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Here’s some exciting news from Rome: the catacombs of Domitilla (a noble family of classical antiquity which commissioned the original construction) have been painstakingly restored using state of the art scanning technology and careful craftsmanship. The catacombs stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and descend through multiple levels near the ancient Appian Way. Constructed between the second and the fifth centuries AD, the underground necropolis has over 25,000 known graves.
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The catacombs also show how pagan art and culture and early Christian imagery and religion mixed freely. Grapes and cupids give way to saints and crucifixes almost imperceptibly (with an uncertain period in the middle featuring lots of folks standing around in robes). I am presenting some of the highlights in a little gallery here so we can all take a virtual tour of the ancient graves (a good virtual tour of amazing, beautiful catacombs—unlike some experiences I could mention). My favorite image is here below: a cubicle with doves and robed figures. I cannot tell if this is Christian or Pagan, the imagery could go either way, but I find the ancient painted pigeons exceedingly compelling. Even in the funereal darkness of a tomb excavated beneath the eternal city, this cubical looks more pleasant than mine.
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Today’s garden-themed post features a flower which I have never planted—indeed, having grown up in farm country, I am somewhat alarmed by this plant. Yet, as I walk around the neighborhood I am beguiled by its seductive beauty (plus there aren’t too many ponies in Brooklyn these days). I am of course talking about the Rhododendrons, a large genus of woody heaths which speciate most prolifically in Asia around the Himalayas, but also can be found throughout Eurasia and into the Americas (particularly the Appalachian Mountains). Actually, I was dishonest in the first sentence (it’s a national fad these days), I have, in fact, planted azaleas, which are a species of rhododendrons, but I am writing here about the big showy purple rhododendrons, and we will leave real talk about azaleas for another spring.

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In the In the Victorian language of flowers, the rhododendron symbolizes danger and wariness. This is fully appropriate since some of showiest and most highly regarded rhododendrons are indeed poisonous: they contain a class of chemicals known as grayanotoxins which affect the sodium ion channels in cell membranes. Rhododendron ponticum and Rhododendron luteum are particularly high in grayanotoxins. Humans are somewhat less susceptible to these compounds than other mammals (like poor horses, which just are apt to drop stone dead from browsing on rhododendrons), however, as is so often the case, our cleverness, grabbiness, and our taste for sweetness also puts us at higher risk for consuming grayanotoxins.
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Bees are drawn to the large colorful (and sweet) flowers of rhododendrons and they use the grayanotoxin rich pollen and nectar to make honey. If a bee hive incorporates a few ornamental azaleas into the honey, this is not too dangerous, but in regions where rhododendrons dominate and all come into bloom at once, the resultant honey can be extremely dangerous. This “mad honey” is said to cause hallucinations and nausea in lower doses, but in larger quantities it can cause full body paralysis and potentially fatal breathing complications. Like the hellebore, rhododendron honey was one of the first tools of deliberate chemical warfare. Strabo relates that Roman soldiers in the army of Pompey attacking the Heptakometes were undone by honeycombs deliberately left where the sweet toothed Romans would find them. It seems best to appreciate rhododendrons by looking at them. In fact, if you live in a Himalayan fastness surrounded entirely by rhododendron forests (or if you are attacking the Greek people of the Levant) maybe don’t eat honey at all…not until later in the summer.
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The whimsical names which paint companies give various designer shades and hues are a big part (well…at least a part) of the fun of painting. It has always made me happy to go into a Home Depot and peruse the rainbow arrays of eye-popping paint chips and look at the weird names. Imagine the thought process that lead to “Peppermint Penguin,” “Rutebaga Parade,” “Clontarf,” “Curlicue,” or “Bitter Gravy” (indeed my friend’s Arastu’s house is this last color, for some reason).

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But now, in an attempt to steal this joy from broke poets and stoned marketers, computer scientist (?) Janelle Shane has created a rudimentary algorithm to design colors and name them. Looking at the experiment as described on Ars Technica makes me think that either Ms. Shane is a poor computer scientist, there are aspects of the “experiment” which were not described, or this was a publicity stunt (or maybe all of the above).

But who cares? Even if the computer made a lot of boring gray and beige colors and did not seem to learn anything, it produced some amazingly poetic and hilarious names like “Stargoon,” Dorkwood, “Gray Pubic,” and Burble Simp *which is actually an ok color—if you are a crustacean living in 1978. Maybe Ms. Shane was asking the wrong questions. Perhaps her experiment did not determine if machines can be aesthetes (the results are uncertain unless you are an empty souled entity designing a new ecru for cubicles). The real question is whether machines can be hilarious and the answer is a definite yes. It’s even better if they don’t get the joke, but just sit there in their “Snowbonk” colored housing wondering why everyone is laughing.
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May 22 is World Goth Day! The holiday originated in the United Kingdom in the far distant year of…2009—jeesh, this not exactly Saturnalia we are talking about here. Goth Day does not celebrate ancient Germanic people from southern Sweden, medieval black letters, or elegant architecture based around arches so much as it celebrates the “Goth” subculture of alternative lifestyle devotees who wear severe or fetishitic rock-and-roll outfits (often black or deep red). There tends to be lots of piercings, dramatic make-up, and outre hairstyles in Goth fashion, as well. Wikipedia says the Goth scene originated in England in the early 80s as a sort of offshoot of punk…but come on we already had things like Walpole and Strawberry Hill and movie monsters and Odilon Redon. So I will go ahead and say contemporary Goth subculture seems like an outgrowth of a series of profoundly ancient cultural/aesthetic movements (punk merely being one of the more recent of a long line of progenitors rather than a sui generis single parent).
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Whatever the case, I like Goth fashion, which appeals to my taste for the bizarre, the dramatic, the anachronistic, and the complicated. I probably would have liked it even better when I was a teenager and my favorite color was black, but I was too lost in my own world to notice what other people thought was fashionable back then. According to Professor Internet, there are now all sorts of offshoots and subgenres of “Goth” some of which are quite amazing, ludicrous, or scary. We’ll get back to them another day. Today (World Goth Day!) we are just going to put up some straightforward corsets, boots, and riding cloaks and call it a day. Enjoy the miscellaneous fashions and let me know if you think of a new gothic topic for the coming year. I am starting to run out!

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So, for those of you who like fancy tiaras and/or heists, here is a fascinating story from Karlsruhe, a city in southwest Germany. At the end of April, a thief (or multiple thieves?) entered the Badisches Landesmuesum, a Baroque Palace which contains historical artifacts from many different eras of German history and brazenly jimmied open a display case containing the tiara of Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden. The diamond crown was apparently stolen during museum hours by a deft thief with the furtiveness and dexterity to defeat the 21stCentury security apparatus of the museum (although the police have precious few leads, so maybe it was more of an inside job than it sounds like).

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The tiara was made in 1906/1907 out of white gold, platinum, and 367 diamonds. It isn’t my favorite tiara, but it has a certain elegance, and it is valuable. I wouldn’t turn up my nose if some archduke gave it to me (though I don’t covet it enough to walk into a museum full of people with a slim jim and wiggle it out of its case while I pretended to look at velvet gloves and fancy hood ornaments). I guess I am impressed that somebody can still do such things though.
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I was looking forward to writing about that crown that was stolen in Germany…but I guess we will have to wait until tomorrow to talk about stolen crowns. Today the President of the United States, the famous New York real estate conman Donald Trump, fired the Director of the FBI for investigating the extent to which the Trump electoral team colluded with the Russian effort to undermine or taint the American election. This was, of course, not the reason given for Comey’s summary dismissal, but it is exceedingly difficult to draw any other conclusion. Director Comey was a divisive and flawed figure in his own right. Some eminent neutral observers blame his strange behavior last year for Hilary Clinton’s shocking electoral loss. However, now that he has gone off to join Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, and everyone else who has investigated Trump, it is looking like he was the best FBI Director we are likely to get. Who knows what cartoonishly malevolent or benighted figure the administration will dig up to replace him?
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The whole episode paints a disturbing picture–but the dark image which is emerging is hardly unexpected to anyone who has any familiarity with Donald Trump.
Trump reminds me of a naked drunkard dancing on banana peels at the top of a tall slippery marble staircase with a huge ornate cake at the bottom. It seems like there is only one way this scenario could possibly end, and yet his comeuppance keeps on being deferred by the increasingly irrational and cowardly behavior of everyone else. Trump is an old man who lives on steak and hamburger and does not exercise, it is possible he will manage to escape falling into the cake (or, to be less allegorical: he might avoid impeachment and prison because of a massive coronary). Yet, as we all breathlessly await his tragicomic downfall, he is doing terrible damage to institutions the nation really needs, and he is undermining our faith in each other and ourselves.

A few years ago, I was talking once with my uncle about a colleague of his, a Chinese scientist who naturalized to America to work as a physicist. This colleague had a son who had excelled in school and otherwise had a life of great promise, however, when my uncle asked what career he had chosen, the Chinese-American physicist was reluctant to talk about it. My uncle thought that the promising son had fallen into drugs or crime and was happily astonished when the physicist confessed that his son had become a successful FBI agent. But to a Chinese person, being part of the national secret police was not a thing to talk about or be proud of. If we are not careful we could find ourselves in a similar situation here.
Most people do not think of the FBI as the internal police (although that is clearly what they are). The Bureau has its own checkered history (I bet Donald Trump would not have dared to fire J. Edgar Hoover) yet their bravery, zeal, and hard work are rightly famous. If a movie has an FBI agent, he is usually the hero. We don’t call dismissively call the FBI the secret police because if, goodness forbid, there were a crisis we would be happy to see them. They have a worldwide reputation as a bastion of upright cops. They are the good guys.
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And now, like affordable health care, or national parks, or basic scientific research, this too is under threat because of the corrosive awfulness of our executive branch. Are the FBI to become a bunch of goons who exist for the president’s narcissism and self-aggrandizement and to protect his crooked international business deals? Think of how awful it is to even suggest that!
Republicans are exulting over the unprecedented power they have garnered (in an election where they solidly lost the popular vote). They are passing immensely unpopular legislation and privatising big hunks of the government to their cronies. They are gleefully making it easy for the president to get away with anything he likes. It is difficult to see how they think it could possibly end for them. Do they imagine Trump will reign forever? Do they not see or care how bad he is for them and the things they claim to care about?
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The danger to democracies is that the institutions start to seem corrupt and nobody believes in them causing a feedback spiral. When I try to talk to hard-working and idealistic Millenials about politics they all seem SO cynical (and I am a world-weary Generation X person). Clearly, they have bought into the false equivalency of seeing all politicians as the same. It does not shock them to suggest that the FBI could be easily subalterned. They do not have illusions that the system is anything other than a rigged game of business cartels and their pet politicians. I find that sad. If they had just gone out and voted, none of this would be a problem. Their cynicism has deepened the problems they are cynical about.

There are good people at the FBI and among the Republicans (although it is hard to imagine that congressmen have a principled reason for letting little kids die so that giant crooked insurance companies can become more rich, I am sure they truly think it is for the best). But these good people need to step up and speak out. We need to keep concentrating on the fact that we are all on the same side. Not red versus blue, but Americans together against corruption, malfeasance, and iniquity. We need to celebrate bravery when it appears. I thought Sally Yates was superb this week. She was the attorney general just a few short months ago… We need to keep asking questions until we get real answers and not stupid malarkey.
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This post is a reminder that we need to keep believing in our institutions and trying to support them (even if it seems increasingly possible that the President of the United States could be a traitor and a criminal who is surrounding himself with white supremacists and weak minded yes-men).

Jeremiad over: have a good night!

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Ok, spring is moving by pretty fast. Where does the time go? However, despite the false spring back in February, the tulips in my garden came out really well this year! I thought I would share the pictures of the late tulips with you. These are lily flowering tulips. The delicate orange ones are named “Ballerina.” I bought them from a Dutch company which shipped the bulbs across the ocean last autumn. I lovingly planted them in a prime spot in the golden light of October.
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Yet, I think the pink and white ones are even prettier. Their name is apparently “Lowe’s Discount Bin.” I bought them for three dollars and forgot they were in a plastic bag under my bed until I found them in January beginning to sprout among my socks and science fiction novels. I rushed out into the slush and hastily buried them in cold shallow divots and assumed they would all die. You get what you pay for, right?
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Apparently not. The beauty of these tulips was undiminished by their low price and my slipshod gardening. I wonder if they will come back next year, and I wonder how I will ever find more of them.

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I’m sorry this week got away from me and there were fewer posts than there should have been. I’ll see if I can put up a rare Saturday post tomorrow, but first here is a post about spring rain. Today there was a great monsoon-like storm which swept through New York and though it was gray and cold and filled the streets with water it was strangely beautiful too. I took these pictures from my office (I work on Wall Street, but believe me I am no overpaid master of finance: I think I might have fallen out of the middle class—through the bottom).
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Snow falls outside the New York Stock Exchange during a winter storm in New York

Anyway, in the picture at the top you can see the very beautiful and somewhat haunting City Bank-Farmers Trust Building, with its great sad art-deco faces. The building is underappreciated, but I think it is one of New York’s unheralded gems. If I look out the window to the right there is a sliver of the astonishingly beautiful portico of the stock exchange which features Mercury, fickle god of commerce conning the entire world (since my picture is pretty terrible I included a different picture which I stole from the internet immediately below it).
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Finally, here is a picture of the National City Bank Building which is currently owned by Cipriani. They regularly have obnoxious events with lots of red carpets and celebrities I don’t know, but I like the sheer number of heavy columns on their building. All of the Wall Street buildings look sort of good in the gray rain. I wish my pictures were better so you could feel the morose charm.
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I have fallen in love with these colorful fabric sculptures by the great contemporary Chilean sculptor,Serena Garcia Dalla Venezia. Her works are simple conglomerations of little hand-sewn fabric balls and yet look at them: they are dazzling alien landscapes which also evoke the world of cell biology or coral reefs.
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Each work also combines color with visionary bravura. It is strange how the most simple ideas can expand into a world of captivating otherworldly beauty. Bravo to Serena Garcia Dalla Venezia. I look forward to seeing more of her gorgeous works and finding out more about her oeuvres.
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In America, the last Friday of April is traditionally Arbor Day, a day for planting and conserving trees. I probably should have written about the cherry tree today…but the blossoms have already largely fallen off so I am going to choose a different blossoming tree to concentrate on—the common hawthorn Crataegus monogyna. The Hawthorn is another of the most beautiful flowering trees of the northern hemisphere. Like cherry trees, hawthorns are members of the rose family. They are small to medium sized trees of great beauty which have thorns and grey-brown bark with orange fissures. Hawthorns bear red pome fruit which is said to taste like overripe apples (the fruit of North American species of Hawthorns was a major food source for North America peoples before familiar Eurasian fruit arrived). The common hawthorn tree was originally native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia.
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The Hawthorn is known for beautiful glistening blossoms which appear in May or June and resemble five petaled roses (although the vase-shaped tree is lovely year-round. More prosaically, the trees have been used as hedges because of their dense growth, hard wood, and thorns.
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The tree features prominently in the folklore of Europe and western Asia. The Greeks esteemed it enormously—it was the symbol of hope and blossoming boughs were carried in wedding processions. In Northern Europe, the Hawthorn was identified with ancient gods. For a long time, even after Europe was Christianized, hawthorn trees were reckoned to be found near entrances to the otherworld—the realm of elves, fairies, and magical folk. It was allegedly bad luck to kill—or even cut a hawthorn tree, and the misfortunes of Delorean motor company are said to have started when they cut down a grove to build their factory.
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In Christian mythology, the crown of thorns of Jesus was putatively made from hawthorn wood. Despite this, Christians, apparently stayed fond of Hawthorn and there were medieval legends connecting it with various Saints and miracles. Hawthorn is certainly a miraculously beautiful tree. I would totally plant one for Arbor Day…if I had a sapling…or a place to plant it.
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