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I live in the city (as does more than half of humankind), and I love the colors, forms, and manic creative energy of this coral-reef like false ecosystem which we humans have built for ourselves.  As much as I love cities, though (especially my beloved home of Brooklyn), I feel like they could be ever so much better.  Cities tend to be terrible places for non-human lifeforms (with a handful of striking exceptions like pigeons)…and most urban places are also pretty unhealthy for the human inhabitants as well.  Not only are cities engineered with minimal interest in ecology but the structure of cities comes to mirror the social problems of the societies which create them (almost universally this involves an elite caste leeching away the vast majority of resources through a rigged hierarchical system they have devised).  Technological and agricultural problems also etch themselves indelibly into the structure of cities. Thus we have the deadly smog-choked car-culture cities of 20th century America…the human sacrifice temples of MesoAmerica…the desicated & starved cities of the desert…the slave cities of the ancient worlf…and on and on.

In many times and places, clever and driven people have tried to solve these problems by planning out entire cities beforehand.  Obviously, all cities are planned at some level, but this generally involves multi-generational building and lots of half-completed projects, strange work-arounds, and odd organic muddles where unexpected or unintended factors override the planners’ visions (insomuch as they planned for anything other than immediate utility). Thus, the great cities like Shanghai, Paris, London, Singapore, Tokyo, and NEW YORK are the collaboration of innumerable minds working together (often at cross-purposes) across many different eras. The end result betrays a lot of compromise and muddling though.  I am not talking about that sort of thing right now.  Instead I am talking about cities which are the result of a single monomaniacal vision.

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Here is a straightforward example of a planned city from Northern Italy in the late Renaissance.  This is Palmanova, a star-fort community built by the Venetian Republic in 1593.  The city was made possible as a result of the Venetians’ great victory at Lepanto in (a battle which also spawned a lot of the best battle paintings) and the designer, Vincenzo Scamozzi, made sure to incorporate the great military innovations of the late 16th century into the plan.  Palmanova was located near the Slovenian border–the eastern front of Christendom’s great war with the Ottoman Empire–and the community is therefor built within a nine-pointed polygon made of earth and mortar to protect the inhabitants from the artillery of the day.   Additionally, the city was designed with Thomas More’s recent literary hit “Utopia” in mind so that artisans, merchants, soldiers, and farmers would be housed in a style which placed them on an equal social footing (although the Palace of Provveditore is somewhat more, um, palatial than the ordinary residences).  The town’s cathedral is near the central plaza and, despite its baroque beauty, it has a shortened campanile so that enemy gunners could not easily focus on it.

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But things went a bit awry for Palmanova right away.  Despite the new city’s elegance and the lofty ideas of the founders, nobody wanted to live there. By 1622, the Venetian planners who had created Palmanova were forced to pardon criminals and offer them free building lots in order to populate the town.  Building slowed to a snail’s pace.  The focus of international conflict changed, and Venice’s glory receded.  The full plans were not completed until between 1806 and 1813 (when the Napoleonic wars brought renewed relevance to fortifications).

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Palmanova is hardly a failure.  You can live there today and aerial photographers dote on the place.  Yet it didn’t usher in a new era of egalitarian polygonal fortress cities either.  The factors which the planners saw as most important were superseded by the rapid pace of progress or they were proven to be matters of baroque fashion rather than universal values.  To address the concerns of today we would not build this sort of place (although I find it strikingly beautiful and I admire the style and the idealism of its planners). Later this week we will look at some more planned cities from history which didn’t have the same sort of success.  Maybe if we focus on some of these real world examples we can think about what would improve the cities of tomorrow.

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As I was researching medieval Gothic shoes the other day, I kept stumbling across modern Goth shoes for young people who enjoy black clothes and heavy metal flair.  It is worth contrasting these remarkable examples of footwear with the Gothic shoes of yesteryear and enjoying the boundless creativity and energy which humans pour into fashion and self-expression!

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In addition to black leather and studs/spikes, the Goth shoes are noteworthy for their incredibly thick soles and high heels.  Looking at the pointed Crakow shoes of yesteryear, I marveled that anyone could walk with such long shoes.  Looking at the contemporary Gothic shoes I marvel that anyone could even lift up their feet while wearing them.  As the years go by, styles change enormously, yet it seems that some things never change–like our tendency to take fashion statements to ridiculous extremes in order to score status points (are “crocs” ever actually fashionable though?).

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I did however find this one pair of shoes that combines the Medieval AND Modern Gothic sensibilities! Check out these puppies:

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Lydia Ordering the Death of Her Sons (Loyset Liédet and Pol Fruit, ca. 1467–72), Tempera colors and gold leaf on parchment,

Let’s take a break from parade floats, summer flowers, and ice cream artwork to renew our appreciation of all things Gothic.  Today’s post involves taking a step back in time to check out the footwear of yore–namely those astonishing pointy Gothic shoes which you see in medieval illumination (like the horrifying Game Of Thrones-ish painting above).  Those shoes don’t just exist in ancient artworks and period dramas, specialty cobblers still make them. Here are some photos of Gothic-style footwear which you can buy right now online!

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Long-toe Suede Poulaines from armstreet.com

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I like all of those, but that green pair is particularly splendid!  I would totally wear those if I was accepted into Hogwarts or dragged into a time portal.  But what is the story with those toes?  Why did lordly fops of the 12th-15th century wear these extreme pointy elvish-looking shoes?  The fashion spread throughout northwest Europe, but it originated in Poland (which was going through a sort of golden age) which is why such shoes are called are called “Poulaines” or “Crakows.”  The toes were originally filled with moss or other pre-industrial packing materials in order to hold their shape.  As the toes became more elaborate and more curved, architectural internal elements made of cork or leather became necessary so they would hold their shape.

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I wish I could tell you some satisfying tale of how the pointy toes poked venomous snakes out of the way or helped lords walk on tippy-toe over muddy peasants or something, however, the reason footwear looked as it did then, was much the same as now: namely impractical shoes betokened status. A vast pan-European network of conspicuous consumption existed in the high middle ages and it was a big part of how the elites “kept score.”

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So Crakows with their long poulain toes were apparently the Manolo Blahniks of their day.  I will keep looking for more to the story, but it seems like this might be a classic case of the things we do for fashion.  Don’t worry though, we are not done with Gothic shoes: there is more to come from eras much more recent and familiar.  Just stay tuned to Ferrebeekeeper and keep on your toes!

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Do you remember when “Thriller” came out?  It was electrifying. A gifted young man who can dance and sing extremely well transforms into a nightmarish predatory monster before our eyes.

Alas, that turns out to have been the actual life story of Michael Jackson, who has been back in the news a decade after his death, because an HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland” has circled around to shine an unsavory light on the entertainer’s  misdeeds.  People are honestly shocked by the horrifying abuse described by Jackson’s now grown-up victims.  This in turn is shocking, because we pretty much knew all of this back in the early nineties…and then society just sort of shrugged and moved on.  It turns out Jackson was simply rich enough and beloved enough (then) to groom and rape children at his weird palace.

What happened?  How did the authorities and everyone else mess up so badly?

Obviously, the main problem was Michael Jackson himself, who may have had his own demons, but actively chose to commit these horrible crimes.  The remaining blame is nugatory in the face of this prime culpability, but, until there are no more molesters,we must look to society to stop them.

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There is plenty of blame to be portioned onto the police and courts who must surely have been able to see what was going on but were unable to bring Jackson down. Likewise we can blame all of Jackson’s enablers who were making money off of him.  We can blame the families of the victims who were clearly benefiting in ways which made them close their eyes.

A huge portion of blame belongs to our twisted society which worships celebrities and will let them get away with anything.  Why is this?  I feel like if we are going to give celebrities infinite license like they are ancient Celtic godkings, we need to finish the deal and sacrifice them in a wicker man or drown them in a bog after a set period of time (although it could be argued that this is exactly what happened to Jackson).

Anyway all of these things problems, but they are difficult to address so I am choosing to vent my spleen at something we could possibly change: non-disclosure agreements.  Apparently the estate of Michael Jackson has been making noise about suing his victims for what they said in the documentary because back in the day they (or their guardians???) signed non-disclosure agreements about all of this in exchange for astronomical sums of money.  Non-disclosure agreements are the same ilk of restrictive restrictive covenants as non-compete agreements which we find depressing national wages because they prohibit flunkies from jumping from one employer to another.

These are obviously a tool by which the strong abuse the week and flout the law. They are restrictive covenants. They make people into slaves in exchange for money. How is everyone fine with this?

Let’s get rid of these things.  There is no reason any non-disclosure agreement anywhere should be binding in any capacity to anyone unless one of the parties is the Federal Government of the United States.  Congress should proclaim that all other NDAs are instantly void forever and all of their terms and conditions are dissolved.

As always, important processes and technical know-how would be protected by patents.  Creative work would be protected by copyrights. Truly important matters of national security would remain the purview of the vast canon of laws and procedures which govern such things (although if we have Jared Kushner snapchatting and whatsapping our national secrets to his Kremlin handlers maybe we could stand to freshen up those protocols too).

All of the victims of pop stars and crummy billionaires can tell their stories to the police and to the press.  People can leave Burger King to work for a nickel an hour more at Arby’s.  We can’t stop the next Michael Jackson unless we stop worshiping these people, but maybe we can make it impossible for survivors of sexual abuse to be abused again by restrictive covenants.  They can get huge payouts the old-fashioned American way–with lawsuits!

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Your childhood dream is fairly ludicrous clip-art!

My last post, which combined art, gardening, and Gothic architecture has made me reflect back on a treasured albeit megalomaniacal childhood fantasy.  When I grew up I wanted to live in my own beautiful castle. I was really into spooky-yet-cozy adventure stories, and the idea of living in a perfect little fortress world filled with hidden passages, charming secrets, and fairy-tale delights was irresistible.

But that was a wish from childhood: the adult world is a desperate maze filled with scams, baffling spreadsheets, impossible rules,and ersatz crap…which brings us to the subject of today’s post! The desire to have a beautiful fairytale castle for a home is hardly unique to my childhood self. Lots of people have that fantasy, however, there are only so many actual medieval keeps, schlösschen(s?), and castellets to go around. We are even running out of derelict Queen Anne villas. Plus the comforts and conveniences of real medieval castles are not in accordance with modern tastes. But, if New York has taught me anything, it is that for every dream house there is an unscrupulous developer ready to make a terrible mockery of that dream in order to get rich.

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Every man, a king!

Welcome to Burj Al Babas in Turkey! Of the many, many Potemkin villages and empty cities which have sprouted up around the world in the last decade, this is surely one of the most peculiar to behold. The town was planned and built by “Sarot Group” to appeal to affluent foreign investors who dreamed of living in castles when they were little. The project began in 2014 and was meant as a way to capitalize underused land in the distant Asia Minor suburbs of Istanbul. Each micro-castle was going to include swimming pools and jacuzzis heated by the water of local hot springs.  The target buyers were affluent middle easterners who could maybe even be lured into Turkish citizenship.

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What? They couldn’t include identical unicorns?

 

Unfortunately, the market for fake castles has been overmatched by the market for real autocrats. Turkey is sliding further and further into a dangerous spiral of dictatorship, economic malfeasance, and corruption. As the lira collapses the inflation rate has risen to 25%. Additionally, the oil-rich middle eastern who are the imagined buyers of these properties have been facing their own monetary struggles in a world awash with cheap oil.

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And notice the exquisite landscaping of dark gray mud, dead weeds, and rubble!

Perhaps the saddest thing is that, even in these glum pictures of cookie-cutter despair, some aspect of the original fantasy is still recognizable. If you had one of these things on a forest mountaintop in West Virginia or Dalmatia, it might still be a beautiful home  (although they look suspiciously apt to melt when it rains). Yet, stuck next to each other like dozens of gawky cosplayers dressed as the same superhero, the dream breaks apart and the seamy aspects of the modern real-estate scheming are laid bare.  I wonder what will eventually happen to Burj Al Babas, the city of dreams.  Will it become like Columbia Maryland, where nobody even notices that they are living in somebody else’s fantasy, or will archaeologists of the future unearth its particleboard and concrete ruins with a sad frown and a sigh?

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We are swiftly coming up to the United States election and Ferrebeekeeper needs to endorse a candidate. You can probably already guess whether I will endorse the competent and hard-working patriot (the one who is admittedly very ambitious and bit sloppy with finicky data protocols) or the unhinged con-artist who is not only an ignoramus, a bully, and a bigot, but poses an existential threat to the republic itself. However, before we get around to making this difficult choice (and, maybe…finally reaching an end to this ghastly and divisive national contest) we need to think about primatology.

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Specifically there was an experiment conducted by primatologist Frans de Waal with some capuchin monkeys to understand social behavior and social cognition in primate groups.  In the experiment, the capuchins (who are exceedingly bright characters) were asked to do a small task in exchange for a food reward while the other monkeys watched the exchange.  Some monkeys were given grapes…which capuchins love.  Others were given little slivers of cucumber (a far less valuable treat) for completing the same task.

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Not surprisingly, monkeys who watched a different monkey do the same task for a much better reward flew into a rage. They hurled their cucumber away and banged on their plexiglass enclosures and shook their little bars and sulked.

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Now, a tiny sliver of cucumber is not a valueless thing for a monkey who spends all day being tortured by scientists and fed bland monkey chow. Probably the rational thing to do would be to take the cucumber and kiss the cruel scientists’ hand and call it a day (then quietly wait for a chance to rise up, bite some faces off, and enslave Charlton Heston).

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But if you were a monkey and reacted with apparent docility to unfair treatment, who knows how you would be taken advantage of next? It wouldn’t just be primatologists who took advantage of you, soon enough your fellow monkeys would too.

What is truly important to social animals is status: this intangible commodity is fungible and it is pegged to a highly complex and immediate relative framework. A cucumber slice, though fine in its own right confers less status than a prestigious grape.  To throw it away and freak out makes sense to capuchin monkeys because larger issues are on the line (even if they are apparently hurting themselves in the short term).  Spite matters for monkeys: it is one way that monkeys can mess with more powerful entities and protest the unfair allocation of resources and rewards.

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Again and again the question arises among the people I know in New York of how anyone could be taken in by an illiterate orange charlatan with a pronounced tendency to molest woman, steal from workers, and cheat on taxes.   Maybe some people truly believe in Donald Trump, but I believe for a larger number of people in the middle of the country he is neither the grape nor the cucumber: Trump is the act of throwing the cucumber away.  High status monkeys should take note and make some immediate changes, but I suspect they will only hide their equities in the Cayman Islands and buy bigger Bentleys. Primates are not great at solving social hierarchy problems without lots of shrieking, biting, and shit-throwing.

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Artist's conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

Artist’s conception of Venus Express above Venus (ESA)

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.

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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).

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

This still from a NASA animation of a concept Venus mission shows a probe, one of many, beginning its descent into the Venus atmosphere.

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!

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

The Birth of Venus (Henry Courtney Selous, 1852, oil on canvas)

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