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The beautiful twilight sky (Nov 28, 2019) after sunset with the planets conjuction of Moon (with earth shine), Venus and Jupiter.

I was really alarmed by how many people saw the report of (potential) life signs on Venus and immediately said “We need to cease all space exploration and never look beyond the Earth”. For example, the Christian columnist at “The Week” wrote a characteristically dimwitted column about the subject [coincidentally, it strikes me as funny that followers of Abrahamic faiths worship an omnipotent extraterrestrial wizard, yet clutch their pearls about space!].

Yet even people who do not take such absolutist anti-knowledge position, are still wary of bigger plans for space-faring. Right here, in Ferrebeekeeper’s comments, our own frequent reader K Hindall, took a more nuanced, but still restrictive view:

“I am all for the exploration of space, but not establishing a permanent human presence elsewhere…We need to prove that we can take care of a planet before we go bounding off to live on other ones. It’s like giving another toy to a child who has proven that they just break their toys, not play with them. When we’ve stopped driving everyone else on the planet into extinction, then it will be soon enough to talk about living on a different one.”

It is well said (and I left out the part where K Hindall ably defend the space sovereignty of the Venusian bacteria). Yet I worry that it is wrong-headed (please keep commenting K Hindall! You know we love you).

Lately I have seen more and more philosophical arguments that humankind should have never developed agriculture or civilization. Although these arguments do indeed seem to have a fair amount of moral and ecological validity, they somewhat overlook the facts on the ground right now. We are an aggressive invasive species which has gotten everywhere. What is to be done?I agree with K Hindall that humanity is not to be trusted. Yet does that mean we must resign ourselves to never dream beyond the Earth? I keep thinking about the fable of the animals and their gifts (a story which presents a powerful dark truth human nature). We are destroying the world with our gifts–which seem greater and darker by the day. And yet despite all of this strength we cannot agree with what is proper to do or what rules we must follow. Indeed our disagreements on these points are a further cause of our destructiveness!

In fact I worry that K Hindall has it backwards: humankind won’t be able to desist from destroying ourselves and our fellow Earth life unless we find a more suitable frontier for our boundless appetite and ruthless cunning.  If we wanted to stop using up the Earth right now, we would have to live with hundreds of thousands of super intrusive new rules that nobody would ever agree to (no more children for most people, no more of most categories of useful chemicals, no more pets, no more flower gardens, no more travel, no more beef, no more luxury –a tiny beige microcube and a set of mostly-incomprehensible, ecologically-useful tasks for everyone!).  Perhaps people would accept such austerity for dreams of mansions on Jupiter, I doubt they would accept it to know that somebody else’s ever-so-great-grandchildren can live in “Logan’s Run”.

If they exist (which I doubt), the Venusians might already be earth life, brought by some meteor or Soviet probe.  Maybe the opposite is true and we have all been Venusians (or some even more esoteric alien ) all along. I am not sure that it is wrong for living beings to reproduce and expand into new territories–it is the nature of life!

Pragmatists will say that this whole essay is like writing about whether it is wrong to fly around like Superman and shoot powerful beams out of your eyes. We can’t do that anyway! So why worry about it? And yet…every year we have better flying devices and better high energy beams. Who is to say what is possible? Our dreams shape our abilities. And casting our dreams towards a worthwhile pursuit might be a way to finally grow up out of childhood.

Just like the bamboo destroys itself (and the whole forest) by flowering, we are destroying the world ecology. My fondest hope is that we are doing this for a purpose: to cast the precious seed of Earth life up into the heavens. Even if we gain wisdom, power, and prudence beyond all measure everything could go wrong with this plan. We could destroy other worlds. We could destroy ourselves. It is still worth risking though. Plus the whole reason that Bonnie Kristian (whose name seems suspiciously fake) is alarmed by humans is that we don’t do what we are told. We do what we are able.

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Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lerviaaoudad

This handsome fellow is an aoudad (Ammotragus lervia), aka a Barbary Sheep. These caprids are approximately the same size as domestic goats and weigh from 40 to 140 kg (88 to 300 lb).  Their original range was the desert and arid scrubland of Northern Africa–the northern margins of the Sahara in Algeria, Tunisia, northern Chad, Egypt, Libya, northern Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger and Sudan–however as the Sahara expands and grows hotter and more dry, the aoudad is going extinct in its home range.

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Desert Bighorns (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)

This is where the issue becomes morally complex.  Bestiary keepers and gentleman hunters of previous eras imported populations of Barbary sheep to other parts of the world which more closely resemble the now vanished ancestral scrublands of the Sahara.  Thus Aoudads might be going extinct in North Africa, but they are flourishing in Texas.  Their success comes at the expense of the endangered native caprid of Texas, the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) a desert subspecies of bighorn which once dwelt in Texas in thriving herds before over-hunting, disease, and habitat loss nearly wiped them out.  The Aoudad is larger and more aggressive (and requires less water) than the bighorn.  The invader is out-competing the native, and Texans are up in arms about it–quite literally, since they are renowned as a gun-toting people.  Aoudads, so precious in their original home in North Africa, are being blasted away as invasive pests in Texas.

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My interpretation is that climate change is making West Texas more like the Sahara used to be (and making the Sahara more like the Atacama…or like the sunny side of the moon). Although, there are lots of factors at play when it comes  to whether an organism is successful in an ecosystem, climate change affects a lots of these variables.   Aoudads and bighorns have a relationship sort of like the round goby and the mottled sculpin (remember them) although the Aoudads don’t actually eat the bighorns’ eggs, they just run the males off and pointlessly hoard all of the bighorn ewes.  We are going to see more of these situations involving invasive creatures and we are going to have to start thinking now about how to best manage climate refugee species.  Do we want Aoudads to go extinct in the wild? Do we want the deserts of Texas to have no wild caprids?  Maybe we need to start releasing desert bighorns in Arkansas or Rhode Island?  What even is a natural habitat in a world where humankind has changed every habitat?

tn-500_1_hercules0495rr.jpgI’m sorry this post is late (and that I have temporarily veered away from writing about planned cities as I, uh, planned). I unexpectedly got handed a ticket to the much-lauded Public Works production of “Hercules” in Central Park, and attending the performance messed up my writing schedule. But it was worth it: the joyous musical extravaganza was exactly what you would expect if the best public acting and choral troupes in New York City teamed up with Walt Disney to stage the world’s most lavish and big-hearted high school musical beneath the summer stars.

The original stories of Hercules are dark and troubling tragic stories of what it takes to exist in a world of corrupt kings, fickle morality, madness, and endless death (Ferrebeekeeper touched on this in a post about Hercules’ relationship to the monster-mother Echidna). I faintly remember the ridiculously bowdlerized Disney cartoon which recast the great hero’s tale of apotheosis as a tale of buffoonery, horseplay, and romance. This version was based on the same libretto, and after the introductory number, I settled in for an evening of passable light opera. But a wonderful thing happened—each act had exponentially greater energy and charm than the preceding act. Also, some Broadway master-director had delicately retweaked/rewritten the original, so that the script told a powerful tale of community values in this age of populism and popularity run amuck.

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This “Hercules” was about the nature of the community will and how it manifests in the problematic attention-based economy (an eminently fitting subject for a Public Works production of a Disney musical). There is a scene wherein Hercules, anointed with the laurel of public adulation, confronts Zeus and demands godhood—proffering the cultlike worship from his admirers as proof of worth. From on high, Zeus proclaims: “You are a celebrity. That’s not the same thing as being a hero”

If only we could all keep that distinction in our heads when we assess the real worth of cultural and political luminaries!

Like I said, the play became exponentially better, so the end was amazing! The narcissistic villain (a master of capturing people in con-man style bad deals) strips Hercules of godhood and strength before unleashing monsters—greed, anger, and fear—which tower over the landscape threatening to annihilate everything. But then, in this moment of absolute peril, the good people realize that they themselves have all the power. The energized base flows out in a vast torrent and tears apart the monsters which the villain has summoned (which turn out, in the end, to be puppets and shadows).

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After the citizens have conquered Fear itself, they hurl the Trump–er, “the villain”—into the underworld and reject the siren song of hierarchical status. Hercules sees that fame and immortality are also illusions and embraces the meaning, love, and belonging inherent in common humanity.

It was a pleasure to see the jaded New York critics surreptitiously wiping away tears while watching happy high school kids and gospel singers present this simple shining fable. But the play is a reminder that 2020 is coming up soon and we need to explain again and again how political puppet masters have used fear to manipulate us into terrible choices in the real world. It was also a reminder that I need to write about the original stories of Hercules some more! The tale of his apotheosis as conceived by Greek storytellers of the 5th century BC has powerful lessons about where humankind can go in an age of godlike technology and planet-sized problems.

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The London Olympics Stadium

The 2012 Olympics are starting tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to watching (and blogging about) some of the esoteric sports which only get their moment of glory every four years—especially the sailing, boating, and shooting sports which are my favorite.  Before we get to the actual Olympics though, we have to get through the opening ceremonies, which are always a huge sloppy mess.  Like costumed mascots, which fascinate and appall the viewer with a unique combination of human and inhuman elements (in fact the 2012 Summer Olympics already feature completely ludicrous mascots) there is something simultaneously evocative and revolting about such international mass spectacles. If you can tolerate the agonizing kitsch and the eye-wateringly lurid spectacle, there are always insights into the host nation and the larger zeitgeist of each era.

The Opening Ceremony of the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens

Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony

The principle elements of opening ceremonies generally include pyrotechnics, has-been pop stars, dreadful dance routines, strange performance art, posturing politicians, and crazy costumes.  There is also a moral lesson or story (which is meant to be an undercurrent but which is usually fairly overt) presented in a peculiar opera-like mash of dance, cameo celebrity appearances, and moveable sets.

Like all Americans, I boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics opening

Each host nation always manages to bring its own special horrible thing to the opening ceremony–for example the Beijing opening ceremony featured mass dance routines that would put North Korea to shame.  Tens of thousands of majorettes all marched in place for hours in high heeled boots with big fake smiles that said “they have my family!”

2008 Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony (featuring clapping marching performers)

The overarching message of the Beijing opening ceremony seems to have been that China had a very ancient and superior culture but then fell on hard times (through no fault of its own) before building a brighter & better homogenous society which is poised to take leadership of the world.  During the bombastic (but compelling) performance, the cameras kept cutting to the grandstand filled with world leaders.  Putin stared at the spectacle with icy hatred in his eyes and a hard frown.  George Bush Junior kept slumping over in his seat with disinterest as Laura plucked at his elbow.

Crazy Costumes from the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening Ceremony

At least China still envisions a future in outer space (2008 Beijing Olympics opening Ceremony).

England, of course, is not lacking in dried-up rock stars and supernumerary VIPS, but preliminary reports indicate tomorrow’s opening ceremony will also be a chronological morality tale put together by England’s foremost director. The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony was designed by Danny Boyle, the director of Bollywoodwesque Slumdog Millionaire, zombie horror film 28 Days Later, and heroin-soaked black comedy Trainspotting.  According to The Daily Mirror:

The whole ceremony is based on William Shakespeare’s brilliant play, The Tempest. The title in particular is borrowed from a stirring speech made by the native Caliban to his master Prospero. “Be not afraid,” says Caliban, “for the isle is full of noises. Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”

In addition to the bard, Boyle apparently intends to pay homage to England’s agrarian past with a comprehensive cavalcade of live farm animals.  The second act will feature the hardships of the industrial revolution and the amorality of England’s colonial ascendancy—which is meant to provide a dark and upsetting counterpoint to the initial bucolic splendor.  Finally modern England will appear as a land of toleration and rock-and-roll!  [Of course all of this could be wrong. Boyle has been trying to keep his program secret, and this information is based on leaks and speculation.]

2010 Spirit Bear? Does anyone else remember this?

This year is already looking exciting in terms of political drama. Putin will not attend since he is angry with Great Britain (as apparently is President Obama, though nobody has yet fathomed why).  An awkward Mitt Romney will be there, trying [and failing] to fit in with actual world leaders.  But the real excitement will focus on the central performance, a train wreck of public art featuring farm animals, Elton John, industrial grime, James Bond, the Spice girls, and medieval kings.  What does that say about the zeitgeist?  Find out tomorrow!

Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects (Balthasar Van der Ast, c. 1635, oil on panel)

To compliment yesterday’s post concerning a miniature snake, here is a miniature work of art by my favorite Dutch miniature master (meaning he was a master of painting tiny still lifes—not an unusually tiny man).  Still Life of Flowers, Shells, and Insects was painted around 1635 by Balthasar Van der Ast.  Although the tiny panel is only 24 cm (9.4 in) tall by 35 cm (13.8 in) wide, it contains a world of detail. An entire spring garden’s worth of florid blossoms have been arranged in the large shell of a triton.  Spiders, caterpillars, and a quizzical grasshopper stalk among the empty shells of a cowry, a deadly cone snail, and other gastropods.  There is a palpable sense of drama among the three flying creatures in the painting: a predatory dragonfly is wreathed in darkness, staring the wrong way to see its prey animal–a painted lady butterfly.  The diagonal composition lines of the painting all point to the bottom right corner of the painting where a fearsome stinging hornet has died curled into a fetal position.

Van der Ast has dignified the small objects of a bouquet with a moral tension.  The lovely evanescent flowers, the beautiful (but dead) shells, and the circling hungry insects all point to an elusive lesson about chaos and beauty.

Like many of the great middle class miniature painters, Van der Ast lived a comfortable bourgeois life which featured little outward drama.  He moved between the quietly prosperous cities of Bergen op Zoom, Utrecht, and Delft, painting beautiful objects and teaching his craft to a number of influential artists (including his nephews).  He married and had daughters and died quietly compared to other baroque artists, yet the small dramas of his canvases seem to nobly symbolize the myriad crucial struggles—moral, emotional, and physical–of everyday life.

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