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Did 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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!
January 14th was a fanciful medieval holiday known as the “Feast of the Ass.” The feast commemorates the flight into Egypt, a biblical episode from Christ’s (very) early career. Immediately after the birth of Jesus, Herod, the king of Judea heard a prophecy that a greater king than himself had just been born in Palestine. The king launched a murderous anti-infant pogrom to rid himself of competition before his rival could reach adulthood (an ugly spate of newborn killing known in Christianity as “the Massacre of the innocents”). Mary and Joseph fled Palestine with the baby Jesus. The little family traveled down into Roman Egypt with the exhausted post-partum Mary and her baby traveling on an ass (you can read about this directly in the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-23)). It was not the only episode in the Bible to portray Jesus on donkey back. On Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem (and to his ultimate death) he was mounted on a white ass. The medieval feast gently celebrated the donkey’s importance to Christianity with banqueting, sermons about the biblical events, and pageantry. A beautiful girl bearing a child would ride a donkey through town to the church. Thereafter the donkey stood beside the altar during the sermon. The congregation participated in the fun by answering the priest’s questions and observances by shouting “hee haw” (or whatever donkeys say in France–where the celebration was most often observed).
In our age of internet and celebrity worship, every day is the feast of the ass, but I wanted to write about the medieval celebration (which fell out of favor and vanished in the fifteenth century) so I could share these three beautiful paintings of the flight into Egypt. I also wanted this episode to be an introduction to tomorrow’s post about the donkey—for the poor animals are terribly underappreciated—being so disparagingly associated with human posteriors and loutish individuals. Additionally the donkey’s place in the world has been taken over by modern engines, and fancy patrician folk have not held on to them as a status symbol (as happened to the horse). It’s worth taking a moment and remembering that donkeys are very sacred in Christianity and have a better scriptural claim to being the animal of Christ than any other creature other than perhaps the sheep. More about asses tomorrow!
One of my friends on the internet just now took to social media to challenge the world with the following truism: “Try as hard as you want, but you can’t make a duck look badass.” I don’t know what prompted this outburst (!) but I am willing to bet it had something to do with one of the abominable duck mascots which fill professional and semi-professional sports leagues with Howard the Duck-esque ugliness and horror (and, indeed, these doofy mascots never manage to look badass, no matter how hard the designers try).
Fortunately a greater force than the University of Oregon has taken up this challenge—and with much greater success. The red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) is a duck which lives throughout Siberia, Scandinavia, Scotland, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, and the northern fastnesses of Canada (i.e. Canada). The predatory duck can sometimes be seen overwintering along the East and West coasts of America, the Chinese coast, Japan, the Koreas, England, Western Europe, or on the lakes and Inland Seas of Central Asia. In retrospect, the red-breasted merganser’s range includes most of the northern hemisphere except for the tropics and the extreme north—which should give you a clue as to what a badass the duck truly is. The ducks fly north in summer to breed on lakes, rivers, and coasts. In winter they live in coastal waters or in the open ocean.
Merganser serrator has a ferocious appearance. The male has a black spikey crest, blood-red eyes, and a pointy black beak filled with needle sharp serrations (with a hook at the end). Oh, also his feet are incarnadine color with razor claws. The female has a similar shape, but her head is drab colored and she does not have the bright white ringneck and signal feathers of the male. The ducks are entirely predatory—they only eat living things. The adults catch all sorts of small water creatures including aquatic arthropods, amphibians, mollusks, and worms, but most of all they live on fish. The ducks dive down into the water and hunt the fish directly, so they are stupendous swimmers.
The ducks brood between 5 and 13 eggs. A day after they hatch the nestlings take to the water…and to the hunt! Ducklings feed themselves without help from their parents, although they tend to eat aquatic insect larvae and tadpoles (at first). To recapitulate, the red-breasted merganser lives in Siberia and North Korea or on the open ocean. It eats only living things which are caught and swallowed alive and whole into its inescapable mouth of needles. Make fun of mascots, all you like, but respect the living sawbills!
So, over the holidays I gave some coloring books to my friends’ daughter. It was gratifying to see how the coloring books, by grace of being the last presents of Christmas Day, stole her attention from the electronic doodads and the flying fairy which could actually fly (although, as a toymaker, I am still thinking about that particular toy). In gift-giving, as in gymnastics, going last is a position of strength! The little girl, who is four, graciously let me color one of the illustrations–a sacred elephant which was composed of magical spirit beings from Thai mythology–which I colored in fantastical fluorescent hues (while she colored her way through a collection of amazing animals from around the world). As we were coloring, the adults at the party made various observations about coloring—about who colored inside the lines and what it indicated about their personality and so forth.
I think my elephant turned out pretty well (although since, I failed to take a picture, you’ll just have to believe me). Also I think my friend’s daughter was inspired to try some new techniques—like darkening the edges of objects. It also seemed like she tried to pay more attention to the lines.
The experience took me back to my own childhood when I loved to color coloring books, especially with grandma or mom (both of whom had a real aptitude for precise coloring). However I was also reminded of being deeply frustrated by the books on several levels as a child. First of all, I was exasperated by my traitorous hands which would not color with the beautiful precision and depth that the adults could master. I always saved the best picture in coloring books for later when I was grown up and could color it as beautifully as I wanted it to be colored. As far as I know, these pictures all remain uncolored—somewhere out there is that 1978 Star Trek coloring book picture with all the crazy aliens, just waiting for me to come back with my Prismacolor pencils and nimble adult fingers and finally make it look good…
Most importantly, I was frustrated that the most amazing pictures—the ones that were exactly as I wanted them to be–were not in the coloring books at all. You have to make up the ones you really want and draw them yourself.
Aesthetics have gone wrong—it has been taken over by charlatans who cannot think up good pictures. Instead today’s marquis artists are obsessed only with provocatively going outside the lines. Like the kid in first grade who always did what he thought would be shocking, this quickly becomes tiresome. Additionally, I think we all discovered that the “shock value” kid was easily manipulated. So too are today’s famous artists who all end up serving Louis Vuitton (I’m looking at you, Takashi Murakami) or other slimy corporate masters who simply want free marketing. Art and aesthetics should be more than ugly clickbait! Our conception of beauty shapes are moral conception of society and the world. Therefore my New Year’s resolution is to be a better painter… and to explain myself better. Next year I promise to write more movingly about beauty, meaning, and humankind’s place in the natural world (which I have finally realized is the theme of my artworks). Avaricious marketers and art school hacks are not the only people who can take to the internet to explain themselves!
And of course there will be lots of amazing animals and magnificent trees and exquisite colors and crazy stories from history (and we will always keep one eye on outer space). The list of categories over there to the left is becoming restrictive! It’s time to bust out and write about all sorts of new things! Happy New Year! 2015 is going to be great! Enjoy your New Year’s celebrations and I’ll see you back here next year!
Every year when I write obituaries, I look at the Wikipedia list of notable people who died during the year. Since everyone dies, the list includes all sorts of people: clerics, horse breeders, spree killers, chefs, war heroes, astrologers, conductors, campaigners for suicide rights, and ever so many industrialists and financiers (whom nobody cares about anymore \other than greedy development departments and squabbling heirs). It always strikes me that the people we all know about—the loud and shiny actors, the celebrity criminals, and the faded sportsmen–are not actually very important in the grand scheme of things. Here is a very incomplete list of the people whom I thought were important who died this year.
Shirley Temple Black (April 23rd, 1928 – February 10th, 2014) was one of Hollywood’s first child stars. Later she worked as a public servant and diplomat serving as U.S. ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia. Although she had an extraordinary life by every measure, I am including her here because when I was growing up I watched her Depression-era movies on a West Virginia movie channel that played weird old cinema. Even though I was a little child (the presumed audience for these films?), the bizarre schmaltzy stories of singing princesses and dancing disinherited heiresses struck me as bizarre and otherworldly—like a relic from ancient Mesopotamia.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez (March 6th, 1927 – April 17th, 2014) was a novelist who popularized magical realism—a literary style in which symbolic supernatural elements represent the deterministic nature of family, politics, and religious indoctrination in human life. His greatest work, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” follows the rise and fall of a family of Colombian landed gentry. Yet the book transcended the specifics of its subject to craft a haunting dream about the nature of existence.
Dr. Jacinto Convit (September 11th, 1913 – May 12th, 2014) was a dermatologist and vaccine researcher. Although he spent most of his life developing vaccines for leprosy and tropical diseases, his work also raised intriguing possibilities for cancer vaccines—ongoing work which may be incredibly important (or may be a complete dead end). Convit developed a therapy against the fearsome tropical disease leishmaniasis, which once yearly killed some 20,000 to 30,000 people across the world, however his greatest contributions to medicine may not yet be realized.
Maya Angelou (April 4th, 1928 – May 28th, 2014) was a poet and writer. She worked as a journalist during the decolonization era in Africa (writing from Egypt and Ghana) and was politically active in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, however she is best known for her moving autobiographical or semi-autobiographical accounts of coming of age in the African-American community during the civil rights era.
Felix Dennis (May 27th, 1947 – June 22nd, 2014) was a colorful British publishing mogul who monetized counter-culture in the sixties. He organized this early success (and infamy) into an international media and “lifestyle” empire. Although businessmen might describe him otherwise, he is principally remembered as the patron for many promising sculptors and writers…and as a friend to trees who orchestrated a mass reforestation campaign throughout Great Britain.
Noel Hinners (December 25th, 1935 – September 5th, 2014) was a geologist and the former chief scientist for NASA. Hinners was instrumental in planning the scientific exploration of the moon. After the Apollo era he oversaw other offworld projects such as the Mars Surveyor Program.
Scott Carpenter (May 1st, 1925 – October 10th, 2013) was an astronaut in the Mercury Program. He was the second American to orbit the earth in 1962. During re-entry, the instruments of his single-person space capsule malfunctioned and he had to take manual control of the primitive space ship (which splashed down hundreds of miles off target). He was the last surviving astronaut from the Mercury program except for John Glenn.
Donald Stookey (May 23rd, 1915 – November 4th, 2014) invented “Corningware,” the super-strong, heat-resistant ceramic glass used in kitchens everywhere since the 1950s. As a cook and a lasagna-lover I salute his incredible contribution to the human race! His other ceramic and glass innovations have also revolutionized glasses, defense systems, and electronics.
RIP and thanks again for the lasagna dish, the vaccinations, the offworld exploration, and (sigh) “The Good Ship Lollypop.”
Tomorrow we have a few final thoughts for the year and some ideas about where we’re headed next year!
Tomorrow I will write the obligatory annual post about whom we lost in 2014. It’s always a solemn occasion which highlights the passing of many eminent figures (as well as the passing of yet another year) and raises troubling questions about what is truly important. But before we get to the human obituaries, I wanted to write a quick eulogy for an underappreciated figure lost to little fanfare at the end of 2014. Last month the robot explorer craft “Venus Express” was destroyed by falling into the volatile high-pressure atmosphere of our sister planet Venus (an operatic end which overshadows all but the greatest human deeds). The Venus Express was a satellite launched by the European Space Agency in November 2005. It reached polar orbit around Venus in April of 2006 and has been continuously sending back data since then until November 28th of 2014 when the last remaining fuel in the satellite was used to lift it into a high orbit. Scientists planned on monitoring the space probe during its long drift down to the top of the atmosphere, but something went wrong and the satellite was thrown into a spin (which made it unable to contact Earth). It is now presumed destroyed.
Venus Express was the first Venus mission undertaken by the ESA. Now that the craft is gone, the human race has no functional probes or spacecraft on or around Venus until the Japanese climate orbiter “AKATSUKI” is scheduled to reach there sometime in 2015 (although there have been some problems with that mission and the planned rendezvous may be postponed…or never happen).
Venus’ atmosphere is believed to have once been much like that of Earth. This is certainly not the case now! The data from Venus Express is now being analyzed in order to ascertain what happened to transform Venus into a hellish greenhouse (and strip it of its magnetosphere). Maybe we can also analyze this data with an eye on future sky colonies as well. Venus Express discovered hydroxyls in the atmosphere of Venus. It also discovered an ozone layer and a high cold atmospheric layer which is possibly dry ice. It undertook a series of aerobraking experiments which could prove very relevant to future craft inserted into Venus’ atmosphere. We need someone to analyze this data and plan those future missions! Speaking of which, why doesn’t NASA have more exploratory missions planned to this nearest planet? We should try to put a long-term floating probe into the upper atmosphere of Venus itself! That would be an amazing accomplishment and it would tell us more about whether floating sky colonies above Venus would even be possible. Nothing is more alluring than Venus! Let’s honor the Venus Express by learning from it and sending some more missions there pronto!