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We have been talking about planned cities of the past and of the future.  Almost every urban culture in history has fantasized about how to make cities better, and some civilizations have actually put these ideas into practice (or tried to do so). But when it comes to crafting cities in the mind and then actually building them in the real world, nobody rivals China.  From the 12th century BC through the present, the world’s most populous city has, more often than not, been Chinese.  Densely populated urban environments are a defining feature of Han culture. And during all that time, strong central authority and hierarchical planning of all aspects of society has been an equally prominent aspect of Chinese civilization.

As you might imagine, such a mixture has left a long history in Chinese letters. The Kao Gongji (Kao Gong Ji) was written in the late Spring and Autumn period around 500 BC (although the oldest surviving copy only dates to 1235 AD).  The book generalizes about may different sorts of practical skills and trades, but it reserves special attention for how princes should build their capitals.

The style of these ruling cities is as imperious as you would imagine: The Kao Gongji dictates a walled palace/administrative nucleus in the center of a large capital city.  This pattern was common in many early states particularly in southern China.

To quote the book directly:

“When the builder constructs the capital, the city should be a fang (a four-sided orthogonal shape) nine li on each side with three gates each. Within the city are nine longitudinal and nine latitudinal streets, each of them 9 carriages wide. On the left (i.e. east) is the Ancestral Temple, on the right (west) are the Altars of Soil and Grain, in front is the Hall of Audience and behind the markets.”


This idea (which literally placed the king/emperor squarely at the center of all aspects of society) was put into practice in the ancient capital of Luoyi, and it manifested again and again in the layout of China’s other capitals.  Indeed, although the Mongols and the Qing had moved beyond such rudimentary urban plans, the fundamental concept is even present in Beijing.



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.


The Barclays Center as seen from above (against the larger NY cityscape)

I hope my non-New York audience will bear with me through this post.  Even though it concerns contemporary Brooklyn (my home), it also touches on larger topics.  Today is the grand opening of the much-anticipated Barclays Center, a multi-purpose indoor sporting/concert venue, which lies at the center of a five billion dollar restoration/remake of the Vanderbilt Train Yards at Atlantic Avenue (where Ebbets Field once stood and where most of the city’s trains meet at a huge terminal).  The devilish development work which went into creating the complex took a decade or longer and required lots of high finance deals and acrimonious court cases (which, in turn, involved crushing and annexing lots of little guys via eminent domain).   The final structure involves an unholy business alliance between billionaire developer, Bruce Ratner; Russian oligarch and kleptocrat,Mikhail Prokhorov; British investment bank, Barclays PLC; hip-hop mogul, rapper, and accused stabber, Jay-Z; and, of course, New York’s hapless taxpayers who got foisted with big portions of the tab.  The stadium will be the home arena for the boringly-named Brooklyn Nets (a basketball franchise), the stage for mega concerts by the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, & Jay-Z, as well as the sight of large scale attractions like the circus, Disney-on-ice, and professional boxing.

Looking at the above paragraph, one might be somewhat inclined to disparage the project (or, indeed, to despair of humanity), but we are not here for that: instead this post is meant as aesthetic contemplation of the architecture of Barclays Center and of the changing directions of megacities at large.

The Finished Barclays Center

A timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The arena was designed by architectural firm Ellerbe Becket and features three bands of pre-weathered (i.e. rusted) steel plates latticed together around a futuristic glass curtain wall.  Apparently the juxtaposition of glass and rusted steel was meant to evoke Brooklyn’s famous brownstone townhouses, but the effect is more jarring than traditional.  So far critical reaction has been mixed, with local critics comparing the building to a giant coiled rattlesnake.  As the building took shape, it made me think of a science-fiction movie where the heroes crash on a supposedly deserted planet—and then discover monstrous corroded alien ruins of a shape so sinister that it foreshadows horrible events to come.  However when I walked by the finished building last night it struck me that the building actually does look like a timber rattlesnake—and I like rattlesnakes (though not in a way that makes me want to be close to them).  The sinuous curves and non-euclidean light projections gave a futuristic impression.  The employees of Modells sporting store were working overtime stripping the store’s featureless onyx mannequins naked so that they could be dressed in all-black “Nets” gear. The proud blue and white space eagle of Barclays glowed on its tri-lobed bizarro-shield. For the first time since the recession began so many years ago, I felt like Brooklyn was stepping into a prosperous (albeit authoritarian) future.

Still scene from “Bladerunner” (1982)

I have heard from concert-promoters (who were allowed early access) that the inside is stunning.  Although there are many extra boxes–and super-boxes–for the extremely well-healed, the space is said to put other similarly sized venues to shame.  The line-up of sports events and acts, though tawdry, will undoubtedly create huge business (probably surpassing that of Madison Square Garden).  Urban life is meant to be flashy, fast-paced, and busy with different people from different places who like different things.  If one loved beauty, quiet, and meaning, one would move to the country.

Gradiva’s Fourth Wall (Diana Al Hadid, 2011, steel, polymer gypsum, wood, fiberglass, paint)

Cities should be bigger than life—that is why lots of people come here.  I prefer the idea of a growing & dynamic Brooklyn to a changeless 1950s concrete jungle (which is what the railyards were) or, goodness help us, a dying city returning to wasteland, like Detroit.  Cities which are dynamic and changing require big bold risks, like the Empire State Building in the 1930s or the Centre Pompidou in the 1980s.  I am happy to see that Brooklyn is taking such chances–even if it does mean some toes get stepped on or a few giant space rattlesnakes get built.

I foresee a great shining future for the Barclays Center, although you might not see me there anytime soon.  Also be very careful crossing the street near the monstrous thing.  The one element preserved from the fifties was a disregard for the lives of people not rich enough to travel by car.

If you are looking for poison control center and have arrived here by some dreadful search engine mistake you should call 1-800-222-1222 (presuming you are in the United States).  If you are not in the United States here is the World Health Organization’s interactive map of worldwide poison control centers.  Quick! Don’t wait around here!

OK, now that they’re getting the help they need, we can delve into today’s post which concerns the ambiguity of iconography–more specifically this is the history of poison control mascot, Mr. Yuk, an icon of Generation X childhood.

Since at least the nineteenth century, chemical manufacturers have used skulls, skeletons, and crossbones to label poisonous compounds.  In fact for a while toxic substances were sold in cobalt blue glass skulls (which you can probably still find at an antique shop).  By the twentieth century, the skull and crossbones was almost universally known as the symbol for poison—and it still is—well, except in Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh had a problem: their famously up-and-down professional baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, were inextricably linked to the Jolly Roger an age-old symbol of pirates.  The Jolly Roger is basically a poison label, but it was plastered all over all sorts of Pirates merchandise.

Dr. Richard Moriarty, a Pittsburgh pediatrician and poison center pioneer, saw the skull and bones everywhere in Pittsburgh and was worried that children would be confused.  Even beyond Pittsburg, the world is filled with pirate themed Halloween candy and Long John Silver’s marketing and thoughtless graphic art.  Moriarty proposed a new poison label which would speak more directly to children.

The art for Mr. Yuk was created by Wendy (Courtney) Brown, a grade school student who won a drawing contest.  Wendy’ original conception was altered somewhat to make the character more vivid–the stick figure body was chopped off and only a grimacing head remains.  The poison control team chose acid-green as the color for their mascot by finding which color least appealed to children.  One young study participant described the overall effect as “Yucky” and the name stuck.

Today “Mr. Yuk” is the exclusive intellectual property of Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital, but they no longer release sheets of stickers (which were omnipresent back in my childhood).  Times change, and a new crop of market researchers have shown that kids are drawn towards Mr. Yuk stickers simply because they are stickers.  Plus a few restless generations of toymakers and marketers have demystified the green color and the sour face.  Even Mr. Yuk’s name conveys less force in a multi-cultural world—maybe he’s just Tibetan or something.  Of course the skull and crossbones still has problems too.  Since the 1970’s there are even more pirate teams running around (to say nothing of the computer pirates and Disney pirate-theme franchises which have burgeoned since then).  It’s a real problem: what should the personification of poison be.  How does a toxic mascot stay toxic as our symbols and color change meanings?

Um, Don’t eat this poisonous sword-flag?

The constellation Sagittarius (from “Urania’s Mirror” a set of constellation cards published in England circa 1825)

My apologies for the blogging break last week.  Usually I try to write a new post every weekday, but last week was a blogging holiday.  To reinvigorate things after the lost week, let’s turn to a big subject—in fact a super-massive subject!  Long ago, Ferrebeekeeper featured a post about Eta Carinae, a blue hypergiant with a hundred times the mass of the sun (which is itself a million times more massive than Earth).  Stars like Eta Carinae are rarely formed and short lived—there are probably less than a dozen in our galaxy.  However compared to the most massive object in the galaxy, Eta Carinae is puny and common.  Twenty six thousand light years away from the solar system there exists a truly monstrous space object!

In 1974, Astronomers discovered an astronomical feature which was emitting exotic radio waves in the Sagittarius constellation. The scientists named the feature “Sagittarius A” and set out to determine what it was.  Part of the feature seems to be the remnants of a star which had gone supernova.  A second part of the feature is a cloud of ionized gas surrounded by an even larger torus of molecular gas.  In the middle of Sagittarius A is something which is emitting most of the high energy electromagnetic radiation visible to radio telescopes.  The cloud of ionized gas seems to be emptying into it and nearby stars orbit it with greater velocity than stars move anywhere else in the galaxy (in fact the object affects the proper motion of thousands of nearby stars).  And yet the space object at the center of Sagittarius A has a diameter of only 44 million kilometers–a bit less than the distance between the middle of the sun and Mercury at its perihelion (when the rocky planet is closest to the sun).  By calculating the proper motion of thousands of nearby stars, scientists determined that the mysterious object at the center of Sagittarius A (which they took to calling Sagitarrius A*) has mass of 4.31 million suns (i.e. solar masses). Whatever lies at the center of Sagittarius A–which I probably should have mentioned, is also the center of the Milky Way Galaxy–is smaller in volume than a large star, but has a mass which exceeds by many orders of magnitude even exotic hypergiants like Eta Carina.

Of course the only kinds of discrete objects which we know (or even hypothesize) to be capable of attaining such mass are black holes.  It is believed that most (indeed probably all) galaxies have super-massive black hole at their centers.  Smaller galaxies have small super massive black holes (forgive the oxymoron) but large galaxies have immense central black holes which can equal billions of solar masses.  Radio astronomers have observed plumes of exotic electromagnetic radiation coming from the center of other galaxies, and they wondered where the Milky Way’s galactic center was located.  It seems that a supernova near the galactic center blew away a great deal of the dust and gas on which the black hole would otherwise “feed” thereby making the galactic center of the Milky Way less energetic than the active center of farther (e.g. older) galaxies.

Artist’s Conception of Galactic Center

The super massive black holes which lie at the center of galaxies may be a result of the accretion of matter around stellar-sized black holes (which could grow quickly in matter-rich galactic cores) but most astrophysicists believe they are instead a primordial feature of the Big Bang around which galaxies themselves coalesced.  The ultimate nature of super massive black holes remains unknown and seems to be tied to the nature and shape of our universe.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

August 2020