly felt) or is it a deeper metaphor about humankind transitioning from farming to skilled work? I wonder what this story really says about artists, truth, and innovation. I wonder even more what it says about the tormented relationship between artists and the whims of the herd…

super-bowl-xlixDid anyone watch the Super Bowl broadcast yesterday? For readers who are living abroad, this is the championship contest of American football, a gladiator-style proxy war game (which doesn’t really involve the feet like soccer does–it could probably use a different name). Anyway, football is a high-profile national tribute to Ares. We pay the finest players princely sums, but they are human sacrifices who often get terribly injured and tend to live shortened lives. We are a warlike people. The big championship game is a national spectacle which everyone watches on TV while eating pizza, chili, pie, and suchlike caloric winter food. There are cameo appearances by celebrities, turgid political tributes, product placements, and many, many advertisements. There is much hollow pageantry.

Oh..and a football game, which can be pretty strange

Oh..and a football game, which can be pretty strange

I am just going to come out and say this. The look and feel of Super Bowl XLIX was bizarre. The advertisements were so overproduced that it was a challenge to figure out what most of them were selling until the end. There were confetti canons, pyrotechnics, washed-up athletes, and strange giant animal robot puppets operated by shadowy squadrons of ninja puppeteers. There were dancing sharks and sentient trees, and legions of cheerleaders in hotpants with faces painted into identical masks. There were the gladiators themselves, in plastic armor, numbered like cattle, with neon-colored jerseys festooned with the sponsors who own them. Above it all glistened the Lombardi trophy–a Brancusi sculpture re-imagined by an imbecile.

There was also Katy Perry, who always sneaks into my blog, despite my best efforts

There was also Katy Perry, who always sneaks into my blog, despite my best efforts

My roommate grew up in a sheltered artists’ community and then in boarding school and she had never seen the Super Bowl until yesterday. Afterwards, her eyes were wide and her mouth was agape. She said, “That was much, much weirder than I expected!” And she was right. vw-supertease-hed-2014 Please don’t mistake me. I like odd things, so the strangeness of Super Bowl doesn’t bother me. It was like a tacky contemporary version of a Piero di Cosimo painting. But it does surprise me that this is what stodgy Americans have collectively created. When I was growing up, it was a terrible to be “weird”. Reading books was weird. Having a pumpkin-colored sweater or a plain lunchbox was weird. Talking about literature or science was weird. Not loving Jesus Christ as your personal savior was the weirdest thing of all (not that anyone confessed to such a thing). Our nation despises weirdness. In red state middle America, children hunted out “weirdness” in other children like McCarthy on espresso and they dealt with any trace of difference like red ants dealing with a caterpillar in their tunnel. dd0087968f06a13f5f5f6b66e740bb94 So how did we end up with something like the Super Bowl? The puritan mold marks still show on most American institutions. We are center right in most ways that matter. Yet for our big game we somehow end up with a spectacle that would make the wildest Luperci or the most debauched opium eater scratch their head in dazed wonder.

I really just want a photo of that dancing tree, but I can't find one without the pop star too...

I really just want a photo of that dancing tree, but I can’t find one without the pop star too…

Maybe the strangeness of the Super Bowl was incremental: one year we added the hydrocephalic trophy; the next year someone invented glitter canons; the eighties happened; Prince played the halftime show. Suddenly a football game had morphed into a very abstract phenomena. bacteria1 Or maybe the game reflects the jostling of many different competing corporate interests—just like different colonies of bacteria make weird fractal patterns in a petri dish as they try to efficiently grab all of the resources. Could it be that human celebrations naturally tend to be baroque and eclectic so that everyone is included? Or perhaps, despite our briefcases, stodgy business casual clothes, and Cato-style Republican congress, we Americans are really weirdos.

Cato keeps showing up here too...

Cato keeps showing up here too…

Or it is also possible that the Superbowl was exactly like middle school, right down to the meaningless football game, the pageant with dancing trees, and the bright colors plastered over institutional sameness?  We are only pretending it was weird so that people will be able to talk about something…and so that people who write on the internet can get you to click their little articles.

Hey! Dangit...

Hey! Dangit…

Back to a simpler time! (art by treechangedolls)

Back to a simpler time! (art by treechangedolls)

On Facebook, one of my friends linked to an article about an artist who repaints the garishly make-up faces of contemporary dolls back into the innocent countenances of normal children.  The results are quite charming: you can see the dramatic difference here on the Tree Change Dolls Tumblr.  It is a very lovely art project and one almost wishes somebody would grab some of our overexposed overpainted reality TV stars & celebrities in order to do the same thing.

Yasmin from "Bratz Babyz"

Yasmin from “Bratz Babyz”

The post made me think back to my time as a toymaker, and the dark lessons of marketing.  Like little moths to a meretricious flame, children are drawn in by things that they think of as being adult (which is why Barbie has had such a glorious run).  Toymakers (toymakers who make money—so not me!) know this and exploit it.  What ends up happening then is a sort of arms race where manufacturers try to create toys which are shinier, curvier, brighter, and more artfully stylized.   Designers who are lazy and manipulative also try to incorporate adult-seeming things like make-up, coquettish fashion, and cell phones.  This can result in atrocities like the “Bratz” (a line of child figurines which look like they have been turned out by a human trafficker), but it has strange results when applied over time to more conventional toys.

"My Little Pony" (circa 1980s)

“My Little Pony” (circa 1980s)

The same friend who linked to the “Tree Change Dolls” once brought out her old 80s “My Little Pony” toys in order to compare them with the reboots being sold to her daughter.  Naturally the 80s ponies were already heavily stylized with big soulful human eyes, bell-bottom legs, and bright pink bodies, but they at least had pudgy/stocky bodies, equine faces, and a sort of childishness to them. The next generation of “My Little Pony” toys (which you can buy in a big box store right now) had somehow evolved pixie faces which an unknowing viewer would be hard-pressed to think of as horse-like.  They had slender humanized bodies which made it look like they were working out in a Hollywood gym.  The mane–which was already luxurious in the original toy–had grown beyond all measure into an entity bigger than the horse!

"My Little Pony" (circa present)

“My Little Pony” (circa present)

Something about this reminds me of birds of paradise or Irish elk.  These animals compete(d) for attention by means of more and more elaborate display features (for the Irish elk it was gigantic antlers, for the birds it was increasingly gaudy feathers).   It all works as long as the environment stays the same and there are no new predators, but if something changes, the exaggerated and affected appearance of these magnificent lifeforms can spell their doom (just ask the elk).

"How are those gigantic antlers working out for you there, buddy?"

“How are those gigantic antlers working out for you there, buddy?”

I am not Cato the Censor here to say that Irish elk, birds of paradise and showy imp ponies are bad (although I am saying that about Bratz—those things are nightmares).  I am however saying that we are collectively making marketers (and other tastemakers…and even political leaders) act certain ways because of choices we don’t even know we are collectively making.  I am highlighting this in toys because I used to make toys (and because they provide an extremely good example of marketing shenanigans), but the same trends are true across all sorts of disciplines and even in broader political, aesthetic, and philosophical realms.

...or maybe it all really IS a result of Hellenization, just like Cato says...

…or maybe it all really IS a result of Hellenization, just like Cato says…

Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

Space X launch facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Facility #40

One of the underlying principles of this blog is that we should spend a lot more money and resources on scientific research and exploration in general (and on space research and exploration specifically).   Meanwhile, in the real world, the powers that be are busy chopping down the tree of knowledge by defunding all branches of blue sky research in general (and space research specifically). Market advocates in government assert that, if there is anything worthwhile in space, greedy companies will go there and take it for themselves without government assistance. I tend to take issue with this idea. Markets have a place in science…at the end of ideas when the true research is already well established and the path to making money-grubbing consumer dreck is extremely evident. Avaricious MBAs are unlikely to try anything really bold since they are trained not to move first but to let others take the risk and then come in and refine an already workable idea. The way I have framed this issue is politically expedient for getting my point across (MORE RESEARCH NOW), but it ignores the tangled relationship which government agencies already have with pre-anointed business monopolies and it also short-changes the bold and visionary entrepreneurs who are actually going ahead with wild and exciting space ventures at present.

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge...

A SpaceX booster rocket ALMOST lands on a drone barge…

Speaking of which, here is the footage from the latest SpaceX project. Elon Musk and co. were attempting to land the first stage of a commercial Falcon 9 rocket on an unmanned test barge in the ocean. The rocket blasted off to carry a payload to the International Space station. The first stage returned to earth in a controlled fashion. SpaceX planners hoped to land this booster softly on a barge so it could be reused. The idea did not work…yet, but the rocket came really close to landing properly and the footage is truly exciting—like something from the sixties. I wanted you to see this clip because it is spectacular and inspiring, but I also wanted to remind myself that even today—even in the private sector—there are thrilling projects afoot.

Miniature Donkey Foal

Miniature Donkey Foal

Yesterday I promised to blog about donkeys. This donkey post was meant to be a towering work of research covering many different aspects of these lovable albeit stubborn equines.  I was going to write about their domestication in remote prehistory, their profound utility to human society throughout the long millennia, and their importance in the most ancient art and literature.  I was even going to make references to the wild onager, an exquisite endangered species of donkey which runs faster than thoroughbred racehorses (and is very nearly the world’s fastest land animal).  But then it occurred to me that I could write about all of this in the indefinite future and, for today, write a picture-heavy post about adorable miniature donkeys!

Miniature donkeys snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie with a toddler (photo by David Caird via the Daily Mail)

Miniature donkeys snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie with a toddler (photo by David Caird via the Daily Mail)

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Geldings playing soccer 3 c lg

The miniature donkey is more properly the Mediterranean miniature donkey.  They were originally bred in Sardinia, Sicily, and southern Italy as dray animals, but a far-sighted American donkey enthusiast imported them to the United States in the 1920s just because he liked them. The largest miniature donkeys stand a majestic 9 hands tall at the withers when fully grown (for non-horse people this translates to  91 centimeters (3 feet) tall at the shoulders), but most are smaller. Miniature donkeys can pull carts, act as shepherds or companion animals, and generally do whatever their ancient forbears did, however, in today’s world the miniature donkey is largely kept as an endearing pet. They are particularly successful as therapy animals—they go and cheer up the elderly, the disabled, or children with terminal illnesses (which presents a touching picture of their gentle temperament).

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MAKING FRIENDS !  HAPPY BIRTHDAY GLADY'S  99YEARS YOUNG

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Miniature donkeys acting as therapy animals (look how fancy they can dress up!)

Miniature donkeys acting as therapy animals (look how fancy they can dress up!)

These little donkeys can be gray, brown, black, sorrel, or spotted (or rarely white).  Most donkeys have pale “points” around their eyes and muzzles and a “cross” of longer fur which runs down from the top of their head to their tail and meets with a stripe of fur running from shoulder to shoulder up across their withers (Christian mythology claims this cross denotes a blessing from Jesus to all donkeys for their loyalty and friendliness–but donkeys’ cross-shape manes long predate the New Testament). Donkeys in general–and miniature donkeys in particular–are noted for their great intelligence.  This intellect also makes them recalcitrant to certain human projects: stubbornness is a noted feature of donkeys (although patient & mild-tempered trainers assert that this famous obduracy largely stems from mishandling).  Miniature donkeys have similar habits and needs to horses, but they have longer lives.  The average life span for these tiny donkeys is 30 – 35 years!  If you are blessed with sufficient acreage and outbuildings, and you feel that you will live long enough to have miniature donkeys as pets, it is important to remember that they are highly social  heard animals and will suffer without constant companionship from other donkeys and horses (although people who keep them as shepherds aver that a flock of goats will also keep them occupied).   These donkeys are so cute!  I just love them (and I couldn’t help but notice a shocking number of the photos of them feature people hugging on them), but I think my housecat would object to having one in Brooklyn…to say nothing of my landlady or Mayor DeBlasio!

Here's one with an alpaca!

Here’s one with an alpaca!

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