You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Opinion’ category.
Today’s post is simultaneously inspiring and hopeful and terrifying. Marine researchers have long been worried about the crown-of-thorns starfish, a monstrous invasive invertebrate which eats coral, doing irreparable damage to the Great Barrier Reef (the world’s largest coral reef). Human divers have proven ineffective at stemming the onslaught, so conservationists have teamed up with mad scientists to build COTSBOT—an autonomous killing robot submarine which will haunt the reef like a bright yellow uboat/shark. The COTSBOT will locate and identify crown-of-thorns starfish with robot eyes and then jet over and deliver a lethal injection to the vile invertebrates. The injectable solution is uniquely poisonous to starfish so any goddamn MFAs doing starfish cosplay projects on the reef do not necessarily need to worry about more than being jabbed and pumped full of weird chemicals by a nightmarish (albeit comic) undersea robot.
COTSBOT (which I should have mentioned stands for “Crown-OF-Thorns Starfish Robot”) is going to debut in Moreton Bay by Brisbane, a starfish free location where the operators can refine its navigation systems. If all goes well it will then move on the Great Barrier Reef itself. The robot (or fleets thereof) will scour an area of the reef killing, Then human divers will sweep in afterwards to mop up any hardened survivors. I am extremely impressed at how quickly science managed to make my futuristic ocean sketch come true. I am also struck with admiration at this high-cost high tech salvation for one of Earth’s most diverse and imperiled ecosystems. Take that, evil starfish! You have messed with a reef protected by the fell hand of man. The alarmist in me can’t help but notice that this is like the first 15 minutes of a horror movie, but, presumably if COTSBOT becomes sentient and decides to protect the reef from ALL dangerous invasive animals we can still pull the plug. I’m also a bit sorry that humankind has so injured the Giant Triton–nature’s COTSBOT–that the lovely snail can not do the job.
Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (Ива́н Ива́нович Ши́шкин) was born in Yelabuga, in central Russia near the Volga in 1832. His father was a free-thinking merchant who encouraged exploration of the world and supported young Ivan in his artistic studies. Ivan became part of “the itinerants” a group of artists who chose to ignore the rigid rules of European art and doggedly pursue their own interests and subjects. For Ivan this was the magnificent forests of Russia which he painted in all of their splendor with stupendously adroit realism. He surely ranks as one of the greatest forest painters of all time. Each of his canvases presents a living forest as its own world. Every tree is as distinct as a person and they are joined as a thriving whole within a larger ecosystem of plants, fungi, and living things.
Here are three of Ivan’s astonishing paintings. The viewer can feel how each forest has a completely different character and mood. The open meadows around the great oaks in the first painting are as different as possible from the brown stream running out of the firs…which is again as different as can be from the dark pine wood filled with woodears and mosses.
Yet, though they are different, each of his forests is a beautiful and sacred place—a transcendent slice of nature. Ivan’s work is not as famous as it should be because he chose to take it directly to the Russian people rather than selling it to aristocrats or Europeans (an attitude which was part of the itinerant philosophy). However his travels through rural Russia kept his mission pure and kept him close to his true love—the Russian woods. Thanks to his life beyond the limelight we can now travel these erstwhile greenwoods by means of art and learn to see the breathtaking majesty of the forest.
Filefish (Monacanthidae) are members of the order Tetraodontiformes, a group of fish which also includes sunfish, triggerfish, boxfish, and pufferfish. I am immensely fond of these sorts of fish because of their personality and appearance. Today we are going to look at a genus of filefish, the Pervagor, which are remarkable for their beautiful colors. Pervagor filefish are native to the Indian and Pacific oceans, where they live in shallow coastal waters and reefs. Like other filefish they feed on small invertebrates and other little animals which they catch. They evade predators with somewhat armor-like skeletons and with a pop-up spike on the top of their body (which they can use to wedge themselves into crevices—or simply to prevent being easily swallowed. I am writing about them not because of their remarkable lives (indeed I fave found it hard to find out many details about them) but because of their beautiful appearance. Each species is like a little piece of jewelry or a brilliant abstract painting. They are exactly what we need to get through the start of this week!
Just look at ’em! Evolution is such a mad artist that one is never disappointed by its never-ending improvisations, its dazzling palette, and obsessive use of form!
It’s possible that I made a few economic missteps over the years (although, judging by the news, I am not the only one) and, as a consequence, I won’t be spending this August traveling the world. However, even if I am literally trapped in angry sweltering New York, my mind is free to roam the rugged Carpathians and take in the robust forested splendor of Romania. This land was long known as Transylvania (the “crossing forest”) and the modern world has not changed the wooded character of the land. I started to do some research online and in my virtual travels I was stunned to come upon this colossal stone head carved in the living rock of Dacia. This is a carving of Decebalus a king who ruled from 87 AD – 106 AD. Decebalus was a client king of Rome, one of the many annoying and interesting minor sovereigns whom the empire propped up around its borders to act as buffers. Much of Roman history concerns their perennial struggles with these vexatious vassals and the history of Decebalus is no different. Indeed he ended up being the last king of Dacia. His cleverness and pride went too far and Rome crushed him like a bug and absorbed Dacia.
This statue however is presumably meant to evoke Decebalus’ pride and independence (not his defeat and suicide). The head is 40 meters tall (120 feet)—it may be the largest monumental head in Europe. It was crafted by a team of 12 sculptors over 10 years at the behest of an eccentric Romanian businessman, Constantin Drăgan (1917-2008). The statue was completed in 2004 and stares balefully out over the Danube. I love Decebalus’ stony features—which seem little different from an actual rock. I am also predictably impressed at the way the natural rock looks like a crown. Dragan had some curious nationalistic misconceptions about Dacia’s place in history, and it seems this great head was meant to explain/popularize some of the millionaire’s ideas. As often happens with art, the actual work is more ambiguous and interesting…hinting at both greatness and ruin.
Here is a simple but extremely lovely small still life painting by Hendrick Andriessen, a Flemish Baroque painter who specialized in “vanitas” paintings. The entire composition is designed to remind the viewer how transient human life is. The fragile pipe stems are easily broken (and tobacco’s pleasure is brief and tainted). Each lovely cut flower withers away, The quivering flame is blown out…and nothing represents the dreadful onrushing nature of death like a human skull. At the apex of the composition is a fragile bubble ready to burst.
As summer ends, this composition seems fitting in many ways (for example it was my birthday this past weekend). Additionally, the bubble has symbolic significance in other realms than art. We all knew the China bubble had to pop…..
China has a long (and continuing) history of exquisite art, but many aesthetes and Sinophiles feel that the apogee of Chinese craft came during the Song Dynasty (960 AD – 1279 AD). Now I am not sure I agree with the Song purists to that degree, but the work of that era is indeed particularly lovely. Additionally, Song creative forms became the standard templates followed and improved upon in seceding dynasties. Here is a beautiful Song dynasty ewer with a pale blue glaze which illustrates the winsome delicacy of form characteristic of the time. Note how elegantly the slender handle and spout curve into the flower petal body. A little carnivore sits on the stopper: a dog or wolf or cat? This pale blue green color is known as quingbai (“blue-white”). It is a pale translucent blue green over white and it is one of the characteristic trademarks of the era. It is a wonderful little vessel!
This week’s big science news is that researchers have finally sequenced the gene for a cephalopod– the California two-spot octopus, Octopus bimaculoides. Geneticists and molecular biologists from the University of Chicago and Berkley worked together to unravel the entire gene—which turned out to be nearly as large as the human genome and did not contain any mass data duplication (which some vertebrate-centric scientists had thought might account for the size and complexity). To quote Business Insider, “The work will allow scientists to study the genetic factors that give way to the octopus’ odd physical traits, and may reveal novel insights not only about the unique biology of cephalopods, but also about the evolution of traits that give rise to a complex nervous system and adaptive camouflage.”
There are already some fascinating initial discoveries from the octopus gene sequence data. Not surprisingly, the scientists discovered completely unique genomic sequences for reflectins (which allow the octopus to change color instantly). Even more intriguingly, the researchers discovered a huge suffusion of protocadherins—which facilitate the interaction between neurons. Octopus seem to have many more of these neural development genes than expected–and indeed the eight legged sea creatures have twice as many protocadherins as more familiar mammalian creatures like humans. However the majority of the data requires additional study. Scientists also hope to contextualize the somewhat abstract genes by sequencing other cephalopods (particularly cuttlefish—which a different team is working on).
Unfortunately I am not a geneticist and the niceties of jumping genes are somewhat lost on me. I am however greatly interested in finding out more about the biology and evolutionary history of cephalopods. This class of organisms has attained a shockingly high degree of intelligence through a very different evolutionary path than the most intelligent vertebrates (like primates, proboscideans, cetaceans, and parrots). The clever mollusks are capable of solving difficult puzzles in unexpected ways and their donut shaped brains have long perplexed and intrigued neurologists. Perhaps further details of their genetic makeup will yield the seed for tomorrow’s transgenically created superbrains! Barring that, it would be good to understand the mechanisms of diverse neural systems and grasp more about the development of these beautiful yet unfamiliar creatures.
It is World Elephant Day! August 12th is set aside for the contemplation of the greatest land mammal (and maybe the greatest animal overall) the wise, compassionate, beautiful, imperiled elephant. Elephants are my favorite animals! I truly love them so much (admittedly at a distance)…yet I only just got home and I have to get to bed so I cannot write the story I want to tell—of heroic Yao Ming trying to save the world’s elephants. Instead I am going to save that story for a day when I have more time and just do a gallery post of elephant mosaics.
Some of these tile artworks of the noble beasts are pretty good, but none of the works really do the great proboscideans full justice. Clearly there are going to have to be more elephant posts before next August! In the meantime, keep talking about elephants and campaigning for them among your friends and peers. A world without elephants would not be a worthwhile place. They are a critical piece of the great mosaic of life!
Yet another summer day has ineluctably slipped through my fingers. What with work, friends, art, and the great human endeavor there was no time to find out about crab-eating seals or exoplanets for today’s post. Fortunately I have my little book of fun sketches for such occasions (for those of you who just walked in, this is the small sketchbook I carry around and sketch in during downtime like the subway or lunch). Above is my favorite of the three selected sketches for today. I imagine it as being the dramatic climax of an unknown ballet where a tribe of sylphs confront the underworld demon-god and wage a tremendous dance battle with him on behalf of their upstanding moral principles (actually I think that might be an actual ballet). In the real world, the pink and blue and yellow all blend together more seamlessly, but I guess I am stuck with what my camera can manage under halogen light.
In the second picture a shipwreck at the bottom of the Indian Ocean is the scene for wayang theater, written edicts, and ghostly machinations. It seems like the picture might be about the Dutch East India Company or some other Indonesian colonial enterprise. At any rate, the great flesh colored sawfish who appeared from nowhere steals the scene from the human agencies (although the brain coral seems to also be in the know).
Finally I included a geometric doodle of a colorful cityscape. I sketched this on the train after a frustrating day of work. My colleague was out that day, so I spent the entire workday trying to answer two to six confusing phone calls every minute for hours on end. I was thoroughly frustrated with New York and cursing the entire beastly expensive overrated mess when I got on a train car which had a foul smelling beggar in it. Because of the smell, the train car was unusually empty at rush hour and I opted to remain on it so I could I could sit down and draw. I sketched away furiously as the car stopped underground and lingered forever in a tunnel beneath the East River. The beggar got off in Brooklyn Heights and I kept sketching, but I was still angry at everything. When I was almost home (which is near the end of the 2 line) the woman who had been silently riding next to me the whole time quietly said ‘you are a great artist” which really turned around the bad day. I am not sure the picture merits such a statement, but the comment made me feel great and stood as a powerful reminder of what a large effect small actions and statements can have. I hope that kindly stranger is reading my blog so I can thank her properly for her words. They meant a lot to me.
It has been a long time since we had a mollusk post, so today let’s enjoy a post about squid, octopuses, and extinct nautiloids…and knitting. Apparently the characteristic tubes and whorls formed by knitting can be easily adapted to produce lovely tentacled plush characters. Sadly, I am a terrible knitter (or, more accurately, not a knitter) but I appreciate the art. Also, as a toy maker I have a professional interest in these plush toys, even if they are not necessarily in my own area of specialty.
Look at how cute the squids and extinct cephalopods are. Some of these designs are truly ingenious, like the red squid at the top, or the belemnites immediately below. I wish I had had some of these as a child to pair with my beloved dinosaur stuffed animals and toys. When I was young, I was unhappy that it was so difficult to get toys of prehistoric ocean creatures other than plesiosaurs (and frankly even those were hard to come by). Even if it is still hard to get mass-produced orthocones and ammonites, these beautiful hand-made pieces certainly help fill the gap. Now your plush ichthyosaur will have something to predate! Or, if your toy collection is more modern, you will have the right character for stinging the Australian PM.
I wish I could tell you more about how these are made and where you could get the patterns, but it seems like a certain expertise in the textile arts is required. I only know the difference between what is felted and what is knitted. My mother, however, has a lovely yarn store in Parkersburg, West Virginia and she is an expert at every aspect of knitting, crocheting, weaving, and sewing. I am sure she could explain to you how to make any of these creatures (or any other lovable knitted or felted animal toys)…provided you bought the yarn from her store.
Aren’t these all adorable. They make me want to get back into toy making and create “My Little Squiddy.”