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Mascots are fascinating. They have many of the biographic features of actual people (or at least of celebrities) glommed together with some of the endearing qualities of animals or natural entities…and yet they are completely ersatz. Teams of marketers, advertising executives, and other suchlike sharkish folk invent mascots as tools to manipulate us for their own ends. The results of this unholy nexus can often result in a bizarre plunge into the uncanny. As an example, let’s look at the deeply disconcerting career of “Mac Tonight” the crooning moon from the late eighties who (which?) attempted to sell McDonald’s to baby boomers as a good option for a dinner restaurant.
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Mac Tonight was made to cash in on 50s music nostalgia among Baby Boomers. He had a human body with a stylized moon head (with an elongated chin and overhanging forehead). A glasses-wearing musician, Mac sat at a piano on a cloud and played a bowdlerized version of “Mack the Knife” in which the original murder-themed lyrics were replaced with lyrics about, um, going to dinner at a fast food restaurant previously targeted mainly at children. Mac’s appearance was meant to distance him from Ronald, Grimace, Hamburgler, et al. and yet he also shared an obvious leitmotif with them. Because of a branding crossover, Mac somehow got tied to Nascar. Yet in 1989, Mac’s career was nipped in the bud by a lawsuit from the estate of Bobby Darin, the original composer of “Mack the Knife.” Although Bobby Darin himself originally took the concept and the music from a Brecht play about a footpad that raped and murdered people, Darin somehow toned down the dark gestic drama into smooth uptempo jazz. His heirs convincingly made this argument to a court and McDonald’s didn’t want to pay royalties.
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This should have been the end of Mac Tonight: he was obviously crafted wrongly from the very beginning (just look at his nightmarish features which evoke some sort of doofy demon from a Fred Savage movie) and yet Mac crawled back from corporate America’s dustbin. In 2007, a white supremacist named “farkle” used an online meme site to relaunch Mac as “Moon Man” a racist figurehead who rapped and danced and gave hate-speeches crafted with that creepy robotic text-to-speech software. In today’s increasingly debased political culture, Moon Man now has a steady gig endorsing the Ku Klux Klan, the president, police brutality, and violence against the LGBT community. He would probably easily win a house seat in Montana if he decided to run (or if he were, you know, real, in any way whatsoever).
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I am a space enthusiast and my middle name is “Mack”. Plus I like McDonald’s and came of age in the 80s, however Mac Tonight has always been distasteful to me (even before his off-brand second career as a goddamned white supremacist icon). Somehow the cartoonish fixed grin does not capture the beauty of the moon or the glamor of the post-war era in my heart. Yet equally obviously, Mac Tonight has something…some element that appeals to all sorts of people. After Mac’s launch “a 1987 survey by Ad Watch found that the number of consumers who recalled McDonald’s advertising before any other doubled from the previous month, and was higher than any company since the New Coke launch in 1985.” Was it Darin’s song? Was it love of astronomy or burgers? Were there elements of his sinister later career already present? I have no idea. Can anybody explain this or is the sheer randomness of this story the true source of Mac’s nocturnal power?
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There are more pictures coming in from NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter and they are amazing. The plucky space probe has entered an orbital pattern which causes it to swoop from one pole of the gas giant to the other in 2 short hours (that may not sound like a short period…but Jupiter is enormous). As it passes close to the gas giant, Juno has been able to photograph and record hitherto unknown features of the fifth planet from the sun—such as a magnetic field twice as powerful as predicted and intricate and heterogeneous ammonia weather systems.
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Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this new trove of data comes from Jupiter’s previously unexplored poles which are filled with intricate webs of cyclones—each up to 1400 kilometers in diameter. You can see them here on astonishing photos. Scientists are eager to learn more about the storms—and what lies beneath them. The coming months will feature even more beautiful images from the solar system’s grandest planet—and maybe we will get some answers too concerning what is under the clouds and what powers these colossal storms on our breathtaking neighbor.
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Seven hundred million miles away the Cassini spacecraft is preparing for death this coming September (2017). Launched in 1997 (when I moved to Brooklyn) the joint Italian/American space exploration mission to Saturn has seen and done things beyond comprehension. Lifted out of Earth’s gravity well by means of a Titan IVB/Centaur It flew through the nothingness and slingshotted around Venus (twice), the Earth, and Jupiter. It discovered new oceans on Enceladus and launched a lander onto the supermoon Titan (the first ever landing in the outer solar system). Cassini was used to tested general relativity: the craft broadcast radio past the sun to the Earth so that scientists could measure how the star’s gravity distorted the electromagnetic waves. Powered only by pluck (and, uh, 33 kilograms of plutonium-238) the little probe visited 20 moons.
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But all good things come to an end, and this final phase may be the most dramatic. On April 26th the craft began weaving between Saturn’s rings and the top of the planet’s atmosphere. The image at the top is an artist’s conception of how this might look for Cassini. The second image is a picture of the enormous hexagonal storm at the north pole taken April 30th. The image below is an infrared picture of Saturn. Cassini is scheduled to make 20 more of these passes before its final fiery plunge into Saturn itself, so prepare for more mind-boggling images of the gas giant.
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What could we talk about today other than NASA’s stunning announcement of a “nearby” star system with seven Earthlike planets?  Three of these rocky worlds are comfortably in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water exists and earthlike life could be possible.  The star is TRAPPIST-1, a small-batch artisanal microstar with only a tenth the mass of the sun.  It glistens a salmon hue and is half the temperature of the sun (and emits far less energy).  Fortunately, all of its planets are much closer to the pink dwarf than Earth is to the sun, and so the middle worlds could be surprisingly clement.  These planets are close to each other and sometimes appear in each other’s skies larger than the moon looks to us!  The coral sun would be dimmer… but 3 times larger in the sky!  It is a pretty compelling picture!  Imagine sauntering along the foamy beaches of one of these worlds and looking up into a pool-table sky filled with Earth sized worlds and a cozy Tiffany lamp in the sky emitting titian-tinted light.

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I am leaving out the details we know about the seven worlds because we don’t know much other than approximate mass (approximately earthsized!) and the ludicrously short length of their years.  Since the inner three worlds are tidally locked they may have extreme weather or bizarre endless nights or be hot like Venus (or bare like Mercury).

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Trappist1 is 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth in the constellation Aquarius.  It seems like an excellent candidate for one of those near-light speed microdarts that Steven Hawking and that weird Russian billionaire have been talking about (while we tinker with our spaceark and debate manifest destiny and space ethics).  However, before we mount any interstellar expeditions to Trappist1 (an anchoritic-sounding name which I just cannot get over) we will be learning real things about these planets from the James Webb space telescope when it launches in 2018–assuming we don’t abandon that mission to gaze at our navels and pray to imaginary gods and build dumb-ass walls.

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Today’s announcement is arguably the most astonishing thing I have heard from the astronomy community in my lifetime (and we have learned about treasure star collisions and super-dense micro galaxies and Hanny’s Voorwerp).  Ferrebeekeeper will keep you posted on news as it comes trickling out, but in the meantime let’s all pause for a moment and think about that alien beach with a giant balmy peach sun…. Ahh!  I know where I want to escape to next February!

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Today features a traditional-style porcelain Russian decanter in elegant blue and white glaze.  The decanter is handmade Gzhel porcelain with traditional Russian folk-art patterns.  However the vessel is not completely traditional—it is in the shape of a rocket.  The piece commemorates Belka and Strelka, two dogs who went in to orbit on Sputnik 5 in 1960 and returned safely to Earth.  They were space pioneers in all sorts of ways!

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I like this sort of object–which combines except it commemorates an even which happened more than 50 years ago.  Our space milestones are receding in the past, and although the robot probes exploring the solar system are learning amazing things, they do not seem to keep the public’s attention the same way that two lovable Soviet dogs did.

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I promised to write about Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a book which I am planning on reading this year (after bouncing off of its deep moral ambiguity once before).  However before we get to talking about great literature and right and wrong and how to cynically manipulate people, let’s indulge in some completely frivolous daydreaming.

Longtime readers know that one of my favorite concepts for the not-so-distant future is the establishment of a floating colony in the skies of Venus.  A variety of considerable factors make this seem more attainable than the Martian colony which everyone is always talking about (plus I like tropical swamps better than Arctic deserts).

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Alas, I am not an engineer, and I cannot bring my dream closer to reality with a slide rule and a spreadsheet full of atmospheric measurements and rocket payloads…or with a thoughtful treatise about making plastics out of the chemicals present in Venus’ thick atmosphere…or with mention of the seemingly inexhaustible thermal energy on its surface.  Yet I am imaginative, and perhaps I can share a powerful passing fantasy with you.  The other day, while browsing goodness knows what on the internet, I came across the picture above and it struck me forcefully as a perfect structural component of Mary Rose or Constance [astronomical convention dictates that all features on Venus be named after women, so I decided to name my cities after my grandmothers…at least until I know what my billionaire partner wishes to call things]. I had to share the image with you, even though I have lost the real context of the actual inflatable structure 9avionic saftey equipment maybe? That doesn’t actually seem so far off).

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Dangit, this found concept art never looks right. I am going to have to draw my own.

First I imagined that this is the lifting body of the colony, which would be suspended underneath…but then it occurred to me that it might be the city (since breathable Earth atmosphere mixtures of gases float on the clouds of Venus).  or perhaps it is an agricultural pod or a park or a laboratory, or a factory.  Who can say what is in the lovely 4/5th torus, until we complete more of the schematics?  At the moment, it is a concept piece…like the whole colony, but the world is filled with clever people, and some of them read this blog.  let’s keep dreaming big!  Imagine this sparkling with lights as a huge yellow storm boils up beneath and a cloud of drones and gyrocopters approach from a nearby fleet of zeppelin buildings…

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M-type asteroids are high albedo (i.e shiny) asteroids made partially or mostly of metal. Of all of M-type asteroids currently known in the solar system, 16 Psyche is the most massive.  It is a hunk of iron and nickel (and other heavy metals?) which has a diameter of 250 kilometers.  Psyche orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter and is believed to be the exposed core of a planet approximately the size of Mars which was obliterated by a catastrophic impact.  The asteroid is named after the intrepid mortal who found love and ultimately apotheosis in an “Eyes Wide Shut” type Greek myth of great suspense, horror, and beauty.

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Are you curious to know more about 16 Psyche based on this description?  I certainly hope you are, because NASA has just announced future missions for the 2020s and 16 Psyche is on the list. As currently conceived, the Psyche exploration mission will send a robot probe powered by solar electric propulsion out to the obliterated core to examine the planetoid.  The probe will be equipped with a magnetometer and a gamma-ray spectrometer to find out more about the composition and history of the enigmatic relic.

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Of course other long term aspects of the mission are of interest as well.  Although we have not yet mastered nuclear fusion, safe comprehensive control of such boundless energy is probably only 20 years or so away [winky icon].  What if humankind had sophisticated manufacturing robots and near infinite energy?  In such circumstances 8 million cubic kilometers of steel might come in very handy indeed.  So far the good news keeps rolling in for 2017.  This Psyche mission can’t happen fast enough for my taste.

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The year 2016 was infamous for death and grievous setback. While beloved celebrities died in droves, major western institutions were rocked to their core by poor choices (indeed the American democracy itself may be dead after voters decided to elect a nefarious con artist as president). The Great Barrier Reef, cheetahs, giraffes, beautiful compassionate elephants, and even teleosts all seem to be rapidly heading out the door as well.  It makes you wonder about 2017.

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However we are already getting away from the sad topic of 2016 obituaries. I loved David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, and Carrie Fisher as much as anyone, but I feel like their lives were celebrated by, you know, popular websites.  Ferrebeekeeper has always tried to emphasize scientists, artists, and people from my own life in the year-end obituaries, so I am leaving out David Bowie even though he arguably fits into “art” and “space” categories (and maybe “Deities of the Underworld”as well).  You can read amazing obituaries about Prince, Princess Leia, and the Thin White Duke anywhere.

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Harper Lee, (April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016) was famous for writing a single book,To Kill a Mockingbird, a child’s eye view of America on the precipice of sweeping social changes.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali (November 14, 1922 – February 16, 2016) was an Egyptian diplomat who helped orchestrate Egypt’s peace deal with Israel and later served as a largely ineffectual U.N. secretary-general.

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Umberto Eco  (January 5, 1932 – February 19, 2016) was an Italian novelist and semiotician who wrote popular works of fiction about medieval scholastic philosophy (!).

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Bob Ebeling, 89, was a booster rocket engineer who spent thirty years filled with remorse that he was unable to stop the ill-fated 1985 launch of the space shuttle Challenger (which was destroyed by faulty O-rings in the booster rockets).  His story is a cautionary tale for executives and politicians to listen to the people who build things.

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Jeremy Blake Ferrebee (August 6, 1985- March 18, 2016) was my cousin. Jeremy loved fishing and he was famously generous and kind, however he struggled mightily with personal demons in the form of substance abuse issues. I am worried that I will offend my family by mentioning his problems here, but I cared for Jeremy and I was sad about his death.  Our nation doesn’t just have a problem with substance abuse (a problem which is inextricably bound up with being a human) we have a problem even talking about this problem in a way which isn’t self-defeating.  I certainly don’t know what the answer to this is, but we had better keep working on it.

Merle Haggard (April 6, 1937 – April 6, 2016) was a country music star (ok, so we are slipping a pop star into this list) who came from a background of poverty and prison.  His songs address the hard-scrabble nature of rural life in the south and west with a mixture of sadness, machismo, and national pride.

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Marisol Escobar (May 22, 1930 – April 30, 2016) was a conceptual portrait sculptor of great originality (see Ferrebeekeeper tribute from spring).

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Elie Wiesel, (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016) was a Romanian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust.  His stark & simple prose detailed the atrocities he experienced in a Nazi death camp. Despite the darkness of his personal history, Wiesel was a great humanist and humanitarian.

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Edward Albee, (March 12, 1928 – September 16, 2016) was a playwright whose twisting inward-looking writings detailed the anomie of post-war American.  His plays ask probing questions about the possibility of finding true common ground in social relationships.

Bhumibol Adulyadej (December 5, 1927 – October 13, 2016) was the king of Thailand for a long time (see Ferrebeekeeper obituary).

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Mark McFarland (July 13, 1961 — November 29, 2016).  Mark and I were business partners. Together we created a line of animal building toys called”Zoomorphs.” After numerous corporate tribulations, we had a serious falling out.  Although he was tormented by dark implacable personal demons (see above), his toys delighted hundreds of thousands of children.

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John Herschel Glenn Jr. (July 18, 1921 – December 8, 2016) was an American pilot, engineer, and astronaut.  A war hero, who flew in over 122 combat missions during World War II and Korea, he was the first American to travel into Earth orbit in 1962. He later became a  United States Senator and then became the world’s oldest astronaut when he returned to space in 1998.

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Vera Rubin (July 23, 1928 – December 25, 2016) was an American astronomer who demonstrated the existence of dark matter through visionary work on galactic rotation.

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Richard Adams (May 9, 1920 – December 24, 2016) was a novelist who infused anthropomorphic fiction with zoology and naturalism (and with sociology and religion).  I have trouble with some of these concepts.  After all humans are animals too. maybe we need to revisit some of his works in future posts.

and there were so so many others–and I left a lot of people out. Sigh…good bye, 2016. We’re missing some people, but that is always the way of things. We will keep working to make it all better.

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Here in the northern hemisphere, we’re moving to the darkest time of the year.  I don’t have any white robes or giant megaliths on hand to get us through the solstice, but I thought I might at least cheer up the gloomy darkness with some festive decorations!  As in years past, I put up my tree of life filled with animal life of the past and the present (see above).  This really is my sacred tree: I believe that all Earth life is part of a larger cohesive gestalt (yet not in a stupid supernatural way–in a real and literal way).  Looking at the world in review, I am not sure most people share this perspective, so we are going to be philosophizing more about our extended family in the coming year.  For right now though, lets just enjoy the colored lights and the Christmas trilobite, Christmas basilosaurus, and Christmas aardvark.

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I also decorated my favorite living tree–the ornamental cherry tree which lives in the back yard.  Even without its flowers or leaves it is still so beautiful.  I hope the shiny ornaments and toys add a bit of luster to it, but really I know its pulchritude is equally great at the end of January when it is naked even of ornaments.

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Here are some Javanese masks which my grandfather bought in Indonesia in the 50s/60s. Indonesian culture is Muslim, but there is a deep foundation of Hinduism (the masks are heroes from the Mahabharata and folk heroes of medieval Indonesia).  Decorating this uneasy syncretism up for Christmas is almost nonsensical–and yet look at how good the combination looks.  Indeed, there might be another metaphor here.  We always need to keep looking for beautiful new combinations.

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Finally here is a picture of the chandelier festooned with presents and hung with a great green bulb.  The present may be dark, but the seasons will go on shifting and there is always light, beauty, and generosity where you make it.  I’m going to be in and out, here, as we wrap up 2016 and make some resolutions for 2017.  I realize I have been an inconsistent blogger this year, but I have been doing the best I can to keep exploring the world on this space and that will continue as we go into next year. I treasure each and every one of you.  Thank you for reading and have a happy solstice.

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