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April is poetry month!  Just thinking about it makes me recall wilder, grander (younger) times when I spent my life carousing with poets, drinking infinite goblets of wine and talking all night about the great unfathomable mysteries of life and love.  Those days are gone, those friends have all vanished to wherever poets go, and the great mysteries remain unsolved (of course).  Yet, anon, it is spring once again.  There is a cold breeze blowing clouds across the white moon.  The garden is empty and dead, but the buds are starting to form on the cherry tree.

To celebrate these wistful memories and to celebrate the eternal art of poetry here is a very short poem by the original drunk master, Li Po, a roving carouser famous for descriptions of the natural world combined with intimations of otherworldly knowledge.  This poem is a good example–and a good spring poem.  The Chinese original is probably filled with cunning homonyms and allusions of which I am ignorant (at this point, everyone might be ignorant of some of them…Li Po lived in the Tang Dynasty from 701 AD to 762 AD).  But it seems like Jasper Mountain is an allusion to the court intrigues of the capital.  It also helps to know that peach blossoms are associated with celestial/fairy folk not unlike the Ae Sidhe.  Enough prose, here is Arthur Copper’s translation of Li Po’s succinct masterpiece:

IN THE MOUNTAINS: A REPLY TO THE VULGAR

They ask me where’s the sense

on Jasper Mountain?

I laugh and don’t reply,

in heart’s own quiet:

 

Peach petals float their streams

away in secret

To other skies and earths

than those of mortals.

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It’s the day before the deadline for filing taxes here in America—an ordeal which only grows more complicated (thanks, Intuit, for lobbying to keep the code as complex as possible).  From sea to sea, Americans are staring in baffled confusion at heaps of forms and receipts and rules.  Well, probably the organized ones are happily enjoying their calm evenings and successful lives, having filed months ago…but that certainly doesn’t include everyone!  Anyway, in an ill-conceived effort to make this deadline more palatable, here are some pictures of adorable baby tapirs!

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Tapirs are actually perissodactyls.  Their closest relatives are the horses and rhinoceroses.  Perissodactyls were once the dominant quadruped grazers of the grasslands and forests of the Miocene and the Oligocene, but in more recent geological periods the odd-toed ungulates have been fading away.  We can still catch glimpses of these glory years with pictures of adorable tapirs though.

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Ferrebeekeeper has mentioned tapirs before—in connection with the baku, a mysterious and compelling mythological creature said to feast on dreams.  I promise to come back and talk about tapirs properly and at length—they are exceedingly interesting survivors or a great age, however today we are focused only on their adorable properties.  Look at how cute these dappled babies are (the little tapirs lose their protective dots as they grow into adulthood).  Good luck with your own red tapir, er, I mean red tape.  We will return to regularly scheduled posts tomorrow…just as soon as I drop some documents in the virtual post-office box.

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Have you seen photos of Venus?  When the planet is observed in visible light it looks like a big bland ecru ball (see above).  Put a whiteboard and some plastic rolling chairs on that puppy and you would have a corporate conference room in some awful suburban office-park.  Yet ultraviolet imaging of Venus paints a somewhat more interesting picture of swirling bands or darkness in the heady acid atmosphere of our sister planet.  But what does that mean?

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The dark bands turn out to be the result of sulfur compounds (carbonyl sulfide, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide) and other yet unknown chemical compounds in the upper atmosphere of Venus.  On Earth these sulfur compounds are hallmarks of life…or of volcanic activity.  Some scientists are provocatively asking whether extremophile bacteria could have a place in the temperate upper atmosphere of Earth’ closest planetary neighbor.  The bacteria could use the rich sulfur and carbon clouds as building blocks and the UV (and other EM radiation!) bombardment of the sun for energy.  Perhaps, they muse, these dark bands are something akin to algal blooms in Earth’s oceans.

More than a billion years ago, Venus enjoyed a period of prolonged earthlike climate with surface water and an atmosphere which was not so hellishly heavy and hot.  But something went hideously awry and runaway greenhouse effect created a terrible feedback loop which changed the planet’s surface into the monstrous place it is today.  Apparently the igneous/volcanic processes of Venus are rather different than those of Earth, so it was probably not all treeferns, friendly dinosaurs, and bikini-clad aliens even before the runaway greenhouse phase melted away the old surface of Venus, but perhaps bacteria (or analogous lifeforms) could have evolved and escaped the catastrophe by moving into the upper clouds (which, as previously noted here, have temperatures not unlike those of Earth’s surface).

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My guess is that Venus is lifeless as a jackhammer (though, like a jackhammer it can give the alarming appearance of life), yet even if this is the case, we should know more about all of this! What happened to Venus’ original surface? Was there ever life there?  What is going on with its volcanoes and internal geology?  What is the composition of the clouds of Venus? Is there anything there other than strange sufur compounds and esoteric hydrocarbons formed from the mixture of sulfur, carbon dioxide, and UV radiation?   Once again, our nearest neighbor is beckoning.  We need to move forward with sophisticated atmospheric probes (like VAMP) and NASA should collaborate with Russia on their next Venus mission (it looks like our governments are closer than ever anyway).  For some reason, popular imagination disdains Venus, yet the questions there seem salient, and the possibilities for a nearby Earth-sized world of unlimited energy and resources seem, well, unlimited.

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This past Friday/Saturday was the annual Pratt Drawathon, a 12 hour event which is one of the highlights of the New York City art year. I should clarify:  the event is not a highlight of the New York art world year. The drawathon is not a place where elite moguls drink wine from airport cups and buy multi-million dollar status-items to embellish their hegemony.  The drawathon is, instead, a draftsperson’s event where Pratt students and other people who love to draw get together and draw all night. Mostly the artists are young fashionable 18-20 year olds with fluorescent hair and strange stylish raiment who struggle away at capturing the likeness of the models within the media rubric of whatever undergraduate project they are currently working on.  Yet the greater New York art ecosystem knows about it too; so you also find peculiar outsiders dressed like janitors who draw like Raphael.

This year, I worked for 9 hours at my spreadsheet-themed dayjob and showed up to squeeze in among the miscellaneous artists and do some pencil sketches to stay limber as an artist (it is also nice to draw naked people sometimes instead of allegorical flatfish).  After midnight the event also features pizza, caffeinated beverages, and live drummers to keep everyone’s energy up. But alas, this year my energy was flagging and my back was sore as I squirmed on the drafting stool. I was feeling sorry for working all day and drawing all night. That’s when I a model I hadn’t seen before came in and gave me a new jolt of energy…not because they were a 19 year old beauty unstained by time’s cruel tutelage (although such models indeed participate in the drawathon), but for the opposite reason.   A man older than John McCain came in and then held stock-still for heroic long poses.  Holding perfectly still sounds easy in theory, but as anyone who has been to Methodist church can tell you, it is exceedingly difficult in practice. Yet the heroic model easily stood like a statue in the airless room.  At one point the man jumped up on a teetering bar stool and stood with his feet close together balanced and motionless for twenty minutes as the assembly gasped and begged him to be careful and not to fall and break something.  “You better draw fast then!” is all he said.

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Not only was this strange muse indefatigable and brave, he was also generous.  After the pizzas arrive the event loses its coherence until about one o’clock when the proctors dragoon it back into shape.  There are always some artists who wolf down their pizza and wait impatiently for things to get started.  The model (who was named Mike) came in and said, I’ll pose until things get started again, if anyone wants to draw.”

One has to be impressed by the fortitude and bravery of anyone who can pose nude in front of strangers at all (I am not sure I could).  To jump into such a career later in life is to truly overcome the prejudices of society and the indignant dictates of the aching spine. Mike seemed like he was having a great time.  He was friends with the models and the artists. Even more, he was a friend to art (though I am, naturally dissatisfied by my drawings…speaking of which,  I am sorry I cut off his feet on this last image–my scanner is only letter-sized).

So am I saying that my hero is a weird naked old man? I guess I am. The combination of strength, fortitude, generosity, and bravery are hard to gainsay.

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I am sorry that these pictures don’t do him justice, but my back was tired from sitting in a comfy office chair all day.   It’s a reminder that life is short, but opportunities are more diverse than you think.  And it is a reminder to get to work! If Mike can pose 12 hours straight, from dusk till dawn, all of us can get out of your comfortable ruts and accomplish anything.

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The Kingdom of Bavaria existed from 1806 to 1918.  Although the region had longstanding cultural, religious, and political differences from the rest of Germany, its existence as an independent kingdom was a direct result of Napoleon’s great wars of conquest.  The French emperor redesignated the former duchy as a sovereign nation (under the Emperor’s control of course) and suddenly Duke Maximilian Joseph (a Francophile who had even served in the French army) became King Maximilian I.  Maximilian had a majestic royal regalia created to go with his new throne, but he never wore his crown in public or even arranged a coronation series (he was known as a somewhat avuncular monarch with some of the eccentricities which marked his descendants).  Maximilan’s first wife died before Napolen made him a king, however his second (Protestant!) wife Caroline of Baden became Queen Consort.  This crown was made for Caroline (Karoline?) in 1806.  It is one of my favorite of the Napoleonic era crowns both for its classical 8 arched shape (which always reminds me of a regal octopus sitting on someone’s head) and for its huge magnificent natural pearls.  The crown of the Queen of Bavaria survived the dissolution of Bavaria as a kingdo (at the end of World War I) and today it is kept in the Bavarian treasury in Munich.   For a landlocked nation, it is one of the most ocean-themed crowns out there, and if it just had some shells and flounders and maybe some corals and aquamarines it would be perfect for Amphitrite.

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Hey, remember the super-massive black hole at the center of the galaxy?  Well, scientists have been thinking about it too, and they concluded that other black holes should sink into the middle of the galaxy near to the central monster.  To find out if this holds true, they utilized the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (an x-ray telescope located on a satellite in orbit around Earth) to observe stars near to the center of the galaxy.  Black holes can’t be detected on their own, but if they interact with nearby stars they produce esoteric x-rays which can be detected (so long as the x-ray telescope is outside of a planetary atmosphere, which absorbs x-rays, thank goodness).  Within the tiny (er, relatively tiny) three light year area which they scrutinized, the astronomers discovered dozens of black holes.  Extrapolating this data leads them to conclude there are more than 10,000 black holes at the center of our galaxy.  I wish I could contextualize this for you, but I just can’t… the concept of 10,000 super-dense gravity wells flattening and tearing all of the spacetime in the center of the galaxy into Swiss cheese is to disturbing for me to deal with (in any other way than blurting it out in a midnight blog).  I’m not sure this universe is safe at all. I am going to go lie down.

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Question Flounder

I have been working on a personal animation project (more news to follow) which involves the mysterious color-changing master of the muddy ocean bottom–the flounder.  Regular readers will know that the pleuronectiformes have been my leitmotif for the last couple of years, and sadly, the whole order is woefully under-represented in cartoons: the only flounder anyone knows is Ariel’s annoying sidekick “Flounder” and he was a sergeant-major fish (Abudefduf saxatilis). What a bait-and-switch!

Unfortunately this test gif isn’t quite what I was aiming for.  Animation turns out to be ridiculously hard: how on earth did anyone ever make “Snow White” or “Spirited Away”?  Yet despite the deficiencies,  I think the work conveys some of the great flatfish’s unfathomable grasp of the secrets of the deep.  Kindly let me know what you think.  I desperately need everyone’s help on this project.

Hans_Memling_PassioneThis amazing painting is by Hans Memling a Netherlandish master of German birth who worked in Bruges during the late 15th century.  Memling painted the work around 1470 AD for a Florentine banker based in Bruges (that’s the banker’s donor portrait down there in the lower left corner).  The painting is most important for illustrating that extremely rich financiers can commision whatever sort of work they like from gifted middle aged painters in their hometown, be it medieval Bruges or, say, contemporary Brooklyn, however, the painting is also astonishingly a still painting with modality: like a sort of 15th century movie.  Instead of telling one scene from the passion of Christ, the painting tells many stories from the death and resurrection of Jesus in the same larger scene.  By moving around the painting and “reading” it, the whole story becomes evident (I especially like how ancient Jerusalem looks like a slightly exoticized version of Bruges).  Since WordPress hates art, you can only blow it up to a certain size here, but it is well worth going to Wikipedia and looking at a larger version where you can pore over the exquisite details of Memling’s craft (and contemplate the meaning of Jesus’ ministry and his execution).   For such an intricate work, the original is rather small–less than a meter wide.  Memling excelled at painting complex pictures of entire cities like this, yet despite the ornament and pageantry, the real focus never leaves Jesus as he is hailed and then denounced by the mob, judged by politicians, tortured and executed, and finally risen as a deity.  Despite its intricacy and scope this is a rather human and intimate work.  Memling seems to have known the fickle back-and-forth of society, so one can find all sorts of reticent retainers, devout followers, haughty lords, and confounded strangers in this work.  It is a reminder that the the antagonist, and the supporting characters, and even the setting of the passion are humankind–the story is meant to represent all of us.  Even Jesus, the son of man, is human until the last instance when he is revealed with his halo and scarlet robes of godhood.

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Once again, the hours of the day have flown by me.  In order to illustrate this point I am going to feature some beautiful antique timepieces from the 16th century, the first century of watchmaking.  The first watches originated in 16th century Germany.  A hundred years earlier clockmakers had invented the mainspring movement, and by the 1500s, there were clocksmiths with sufficient skill to miniaturize this apparatus into miniaturized timepieces meant to be worn.  This first generation of “watches” were really more like pendant clocks meant to be worn (how much else does Flava Flav owe to reformation-era Germany?).  These pendant watches only had an hour hand (often behind a heavy lid of glass or crystal).  They needed to be wound twice a day and they were not very reliable (sometimes losing multiple hours in a single day), however they became popular with the aristocracy because of the eternal love of novel cutting-edge technology and because they were human-made portable accessories which moved on their own—a wonder in that age.

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The first generation of watches were heavy and ostentatious—more like mechanical jewelry than modern chronographs.  The disk shape familiar in personal timepieces for the last half millennium was not yet standard (or even achievable) and so all sorts of novelty shapes prevailed.  Thus the first generation of watches featured all sorts of gilded ticking eggs, books, astronomical bodies, animals, fruit, flowers, insects (look at that crowned queen bee watch!), body parts, and religious symbols. These are a bit strange to modern eyes but they are also refreshing in our age of ubiquitous sleek black tablets. I suppose these are really the great great great grandparents of all of the personal devices which define this era. Yet looking at the strange clunky shapes of these precious odd mechanical survivors is refreshing too.  Imagine if your mechanical death’s head was off by several hours and didn’t beep intrusive emails at you all day!

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More information has come in concerning last week’s fatal incident involving an autonomous car and it is not good.  That robot car just straight up murdered the poor woman walking her bike across the road: it didn’t even try to stop.  The human “back-up driver” onboard was also utterly useless (although this might actually be a pretty accurate representation of how people will be once they get in one of these things and start watching Netflix or writing opinionated blog posts or whatever).

Now Uber is far from my favorite company.  I dislike their creepy name (with its third Reich overtones) and their extraction-based business plan of squeezing drivers/franchisees as hard as possible while avoiding all meaningful oversight and liability.  They perfectly exemplify the MBA’s “heads I win-tails you lose” mentality and it doesn’t surprise me that they have botched things so badly right out of the gate.  Additionally, the homicidal actions of their sloppy robot have made it harder to ignore the voices questioning what sort of autonomous future we want for the roads.  So maybe it is a good time now to heed those voices and brainstorm about the things we want from autonomous automobiles!  Here are some of my requests to the powers that be, just jotted down as loose notes:

1)      Non-monopolistic: We need more than one or two big companies making these transportation units, or we are going to all be held hostage by their cartel.  The big company will make the decisions about national (or international) transportation priorities and the rest of us will all be dragged along for the ride (as it were).  We already had this model in the middle of the 20th century when automobile companies ruthlessly dominated infrastructure/land-use planning and suppressed other modes of transportation or city planning.  It worked barely…for our huge growing country, but those days are gone and now we need…

2)      Trains trains trains: America has one of the finest freight rail networks in the world, but our light/passenger rail is terrible.  China has leapfrogged us completely.  In the Middle Kingdom, you can make a trip from Beijing to Shanghai (a little farther than New York to Chicago) on a high speed train in a bit more than 4 hours.  During peak hours the trains run every 5 minutes and cost about 80 dollars.

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3)      Ability to recognize things:  An idea which has come up is that robot cars won’t be able to recognize humans with lidar/radar/sonar and suchlike electronic sensors alone.  Pedestrians and bicyclists will need to wear beacons to avoid death by Uber (domestic animals and wildlife will obviously be out of luck).  This is unacceptable! Back to the drawing board, tech guys—your cars will have to do better than this

4)      We need these cars to be tamper-proof.  If hot-rod teenagers can hack the things and make them go 300 miles an hour over washed out bridges, then the technology will not be sufficient to keep riders safe from tampering or to keep car companies safe from litigation, or to keep the roads safe at all.

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Cars are all made in some robotic factory anyway—the price comes from setting up the automated equipment.  This means that there is not much price difference between making a super luxury car and an ultra-economy model (they are both twisted into shape from the same steel and wires).  The fact that the luxury car costs 4 or 5 times as much as the hatchback is because some MBA guy decided people would pay that much more for increased status.

One of the biggest problems with our roads are the extent to which they reflect status.  Somebody driving an expensive car often takes liberties and chances with other people’s lives which make it apparent that they really think they are worth many times more than the underclass nobodies they are crushing.  Will robot cars reflect this dynamic?  Traditional car companies must be desperate for such an outcome (they make a lot of money with luxury models), yet I hope we have a more egalitarian result.    If the future consists of giant robot tank/limousines going 200 miles per hours with carte blanche to knock anyone off the road, we might as well keep the dangerous broken system we have.

I have been enthusiastic about robot cars and I continue to believe they offer astonishing new realms of freedom, leisure, and opportunity for all. I can move to the country! Grandma can go shopping whenever she wants! But after looking at the inhuman mess which big companies have made out of the energy industry, the medical industry (shudder), the aviation industry, or the telecom industry, it seems like corporations might need some guidance from the rest of us.

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