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I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).

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If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?

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One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.

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All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.

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Well…it is the middle of the dreariest month.  There is nothing but gray cold outside and there are no prospects for romance or success anywhere on the horizon.  Spring will probably never come and civilization seems to be sinking…all of which means it is time once again for Valentine’s Day! [jazz hands] This frustrating winter pseudo-holiday is a sad vestigial leftover of Lupercalia, a once-great Roman holiday of ritual cleansing and savage fertility.  Yet in the modern world  seems to have become an affair for Hallmark and Brach’s (and maybe, somehow, the martyred Saint Valentine?).  Nothing about this holiday makes much sense (aside from the ancient human need for romance and affection) so I have prepared a somewhat nonsensical GIF to celebrate!

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Behold! It is the Great Flounder himself (or herself?) looking a bit like a cross between an anatomical diagram and a puff pastry.  Hopefully this rudimentary animation will help you enjoy Valentine’s Day, but, if not, you can always betake yourself to the online oracle and ask the all-knowing fish your questions about love, life, and the mysteries of what is in your sweetheart’s innermost heart.  Don’t take the answers too seriously though, since rumor has it that Great Flounder 2.0 is about to roll out with vastly enhanced psychic abilities!  Let me know if you have any questions or comments and rest assured that you are certainly MY favorite valentine (and will continue to be so for as long as you come here to read these posts).  Ferrebeekeeper adores you and believes that you can make this day special just by being yourself!

 

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Today’s post takes us back, once more, to Ultima Thule/2014 MU69, the distant snowman shaped planetoid at the edge of the solar system which was visited by the New Horizons space probe as it flies through the Kuiper Belt on its way out of the solar system (since that time, we also blogged about the color Thulian pink–which is based on the fantasy land at the northern edge of the medieval map).  Well, space can be a confusing place, and, even with digital cameras, the way we see objects tumbling through the void can be misleading.  As New Horizons flew away from Ultima Thule, it turned its cameras around and took the following shot (which hopefully shows up in all of its glory as an animated gif below).

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Holy hemispheres! What is with that bright edge?  Spheres certainly don’t have those! It turns out that Ultima Thule may not be a snowman as originally billed.  Instead it seems more like a double pancake.

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This news will please flat earthers (on the off chance they believe that New Horizons actually exists), but they shouldn’t read too much into it.  Planets are spherical because they are so massive that the force of gravity causes them to collapse into the most efficient shape – a sphere. This is broadly true for objects with a diameter greater than 1000 kilometers (621 miles) and Ultima Thule was not even remotely that big (indeed we didn’t think it was a sphere before).  I do wonder how these two smushed snowballs formed and came together though.

Enthusiasts of Kuiper Belt objects will have to discard the snowman analogy and look for an object which is a lumpy disk stuck to a smaller lumpy disk.  It sounds like a hogchoker to me (see a picture of the flatfish below), but this may merely be a shallow pretext to link to my flounder art on Instagram.  It might be a while before we discover anything even remotely shaped like a flatfish in space though so I am going to take what the universe offers.  If you have better topological analogies feel free to share in the comments (after you follow my Instagram).

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We often hear about people’s bonds with animals (and for good reason: a loving relationship with pets is one of life’s best aspects) but what about their bonds with plants?  Today’s (somewhat sad) story shines a touching light on this intra-kingdom devotion, but it also highlights a sinister new menace in modern society: bonsai bandits!   As enthusiasts of eastern gardens know, bonsai is an art/horticulture form which utilizes careful pruning and husbandry to make miniature trees which have the appearance and proportions of wild trees.  The more ancient a bonsai tree, the more realistic (and valuable) it becomes.

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This is why unknown thieves stole seven tiny trees from a garden in Saitama prefecture near Tokyo.  Among the rustled trees was a “shimpaku” juniper, an increasingly rare mountain conifer which is regarded as the nonpareil tree variety of the bonsai world.  The tree was over four centuries old and was collected in the wild back during the Edo period, when feuding Samurai clans vied for power (it is pictured immediately above).

The (human) victims of the theft were Seiji Iimura, who hales from a long lineage of bonsai keepers stretching back to the Edo period and his wife Fuyumi Iimura who wrote an anguished lament to the internet. “We treated these miniature trees like our children,” she said. “There are no words to describe how we feel. It’s like having your limbs lopped off.”  She then begged the thieves to return her trees, or barring that to water them and tend them with love.  She included complete instructions which I won’t include on the assumption that bonsai thieves don’t read my blog (also, in my world, a bonsai thief is a very small thief who looks just like a larger one because of careful pruning and staking).

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The juniper, with its crazy calligraphic lines and ancient gnarled roots has taken the majority of the international media attention in this heist, but other trees were stolen too including three more shimpakus (of less venerable age) and a trio of miniature pine trees, called “goyomatsus” (there are two unstolen examples in the picture below).  It is somewhat fun to imagine the thieves as little elf-people who made their getaway in a kei car and are now hiding out in a shoebox on a meter tall volcano and what not, but the victims seem legitimately heartbroken.  Theft of living things is a more serious matter than theft of mere valuables.  Why can’t people stick to nicking money and jewels from heavily insured oligarchs and drug kingpins? This is my message for the criminals: give the Iimuras their beloved trees back and grow up!
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The Meijiang River is located in Hunan Province just to the northwest of Lianyuan City.  The river features the classic picturesque landscape of China: karst gorges with vertical limestone mounts, mysterious cliffs, and ancient caves.  The caverns and cwms of the region are home to many locally important spots with names which would not be out of place in “Journey to the West”:  “Immortal Village”, “Avalokitesvara Precipice”, “Sutra Cave”, “Immortal’s Residence”, and “Incense Burner Mountain”.

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The scenic valley would be an ideal vacation spot for landscape painters (if they could ever escape their dead end jobs), but it is hardly as famous as some of China’s other Karst landscapes like the vast South China Karst or the Li River.  So why have I picked out this sleepy river to dream about as winter wears on?

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Well it has been a while since we have featured a mascot post (although you shouldn’t forget that the 2020 Olympics are getting closer and closer).  I don’t want to write about pig mascots (even if that would be perfect for Lunar New Year), but there is a different gluttonous animal which jumps instantly to mind when I think of China: a sort of feathered pig which features heavily here on Ferrebeekeeper.

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I am of course talking about geese and the Meijiang River has a special mascot: a ten meter (30 foot) tall white inflatable goose!  Here are some pictures of the giant floating toy, which obviously owes a debt to Florentijn Hofman’s famous inflatable ducks.

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I guess there isn’t really much more to this post than the visual dynamism of the giant goose (which I like better than the huge bath ducks).  It is a really good mascot though! How do you top that (especially as a small provincial river)?

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To follow up on the Chinese New Year’s Post, here is a drawing I made with ink and colored pencil to celebrate the Year of the Earth Pig.  In this context, the meaning of the pig should be self-evident: this is the 2019 Earth Pig, the symbolic avatar of the present moment.  We are fortunate that this is a lithe and good-natured piggy:  I have seen some fearsome and intimidating hogs which are all shaggy and grim, but this little porker looks almost like a pet. The pig is carrying a giant doughnut with pink icing as a special treat for the Lunar New Year festival.  Additionally, the pastry (which I drew “from life” from a Dunkin’ Donut which I then ate) is a reminder of the endless appetite and desire which is a part of life.  Existence may be mass-produced and filled with empty calories, but, even so, it is SOOO sweet. Perhaps the torus-shaped pastry also represents the topology of the universe.

As ever, the flounder is my symbolic avatar for life on Earth (I promise I will write a post about why, out of all the organisms on Earth, I chose the flounder to represent us).  Imbued with special spring festival felicity, this flatfish seems less tragic (and maybe also less ridiculous) than most of the other ones I have drawn.   Considering its aquamarine hue, the fish also represent the life-giving element of water. A satellite suggests that humanity’s future (if we have one) lies in space and there, at the bottom right, is our beloved home world!  It is such a good-looking planet, but it looks dwarfed by the great allegorical animals which are hovering in proximity to it.  Perhaps the pig represents the continents and the flounder represents the seas….

My sassy anti-establishment friend Moira suggested that this artwork was somehow about the constabulary (she lives in fear that America is becoming a police state) but I see no evidence of such meaning in the work (although I do wonder if she is right about the nation).  Yet the picture is not all rosy.  If this picture is about having an appetite for life, it might also whisper sad and disturbing things about what that entails.  Humankind’s principal relationship with pigs, flounder, and doughnuts is all too voracious.  Is that also our relationship with our home planet? Only religious fundamentalists and Davos man (aka the planet’s super rich oligarchs) believe that humans are currently acting as responsible stewards of our home world.  Both these categories of people seemingly believe that God gave them dominion over the Earth so that they could ruin, despoil, and kill it.

Whatever the case, both creatures are watching our world to see what happens next.  I have always believed that humans can escape the curse of our insatiable nature only by directing our rapacity away from the finite planet and towards the infinite heavens (coincidentally this is the not-very-subtle meaning of every single one of my artworks for the last 15 years).  Can we make any upward progress in the year of the Earth Pig? or are we just going to continue to pig out at a diminishing trough while destiny passes us by?

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Happy Year of the Earth Pig!  Today (February 5th 2019) marks the beginning of Lunar Year 4716 in the Chinese calendar.  I really meant to write more dog-theme posts last year during the year of the dog: how did it run off so quickly? But no matter…we can always write more about man’s best friend. Today belongs to the pig and, despite a somewhat grubby nomen, the earth pig has a great deal to recommend it!

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In the Chinese zodiac, pigs are water sign animals. The easygoing and affable earth pig thus betokens a year of friendship, camaraderie, and social success.  Pigs love having fun together, so, in addition to social delights, the year will feature plenty of luxuries, treats and opulent spectacles.   Friendship and social bonding are one thing, but romance is quite another, so, although the year may be marked by new friendship and bonhomie, it is not likely to be especially happy one in terms of love and intimacy (which is fully in line with broad international trends).

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Financially speaking, the Earth Pig moves slowly yet inexorably towards abundance.  The ground is the root of all wealth and this pig has all four feet squarely upon the earth. The online oracle which I consulted states “This zodiac sign has a solid work ethic and is willing to put in the hours to get ahead. Patience and willpower are the name of the game for anyone wishing to get ahead in 2019. And don’t forget the power of building friendly alliances with colleagues.”  I suppose that sounds pretty good, but I have been to farmyards and seen how things work out for pigs.  I would probably paraphrase this: your financial year will combine a great deal of hard work with some foolish lapses due to inattention, greed, and other people’s guile.  Be careful! The rewards of your labor could be enjoyed by someone else…

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Sadly, all pig years come with an admonition not to overdo it with sweets, rich foods, and alcohol, but I hardly see how gluttony could be a problem here in [checks notes] oh…um…yeah, I guess we will also have to keep a careful eye on what we are eating.

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Speaking of gluttony, no conversation about pigs would be complete without a mention of China’s literary superstar pig, Zhu Bajie, one of the three animal heroes of “The Journey to the West” (well, actually there are four, but the horse is usually just a horse and only jumps into the game in moments of true duress).  Zhu Bajie is an immortal pig monster with enormous strength and bravery…but he is also cursed with constant hunger, laziness, and a desire for other joys of the flesh.  Zhu’s earthy passions cause substantial trouble to both him and his sharper companions (although, ironically, the monkey, who represents intellect, will, and arrogance, usually gets in even more trouble by leaping out ahead of everyone).   This is of course o remind everyone that we need the intellect in the upcoming year, but we also need the tolerance, soft-heartedness, and the optimism of the pig.  Humans are monkeys after all.  Like Sun Wukong, the monkey god, we tend to be rather cruel to pigs.  Let the Year of the Earth Pig remind you to be more gentle and compassionate to our big-bellied curly toed friends…or even to yourself if love of luxury or your hungry belly leads you astray.  The great lesson of the Chinese zodiac is that we are all animals, but animals have a celestial magic! Be wary but embrace your inner pig and have a wonderful year 4716.

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Two days ago, Ferrebeekeeper wrote about Earth’s magnetic field, an underappreciated invisible force-field which keeps the planet habitable by preventing solar wind from blowing away our atmosphere and oceans (we need those!).  Long ago, Venus and Mars seemingly had liquid oceans and nice atmospheres, but something went wrong (?) with their magnetic fields a billion or so years ago, and just look at them now (tuts censoriously). But maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge our neighbors…Five hundred and sixty-five million years ago, the Earth underwent a magnetic crisis too.

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Geologists have been studying fragments of  plagioclase and clinopyroxene from the ancient continental shield of Canada to learn about the state of the planet’s magnetic fields in the ancient past.  As they form, these crystals trap tiny magnetized iron fragments in place like the needles of little compasses.  Scientists can thus study the deep history of the magnetosphere.  As they studied magnetic crystals that were formed 565 million years ago, they found some troubling things: half a billion years ago, the Earth’s magnetic field was over 10 times weaker than what it is today.  Additionally the poles were rapidly fluctuating between north and south at an unexpected rate.

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A closer reading of all of this suggests that 550 million years ago the Earth’s magnetic field nearly collapsed! (for a look at what that means, just walk around Mars).  Life was saved because the solid nickel iron core of Earth nucleated from the molten core at that time.  Instead of a field collapse, our magnetic field became much stronger as the spinning solid inner core and the convection cycles of the molten outer core worked together to form a super geodynamo.  Coincidentally, 541 million years ago is familiar to paleontologists as the inception of the Cambrian explosion, when multitudinous animal life forms appeared on Earth. It is such an important point that it divides the Phanerozoic (filled with mushrooms, megafauna, liverworts, and Roman centurions) from the Proterozoic (billions of years of bacterial soup).   Just a coincidence?

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Gosh, we have looked at a lot of crowns, haven’t we?  You would think that, after all of these posts, we would have started to run out of royal headwear, but we haven’t even remotely begun to get to the back of history’s vast royal treasury.  Nothing seems to interest humans quite so much as status, and nothing says status like a gold hat which proclaims “I am better than than those around me”.  Today’s crown however is not meant for a human head: it is a votive crown which is devoted to the idea that there are  aspects of status which fundamentally transcend even our sad status-driven lives.  This idea is maybe at the heart of religion–which is an even more naked manifestation of the human need for hierarchical status and tribal belonging than politics and kingship (although they are all knit together in a disturbing way).

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Enough philosophizing…above is the crown of of Saint Oswald made of gold, silver, pearls, shell, and gemstones.  It seems to date from the late 12th century AD but may be of earlier construction.  Elements of the crown, such as the Roman cameo and the intaglios are definitely ancient pieces which have been repurposed into the saint’s crown (the whole piece may have been donated by a king or prince as a devotional act, but the history is unclear).  The crown is kept at Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany on top of a reliquary statue of Saint Oswald made of gilded wood with disturbing niello eyes.

Oswald is a good illustration of the fungible nature of political and religious power.  He was a 7th century Saxon king who converted to Christianity and annealed the thrones of Bernicia and Deira together into the powerful Kingdom of Northumbria which was a high point in England’s dark age history (this business of putting kingdoms together out of disparate preexisting elements is reflected somewhat in the bricolage nature of  this saint’s crown from 500 years later).  Oswald was a warlord who died in battle, yet he was also a uniter, a spiritual leader, and a saintly king (at least in Bede’s estimation).  He became the focus of a particular cult later in the Middle Ages and there are at least 4 skulls attributed to him in continental Europe alone.

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In 2016 the Japanese Space Agency launched a quarter-of-a-billion dollar x-ray observatory named Hitomi into Earth orbit.  The craft’s mission was to study extremely energetic processes at the far reaches of the universe.  It was hoped that the data Hitomi provided would allow astronomers to understand how the large scale structures of the universe came into being (how galactic superclusters form, for example).  The satellite initially worked perfectly, but, within 38 Earth days, the spacecraft was lost: a failure of attitude control sent it into an uncontrolled spin which caused critical structural elements to break apart.

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The full story of what destroyed Hitomi is perhaps of greater immediate interest to living beings on Earth than how the meta-structures the universe came into being.  When everything went wrong for the ill-fated space observatory it was passing over the southern part of the Atlantic ocean.  For spacefarers, this region of the Van Allen Belt is analogous to what the Bermuda Triangle or the Namib Skeleton Coast is for sailors: it is a haunted and dangerous stretch of space.  Astronauts who travel through it report strange phantasmagorical dots and streaks in their vision, even when they close their eyes.   The Hubble Space Telescope does not make observations when it passes over the south Atlantic.  Controllers turn off its delicate systems.  The region is known to the world’s space agencies as “the South Atlantic Anomaly.”  Hitomi was not its first victim–it is surmised that the South Atlantic Anomaly was responsible for the failures of the Globalstar network satellites way back in aught seven.

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The existence of the South Atlantic Anomaly was known long before that.  It was discovered in 1958 by Explorer 1, the first American satellite (which was equipped with a Geiger counter).  Perhaps the Soviets would have discovered the anomaly by means of Sputnik, but, because the Cold War made  scientific cooperation difficult, Australia did not hand over Sputnik data to the Soviets until later.  Suffice to say, the South Atlantic Anomaly is an anomaly in the Van Allen Belt, the torus-shaped field of charged particles which are held in place by the magnetic field of Earth.  Earth’s magnetosphere is important. Billions of years ago, Mars and Venus seem to have been exceedingly Earthlike, with water oceans and convivial atmospheres.  But neither Mars nor Venus has a magnetosphere and their oceans have perished and their atmospheres have changed into monstrous things….although we don’t know exactly what happened on either of our neighboring planets (and the present priorities here on Earth are to make Michel Dell and Howard Schultz as rich as possible at everyone else’s expense, not, you know, to understand what planetary scale forces could make worlds uninhabitable).

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Um, at any rate, the magnetic field of Earth is created by the mysterious processes beneath our feet at the center of the planet.  The Earth’s inner core is believed to have two layers: an outer core of molten iron and heavy metals and an inner core of solid iron nickel alloy.  The inner core is about 70% of the volume of the moon and it is nearly as hot as the surface of the sun with an estimated temperature of (5,430 °C) or 9806 °F, but the molten outer core is only as hot as the surface of an orange star (2,730–4,230 °C; 4,940–7,640 °F).  Within the outer core, eddy currents form in the superheated metal. The complex relationship between these currents, the spinning planet, and the two core layers creates a geodynamo which produces the planet’s magnetosphere which in turn captures the particles which make up the Van Allen Belts.  However, the eddy currents cause the magnetic poles to invert every few hundred thousand years (we are currently overdue for such a flip).  The South Atlantic Anomaly is a manifestation of the “weather” in the molten outer core of Earth–a prelude to the magnetic polar flip.  First generation spacecraft used solid state components and had big ungainly robust circuitry.  Additionally they were hardened against radiation.  Some of today’s craft make use of delicate & elaborate microcircuitry which is prone to failure when struck by esoteric radiation particles.  This is how what happens far beneath our feet influences what happens to craft in outer space.

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